The Jewishness of Jesus: Andy Stanley and why Christians can't 'unhitch' from the Old Testament

Popular US evangelical pastor Andy Stanley has reportedly said that Christians need to 'unhitch' the Old Testament from their faith. Whatever he meant by that, here's why the Jewishness of Scripture – and ultimately Jesus – can't be side-lined.

The Christian Post recorded Stanley, senior pastor of North Point community church, Georgia, as saying: '[1st century] church leaders unhitched the church from the worldview, value system, and regulations of the Jewish scriptures.

'Peter, James, Paul elected to unhitch the Christian faith from their Jewish scriptures, and my friends, we must as well.'

It was part of a sermon on Acts 15 and the importance of removing barriers to Christian faith for Gentile converts. Stanley apparently suggested that parts of the Old Testament – which he maintained is 'divinely inspired' – were prompting people to leave the faith today.

PixabayText from the Hebrew Bible.

'Jesus' new covenant, his covenant with the nations, his covenant with you, his covenant with us, can stand on its own two nail-scarred resurrection feet. It does not need propping up by the Jewish scriptures,' he said, adding that 'The Bible did not create Christianity. The resurrection of Jesus created and launched Christianity. Your whole house of Old Testament cards can come tumbling down.'

Stanley's comments have come under heavy fire on Twitter, with many alarmed at the pastor's apparent denigration of the Old Testament. Rachel Held Evans said that Stanley 'got this one very wrong', and Wesley Hill called the comments 'an absolute theological trainwreck'.

Some have attempted to defend Stanley, suggesting he's not been fairly presented by the recorded remarks. That may be possible: perhaps Stanley was making an important point but expressed it poorly. But the quoted comments don't sound excellent. Indeed as a caricature they present a very common way of thinking about the Bible – a cartoonish divide between the Old and New Testaments, with all that obscure 'Jewishness' superseded by Christ's universal New Covenant. It goes alongside a view of the Hebrew Bible's God as a vengeful, violent dictator versus the loving, all-accepting embrace of Jesus.

I interviewed renowned New Testament scholar NT Wright last month, and I think its safe to say he'd be screaming if he heard Stanley's comments. Wright's work has largely been about putting that 'Jewishness' of both Jesus and Paul back on the map, lest we imagine them as ahistorical figures who had nothing to do with the religious culture of which they were a part. The danger is not just reading the Bible anachronistically, but indeed being antisemitic.

In his words: 'Western culture still hasn't figured out who the Jews are and what we should think about them.

'Even though we know the horrible history of the 20th century particularly, that hasn't made it easier. Paul is right on the cusp of that, as himself a zealous Jew who believes himself to be a fulfilled Jew because he is following Israel's Messiah. What does that mean?

'So much of the later western tradition has screened out the Jewish bit, and Paul insists that we put it back in. Until we do that, we're not really tracking with the complexity, and hence for Paul the glory, of what he was talking about.'

You only have to glance at a modern day Bible, in which the New Testament represents just a slim portion, to think that 'unhitching' the Old Testament might be a little dubious. Granted, Stanley affirmed the Old Testament as 'inspired' and 'a means to an extraordinary end'. But he also called the Jewish scriptures 'the backstory for the main story', which is partially true but misleading.

For a contemporary example, consider the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), which dramatically culminated (but didn't conclude) with the epic superhero crossover event Avengers: Infinity War last month. It's a film where the prelude is essential: if you haven't seen any of the 18 films prior you will be confused and probably unsatisfied. You won't just miss 'backstory', but the essential drama, the key characters and conflicts that make the story meaningful.

In a sense Infinity War is the main event of the MCU, just as Christ's new covenant is clearly the heart of Christianity, its central drama. But in both cases, 'unhitching' the prelude is just...wrong. It's the narrative equivalent of sawing off the branch you're sitting on. For Paul there was no 'backdrop' followed by 'main event': there was just one drama – a God who, through all the troubling particularities of history, fulfils his promises to humankind. The Gentiles weren't included at the expense of Old Testament law, but in fulfillment of it. 

(North Point Community Church)Megachurch Pastor Andy Stanley.

Skipping on the extra reading might make things simpler, but investing in it ultimately makes the story richer and deeper. All readers bring their own biases to any text or tale, that's inevitable. What isn't inevitable is our forcing of our paradigms on that story, shaping it to mean what we want it to mean, what makes sense and is palatable to us. Such an approach is easy, but for the Christian who believes that in Scripture he hears God's word, it must be resisted.

It might be tempting to try and streamline parts of the Bible that seem to confusing or troubling for newcomers, and it's perhaps not always wrong. But if you try and 'unhitch' the gospel from its Jewish roots, you'll leave converts thoroughly confounded, because the Bible just is so inescapably Jewish. The language, the history, the ethics, the drama of exile and the eschatological hope – strip that out and what's left? 

Stanley's comments perhaps suggest the tension within the Christian creed: it preaches a universal gospel of salvation free to all, but that story doesn't just float over time, or only begin with Jesus – it's rooted in one long story of profound particularity: a man, a nation, a Rabbi, a 1st-century church and all that has followed. Don't settle for anything less.

You can follow @JosephHartropp on Twitter

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