A Failing Memory
I was on a panel the other day answering “faith related” questions. A couple of days later one of those present emailed me saying she was impressed with what I said about the bible not being taken literally and asked me if I could provide her “with the exact words I had said as they resonated so strongly for me.”
I wasn’t able to accede to her request. I have no idea what I said, and even if I did my “age related” memory probably wouldn’t permit its recall. The best I can do is to guess at what I said. I think it was probably with respect to an insight of Marcus Borg which expressed clearly what I have been on about for some time – that the context of the expression of the Christian faith is crucially important to its understanding. As Borg puts it “Not only do the New Testament texts come alive in their ancient settings, but we are saved from the fanciful misunderstandings that result from non-historical interpretations”.
He goes on to speak of three contexts in the form of concentric circles. The first is the context of Jesus and his disciples, peasants and poor. The second is the context of Judaism, the context of hope and how God’s promises to Abraham might be fulfilled. The third context was that of the Roman Empire which was politically oppressive, economically exploitive, chronically violent and legitimated by religious claims. The Emperor at that times was one born as Octavian but after he defeated Antony in 31BC he became known as Caesar Augustus – ‘augustus’ meaning “one who is to be worshipped and revered”. He was heralded as “Son of God” and said to be divinely conceived by the God Apollo. He was referred to as “Lord”, and called “Saviour of the World” because he had brought “peace on earth” by defeating Antony. He was succeeded by Tiberius Caesar Augustus who carried on the tradition and had his image and title inscribed on the coinage. He was the Emperor when Jesus was killed.
The point that Borg is making is that the New Testament writers use the terminology of imperial theology but apply it to Jesus “Jesus is the ‘Son of God’ – the Emperor is not. Jesus is ‘Lord’ – the Emperor is not. Jesus is the ‘Saviour” who brings “peace on earth – the Emperor is not.”
The point that is being made by Borg, and many of us, is that context must be taken seriously. Context matters
The context which we live in today is very different to that in which Jesus lived. It could be referred to as the “context of evolution” – and that is why in a few weeks time I will be trying to convince a group of people that “God is the evolutionary energy inviting and encouraging us to fullness of life, and Jesus of Nazareth is the light that reveals the way” – just as he did two thousand years ago. I may even point out that our society too is politically oppressive, economically exploitative, chronically violent and legitimated by spurious religion. I will try and point out that the best description for Jesus and his followers today may well be “agents of change”.
Chances are, of course, that when people ask me what I said, I will be unable to remember.