Tearing Down the Temple

Reactions to reading the book of Romans

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Friday, August 12, 2005

On skepticism

One of the most revealing things about skepticism is the way it can lay down roadblocks to belief, hurdles across which we must pass before belief can even be entertained. One of those, for me, involved the sequence of events in the first century. Somewhere I had read that the 53rd chapter of Isaiah (the Suffering Servant passage, Isaiah 52:13-53:11) was written and added to the Old Testament by Christians after Jesus’ death to give prophetic verisimilitude to the purported life of Jesus and support His claim to Messiahship. For me, it was a believable explanation: it had always seemed to me to be too patent, too convenient for Isaiah to have prophesied the Suffering Servant before a Messiah claimant who lived out that prophesy with such exactness. It had to be an emendation, a pious gloss by a later writer, so I thought.

I have long forgotten the source of that idea, but it was undoubtedly one of the many dead leaves that have fallen from the enormous tree of skeptical, critical scholarship that has emerged and blossomed in our time. The roots of that tree reach back into the 19th century (with the work of Feuerbach, J. G. von Herder, and others), but it has come to full flower in the 20th, and we have received the fruit of its work primarily as unbelief. This particular skepticism goes all the way back to the 1st century, and though long dead, it was puffed back into life in the time of Form Criticism’s vogue (early 20th Century writers Martin Dibelius & Rudolf Bultmann).

For decades, this idea was an obstacle to belief for me, never mind the avalanche of other prophetic utterances about the Messiah in the Old Testament that unquestionably predate Jesus. One of the books that survived the wreck of my late father’s massive personal library was F. F. Bruce’s Second Thoughts on the Dead Sea Scrolls (London: The Paternoster Press, 1956). One day, I picked this book up and idly mused about what Bruce, who was a respected and orthodox scholar, said about Isaiah. Imagine my astonishment when I read that there were numerous copies of Isaiah among the Dead Sea Scrolls, that they agree in large measure with our text, and that some were dated before 100 B.C. Moreover, some of those early Isaiah copies were complete; in particular, they included chapter 53.

At that moment, the light flooded in. The misapprehension I had labored under for so long was a lie. It had never been even a plausible misunderstanding. People who wanted Isaiah 53 to be a later emendation had concocted the lie, so that Jesus’ claim to the Messiahship would be weakened. Amazingly, this information on the Dead Sea Scrolls had been available for almost forty years before it finally reached me. Modern scholarship has not ceased teaching the lie yet (in that some scholars use this idea to justify a much later date for the Dead Sea Scrolls, e.g. A. Dupont-Sommer).

It was clear to me at that moment that since Isaiah 53 was authentic, that is, it predated Jesus, and because Jesus had fulfilled that Scripture in ways that could not have been contrived, Jesus was therefore the Messiah, exactly as claimed. There was no more reason to disbelieve the story. The worldview of the Bible was more correct than that of modern “scholarship,” and therefore the world in which I lived was suddenly very much larger than I had supposed.

Looking back on that realization, I see now that it was just a step in the process that began with the descent into apostasy, continued through agnosticism, fragmentary belief, liberalism, psychology, the “watchmaker” hypothesis (deism), to flower in true but tentative belief in God’s grace. Many doubts attended that progression, and many fruitless pursuits. My “dark night of the soul” lasted thirty years, while I tramped around in the desert of unbelief. I will write more about that later, but I have one report to make of it right now: it is God’s desert. Though I tried to escape Him, I escaped everything but Him.



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