Torah, Prophets and Scribes

For a theologian, I'm on a pretty heavy Bible kick lately. Part of which is working in Barth's CD III -- as he says, it'd be nice to be able to rely on Bible folks, but sometimes to do theology we simply have to make our own way as amateurs.

"They were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes." Mk. 1:22

"... a prophet like me from among your own people." Deut. 18:15

Surely, in today's readings, the wisdom of mother church means us to see Jesus in this role. But this promise to Moses is fulfilled in every generation. God's word does not sit idle -- but we fear to hear it directly. We fear the immediate presence of God -- and rightly so! And so God has said, "Fine; here's the deal."

And the deal is that God will use a mouthpiece from then forward. God will speak through a mediator. God will raise up one who will speak for God, an oracle and interpreter, and God's word will come to you from your own mouths.

And so we haven't escaped the presence of God -- just some of the terrifying immediacy. And we haven't really decreased the likelihood of our own death -- but then, God didn't aim to kill us in the first place. And in this way, an individual takes up greater responsibility and risk at God's choice, in order to ensure that the people may not suffer consequences at God's hand without warning. In this way, God ensures that the people will still hear -- whether or not they obey. The redeemed people remain responsible to their covenant master for their actions in the world. The prophet is simply the channel for instruction.

And Mark shows us what the people will come to think of Jesus -- that he is the Mosaic prophet for this generation. One who does not simply tend the flame of the words already given; one who is vested with the divine means of new words. One who gives instruction as Moses did -- but one whose Torah is not adapted Pharisaically from Moses and the earlier prophets.

If we understood it, this is what the prophet does: to deliver instruction, to teach the people toward life in God and away from death at the hands of the world. The prophet does not give "law" -- Torah is not nomos, not a code of cultural behavior to which conformity is expected. Torah is not principally a thing that requires new interpretation for each succeeding generation. Torah is instruction. Its most basic sense is immediate, and this is what Moses and the prophets give. Only afterward does it become a code, a body of rules to be followed and adapted to new circumstances. The scribe interprets Torah -- the prophet interprets God.

The scribe is the unity of "Torah and the prophets" as a body of teaching. And Paul is such a scribe, and so is Matthew. Both of them are deeply concerned with being good scribes, faithful scribes in the wake of a true prophetic Torah. Scribes whose criteria for adapting the old come not from the situation of life in their culture, or some authority derived from nomos, but the authority of the given new words of God as instruction handed down for this generation. And in the light of this new instruction, we make carefully evaluative use of the old.

But how do we know a new teaching when we find it? How did Jesus' audience know "a new teaching, with authority"? How do we identify a prophet -- even after the fact? This is the role of exousia, of dynamis -- because the words of God come with the power of God, the presence of God that does what it promises.


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