Recently I enjoyed the latest movie version of Coriolanus. Because aristocratic Coriolanus was overly proud and stubbornly inflexible, he failed to grasp the real needs of the Roman populace. His obstinacy led to a tragic downfall. This contemporary version, like another Shakespeare favorite, Richard III with Ian McKellen, successfully transported historical themes into contemporary relevance. Such great stories survive retelling. Their archetypal characters, universal themes and abiding lessons successfully transfer between epochs, adapt to new locations and adjust to contemporary situations.
Early Christians too brought great historical stories to their new convictions: stories that had preceded Jesus. Matthew, for example presented Jesus as a revitalized Moses who completed revelations from the Torah. He showed how the new faith emerged with fresh expectations and a novel sense of liberation. But he also showed how it consistently remained within established Jewish law and practices.
Bishop Spong demonstrates how Matthew used Jewish story telling traditions (see, http://johnshelbyspong.com). He points out, for example that the sections that divide up the Sermon of the Mount resemble the eight Biblical passages that were read at Shavuot (the origin of Pentecost). And Matthew is very clear about the intention of his message when his Jesus declares, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5.17). Matthew also claimed that only Jesus could enlighten the full, true meaning of commandments: adultery, for example is not just the act itself—it begins with lustful thoughts. Because they were familiar with reliable ancient references, early Christian Jews understood how their ancient stories carried nonphysical and metaphorical meanings that now often evade us.
Jewish story telling traditions live on. In the movie “Late Marriage”, the Jewish groom at his wedding celebration challenged anyone to present to him a more beautiful woman than his bride. No one came forward. Then he embarrassed his father by bringing him forward, and asked him, “Are you married to the most beautiful woman in the room? To which his father gladly replied, “Of course”. We might ruefully appreciate his point, but early Christian gentiles could not handle enigmatic Jewish nuances. They concretized allegorical revelations with the notion that unless they believed them as absolute historical facts, they could not be true.
According to Christine Hayes, the Robert F. and Patricia Ross Weis Professor of Religious Studies at Yale University (see, http://oyc.yale.edu/religious-studies/rlst-145/lecture-19#ch3), the Hebrew Bible’s authority does not derive from consistency. Consistency is a more modern notion based on the Greek philosophical ideal that truth should be explained from one ultimately overriding principle. But Jewish Biblical sages did not seek to portray ultimate truth. Over many centuries, the Hebrew Bible accumulated the best efforts of prophets and visionaries to record various responses to puzzling events. Their interpretations reveal developing understandings; their emphasis shifts, and explanations contradict each other. But that does not matter, because authority lay solely in God’s covenant with his people; not in human attempts to figure it all out.
Similarly, our personal covenants can be with the great timeless and omnipresent principles of justice, freedom and care. Texts and dogmas might augment this primary commitment, but it behooves us to avoid the pitfalls of Coriolanus, who tragically ignored his mother’s warning, “You are too absolute”.