“aha” moments: biblical scholars tell their stories (1): me
by Peter Enns
June 25, 2014
Following on my last post, here is the first installment of a series–biblical scholars from evangelical backgrounds telling their stories about their “aha” moments that convinced them they needed to find different ways of handling the Bible than how they had been taught.
In the last day I’ve already gotten 10 scholars who want to participate and I expect more to come. My plan is to post their thoughts as they come in rather than all right after the other.
The purpose of this series, more than anything, is to encourage followers of Jesus who are on similar journeys–those who are finding that how they were taught to think about the Bible does not have adequate explanatory power for engaging the Bible as they now read it. You’re not alone. And it’s all good.
OK, I’ll go first.
Like most of those who will contribute to this series, there wasn’t just “one” moment that moved me from one place to another. It was more a culmination of many moments over many years–some feeling like a 2×4 over the head and others more a whisper.
Overall, as I continued to pay more and more attention to the details of the Bible, it became harder and harder to shake the feeling that the Bible wasn’t behaving as I had always been told it most certainly needs to behave.
What drove this home to me–one of these culminating “aha” moments– happened during my doctoral work and centered on just one verse: 1 Corinthians 10:4: “for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ.”
I try to be brief here, since I touched on this quickly in The Bible and the Believer: How to Read the Bible Critically and Religiously, and will lay it all out in chapter 1 of my upcoming book The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It. But here’s the gist.
In this verse Paul refers to Christ as the “rock that accompanied” the Israelites through the desert. Paul is alluding to the episode–actually 2 episodes–in the Pentateuch, where the Israelites get water from a rock while wandering in the desert for 40 years.
For Paul to equate Christ with the rock is a typical example of his Christ-centered reading of his scripture (our Old Testament): the savior was present with God’s people then as he is now.
What threw me, though, was that word “accompanied.”
One day in class, my professor James Kugel was lecturing on the creative ways that Second Temple Jewish interpreters handled these episodes. He explained that water coming from the rock twice–once at the beginning of the wilderness period (Exodus 17) and again toward the end of the 40-year period (Numbers 20)–led some Jewish interpreters to conclude that the “two” rocks were actually one and the same, hence, one rock accompanied the Israelites on their 40-year journey.
There is a certain “ancient logic” at work here. After all, if the Israelites had manna given to them miraculously every morning, are we to think that the corresponding miraculous supply of water was only given twice, 40 years apart!? Of course not.
So, to solve this problem, the water supply became mobile. For some interpreters it was a stream through the desert, but for others the rock of Exodus 17 followed the Israelites for 40 years and was mentioned again in Numbers 20.
Evangelicals could write off this bit of biblical “interpretation” as entertaining or just play silly, but 1 Corinthians 10:4 complicates things. When Paul refers to Jesus not just as the rock but the accompanying rock, he, as a Jewish interpreter, is showing his familiarity with, and acceptance of, this creative Jewish reading of the Old Testament.
Let me put a finer point on that: no rock moved in the Old Testament, but Paul said one did. Paul says something about the Old Testament that Old Testament doesn’t say. He wasn’t following the evangelical rule of grammatical-historical contextual interpretation. He was doing something else–something weird, ancient, and Jewish.
My Bible was no longer protected under glass. It was out there, part of its very odd, ancient world that I really didn’t understand.
For Paul–an inspired apostle–to accept such a strange legend and treat it as fact is not something that can be easily brought into an evangelical framework. “But Paul is inspired by God! He would never say something like this!!”
But he did.
And it struck me that Paul probably couldn’t get a job teaching at the seminary that taught me about Paul.
Understand, as I said above, that this "aha moment" didn’t happen in isolation. It came in the context of years of pretty intense and in-depth doctoral work where my main area of focus was Second Temple biblical interpretation.
But here, at this moment, some tumblers clunked heavily into place. I was seeing a bigger picture, not just about this one verse but about the Bible as a whole. I was seeing right before my eyes that Paul and the other New Testament writers were part of this ancient world and they too handled their Bible in highly creative ways that were not anchored in the “original meaning” of the text but were transposed and altered in keeping with Jewish interpretive conventions of the day.
Evangelical attempts to make Paul sound more evangelical and less Jewish–to make him into a “sound” interpreter rather than a creative one–immediately rang hollow, and continue to. And I knew back then, as I do now, that the older model of biblical interpretation I had been taught was not going to cut it. I couldn’t deny what I was seeing. I knew I had some thinking to do.
That happened over 20 years ago, and the memory is still vivid. And it’s fair to say this aha moment, along with others before, and since, have shaped my life’s work of trying to understand the Bible rather than defend it. And that is to me much more interesting, meaningful, and spiritually enriching.