Let us suppose that you have heard the story of Jesus, in a fairly bare form, nothing like as complete as any of the gospels – just a general outline. And then let us suppose that the only Scriptures you have access to are the Old Testament. You have never seen a New Testament and do not have its phrases in your mind. And then let us suppose that you sit down to read the Old Testament for the purpose of finding Christ within its pages. How far do you think you’d get? Something like this was the task that confronted the primitive Church and the Apostles. Or at least we can posit such a thing.
So, we may ask, how do you get from such a situation to the full-blown midrash that is the New Testament? By that, I mean, a writing whose use of the Old Testament is presupposed at every turn, but nowhere follows a truly rational, discursive path through those writings. Mind you, the writings that comprise the Old Testament are little help, in and of themselves. They are a disparate collection of primal stories, histories, and poetry ranging over a period in excess of a 1,000 years, spanning a number of cultures.
Anyone who today suggests that we should read the Scriptures in a “rational” manner is ignoring almost the entire process that is actually at work when a Christian reads the Old Testament. For example, nowhere in the Old Testament is there an overall scope of the expectations concerning a coming Messiah. There is no narrative within the Old Testament of what a Messiah will do or accomplish.
The early Christian reading of the Old Testament (of which the New Testament is our prime example) is, in fact, a strange assemblage of frequently unrelated verses and passages whose Christian usage is often quite independent of their contextual meaning.
Contemporary Christians never come to the Old Testament in the manner of the writers of the New. We cannot approach many of the passages in Isaiah, for example, without hearing the strains of Handel’s Messiah. We are the heirs of 2,000 years of Christian appropriation of the Old Testament. We often fail to recognize how remarkable our usage is.
I do not write any of this to suggest a problem with how the New Testament handles the Old. I accept the Christian interpretation of the Old Testament as a foundational part of the faith. It is affirmed in the Creed: “According to the Scriptures.”
Think for a minute about that phrase. It is stated, “…who on the third day rose again from the dead in accordance with the Scriptures…” (1 Cor. 15:4). To what Scripture is St. Paul alluding when he says “on the third day?” I should quickly add that St. Paul is here quoting what he calls a “tradition.” It is clearly a primitive form of what would be called the Apostles’ Creed. But what Scripture?
The only place in the Old Testament that hints at such a thing is the three days of Jonah in the belly of the whale. But that reference is in no way obvious. It could indeed have been treated as incidental to the story. But we hear Christ in the gospels referencing the “sign of Jonah” and predicting His three-day burial and resurrection. And this is my point. The New Testament only reads the Old in a Christian manner, because that manner was handed down to the Apostles by Christ Himself.
Another example is Christ as the Paschal Lamb. St. Paul says, “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us,” but there is nothing within the Passover story as it stands in the Old Testament that suggests that it is a type of the Messiah’s deliverance of God’s people. The same can be said of the Messiah as a sacrifice. Indeed, the primary focus of what little Old Testament interest there is in a coming Messiah seems to be primarily directed towards a political manifestation. That was precisely the character of the other “false Messiahs” who came and went near the time of Christ.
But the Christian reading of the Old Testament is something new on the scene of Judaism. In a very short order (cf. 1 Cor. 15 and the “Creed” embedded there), there is a clear hermeneutic of the Old Testament that bears all of the outlines that direct the thoughts found within the New Testament writings. And those thoughts shaped the narratives of the gospels and everything else that came afterward.
I believe that it is historically absurd to suggest that such a narrative has any source other than Christ Himself (as the gospels themselves suggest). How the Church reads the Old Testament shows no particular signs of evolution or development. Instead, it seems to burst forth in full bloom. The “in accordance with the Scriptures” is itself one of the proofs of the resurrection.
But that reading of the Scriptures was not arrived at by a rational, systematic approach. It was revelatory, apocalyptic, and sudden. And this is very much what the gospels themselves say. When Christ appears to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus who are clearly troubled and discussing the events and rumors of the resurrection, He says:
“O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! Ought not the Christ to have suffered these things and to enter into His glory?” And beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself.
This is the origin of the Paschal narrative, the peculiar way of reading the Old Testament that marks the Christian faith.
But this is where I want to press a further point. How is it that those who demand a rational/literal approach to the Scriptures fail to see its incongruity? The Christian faith reads the Scriptures (OT) under the direction of a Tradition that was given by Christ. And it can only read in that manner if it reads faithfully. By the same token, the work of the historical critics is an interesting artifact of our modern times, but it has nothing to say to a Christian hermeneutic that has always read the Scriptures in accordance with the resurrection and not in accordance with history. Whatever the origins and intentions of that collection of writings (the Old Testament) may have been, they are now and forever exalted into the Scriptures of the New by the resurrection.