The Problem with Biblical Literalism

Every three years, preachers get the chance to chuckle at poor Matthew’s interpretation of the prophet Zechariah.  We laugh because we’ve all been there before.  In attempting to interpret and understand texts written by people who lived long ago in vastly different cultures and contexts than our own, we are bound to make mistakes every once in a while.  Matthew’s account of Palm Sunday is our cautionary tale.

When Jesus and his disciples had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, ‘Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me…’ This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,

 ‘Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’

The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them.”

Tradition tells us that Matthew was a tax collector.  Hebrew by birth, his education and working environment were distinctly Roman and his preferred language was probably Greek.  Whether or not you actually believe that Matthew the Apostle was also Matthew the Evangelist, the attribution of Matthew to this Gospel tells us somethings about the community in which it was used.  It was most likely a Greek speaking, Gentile church.  Their understanding of the Hebrew scriptures would have been limited and certainly come from the Septuagint.  Like many Christians today, they would have had little ability to understand the nuances of Hebrew prophetic poetry.

So when “Matthew” took Mark’s version of Palm Sunday and tried to spell out for his community why these details were important, he misunderstood Zechariah’s parallelism and read the prophecy literally, which meant that in order to fulfill this prophecy, Jesus had to enter Jerusalem on a donkey and her foal.

A rare photograph, taken by Matthew, of Jesus’ triumphal entry

In order for an evangelist to make sense of the Biblical narrative for his/her hearer, it is imperative that (s)he work hard to understand the original context.  It opens the text and allows it to come alive for modern hearers.  By seeing how our particular context differs from that of the original biblical story, we can begin to see how these stories can continue to speak to our lives even thousands of years later.  Of course, it takes time and energy to do that research, and preachers tend to have very little of both by the time Lent 5 rolls around.  I’m praying for my preaching readers especially this week, that they might have the time to look deep into the text and make the story of Jesus alive for their congregations this week.

*This post isn’t possible without the work of Carl Gregg on Patheos.

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