Sunday, September 13, 2015

Christological Use of the Old Testament - Part 1

Very early among first-century Christians—both as a major part of their evangelism and as a defense against Jewish critics—there arose the belief that something fundamentally new was happening in human history. This "experience of the new" perhaps had its earliest expression in the words of Jesus himself.

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.


  1. First of all, I can hardly wait for Part 2! However, regarding Part 1, which is extraordinarily well-stated in such a brief way, I think the language of "according to the Scriptures" (1 Co. 15:3) must surely be salient. The Greek preposition "according to" (kata) broadens the concept considerably beyond simply prediction and verification. It allows for precisely what you described, this amazing set of parallels between the ancient story of Israel and the story of Jesus.

    Indeed, I would argue that this parallelism is extensive in the way the gospels themselves were structured, a parallelism that would not have been lost on the early readers of the Hebrew Bible. It is not too much, in fact, to say that Jesus WAS the true Israel, the life of the nation lived out in the life of one man who was everything the nation should have been but wasn't. He was called out of Egypt, he passed through the waters, he was the prophet like Moses, mighty in word and deed, he was tempted in the desert, he was anointed by the Spirit, he was betrayed and despised by the nations, he was elevated as high priest and sacrifice, he suffered as the Servant of the Lord, he experienced the agony of exile and he was vindicated and restored. All these things were the experience of ancient Israel, and all of them were the experience of Jesus, too.

  2. Dan: I agree with you completely concerning the tendency of early Christians to see Jesus as the expression of “true Israel” with his life and words “recapitulating” the story of the Hebrew peoples. The insights–now dated, but still true—of Wheeler Robinson regarding corporate personality in Israel’s thought are still worth considering.

    But there is one caveat: many Christians have succumbed to the temptation to supersessionism. By seeing Jesus as the “fulfillment” of the Old Testament scriptures, they have incorrectly relegated Israel to God’s past saving action that has be superseded by Christianity and left in the dustbin of history. This is NOT the message of the New Testament—certainly not of Romans 9-11.

    If anything, this is the Marcionite error—one of the earliest and, in my mind, most deadly heresies—that divides the New Testament God of Jesus from Yahweh of the Old Testament and wrongly separates God’s original covenant with the Hebrew peoples from his “new covenant” with all nations. This misses the continuity in the biblical witness (and the clear intent of the “new covenant” passage). God’s original covenant has never been rescinded. Rather, in the words, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the end of the age has come and the full implications of God’s covenant promises are now being realized. The kingdom of God is dawning in the present, and with it, the ingathering of the Gentile nations—always a part of God’s original scheme—has begun. This is the theology behind the earliest Christian mission.

    1. Yes, yes and yes! (or to use the language of the Psalms, "Amen and amen!") The notion of supersessionism is out of step with the whole New Testament. The circle of who has the authority to call themselves children of God gets bigger with the coming of Jesus, not smaller!