Tackling difficult Scriptural passages

The argument between supporters of exclusivity and inclusivity in the church is made more complicated by two passages in the Gospels that seem to say something diametrically opposite to one another. Does the Bible paint a picture of a church clearly identifying believers on the one side and unbelievers on the other? St Mark’s gospel appears to be on the side of the inclusive cause when Jesus in chapter 9. 40 states that whoever is not against him is for him. This is said in the context of a query by the disciples over a man said to be casting out devils in Jesus’ name but who is not part of the group. The exclusive case is given strength by the passage in Matthew and Luke (12.30 & 11.23) where Jesus says: ‘whoever is not with me is against me’. How often have I heard that passage being used in an abusive, even threatening, way against people who do not agree with the speaker who claims to be speaking the mind of Christ. The passage is used to marginalise all non-Christian religions, non-religious philosophies of life, New Age ideas and indeed anyone who is not a Christian within the speaker’s definition. Indeed it is one of the passages most often used to defend a Christian against perceived attacks from others. John’s gospel is also mined for quotations that seem to support the exclusivist case.

The issue that we need to face first of all in noticing these two apparently contradictory passages is that they seem to reflect a difference of opinion within the New Testament church itself. I do not have the reference books to go deep into the question but my commentary notes that Matthew and Luke, in using this identical saying, here draw on a common source known to scholars as ‘Q’. This abbreviation is taken from the German for source ‘Quelle’. Mark did not have access to this particular document which is mainly a source for a tradition of Jesus’ words and teaching. The ‘exclusive’ passage ascribed to Jesus is thus a ‘Q’ passage while Mark drew from elsewhere for his material. We may speculate that there was, at the time of the early church, a difference of opinion over the question of whether the church was to be open or very strict about its membership. Each side appealed to the words of Christ for support and we are heirs to both traditions. The texts suggest that the Marcan traditions favoured the inclusive understanding of the church while the traditions associated with ‘Q’ went with the idea that the church needed to preserve fairly strict boundaries with the outside world.

The question then arises as to how we are resolve this divergence of opinion within the Biblical text itself. Which understanding in this question of inclusivity and exclusivity was Jesus likely to have had? The well tried answer to such a question is to look wider than just these single passages to discover Jesus’ attitudes. My readers will suspect that I am very suspicious of any argument that appears to be resolved on the authority of a single passage. I personally find the inclusive case to be supported strongly by other evidence in the gospel records. Jesus welcomed and ate with all kinds of people who were very definitely not ‘with us’. Eating with tax-gatherers and sinners was clearly not in the spirit of Old Testament purity laws as there were many rules concerned with ritual contamination. Impurity could come from many sources, some involving people with ‘unclean’ occupations and others particularly involving the contamination of shed blood. A readiness to subvert these purity laws is also to be found in the parable of the Good Samaritan. The hero of the story, the Samaritan, was not hesitant to get involved with the contaminating blood and gore of the wounded traveller. Compassion played second place for the priest and Levite who passed by on the other side to avoid becoming impure. Jesus freely disobeyed other rules set out in the Jewish law, speaking to a woman, allowing his disciples on the Sabbath to roll ears of corn as they crossed a wheat field and healing a sick man on the Sabbath. The acceptance of the attentions of the woman from the street who anointed Jesus, was also outside an exclusivist stance. For me the picture of Jesus as the one who reached out bravely and courageously across barriers and man-made boundaries is summed up in the curious saying about him in Luke 7. Jesus is accused of being ‘a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-gatherers and sinners’. Since most commentators agree that such an accusation would not be recorded unless it was an actual historical memory, this taunt is likely to have been made. The point is that Jesus, by being such a friend of these groups, was breaking the laws that would have kept him as a respectable law-abiding Jew.

It is clear that the evidence points to the tradition of Jesus reaching out over barriers of class and taboo during his life-time and this is very strong. Such a reading of Jesus’ life suggests that he was unlikely to have wanted strong barriers between his group and those outside to exist. But it is likely that the Jewish faction among the early Christians may well have wanted to re-erect the barriers that Jesus spent so much time trying to dismantle.

This examination of two apparently contradictory passages in the Synoptic gospels is a good illustration of at least two things. First it reflects that the gospels were put together by editors who were themselves caught up in debates and discussions about how the church was to be organised. There was for them more than one tradition of interpretation of what Jesus had said and taught. Secondly we approach the truth of what Jesus may have meant, not by the examination of a single passage, but by looking more widely at signs of coherence in the emphases of Jesus’ overall message. Such coherence does in fact exist and much of the historical evidence for the nature of Jesus’ ministry will show us the fact that while he followed many of the Jewish traditions, he also adopted a critical stance towards it.

I hope that this discussion of these two passages in the gospels has helped some of my readers to recognise that there are issues beneath the text as we have it which cannot be easily resolved by simple text-quoting. The exclusive text of Matthew and Luke needs to be balanced with that appearing in Mark. Whether we like it or not, important issues about who is or is not a Christian are not sorted by text quoting outside the context of a thorough understanding of the whole. It also, needs, dare I say, some access to the work of critical scholars who have been working on this and other problems for the past 200 years. The work of biblical scholarship cannot be wished away to flatter the opinions of conservative Christians who use texts to support their particular agendas.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

18 thoughts on “Tackling difficult Scriptural passages

  1. I have dipped into a variety of critical scholarship over the years and respect their work (usually). But may I say that appealing to “scholarship” is not a panacea, because they too have their agendas, and often come up with different if not directly contradictory views. It can be very confusing, perhaps especially if you are limited in your study by time or academic background. You learn to be suspicious of some people – I would not expect too much from the Jesus Seminar for example. On the other hand I’ve found enormous value and inspiration to my faith from the work of various Girardian scholars. Perhaps the appeal to scholarship is as much about digging deeper and keeping an open mind, sometimes more than expecting to be given alternative “correct” answers.

  2. My piece was not appealing to ‘critical scholarship’ but rather to the internal consistency of the actual text, in this case on the matter of inclusive/exclusive question. Some knowledge of critical questions does allow one to remain unfazed by apparent inconsistencies rather than desperately trying to iron them out or explain them away. There is no need to iron anything out here, once you recognise that the early Christian communities had an editorial hand in what appeared in the Gospels. There was a difference of opinion in the early Church just as there is today. In some ways to realise this is reassurring. They were like us in finding it difficult to resolve this issue.

  3. Stephen,

    You’ve written this beautifully. As soon as I catch up on some pressing deadlines on projects and such, I can’t wait to come back and dig deeper into the discussion here. Thank you for continuing in this effort which is much needed in the Church, for there are so many who are confused and wounded.

  4. There is a quote that says,”The first casualty of war is truth”. War can be an intellectual past time. The ‘Scholar’ who filters information through his knowledge is still subject to the failings of human nature. Theologians seldom get involved with the ‘unpleasant’ work of outreach or ‘evangelism’. If we are unsure that we can ever get back to the Jesus of history, how do we trust Him? And, the ‘streetwise’ would say, ‘What’s the point’? PEACE, Chris

  5. I think I get what Chris is pointing us to here. And just because it is one of his “soapboxes” we still need to hear it.
    The problem seems to be that we get so fond of the theoretical, but meanwhile the problem is very practical. Sure – approaches to scriptural interpretation are probably behind many spiritually abusive situations?
    The problem is we are all so shortsighted about our own viewpoint. Very few of us have the will (or courage) to change our minds.
    Practically, I have to say I think Chris has a very good point.
    An encounter with the Christ of history is far superior to a good theory about the synoptic problem for instance.

  6. Thanks Dick, The trouble is my soapbox was very poorly designed; it’s got ‘C stream reject’ written all over it. Again, I make the point about whose hands the difficult scriptures fall into. Stephen is right to point out that leaders or priests, who from their lofty positions claim superior knowledge, should not tyrannize viewpoints.
    The other vital point is how do we bring what seems to be captive knowledge down from the halls of cloistered academia down to the level of the street? I ask my readers to really think about that please!
    If there is general agreement that we can get back to the historic Jesus, (And that is a debatable point for many theologians) how do we agree on a way forward to take that life and teaching into the real world?

    When do we get up from the weekly bible study and leave behind the Sunday morning Christian mentality and walk out onto the street and really do something?

    Peace, Chris

  7. I wonder, Chris, do you mean such things as the thinking on Adam and Eve and the Fall, for example? It’s pretty standard in mainstream (small “m”!) Christianity to understand this part of the Bible as a story designed to illustrate a point, rather than literally true. But you rarely, if ever indeed, (racks her brains) hear that from the pulpit. So you end up with loads of occasional church goers believing that this bit of the Bible is supposed by Christians to be literally true, and they, not unnaturally, drift off because they think we are all simpletons. Or the atonement. What is preached is usually what I call the 19th Century Gothic model. The one where God was so angry he wanted to kill someone, and he didn’t much care who it was, so the one human being who didn’t deserve it gets sacrificed! Small wonder that one doesn’t go down well! But still it is preached. It does indeed seem to me that preaching how we should behave makes more sense.

  8. Blogg 54

    Thanks English Athena: Yes, part of my attempt to communicate is based on ‘how we should behave’ however, the difficulty I have is, lets take ‘the good Samaritan’ parable for example, I note that the Priest back then couldn’t give a toss (For various reasons) about the victim of a mugging. Is it so hard to believe that the same spirit that produces that kind of blindness is still around today, especially among the professional religious?

    Yes, Dick is right, I do have a soapbox, but If it takes me climbing on a thousand soapbox’s I would gladly do it if, I could get one person to really see what I’m talking about. Reality and truth are only attractive to the outsider when it is perceived and acted on in a totally uninhibited way?

    The practice of leaving the safe places behind and loving our neighbour no matter what is far, far more important than tidy debating.

    Now let me return to the difficult scripture discussion. All these problems dwindle into insignificance when we hear; ‘by your love will all men (And Women) know that you are my disciples’. In my minds eye I see a million suitcases piled up in the ‘left luggage’ department of the church full of very well articulated excuses.

    Peace, Chris

    1. Go Chris!!

      And by the way, the only bit of your soapbox that is marked c grade is on the side only you can see. The rest of us see A grade.

  9. Just back from holiday. I love this article and the discussion. Well done everyone! Just worth noting that there is no manuscript evidence for Q or any supposed sources or later editing of Biblical texts. I like Dame Helen Gardner’s comment of 1951; “Trying to discern sources in literature is like trying to weave ropes in sand.”

    1. I agree with you about the use of Q From the german Quelle meaning source.I do not subscribe to the Q theory .It is more likely that the Gospel writers drew on each other and added bits and related them to the communities they were living in and the problems they were facing. The Gospel are profoundly human documents and that it where their authority comes from.

      1. Just got back from being away for a few days. In my own defence I would say that the argument does not depend on the existence of Q. We can talk about a common source for this exclusive passage which Matthew and Luke both knew. Alternatively one copied the other. The gospels do have frequent examples of ‘cut and paste’ as anyone who looks at them carefully will see. As Robert says they are human documents, and if we read behind them we see, particularly in Mark’s vision a Jesus who welcomed everyone to the extent that ‘respectable’ people were scandalised. The ‘inclusive’ picture of Jesus is well-documented from what we have, even if there are odd passages which seem to put Jesus in a barrier-building mood.

  10. I have just read a very profound and simple essay on how to read the Bible. It is in Rowan Williams’ book “Being Christian”. The whole book could help a lot a lot of enquiring or bewildered people.

  11. Thanks Robert,

    I’m sure Rowan Williams has some good things to say. He is a good scholar and a good man. I am confused however, that I cannot get a personal response from him and other bishops I have written to?
    Some of the things discussed on this blog are absolutely vital in relation to the survival of the church in this country.

    The issues that Stephen and I are raising you would think demand a measured response to say the very least. Instead I get polite (‘Go away please’) letters from a secretary. If Jeremy Paxman phones for an interview he gets a same day response. I do get. P….. off with this. Peace, Chris

  12. I don’t know how things are nowadays, but when he was Archbishop of Wales, our Rowan used to answer the phone himself. I guess these days he needs a guard dragon. Sometimes what you are trying to say isn’t a hundred per cent clear on first reading. Have you thought of asking someone to act as amanuensis (your hand, is what it means). My son needed one for years because he is autistic. Which is why I thought of it. He’s very bright, like you, but he has a very, shall we say, idiosyncratic way of using English! Sometimes a third party can help us unpack things more clearly. I always need help with application forms. I hope that doesn’t sound insulting, because I don’t mean it that way.

  13. Thanks English Athena,

    Right on all counts about my sometimes, unconventional approach.
    I think if you were to ask Stephen about the number of times he has been ignored you would be surprised.

    My friend Doctor Peter Nelson (A Christian writer) also has similar experiences.
    Something (I honestly don’t know what) seems to stifle free discussion in this strange world of celebrity leaders. This blog is about how things called ‘Christian’ get used and abused? The thing I just can’t get away from (Sends me toots up the maypole at times) is this; the calm measured debate may have its place, but, as soon as you (We) approach the Jesus described in the New Testament, a tension an urgency reeks out that strangely is just not there in the clinical world of the professional religious. All the problems discussed on this blog to my mind root back to that.

    Yes Athena, I need help (My wife would definitely agree!) Stephen and Dick have helped me put things into let’s say, ‘good English’ but, sometimes you have to have the raw me, I mean, Chris Pitts 5foot 7inshes brown shoes, silver hair, some false teeth? I mean why did God take me out of illiteracy and give me a voice? Even if I do give some of you hernia of the eardrum, its better that nothing ant it?

    Cosmic Peace to you, Chris

    1. You carry right on! But yes, if someone who can string a few sentences together doesn’t get a reply, that’s not good. The Bishops I know (not many!) rather pride themselves on being accessible. Interesting, but perhaps not unduly surprising really, that they really aren’t. It’s like when the managing director says, “Be sure my door is always open”, it’s kinda French for, “Do remember I’m a very busy man”!

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