When the Bible is Wrong

The question of when and whether the Bible is wrong (and how to tell when and where it is) has been an ongoing discussion over the last year or so. I think this is a great discussion to have, because prior to about 1970 most Christians didn’t really care about the Old Testament. Since the 1970s the theological trend has been to see absolute and complete agreement between the OT and the NT. Now we appear to be moving into a stage of understanding that there is neither complete continuity or complete discontinuity between the testaments, and to start seriously exploring where they are different.

In this post, I want to explore whether or not the New Testament believes the Bible can be wrong. And the answer I found is actually quite surprising – the answer is a robust yes.

The epistle to the Colossians declares that the Old Testament is a “shadow of what is yet to come, because the substance belongs to Christ,” (Col. 2:17). The word “shadow” there is the Greek skia, which literally means shadow, but is used figuratively for the “darkness of error.” (For those curious as to where I found this, it is the listed meaning in Strong’s numbers). Isaiah in particular connects darkness with blindness (Isa. 29:18; 42:7, 16), a darkness that the coming of the Messiah would remedy: “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those that live in the land of the shadow of death, upon them the light has shined,” (Isa. 9:2). This is not mere incompleteness of the Old Testament’s understanding of God, but—at least in some cases—actual misunderstanding.

Sharply in contrast to this “shadow of error” that represented the Torah and Old Testament, Colossians then tells us that the “substance belongs to Christ.” The Greek word for “substance” here is soma, which literally refers to a body in sound health. Its root is sozo, which is the word the New Testament uses for “saved, salvation,” and which means to be kept safe and sound, to be rescued. Thus, this “substance” that belongs to Christ is the remedy to the “shadow of error” that looms over the Old Testament. Jesus “saves” the Old Testament by reinterpreting it according to his perfect knowledge of God.

The epistle of Hebrews tells us several things about the Old Testament that are important. The very first verses tell us this: “God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son,” (Heb. 1:1-2). The contrast is clear; long ago God spoke through various people in diverse ways, but now God has spoken with the unified voice of Jesus. The implication here, of course, is that if God spoke through various people in various ways, that communication is not perfectly clear. But now, at last, God has spoken with finality through the unified, single voice of Jesus. These various people were not perfect representations of God, nor did they grasp his inmost depths, because only Jesus reveals this, as the next verse tells us: Jesus is “the radiance of the glory of God, and the exact imprint of his nature,” (Heb. 1:3).

In the tenth chapter of the epistle to the Hebrews, we read that the Old Testament “possesses a mere shadow of the good things to come, instead of possessing the true realities,” (Heb. 10:1). “Mere shadow” here is again skia, the “shadow of error” or misunderstanding. The “true realities” it does not possess are eikon, the same word which Hebrews 1:3 uses to describe Jesus as the “precise image” and “exact imprint” of God’s innermost being and character. Jesus possesses something which the Old Testament never did, and therefore understands things which it never could.

The use of skia in both Colossians and Hebrews to speak about what the Old Testament lacked is interesting. The word goes quite beyond incompleteness and into error or distortion. Of course, something that is partial, vague, or incomplete brings with it distortion by necessity. The rough sketch is inexact and incomplete; it cannot give us the detail or clarity of the full painting. The crudely-drawn map cannot possess the full accuracy of the topographical map. The whole discussion of both passages depends upon the rhetorical contrast between vague, ill-defined or distorted pictures of God in the Old Testament and the perfect, precise, clear description and fullness of the invisible God displayed in the visible person of Jesus.

Importantly, Jesus himself taught the same thing. In the Sermon on the Mount, he says, “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill,” (Matt. 5:17). It has been vogue in the last twenty or so years among evangelicals to see this passage as Jesus agreeing with everything in the Old Testament, but this is not what Jesus means. After all, the rest of the Sermon is a series of contrasts: “You have heard it said . . . But I say to you.”

Rather, Jesus has come to “fulfill” the Torah. The Greek word here is pleroo, which means both to meet the requirements of something, and also to finish, perfect, or complete something. Thus, Jesus is saying that his teachings meets the requirements of the Torah, but that they also perfect or “fix” the Torah. He is correcting the Torah.

This is why Jesus is our standard, our exegesis, our hermeneutic. This is why he has authority over the Old Testament. He is the exact image of the invisible God, unlike the “inexact” image of God we were given in the Old Testament.

Whenever I think about the differences between the Old Testament and the New Testament, I always think of the moment when Moses wants to see God, to look on him with his own eyes. God doesn’t really want to reveal himself, but finally he agrees to let Moses see, but only for a moment. He tells Moses to look between two rocks and God will pass by, just for a second. And all Moses sees is the back side of God: “you shall see My back, but My face shall not be seen,” (Ex. 33:23). How precise an understanding of a person can be deduced from their back? The Old Testament knew God, but – speaking metaphorically – all they knew was God’s back. Now, Jesus has come as the very face of God, the face that the Old Testament could not see.


The Nonviolent God of the Exodus

Derek Rishmawy has been one of the Calvinists leading the charge against Jesus’s authority to reinterpret the Old Testament and its portrayal of God as violent. Of course, he wouldn’t say that’s what he’s doing, but the end results are the same. This week he argued that “Losing the Exodus means losing the God of the Exodus.”

By this, he means that if we reject the exodus as history we must of necessity lose the liberating God of the exodus who opposes oppression and rescues his people.

This is actually a clever rhetorical argument to make, because those of us who advocate for a nonviolent God tend to see God’s opposition to oppression as vital to His character.

But Rishmawy’s argument is completely bogus, for several reasons.

The first reason is pretty simple. There’s no historical or archaeological evidence there ever was an exodus in the first place, or a conquest of Canaan for that matter. Conservative Christians have tried to find alternative explanations or suggestions that it could have happened, but in the end all those arguments fail and we’re left with the fact that, historically speaking, it didn’t happen that way. So right off the bat, if Derek is right, then everybody loses the God of the exodus, including him. We just have to deal with this fact and move on.

Which leads us to the second problem. Which is that what happened historically doesn’t matter, frankly, because what actually matters is what the text says about God. The exodus doesn’t have to be historically accurate in order for us to get the point that God is all about liberation and his faithful determination to rescue his people. We don’t need to know whether the parable of the unforgiving servant was historical in order to understand that showing mercy on the undeserving is central to God’s character. That point is clear regardless of what might have been the case historically.

In the end, Rishmawy makes the mistake all conservatives do when he assumes the goal of a nonviolent hermeneutic is to “screen out” or “set aside” violent passages or parts of the Old Testament. This is completely untrue. No one is getting rid of bits of the Old Testament. The OT is part of our sacred scriptures. To say that it didn’t happen the way it is recorded is not the same as saying they are worthless or ought to be tossed out. Most of us are completely comfortable saying they represent what oppressors like Egypt deserve to have happen to them, regardless of whether it did.

If the concern is over whether the texts are still relevant for Christians to wrestle with, there is no disagreement. Of course they are.

But ultimately, the real question is this: “Is Jesus the fullest and final revelation of who God really is, or isn’t he?”

If he is, then the Old Testament is not the fullest and final revelation of who God really is, and we must work to reinterpret it in the light of Jesus.

If Jesus is not the fullest and final revelation of who God really is, then we have problems that are a whole lot bigger than a few violent passages in the OT.