The Teleotheistic Achievement of the New Testament

Jack Miles won a Pulitzer Prize for his book God: A Biography. By the “biography” of God, he means in this case the character development of God one sees if one reads the Hebrew Bible as a piece of literature. Since there is a significant chronological element to the arrangement of books within the Tanakh, this character development within the Hebrew Bible read as literature follows to an important degree the evolution of thought about the character of God among the Israelites. This evolution of thought about the character of God is of great importance because over time, the concept of God has come closer to being a picture of an ideal character to strive after. In Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity, this evolution of thought about the character of God continued after the books of the Tanakh had all been written. The details were different within Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity, but in both cases God became more and more representative of an ideal.   

In “Teleotheism and the Purpose of Life,” I write:

The key difference between evolution as our creator and the god of the Bible is that with evolution the best comes at the end, not at the beginning.  There was no Garden of Eden—only primordial soup in a warm pond.   But heaven is still possible; we and our descendants just need to build it.
The first task is to decide what we want.  The medieval theologian Anselm defined God as “that than which no great can be thought” and proceeded to argue that God must exist since something that exists is greater than something that doesn’t exist.  Therefore, the greatest of all things must exist.   It is my understanding that modern philosophers reject Anselm’s argument on the basis that “existence” is not an ordinary attribute like being massive or being photosynthetic.  Existence has a special status in logic.  So let me do a riff on Anselm by defining God as “the greatest of all things that can come true.”  God is the heaven—or in Mormon terms, the Zion, the ideal society—that we and our descendants can build, and god is a reasonable description of the kind of people who make up that society.   But what does a heavenly society look like?
Let’s start with the easier question of what an ideal human being looks like.   Here I look to Jesus.  Not the historical Jesus, but the imagined Jesus who is the projection of every good human trait, as valued by our culture.  It makes all the sense in the world to ask “what would Jesus do” even if one believes that the historical Jesus was only a man, since “what would Jesus do” is a good shorthand for what our culture thinks a good person would do.  This is an example of the way in which many of the highest ideas of goodness in Western Culture are embedded in religious language.

Since it is very hard to build God without having a reasonably clear of what one is trying to build, the evolution of the idea of God toward something better is a key step on the path that may someday bring what can reasonably be called God or Gods and Heaven into full existence. So from the standpoint of Teleotheism, the character development of God seen as a literary character is a sketch of the road to pursue in reality.

Aside from its pairing with the New Testament, the Old Testament is a slightly modified and rearranged version of the Tanakh. The books of the Old Testament and Tanakh promise over and over again that God will eventually come in power to rescue Israel from foreign subjugation. By the time of Jesus, the fulfillment of this promise already seemed long delayed, and persuasive excuses for the delay were running out. Amazingly, Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity found two different ways to explain why God allowed the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, and the crushing of the Bar Kokhba revolt in 135 AD. (These events can be appropriately compared in their psychological impact to Hitler’s murder of millions of Jews many centuries later. The number who died in the siege of Jerusalem in 70 AD was high because the Romans chose a time when Jews had gathered in Jerusalem from all around the Roman world and beyond.) Here I will only talk about the explanation given by Christian writers in the New Testament. (I hope to do a post some day about the explanation given by Rabbinic Judaism.)

I will follow closely Jack Miles’s literary interpretation of the New Testament in Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God. (Hat tip to John L. Davidson for recommending this book, in reaction to my post “The Mormon View of Jesus.”) Here is a hint of what Jack means by a literary interpretation, beginning on page 276 of the book: 

Meanwhile, general literary criticism, weary of its own demystification of the author, has begun to place a new emphasis on the work as a work and on the value of cultivating an aesthetic response to it. It has begun to move, in a word, to a new emphasis on beauty. 

Jack uses the metaphor of a rose window to contrast a literary interpretation with historical criticism: literary criticism is looking at the rose window; historical criticism is trying to look through the rose window.   

The historical criticism of the Bible–a process that I have compared to the examination of a rose window, pane by pane, for signs of the absence of stain–may yet prove a paradoxically good preparation for this old/new kind of criticism, for, obviously, if you have checked every pane hoping to find one without stain, you end up knowing something about every pane as well as a great deal about stain. Traditional Bible scholars, though their research has almost always been at least nominally in the service of history, have, de facto, studied the development of images and motifs, noted allusions, explicit and implicit, and performed a thousand other services crucial to the literary appreciation of the Bible–so much so, indeed, that some of what is offered as literary criticism by those who lack their training and have not combed through the text as meticulously as they have may quite understandably strike them as too simple-minded for serious comment. But rather than dismiss literary criticism as sciolist dilettantism, historically trained critics could become literary critics themselves and try to improve the neighborhood. 

Jack Miles argues that the New Testament was written in the first instance for the Greek-speaking Jews of the Diaspora, who were deeply steeped in the words of the Septuagint–the Greek Old Testament. For someone steeped in the Septuagint, what the New Testament portrays is God thinking better of his former warlike ways, and unwilling to come in power until the very end of the world. Knowing the future–that the Jews would continue to be under subjugation to the Romans until even worse befell them–God became a man to suffer along with his people, and to suffer crucifixion in advance of the great suffering the Jews would suffer in the First and Second Jewish-Roman Wars. Only by suffering himself could God justify his decision to allow the Jews to suffer under the Romans and to be slaughtered by the Romans in the Jewish-Roman wars without intervening.

The literary achievement of the New Testament is in part that the willingness of God become man to suffer and die helped to reconcile the readers of the New Testament to God’s unwillingness to free the Jews from subjugation to the Romans (as God had been unwilling to free the Jews from many previous masters). And of course, the claim that by that suffering and death, God had conquered and reversed death itself also helped greatly. 

But now let me step back from the direct literary interpretation of the New Testament, which treats its account as if it were true. I want to talk about what was accomplished historically by this powerhouse of religious literature. It made the image of God better (as Rabbinic Judaism did in another way). Here are some of the virtues exhibited by that Jesus, the God of the New Testament:     

  1. Accountability: The greatest of all is willing to suffer along with his people. This helped greatly in the idea that even kings were not above being questioned and subject to laws.  
  2. Peacableness: Jesus exhibited nonviolence again and again. 
  3. Intellectuality: Jesus spent time expounding scripture, indicating the importance of the written word. 
  4. Love: Instead of victory over enemies, the sign of God’s people was to be the fact that they loved one another, and even loved their enemies.   

This is an image of God that I can endorse. Even in a world that, as I believe, has no supernatural power to turn to, we can all strive to exhibit such virtues, and to build a world in which it will be easier for other people to gain and exercise them.  

I do not think the New Testament image of God is the final word even in goodness. Indeed, I think that the Jesus people refer to nowadays when they ask the question “What would Jesus do?” is better than the Jesus portrayed in the New Testament. But the image of God in the New Testament was a huge advance over what came before, as also the God of Rabbinic Judaism was a huge advance over the image of God before that time. It is important for us to continue to refine our image of what an ideal human being and an ideal human society are as a key step toward making those ideals a reality.