Reading Beneath the Words

theotokos_detail_smThe relationship between Old and New Testaments is much less straightforward than most people realize. A majority of Christians, particularly in our contemporary world, probably assume that their relationship is mostly historical, that the Old Testament is about things that happened before Christ while the New Testament speaks of Christ Himself and things that come later. That is “sort of” true, but not the real story. The New Testament does not so much come later than the Old Testament as it comes beneath the Old Testament. Understanding this not only reveals a world of meaning within the Old Testament, it also aligns the reader with the Fathers through the centuries. The purely historical treatment of the Old Testament would make the New Testament impossible. But more than that, how the Fathers handled Scripture also points to how the Christian faith should handle the world itself.

The New Testament is a commentary on the Old. The story of Christ’s death and resurrection are always described as being, “in accordance with the Scriptures” (meaning the OT Scriptures). And yet, when you track down a prophetic quote and consider it within its historical context, the verse rarely has any historical connection with its New Testament citation. A famous example is found in Isaiah:

Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and 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. The LORD will bring the king of Assyria upon you and your people and your father’s house– days that have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah.  (Isa 7:14-17)

The historical, contextual meaning of the passage is simply that a young woman will conceive and bear a child, and before he has reached a certain age (at which he shall “know to refuse the evil and choose the good”) the terrible thing prophesied by Isaiah (Israel’s destruction) will come to pass. Isaiah’s words not only apply to a situation that was contemporary to Isaiah, he even describes its contemporary fulfillment in the next chapter:

Then I went to the prophetess, and she conceived and bore a son. Then the LORD said to me, “Call his name Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz; for before the child shall have knowledge to cry`My father’ and`My mother,’ the riches of Damascus and the spoil of Samaria will be taken away before the king of Assyria.” (Isa 8:3-4)

Of course, portions of this passage are cited as a prophecy fulfilled in the virginal conception and birth of Christ. But no literal or “historical” reading of Isaiah can yield such an understanding. Indeed, the New Testament simply lifts verse 14 from its context and applies it to the circumstances of Christ’s birth.

Critics of the New Testament see this sort of thing and use it to attack the primitive Church, suggesting that early Christians misused the Scriptures. What the New Testament does with this passage, it does with many others (indeed most of its Old Testament references). The Christian faith that is “in accordance with the Scriptures” demands that the Scriptures be read in a manner that is generally at odds with the historical, literal approach.

Observations like this were very troubling to me when I was in college. The many such uses of the OT seemed, when viewed in a historical manner (common to both liberal scholarship and fundamentalist Protestantism), made no sense. How could a prophecy that was clearly meant for a situation contemporary to the prophet have anything to do with Christ?

One solution is to simply jettison the Christian faith (or the New Testament) as so much sleight-of-hand and biblical distortion. The other solution is to accept that the New Testament uses such passages, fully aware of their historical meaning, but sees in them something hidden and deeper. It is this second solution that appealed to me. It also seems to have appealed to the writers of the New Testament and the Fathers who came after them.

This solution, though, seems to beg a very important question: how is it possible for a passage that clearly has a particular meaning in its own time to be lifted and applied in an absolutely fundamental manner in another situation entirely. That this is possible is a key to what the Fathers called allegory (which took many forms). It assumes that there is a meaning within the text, or even beneath the text, that is hidden. Something else creates the circumstances that allow the deeper, hidden meaning to be discerned and brought forth.

A second question, over the years, has come to be even more important than how to read a text. If there is a meaning hidden beneath and within the text of the Old Testament, then what does it say about the world that we live in? Is there something beneath and within our own existence and experience of the world that reveals Christ as well? My answer to this has been “Yes” (and to shout it from the rooftops). The sacramental life of the Church bears witness to this aspect of the world. The Church, in her prayers, does not make something to be what it is not, but reveals it to be what it truly is (paraphrasing Fr. Alexander Schmemann). This is not just true of the sacraments, but of all things. The world is icon and sacrament pointing towards its Creator as well as being that place where we have communion with Him.

And so the Church is bold to sing to the Virgin:

All of Creation rejoices in you, O full of grace:
the angels in heaven and the race of men,
O sanctified temple and spiritual paradise,
the glory of virgins, of whom God was incarnate
and became a child, our God before the ages.
He made your body into a throne,
and your womb more spacious than the heavens.
All of creation rejoices in you, O full of grace:
Glory to you.

In the proclamation of the Kingdom of God, Christ makes known to us what is hidden. He reveals the truth of our existence and the true nature of all things. It is worth noting that the New Testament takes great care to tell us that what it says has first been hidden. It makes no apologies:

To me, who am less than the least of all the saints, this grace was given, that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to make all see what is the fellowship of the mystery, which from the beginning of the ages has been hidden in God who created all things through Jesus Christ; to the intent that now the manifold wisdom of God might be made known by the church to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places, according to the eternal purpose which He accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord (Eph 3:10-11).

I will be offering a series of articles reflecting on how allegory is possible and what it says about the whole of our existence. It is a journey into the hidden things.

Next: Authorial Intent


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.


32 responses to “Reading Beneath the Words”

  1. Allen Long Avatar
    Allen Long

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen. I am looking forward to this series.

  2. Nicholas Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Griswold

    Thank you Father.

  3. Subdeacon John Kennick Avatar
    Subdeacon John Kennick

    Anxiously anticipating the next “installment.” Joyous Theophany Father.

  4. Mike H Avatar
    Mike H

    Looking forward to the series.

    Perhaps this is semantics, but I do think there is a difference between a “hidden meaning” (something that was “there all along” as if there is absolutely no discontinuity) as compared to “intentionally reshaping the past to speak to the present” in the sense of retelling a story, redefining it from within itself.

    Allegory seems to eliminate the idea of change and journeying, since really something was there all along. There’s no basis for the concept of “You have heard it said…but I say to you” if a thing was really there all along (allegorically).

  5. Mark Avatar

    “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life, it is these that testify of Me.” (John 5:39)

    Could it be that words and phrases seem to be taken out of context because we have not yet seen the context as we should?

  6. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Mike H,
    The concept “You have heard it said…but I say to you…” you should perhaps define that better for me. Do you mean that Christ is contradicting, or adding, or something else?

    Of course, in speaking of hidden meaning, I’m using the NT’s own words. “That which was from the beginning…” seems pretty clear to me. It is, if you will, the “apocalyptic” character of Christianity – it reveals hidden (cryptic) things.

    Stay tuned…

  7. Cody Avatar

    While I agree with most of what you are saying, it should be noted that in the septuagent (the vesion prefered by the Church), the aforementioned passage reads

    ‘behold, a virgin shall conceive in the womb, and shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name Emmanuel. Butter and honey shall he eat, before he knows either to prefer evil or choose the good. 16 For before the child shall know good or evil, he refuses evil, to choose the good; and the land shall be forsaken which thou art afraid of because of the two kings.’

    The Septuagent predates the version you have quoted, and is more reliable in that the version you have quoted has been tampered with by Jewish authorities to reflect their anti-christian bias. Please note as well, the septuagent clearly says ‘virgin’.

    No, I would say that this prophecy is not an abstract alogory, but an actual, concert, historical prophecy of Christ, and that this is doubly appearant in it’s overall context in the book of Isaiah.

    Think of the example in Acts, and the Ethiopian eunuch. This stuff is not doubly apparent, obvious, or concrete. “How can I understand unless someone teaches me?” If it were apparent, there would be no need for teaching, the Apostles or the Church. Just the concrete, apparent, obvious book. Which is what the Protestants say. It’s just not Orthodoxy.

  8. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I think that’s very accurate – Christ and His Pascha – is the actual context of all things (in the whole universe). “Deep calls to deep.” And when the Deep calls, that which is hidden in the depths answers. Christ calls forth the truth of all things.

  9. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Perhaps we struggle with understanding because we have forgotten how to tell and listen to stories; forgotten how to sing and listen to poetry?

    We have become Joe Friday: “Just the facts, mam” with hearts of stone.

    Can something be revealed that is not already there?

  10. Marcus Avatar

    I have so many questions brewing, but I will wait for the rest of the series before I formulate them. Looking forward to this Father!

  11. Byron Avatar

    “Next: Authorial Intent”.

    Or you might have written, “WAIT FOR IT! I’m just warming up!” 🙂

    Very much looking forward to this, Father. It is a very difficult subject to understand, much less apply properly.

  12. Raphael Avatar

    Eagerly awaiting this series Father.
    1. In a recent exchange with someone at church I suggested that Orthodoxy is almost never ‘metaphorical’ in the usual way we use that term.

    I explained that that when we proclaim a feast in the present tense, we mean exactly what we say. It is not poetic license or hyperbole. When we say, the Church is the body of Christ, this is not symbolic (in the modern sense) but rather a reality. For me, this is one of the biggest mental shifts required to begin to acquire an Orthodox phronema.

    2. Fr. John Behr does some good stuff along these lines (re: how to read Scripture) in his talk here :

  13. Dana Avatar

    Fr, I’m not too well-studied in Church history, but in the last few posts I’ve read a lot about the things “hidden,” reminding me of the little I’ve learned about gnosticism. I’m *certainly* not accusing you of heresy (I’ve not the knowledge nor authority to do so), but I’d very much appreciate if you could delineate the differences between a Christianity that embraces that which is hidden, and the “hidden/secret knowledge” that is goal of gnosticism.

  14. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Just as the gnostics stole the term “gnostic,” meaning, “one who knows,” so they were able to steal other terms such as “hidden.” St. Clement of Alexandria, for example, referred to mature Christians as “gnostics,” without a fear of being misunderstood.

    The difference, frankly, lies mostly in what is hidden and in how it is revealed and made known. Some, outside of Orthodoxy, accuse Orthodoxy of gnosticism on account of its penchant for “mystical theology.”

  15. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    It really makes no difference (the LXX) to the point being made. In the context in Isaiah, it is not at all clear in any way that this is a reference to an expected Messiah. I believe it is a reference to the Messiah, but not because that’s what Isaiah thought he was saying or because that’s what the passage actually says. To suggest otherwise, is simply ignoring what is in the passage.

    There are barely any “concrete, historical” prophecies regarding the Messiah. At least in concrete, historical sense. But the entirety of the OT is a prophecy of the coming Christ – if you know how to read it. If it were “concrete, historical” then the Apostles would not have to have been so clearly and divinely instructed to see what should have been obvious. It is not obvious, nor concrete and historical. St. Paul makes it quite clear that the revelation of Christ was “hidden.” But you seem to be denying this.

  16. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Dana, the heresy of Gnosticism is opposite in nearly every way to the revealed faith of the Church.

    A couple of high points:

    Gnostics purport to not only know God but know who knows. The higher Gnostics can discern who is saved and who is not, even make that decision.

    The gnosis of the Church lies in humility, obedience and contrition–See Psalm 50/51. God surprises us in His immediacy and His transcendence often at the same time. We don’t penetrate Him and His mystery but rather allow ourselves to be penetrated by Him.

    Or so it seems to me.

  17. Byron Avatar

    Who was it that denied the Gnostics the use of Scripture because they did not interpret it within the context of the Church? I seem to recall one Saint doing so when debating/arguing with them….

  18. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    It was St. Irenaeus. He said that the Gnostics lacked the “Apostolic model (matrix, or paradigm, etc)” only by which the Scriptures can be rightly read. That model is, as he shows in his Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, Christ crucified, dead and risen, etc. The Gnostics try to make Christ into something else. He says they treat the Scriptures like a shattered mosaic of a king, and lacking the basic paradigm, they put the pieces back together but they resemble a fox or something else. It is essential that we understand with Irenaeus that the mosaic must be assembled. It is not obvious or clear, unless you hhave the true Apostolic witness. That witness is the Tradition of the Orthodox faith.

  19. Dana Avatar

    I certainly wouldn’t accuse Orthodoxy of Gnosticism (that’s a contradiction of terms), but I’m wondering what and where the primary points of distinction are. Maybe this is a question for a different post, but I suppose my question would be, why are Gnostics heretics? Or rather, what is a Gnostic? I read the wikipedia page a couple times but the whole issue seems rather blurry (though it seemed that that Orthodox stressed faith while as the Gnostics stressed secret & hidden knowledge for salvation). I don’t mean this to detract from what is otherwise a very insightful piece on hermeneutics, but red-flags always go up when I hear things about “secrets” and “hidden things” etc.

  20. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Many scholars in the past seemed to emphasize “methods” of salvation (knowledge versus faith). But it’s much sharper than that. Gnosticism, first off, really eschews the crucified Christ, and portrays Christ primarily as some sort of bringer of secret knowledge. People listen too much to scholars such as Elaine Pagels and fail to have a feel for Gnosticism. Here’s some opening lines from the Pistis Sophia (a Gnostic text). It’s just weird.

    IT came to pass, when Jesus had risen from the dead, that he passed eleven years discoursing with his disciples, and instructing them only up to the regions of the First Commandment and up to the regions of the First Mystery, that within the Veil, within the First Commandment, which is the four-and-twentieth mystery without and below–those [four-and-twenty] which are in the second space of the First Mystery which is before all mysteries,–the Father in the form of a dove.

    What the First Mystery surroundeth.And Jesus said to his disciples: “I am come forth out of that First Mystery, which is the last mystery, that is the four-and-twentieth mystery.” And his disciples have not known nor understood that anything existeth within that mystery; but they thought of that mystery, that it is the head of the universe and the head of all existence; and they thought it is the completion of all completions, because Jesus had said to them concerning that mystery, that it surroundeth the First Commandment and the five Impressions and the great Light |2. and the five Helpers and the whole Treasury of the Light.

    It’s more like New Age stuff, but without the self-help nonsense. Later, when it begins to talk about the Aeons and the Ogdoad, etc., it’s about as weird as L Ron Hubbard’s science fiction.

    They indeed picked up on the “hiddenness” of the gospel and used that for their own purpose. Those who were refuting Gnosticism never denied the hiddenness of things, but instead noted that the Apostles would surely have given their insight and teachings to the men whom they appointed as their successors – the Bishops. Whatever was hidden and made known belongs to the Tradition of the Orthodox faith. There is nothing else hidden. The Church is the fullness of revelation.

  21. Benjamin Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    I hope to understand more the use of this ‘hiddness’ approach to Scripture within the Orthodox context. I don’t understand how the early Church used the Prophets is different from how groups such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, or Left-Behind believing Christians use Scripture. Their main argument is that things were ‘hidden’ before but now God has revealed them through the leaders of these groups. I became Orthodox because of the historical argument and the idea that God would not abandon His Church throughout the ages. I think now my historical argument is flawed, but now I have no idea of what to replace it with when talking with my Protestant relatives about such things. If the Church Fathers and NT writers used a ‘hiddeness’ argument, how is the Orthodox Church different in its approach from the Protestants? It seems to just come down to an argument of perspective.

  22. Dino Avatar

    The historical argument for the Church is not flawed because of this in any way, Her own hymns have been full of this “hiddeness” symbolism from the very start, (utterly in line with what we also find in the Epistles). Protestants and others you mention often lack both the historical tradition and the right type of “hiddeness”.

  23. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    What I have cited is, clearly, within the NT itself and has been there from the beginning. On the other hand, once what is “hidden” is made known, it begins to be utterly evident. Listen to Handel’s Messiah. All of the oratorio is, in fact, allegorical (hidden) in its original character. But it is clear to us now.

    What, in fact, happens with the Protestants, et al, is almost a complete loss of the hiddenness. They see almost nothing in the Old Testament in the manner of the Fathers and the Apostles. They have made it an opaque collection of texts. The Jehovah’s Witnesses and their ilk do even worse.

    That the Orthodox continue to see and understand the Scriptures in the very same manner (and content) as is found in the NT speaks very loudly of its truth and faithfulness. Indeed, the Church itself is among those things that were hidden and is now made known. It is a rock for some to stand upon, and a rock against which others smash themselves. But it remains the rock.

  24. Mihai Avatar

    Father Stephen, since you mentioned the world as an icon- I have been pondering these days about your first essay on allegory, and here is what I think the key to a better understanding of Scripture- the words of the 7th Ecumenical Council- that icons do with colors what Scriptures do with words.
    Now this may serve no only to enlighten us about icons, but about the Scriptures as well.

    When we look, let’s say at the Nativity icon- we see the historical event presented not as a sort of photograph of the scene, as would have been seen empirically by some observer that happened to be there. We see the scene put in its archetypal context, the historical moment in the light of the Eighth Day which reveals to the eye of the heart what the physical senses could not have seen, regardless of how well they recorded the empirical details.
    Applying this to the events described in Scripture I think we may start to make better sense of the relationship between literal-historical-symbolical-allegorical points of view that troubles us so much.

  25. Dino Avatar

    the way we paint icons from an eternal-eschatological perspective is truly a very good thing to consider and a method to use to read Scripture…

  26. Raphael Avatar

    I’ve been listening (again) to Fr John Behr’s talk I linked above.
    His point–as regards the correct understanding of scripture (which in this context is specially the “Old Testament”)–is that the starting point is what matters. The ancients, he argues, didn’t concern themselves with the internal meaning of a text, but rather what the correct starting point is by which to understand a text. This is why St. Paul could be so well-versed in the scriptures (a Hebrew among Hebrews) and still be blind to the true meaning of scripture. He did not have the right starting point: Jesus Christ crucified.

  27. Benjamin Avatar

    Fr. Stephen and Dino,

    Thank you for your comments. What I find to be most frustrating is that I see these connections, I see the hiddeness, especially in the Psalms, while my relatives do not. Reflecting upon it, it is the Divine Liturgy and the language within it and how the Liturgy shows forth and gives action to all that is hidden within the Old Testament revealed in this very moment of the Pascha. I don’t always pay attention to this. I still have much of my old secular ways of sight.

    I think I just need to be patient with my relatives. I could try to argue and ‘prove’ them wrong, but it would be useless because there is no Love in an argument. It’s just hard to show them something that I can see plainly. I must remember that I was also blind and still can not see well. I only a glimmer of light in the shadows of my mind.

    Dino, I see now how my historical search to find the Church in the same fullness as it is shown in the New Testament and Church Fathers wasn’t wrong, but was rather the journey I took to find the Orthodox Church. My wife found it through the love and open honesty of the people at our parish. Thank you for the encouragement.

    The Church was there at the beginning. Scripture is breathed through all of the poetry and songs of the Church. Whenever I pray the Psalms now, which I have always enjoyed even before I became Orthodox, I see so much more. More speaks to me. I think Raphael put it well, we must have the right starting point before we can see anything. Now every time I see the psalms I see Christ if I focus.

    Thank you everyone for this wonderful blog and great discussions. It is hard to repent from one’s old ways of thinking.

  28. Martin Zip Avatar
    Martin Zip

    It appears that you are going to interpret the Old Testament from an allegorical point of view. What about the typological point of view? Fr. John Breck states in one of his writings entitled – Allegory : Exegetical Method Or Spiritual Vision?: “Before moving to a reevaluation of allegory and its relevance for biblical interpretation today, however, it is necessary to clarify the relation between allegory and the exegetical method known as typology.” Is the typological method relevant? What are the differences between the two approaches? Are they at odds with one another? Or are they compatible approaches?

  29. Dino Avatar

    The historical, ‘facticity’ case is sometimes actually, deliberately stated strongly, a prime specimen being today’s reading, yet it still points to the truth of the profounder and immortal point: “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness” (Luke 3:1-2)…. “As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet: “A voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.”

  30. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Good question. I will be getting to some of that in this series. But, in short, in the classical use of the term “allegory” (as used in the Fathers, typology is only a subset. Allegory was their catch-all term. Fr. Breck is right, but he is using contemporary meanings. Pretty much none of the Old Testament imagery is what moderns would call “allegory” (“this stands for that”). It is almost all typological, or something that falls within that. The change in the meaning of “allegory” came about because of a modern disdain for the ancient understanding.

  31. Albert Haddad Avatar
    Albert Haddad

    Great connections. Thank you Fr. Stephen.


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