The primitive Christians taught that this new thing was happening because of the life, words, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.
This new thing was from God.
This new thing signaled the end of the age. With Jesus, the final resurrection of men had begun and the Kingdom of God was already dawning in the present.
And finally, the early Christians were completely convinced that this new thing had not come out of nowhere. Rather everything about this new thing had occurred "according to the scriptures."
To the Christians at Corinth, the apostle Paul wrote
Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you—unless you have come to believe in vain. For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. (I Corinthians 15:1-8 NRSV)
Here we see the nexus of memory and tradition in earliest Christianity. Memory was directly proclaimed by those who had been eyewitnesses to these events. Tradition was the encapsulation and interpretation of these memories, passed down first in oral form and then later in writing, and received by those who had not witnessed these events directly due to geographic distance or the passing of time. Here also is the strong conviction that every thing that has occurred is "in accordance with the scriptures."
The newness and the power of the Jesus event overwhelmed the early Christians who struggled to express it among themselves, much less share it with others. Luckily, the earliest Christians enjoyed the common vocabulary—thought world, metaphors, symbols—of an authoritative scripture.
It is not at all surprising that the earliest Christians looked to the Hebrew scriptures for the tools needed to express the new thing that God was doing through Jesus and the end of the age inaugurated by these events. The New Testament is filled with direct quotes, clear allusions, and faint echoes of the familiar texts and stories of the Jewish scriptures. Particularly useful to the early Christians in telling the Christian story were the writings of the Psalms, the prophecies of Isaiah, and the Torah of Deuteronomy.
It seems that the early Christians appealed to the Hebrew scriptures in two very different ways.
First, they used the older texts apologetically, answering the charges of novelty and foreignness raised by their contemporary Jewish sectarians detractors. The anticipatory passages of the Old Testament—particularly the widely recognized prophecies of the coming of a future messiah, a God-anointed political leader that will liberate the nation of Israel from its foreign overlords—were seen as "pre-visions" of Jesus and the end of the age.
But a second, less recognized (although extremely obvious) use of the Hebrew scriptures occurred among the early Christians. They also used the well-known stories and texts of the Old Testament to structure their memories of Jesus—to provide a framework for their story-telling. They often told the Jesus story by drawing parallels between his life and words and those of great figures from the Hebrew past. His words were remembered as echoes of his predecessors'. The early Christians "filled-out" their telling of the Jesus story by drawing parallels—sometimes with clear and compelling quotes and references, but at other times in less clear, more tenuous ways, even as a lingering vestige or fading recollection of earlier words and accounts that were nevertheless used by these early Christians—to make sense of and communicate the story of Jesus and the drastic change brought through his life and words.
Most often, this secondary use of Old Testament texts to frame the story of Jesus drew from passages that had no anticipatory quality. Very often these stories were simple narratives that did not look beyond the events themselves in their original contexts, but which were still applied to the telling of the Jesus story by the earliest Christians. Moses went up into a mountain and from there proclaimed the laws of God. Likewise, Jesus in Matthew 5-7 goes up into a mountain and proclaims the new law of God. The writers of the various Psalms would lament their current fates in no way anticipating future events, but the early Christians would find parallels in the life of Jesus and tell his story in the language of these earlier songs. Again and again, the Christian writers told the story of Jesus' passion with quotations from the Psalms that in no way anticipated future events (casting lots for Jesus' clothing, his thirst, no breaking of his bones ).
In summary, the early Christians took the shockingly new events that fell upon them in the death and resurrection of Jesus and interpreted them using the primary cultural tools available to them—the Hebrew scriptures. Much of the Gospels' story of Jesus and well as the rest of the New Testament exposition clearly shows this "re-telling" of the Jesus story through the lens of detailed reflection on the Hebrew scriptures. This christological use of the Old Testament scriptures is foreign—and admittedly, a bit strange—to our modern principles of literary interpretation.
But all of this leaves us with a difficult question: How much did the Hebrew scriptures actually structure the telling of the story of Jesus? Did the earliest Christians have genuine memories of the historical Jesus that they embellished with Old Testament parallels? Or did the Old Testament stories actually give rise to the Jesus story as mere "historical fictions" created out of the scriptural precedent?
The Jesus Seminar concluded the latter—that the Gospel writers had few, if any, real memories of the story of Jesus and that most of the Gospel stories that we now know arose as fictions built from the details of Old Testament texts. This challenge to the historical value of the Gospel accounts will be the topic of the next post.