Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Obama and Evangelicals

James Dobson has now fired at Barack Obama. He claims that Obama has distorted the Bible and has a "fruitcake" interpretation of the Constitution. See full AP Press story here.

The following caught my attention:

"Even if we did have only Christians in our midst, if we expelled every non-Christian from the United States of America, whose Christianity would we teach in the schools?" Obama said. "Would we go with James Dobson's or Al Sharpton's?" referring to the civil rights leader.

Dobson took aim at examples Obama cited in asking which Biblical passages should guide public policy — chapters like Leviticus, which Obama said suggests slavery is OK and eating shellfish is an abomination, or Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, "a passage that is so radical that it's doubtful that our own Defense Department would survive its application."

"Folks haven't been reading their Bibles," Obama said.

Dobson and Minnery accused Obama of wrongly equating Old Testament texts and dietary codes that no longer apply to Jesus' teachings in the New Testament.

"I think he's deliberately distorting the traditional understanding of the Bible to fit his own worldview, his own confused theology," Dobson said.

"... He is dragging biblical understanding through the gutter."

The first part of the quote is a series of excerpts from Obama speeches that Focus on the Family is going to include in an upcoming radio show. But I am not sure what the problem is according to Dobson (or Dobson's spokesperson).

Firstly, the excerpts are out of context. I have no idea what the larger point of the speech was. They claim that Obama is "wrongly equating Old Testament texts and dietary codes that no longer apply to Jesus' teachings in the New Testament." Again, without context, I am not sure what he is saying. He makes a valid point about Leviticus--we should not allow religious texts written thousands of years ago to determine our laws today. If you personally follow Leviticus and do not eat shellfish (as many observant Jews do today), that's fine, but it is not a matter of general law for the state. Although the sanctioning of slavery (or, more exactly, the assumption of slavery) is also in Leviticus, but only in the laws to release or redeem a slaver. The same is true, however, with the sermon on the mount--it is fine to live your life in accordance with it, but it is not a matter of law or Constitution. Although "Blessed are the poor" might just be good general social policy. But Obama's point is that you cannot run a defense department on these teachings. But this does not seem to be Dobson's point of equation. Dobson seems to claim that Leviticus was invalidated by Jesus, or the parts of Leviticus that he personally and, well, most Christians do not follow--he is probably more than happy to pull out Leviticus 18 which bans homosexual relations between men (but not between women!). Didn't Jesus invalidate this part as well? ;) But he seems to assume that Jesus did not follow Jewish law... There is no evidence for this at all. The gospels (especially Matthew) shows that he actually seems to have been active in debate about Jewish law--see the points of contrast of interpretation in Matthew 23. This is not abrogating or doing away with Jewish law, but providing a particular interpretation. He just did not follow the interpretation of Jewish law of his interlocutors (in Matt, the Pharisees). They each had their positions. Sometimes, in fact, Jesus' interpretation is the stricter one! Since Jesus' teachings are steeped in the Jewish lore (legal, as well as mantic, sapiential), it is difficult to sustain any argument that says that they do not apply to his teachings.

Perhaps Obama is right--folks haven't been reading their Bibles very carefully, and those folks are at Focus on the Family.


James Pate said...

Hi Jared! Thank you for your thoughtful comments.

I want to comment on what you say about Matthew: that he's pro-law, but he has a different halakah from the Pharisees. I know that one can make a case for that from Matthew, since Jesus discusses what is lawful to do on the Sabbath day. That implies he still believes that the Sabbath is to be kept, since why else would it be relevant to say what's allowed then?

But, at the same time, Jesus in Matthew also goes beyond the law. He says that he is greater than the temple and the priests. He nullifies what Deuteronomy says about divorce (or at least he copies Mark doing so, if you believe in Markan priority; and, yet, he interacts with Mark actively, since he conforms it to Jewish culture).

Jared said...

Thanks, James, for your comments. Let me lay out my views of what Jesus is doing in Matthew.

Jesus, as many have noted, represents something of a new Moses in Matthew. So, you are right to the point that he in some ways "beyond" the law--although I would probably say that as a second Moses, he is laying down a new law that is both continuous and discontinuous with the old law, one that relies upon the old law for its basis. The old law still provides the parameters for its own interpretation, even when that interpretation contradicts its plain sense.

Jesus meets the Pharisees in Matthew, especially Matthew 23, in terms of halakhic debate--not that his conclusions will necessarily match the plain sense of the Torah (if they always did, then what is the point of halakhic debate to begin with?). Jesus' principle of debate (or one of them) is to figure out the original purpose of the law and to interpret it in that sense (which may or may not end up being what the law actually says). So, his conclusions may contradict the plain sense of the Torah, and, in fact, he acknowledges so with divorce, but this often happens in halakhic debate (with examples from 4QMMT at Qumran, this passage, and, of course, the endless sea of Talmud), but usually it is the process that counts. So, we could compare and contrast the various interpretations of divorce at the time: Hillel is most lenient (allowing divorce for just about anything), Shammai is a bit in the middle, and Jesus is the most stringent (not allowing divorce at all)--note that I do not necessarily equate "liberal" or "conservative" with any of these positions. This is very typical for Matthew 23: Jesus takes a legal issue and gives a more stringent reading of it. Although, elsewhere, he gives a more lenient position for the Sabbath laws.

James Pate said...

Thanks for your response, Jared.

Yeah, you see two sorts of things in Matthew: Jesus as the new Moses, and Jesus trying to ground things more in the old law. The way you reconcile those things may work.

I'm not sure if I agree with you on Jesus and the divorce issue. Hillel and Shammai base their differences on contrasting interpretations of the Deuteronomy passage. They're arguing about what a single word means in the text. But Jesus basically says that the law had a contextual reason (many Jews' hard hearts) and doesn't apply anymore. You referred to the Talmud and the Qumran text. Do they get THAT radical?

Jared said...

You make a good point. I am away from my library right now, so I don't have access to 4QMMT to double-check. What is interesting about it is that it resembles the Mishnah in some ways--it has legal rulings that do not necessarily seek justification with reference to the Torah. Moreover, the Qumran rulings tend to be more stringent than later Rabbinic rulings on the same issues, and often resemble the positions the Rabbis attribute to the Sadducees (L. Schiffman talks about this in his books on Qumran law).

Jesus' position on divorce is very radical or stringent or radically stringent. And the contextual form that you point out is important and interesting. But all I can do right now is perhaps reiterate what I said, since I do not necessarily see how this contradicts what I said: the point for Jesus' interpretation is trying to find the reason behind the law to interpret the law to determine its current application (or applicability). It is somewhat like Peshat (in David Weiss Halivni's sense of "contextual exegesis"). Put another way, Jesus engages in legal debate following certain principles through which everything else is interpreted. One can only be inferred: the contextual tendency you noted. The other is explicit: he interprets all of the legal rulings through the commandment to love God and your neighbor as yourself (this is the sum of the law, yes?). This is not an invalidation of the law in toto. In fact, it seems to be a ringing endorsement. But the particular laws will be interpreted in terms of this central premise. And those that do not fit or those that do not fit in Jesus' perception, like divorce, are explained as a "compromise" between Moses and the people at the time.

Of course, one might apply the same principles with Jesus now--discover the original context of what he says to see if it still makes sense now or if it only works in the first-century context and is now outdated.