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Jesus, Galileo, and the Interpretation of Scripture

In “Slavery, Circumcision, and the Subordinate Role of Women,” I had considered adding a paragraph on the topic of the present article. It was intended to help us understand how we ought or ought not interpret Scripture. I chose to omit it because I felt it would be too brief to be helpful and that it might take away from the thrust of the article. But it is a topic that is closely related to that subject. I am expanding it now because of the comments raised with hopes that this might further help to explain the point of my article.

We need to be conscious always that the Bible was written about events covering thousands of years, in many different cultures and societies, and by various prophets and writers. There were periods of darkness and periods of light—that’s how inspiration works.

The time of the flood was a lawless age. The Jews living as slaves in Egypt were not able to live the ideal Jewish life with their Sabbaths and lifestyle. The kind of laws they had before Sinai does not seem to have been clearly laid out or understood. The wilderness period was full of setbacks and apostasies. The period of the judges is well described by the last verse, Judges 21:25, “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.” The kingdom period had great apostasies and failures leading to the captivity of the Northern Kingdom by the Assyrians and later of Judah by the Babylonians. It is difficult for us to understand how they could apostatize to the point where they would worship images and fertility goddesses and partake in sexuality as part of religion. The period of the captivity was not conducive to great religious understanding. The return from captivity led to a return to the law with Ezra and Nehemiah but with the end of the prophetic period we have the intertestamental period when except for a short period Israel was again under the influence of pagan foreign powers, Greece and then Rome. God has to speak to people in these various cultures and situations and he uses prophets with various personalities and cultures with all their baggage.

We find as we study the people God used in the OT that they were flawed people like the rest of us. Noah became drunk, Moses was a murderer, Abraham was a prevaricator, Gideon distrusted God, and David committed adultery and murder.

God condescends to use earthen vessels to present himself to people and sometimes their limitations show in how they present God to us.

We should also keep in mind that there is development and understanding in scripture as time goes on. It is clear that sometimes people thought that if we did good, we would prosper and we did evil, we would suffer. But the book of Job set this straight that even the good suffer. It is clear there is development from the Old to the New Testament when the author of Hebrews writes, “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, … “ (Heb 1:1-2). Christ’s priesthood is superior to the Levitical priesthood since it is of the order of Melchizedek which comes “not through a legal requirement concerning physical descent, but through the power of an indestructible life” (Heb 7:16). Development is also seen with the establishment of a new covenant (Heb 8). But the greatest development is the understanding of the work of Christ with regard to sin, “Since the law has only a shadow of the good things to come and not the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered year after year, make perfect those who approach. Otherwise, would they not have ceased being offered, since the worshipers, cleansed once for all, would no longer have any consciousness of sin?” (Heb 10:1-3)

The fact that there is development shows that we cannot consider the Bible in regards to revelation as a flat or level plane—that is to say, we cannot just select any Scripture and consider it to be of the same value as any other passage from any place in the Bible. In the New Testament we have a better and clearer understanding of God’s plan.

What Solomon, David, and many others did does not mean that it is all right today. Because they sought blood revenge back then does not mean it is permissible today. Cities of refuge were set up so that accidental manslayers could find protection because blood revenge was practiced. We do not establish cities of refuge today. We’ve already mentioned slavery, circumcision, and the subordinate role of women in our previous article.

The greatest example of one who sees that what was valid in the past is not always valid was Jesus himself. In the Sermon on the Mount, he said, “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, “Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.” But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again anyone who says “Raca.” is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.’” Jesus is clearly saying that the morality of the Biblical past is insufficient for today.

The second thing that he elevates concerns adultery. It is not only necessary to avoid the actual physical act but one must not have the lust. The new morality goes beyond the act to the heart. He goes on to deal with divorce, oaths, an “eye for an eye” morality,” and loving our neighbor. Here we find that Jesus himself does not say that what is found in the Old Testament or previous practices are sufficient for his day and the future.

The greatest and most dramatic example that we need to move beyond the Bible in some things is the church’s encounter with Galileo.
 Richard Osborn sent me notes of a talk he has given in several places and contexts entitled, “The Case Against Galileo: Lessons for a 21st Century Church.” What he presents is germane to our topic and is included in our title, geocentricity. Here again the Bible was used (1 Chron 16:30; Josh 10:12-13; Ps 93:1) to support the position of those who opposed Galileo and Copernicus. We have to remember that the Bible was written in a pre-scientific period and that we should not use it to support ideas that are no longer valid as the church did in its conflict with Galileo. If we were living at the time of Galileo, it would have been difficult to go along with Galileo since the Bible was considered revelation and, therefore, a superior source than telescopes and scientific observation. Cardinal Bellarmine who was appointed to meet with Galileo responded, “Scripture is the immediately revealed word of God and was written as dictated by God. . . There can be no error in Scripture.” (Richard J. Blackwell, Galileo, Bellarmine, and the Bible, p. 31) Luther said, “This fool wishes to reverse the entire science of astronomy, but sacred Scripture tells us that Joshua commanded the sun to stand still, and not the earth.” (Jerome J. Langford, Galileo, Science, and Church, 3d ed., p. 35)

We assume that when the Bible says the sun rose or set that it is only speaking figuratively or visually and not literally as we do today but when it said that it meant exactly what the words signify. They thought the sun actually rose and set because the earth was the center of the universe and the sun circled the earth. They not only saw the sun rise, they actually believed it. 

This is really a test case of whether we take the Bible as a source of scientific knowledge or recognize that it was written without the kind of scientific information that we have available today. The people in Galileo’s day chose to follow the Bible as a source of scientific information and yet today everyone accepts Galileo’s observation that the sun revolves around the sun, even people who believe the Bible is literally a source for all truth.

God communicates with people in the situation where they are. The message that is essential does not change, that is, that God loves us and he want us to love one another. Whether the earth revolves around the sun or vice versa does not affect this truth.

Things have changed through the years. Jesus himself said, “But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you” (John 14:25). Some of these things apparently include the fact that circumcision will no longer be necessary for entrance into God’s church, and that slavery should be abolished, and I believe also that women should be considered equal with men.


My Response to Readers’ Critique of “Slavery, Circumcision, and the Ordination of Women

First of all, I want to thank all of those who responded negatively or positively to my article. It shows your active interest in the topic.

One criticism was that the analogy between the items mentioned was lacking. The criticism was, for example, that slavery was never a condition of membership, as circumcision was. The point of my presentation was to show that the analogy was the use of Scripture to defend these practices mentioned in the Bible. Scripture was used to defend slavery, circumcision and the subordinate role of women. And it seems to me that analogy is obvious.

One serious concern was that what I was doing put everything up in the air and threatens the inspiration and authority of Scripture. I think this is a perceptive and serious criticism. However, if this approach is valid, it means that Jesus should not have brought in the changes he called for, that circumcision should be maintained, and that slavery should be practiced today. Obviously, it should not be lightly and flippantly done but obviously it ought to be done with great thought and care and I think on this issue it is being seriously dealt with. 

Some mentioned that the biblical support against women’s ordination should be seriously considered and, therefore, women’s ordination should not be allowed. The point of the article was that sometimes biblical support is not adequate to maintain a practice which may be due to the culture of the time. Circumcision could not have had greater support yet it was not required for new Gentile Christians. It is ironical that Paul who is used as biblical support for women’s ordination today was the leading opponent of the biblical injunction to continue to circumcise those (the Gentiles) who were joining the church. In other words, Paul who is being used for biblical support of women’s ordination himself did not accept biblical support for the practice of circumcision. 

The recent actions by the Trans-European Division and the North American Division granting women the right to hold executive offices on the conference level are encouraging signs for the ordination of women. However, It points out the inconsistency of our position. A woman can lead ordained male ministers as president of the conference but herself cannot be ordained. Why is this? Although Scripture can be used to oppose this move, the focus has been so much on ordination that it has not been used here and thus it is acceptable. This kind of inconsistency cannot last long. 

Adventists are conservative and that leads to slowness in accepting changes. Adventists lag behind society in general in granting full equality. Persons of color were not allowed to eat in the Review and Herald cafeteria and elsewhere, were denied admittance to our hospitals, were not allowed to attend white churches in the South, were hardly represented in our white colleges. When I preached on this topic in June of 1964 at Andrews University’s Pioneer Memorial Church, it caused an uproar since it was considered meddling in politics. I was never invited to speak again at that venue.

I hope that we will not continue to institutionalize discrimination. My hope is that soon our church will grant women all rights that they give to men. Then maybe the church will benefit from one hundred percent of its membership and not limit the full power of God to less than half.

—Sakae Kubo received his Ph.D. in New Testament and early Christian literature from the University of Chicago and taught eighteen years at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University. He later served as dean of the School of Theology at Walla Walla College and as president of Newbold College in England. He is the author of several books, including A Beginner’s New Testament Greek Grammar.

Image: Artemisia Gentileschi, Jael and Sisera, 1620.

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