Sorting by

Skip to main content

Jesus grew up a good Jewish boy, which would have meant saying the Shema every day: “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your might” (Deuteronomy 4:6). But the time came when he realized he needed to change it.

Jesus’ Galilee may not have been the “back-woods” that many have called it over the years. Herod Antipas bulldozed Sepphoris and rebuilt it as the cosmopolitan hub of his third of the kingdom during Jesus’ youth. It’s not hard to imagine Joseph the carpenter and his sons making the daily hour-long walk there to stucco walls and lay mosaics.

That’s a picture of the biggest non-Jewish cultural influence in Jesus’ first century world: Hellenism, whose extensive value on the life of the mind impacted everything from Judean architecture to coinage to language. In the Gospels, think of the debate about Caesar’s taxes, the scenes in Herod’s & Pilate’s palaces, and the question of “What is truth?” in Jesus’ trial (John 18:38). Each of these moments and so many more reflect Greco-Roman influence pervasive in first century Israel.

The Hebrew approach to life was more integrated than the Hellenist — the mind and heart weren’t teased out and separated as they were in the European model. But since Jesus interacted with all sorts of people, including both Europeans themselves (e.g., the Roman centurion and Pilate) and so many more who’d had their worldviews influenced by them, it’s no wonder that he decided that the Shema, as originally stated, needed an upgrade. 

How were these beloved image-bearers going to understand what mattered most in life if the Greatest Commandment wasn’t rendered in a way they could understand?

So Jesus changed it.

In a debate with a Pharisee, Jesus announced the new and improved Greatest Commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your soul and all your mind and all your strength” (Mark 12:29-30). 

Jesus added the component that people in his context needed: loving God with the mind. We don’t see this rendering of the Shema prior to Jesus, but it made a big splash. Twenty centuries later, every good Sunday school kid knows the Greatest Commandment includes soul, heart, mind and strength. 

Truer Than Scripture

Although it makes me uncomfortable, I can’t get away from the nagging feeling that Jesus is appealing to a truth that is higher and deeper and, dare I say, truer, than scripture. My evangelical and inerrantist roots cringe at putting those last three words together: “truer than scripture.” And yet it’s there in black and white that, in service of some deeper truth, Jesus does make a significant change to scripture.

Elsewhere, Jesus reiterates that scripture was never the point but rather it was always decentering itself. In John 5:39-40, Jesus upbraids the Pharisees for focusing on the scriptures instead of the One that the scriptures pointed to: “You diligently study the scriptures but these are the very scriptures that testify about me, and yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” So again we see Jesus highlighting what lies behind scripture, what the point of scripture is. It’s no wonder that he felt the freedom to make some changes to it – he knew its greater purpose and kept focused on that.

My Big Question

As a pastor in the 21st century, I find myself asking a critical question about Jesus’s handling of the Shema: Do we get to change scripture like he did? 

Each day I try to follow Jesus (and encourage others to do so) and that means trying to do the things he did. Does that include making changes to scripture? Don’t worry, I’m not coming out with the BIV (Bill’s International Version) any time soon. But the question is a real one. Jesus was not just interpreting scripture. He actually changed it. In this instance it was by adding to it. Elsewhere he makes other significant edits, for example, in the Sermon on the Mount. And Paul follows his lead, for example, in Ephesians 4:8 when he swaps out the word ‘receive’ for the word ‘give’ – completely reversing the meaning of the original text in Psalm 68:18. 

So what does it mean to be like Jesus in how he handled scripture? I can’t help but wonder if it means that editing scripture towards the end of loving God and neighbor is not only acceptable but necessary. That might mean cutting some pieces out. It might mean adding some clarifications. 

One robust example comes immediately to mind. Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz has done this as well as anyone in her simple, artful, and profound renaming of ‘the kingdom of God’ as ‘the kindom of God.’ By changing a single letter in the English she shifts away from both patriarchy and militarism towards a familial image that captures and enhances the communal aspect of Jesus’s original teaching. 

Because of years of training that taught me otherwise, I get nervous bringing these things up. More than one of my friends have pointed out that I’m on a slippery slope. And of course they are right. Once you start, where do you stop?

Yet, I’ve come to believe that we are all sliding around anyway. We just tend to do it ‘accidentally’ and without drawing attention to it (unlike Jesus). Just ask your pastor which passage they’ve never preached, for example. Or think of the mental gymnastics we each do when we read a certain passage we find appalling (God commanding the Canaanite genocide, anyone?).

Functionally, I doubt there’s little difference between these approaches and Jesus’s more direct one. Sure, it feels safer not to name it. But I’m feeling increasingly confident stepping towards this approach if it’s Jesus who is calling me out from behind my safe, religious platform to wander with him there out on that slope.

Final Questions

So if we were to follow Jesus in his approach to scripture, how would that play out? I don’t have a clear answer here, just more questions. But I’m finding a lot more freedom to be honest about those questions these days. Here are some  things I wonder:

  • Should the Greatest Commandment and the second now be linked to a Third Commandment? Maybe something like this: Love the planet I’ve given you and care for it well.
  • Might the second commandment need some additions or rewording? Maybe something like: Love those with whom we disagree with curiosity and generosity.
  • Is it time to change the pronouns for God we find in scripture? Perhaps we recognize the Trinitarian God best by using They/Them.
  • Even if it’s historically unknowable, is it time to say the author of Hebrews was a woman? 
  • Do we have to equate the writings of Paul with the teachings of Jesus?
  • Is it time to name publicly that Jesus changed the scriptures and so can we?

I’d be curious to hear what is on your list.

Bill White

Bill White is one of the co-pastors of City Church Long Beach in Long Beach, California. He enjoys playing board games with his son and watching his daughter play soccer.


  • Daniel Meeter says:

    I think this where some concept of “office” comes into play, which in the RCA means minister, elder, and deacon (and doctor), and what rights and responsibilities are given to the offices re scripture, but also then exclusively to the office of “apostle.” That office had great rights actually to make scripture and recast earlier scripture (a right not given to the other offices) out of their direct witness. This is why St. Paul made such a big deal out of claiming that apostolic office, no doubt to the irritation of many. Another point: evangelicals often forget that the Bible is in some deep sense a book of the church, i.e., a great lectionary, i.e., a compact library intended for being read out loud in the community, so that it is the Word of God when it is being Heard, and interpreted in woship (Nehemiah 8 and Luke 4). Isn’t the function of the sermon as the Word of God this week for this bunch to do exactly what you are asking for, but always within the context of worship in the church?

  • Marlyn Visser says:

    You fail to acknowledge that Jesus is Yahweh himself. What would be the criteria that would govern our decisions to change what and how? Would we ,finate and corrupted by sin ; change God’s Word so that it would be compatible with our desires?

    • Rodney Haveman says:

      These are great questions and worthy of conversation. I think our RCA world would say something like, the Word of God is inerrant in all that it “intends to teach.” The classic question has always been, who gets to say what the Bible intends to teach? My understanding has always been something like, “The Church.” Hence Daniel’s comment above is really helpful.
      Now truth be told with all our distrust and fear of each other, one wonders if we could even have the conversation in our current state as the church. I sort of doubt it, at least in Reformed circles. I’m not sure outside of my own religious family, but what I do find fascinating is how much the NT writers do exactly what Bill is suggesting. Paul does it, maybe in the most brazen way when he writes about the righteousness accounted to Abraham. Jesus does it, or at least the writers of the gospels tell us he does it.
      In studying Romans with my church over the spring, we used J.R. Daniel Kirk’s Romans for Normal People. It was fascinating. He argues that the resurrection was such a “being” shattering event of God in Jesus Christ, everything needed to be re-evaluated or re-interpreted. In other words, Paul was responsive to what scripture said based on what God was up to in the life of God’s people. I find this challenging and fascinating, and it aligns with what Daniel says above, but it still requires the church to wrestle.
      What’s God up to now, in our communities, in our lives? And how do we see something new in scripture in light of that?
      What I like about that is where called to be paying attention to God at work in our lives all the time?
      What I don’t like about that is it means I need to hold scripture very lightly, almost like the Spirit is still at work in it and in the world.

  • RZ says:

    Ahhh. Now you have poked the most sacred of cows! Might we also reference the dream of Peter, the apostle, recorded in the “Axe of the Apostles,” chapter 11 ( credits to Steve M-V back in 2017) ? Peter and Paul here reinterpreted the scriptures and the sacred traditions, as have various Vatican Councils, translators, and “reformed” synods ever since. So do each one of us every time we read the “living” word. Is it not also a literary device we accept when an author tweaks a story or accepted truth in order to suggest a deeper truth? Our Bible is full of this, as it cleverly promotes the story behind the story. Paul even argues with himself so that he can conclude with the wonder of God’s (new) good news. Whether one is or is not an inerrantist, the tendency is always there to deny the steepness of our own slippery slope. Personally, I affirm the legitimacy of the scriptures, but do not ask me to prove that from the scriptures. They were simply not designed to do that. We are not a cult. We lose the wonder of divine inspiration when we add qualifiers.

  • Rowland Van Es, Jr. says:

    More examples of editing scripture are found in in the book Disarming Scripture by Derrick Flood which examines how both Jesus and Paul quoted the OT but often left off (or edited out) some of the more violent passages. For ex. in Lk 4, Jesus leaves off the day of vengeance when he quotes from Isaiah. Paul does the same. Not sure we need to change scripture but we do need to read the whole canon and also do ethical exegesis, contemplative exegesis and admit some passages are very human, and always read it in context. As for care of creation, that is already there in our creation mandate to serve and protect the garden in Gen 2:15 but you need to know some Hebrew to translate it properly which is why not all are qualified to interpret it.

  • Kathy Davelaar VanRees says:

    This is pretty wonderful.

  • Keith Mannes says:

    What Kathy said! This is so clear and correct. YES. And thank you.

  • Dan Winiarski says:

    The space between The Babylon Bee and The Reformed Journal is getting smaller.

  • Mark VanDyke says:

    “I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book. And if anyone takes words away from this book of prophecy, God will take away from him his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.”
    Rev. 22:18-19

    • Dan Walcott says:

      “A text out of context is a pretext for trouble.” John Spykman
      27 books were added to Scripture after this verse was penned. I doubt those who added the NT are in peril of plagues.

      • Matthew Falk says:

        You said that back when you were my middle school teacher and I’ve quoted you often. So good to see it in print!

      • Nancy Miller says:

        You taught my children to use that guideline, “A text without a pretext…,” when they were in your middle school Bible class. It’s still a reminder our family uses as we read and discuss biblical passages. Thank you!

    • Rodney Haveman says:

      I might add, in addition to Dan’s comment, that since the NT didn’t exist at the time of the writing of Revelation, it must be speaking about its own “book.” I suppose one could say that John foresaw the NT in its final edited format (yes, plenty of edits over the years, some intentional, some not), whenever that might be, but when was that, likely after the invention of the printing press. Is that what John is referring to, or is something else going on. It’s worth a conversation, but I’m not sure a “God said. I believe it. That settles it.” framing is all that helpful. But I could be wrong.

    • Rena says:

      For mark van dyke
      Thank you.

  • Jack says:

    At last.
    Thank you.

  • William Harris says:

    The freedom with Scripture, the Word of God, is only found by Resurrection; dying and rising again does give a certain authority. Short of that, there is the matter of our discipleship, our practice of dying and resurrection. It is the following that matters, for by it we are planted by streams of living water (Ps 1:1).

  • Lisa Hansen says:

    Great questions at the end. Reminds me of Young Children in Worship and the need for us to wonder.

  • Valerie Van Kooten says:

    If the Word of God is “living and active,” as Hebrews 4:12 tells us, how could it be any other way? Things that are living grow, shed old layers, mature, and take on depth. Hallelujah for a book that has these qualities.

  • Kathy says:

    All I can say is that we can not make ourselves equal with God. We are not even close! Only God can change His written word in my opinion.

  • Frank says:

    Kinda of silly, Kindom? Kin need a King. Otherwise the inmates are running the asylum.
    I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion”…”Safe?” said Mr Beaver …”Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.

  • Katrina H says:

    This gets at something related I’ve often pondered regarding scripture. I’ve often wondered what faith looked like before Jesus, before the prophets, the for Moses, etc. Before Jesus, the Old testament was enough. What did Moses’ faith and walk with God look like before he received the ten commandments? How did the Jews follow God in daily life before Exodus?

    It’s a question I don’t ask too often, knowing I won’t really ever get much of an answer, and not wanting to confuse or thwart anyone’s faith. My only conclusion has been that their path of following God must have relied much more heavily on seeking God’s heart rather than on written words. I can see some gifting in that and I can also see how that must have been hard and created other difficulties.

Leave a Reply