Monday, February 02, 2009

1.3 The Old Testament as Christian Scripture

Previous posts in this series are:

1.1 The Problem of Christian Scripture
1.2 The Problem of Meaning

The Jewish Bible has the same content as the Protestant Old Testament, with the exception of the way the books are arranged. The Protestant Old Testament more closely follows the order of the Septuagint, while the Jewish Bible collects the writings in the way Jews apparently did at the time of Christ. The Roman Catholic and Orthodox Old Testaments include further books that are not in the Jewish or Protestant Bibles.

However, far more than the actual content, the difference between the Jewish Bible and the Christian Old Testament is a matter of 1) perspective and often 2) the meaning of the text. These two crucial distinctions will often blur into one another, although we can distinguish between them.

By the meaning of the text, we point to the fact that both New Testament authors and Christian writers throughout the centuries have often interpreted the words of the Old Testament in ways that their original authors did not intend. We should not think, of course, that non-Christian Jewish interpreters have done any differently. We simply are using the original meaning of the Old Testament texts as a benchmark by which to mark such departures.

Nor do we wish to suggest in any way that the New Testament use of the Old was in any way inappropriate, especially given the interpretive methods in use in its day. As the commentaries at Qumran interpreted various passages directly in the light of their community, so the New Testament often interprets the words of Old Testament passages in the light of its communities. As rabbis used interpretive techniques such as the use of catchword phrases, the argument from lesser to greater, the argument from the silence of the Torah, so various New Testament authors used these methods.

Nevertheless, New Testament and later Christian authors did often read Old Testament texts in ways the authors of those texts never intended. For example, we certainly do find the expectation in some of the post-exilic parts of the Old Testament that the Davidic dynasty will be restored. The New Testament relates some of these texts to Jesus, as well as various royal psalms.

Reading those passages in context, however, it is quite clear that they do not have in mind a heavenly king who will rule the entire cosmos. They look for a quite human king who will rule Israel from Jerusalem. One might argue that parts of the New Testament expects this scenario to happen eventually with Jesus as well. But clearly the nature of Christ's kingship is unexpected by the original meaning of these texts, to say the least.

At other times, the New Testament use of texts is quite different from the probable original meaning. When Matthew 2:23 suggests that Jesus growing up in Nazareth is a fulfillment of prophecy, it is difficult even to know exactly what Scripture Matthew has in mind, for there is no mention of the village of Nazareth in the Old Testament. Matthew seems to consider it a kind of spiritual fulfillment of more than one prophet, using the plural.

The form of the statement, "he will be" looks a little like the form of Judges 13 where Samson will be a Nazirite. The word nzr is used in Isaiah 11:1, which speaks of the royal branch coming out of Jesse, father of David. Neither of these passages have anything to do with the village of Nazareth, but they do associate words in the Old Testament that sound similar with a king, at least in one instance.

Another example is Paul's use of Genesis 15:6. Paul clearly understands the verse to be God's declaration of Abraham as righteous (e.g., Romans 4). But the context and grammar of Genesis in the Hebrew perhaps more likely indicate that it was Abraham who was affirming God to be righteous.

In these cases, we have Christian readings of the Old Testament that must surely constitute reading the Old Testament as Christian Scripture. For Christians reading the Old Testament, these interpretations are more important than their original meanings. That is not to say that the original meaning cannot be Christian Scripture as well when viewed from a broader Christian perspective. It is simply to say that we have precedent for understanding the meaning of these passages differently from the meanings they originally had.

We might suggest the same for distinctive Christian readings of Old Testament passages that come from Christian history. We think, for example, of Genesis 1:27, which says, "let us make humanity in our own image." Christian interpreters have long heard an echo of the Trinity in this statement.

From the standpoint of the original meaning, of course, this interpretation is highly problematic to say the least. The doctrine of the Trinity was not worked out until several centuries after Christ. Certainly with a pre-modern understanding of Scripture, one would simply suggest that God revealed the Trinity to Moses.

Following out the implications, we must then conclude that this text was a curiousity to Israel throughout the centuries and, indeed, on into some point in the early church. The New Testament, for example, never uses the Genesis text in this way. Then finally, some early Christian, perhaps unknown to us, rediscovered this meaning that God had hidden in the wording all along.

The inductive method of course follows a different course. It asks, given how words were used at the time Genesis was written, what is the most likely meaning its originally intended audience would take from these words? In other words, it assumes that God actually intended these texts to speak to those for whom they were actually first written more than to people who would not live until perhaps over a thousand years later. Given passages like Deuteronomy 32 and Psalm 82, it seems far more likely in context that Genesis 1:27 originally referred to YHWH's heavenly council, whether one takes it literally or poetically.

Nevertheless, it would seem perfectly Christian to read Genesis 1:27 in relation to the Trinity because its wording is susceptible to such an interpretation, and we as Christians believe in the Trinity. The fact that this was not the original intention of the human author is irrelevant. As Christian Scripture, the verse reads very nicely in this way.

But we read the Old Testament as Christian Scripture far more importantly because of the broader perspective we take on the Old Testament, far more than by the way we read the occasional verse where the New Testament or later Christian history has given a passage a distinctively Christian meaning.

This perspective, more than anything else, is that of a broader story into which we place the Old Testament books, a story whose most crucial event is the incarnation, atoning death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ. When we read the Old Testament in this way, it is part of a plot leading up to Christ and the ultimate restoration of all things.

A story proceeds on the basis of some unfulfilled goal. Red Riding Hood is trying to see her grandmother, but a wolf gets in the way. Cinderella longs for a life of happiness, but her wicked step mother stands in the way. God intended humanity to rule over the creation but Sin and Death got in the way.

The Christian telling of history is distinctive. God created humanity for glory, to rule over the creation. But Adam sinned, and brought death into the world. Now all humans are born under the power of Sin and cannot be reconciled to God apart from the reconciling death of Jesus, whose death God has used to make such reconciliation possible. God raised him up victorious from the grave and seated him as cosmic king in the heavens. At the appropriate time, he will come again and set the whole world to right.

Some may note that I have told the story with a particularly Pauline and perhaps even Augustinian twist. Adam, for example, is not clearly mentioned in this way anywhere in the New Testament outside of Romans and 1 Corinthians. Moreover, I have left out very important Christian parts of the story like the incarnation and the virgin birth. From the standpoint of this section, I have barely even mentioned the Old Testament.

Nevertheless, to read the Old Testament as Christian Scripture, more than anything else, is to read it as the first part of this Christian story. Needless to say, its texts by themselves do not in any way require or beg for such a reading. That is to say, the Old Testament alone does not read with the expectation of such a second half. It does not read as old material awaiting the new. It is rather a Christian perspective that creates this dynamic.

For example, in terms of the Old Testament itself, the story of Adam in Genesis 3 plays no appreciable role in the thought of the Old Testament. It is never mentioned again, other than the possible allusion in Ezekiel's self designation as son of Adam. The Christian reading of the Adam story is not attested in Jewish literature until around the time of Christ. Thus The Life of Adam and Eve in the first century BC is the first to equate the serpent with Satan, and the book of Wisdom mentions death entering the world through the Devil's envy.

It is thus interesting to note that Judaism does not have any sense of human nature as fallen in the manner of Augustine's understanding of Paul. Indeed, Paul himself says nothing of total depravity. Paul merely claims that all have sinned and thus cannot claim any right to God's grace. The doctrine of total depravity is not even a universal Christian understanding, particular as it is to Western Christianity under Augustine's influence.

What we are saying is that the Christian perspective on Adam is not demanded of the Genesis text at all. Words like disobedience, condemnation, original sin, depravity, Satan, appear nowhere in the text of Genesis itself. These are part of the Christian perspective we bring to the Genesis text. It is a valid perspective. It is our perspective. It is not the original perspective.

The giving of the Jewish Law at Mt. Sinai, so central to the Jewish perspective on Exodus, has a quite different significance for Christians. Christians read Exodus, once again, through the perspective of Paul and later Christianity. Rather than see this covenant as foundational rules for living as ethnic Israel before YHWH, we see most of this legislation as a shadow of a reality accomplished by Christ.

This perspective is perhaps best illustrated by the Christian understanding of the Levitical laws having to do with sacrifice. Christians see these sacrifices as foreshadowing the one effective "sacrifice" of Jesus on the cross for sins. None of the Old Testament legislation regarding sacrifice is now to be observed because Jesus has once and for all accomplished these aspects of the old covenant in lieu of the new covenant in Jesus Christ.

Certainly this development is unexpected from the standpoint of the Old Testament texts themselves. Indeed, if we listen to the prophets in context, we would have to acknowledge that the Old Testament texts themselves do not have a completely unified understanding of the role of sacrifice in the life of Israel. Prophets like Micah and Isaiah decry them as a diversion when God only requires mercy and justice. Jeremiah even seems to consider them a secondary accretion from God's original relationship with Israel (7:22).

Nevertheless, to read the books of the Jewish Bible as Old Testament Scripture is to see them as a part of the Christian story. The story of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is the story that leads to Jesus and the kingdom. The story of Moses and God's subsequent relationship with Israel is leading to the story of Jesus and the spread of the gospel to the nations. The Jewish story becomes the story of those of us who are Gentiles. Although we would scarcely have been included in the original understanding of the story--a fact illustrated most vividly by Galatians--it has become our story because we read the Old Testament as Christian Scripture.

Yet we must push even deeper as Christians. We must push toward a "thick" interpretation of these Old Testament texts. If all we have as Christians is a later Christian reader's response to the Old Testament texts, our reading is too shallow to stand the test of time. If we are aware of what it means to read those Old Testament texts in context, we will not be able to shake it from our mind. We will have a gnawing sense that we are hanging in air without anything to ground us. At some point we will fall.

A thick interpretation will have to see not only a superficial re-reading of these texts as a reading of them as Christian Scripture. A thick interpretation will push deeper to see the contextual readings of these books as part of the historical story of God walking with humanity in history. We will scarcely be able to believe in the Christian story over the long haul if we conclude that it appeared out of thin air at the time of Jesus, let alone at the Council of Nicaea. Surely for Christian faith to work, we must believe that God actually walked with Israel as well in its own day, not simply in the Christian story of Israel, potentially unattached to the historical Israel.

We thus cannot use our newfound understanding of the Old Testament as Christian Scripture as an escape from contextual and critical scholarship of the Old Testament. We cannot forget what it means to read the Old Testament in context even though we finally recognize the legitimacy and indeed primacy of the Christian reading. A Christian reading of the Old Testament will thus also see in the original meanings of these texts God walking with humanity in a progress and flow of revelation, a process of God unfolding an understanding over centuries, indeed, over millennia, apparently in no great hurry to lead humanity to a full understanding.

Job 19:25 provides us with an excellent case study: "I know that my Redeemer is living, and afterwards He will rise on the dust. After this my skin is thus destroyed, from my flesh I will see God." This verse has a distinctively Christian reading, although not one attested in the New Testament. Nevertheless, Christians--especially since Handel wrote his Messiah in the English speaking world--have conventionally heard in this verse a reference to the resurrection, with Jesus as the Redeemer in question. Job affirms that one day Jesus will resurrect his body.

There is nothing wrong with this reading of Job as Christian Scripture. It is, however, very unlikely to be anything like the original sense of Job 19. Elsewhere, the book of Job--as the bulk of the Old Testament--consistently denies any meaningful afterlife for the dead, even the righteous dead: "My life is a breath... As the cloud vanishes and fades, so the one who goes to Sheol does not come up. He returns no more to his house" (7:7-10).

Therefore, in its original context, it seems far more likely that what Job is saying is that he believes that God, his Redeemer, will eventually come--before he dies--and vindicate his innocence, restoring his flesh. As Christians, we will find the later reading, the distinctively Christian one, far more appropriate for us. Yet at the same time, we cannot unlearn the contextual reading. We cannot return to our first naivete even if we want to, and in any case, any view based on a denial of truth is not likely to survive for long.

The answer is to see not only the Christian reading of Job 19 as legitimate, but also to validate the original meaning as a Christian reading, taken from the perspective of where God was leading humanity in history. The first reading is a textual reading, a reading of the text of Job as Christian Scripture. The second reading is a contextual reading, a historical one, placing Job within the overall history of God walking with humanity on its way to a fuller understanding of the afterlife.

The Christian reading of the Old Testament as Scripture thus involves both particular meanings that we are more likely to find in particular texts and overarching perspectives we have on those texts. The meanings we sometimes find, as well as the way we place the Old Testament texts within an overarching narrative, derive from where we believe the story went beyond the pages of the Old Testament books. And we read these texts through the twin lenses of the Christian "rule of faith" and "law of love."

Yet even the original meanings of these texts fit within our Christian perspective on them. Viewed in this way, they are moments of God walking with humanity on a journey that led, most significantly, to Jesus Christ, but also to what we believe is a fuller understanding of a wide variety of other matters, such as the nature of human life after death. A "thick" interpretation will not deny one or the other, the contextual or the distinctively Christian reading, but has room for both.


Angie Van De Merwe said...

Are you saying that a progressive understanding of God is revealed within historical time. Thus, would understandings of science/discipline help enlighten our understandings?

For instance,The Christian understanding of heaven being "above" is an ancient understanding not a scientifico one...

Ken Schenck said...

Yes, in my scenario, the sciences come into play in the historical dimension of unfolding revelation. Nothing is to be avoided. A faith that has to hide from history or science doesn't have the power to go the distance. This of course doesn't imply a rubber stamp to the going consensus of science or history

Anonymous said...

Excellent post until the end, when you seem to pull an Emily Litella: "never mind."

The fact is that few Christians are ever aware just how much metaphorical violence their interpretations do to the Jewish Bible. We are vaguely aware that the "New" tetament "fulfills" the "Old" testament.

But the reality is that nothing major about Christian theology can be gleaned from the Hebrew Bible. No Trinity, no God "coming down" and dying to save mankind, no immortality of the soul -- it ain't there.

So God promised Abraham that his descendants would be blessed -- only now we "know" that God didn't mean literal descendants he meant "spiritual" descendants. If we were honest, that would make God the original used car salesman. Better read the fine print or he's going to pull a switcheroo on you and give you a lemon.

Another question: if progressive revelation is a valid principal through which to interpret books of the Bible, how can we reject Mormonism or Jehovah's Witnesses, or hell, even the followers of David Koresh? Those groups are doing to the NT what Christians do to the Hebrew Bible.

Anonymous said...

Oops, last comment by pf.

Anonymous said...

One other thing. In the decades I've been attending churches, I've found a pervasive attitude that the Jews were somehow crazy for not "accepting" Jesus, as if it should have been obvious to anyone who read the books.

Again, the facts could not be more different. The Hebrew Bible teaches that the purpose of the religion is to serve God and he will bless the nation and its people in their lifetimes on this earth. The day will come when God will actually intervene and rout Israel's enemies and set up a just and peaceful kingdom.

Jesus almost certainly taught the same thing. He was Jewish in every way. That's why Christian theology has almost nothing to do with what Jesus said (except for a little bit of John that is dubious).

And why new explanations for his life had to be invented after his death. After Jesus died and time went on and all that stuff didn't happen, authors such as Paul had to come up with a new reason to revere Jesus.


Ken Schenck said...

PF, here is my gambit. I bet you would be a lot less frustrated with Christianity if, instead of the usual Protestant "get back to the original" approach, you/we had been brought up on the approach I am advocating. I see in the line of thinking I am advocating a way to affirm Christian faith without turning a blind eye to the kinds of conclusions that have perhaps unraveled your faith.

What it requires is faith in the slow but forward moving of God throughout history. Yes, I recognize that will still be a tall order for many to swallow, but it seems to me it can survive any assault of critical biblical scholarship. The difference between a cult or Koresh is in numbers. If by faith we affirm that God's Spirit is at work in the hearts and minds of those with faith, then while we cannot pin that moving down precisely, we at least have many items where Christendom is agreed, a "generous" orthodoxy that must surely approximate it.

As far as Jesus on earth is concerned, nothing of orthodoxy requires that he be omniscient while one earth. Indeed, do we imagine as Christians that Jesus spoke Aramaic fluently at 1 year old. Do we anticipate that he would have known he was the Messiah at 3? Does Christian faith require that he understand that he is the second person of the Trinity in the Garden? Many will certainly answer yes to the last question. All I wish to argue is that there are more possibilities for Christian faith than are often imagined.

Anonymous said...

Ken, what unraveled my faith was the realization that was no there there. It was based on a lot of stuff that isn't true for which I was constantly required us to come up with creative and convoluted solutions to logically impossible assertions.

Such as speculation about whether Jesus knew he was God. C'mon, let's get real, he was just a guy born because some man's sperm hit Mary's egg. Believing that frees me from wrestling with the implications of silly questions such as:

How can one be eternally begotten?

How can three persons be one God?

How can an immortal die?

If Jesus was God, how could he be an example to humans?

The stories in Luke and Matthew are totally contradictory, they can't both be true. How would you pick between them to come up with reality?

We don't believe he made clay pigeons fly, or killed playmates who crossed him as a child, so why do we believe the stories written in the gospels?

There is a reason churches don't talk about historical facts, because the facts have an anti-Christian bias.

I can appreciate that you are trying to hold on to your faith while juggling what you know intellectually isn't true, and can have rational discussions with skeptics. I understand because I went through that for a long time, but after a while I couldn't stomach all of the rationalizations.

I have never seen any evidence of "spirit," if anything, I think Christianity serves to make most people worse human beings.


Ken Schenck said...

I appreciate your honesty. Of course there are a few good Christians out there... :-)

Bob MacDonald said...

Hi Ken
I would need hand-waving to engage with pf so I won't for the moment. So many questions are begged it's hard to know where to start.

But I appreciate, I hope, where you think you are starting and ending with these posts and I am going to try to engage just one small part of this long post - Job 19:25-26. This I have started here. It is intriguing that the NT authors did not force Job 19:25-26 out of context like they did other verses. I don't know the reception history of this verse, but if you look at my initial brief, you will see a surprising first cut - but maybe I have the grammar backwards!

I will do Job 19 next as a structural exercise. I have been quite surprised how much rare vocabulary is shared by Job and the Psalms.

Timothy said...

>"The Roman Catholic and Orthodox Old Testaments include further books that are not in the Jewish or Protestant Bibles."

Even more books are included in the Old Testament canons of other Churches. Biblicalia has a great chart comparing the OT canons:

Chart of Old Testament Biblical Canons

I've often heard claimed that Catholics added books at Trent, but have never heard any explanation as to when those same books and more were added to the other canons.

Personally, I'd love to see more Christians learn the OT well enough to prove Christian doctrine as the Bereans did. The Bereans lacked the NT and were sola Old testament.

God bless... +Timothy

Anonymous said...

pf is absolutely right in his statements. The only thing you have proven here is that christianity is most assuredly about "making it up as we go along". I think God will have something to say about that in the end.

Ken Schenck said...

The only thing I have set out to argue is that this is the standpoint we Christians should take on revelation given our Christian faith. I have not set out to prove Christianity per se but have assumed it.

But Anonymous, if as you suggest Christianity is simply making it up as we go along, then why hold to any believe in a God at all? What makes the God you assume will have something to say about Christianity, exists to say anything at all? The gap from God to Christ is far shorter than the gap from atheism to God.

Indeed, from the standpoint of rational proof, I personally find it a far easier task to argue evidentiarily for the resurrection of Jesus given God's existence than I find it to argue for God's existence itself!