Consensual text

BiblePastor Chris Linzey has taken me to task for quoting the Magic Book out of context. Interestingy, the latest post on Chris’s blog, written by his father, does just that, so it must be okay for Christians to do it even if no-one else can.

Let’s take a close look at a couple of verses, Matthew 19.4-6, that God’s Chosen like to quote out of context, entirely altering their meaning in the process (but that’s okay, because you know, Christians are doing it):

Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning “made them male and female”, and said, “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh”? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.’ (Matthew 19.4-6; Jesus quoting Genesis 2.24 out of context).

As it stands, this passage seems to suggest that Jesus is endorsing marriage between one-man and one-woman (only) but pan out from the isolated section and this not what he’s talking about at all. He’s discussing divorce. Here’s the verse in context:

Some Pharisees came to (Jesus), and to test him they asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?’ He answered, ‘Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning “made them male and female”, and said, “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh”? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.’ They said to him, ‘Why then did Moses command us to give a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her?’ He said to them, ‘It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but at the beginning it was not so. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery.’ (Matthew 19. 3-9)

What the one-man, one-woman verse can now be seen to be saying is that once a couple are married, they should stay together and not divorce; Jesus isn’t prescribing marriage at all. Add even more context and what we find following the lines about divorce is this:

His disciples said to him, ‘If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.’ But he said to them, ‘Not everyone can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can.’ (Matthew 19.10-12)

In other words, Jesus doesn’t recommend marriage in any shape or form, not even between one man and one woman; his view is that it is better not marry at all. He goes further still: it is better to be completely sexless, as if without testicles, for the sake of the Kingdom of God. He acknowledges, bless him, that not everyone will be able to comply with this ‘teaching’ – who’d have thought it?

Zoom out further still and set this part of Matthew’s gospel against Luke 20.34-35 where Jesus really is talking about marriage:

He said to them, ‘Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that [Kingdom] age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage.’

This time the message is that only those mired in the ways of the world marry, costing themselves a place in the coming Kingdom. Those in the know, however, avoid it and so guarantee their resurrection and transition to the new age. Whatever else it is (wackadoodle nonsense?) this is not a ringing endorsement of marriage. The verses from Matthew and Luke when taken together show clearly that not only did Jesus fail to endorse one-man, one-woman marriage, but that he disparaged the entire institution. He believed that when the Kingdom came to the Earth, marriage would be done away with altogether and advocated abandoning it in the interim as well. You wouldn’t know this though from the decontextualised use of Matthew 19.4-6.

We might ask here why it is that today’s Christians don’t comply with his directive. Why don’t they shun marriage as their Lord and Saviour says they should? Why do they regard his commands as optional? Why don’t they want to guarantee themselves a place in the coming Kingdom by vetoing marriage? Have they abandoned all hope of God’s Kingdom ever coming to the Earth? Shifty hermeneutics won’t help them here either, because Paul is of a similar opinion (1 Corinthians 7.8-9; 28-29). Evidently this is the kind of teaching Christians are free to discard, perhaps because they see it – unjustifiably – as specific to the first century, like the coming Kingdom itself.    

So, yes, context can be important, given the haphazard and disjointed fashion in which the Almighty chose to express himself. But it doesn’t always produce the result Christians might like. That’s where the sleight of hand known as ‘hermeneutic consistency’ comes in. We’ll try that out next time.

 

 

Some material in this post has appeared before; specifically here. I hope I didn’t take it out of context.

 

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2 thoughts on “Consensual text

  1. If one wants to look at examples of taking the Bible out of context one need only look at the New Testament.

    In Matthew’s Gospel the reference to Jesus going to Egypt as being a fulfilment of a prophecy from Hosea is a clear case of incorrect context. In the case of the Apostle Paul his suggestion that those who follow the Jewish Law are following the slave Hagar rather than the true wife Sarah is another clear breach of context.

    Christians explain away these clear breaches of every rule of Biblical interpretation by saying that the Holy Spirit gave the New Testament writes fresh insight. However to the Jews it was instead rather strong evidence that the New Testament writers were changing the rules to suit their argument.

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    • Absolutely. And Christians continue to change the rules as they see fit. They call on the Old Testament when it suits their purposes (as in your examples), but discount it when it doesn’t. Then the argument is that the old covenant has been superseded.

      The Holy Spirit is one slippery customer, guiding believers to whatever intepretation of the Bible’s already inconsistent message they want it to have.

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