March 14, 2020

Cliff's Edge--The Hermeneutics of Colonel Sanders

A cartoon shows a chicken saying to a man, “He might be Colonel Sanders to you, but he’s Adolph Eichmann to us.” In other words, it’s not so much what’s in front of you but how you interpret what’s in front of you. The fancy word for interpretation is “hermeneutics,” and biblical hermeneutics—how we interpret the Bible, is foundational to Seventh-day Adventists.

Many biblical scholars employ a “higher critical” hermeneutic. It works, somewhat, like this. Well, this biblical text could not be true because Jesus wouldn’t have allowed this event to happen. Or: This biblical story is fictional because there’s no archeological evidence for it. Or: This biblical text must be a legend because in that culture things like this weren’t allowed. Or: This biblical narrative is false because secular history says something different. Or: This biblical account cannot be correct because it goes against modern sentiments. And, of course: This story cannot be true because, well, it contradicts science.

A logical example of such an approach is John Dominic Crossan’s Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (HarperCollins, e-books). Based on his higher critical hermeneutic, Crossan chooses what he deems as true in the Gospels (not much) and what is, he says, later myth or legend.

For instance, the account in Luke of Joseph taking Mary to Bethlehem, where she gave birth to Jesus—never happened. “It is a little sad,” he writes, “to have to say so, because it has always been such a captivating story, but the journey to and from Nazareth for census and tax registration is a pure fiction, a creation of Luke’s own imagination, providing a way of getting Jesus’ parents to Bethlehem for his birth.”

Of the whole biblical accounts of Christ’s birth and earliest years, he proclaims: “Jesus was not born of a virgin, not born of David’s lineage, not born in Bethlehem, that there was no stable, no shepherds, no star, no Magi, no massacre of the infants, and no flight into Egypt.”

Crossan’s “revolutionary insights” don’t end there, however. Another one deals with Christ miraculous healing of the lepers when, after Jesus had spoken and touched the sick man, “the leprosy left him” (Mark 1:42). Coming up with the nebulous distinction “between curing a disease and healing an illness,” Crossan claims that what really happened was not a miraculous cure but a social healing. “Jesus heals him, in other words, by taking him into a community of the marginalized and disenfranchised—into, in fact, the kingdom of God.”

Let’s use a parallel to understand Crossan’s higher critical hermeneutic. Suppose the Holocaust had occurred about 2,000 years ago. The historical sources we have today would have been much more limited (to say the least). Now imagine someone unearthing a partial text from a biography of Hitler written by German author Ullrich Volker, which read: “On 23 December, the day of Klara Hitler’s [Adolph’s mother] funeral, the 18-year-old Hitler appeared in Bloch’s office and declared, ‘I will be forever grateful to you, Doctor.’ And he did not forget his gratitude in his later years. In 1938, when he celebrated Austria’s incorporation into the German Reich with a triumphant march into his ‘home city’ of Linz, he is said to have asked: ‘Tell me, is good old Dr. Bloch still alive?’ Alone among Linz’s Jews, Bloch was put under the special protection of the Gestapo. In late 1940, he and his wife were able to flee to the United States via Portugal.”

Following Crossan’s hermeneutic, one could argue based on this text (other sources are limited) that Hitler, depicted here as so kind to these Jews—“good old Dr. Bloch” and his wife—didn’t know about the Holocaust or what was happening in it. In other words, taking only a bit of information about a narrow event, people could draw a false conclusion about something much bigger.

The parallel reveals, somewhat, Crossan’s methodology, which helps explain even more of his conclusions, such as this classic. The account of the young Jesus, in the Temple grounds astonishing the elders with “his understanding and his answers” (Luke 2:47), or when years later Jesus in the synagogue in Nazareth was quoting Isaiah—both were mere “Lukan propaganda.” How does he know? Because, Crossan writes, “since between 95 and 97 percent of the Jewish state was illiterate at the time of Jesus, it must be presumed that Jesus also was illiterate.”

And the death and burial of Jesus? “Jesus’ burial by his friends was totally fictional and unhistorical. He was buried, if buried at all, by his enemies, and the necessarily shallow grave would have been easy prey for scavenging animals.”

The problem with such a hermeneutic isn’t the use of history, language, textual studies, archeology, whatever. The problem is when these disciplines, themselves subjugated by the foibles, whims, and biases that inevitably dominate any interpretation, take precedence over the biblical text.  It’s one thing to “deconstruct” or to apply “the hermeneutics of suspicion” (these terms sound so passé now) to Madame Bovary or even The United States Constitution—but to the Word of God? It’s like a first-grader who, having just failed math, challenging the validity of Differential Calculus.

Despite some people’s best efforts, we as a church have not succumbed to this demonic ploy (come on, who was inspiring Crossan—Jesus, or the adversary?). If we ever did, this hermeneutic would do to our message what, well, Colonel Sanders does to chicken.

Clifford Goldstein is editor of the Adult Sabbath School Bible Study Guide. His latest book, Baptizing the Devil: Evolution and the Seduction of Christianity, is available from Pacific Press.