Essay / Theology

Definition Part 2: Disjectamembra

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For penetrating insight into the character of Old Testament revelation, there are few scholars of the caliber of Alfred Edersheim (1825-1889). Edersheim was a Viennese-born Jew who converted to Christianity under the ministry of Scottish Presbyterian missionaries, and he turned that unique formative experience into the basis for a scholarly career: He is most famous for writing massive books on the Hebrew cultural background of the New Testament. Scholarship has made appreciable strides since the days of Edersheim, but his heavy tomes are still hard to beat if you’re looking for a readable presentation of all those details that make up the background of the Bible. His best-selling works include The Temple: Its Ministry and Services at the Time of Jesus Christ (1874); Jewish Social Life in the Days of Christ (1876); and a 7-volume Bible History (1887). (By the way, he also published some fragmentary thoughts, all jumbled up, under the title Tohu-va-Bohu) His greatest work is The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (1883), and it is there that we find a meditation on the fragmentary nature of Old Testament revelation, and the hidden wholeness which supports it.

In a chapter entitled “What Messiah Did the Jews Expect,” Edersheim culls the available evidence from Old Testament, intertestamental, New Testament, and rabbinic sources, and gives a two-point summary: First, there’s no way anybody in Jesus’ audience could have expected a “Divine Personality,” the eternal Son of God, to unite divine and human natures in himself via incarnation. That kind of Messiah, familiar now to Christian interpreters, just wasn’t on the first-century program. But the second summary point must also be dealt with: the Jews had come to think of the Messiah in terms that put him far above any mere king or prophet, any human or even angelic foreshadowing, creating a situation in which “the boundary-line separating” Messiah from Divine Personality “is of the narrowest, so that, when the conviction of the reality of the Messianic manifestation in Jesus burst on their minds, this boundary-line was easily, almost naturally, overstepped, and those who would have shrunk from framing their belief in such dogmatic form, readily owned and worshipped Him as the Son of God.”

This is Edersheim’s mature judgment on the evidence, and I think it stands up well to the latest arguments going on in recent scholarship (check out books by Larry Hurtado, Richard Bauckham, James D. G. Dunn, etc.).

What strikes us as controversial, perhaps, is the claim that the first-century Jewish mind was prepared in some way to accept the high christology that was revealed in Jesus: that he was the pre-existent eternal Son of God incarnate. Edersheim is troubled by something else. What he thinks requires further explanation is why the Old Testament did not put the whole picture together itself. Edersheim takes a high view of Old Testament prophecy, believes in its New Testament fulfillment, and wonders why God left the revelation in a fragmentary form until the coming of the Messiah.
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This is where he brandishes Horace’s little phrase disjecta membra. Edersheim thinks that Paul’s saying in I Corinthians, “we prophesy in part,” is a characteristic of all prophecy, and makes the application in this moving passage:

In the nature of it, all prophecy presents but disjecta membra, and it almost seems, as if we had to take our stand in the prophet’s valley of vision (Ezek. 37), waiting till, at the bidding of the Lord, the scattered bones should be joined into a body, to which the breath of the Spirit would give life.

All prophecy is scattered bones, and scattered bones raise the question, “can these bones live?” When they do live, it is because they are joined, sinewed, and armed by the command and the breath of the Lord. His word and spirit make them into a living body, giving them their orientation and signification. By jumping from Horace’s musings on poetry to Ezekiel’s prophecy of redemption, Edersheim raises the stakes of disjecta membra considerably. But the issue is still hermeneutical, and we are still hanging in the balance between fragmentary parts and a hidden wholeness. What Edersheim knows, though, is that the hidden wholeness is a creature of the Spirit of God. I think Warfield knows this too, though he does not say it explicitly. That God is Father, Son, and Spirit is the hidden wholeness of revelation, and to confess it is to enter “more thoroughly into the meaning of scripture.” To do that may require that we “take our stand in the prophet’s valley of vision,” which sounds like considerably more than just learning a hermeneutical trick or connecting proof-texts skillfully. Seeing the trinitarian sub-structure of the Bible might, after all, involve an encounter with God, a spiritual transformation, and an opening of the eyes of the heart. Knowing this thing about God may entail knowing God.

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Who could deny the superiority of the latter to the former? I can sympathize with anybody who is concerned that the hermeneutical move involved should be rationally demonstrable, exegetically defensible, and subject to critical scholarly assessment. The last thing I want to say is that the Trinity is a biblical doctrine because I had a warm feeling in my heart when I thought about it. I want to speak the truth, argue rationally, and not hide my truth claims away in a happy land of subjectivism. “The sacrifice of the intellect is not a sacrifice well-pleasing to God.” (Karl Barth)

Still. Imagine Ezekiel in the valley of dry bones, when God asks him, “Can these bones live?” What if he had knelt down, picked up a thigh bone, and connected it to the nearest knee bone? The he could have looked around for the right shin bone. This could have gone on a long time, and the result would have been a stack of bones with more structure. It takes the Spirit of God acting on the Word of God to put the life into the disjecta membra.

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