This is the second post in a series from Dr Les Hardin, the first, “An Open Letter to Christians Who Don’t Read the Bible” can be found here.
First, A Word
I was sitting around reading the Talmud the other day, because I’ve got that kind of time and I’m just that spiritual. Nah. Neither of those things is true (Just ask my dean!). In fact, reading the Talmud makes me think of Luke’s description of the riot in Ephesus: “Most people didn’t even know why they were there” (Acts 19:32).
There’s a well-known story in tractate Shabbat about a man asking Rabbi Hillel to teach him the entire Law while standing on one foot. Hillel responded, “What is hateful to you, don’t do to others. That’s the whole Law. The rest is commentary.” What’s not well-known is the story right before this one, the account of someone posing a similar question to Rabbi Shammai, who beat him with a stick for asking it.
These two stories give us pause for the way we read, understand, and teach the Bible. Hillel’s approach is the way of boiling the Law down into a single, palatable nugget, an attempt to help people understand what the Law was really all about. Even Jesus summarized all of the commands of the Law in two simple principles: “Love God and love your neighbor” (Mark 12:29-31).
But if we’re not careful, we can reduce the Word of God so drastically that it loses or even betrays the message. This is seemingly what Shammai was concerned about. And right now, believers are doing this more and more. We lift single verses of Scripture from their context, paint them with stunning backgrounds, and suggest that the counsel of God is summarized in that single verse. I see it increasingly in what I call “one-word spirituality,” the practice of divining a message from God from a single word revealed to a speaker. I once attended an event in which the speaker said, “When I was thinking about what to preach tonight, I asked God to give me a word, and the word he wants me to give you is ‘green.’ And that means that God wants you to grow!” I think to myself, “The word ‘green’ stands for lots of things. Maybe God wants me to be jealous. Or naïve. Or carbon-neutral. Or rich!” (Okay, that “green” thing was a bit facetious. Nobody ever said “green.” I’ve changed the supposedly-given word to soften the blow a bit.) This kind of preaching draws from the whims of the human heart, not from the counsel of God, and I’m not sure I can trust it. After all, Jeremiah reminds me that there’s nothing in the universe as deceitful as the human heart (Jer. 17:9).
Perhaps summarizing the contents of the entire Bible is helpful for someone who doesn’t know, someone who’s struggling. As a launching point, a summary is a helpful tool, a lightning rod drawing energy from surrounding material.
But to summarize something, you have to know it through and through. And that’s the part of Jesus’ Bible-reading habits that needs attention.
Jesus and The Word
I discovered this when I was writing a book called The Spirituality of Jesus (Kregel, 2009) and tracking the kinds of texts that Jesus quoted from, alluded to, and parabled. Jesus wasn’t the kind of person who knew certain parts of the Bible. He knew it well. He knew it all. And he knew, not just what it said, but in what direction it was driving.
Coming to understand how Jesus knew his Bible is fraught with a host of historical problems, not the least of which is how he came to know the Scriptures. We’ve mostly just assumed that because he was divine that he already knew the text intimately. As one of my recent students admitted, “I always thought that Jesus would automatically know it. After all, Jesus is God and God is omniscient.” But the mystery of Jesus “emptying himself” (Phil. 2:7) to become human means that he didn’t have the Bible downloaded Matrix-style into his brain. Luke tells us that he was continually learning (2:40, 52) and spent a lifetime doing so.
There are a host of problematic historical questions tied to the issue of how Jesus knew the Scriptures. Did he learn it at a school? Or did he learn it at home? Or in the synagogue? When he learned it, did he learn by reading and writing? Or did he hear it and consider it “read” (like the way I claim to have read the latest Stephen King novel when I really listened to it on audio)? These are hard questions, and if you follow the Cheshire Cat down that hole, the adventures will be strange and exhilarating.
How Jesus came to know the content of Scripture is not as important at this moment as the comprehensiveness of Scripture that he knew. When I scour the Gospels looking for evidence of Jesus’ bible-reading habits, it’s clear that Jesus knew his bible. The breadth of his knowledge of the OT was incredibly impressive. He knew lots of it, not just a few favored verses. Certainly more than a word.
When we peruse the Gospels looking for evidence of Jesus’ interaction with his bible (not Matthew’s citations proving Jesus’ fulfillment of Scripture, or John’s allusions to what Jesus meant, but Jesus’ actual quotes) we find some surprising things. We find him quoting Exodus, Deuteronomy, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Zechariah, Malachi, Hosea, the Psalms (if judging by frequency, his favorite book) with further clear allusions to texts from Genesis, Leviticus, Numbers, 1-2 Kings, Daniel, Ezekiel, Micah, Jonah and 1-2 Chronicles. In one place he’s able to quickly summarize about fourteen chapters of Genesis with a comprehensive “Abraham did not do such things” (John 8:40).
Jesus also knew the difference between the content of scripture and the popular traditions about scripture. He knew the difference between the “traditions of men” and the “commands of God” (Mk. 7:8, Matt. 15:6). Popular traditions (sometimes inferences about God and life derived from interpreting the commandments) were often equated with the Law itself, and the two (commandments and traditions) are often lumped together in the phrase “the Law.” It’s hard to sort out in places like Galatians and Romans. (And if you don’t believe me, read N. T. Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God. It won’t really prove my point, but it will take you three months to read it and by the time you’re done, you will have forgotten all about me.)
Here’s my point: Jesus didn’t have a one-verse or “one word from God” mentality. Jesus wanted to know God at the deepest level. And that only came by knowing the Word of God through and through.
Jesus, The Word
This is why summaries and “one-word spirituality” makes me edgy. The nugget is usually vague, a word without context, and is often devoid of any overt connection to the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Jesus, Paul, Peter, and John. It’s not unlike those cheeky Christian slogans you see floating all over social media (you know, the ones that boil the faith down to a single, fuzzy platitude): simple, trite, and devoid of power. As Paul would say (and yes, I’m about to quote a single verse, and it will be completely in context with the historical realities and driving force of the context), “having the appearance of righteousness, but empty of its true power” (2 Tim. 3:5).
I don’t want the chicken nuggets—the better parts chopped up, compressed, and given to me in bite-size portions. What’s more, I don’t want to be the kind of person who’s content with that—the little bits, un-nutritious, unfulfilling. I want the whole meal. I want to be the kind of person who enjoys taking the time to prepare it, offer it to my family, friends, and students, and relishes it with them. I don’t want a single verse from Jeremiah. I want the whole book, difficult as it is to encounter en toto.
I don’t want “a word” from God. I want all the words from God. And I’ll take all the words from God I can get my hands on.
Dr. Les Hardin
Professor of New Testament
Johnson University Florida
 The Babylonian Talmud records it this way: “Six hundred and thirteen commandments were revealed to Moses … David came and comprehended them in eleven (Ps. 15) …Then Isaiah came and comprehended them in six (Is. 33:15) … Then Micah came and comprehended them in three (Mic. 6:8) … Then Isaiah came again, and comprehended them in two (Is. 56:1). Finally Amos came and comprehended them in one: Seek me and you shall live (Amos 5:4).” –b.Makkot 24a.
 For a detailed analysis of these citations and allusions, see The Spirituality of Jesus, pp. 52-70, and the literature cited there.