Invitation to the New Testament, by William D. Davies

Invitation to the New Testament

Invitation to the New Testament is an overview of the New Testament, but not a chapter-by-chapter summary. The Gospels and many of the letters of Paul (not all of which were actually written by Paul, according to historians) are examined, but I believe Revelations for example is not even mentioned. I think the book would still be informative for someone new to the New Testament, but it would need to be supplemented.

I’d say it’s somewhere in between a scholarly and a popular work, probably still relevant to serious students of the Bible without being inaccessible to non-academics. It’s an intelligent discussion that follows various major themes in the work, what influenced it, how it can be interpreted, etc.

Davies doesn’t exactly go out on a limb in his interpretations. Repeatedly he contrasts extreme positions he says are held by certain scholars (e.g., this theme came solely from Judaism, versus it came solely from Hellenism), and—spoiler alert—he then explains that the truth lies in the middle (it was significantly influenced by both Judaism and Hellenism). Extreme and simplistic positions are always wrong, it turns out.

There’s little emphasis on New Testament ethical doctrines in this book. Or maybe it just seems that way to me because that’s the area that would most interest me, and it feels like that’s not true for Davies.

It brought to mind for me A.N. Wilson’s biography of Tolstoy, wherein he derides Tolstoy for getting so caught up in what he takes to be the ethical teachings of Jesus, when in fact those are little more than platitudes while the true grandeur of the religion lies in its mysterious and supernatural elements. I don’t think Davies would be as dismissive or insulting toward Tolstoy as Wilson is—that’s not his writing style; he’s unfailingly gracious—but he too seems a lot more impressed with the metaphysics and the obscure stuff that Tolstoy hated than the ethical doctrines.

So there’s a lot more about convoluted theories of God-as-Jesus sacrificing himself on mankind’s behalf (though since he doesn’t really die, does it still count as a sacrifice?) and where that fits with Jewish tradition and various strains of ancient Greek philosophy and such, than about, say, how to reconcile the potentially radical ethics of the Sermon on the Mount with commonplace moral assumptions that violence, war, capitalism, etc. are necessary elements of life that you sometimes have to participate in or cooperate with.

In explaining some of my reactions to this book, I think it’s important to give a sense of where I stood coming into it. On the one hand, I am not a Christian—not a religious believer at all in fact—plus I have some pretty firm opinions, mostly negative, about religion. On the other hand, there are elements in religion in general and Christianity in particular to which I react quite favorably, and I find myself admiring and liking a higher proportion of religious believers today than I have for most of my life.

I see the Bible as a hopeless mishmash cobbled together from different writers, translators, and interpreters with different agendas, often written in an obscure, poetic manner that probably makes it a fool’s errand to attempt to discern what it “really” means. It’s like if a dozen or a hundred abstract artists, working independently at times and collaboratively at times, painted a giant canvas with various inscrutable lines and shapes, and then some people who fancied themselves experts came along and told you with comical confidence that what all the lines and shapes convey is the dangers to society of the military-industrial complex, or no no, it’s that there’s a sale at Penney’s, but no it obviously means to beware the ides of March, and fell to arguing with each other.

Taken literally, a good portion of the Bible is complete and utter nonsense. I’m not some kind of a relativist about it, or a middle-of-the-road agnostic who takes a “Well, you can’t prove or disprove it, so it’s perfectly OK but not obligatory to believe it” position. It’s just plain wrong in countless respects if you take it at face value, rather than interpreting it in whatever ad hoc fashion sidesteps the most obvious falsehoods (which is mostly what people who pretend to take it literally actually do).

But leaving aside the untenable position of taking it all literally, my view of the Bible, or Christianity, or religion in general, is that it functions largely as an empty vessel that you can then fill with your preferred doctrines and ethical teachings and such, all the while proclaiming, including to yourself, that you discovered them there rather than placed them there.

And what people have chosen to “find” in the Bible varies wildly, from beautiful, loving, inspiring messages that have made the world a better place, to hatred and justifications for the worst inclinations of man.

I assumed this book would not be about the ugliness, but would defend at least a somewhat civilized take on the New Testament. So I approached it with a certain amount of receptiveness and open-mindedness. I’m interested in better understanding the “good” kind of religious folks and their worldviews, and while I believe, as I’ve said, that those worldviews consist far more of what they brought to a book like the Bible than to what they got from it, I’m open to being persuaded otherwise.

The Bible is a book with a great deal of prima facie silliness, in spite of the fact that so many people (the majority of whom have never read it, or have at most read parts of it in a cursory fashion, and adopted whatever interpretation of it they’ve been told to adopt) are fiercely committed to the notion that it is the most profound of books, so far beyond any other book that it could only have come about through supernatural means.

So I suppose the challenge as a reader that I had for Davies is: Help me to understand what is so remarkable and profound about the New Testament and what makes Jesus the most extraordinary person in history, because right now I’m convinced of neither of these things. Help me understand why the allegedly profound parts are intermixed with a hodgepodge of claims that if taken literally are false if not incoherent, morally primitive teachings, and Nostradamus-style obscurity. Convince me I’m wrong in thinking that if you didn’t come to the Bible with the preexisting conviction that it is a work of extraordinary wisdom and beauty—or barring that, if it didn’t somehow push the right emotional buttons for a person wired as you are—then it’s unlikely you’d understand it, be impressed by it, or frankly even take it seriously.

Maybe this all has nothing to do with what Davies is about, and my “challenge” would be quite irrelevant to him. But as a skeptical but open-minded reader, with a distaste for much that I see in religion but much admiration for some religious ideas and even more for some religious believers, that’s what I wanted from this book.

In those terms, Invitation to the New Testament is largely a failure. I came into it wanting to know what the big deal is about Jesus and the New Testament, and I come away from it still not knowing.

Davies appears to be a committed Christian, and certainly a very bright fellow. But I get the impression that as a devout Christian he doesn’t see the need to argue for the importance and profundity of the Bible, as that is all self-evident to him. He walks you through the New Testament with the awed attitude that we are in the presence of greatness, that Jesus is indeed the most extraordinary of men, Paul an amazingly wise and insightful philosopher, the claims of the early Christians stunning in their audacity, etc.—all too obvious to need defense.

A good indication of the author’s stance is his approving quotation from a William Hazlitt essay in which Hazlitt recounts a friend’s remark that “If Shakespeare was to come into the room, we should all rise up to meet him; but if that person [Jesus] was to come into it, we should all fall down and try to kiss the hem of his garment.” Davies comments that Hazlitt’s friend “here expresses what is probably the attitude of most people who have heard of Jesus.”

Really? It’s not my attitude. Actually few if any people are larger than life to me in anything like that way, including people I greatly admire or have been most influenced by, such as Gandhi. But regardless of my attitude, I’m certainly not convinced by Davies’s assertion that this awestruck worshipful attitude is the attitude of “most people who have heard of Jesus,” and more importantly, I don’t see that Davies has come close to establishing that the New Testament justifies such an attitude.

Davies doesn’t explicitly endorse the supernatural claims of the New Testament, but if I had to infer his position from what he writes in this book it would be something like: “Some of us accept doctrines such as the Resurrection as literal truths, and others interpret them as the most profound of metaphorical truths, and I don’t choose here to argue for which is the superior view.” That is, I think he takes it all very seriously (rather than, as I do, as prima facie extraordinarily unlikely and justifiably dismissed as nonsense unless and until a huge burden of proof is met), but arguing for a fundamentalist interpretation is not the task he sets himself in this book.

Here and there he seems to acknowledge factors that tell against interpreting the New Testament as pure and insightful truths delivered for the salvation of man—for example, that some passages are best understood as added later to serve some very mundane preference of whatever version of the Church the writer favored—but it doesn’t generate much if any doubt in him about the profundity of the work as a whole.

One of the few things he does deign to argue for is that Jesus was a real historical person, and even that he argues in a perfunctory way since he thinks the evidence is too overwhelming to take the other side seriously. I think he’s somewhat overconfident on this point, but even if he’s right that Jesus was an actual person in history, that doesn’t take us very far. His mere existence tells us nothing about whether the various claims made about him in the New Testament are true, whether he said anything like the things attributed to him, etc. I mean, L. Ron Hubbard was a real person, but so what? Official Scientology biographies of Hubbard, or Scientology doctrines in general, could still be anywhere from totally true to total bullshit.

I don’t mean to give the impression that Davies is some bimbo fundamentalist who just goes on and on about how great Jesus is and never offers logical arguments. Invitation to the New Testament contains plenty of thoughtful, reasonable, well-articulated arguments. But these arguments concern matters such as whether a certain passage in the Old Testament influenced the writer of one of the Gospels, or whether the way Paul chose to frame a certain issue in one of his letters reflects his expectation that his readers would be familiar with certain aspects of Neoplatonic philosophy—nuts and bolts stuff like that. What he doesn’t bother to argue for is, indeed, how great Jesus is, because it’s just so obvious to him that we would all instinctively and appropriately crawl to Jesus and kiss his feet if given the opportunity.

The problem (or maybe not a problem, since again I acknowledge that his intentions for the book may have had little to do with what I hoped to find there) is that if you don’t already share that attitude, I don’t see anything here to justify adopting it.

I still say it’s all a lot of empty or at least ambiguous poetry and rhetoric, and that the beauty or ugliness of your faith comes far more from you and how you choose to construct your religious worldview than from anything in the Bible or any other scripture.

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