Sunday, September 6, 2009

Reprint: Reading the Old Testament, the Christian Way

Earlier this week, I read a couple of complaints about the Orthodox, to the effect that we reinterpret Old Testament. This, charge the critics, is very troubling.

I daresay it is. But I do rejoice that they recognize an important fact: we do not interpret the Old Testament the way the ancient Israelites did, or for that matter, the way Jews today do. St. Paul says as much.

Therefore, since we have such hope, we use great boldness of speech-- unlike Moses, who put a veil over his face ... But their minds were blinded. For until this day the same veil remains unlifted in the reading of the Old Testament, because the veil is taken away in Christ. But even to this day, when Moses is read, a veil lies on their heart. Nevertheless when one turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. (2 Corinthians 3:12-16)
To explain this further, I'm reprinting a slightly redacted version of a post that originally appeared here in January.

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Old Testament Interpretation (Like Everything Else in Christianity) Begins and Ends With Jesus Christ.

You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me. (John 5:39

In the Church’s view, the whole of Israelite history, as contained in the Old Testament, is about Jesus Christ. The relationship of the Old Testament to the New is one of promise to fulfillment, and of type to anti-type. Put another way, we interpret the Old Testament neither in the same way the ancient Israelites did, because we are looking at it with hindsight; nor in the way Jews do today, for everything in it takes on new, fuller, and sometimes rather different meaning in the light of Christ.
… the Hebrew Scriptures are also to be understood and interpreted in relation to Jesus Christ, who is both their source and their fulfillment. He is their source because he is the Logos, the eternal Word of God, who serves both as the agent of creation and as the ultimate content or referent of the prophetic oracles. And he is the fulfillment of the Hebrew Scriptures because at the deepest level of meaning they point forward to him and to his saving work. Christ, therefore, provides the true key to the inner meaning of the Law and the Prophets. Accordingly, Christ himself is our “hermeneutic principle” or principle of interpretation, in that it is he who reveals the true sense of all inspired Scripture. (Breck, John, Scripture in Tradition: The Bible and its Interpretation in the Orthodox Church (Crestwood, New York, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001) pp. 9-10

Every passage of the Old Testament as well as the New bears direct or indirect witness to the person and work of Jesus Christ, who is Truth itself in incarnate form. ”I am the Way, the Truth and the Life,” he declares, Jn. 14:6). (ibid., p. 33)

The Fathers insist that the God with whom all the Old Testament figures deal is God the Son. It was God the Son who walked with Adam and Eve, God the Son who appeared to Moses in the burning bush, God the Son who instructed Noah to build his ark.

The Early Church was not particularly interested in the historicity of the Old Testament. The early Fathers didn’t necessarily deny it, but what interested them was always what the Old Testament had to say about Jesus. They looked for Him and found Him throughout.

The Old Testament is to be interpreted according to Christ, and not vice-versa! Christ Himself urged us to do this, saying in a parable, nobody patches an old garment with a new piece of cloth, because the patch will shrink and the rip will be made worse. Old clothes must be patched with old fabric. Similarly, nobody puts new wine into old wineskins, or the wineskin will burst and the wine will be lost; but new wine must be put into new wineskins, to preserve both. (Matthew 9:17, Mark 2:22, Luke 5:37-38) Christ is the New Wine; He transfigures the Old Testament. We must not interpret Him by it, or we shall lose both the wine and the wineskin, the true meaning of the Old and the New Testaments. Rather, we must interpret the Old Testament by Him, “bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ.” (2 Corinthians 10:5)

Christ Himself began the process of showing us better ways to understand the Old Testament, bringing out what was implicit there all along but unclear or hidden. The Fifth Chapter of Matthew contains several examples of this. Perhaps the most startling example of His "re-interpretation" of the Scriptures came when Jesus preached against divorce:
They said to Him, "Why then did Moses command to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away?" He said to them, "Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so...” (Matthew 19:7-8)
In other words, God spoke to ancient Israel with great and gracious condescension, in His decrees making generous allowances for His people’s spiritual weakness and immaturity.  He allowed divorce because of Israel's hard hearts, and someone has pointed out that God didn't even forbid polygamy!  In the Old Testament (even sometimes in the New) things were written in over-simplified words and somewhat crude concepts and imagery to make it understandable to people.  Meat is for adults; infants cannot digest it and need milk instead. The Old Testament is spiritual milk. The meat must await the coming of the Holy Spirit.

Another way Jesus interpreted the Old Testament in a way nobody else would have been able to until then is contained in John 8:56 (one of His claims to divinity): “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day: and he saw [it], and was glad.”

Jesus also appropriated the title “Son of Man,” giving new meaning to that figure in the book of Daniel, Chapter 7.

After His resurrection, as He was walking with two of His followers on their way to Emmaus, Jesus continued the process of interpreting the Old Testament for them. Here is His response when they spoke to Him (whom they did not yet recognize) of their distress that Jesus had been crucified.
"O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! Ought not the Christ to have suffered these things and to enter into His glory?" And beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He expounded to them in all the scriptures the things concerning Himself.
St. Paul also found new, Christian meaning in the Old Testament. For example, in I Corinthians 10, he says the Israelites, by passing through the sea, “were baptized unto Moses.” (10:3) Then, speaking about the rock in the desert which Moses struck with his stick and it gushed forth water for the thirsty Israelites, St. Paul says, “That rock was Christ.” (10:4) In verse 6, he adds, “Now these things were our examples, to the intent we should not lust after evil things as they also lusted.”  They happened, that is, more for our sakes even than for the sakes of the ancient Israelites.  St. Paul is much more concerned with the function of these events as examples today than as history; in fact, the part he mentions in verse 3 about the rock following Israel isn't history at all, but pure legend.  As a practical matter, whether it was history or not wasn't relevant; our edification today was what counted, and still counts.

In Galatians 4:21-31, St. Paul calls the story of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar an allegory (v. 24), which allegory he expounds.

Most of the Epistle to the Hebrews is devoted to interpreting Old Testament worship in terms of shadows and patterns of “things to come”, especially in chapters 9 and 10. Moreover, it is in the name of spiritual maturity that St. Paul urges his Jewish readers to adopt this typological understanding of the old Testament. (Hebrews 5:12- 6:2)
For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the first principles of the oracles of God; and you have come to need milk and not solid food. For everyone who partakes only of milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, for he is a babe. But solid food belongs to those who are of full age, that is, those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil.

Therefore, leaving the discussion of the elementary principles of Christ, let us go on to perfection, not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, of the doctrine of baptisms, of laying on of hands, of resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment.
In fact, what the "noble Bereans" did, to whom St. Paul preached, was exactly this: they searched the Scriptures (the Old Testament) to see whether they could see in the Scriptures the newly-announced meanings St. Paul was preaching. The meanings were different from what these devout people had been used to.

Some Fathers of the church, notably St. Gregory of Nyssa, bid us make heavy use of allegory in interpreting the Old Testament. St. Gregory does just that in his most famous work, The Life of Moses, in which he brings out allegorical and spiritual meaning and application from every incident in Moses’ Life.

Other Fathers agree that Christians ought to value the stories in the Old Testament more for their spiritual than their historical or literal meanings. “Very often many things are said by the Holy Scriptures and in it many names are used not in a literal sense... those who have a mind understand this.” (Saint Isaac the Syrian, Homily 83.)

So Christians from the beginning have followed Christ and St. Paul in telling the old story in a new way, in a way that begins and ends with Jesus Christ. They have set aside parts of it (such as ritual laws) as no longer relevant to Christians (Galatians 4:10); they have found new meanings in other parts of it

Even those who criticize the Orthodox for doing this do it themselves, although not in a sufficiently thoroughgoing way. For example, virtually all Christians see Psalm 22 as an astonishingly detailed prophecy of the Crucifixion. But before Jesus was crucified, there was no way to interpret that Psalm in that way. Similarly, in Isaiah 7:14, Christians see a prophecy concerning the birth of Christ: “Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” But before Christ came, the prophecy only meant that God would destroy King Ahaz’ enemies within the time it would take for a maiden to marry, conceive, give birth to a son, and teach him the difference between right and wrong. Christians have always "reinterpreted" the Old Testament. That is, they have understood things that were always there, but only revealed in the Light of Christ.  Outside of Orthodoxy, however this procedure is the exception, unfortunately.  More often, it's the wrong way around:  the Old Testament is used as the framework within which to understand Christ.

If we fail to allow the revelation in Christ quite frankly to re-work the pre-Christian understanding of the Old Testament, to let Christ be the Light of the World, by Whom and in Whom all else is properly understood, our reading of both Testaments will be very seriously misguided and the correct doctrine of salvation will be in jeopardy.

Now please go and read Fr. Stephen's far better (and shorter!) post for some different points on the same subject.


123 said...

John Behr's Formation of Christian Theology Series and his Mystery in Christ are very good, scholarly explorations of the same topic. Warning: they are difficult reading, but if you're going to ask difficult questions...

123 said...

Actually, Peter Bouteneff's Beginnings also gets into some of the same important territory, though his focus is on readings of Genesis 1-3 in particular.

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

Christopher, I thought I you might be interested to know that (finally!) I've ordered all three of these books you've recommended, and look forward very much to receiving them for Christmas!