Indispensable pillars of Christianity: The New Testament
(Based on John 1.29-42)
In a setting in rural Galilee 2000 years ago, a man sees his cousin walking down the road and says to his companions, ‘Look, here comes the Lamb of God.’ It sounds almost as if he’s poking fun. But one of the companions is so drawn to the man he becomes an immediate disciple. He goes home to his brother, Simon, and says, ‘We’ve found the Messiah.’
Well, how likely is this? This is the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, a long time before he goes to Jerusalem at Passover and gets into trouble with the authorities. Where do they get this expression Lamb of God from? How does Andrew know on meeting Jesus that he is the Messiah? Is Andrew on the lookout for a messiah? Is Andrew a disciple of John the Baptist? Is Jesus himself a follower of his cousin John the Baptist? Besides he was baptised by him – initiated into the John sect, perhaps.
What this suggests is that we cannot just take a biblical text at face value. What appears on the surface to be an account of historical events turns out to be laden with interpretation and massive theological ideas.
When I wrote Christian Atheist, a book about people’s questioning of Christian beliefs, I had to face the criticism that I was reducing Christianity to a point where it ceased to be Christianity at all. Surely you can’t have Christianity without God. One of my interviewees, himself an atheist, thought the indispensable Christian basics were: God, Christ, and revelation. I was never sure about revelation being in the top three. Now, I would definitely replace it with the New Testament. God, Jesus, and the New Testament. You obviously can’t have Christianity without Christ, but equally you can’t have Christianity without its scripture; and being a Christian has always demanded engagement with its stories and teaching, not simply reading them in a devotional way, but digging down beneath their surface, researching them, and, since the Enlightenment, using the tools of biblical criticism developed by scholars in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries. But doesn’t that critical approach stand in danger of undermining the sacred text – diminishing it?
A critique of the texts is not a threat to the beliefs of the faithful, but an enhancement, in just the same way as the understanding of a musical score can enhance the delight of a concertgoer.
Richard Coles (the ‘Radio Vicar’) interviewed on TV said, ‘When I’m asked why don’t you take the Bible literally, I answer because there’s so much more to it than that.’
To read the Bible literally is not the highest form of reading nor the most respectful. There is a belief amongst conservative Christians that a literal reading shows the greatest faith and the highest spirituality, but I would argue to the contrary – that to read critically shows the highest respect for what the New Testament has to offer. Engaging with the New Testament is one of the indispensable basics of Christianity.
Diarmaid MacCulloch points out that biblical text has not always been regarded as untouchable: even the great Martin Luther, who’s Latin slogan, sola scriptura, meaning that scripture alone is the infallible authority for Christian faith, felt free to translate the psalms very loosely into German, dismiss the writing of James as ‘an epistle of straw’, and parcel off a package of biblical books as the Apocrypha, meaning ‘of doubtful authenticity’.
When I read the gospels, the first thing I think is that they are mini biographies of Jesus’ life, and they read a bit like that. I always want to know what Jesus was like, what kind of man he was. I know he lived a rural life, spoke Aramaic, loved to eat and drink with friends and rich patrons. I know he told stories, had close friends both women and men, and knew the Jewish scriptures, which were besides the only ones available to him. I know he had a strong sense of God and had a commitment to the poor and the marginalised. I know that at the tender age of 33 or thereabouts he was cruelly executed by the Roman authorities in Jerusalem in a way comparable to what is happening to some similarly young so-called ‘Opposition’ activists in Iran, who are being hung on trumped up charges. I have concluded all this by reading the gospels and thinking about the person of Jesus over a lifetime.
Assuming John’s Gospel was written about 95 CE, what its first chapter has done is to gather up the equivalent of a lifetime’s reflection and blurted it out in the first few lines. As storytelling goes it’s a bit clumsy. Rather like a crime novel beginning: here comes the chap who murdered aunt Agatha for her diamonds. Here comes the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Then Andrew says to his brother, ‘We have found the messiah’. Shouldn’t that be the denouement, the big reveal at the end?
The Lamb of God tag is a vast theology in two or three words: Passover lamb, sacrifice, it reminds us of the Sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis, it recalls the description of a Suffering Servant in Isaiah, which has massively influenced the telling of the Passion of Christ in the New Testament
Isaiah 53 He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter…
The Lamb of God tag is also about setting things right with God – what we sometimes call the Atonement, the new order – indeed the New Testament or new covenant in Christ’s blood.
When I say the New Testament is an indispensable fundamental of Christianity, I don’t actually think you have to buy into everything it says or embrace every subtle implication, every Jewish allusion to its own history and thought such as the example just quoted from Isaiah.
When I was Vicar of Southgate, we had a do-it-yourself makeover in the church, including repainting the walls, and a very judgemental Scottish lady – a true inheritor of the John Knox Puritan tradition – told me she would like to make a new hanging for the pulpit. And on it she wished to embroider the words of Greek visitors to Jerusalem who said to the Apostle Philip, ‘Sir, we would meet Jesus.’ The implication was of course that she thought the occupants of that pulpit failed to bring the gospel to life in his or her sermon. Well, I bridled at her request and its insinuation, but I agreed with it. I want to meet Jesus as he protrudes from the pages of the gospels and I’m happy to allow some considerable leeway of interpretation in the process. I like the idea of the radical Jesus, the anti-establishment Jesus, the threateningly good/moral Jesus, the party going Jesus, the social revolutionary Jesus, because, according to the first three gospels, he was all these things before he became the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, and I actually think that modern people relate better to those social/moral aspects than to an imagery of animal sacrifice however much it might represent a truth about the significance of his life.
 Diarmaid MacCulloch, Silence: a Christian History, p236