The Christian Reading of the Old Testament

nativA fitting mediation for the season on the Scriptures…

“That it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet…”

This is a familiar line in the gospels – particularly in St. Matthew. It signals a moment that the gospel writer (and thus the tradition) sees an action or saying of Jesus as somehow being a “fulfillment” of something within the Old Testament. The confession of the primitive Church is that what Jesus did was “in accordance with the Scriptures” (Old Testament).  Looking at these instances can be a good way to see precisely what the tradition thought “in accordance” actually meant.

Several things are obvious when we look at the New Testament’s use of the concept of “fulfillment.”

Prophecy is not at all a prediction. Indeed, there is rarely anything in the story of Christ or within the cited Old Testament passages that inherently link the two. Modern scholars (of the liberal sort) would (and have) argued that the gospel writers use the Old Testament out of context and with no seeming method of control.

Fulfillment is its own unique concept. Fulfillment clearly has a meaning similar to “completion.” It assumes that something incomplete and unfinished has been posited by statements within the Old Testament. These seem to hang over the world as unanswered questions – that somehow must be answered.

The use of Old Testament quotes in “fulfillment” passages seem to have a relationship independent of history and even literal meaning in some cases. This independence can be sometimes be so radical that the only thing required is simply that something be stated in the Old Testament.

I will offer a few examples (there are twenty-or-so instances in the gospels) and then draw some conclusions.

The first instance of fulfilled in the New Testament is the verse (famous during Christmas season), Matthew 1:22-23

So all this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying: “Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,” which is translated, “God with us.”

It is a reference to Isaiah 7:10-14

Moreover the Lord spoke again to Ahaz, saying, “Ask a sign for yourself from the Lord your god; ask it either in the depth or in the height above.” But Ahaz said, “I will not ask, nor will I test the Lord!” Then he said, “Hear now, O house of David! Is it a small thing for you to weary men, but will you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and be with child, and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel. Curds and honey he shall eat, that he may know to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the child shall know to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land that you dread will be forsaken by both her kings…

Another New Testament example, referring to the Holy Family settling in Nazareth (Matthew 2:23):

And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, “He shall be called a Nazarene.”

Scholars are actually at a loss to account, with confidence, what Old Testament prophecy is here said to be fulfilled.

Another – Matthew 13:34-35, comes after a chapter’s worth of parables:

All these things Jesus spoke to the multitude in parables; and without a parable He did not speak to them, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying: “I will open My mouth in parables; I will utter things kept secret from the foundation of the world.”

This is a reference to Psalm 78:1-3:

Give ear, O my people, to my law; incline your ears to the words of my mouth. I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark sayings of old, which we have heard and known, and our fathers have told us, etc.

There is nothing in this passagefrom Psalm 78 that makes it seem remotely prophetic. It is written by the author to his readers, introducing the content of the Psalm itself.

A primary aspect of these examples is that they are making no reference to a passage that seems particularly “messianic” in its context. There are other examples that certainly make use of Isaiah’s “Suffering Servant” passages and seem more clearly contextual – but these examples show that this is no way required by the gospel writers.

The example of Christ as a “Nazarene,” seems to be an extreme stretch (in all of the scholarly speculations concerning its reference). Thus one conclusion – the only requirement by a gospel writer for the fulfillment of an Old Testament saying, is for the saying to have occurred in some manner in the Old Testament and to seem applicable to something in Christ’s life and ministry.

In such a usage, the OT seems to be a random collection of possible quotes. Obviously, the historical narrative of the OT is important to Christian thought. The sermon of St. Stephen in Acts 7 is a summary of the history of Israel (with the point that Israel has repeatedly rejected those sent by God). But it is appropriate to ask the question, if Psalm 78:1-3 is seen as referring to Christ’s use of parables some 900 or more years later, how does the gospel writer (and thus the tradition of the primitive Church) see the Old Testament?

It is obvious beyond measure that the author of the gospel (and the Christian community) is not asking, “What did the Psalm writer have in mind when he wrote this?” A New Testament example of this attitude can be found in reference to the statement by the high priest, Caiaphas, in John 11:

And one of them, Caiaphas, being high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all, nor do you consider that it is expedient for us that one man should die for the people, and not that the whole nation should perish.” Now this he did not say on his own; but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation.

The gospel writer does not think prophecy requires the understanding or intention of the one who utters it. Caiaphas means one thing, God means another.

If the Christian meaning of the Old Testament is not necessarily related to a writer’s intention or understanding then how were those Scriptures written? They clearly have a meaning within the mind of the writer – discernible to a degree by studying context and historical setting. For example, Caiaphas the High Priest, in the New Testament, certainly knew what he was saying on one level, but his words (and those of Old Testament writers) function and signify in a manner divorced from context and authorial intention. The Scriptures exist as a saying.

How then does the primitive community know how to read the Old Testament? The Gospels themselves explain this. On the road to Emmaus, following his resurrection, Christ speaks to two disciples:

And beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself.

And later, in Jerusalem, the risen Christ appears to his disciples and says:

“These are the words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me.” And He opened their understanding, that they might comprehend the Scriptures.

The method of interpretation is something called “opening their understanding.” This method is why tradition is essential in true Christianity. The method is itself tradition. The gospels are an example of that tradition at work. Tradition, “handing down,” is not the passing on of information – it is the opened mind opening a mind. The Church knows how to read and comprehend the Scriptures because it was taught to do so by Christ Himself. That same “method” of reading is part of the living practice of the Church today. There is no way to learn such reading apart from becoming a disciple of someone who knows how to engage in such reading.

What we most often want is a means of understanding that does not require opening (please note – none of this has anything to do with the modern practice of being “open-minded”). The examples of fulfilled Scripture do not permit a rationalized explanation (not one that could then be repeated as a technique). The opened understanding, however, is quite able not only to see what has already been given, but to perceive what is being given as well.

This is the only means of “rightly dividing the word of truth.” It is, of course, a nightmare for those who want a reading of Scripture independent of the Church. But such readings seem to belong to a school of thought not represented by the New Testament itself.

The next article will look at the meaning of fulfilled.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.



23 responses to “The Christian Reading of the Old Testament”

  1. Subdeacon Stephen V. King, Sr. Avatar
    Subdeacon Stephen V. King, Sr.

    Thanks for this concise but wonderful explanation! With today’s media and social websites giving everyone a platform, the intensity of the yelling is horrific! (I don’t call it “debating” because so much is filled with fallacies, untruths, hatred, bigotry, and self-aggrandizement.) This noise seems to escalate daily and spread confusion to all. Since almost all the noise comes from Western minds, it is great to have the Eastern Church’s view placed out here.

    The USA is dealing with so many controversial issues, that I fear our nation may destroy itself! Some of these issues revolve around one interpretation or another of OT verses. Most often they seem to be cherry-picked to support a particular view, while totally ignoring others. I have particularly noticed that an ordinance or two in Leviticus are waved about while almost all are ignored like the stoning of one’s children for various offenses, calling the eating of certain animals an “abomination” (look out on Sundays for which Christians are at which restaurants ordering what!), and so forth.

    As a strictly personal point if view, not sanctioned by anyone in the Church, I feel that many of the ones being so belligerent in their use of OT verses have completely failed to acknowledge that the church-state separation in US government prevents our forcing many of the Church’s views on the nation – and in so doing prevents other groups gaining power and forcing their views on the Church. This is no small matter. And if you say, “Let’s sweep it all away and usher in a Theocracy,” then whose Church group gets to decide what that Theocracy will enshrine in its new laws? With the count of Church groups now over 30,000 in the USA, how could debate every be ended with a satisfactory compromise? And what happens when another group takes over to force their theocratic ideas on Churches? I feel extremely passionate about this – there cannot be freedom while any religion is imposing its views on the rest of the people! Yes, there are a number of common ethics that allow a nation to function – don’t steal, don’t murder, don’t lie, etc. and those ethics do not come from the OT alone, but from all established religions and agnostics and atheists. We must not throw freedom away to implement a theocracy just so we can feel more comfortable about the ideas floating around the country and the world.

    What did Jesus tell us to do? Instruct willing students in the faith; take the good news of God’s love everywhere; and be the harmless, blameless ones who would rather “turn the other cheek” and give all our earthly goods if necessary to bring all those who are willing into the fold.

    Thanks! Steve

  2. Alice C. Linsley Avatar

    Excellent! My Protestant friends say they hold to Scripture alone but when pressed they quote their favorite commentators, none of whom are Church Fathers. These have become their authority in interpreting Scripture yet they say they reject tradition.

  3. Paul Avatar

    Spot on Father,
    I recall reading something from St Silouan I think who said it wouldn’t really matter if the entire Holy Scriptures disappeared from the earth for the gist of what they say would be quickly reassembled by the Church, albeit probably less poetically.
    The Church and Holy Tradition, which you so eloquently describe as not the mere passing on of knowledge, are all we need, for in fact that is all there is!

  4. David Avatar

    Since the apostolic and early Church usage/interpretation of the Old Testament is so radically different and even contrary to our modern understanding of “proper” hermeneutics, how then does today’s critical scholarship fit in with this? Are those who partipate in critical scholarship reading and understanding the scriptures rightly, or are they misunderstanding and misappropriating the various texts and possibly leading those who read them astray? Is the method of higher criticism inherently flawed and thus to be avoided, or is there still some value in it for the Christian? How and when did Christians make the change from the traditional usage/interpretation of the scriptures to what we have today with “proper” hermeneutic principles being taught in seminaries, and should Christians abandon the principles of this modern hermeneutic with its higher criticism approach to the scriptures?

  5. Anna Avatar

    Father, bless!

    Your piece of writing is, as usual, very much to the point and enjoyable to read.

    I’m wondering about your vision on tradition, (“traditioning” as an action), which is very powerful. Is the opening of the mind the same with “acquiring the mind of the Church”? Do you have perhaps some further reading suggestions on it? I keep finding very interesting Orthodox writings on tradition on the Internet, but they tend to be very general and not reference any specific Father of the Church.

    Thank you!

  6. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    I just have to ask: why does this have to turn right into an anti-western polemic? As Father Stephen has pointed out “We are western”

    No matter what the genius of the Fathers was produced in an existential environment we don’t have and never can have. Through the Holy Spirit we can be gift with wisdom from that deposit of truth that enlightens us in our existential environment.

    One piece of wisdom from that deposit is that it is impossible to evangelize what is not loved.

    A great deterrent, IMO, to hearing the truth is the constant harping about “the west”.

    The truth can stand on its own without endless, fruitless comparisons and contrasts which often seem no more than straw men and certainly little love.

    The Old Testament is a revelation of the Christ fulfilled in the Incarnate Lord who saves us. Anyone who longs for Him can understand that even in the soulless “west”

  7. AR Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, what does it mean, in light of what you’ve written here, that not a jot or tittle of the O.T. law can pass away till all is fulfilled?


    I don’t have access to a Greek Septuagint right now, but wonder if “Nazarite” (as in vow of) and “Nazarene” (as in inhabitant of city of Nazareth) come out the same or close enough to make no difference. It strikes me that the early Christians might have seen an important similarity between the annunciation to the Theotokos and that to Samson’s mother, as well as a more-than-coincidental significance in the name of the city of Nazareth (even the city name needing to be “fulfilled.”) Since Samson was unable to completely fulfill his calling, something was left for Christ to fulfill… not a satisfying explanation by one criteria but possibly fruitful by another. But that’s a by-the-by.

  8. AR Avatar

    Subdn. Stephen, Oh that’s certainly true. “Covenant theology” seems to go along with a desire for an American theocracy or a belief that God intended one when he landed the pilgrims in New England. The abuse, weirdness and creepiness, all sanctioned by some O.T. passage or other, know no bounds, once you get into that particular viper’s nest!

    However, religious toleration is an interesting topic in that, while it may seem necessary in order to protect people from other sects, on the other hand it is what produced all those sects in the first place. Why isn’t anyone taking detailed notes on the progress of the “American Experiment”?

    I don’t know many Americans who would “Amen” me on this but what I like to see is not a theocracy but a God-blessed righteous ruler who like a father to his nation, unites them under a common Church. Someone like the Prince of Lichtenstein, who put his own inheritance on the line in order to protect the unborn in his nation.

    “The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord and of His Christ.” Easy way out for the devil: turn them from kingdoms into something else.

    Russia was stupid to give up its monarchy, however troublesome, and now the leadership are having to try to keep the sects and the atheists alike from ravaging their nation through the machinery of democracy, and are coming out looking like bad guys in the process. Democracy doesn’t lend itself to much of anything except constant wars between the would-be oligarchs, the would-be tyrants, and the would-be anarchists.

    “Sweep it all away” is terrifying and dangerous. We have institutions, laws, and moral consensus to some degree, and that’s normal and good as far as it goes. Crashing and smashing societies almost never makes them better, however bad they start out. But, I don’t really agree with you that this morality comes from all or most world religions. The morality of the U.S. is something else again. What we’re really breeding here, what spiritual monsters, I don’t like to think.

  9. […] (The Christian Reading of the Old Testament) […]

  10. fatherstephen Avatar

    For a time, both the more literal/historical approach and the historical/critical approach enjoyed some sway among Orthodox thinkers (depending on their own bent). Biblical studies are only just beginning to come out from under the “Western Captivity” (in Florovsky’s words). Within Western hermeneutics (theories of interpretation), the post-modern literary movement has provided cover for exploring the more traditional Orthodox approach. Western scholars are increasingly understanding that the historical approach (literal or critical) is laden with unsolvable problems. Some are flailing around with very little guidance remaining, while in the extremes the political forces of various groups assert the most absurd conclusions about historical meanings.

    I was very much aware and involved in “post-modern” Biblical interpretation when I was in grad school at Duke. It was there that it became obvious that only the Orthodox actually had a “tradition” of Biblical reading that was actually rooted in the life of the Church.

    The pseudo-objectivity of the various historical schools always existed in order to assert an independence from the Church and the Christian community. But the Scriptures are only “Scriptures” inasmuch as they are the Scriptures of the Church. St. Irenaeus probably has the best explanation of the meaning of Scripture – something he describes in his On the Apostolic Preaching. Fr. John Behr has done an outstanding job of describing this in his The Mystery of Christ.

    The historical approaches are not without interest. And as historical research they are worth engaging. But the “historical” meanings, constructed with the best possible intentions, do not yield the “meaning” of Scripture. “Meaning” is a doctrinal matter and thus comes from Christ Himself (the “Doctor” – in the sense of “Teacher”). The Church should teach what she has received, and not what any scholar may deduce.

    The best source for understanding what the Church has received is to pray what the Church prays. And it should be “prayed,” and not just “read,” for prayer sees things that reading will not reveal. Thus, the only way to actually understand the Christian life is to live it. This should have always been obvious, but was obscured by other things.

    As to how and when did the historical reading arise – it has always had some place within the faith, though generally a minor one. It began to grow in the Middle Ages with the advent of Nominalist philosophy, with its assumptions that words only mean one thing (rather than having true multivalent meanings as in various Idealist accounts of the world). Interestingly, Nominalism was dubbed the “Via Moderna.”

    The triumph of the historical approaches comes with the Reformation. An independent Bible is a necessary ingredient for an independent nation and an independent individual. Protestantism is an artifact of the rise of the European nation states.

    I had a conversation last year with Fr. John Behr at St. Vladimir’s seminary. He told me that he was going to be teaching his first Biblical class this last fall. I was excited to hear it.

    When I was at Duke, Stanley Hauerwas said that one of his goals was to “take the Scriptures out of hands of the Bible Boys.” He thought that we should explicitly put the Scriptures in the hands of theologians and admit that interpretation was an engagement in theology and not in a pseudo-objective “science” of Biblical interpretation.

  11. fatherstephen Avatar

    Christ is the fulfillment of the Law, every jot and tittle. Thus, every jot and tittle of the Old Testament is Christ-bearing. But it takes eyes to see it.

    AR, pretty much every take on the Nazarite/Nazarene thing has been considered. What does not exist is a prophecy, “And he shall be called a Nazarene.” It is thought that it is the use of a “saying” that is not found in the Old Testament. Which would not be at all surprising.

  12. AR Avatar

    On principle it wouldn’t surprise me, either… but the existence of such a saying would be surprising given the reaction, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” But, that’s neither here nor there to your point – it’s not an O.T. Messianic prophecy in the usual sense.

  13. fatherstephen Avatar

    We must remember, that every “prophecy” or “saying” fulfilled by Christ, is described in the gospels by disciples writing after the Resurrection. Nobody understands anything rightly before that (except for Peter’s confession – or the demons who recognized Him).

  14. AR Avatar

    Right… so after having the scriptures opened, or their minds opened, they could recognize Christ wherever they found him? Was the Resurrection necessary for this to happen?

    What does this mean for our understanding of inspiration? Am I right to trace a likeness between God breathing into man at his creation, and God breathing into the scriptures? God’s word described as “living,” man described as “a living soul.” Is this breath/spirit the vehicle by which the scriptures or other words can be “Christ-bearing?” Does it make man and the words of God related somehow? Able to interface? (Computer word, not sure what else to use.) Is this related to why we understand our Liturgy to be inspired? Does this ratify C.S. Lewis’ idea that dreams of Christ can be found in the pagan myths?

  15. fatherstephen Avatar

    And they said to one another, “Did not our heart burn within us while He talked with us on the road, and while He opened the Scriptures to us?” (Luk 24:32 NKJ)

    And He opened their understanding, that they might comprehend the Scriptures. (Luk 24:45 NKJ)

    To this should be added St. John’s peculiar description of the manner in which the disciples received the Spirit:

    So Jesus said to them again, “Peace to you! As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” And when He had said this, He breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. (Joh 20:21-22 NKJ)

    The Resurrection was necessary for this to happen, for it was (and is) the key to understanding – Christ’s Pascha is the mystery hid from the ages.

    But understanding is also knowing:

    Jesus answered and said to him, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but you will know after this.” (Joh 13:7 NKJ)

    Recognize Him anywhere? “Those who know the words of Jesus can hear even their silence,” St. Ignatius of Antioch.

    Heaven and earth are full of His glory. How do we not see Him everywhere?

  16. AR Avatar

    Yes… truth like a body indivisible. When the mystery is bestowed, we see henceforth from within a mystery. What we see behind our eyes lights up what we see in front of our eyes from behind it. No more sea…

  17. thomas Avatar

    This post was VERY helpful. I am glad there is someone who is willing, even though the word “charismatic” is not used and the intention may not have been to allude to it, to affirm the essentially “charismatic” nature (Spirit created and governed and consummated) of Orthodoxy in contrast to the western inauthentic manifestation of “charismatic” which is not Spirit led at all. The western version is a convert form of emotionalism and self-gratifying and group-self hysteria. I take away from this post the reaffirmation that the Christian life is first and last “Spirit breathed, led, informed, and fulfilled.” The Holy Tradition is a living reality. It can’t be “pinned down” and “neatly defined,” a result I sought when I first began to embrace Orthodoxy. My Orthodox mentors just quietly smiled and let be exhaust the need for those “answers” so a space for the Mysterious life in Christ to emerge. The Holy Tradition is Christ Jesus not a set of rules or way of qualifying and disqualifying one another. Christ Jesus doesn’t want to teach me how to interpret the Scriptures. He wants me to let His interpretation/opening of them to be mine. This is freeing… Thank you…

  18. Jim Moore Avatar
    Jim Moore

    First, I am a liberal Protestant, not Orthodox. I say this expecting a more or less immediate dismissal of what I am about to say, but shoot, you would have figured it out eventually anyway, so there is no point in hiding my background.

    Second, your summary of Matthew’s interpretive method more or less echoes what I learned in seminary (an evangelical Presbyterian institution), with the difference that you attribute the origin of the method to the living tradition passed down from Jesus himself, whereas my professors pointed to the Bible — specifically, texts such as Luke 24 — as the origin. A distinction without much of a difference, as far as I’m concerned. Either way, it seems to a lot of moderns that your “method” amounts to “goal-oriented” interpretation, i.e., I already know what the “deeper meaning” or “fulfillment” of any particular OT text or set of texts or simply the OT as a whole is: Jesus. Therefore, if the meaning I find in an OT text leads to Jesus, it’s right. If it leads away from Jesus, it’s wrong. Am I summarizing your view correctly?

    You point out that postmodernism undercuts the claims of objectivity made by modernist interpreters of the Bible. I beg to differ. Postmodernism claims to undercut the objectivity of modernist interpretion. We have a ready response to that nonsense:
    1. Most postmodernists don’t understand how science works. Hermeneutics, although fraught with far more complications than those confronting natural sciences, also has an objective basis. This can be established by a comparison of methods with other sciences.
    2. The biases to which a interpreter is subject can be counteracted enough to establish at least a modicum of objectivity in interpretation.
    3. Unless 1 and 2 are correct, communication between human beings would be impossible.

    So much for postmodernism. Now about the goal-oriented NT use of the OT. We see the same approach to the OT in the exegetical methods of the Qumranites and the Mishnah/Talmud. The differences lie mostly in the goal being pursued, not in the methods used to arrive there. Modern interpreters generally find all these goal-oriented approaches lacking, precisely because they are controlled, not by the techniques people use to understand one another’s speech, but by an outcome desired by the interpreter, regardless of what the person who wrote the text he is reading wanted him to get out of it. You may respond that God is the ultimate author of the OT, not the human authors. Care to explain how you know this without appealing to the inward testimony of the Holy Spirit or church tradition? In short, you can’t make your case without special pleading.

  19. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Mr. Moore, not being dismissive just a couple of comments that come to mind: Taking a living organ out of a body and examining it “objectively” makes it somewhat less than living does it not?

    Revealed truth does not lend itself easily to intellectual analytics any more than living organs outside the body in which they belong. Something is learned, but not the completeness, the fullness and a great deal is sacrificed.

    There is a difference between being goal oriented/results oriented (an intellectual category) and wishing to be part of the Body of Christ as it was/is revealed, i.e. the living Apostolic Tradition within the Body of Christ (a desire of love and faith).

    The “goal” of all Orthodox Christians is two fold: 1. reject Satan and all of his works; 2. Unite ourselves with Jesus Christ. In that context, all of creation reveals the work of the Holy Trinity in some way shape or form or reveals our shattered brokenness from which we need to be healed. Neither of the goals is accomplished, can be accomplished on our own as individuals, but only in the context of our parish family and the Church as a whole (seen and [mostly], unseen).

    As Father Stephen takes great pains to point out, the Bible and the Orthodox tradition of interpretation and understanding is always within the context of seeking union with Christ and the life of the Church. The Bible may have meanings outside of that context and does reflect a great deal of that life outside the context, but it can never be properly or fully understood except within that context.

    Taken far enough outside the context within which it was revealed and formed and it ceases to be meaningful.

    Personally, I and most of my fellow Orthodox tend to view the type of knowledge gained through love and faith as superior, more complete and of greater value than the knowledge of the analytical mind. Or, as an old acquaintance of mine used to comment: “You get more stinkin’ from thinkin’ than you do from drinkin’.

    To put it another way: “Truth is not just an abstract idea, sought and known with the mind, but something personal—even a Person—sought and loved with the heart, Jesus Christ” Fr. Seraphim Rose

    Correct me if I am wrong Father.

  20. fatherstephen Avatar

    Very good questions and a conversation worth having. I’ve got services today and tomorrow, so I’ll have to pick things up tomorrow afternoon. I look forward to it. Not dismissing this at all. Christ is born!

    Jim, I don’t want to derail the conversation with Michael’s thoughts … I’ll pick this up tomorrow. Sorry Michael.

  21. fatherstephen Avatar

    I’m assuming (and accepting) that the text in Luke 24 reflects the accepted teaching of the Church that the gospel is not understood by the disciples until after the resurrection. That much seems to be a settled matter in the texts and in the Tradition.

    The witness of the Church (written even earlier than the gospels) can be found in St. Paul’s statement that Christ died for our sins, “in accordance with the Scriptures,” and that He rose again on the third day “in accordance with the Scriptures.”

    This short passage, followed by a summary of eyewitnesses, is phrased in the careful language of the transmission of tradition. I “delivered” (“traditioned”) what I had received.

    It is interesting that the resurrection on the third day is described as “in accordance with the Scriptures.” Yet the only prophecy within the Old Testament that remotely describes a three-day resurrection, is the book of Jonah. Christ references this, “the sign of the prophet Jonah.” But, of course, it is a use of allegory and typology. And its foundational!

    This foundational use of allegory and typology doesn’t trouble the primitive community in the least.

    Thus, Luke 24 is not an “origin” of a tradition of “goal-oriented” interpretation. It seriously predates even the written gospels. Note, St. Paul references the “gospel” he preaches, some twenty years before the gospels are written.

    This “gospel” can best be seen in passages such as that cited in i Cor. 15. A similar one is found in 1 Cor. 11:23ff. in which he relates the tradition (“received…delivered”) of the Eucharist. He is clearly familiar with the story of the Institution of the Eucharist, and even references the betrayal of Christ.

    Another place can be seen in 2 Tim.:

    Hold fast the pattern of sound words which you have heard from me, in faith and love which are in Christ Jesus (2Ti 1:13 NKJ)

    It’s a peculiar passage. The word for “pattern” is “hypotypos” (Ὑποτύπωσιν). A little less than two centuries later, St. Irenaeus will use a similar word, “hypothesis,” to describe what we would today call a Creed. It is the “Apostolic Hypothesis.” It is a “pattern” of words that summarizes the “gospel,” the primitive structure of the Kerygma or preaching.

    That structure is not just a summarization of historical events, but affirms those events as “in accordance with the Scriptures.” They carry with them a “pattern” of interpretation, a manner of handling and interpreting the Old Testament. It is a”pattern,” the underlying “thesis” or “typos.”

    Such a “typos” is utterly necessary for the kind of interpretation in which St. Paul engages. Think about a statement like “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us” (1 Cor. 5:7). There is a vast amount of meaning contained within it – indeed such meaning is required before such a statement can be made. It’s more than a coincidence of the timing of Christ’s death – Christ Himself now becomes the actual Passover itself. He is the sacrificial Lamb. He is the drowning of the Egyptians, etc.

    This is a letter written no more than 22 years after the resurrection itself. There is a hermeneutical complexity that evidences a very deeply held, controlling understanding and set of assumptions, through which the stories of the Old Testament become the typological stories of Christ.

    It is also doubtless the case that those types and allegories shape how the gospels themselves are put together.

    History and Objectivity

    The assumption that drives historical interpretations is the notion that something “really happened,” and that if we only knew what that was then we would know the truth. Orthodox, and thus primitive Christian thought, does not assume this to be the case. The meaning of any event is often quite separate from what actually happened. For many things only hindsight gives a meaning. For the early Church and Orthodoxy, only Christ’s Incarnation, Suffering, Death and Resurrection give meaning to anything. Things only “mean” in an ultimate, and thus true sense, in relation to those events.

    These assumptions, accepted as true, a few others, form the gospel at its root, the thesis and type that shapes how we read Scripture, how the New Testament is written, as well as how the Church prays and lives.

    There is no “truth” or “objectivity” apart from God. There can be agreed upon and shared communications between people, but those can be agreed upon lies and deceptions as well as discussions of mundane matters.

    Special Pleading

    My article does not mean to suggest that “any meaning you get from the OT that leads to Jesus” is correct. Rather, I suggest (or just state plainly) that there is a way the Tradition reads the Old Testament. That way is the Christian reading of the Old Testament. It can be read any number of ways – including the various schools of historical interpretation – but those are not the Christian manner of reading the Old Testament.

    I mean to say “Christian manner of reading” here. I do not mean that those who do not read in this manner are not Christians, but that they do not know how to read like Christians.

    I can be bold in saying this because I accept that Orthodox Christianity is the same thing as ancient Christianity. It is not so much an organization and institution, but a way of life, of praying, of fasting, of understanding, that is of a piece with that of the Fathers and the Apostles. The manner of reading the Old Testament that is found in the liturgical tradition of the Church (we still pray services and sing hymns that were written in the first millennium). There has been no Reformation, Counter-Reformation, Enlightenment, etc., in the Christian East.

    This is not a form of triumphalism. But everyone can only read and understand within the tradition, the community of discourse, in which they live. Moderns read like moderns, etc. Protestant Christianity, in its many forms, is a modern form of Christianity and has many, many modern assumptions that govern its conclusions. When you say what you believe, I hear, “I’m a modern man.”

    Becoming Orthodox, however, requires a slow, sometimes painful process, of leaving the assumptions of the modern world (and by this I don’t mean renouncing technology), and embracing a different world. It requires a transformation.

    It’s possible to have conversations across those worlds, but it takes lots of translation, and the realization that words may have different meanings. Patience and lots of listening helps.

    Hope that is useful in the conversation. Pardon the length.

  22. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    A word on objectivity. There is no such thing. The closest one can come to objectivity is to understand one’s own bias, reveal it and allow for it.

    Sometimes, especially these days, people assume they are objective when they simply are outside the ethos of a particular way of thinking and living when in fact, they simply have another set of biases that are largely unexamined and unaccounted for.

    A deeper way of getting beyond one’s biases is to love. The more perfect the love, the better the understanding and the clearer one’s perception. Of course, to love requires going beyond simple intellectual analysis. It is also why only God can render perfect judgement because only God loves perfectly.

    It can be beneficial to hear from those “outside” from a humility stand point. However, the more we enter into God’s love, the less other there is and the easier it becomes to be free of the analytical constructs and judgements and separations of this life.

    Jesus Christ became incarnate to erase any separation from God that our disobedience causes both between us and God and between ourselves. However, to participate in that union, we have to be led by others such as the Apostles who are much further along.

  23. […] This is our fourth time visiting the writing of Orthodox pastor Fr. Stephen Freeman.  Click here to read at source. […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to blog via email

Support the work

Your generous support for Glory to God for All Things will help maintain and expand the work of Fr. Stephen. This ministry continues to grow and your help is important. Thank you for your prayers and encouragement!

Latest Comments

  1. Father, you said, “I can enter the Church, remain in silence and yet see (and hear!) something other than the…

  2. The icon, More Spacious than the Heavens, spoke to me the first time I entered an Orthodox Church in 1986…

Read my books

Everywhere Present by Stephen Freeman

Listen to my podcast