CADRE Comments

A Rational Look at Christianity; Basing Reason in Truth

Before the rise of historical criticism, one of the most widely used arguments in support of Christianity was fulfilled prophecy. In the apostolic and patristic period this was not limited to direct predictions from the Hebrew Bible of the Messiah's origin and activities, but included typological foreshadowing of the life of Jesus in biblical narratives: the story of Isaac carrying the wood for his own sacrificial fire, for example, anticipated the time when another 'beloved son' would carry his wooden crossbeam to the place of sacrifice. Before the so-called 'grammatical' or 'plain' meaning of the biblical text came to be privileged as a result of the Reformation, readers of the Bible had no problem believing that the texts carried additional, divinely inspired meanings that could be uncovered through careful (we would say imaginative) investigation. As James Kugel elegantly shows (see How to Read the Bible, pp. 1-46), this approach to the interpretation of Scripture goes back to the inter-testamental period and carried over into Christian exegesis. Patristic biblical commentary is full of alleged correspondences between the biblical stories and the story of Jesus, most of which would strike the modern reader as entirely fanciful. Today even among Protestants who agree that the Bible is divinely inspired this method has fallen out of favor. At most inspiration extends to prophecies of specific events in the Hebrew Bible which were fulfilled in the life of Jesus.

In his first book on apologetics, Gospel Mysteries, internet apologist Darek Barefoot argues that there are in fact typological correspondences between biblical narratives and the life of Jesus which are so precise and which draw from sources and symbolism so disparate that they cannot be explained by coincidence, deliberate imitation or conspiracy, and in fact are evidence of the divine inspiration of Scripture. Acutely aware that others have purported to find esoteric codes in the Bible, and that the church fathers themselves often went too far in their allegorical exegesis (pp. 1-2), Barefoot attempts to make his analysis objective by proposing specific criteria for identifying such correspondences, which he then applies in a series of fascinating chapters each focusing on a different biblical figure or story.

Barefoot suggests that in order to identify a genuine typological correspondence, one cannot stop at the level of general similarity or correspondence between two passages. We can only plausibly attribute a correspondence to the intention of the author-whether of a book, poem, screenplay, etc.-when the latter includes a clear identifier or marker that explains the significance of the correspondence and verifies its presence in the text. Barefoot uses the example of Elia Kazan's On the Waterfront and its use of the image of hawks preying on pigeons as a symbol of the oppression of dock workers by union bosses. We know that the symbolism is deliberate because the screenwriter directly makes that connection through a comment by the protagonist, Terry Malloy, several frames evocative of the picture Malloy describes of hawks perched "at the tops of big hotels" and a scene in which one of the bosses calls a recalcitrant dock worker "that little pigeon" that "ought to have its neck wrung". We can see from this example that in other texts we are often capable of identifying foreshadowing or symbolism that was deliberately used by the author, but only when the proper symbol identifiers are in place.

Of course skeptical readers of the Bible will be reluctant to think of it as having one author, so Barefoot adds additional criteria designed to allay concerns that the correspondence might be just coincidence or wishful thinking: the typological correspondences throughout Scripture must show economy of distribution, interconnectedness and purposefulness, all of which he thinks are satisfied by the Hebrew Bible's allusions to Jesus. In order to add further objectivity he proposes that the same tests could be applied to other sacred scriptures to see if they contain purposeful patterns that could only be orchestrated by a divine intelligence.

Barefoot's proposal is bold and fascinating. He is certainly correct that while typological readings have featured prominently throughout church history, the material has never before been assembled into a book-length argument as he presents it here. If readers can even get beyond the initial implausibility (at least to modern minds) of looking for supernatural coded symbolism in the Bible, this kind of project can only be evaluated by looking at the specific correspondences the author identifies as a result of close reading of the texts. This is impossible to do in the space of a book review, especially since the proposed correspondences are so many and so elaborate and depend on such wide-ranging analysis of Scriptural symbolism. That is not to say that the book is obscure or confusing. On the contrary, Barefoot is an exceptionally clear, elegant, concise writer and his scriptural exegesis is never short of illuminating.

Perhaps one example of his method will have to suffice as an invitation for readers to pick up the book and decide for themselves. Barefoot finds a typological correspondence between Moses' audience with God at the burning bush and the kinds of signs that the Messiah would be expected to perform. He begins by noting Moses' prophecy in Deuteronomy that God would "raise up for you a prophet like me from among your brothers" (Deut. 18:15) and that the Gospels all draw parallels between Moses and Jesus to varying degrees. This serves a justification to look more closely for typology. At the burning bush God gives Moses three signs to perform in order to prove to the Israelites that God had sent him. First God commands Moses to throw down his staff, which turns into a snake. God then has Moses grab the snake by the tail, at which point it turns back into a staff. Second, God tells Moses to put his hand in his cloak. When he takes it out again, it is white with leprosy. When Moses puts the hand back in the cloak and takes it out again, the leprosy is gone. These two signs are paired, but God also gives Moses a third to perform just in case the other two don't convince the Israelites: to take water from the Nile and pour it out on the ground, where it would turn to blood. (Exodus 4: 1-9)

Barefoot finds a correspondence between these signs and the signs Jesus performed during his ministry. Moses' control over the snake symbolizes Jesus' trampling of Satan through exorcism and the defeat of demonically-induced disease. There are several symbol identifiers that confirm this interpretation, including Jesus' promise to his disciples to give them power to 'trample' on "snakes and scorpions" and "all the power of the Enemy" (Luke 10: 19-20) and the picture of God "throwing down" the king of Tyre, an image of Satan, "to the earth" (Ezekiel 28: 14-17), which uses the exact same terms in Hebrew as in Exodus for Moses' casting down of his serpent-rod to the ground. The manifestation and then cure of leprosy symbolizes Jesus' healing ministry as well as his authority to forgive sins, since sin is often compared to leprosy in the Hebrew Bible (e.g. Isaiah 1:6) and biblical characters were occasionally punished with leprosy as a result of their transgressions, including Miriam the sister of Moses (Numbers 12: 1-10). The third sign, pouring water on the ground that turns into blood, symbolizes the refreshing power of the divine teaching which Jesus poured out onto the world, culminating in the shedding of his blood for spiritual cleansing and renewal (see for example John 4:10; 7:38).

This example is backed up by much more close reading and exegesis so it would be a mistake to take my brief summary as the strongest case for identifying this as a typological correspondence. As I said, this project can only be evaluated through a careful study of the author's exegesis. Personally I found many of the examples quite striking and hard to explain either by coincidence, deliberate manufacturing by the biblical writers or wishful thinking. As Barefoot continually argues, it is improbable to say the least that documents written over such a wide period of time and in such different cultures by authors of such varying background and means could align so closely to give such a detailed, interconnected portrait of Jesus. In the stories of Jacob, Joseph, Moses, David and other biblical figures there are episodes that beautifully anticipate the life and ministry of Jesus.

That is not to say that all the proposed examples are equally convincing or that all careful readers will be convinced by the overall case. Ironically, one factor that may stand in the way of Christians accepting Barefoot's argument, especially apologists, is that we are so often trying to deflect charges that the early Christians simply invented the life of Jesus out of thin air, drawing their 'inspiration' from the Hebrew Bible and even Homer. Barefoot is aware of such efforts by the likes of Randall Helms (p.6) and Dennis Macdonald (pp.91-93) but insists that his own typological analysis is not only objective but reveals correspondences too disparate in time and space to be accounted for by deliberate imitation and fiction. More than a few readers, however, might be tempted to apply Barefoot's criticism of Macdonald to his own work: "Narrative elements that do not contribute to a fit between compared passages are skipped over, regardless of their prominence in context. Once a rough correspondence is constructed any further shared characteristics are expounded. Dissimilarities are rationalized as changes the borrowing author made to accomodate the original story to his own purposes." (p.92) I do not think this criticism would be valid, for the most part, but Barefoot makes such a striking claim for divine inspiration and one so unusual in this day and age that skepticism is understandable.

Regardless of whether Barefoot's argument actually convinces the reader that there is supernatural typology in the Bible (this reader is provisionally convinced, pending further thought and investigation), the book is well worth reading for its rich discussion of passages which often get passed over and its revelation of the profundity of biblical symbolism. Barefoot displays an impressive command of biblical Hebrew and Greek as well as secondary literature. He knows the Bible inside and out, and insights leap off every page. One of my personal favorites is Barefoot's discussion of how donkey symbolism is often used of the Hebrew prophets. Prophetic books are often introduced by saying that 'the word of the Lord came to so and so', but the word translated as 'word' is actually more accurately translated as 'burden' (massa), such as a donkey might bear. The prophets were literally God's donkeys, carrying His burdens to an unbelieving people (the prophets were also ridiculed, the people 'made an ass of them' as we would say today). Barefoot also provides insightful discussion of a range of other apologetic issues incidentally related to his case, including the brief but devastating critique of Dennis Macdonald referenced above (pp.91-93), the relationship between the Bible and astronomy (pp.247-250) and faith and reason (pp.303-311).

There are some technical drawbacks. Barefoot's discussion of method, for example, is scattered across several chapters and he answers potential skeptics in isolated paragraphs throughout the book, making it hard to coherently summarize his case. The book lacks a general index which for a book like this relying so heavily on symbolism and intertextuality is quite frustrating. Barefoot also makes frequent statements regarding the history and culture of the Ancient Near East which he must have derived from secondary literature, but citations are quite rare (this is not to say that they are wrong; the book was accurate in its statements as far as I was able to determine from my own knowledge of biblical studies). There are also many typos throughout the book which should have been noted and corrected.

That said, I wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone interested in the Bible or apologetics. Despite the superficial similarity to sensationalist, esoteric religious books that promise to reveal universal codes or hidden archeological secrets this book is sensible, scholarly and well-argued. Barefoot writes as a former religious skeptic himself who appreciates the virtues as well as the limitations of skepticism. He writes with humility and care, acknowledging genuine areas of contention along the way. Most importantly, however, he increased my admiration for the Bible and my confidence in its reliability as divine revelation. I urge skeptics to read this book with an open mind and pay the author the compliment of evaluating his case on its own merits rather than an a priori rejection of the possibility of supernatural typology.

1 comments:

Thanks for the review. I am definitely interested.

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