Saint Luke the Evangelist, 2016
The Christian Context
After the resurrection, Jesus Christ tells his disciples, “‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures” (Saint Luke 24:44-45a).
Christian interpretation of the Holy Bible begins here. We believe that the divine inspiration of the Scriptures and the interpretation of them supersede the conscious intention of the authors as well as their education and literary abilities, and their use and adaptation of existing sources, forms, and theology. The inspiration of the Scriptures makes them, all of them, in the deepest possible sense about Jesus Christ.
Historic critics miss this depth, yet their insights have merit to the depth that their insights plumb. We must not lose sight of Jesus in all of the Scriptures, for he is there as surely as God is there in the providential development and unfolding of history, prophecy, poetry, and wisdom.
The Books of the Old Testament
The Old Testament consists of books written by the people of the Old Covenant, the Jews, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, to show God at work in nature and history. All the books of the Holy Scriptures are called the Word of God because God inspired their human authors and because God still speaks to us through the Bible.
The Jews classified the Scriptures in three groups: the Law (Torah), the Prophets, and other Books, known collectively as the “Writings.” The Law comprised the Pentateuch or “Five Books of Moses” (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) regarded more highly than the rest. These five books trace the Creation, the patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph), the bondage of the Israelites in Egypt, their redemption, wanderings, and the giving of the Law. Most Biblical critics hold that these books are compiled from previously written documents dating from the ninth to the fifth centuries BC.
The Prophets fell into two groups, the Former Prophets (Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, and 1 and 2 Kings) and the Latter Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Twelve Minor Prophets).
Joshua traces the history of the Israelites from the death of Moses to the death of his successor, Joshua, and gives an account of the entry into and conquest of Palestine, its partition among the twelve tribes and Joshua’s last speeches. Judges traces Israelite history from Joshua’s death to the beginning of the monarchy describing incidents connected with the conquest of Palestine, and woven round the names of several leaders (judges) who ruled the country before the time of Saul. In 1 and 2 Samuel, after the story of Samuel, the writer sets down a description of the reigns of Saul (eleventh century BC) and David (tenth century BC). 1 and 2 Kings record the history of the monarchy from the accession of Solomon (970 BC) to the Fall of Jerusalem (586 BC), and to Babylon. The inclusion of the Former Prophets, properly historical Books, among the Prophets so far accords with the modern view which sees in them history written for an essentially prophetic point of view.
Of the Latter Prophets, Isaiah prophesied in the eighth century BC, asserting the supremacy of God and laying stress on the Divine holiness, giving to theology for the first time an ethical content. Jeremiah, a seventh century prophet, is the most personal and sensitive of the prophets, and remains conscious throughout of a close union with God and of the value and responsibility of the individual soul. His own sufferings and his weeping over the doomed city of Jerusalem have traditionally been seen as figure of the life of Christ, and the Church uses the book together with Lamentations during Passiontide. Ezekiel, a sixth-century prophet, reflects from Babylonian exile on the destruction of Jerusalem and the Jewish nation. His characteristic teaching concerns individual responsibility that “it is only the person who sins that shall die” (18:4).
The writings comprised all the remaining books of the English Old Testament (Ruth, 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, and Daniel) as well as some others (Ecclesiasticus, Tobit, and 1 and 2 Maccabees) which the Jews later rejected.
1 and 2 Chronicles record the history of Israel and Judah from Creation to the return from Exile under Cyrus (536 BC). The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah continue the history begun in Chronicles extending from the return from Exile to the latter half of the fifth century. Job’s main subject is the perennial problem of innocent suffering. Job rejects the traditional view that suffering is the result of sin, for he has no doubt of his innocence. No final solution is offered apart from the emphasis on the omnipotence of God (38—42:6). Traditionally interpreted, the Psalms cover the whole range of the relations between God and man. God, the eternal, immutable, and omnipotent, is the Creator of the universe which he upholds by his divine providence. The nation’s hope for the future is centered on a scion of the Davidic line (110) and God’s son (2) who will cast down his enemies (89) and unite the whole world in his worship (22). Daniel includes two main sections: a narrative describing the experiences of Daniel and his three companions under the kings of Babylon and Darius the Mede, and the series of visions granted to Daniel.
By the time of Christ, Jews everywhere recognized the Law and the Prophets as Holy Scripture, but the exact compass of the Writings was still undefined. While some, like the Psalms, were universally received, others, like Esther, were disputed though later accepted. Others again, like Ecclesiasticus, which were later rejected, were not yet definitely excluded. The Canon of the Jewish Scriptures was probably settled at about the end of the first century, certainly by the end of the second century.
Marcion and the Old Testament
Marcion (d. 160 AD) asked why we should read the Old Testament when he observed most pointedly that the Christian Gospel was entirely a Gospel of Love to the absolute exclusion of Law. This idea led him to reject the Old Testament completely. The Creator God revealed in the Old Testament from Genesis on was a God of Law and had nothing in common with the God of Jesus Christ, according to Marcion and his followers. The Jewish God constantly changed course of action and was fickle, capricious, despotic, and cruel. Further, Marcion held that Jesus had come to inaugurate a new kingdom, in effect to overthrow the rule of a tyrannical God. Marcion believed that Saint Paul understood this polarized contrast of Law and Gospel though he considered the Apostles and Evangelists to be blinded to the truth of Jewish influence. So, he accepted as canonical Scriptures only ten epistles of Saint Paul and an edited version of the Gospel according to Saint Luke.
Marcion became associated with the orthodox Church in Rome about 140, and he attempted to use his sizable wealth to influence that congregation of Christians. By 144, he was formally excommunicated, and since then, acceptance of the Old Testament has been one characteristic of catholic faith. His heterodox views spurred the Church to differentiate between true and spurious scriptures though his views were thoroughly rejected. He unwittingly encouraged the Church along in the process of declaring the Canon of Holy Scripture of which the Church is the Steward even until this day.
The Teaching of the Old Testament
Since Marcion’s objections have been set aside, the Old Testament has been part of the Christian faith. We can see, if we will, that the teaching of the Old Testament commends itself to us. Christians see that the teaching of the Old and New Testaments is harmonious and not discontinuous. That teaching may be briefly and insufficiently reduced to these four principal strands:
- God is the Creator and Ruler of the world. And he watches over the life of human beings, guiding them toward an ideal of social and personal righteousness and holiness.
- The ideal for human beings is to seek after God and to know themselves to be entirely in God’s service, utterly dependent upon God’s care: one shall show one’s life to be morally holy which alone allows one to enter into relationship with the God of holiness.
- Human suffering is addressed repeatedly. Whatever the solution, God is always just and merciful. This problem is never abandoned as insoluble, meaningless, or arbitrary: suffering is to be accounted for either as penalty for disobedience, or as moral discipline, or as a burden to be borne in service of others.
- This same moral emphasis characterizes the visions of the future, the messianic teachings. For individuals, nations, and for all mankind, the ideal is found in that condition of things when God’s kingship is accepted throughout the world and social righteousness prevails in every corner of life.
© 2016 Howard Stringfellow III