Truth and context

There is a particular type of flawed reasoning that intelligent and well-educated Christians are more vulnerable to than less thoughtful Christians are, and it goes like this:

  • Jesus is God, therefore Jesus is never wrong.
  • Therefore if Jesus ever appears to be wrong, we must have misunderstood what he was saying.
  • Therefore if we can find a context in which Jesus’ words are understandable, we have solved the problem.

This is a subtle form of straw man argument that takes a potentially dangerous question—was Jesus wrong?—and replaces it with the far less threatening question of whether or not we can understand what Jesus meant. Notice I did not say easier question. Jesus, at times, made assumptions and referred to contemporary social, cultural, and theological traditions that nowadays can only be discovered by diligent historical research by highly trained and experienced specialists.

At times the work of discovery can be so challenging that by the time we figure out what Jesus meant, we want to heave a celebratory sigh and shout, “We’ve done it, we’ve solved the problem.” It was so much work to figure out what Jesus meant, and we did such a good job of documenting that this is in fact what he must have been referring to, that we completely overlook the fact that we’ve been pursuing this non-threatening question instead of dealing with the more dangerous question of whether Jesus’ meaning was really correct.

Or, in 25 words or less, finding out the correct context is not the same thing as finding out that the context itself is correct.

This is the trap that Jayman and JP Meier have fallen into with regards to Jesus use of Exodus 3, as reported in Matthew 22. I’m going to criticize Jayman’s argument and his conclusion, but before I do I’d like to take a moment to express my respect and appreciation for the approach he’s taking here. He’s not beating around the bush, or trying to divert us into pointless distractions from the topic at hand. He’s giving us and honest and sincere report of how an intelligent believer looks at the issues in Matt. 22 and makes sense of them, and for that I salute him.

I said Jesus and the Sadducees shared a belief that, if the afterlife exists, it will eventually take the form of resurrection. At the beginning of the discussion the Sadducees could have made an argument that takes the following form:

1) If the afterlife exists, then the resurrection will occur.

2) The afterlife does not exist.

3) Therefore the resurrection will not occur.

Jesus agrees with the Sadducees regarding point 1. He merely needs to convince the Sadducees that the afterlife does exist and he will have succeeded in convincing them that the resurrection will occur. If you don’t share a belief in 1, then Jesus’ argument may not persuade you. That’s fine. His argument was with the Sadducees, not you. We all tailor our arguments for our audience.

Not a bad argument, rhetorically speaking. You don’t find Jesus’ argument persuasive? No problem, he wasn’t tailoring his argument to persuade you, he was targeting his remarks to his specific audience, the Sadducees. That sounds plausible, and possibly convincing, as a way out of the problems I’ve already pointed out. But let’s look at it a bit more closely.

First of all, this approach requires assuming that the Pharisees have given us a fair and accurate report of the teachings of the Sadducees. Is that a valid assumption? Let’s look at what one contemporary observer tells us about the reliability with which the Pharisees of his day handled the writings and teachings of others.

Then some Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do Your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread.”

And He answered and said to them, “Why do you yourselves transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘HONOR YOUR FATHER AND MOTHER,’ and, ‘HE WHO SPEAKS EVIL OF FATHER OR MOTHER IS TO BE PUT TO DEATH.’ But you say, ‘Whoever says to his father or mother, “Whatever I have that would help you has been given to God,” he is not to honor his father or his mother.’ And by this you invalidated the word of God for the sake of your tradition. You hypocrites, rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you:


So according to Jesus, the Pharisees couldn’t be trusted to give a fair report of their own Scriptures, let alone the doctrines of their enemies. Let’s remember, too, that in the early years of the church, those who opposed Christianity described Christians as being atheistic in their beliefs, and cannibalistic in their practices, with suspicions of orgies and/or sacrificing babies in their secret rituals in the catacombs. Is it really wise to assume that whatever your enemies say about you is necessarily what you really do believe and practice?

As far as I know we have only two remaining records of what the Sadducees believed: we have what the Pharisees said about them, and we have their original Scriptures, the books of Genesis through Deuteronomy. Personally, I think we’re more likely to get an accurate picture of what the Sadducees really believed if we examine what their Scriptures actually say, instead of just taking their enemies’ word for it. If someone can prove to me that the books of Genesis through Deuteronomy explicitly deny the possibility of life after death, then I’ll be more than happy to take that as confirmation that the Pharisees correctly described Sadducean belief.

Meanwhile, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that the Sadducees did deny life after death, and that Jesus was indeed targeting his remarks towards that belief. This is where we get into the point I opened this post with: JP Meier has gone to a lot of work to define for us the underlying assumptions on which Jesus based his argument, but he (and Jayman) would seem to be using the hard work of discovering and documenting these assumptions instead of addressing the more interesting (and dangerous) question of whether these assumptions were valid and correct.

Let’s look again at the three points of the Sadducean argument, as paraphrased by Jayman. Point number 1 says, “If the afterlife exists, then the resurrection will occur.” That’s a non-sequitur. You might argue that if there is no afterlife, then there can be no resurrection, but it’s a logical fallacy to turn that around and say that if there is an afterlife then there must be a resurrection. I might say, “I cannot purchase a new car because I don’t even have $5,” and that might be perfectly true. But that, of course, does not mean that if I get $5 I can buy a new car.

Necessity is not sufficiency: an afterlife can be necessary for a resurrection without being sufficient for a resurrection. Jesus, however, does not say the Sadducees are wrong because their logic is faulty, he accuses them of being wrong because they do not know their own Scriptures. And to this day Christians are reading Jesus’ words and believing that Exodus 3 teaches doctrines that, as Meier has ably documented for us, are merely the precepts of men (and flawed logic at that!).

There’s much, much more I could say about this topic, but I think perhaps I’ve presented enough material to document my point. Let me just give one last example and then perhaps we can move on to other things: As I’ve mentioned before, the statement “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” does not express the idea that God was involved in any kind of living relationship with the patriarchs at the time. God is merely identifying Himself as being one particular God, as distinct from all the other possible gods Moses might have mistaken Him for. He is just saying, “You know the God of the patriarchs? That’s the God that I am.”

This does not in any sense convey the idea that there will be a resurrection, Meier’s glorious assumptions notwithstanding. To see this, let’s suppose for a moment that God changes His mind and decides that His children would be more godly if they were spirits, like He was. So that’s it then, no bodily resurrection, the dead are spirits and are going to stay spirits for all eternity, because that’s the way God now wants it.

Suppose that God did make such a decision, and there was not going to be a literal, physical, bodily resurrection after all. How would the text of Exodus 3:6 have to change in order to reflect the fact that there was no longer going to be a raising of the bodies of the dead?

Obviously, since Exodus 3 says nothing about raising the dead, there’s nothing at all in the verse that you could change in order to change the meaning from “there will be a resurrection of the dead” to “there won’t be a resurrection of the dead.” The concept of resurrection is completely absent from the text, so there’s no way to change what it says about resurrection (short of inserting a completely new topic into the text, of course).

Suppose that the spirits of the patriarchs somehow committed a sin so bad that God became enraged at them and smote them with a mighty zot that completely destroyed them, before the burning bush. How would the text of Exodus 3 need to change then? Again, there’s no way to change the text to make it deny the continued existence of the patriarchs, because there’s nothing in the text that affirms their continued existence. Whether or not the patriarchs exist, God would still have the right to identify Himself as being the same God as the God the patriarchs worshiped.

So what Jesus is doing here is that he is really presenting, as Biblical doctrines, the precepts and traditions and flawed logic of the Pharisees—the people he himself called “hypocrites” and condemned for teaching the traditions of men as though they were the word of God!

I’m sorry, did I forget to warn you to put your irony meters in standby mode?

All of my original critiques still stand. Jesus publicly defended the doctrine of the resurrection, after accusing the Sadducees of not knowing the Scriptures, by citing a verse that says nothing about resurrection, and that doesn’t even have any relevance to the question unless you smuggle in a whole raft of illogical and extrabiblical assumptions that Farsi Jews brought back with them from the lands of Zoroastrianism and Mithraism.

JP Meier has done a good job of digging through the debris of theological history in order to discover these extrabiblical traditions, but the fact that he even needs this kind of scholarship to find the source of these ideas is itself proof that the Bible itself is not the original source. If it were, Meier (or Jesus!) could have gone straight to the source just by quoting the verses where these ideas were written. But if Jesus himself could not find a clear, valid, self-contained reference in the Law of Moses to some future Zoroastrian-style resurrection, it’s because Moses never put any such teaching there in the first place. And that means Jesus was misusing Exodus 3.

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