Personal and individual are terms relating to our American lives that show us why U.S. Christian claims at understanding Scripture are almost always in some ways bogus.
Personal Jesus. Is he? Is Jesus your personal savior and Lord? Do you think that the Bible teaches we should think of Jesus in that way, and proclaim him to be that over our lives? Such is the claim belonging to an overwhelming majority of American Christian Bible readers professing to understand what the authors of Scripture wrote and meant to convey. But what if I told you that such a claim is ridiculous because 21st century U.S. Bible readers are culturally alien to the early followers of Jesus and their audiences?
Think of all the American shows, from entertainment to news programs, you’ve enjoyed. They should all indicate to you how we Americans are absorbed with realizing individual potential, individualistically solving personal dilemmas, and understanding the individualistic self psychologically. These narratives rivet our focus on the personal and consume all our sharings and aspirations. They demonstrate invariably how our lives are defined by personal self-fulfillment in a social world that is hostile and unfriendly.
Bible & Personal Entertainment
And what happens whenever we Americans open up our Bibles or hear the Liturgy of the Word?—I’m looking at you, fellow U.S. Catholics! Just as with our Netflix and Disney+ viewing, so too do we bring to these readings all our cultural expectations. Whether it be Moses, Elijah, Jesus, Paul, or Mary Magdalene, it’s just as with Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter, and Daenerys Targaryen—these figures must always be understood individualistically and psychologically. Outlandish? Yes. Common? Just as much. Disrespectful? Definitely!
But what if the persons who appear in the gospels and letters and every Scripture never ever thought psychologically and personally the way we do? What if they never thought the way Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell did, the way you and I and N.T. Wright do? Consequently, Jesus of Nazareth would be very different than Luke Skywalker, and I don’t just mean in the way that the former is historical while the latter is fictional. Even though fictional, it is not outlandish to call Luke Skywalker a “person” with all the psychological freight given to that word. But what about Biblical characters or authors?
Unless by “person” you mean “individual human being,” it is true to say that in a way, every time you label biblical personages as “persons,” there is a little bit of anachronism in your declaration. Hebrew, Greek, and Latin have no word for “person” (or “personal”!) as we understand the term today. First century Mediterranean “persons” were not introspective or psychological and did not understand themselves psychologically. Rather, they knew other people “socially.” People were known socially in terms of their gender-based roles, in terms of the groups in which they were embedded, and always under the constant concern for honor and reputation.
The Bible has no individualists in it so, yes, our American Bible reading and claims to understand what the sacred authors are communicating to us individualists is often very off and frankly, quite wrong! The Biblical person sharply contrasts with the mainstream American individualist who almost always has weak ties with groups. In contrast, the Biblical person, a Mediterranean collectivist, perceived human beings and human activity in radically different ways than we Western individualists do.
Being Fair and Respectful Readers
If we American Christians desire to fairly and equitably understand the New Testament authors, what should we do? What will we contemporary U.S. Bible readers require for respectful reading? Should we attempt a psychological assessment of Paul or the Evangelists? But if we do that, how can we avoid ethnocentric distortion? I love Richard Rohr, but Jesus, Paul and friends will never fit into Myers-Briggs or Enneagram models. Respectful readings are intellectually responsible. On the other hand, anachronism and ethnocentrism, even when dressed in good intentions and pious platitudes, are the opposite of respectful reading.
The best (and most respectful thing!) any Western Bible reader can do is to have in mind what scholars refer to as “a circum-Mediterranean modal personality.” Bible readers today should recognize that ancient Mediterranean believers had zero comprehension of individualism. Therefore, neither Jesus nor any character or author of Scripture should ever be imagined as individualistic or personal the ways we are.
No ancient disciple or Christian would understand Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior. Neither first century nor fourth century Mediterraneans would see that because they simply could not do so. While typically Americans do experience a personal, individualistiic, self-concerned focus in human life, first century Mediterraneans were unaware of anything like that. Moreover, if anyone behaved like Americans do in the villages Jesus preached and healed in, they would be labeled extreme social deviants and dangerous. Such dysfunctional people would be an existential threat to group survival.
Even today, throughout the 21st century Mediterranean region, U.S. individualism is foreign, completely alien as a way of being human. Scholar Bruce Malina concludes, “If this is true today, it certainly was true of the past.”
Just How Different?
Let’s contrast how differently Americans and ancient Mediterraneans explain some adult whom they judge as being abnormal. Immediately the U.S. person uses psychology—we explore his or her childhood experiences to link these to the kind of personality he or she exhibits. We scour the personal past of the abnormal person, looking for some watershed event that psychologically shaped the adult we study. This way of understanding reality is shot through our American biographies. These documents describe the psychological evolution of individualists developing through a lifetime of psychological stages.
And how does this compare to ordinary Mediterranean persons, whether past or present? These people, in contrast, are not at all psychologically minded and, indeed, are anti-introspective! Ancient Mediterranean elites believed that a human being’s basic personality derived mostly from ethnic characteristics taken from the native air, water, and soil of the ethnic group’s home land (read Aristotle’s Politics 1327b1–2).
Stereotypes & Biographies
Ancient Mediterraneans, such as the Biblical authors, assess ethic groups by their geographically rooted ethnic stereotypes. This is why they understood that Tiberians have “a passion for war” (Josephus, Life §352), or that Scythians “delight in murdering people and are little better than wild beasts” (Josephus, Against Apion §269). Note how the inspired author of Titus writes—“Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons” (Titus 1:12). There is nothing psychological there!
So whereas U.S. biographies are descriptions of psychological development, ancient Mediterranean biographies describe someone who fulfilled stereotypical roles. There is no psychological developmental stuff within them! While Americans regard abnormal persons as those who have been psychologically damaged at some point and have become “neurotic” or “psychotic” since their traumatic past event/s, a Mediterranean like Paul would claim that “Satan prevented us,” or state “hand him over to Satan,” or “they are sinners,” or “he was possessed.”
Paul considers abnormality not a problem within a person but rather something amiss outside a person. In other words, the ancient abnormal person is deemed abnormal because the web of relations into which he is embedded is abnormal! So the problem is never within the Biblical person but rather it must be outside a person, where he or she has screwed up interpersonal relations. So as far as Biblical characters and authors go, nothing is psychologically unique, personal or idiosyncratic about people. Everyone is presumed to have the same experiences everyone has in the family, neighborhood, or town in which they live. Indeed, nothing of good can come from Nazareth (John 1:46). There are no distinctions except those that are regional and gender-based.
Your Own Personal Jesus
U.S. Catholics and other Christians are steeped in American individualism. Because of this, the me-and-God orientation, a vertical or private “faith,” comes easy for us. It’s very American. And it colors our culturally-congenial, personal savior and Lord, American-Jesus. But such an idea is completely foreign to the real Jesus or any of our Mediterranean ancestors in faith. Not only that, but it’s likewise alien to what the Reformers had in mind when they considered “the priesthood of all believers.” Please watch the video below…
American individualists might look at Psalms 22, 40, or 51, and comment, “The Holy Spirit reveals to me all that is necessary to understand it.” Such nonsense is possible for individualists but impossible for Biblical people, anti-introspective collectivists!
Personal or Individual Psalms??
Note the following psalms. Generally, they are identiﬁed as personal laments, or psalms of individual lament. About one-third of the 150 psalms in the Bible are individual laments. If you read through each, it should be evident to you that a single person is speaking or doing the lamenting.
But take care, Western Individualists!! Because as we read these psalms with our ethnocentric baggage, the tendency will be to read them as if they were composed by American individualists! After all, “I” ﬁgures prominently in each of these Psalms. But if you read them that way, you are making a grave mistake. Let me show you why they must be interpreted otherwise.
The Personal Lament of Psalm 22
Let’s consider Psalm 22 up close and “personal.” In this Psalm, the opening to the poem to verse 22 form the actual “lament” section in which an individual sufferer languishes through a long ordeal marked by sickness and imprisonment. But he has placed all his eggs in one basket—’the God of Israel, his Patron. The suffering Psalmist fully expects that God will respond favorably, will save him. So in verses 23—27 he “anticipates” a liturgy of “praise and gratitude” or “forever-indebtedness” in the temple. He anticipates becoming God’s living propaganda-machine.
A long time after these events, Psalm 22 was edited. That’s when verses 28-32 got added. These verses, scholar John Pilch explains, were added to magnify the sentiments of “enduring gratitude” in the preceding verses.
John Pilch explains that all Bibles show a line or two preceding most of the Psalms. These lines instruct musicians, inform the reader as to what kind of poetry this is, or identify the patron or Psalmist.
Obscurity and Confusion
Look at the title for Psalm 22—For the leader; according to “The Deer of the Dawn.” A psalm of David. What is that all about? In the entire Bible, few things come as close as these opening lines to the Psalms as far as giving remote and obscure information goes. Do we know the hymns or the melodies referred to; e.g., “according to ‘The Deer of the Dawn”? We don’t have a clue!
Note that Psalm 22 is called “A psalm of David.” Okay, David lived around 1000 BCE. But we have a problem with thinking that David wrote Psalm 22. In fact, it is extremely doubtful David personally composed it. Read the whole of it and compare it with what 1—2 Samuel says about David. Try to identify any instance of David’s life as reported in 1—2 Samuel in which he might have experienced anything like Psalm 22. Good luck! For this reason and others, Psalm 22 is usually dated to the Exile (587 to 537 BCE) or shortly afterward. That’s about five centuries after David was dead and buried, folks!
So King David could not have authored Psalm 22. With that in mind, who did compose it? Funny thing about the “personal” or “individual” laments (and the psalms in general) is that we do not know the identity of the one who is speaking! Therefore questions loom before us: Where are the autographs? Where is the copyright? Those are American practices!
Then why are so many of the Psalms attributed to David rather than the actual author? What if I told you that’s in complete conformity and congenial to Mediterranean and Middle Eastern culture. The cultural world of the Bible promotes group orientation and group identity and group conscience rather than individualism!
Do you imagine that this Psalm was meant for individualists like you and me? Do you imagine that the author of Psalm 51 is experiencing psychological guilt? If so, you are mistaking the author for an American and worse, you are oblivious that you are doing this!
Whomever the author of Psalm 51 was, he was a Middle Eastern collectivist writing for fellow collectivists. It was enough for this real author to attribute his poetry to David, the first and greatest of Israelite kings. David belonged to his people, the same people (collective) from among whom the genuine respective anonymous author arose.
“Undifferentiated Ethnic Ego Mass”
Mediterraneans like the anonymous Psalmist define themselves exclusively in terms of their ingroups (i.e. those groups, in which they are embedded). Because of this, it is group embeddedness on which their total self-awareness depends. Thus Biblical people like the Psalmist (and Jesus and Paul!) are so immersed in their ingroups that they share an “undifferentiated ethnic ego mass.” And because of this, they perceive the same about all other persons as well!
So consider that whenever an American gets kidnapped, Middle Easterners cannot view that abduction of a single American as a random act. Why? Because 1) he or she shares the pan-Mediterranean perspective that all U.S. people form an undifferentiated ethnic ego mass and 2) there is nothing random about kidnapping someone who belongs to an opposing people because any group member equally represents the whole group.
American Individualism Foreign to the Bible!
How alien the world of the Bible is to the way we Americans perceive and interpret reality! We identify and celebrate individualism and our individualistic selves as cognitive and emotional universes, each unrepeatable and unique. But few individuals in the Bible are identiﬁed in the singular and precise way Americans identify themselves. And even then, these do not share out American individualism!
Can you imagine in the day and age of the Psalmist how many men were named David, Solomon, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Jeremiah, Isaiah, etc? Consider how many biblical women who bore the name “Mary”?
Can you imagine any modern-day American composer not signing her new composition? Can you imagine her not copyrighting it? How about her not recording it? Or not making the rounds of social media and TV talk-shows to promote it? Or not caring whether or not it might win an award for her work? All this pronounced individualism is completely lacking in the Bible. Pilch and friends stress that this fact alone should caution all Western and American Bible readers against inserting too much “individualism” into these psalms of “individual” lament, like Psalm 22, 40, and 51!
“Screw all that. That’s a whole lotta nothing! I think that the Holy Spirit reveals what is necessary about Psalm 51 for ME when I read it in that moment!”
Beware your cultural baggage when reading the Scriptures!