The Red Letter Jesus and His Black Letter Interpreters
In a recent article,1 Ludwig Schneider (founder of IsraelToday magazine) argues that Jesus’ words about himself are “ignored or overlooked since they do not fit in with traditional theology.” Schneider’s remedy calls for refocused attention on these “taboo words” in order to break away from human tradition and to discover the real Jesus. The “taboo” list includes verses primarily from the Gospel of John2 and a few other verses from Paul’s letters.3 In each of these verses, Jesus expresses his dependence on God without referring to himself as God. The point of Schneider’s article is clear enough: theologians who claim that Jesus is God ignore the real words of Jesus and manipulate God’s Word for the sake of theologically empty rhetoric, or simply put – a la Schneider – Jesus is not God.
The purpose of this article is not to respond directly to the verses noted by Schneider since they have in fact (contra Schneider) received substantial exegetical attention by traditional theologians (ancient and modern). Instead, this article attempts to challenge the premise upon which Schneider’s thesis stands: namely, that all theological reflection about the real Jesus must be subordinated to the “actual words of Jesus.” Since Jesus never said he was God, claims Schneider,4 we shouldn’t either. We will argue, however, that this premise is entirely inconsistent with the doctrine of inspiration since it fails to grasp the fact that the New Testament (NT) is an inspired interpretation of Jesus.
First, Schneider’s weighting of Jesus’ words about himself (the red letters 5) over against other statements about Jesus in the NT (the black letters) demonstrates a flawed understanding of the implications of the NT as inspired Scripture. Evangelicals affirm (I’m assuming Schneider does as well) that all Scripture is inspired (God breathed), and that Paul’s statement in 2 Tim 3:16 is equally true of the NT. Taken seriously, this affirmation comes with the acknowledgement that the red letters are not more inspired than the black letters since the whole NT is from God and thus equally inspired. Schneider’s prioritization of Jesus’ own statements diminishes the fact that every NT statement is equally weighted because all Scripture is God-breathed. That means that an unknown NT author’s identification of Jesus as both God (Heb 1:8 quoting Ps 45:7) and YHWH (Heb 1:10-12 6 quoting Ps 102:25-27 [Masoretic Text, vv. 26-28]; see v. 21 [Masoretic Text, v. 22]) is just as true as Jesus’ statements of dependence on God (e.g., John 20:17). Since both statements are God’s word about Jesus, traditional theologians have rightly maintained that both verses about Jesus’ identity are equally true (Jesus is God and Jesus the Son of God is subordinate to God the Father).
Second, Schneider’s premise that “all interpretation contains human additions” (Schneider’s words) is flawed since it fails to account for the fact that some interpretation is inspired interpretation. Schneider tries to distinguish between the “real Jesus” (not God) and the “interpreted Jesus” (God), but somehow misses the point that the Gospels as Gospels (historical narratives) are “interpretations of Jesus.” The purpose of a historical narrative (biographies, autobiographies, history books, etc.) is not merely to provide a list of unrelated historical facts. Rather, it is an author’s attempt to explain and interpret the relationship of events. For example, the recent war between Israel and Hamas (historical fact) received a great deal of media attention, some accusing, others defending, Israel on the basis of their interpretation of events. This interpretive element is no less true for the Gospels.7 The events in Jesus life were open to numerous interpretations,8 and the authors of the Gospels (like modern journalists) seek to persuade the readers that their interpretations are not only true but also life changing.
Once we recognize that the Gospels are interpretation (God’s interpretation), we see that Schneider’s attempt to isolate the red letter Jesus from his black letter interpreters is not only naïve, but also dangerous. For without the Gospels, we are left, without God, to try and figure things out on our own. Schneider’s claim that Jesus is not God on the basis of a “taboo list” taken almost exclusively from the Gospel of John poignantly illustrates what it means to figure things out without the help of Jesus’ inspired interpreters. For it is John the theologian who offers this “inspired interpretation” of Jesus in the very first verse of his Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1, ESV). It is fitting to close with the only statement by Schneider with which we find ourselves in agreement: “Theologians interpret what the Scriptures say about Jesus.” And that’s precisely what John is doing here: he is interpreting what the Scriptures (Gen 1:1-3) say about Jesus – He is God.
This blog was written by Dr. Erez Soref and David Rothstein of Israel College of the Bible
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1 “The Taboo Words of Jesus,” November 2012, www.israeltoday.co.il, 18.
2 The author provides the following list of “taboo verses”: Matt 19:17 (Mark 10:18; Luke 18:19); John 20:17; 10:29; 17:3; 12:49; 14:1; 10:30; 5:19.
3 Schneider also offers a few supporting verses from the epistles (1 Tim 2:5; 1 Cor 15:26-28; Eph 5:18-20).
4 A claim that also must be challenged in light of such statements by Jesus as are found in Mark 2:5; see vv. 6-7.
5 It is also essential to note the Gospel writers do not actually preserve the ipsissima verba (the actual words) of Jesus since our Lord most likely taught in Hebrew and/or in Aramaic. The Gospels, however, were written in Greek. And while we would affirm that the Gospel writers have accurately (supernaturally) preserved the teachings of Jesus, they have done so by translating his sayings into another language. Thus the sayings of Jesus (“red letters”) are actually the translated and interpreted words of Jesus (“black letters”).
6 The author of Hebrews is obviously quoting the Septuagint’s (LXX; the Greek translation of the OT) translation of Psalm 102 (Ps 101 in the LXX). The word “Lord” (kurios) in Ps 102:25 (LXX, 101:26; 102:25; Masoretic Text, 102:26) refers exclusively to YHWH every other time it’s used in this chapter (vv. 1, 2, 13, 16, 17, 19, 20, 22, 23). The implication of this fact is obvious: by ascribing this verse to Jesus, the author of Hebrews identifies Jesus as YHWH.
7 What distinguishes the Gospels from every other historical narrative is not their genre, but their infallible interpretation (inspiration).
8 For example, it was clear to all that Jesus cast out demons, but this action still required interpretation, some accrediting it to Satan, others to God (see for example, Matt 12:21-30).