While Standing On One Foot

Via Joe Carter, a series of one-sentence summaries of the Bible from various “scholars and pastors.”  None of them take a path similar to Rabbi Hillel’s famous line — “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor: that is the whole Torah; all the rest is commentary; go and learn it.” (I’m going somewhere with this, I promise…)

This isn’t surprising, given that they’re Christians and the addition of the New Testament necessarily alters the nature of the book they’re discussing.  Intriguingly (to me, at least), their replies are all the summary of a narrative: Creation, fall, God’s love, redemption/Jesus.  My question (wanting to avoid arguments over the nature/ethics of various religions), is this: does this indicate a general distinction between the two religious traditions over the literary nature of their respective Bibles?

Anyone?  Anyone?  Bueller?  Bueller?

More broadly speaking, I guess I’m wondering aloud (coming from the Jewish side of things myself) whether Christianity doesn’t merely place more emphasis on the Bible-as-narrative/story than Judaism, but is it accurate/inaccurate to say that it views it as, perhaps, primarily narrative/story?

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22 thoughts on “While Standing On One Foot

  1. does this indicate a general distinction between the two religious traditions over the nature of their respective Bibles?

    It’s probably worth noting that almost all of the people who were asked to reply are Calvinist (like me). Although Creation-Fall-Redemption is a basic theme running through Reformed theology, I’m not sure if it has the same pride of place in Catholic or Eastern Orthodox traditions.

    I’m a bit surprised to hear that Judaism doesn’t put more emphasis on narrative. Since the Hebrews invented both time and history, if not narrative itself (a contentious claim, perhaps, but one I firmly believe), you’d think their religion would be viewed as a combination of narrative and literary theology.

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    • Well, there is an emphasis on narrative, but, in traditional sources, it seems more subordinated to the legal/ethical dimensions. For example, there’s a discussion within the texts of Rabbinic Judaism over the question of why the Torah begins at Creation, rather than with Moses at Sinai. Some of the answers are more satisfactory than others, but the general sense winds up being that the narrative is necessary to grounding/justifying the laws.

      Further, while Christian theologians took the NT into account in their statements, Akiva was also considering Oral Torah (what eventually becomes the Talmud) in his.

      There’s also a statement that would seem to reverse that principle, if it actually exists (I’ve heard it, but haven’t been able to track it down): Halakhah (Talmudic law) follows from Aggadah (the narrative/tales). Or something like that. (To a certain friend who may or may not be reading this thread: does that statement exist in any form at all, or am I deluded?)

      As a literature person, I find the narrative sections (and the later, more poetic Biblical books) typically more intriguing, but like to read the elements as being more on an equal footing: each offering commentary on the other.

      On the other hand, while Reform Judaism casts itself as being very much about an ethical life (their interpretation of Akiva would differ markedly from the Orthodox), ethics are drawn — or were in the experiences of my youth — primarily from narrative.

      But there is a good deal of literary theology to be found in any branch of Judaism; it just takes a different place in the order of priority — we’re just talking about one sentence here. Maimonides’ 13 principles of faith, for example, are much more dependent on the narrative than Akiva’s statement.

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  2. I was always partial to Twain’s one sentence summary: “It has noble poetry in it; and some clever fables; and some blood-drenched history; and some good morals; and a wealth of obscenity; and upwards of a thousand lies.”

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  3. I think there’s something to be said here for the coevolution of Christianity and political structures. Judaism has had the historical advantage of being independent to the amassing of political power, and so its practitioners have not been manipulated by narrative (Perhaps “manipulated by narrative” is not the right term here. Perhaps “habituated to narrative convention” is a superior terminology.) to the same degree as practitioners of Christianity have.

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  4. Good question. The Jewish character of Christianity is seeing a resurgent emphasis these days. We have, to use a Maddenism, gentiled Christianity so much that the book of Hebrews has, to many, lost its full significance. Ben Witherington III covers this nicely in his The Jesus Quest: The Third Search for the Jew of Nazareth. The advances in textual criticism and analysis are proceeding nicely.
    So to answer your question more specifically, orthodoxy has always treated the Bible as history (more than story/narrative) and is now gearing up to do so to a greater degree.

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  5. Modern Evangelical Standing On One Foot: “Homosexuality is wrong but we try to love the sinner even as we hate the sin. That doesn’t mean we countenance gay marriage! Also, God sent his, wait, whoops”

    And the foot touches the floor.

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  6. Thanks for this, an amusing thought experiment.

    Surprising that you should see this narrative/ethics dichotomy running in the direction it does, given how much more heavily focused the Christian Bible is on ethics vs. the Jewish focus on narrative. They are books that are barely even of the same kind in many ways.

    To hazard a guess: the Christian belief in the usurpation of Jewish law by Jesus is a lot more dependent on the overall narrative (creation -> fall -> resurrection/redemption) of the Bible than anything in Judaism. Prior to that ideology it seems one could live within the “story” of the Bible without needing to be overly concerned with its forward progress – hence a focus on ethical law. Post-Jesus, the ethics are suddenly sublimated by a particular narrative, and thereafter the real significance of the Bible is the story of – not guide to – redemption.

    Many simplifications there, no offense to any Christians intended.

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