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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.
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.