The view amongst the Jewish leaders of the 1st century was that the study of the scriptures earned the student eternal life. This idea was preserved in early Jewish writing – let’s take a look at a couple of examples:
In the Mishnah, a Jewish code of rules written at the end of the 2nd century CE1, we find the following:
[If] one has gotten a good name, he has gotten it for himself. [If] he has gotten teachings of Torah, he has gotten himself life eternal. – m. Pirqe Abot 2:7 C–D2
This idea was not a flash in the pan – it can also be found in the Babylonian Talmud, completed around 600 CE3:
The distinctive trait of study of the Torah is that it leads to eternal life. – b. Ber. 21A4
It’s most likely that this view of the Law is the background to a few verses in John 5. In that chapter we find Jesus in discussion with “the Jews” (v18-19) – the gospel writer’s term for the Jewish leadership in opposition to Jesus5– and this is what he had to say to them:
You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life. – Jn 5:39–40
The Jewish leaders Christ was debating would have found this quite insulting; he was accusing them of completely missing the point of the scriptures they’d been diligently examining their whole lives.
Christ’s point was this: they were looking for life and expected to find it in the Law, but they were looking in the wrong place. The Bible they searched is not the source of life; instead, it points to the source of life – Christ. As Christ explained, “it is they [the scriptures] that testify on my behalf.”
Why would Christ tell them that he, not the Law, was the source of life? The answer may lie in the opening of the book of Hebrews:
Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. – Heb 1:1–3
The passage describes a progression: God first communicated his message in lots of different ways to “the ancestors” – events even the author of Hebrews considered to have happened “long ago”. Then, in the era of the book of Hebrews, God communicated through his own son. Jesus, the “exact imprint” of God, was a superior revelation of God than the scriptures contained.
Quite simply, if we want to know God then we get a better picture of him in Jesus than we do in the Bible – and that’s a Biblical teaching!
However, it wouldn’t take much more than a moment’s reflection to notice the paradoxical nature of this idea – how can we know Jesus without learning about him by reading the Bible? We’re being asked to appreciate and learn from the perfect revelation of God… through a limited revelation of God! That is our lot.
Back in the day this would not have been a problem for Christ’s disciples – they were with him. They heard his words, saw his actions, and spend time with the exact imprint of God’s very being. We however are not in the same privileged position.
Because the Bible is so readily available and because Jesus is out of sight it is easy for us to fall into the same trap as did those Jesus castigated for looking for life in the wrong place. If reading and study of the scriptures becomes an end in itself, if the Bible becomes an idol by making claims of it it cannot carry, if we prioritize prognosticating from its pages over caring for the poor, we risk looking for life in the wrong place. We may miss what the very book we read points to – a homeless, itinerant, teacher; the Son of the Living God.
So, let us study the scriptures, not forgetting that the express image of God sits enthroned in glory, not leather-bound on our laps.
- “Let me now briefly describe the Mishnah. It is a six-part code of descriptive rules formulated toward the end of the second century A.D. by a small number of Jewish sages and put forth as the constitution of Judaism under the sponsorship of Judah the Patriarch, the head of the Jewish community of Palestine at the end of that century.” Jacob Neusner, The Mishnah : A New Translation (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1988), xv.
- Ibid., 676.
- “Of the two Talmuds, the Talmud of the Land of Israel of ca. 400 C.E. and the Talmud of Babylonia of 600 C.E., the latter is by far the more important, and when people speak of the Talmud, they mean only the Talmud of Babylonia.” Jacob Neusner, The Babylonian Talmud: A Translation and Commentary (vol. 1; Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2011), xxviii.
- Ibid., 133.
- “…those who are in opposition to Jesus, with special focus on hostility emanating from leaders in Jerusalem, center of Israelite belief and cult…” William Arndt et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 479.