Some months ago it was arranged by the good people of the Russian Orthodox diocese of Souroz in Britain that I would give a talk at their diocesan conference this May entitled Unveiling the Scriptures. That plan came to grief with the coming of the Covid virus which resulted in our government cancelling flights to Britain and the probable cancellation of the conference itself. But the talk has long since been written, and I would like to serialize it here on this blog.
The assigned topic for this address—“Unveiling the Scriptures”—presupposes that the Scriptures are to some degree veiled. That is true, in the sense that many people in the world and even many Christians do not have a good grasp of the nature of the Scriptures which they read and cite all the time. This deficit of understanding is rooted in a lack of historical knowledge of how the Scriptures came to be written and collected, with the result that many people assume that “the Bible” is a magic book. That is, they assume that the Church claims the Bible was written by God in the same way that Islam claims the Quran was written by Allah—that the various writers of the Biblical texts were merely passive instruments in the hands of God, who more or less dictated the text as is, so that the Bible’s authority is entirely rooted in this process of inspiration. The Bible thus becomes a kind of a-historical volume, something that descended in a lump from the sky, a source untouched by history and divorced from any historical development—and also divorced from any contemporary relevance.
Fortunately, few Christians today subscribe to such a mechanical view of inspiration-by-dictation, but many of them still regard inspiration as the sole category to be used when discussing Biblical authority. Bluntly put, they imagine that the Biblical texts are authoritative because God somehow turned the inspiration switch on when the human authors were writing, and then turned it off when they were finished. In this model of inspiration, St. Paul was simply a human author whom God used: he was inspired by God when he wrote his epistles, but was not inspired when he had finished writing them, and so was then no more authoritative in this uninspired state than anyone else. In this model, the concept of inspiration more or less swallows up the concept of apostolicity. Every part of the Bible is authoritative because every part was written after God had turned on an inspiration switch before the human authors began to write. The Bible thus becomes magical.
But the Bible is not the product of magic. Technically speaking, it is not even “the Bible” (a single book). The word “Bible” of course comes from the Greek τα βιβλια–the books (in the plural), for it is not a single book (like, for example, War and Peace), but a collection of different books, an entire library. It represents a selection from the literature of an entire people, containing various literary genres, written over a long period of time. And it was written very long ago in the ancient Near East, and so shares with other literature of that time a common pre-scientific cosmology, a common way of using numbers, and a common way of writing history—all of which differ from our modern ways of doing science, using numbers, and writing history. A magic book would somehow bypass the culture of its time, but the Bible is not a magic book. It is rooted in the culture of its time, since in it God was speaking to the people of that time.
In a sense, the Bible was incarnated in the culture of its day in the same way that Jesus was incarnated in the world and culture of His day. An old document called (a bit misleadingly) “the Athanasian Creed” refers to the Incarnation of Jesus as accomplished “not by conversion of Godhead into flesh, but by taking of Manhood into God”. This provides a kind of analogy for the written Word of God as well: it also was accomplished by the taking up of human literature into God, so that it could be used for His divine purposes. Just as Christ was 100% human, so is the Bible 100% human, bearing all the characteristics of a literature produced in the ancient Near East. Viewing the Bible as magical represents therefore a kind of literary Docetism.
Christians are people of the Scriptures or “people of the Book”, as even Muhammad knew in the seventh century, for all his lack of any real understanding of Christianity or Judaism. We see this in our icons. Arguably the bishops are the Church’s main leaders and pastors, and when a bishop appears in an icon, he is usually carrying a book—i.e. the Gospel. Both apologists and martyrs were forever quoting their Scriptures to outsiders, even if the disciplina arcana kept them from being too talkative about the Church’s inner traditions.
But the treasury of the Scriptures was a gift that came at the end of a long process of development taking centuries. It is perhaps rather jarring to be reminded that when that process began—i.e. when God called Abraham out of Chaldea to begin his long adventurous exile of wandering—there were no Scriptures. God spoke to Abraham, but He did not give him a written text. Nor did Abraham write anything down. Nor did his son Isaac, or his grandson Jacob. Nor did his son, Joseph. In fact, the early centuries of revelation all took place in a distinctly oral culture. It is important to ask why this was and what it means. Let us begin to find out. In the process, I hope the Scriptures can be unveiled for us enough to see their true significance and their true use.
The Patriarchal Period
It is crucial for us to understand what it was that was revealed when we speak of “Revelation”. As we see in the case of Abraham and the patriarchs, what was revealed was not “the Word of God” (in the sense of a text or even a verbal message), but God Himself. Abram was not given a message so much as he was treated to an encounter. In this encounter, of course, God spoke to him. God did not just show him a map of Palestine, with the city of Hebron circled on it as a way of telling him to go there. He spoke to him and sent him on his way, and continued to speak to him periodically after that. There is a verbal component to most human encounters. But the point remains that in Biblical revelation presence was primary, not message. God would occasionally come to Abraham in an encounter to continue his relationship with him.
Sometimes the encounter involved giving directions (i.e. “leave Chaldea”), sometimes it involved giving promises (“I will make you the father of nations”), and sometimes it involved giving a test (“offer your son Isaac to Me as a human sacrifice”). Sometimes it involved what we might characterize as casual conversation between two friends, as when God said to Himself, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do to Sodom and Gomorrah?”, followed by and bit of typical Near Eastern haggling about it after He shared with Abraham what He was planning to do. But always the revelation consisted primarily of the gift of presence. Abraham did not write down what God said, any more than we write down what our friends tell us in our ongoing relationships. Abraham, after all, was called “the friend of God”, not the secretary of God.
Thus it was that during the patriarchal period and afterward, when Israel entered Egypt, they took with them no Scriptural records of their patriarchal history—just the oral traditions about them. They had no writings, and they didn’t need any. They were not the People of the Book, but the People of God. However, a written record of their dealings with God would come soon enough.
The Mosaic Period
It was with Moses that the first written records of God’s dealings with His people began to be written. But even then, the main gift was that of presence, not message. When God appeared to Moses at the burning bush, He came with fire, not with a text. And He promised to liberate His people from Egypt, despite the protests and counter-action of Pharaoh, head of the greatest super-power in the world. And liberate them He did, smiting Egypt with ten blows and then leading His people through the Yam Suph to freedom. Once on the other side, He fed them with manna from heaven, and water from the rock. And still He gave them nothing on paper. Note: He gave them commandments—e.g. “gather the manna every day except the seventh day of rest”—but nothing that was written down. Their relationship with God was based on His abiding presence with Him and their loving response to that presence.
It was not until they came to Sinai that anything was written. And even then, the gift was primarily one of presence. And quite a terrifying presence at that: there were thunders and lightnings atop the mountain of revelation, along with a thick cloud and the blast of a trumpet. And the Ten Commandments (literally “the Ten Words”) were given orally, which terrified them even more, so that they begged Moses to ask God to stop speaking to them like that. Let God talk to Moses instead, and he could tell them what God said!
When God condescended and granted their request, Moses came down from the mountain with the Ten Words written on stone tablets—the first time anything (as far as the Pentateuchal narrative is concerned) that God had said had been written down. And here we must decisively forget about Charlton Heston, lugging down two huge stone tablets from the mountain top, each one of which must have weighed about a hundred pounds. The stone tablets looked more like the small tablets with cuneiform writing we see in museums—i.e. small enough for one tablet to be held in the palm of a man’s hand. The fact that there were two tablets was probably an instance of the ancient practice of the provisions of covenants being written in duplicate—one copy for each of the two parties in covenant. Anyway, the tablets were small enough to fit easily into the small chest or box that was the Ark of the Covenant.
There were other written instructions as well—instructions for living life in the Promised Land. These had to do with provisions for dealing with one’s slaves, with criminal offenses, with sexual matters, and with a cultic calendar of worship. A summary of them can be found in Exodus 21-23—they are that short. These instructions were also sufficiently concise that they could be written on a white-washed stone and set up where anyone could see them (Deuteronomy 27:2, Joshua 24:26). This functioned as much as a reminder of the covenant as a rehash of its details, since at that time few people could actually read.
Given this widespread lack of popular literacy, what did these written provisions mean? In that culture, when covenants were made between kings and vassals, the provisions of their covenant or treaty were always written down for posterity—and for handy reference should the provisions of the covenant be broken and the promised punishments for breaking it go into effect. That was in part the reason for writing down all the commandments. The priests knew the details (or were supposed to know the details) and they functioned as teachers of the people. In an oral culture, knowledge, law, and lore were mostly transmitted orally, so one must not imagine the priests consulting books like scholars at a university consulting their libraries. The lore was passed down from father to son, like everything else in an oral culture.
The truth is that we do not precisely know when the books of the Bible known now as the Pentateuch (or, come to that, the Books of Joshua and Judges) came to be written, and scholars entertain varied and conflicting opinions about it. I myself believe that there is a core of written material that goes back to Moses, so that the so-called “Book of the Covenant” contained in Exodus 21-23 dates from his time. Certainly the record of the various stops in their wilderness wandering before they reached Canaan (found in Numbers 33) must go back to that period, for the various locations named as their stopping places came to be rapidly lost later on, and later authors would hardly make them up.
But one thing is certain: the texts as we currently have them cannot have been written by Moses or his immediate successors. For one thing, Moses could hardly have recorded his death in Deuteronomy 34, or characterized himself as “the meekest man on the face of the earth” in Numbers 12. Also, the current text contains references to events that happened long afterward (e.g. Genesis 21:34, which mentions Canaan as being the land of the Philistines, who in fact did not enter Canaan until much later). Obviously our present text is the result of many later additions and revisions. This does not detract from its authority or authenticity. But it does make precise dating more difficult.
The main point here is that during the Mosaic period and later on when Israel was living in Canaan under the Judges, the people had no access to literary documents, and most could not have read them if they did have access. They all lived in an oral culture, and the written documents and stories of the patriarchs and the epic story of their liberation from Egypt and the giving of the Law during their wilderness wandering—whenever they came to be written down for the first time—existed to undergird this oral culture. For Israelites back then, religion did not mean reading a book, but worshipping a God, and encountering Him at the altar of sacrifice. Obviously they would pray privately too and keep domestic rituals such as the Sabbath rest, and would orally instruct their children. But literacy played little part in all this. Israelites were not People of the Book, but People of the Mosaic Covenant.
The Period of the Kings
This situation began to slowly change under the kings of Israel and Judah. There had always been prophets in Israel, but they functioned more as seers and diviners than as sources of theological revelation. Thus when young Saul lost his family’s donkeys, he went to ask a seer where they were (read all about it in 1 Samuel 9). The seer was Samuel, who occupied a place in Israelite society later occupied by the prophets (1 Samuel 9:9). The prophets were ecstatic figures, given to bouts of ecstasy—in fact the verb “to prophesy”—Hebrew naba—is sometimes translated “to rave”. (Thus 1 Samuel 10:10 and 1 Kings 18:29).
The institution of prophecy underwent a long development in Israel—too long to detail here. Suffice to say that when Israelite kings held court, they would always have some prophets among their staff and on their payroll. The job of these prophets—as in other parts of the ANE—was to advise the king about whether or not a possible course of action was a wise one. And, given human nature, to encourage the king and tell him that what he had already decided to do was the right thing. Most of these prophets left no written records of their prophecies. Thus even such “A-list” prophets as Elijah and Elisha left no written documents.
But during the later period of the kings of Israel and Judah, some of the prophets did leave literary remains. We have their documents in our Bibles, as the Books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, etc. etc. Why the change from entirely oral to oral-and-written? Here we come to an important turning point in Israel’s history and in the history of Scripture itself.
The people of Israel and Judah, from the days of the Judges, had embarked on a long and disastrous journey of syncreticism and idolatry. They had not obeyed the Law that Yahweh had given them through Moses, which commanded them to shun all other gods and to worship Him alone. They combined the worship of Yahweh with the worship of Canaanite gods such as Baal, the storm god, and a host of other pagan deities as well. So it was that much of the literature that began to be produced about this time (the exact timing of its production is a little fuzzy, as I have said) made a point of denouncing this syncretism and idolatry. Thus Joshua not only detailed the victories and distribution of the Promised Land, but also called Israel to cast away their idols. Thus the Book of Judges detailed how bad things were before the kings came when every man did what was right in his own eyes and flouted God’s Law. Thus the epic story of the rise of Saul, David, and the other kings detailed how Israel continued down this idolatrous path to their own ultimate destruction at the hands of the Assyrians and the Babylonians.
The prophets of this time also took up the mantle of denunciation and called Israel back to fidelity to God. The whole drama can be seen and summed up in Jeremiah’s confrontation with Jehoiakim, king of Judah, recorded in Jeremiah 36: Jeremiah wrote down on a scroll words denouncing Judah’s sins and threatening divine retribution, and in response the king simply burned the scroll. In those days, the words of the prophets were written down as an indictment of Israel’s sins, and as a record of the promise of restoration after these sins had been paid for. The wisdom literature of Israel—the Psalms and Proverbs—similarly served this over-arching ethical purpose.
The Post-Exilic Period
It was only after the sins of Israel had resulted in their exile to Babylon and the people had returned to the Land that this written record of Israel’s history grew to have a greater importance than it formerly had. The bulk of the people were still not that literate (opinions differ about the degree of literacy), and anyway scrolls were expensive to produce and hard to come by. When Ezra wanted to impress upon the people the importance of the Law of Moses, he did not give them a text, but read to them from a text (Nehemiah 8)—even though by then the text required translation from Hebrew into the Aramaic vernacular.
In this post-exilic period, Israel retained a vivid sense of the catastrophic results that came from disobeying the Law of Moses and ignoring the prophets who had called them to repent and obey the Law. How could they not? Though they were by then back in the Promised Land, in a sense their exile was still ongoing. God had promised a glorious future after they had paid for their sins and returned to the Land. Then a king would reign righteously, a king from the House of David, and all the nations would come and worship the Lord at Jerusalem, bringing their riches and glorifying His Temple. There would be a new heavens and a new earth. The lion would lie down with the calf and the nursing child would play over the hole of the asp, and they would not hurt or destroy in all God’s holy mountain, for the earth would be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. The time after the return from exile was to be glorious.
But none of this happened. It was as if their sins had not yet been fully forgiven and their exile not fully over. Post-exilic Israel found itself in a small and impoverished slice of land, much reduced in size from the days of David and Solomon. They were still the province and plaything of the major powers, each of which ruled in turn over them. For a little while they achieved political independence under the Hasmoneans in the days of the Maccabees. But this little respite only sharpened their sense of despair, for life under the Hasmoneans was hardly a new heavens and new earth. Rather the Hasmonean rulers proved to be every bit as corrupt and brutal as the Gentile rulers.
Still they waited for the promised glory—and as they waited, they read. The written Scriptures became ever more important, for they contained not just the Law they must keep if they expected restoration, but the promises of restoration itself. Their religious life might have been centered upon the Temple, but their hope centered upon the Scriptures. In the days immediately preceding the birth of Jesus, the written texts grew to have an importance they never had before. Israel was rapidly become the People of the Book, even as they worshipped at the Temple.
Second Temple Exegesis
It is important to understand how the Scriptures were read during this period. Because the Scriptures functioned as the repository of Israel’s poignant and sometimes desperate hopes, people read and re-read them carefully, mining them thoroughly to extract every bit of meaning—especially hidden meanings not immediately obvious to the casual reader. This means that Jewish exegesis during this Second Temple period was not like what is sometimes called today “the historical critical” meaning of the text.
Today we quite properly want to understand what the Old Testament Scriptures meant to their original hearers, and so we strive mightily to place them in their original cultural context. (Some people do this with greater success than others, as I have discovered to my cost.) This is a necessary part of modern exegesis. As Christians we go on to mine the text for what it says about Christ and His Church (more about this later), but first we must understand the text in terms of its original historical context. We must respect the text in this way, since we believe it is the Word of God, and we therefore must not foist upon a very old text our modern presuppositions.
But because the text is the Word of God, we also believe that it contains hidden meanings as well as the original historical meaning. The Old Testament texts were written by men of their time, so we must try to understand what the authors originally intended their hearers to understand. But these human authors were also indwelt by the Spirit of God, and so their words could have a significance not immediately apparent, even to them. The Jews of the Second Temple period believed this no less than we Christians do, and so they also looked for hidden meanings in the text. (This applies to St. Paul and the writers of the New Testament, who were also Second Temple Jews.)
The question is: how would the promised restoration come? What would it look like? There was no single, detailed consensus about this. Everyone knew that it would involve Israel’s debt of sin finally be totally forgiven, and that it would involve the return to God’s glory to Israel, as He dwelt in their midst in power even as He gloriously dwelt in power in the Mosaic shrine and in Solomon’s Temple. And it would also involve a world-wide diffusion of God’s glory among the Gentiles, who would at long last come to see that Israel had been right and would now come to worship Israel’s God. But beyond these basics, there was little consensus.
Did the Scriptures envision an armed uprising against the Gentile powers? Should people take up arms now? Should they wait until God acted before taking up arms to join Him? Would God act through a man, the Messiah? Would God act alone to defeat the Gentile nations and then set the Messiah on the throne? Would all Jews be saved? What about the collaborating Jewish tax-collectors? And what about the prostitutes and the sinners? Would they be saved just because they were Israelites? There were thus plenty of questions, but precious few answers. There were many conflicting guesses and various models for how God’s Scriptural promises would be fulfilled. But mostly there was just heated waiting as they paged repeatedly through the ancient sacred texts and looked for any clues in hidden meanings.
The New Testament Answer
Then, just before the death of King Herod, a young Jewish girl of about fourteen by the name of Mariam became pregnant. According to Luke’s account, she was not at all well-known, just another young teenager from the obscure town of Nazareth. Her fiancé was apparently an older man, probably a widower. When he learned that she had become pregnant and not by him, he decided that of course he must call off the wedding, and end it all quietly. But after having a dream, he decided to go through with the wedding after all. Eventually the child was born—a boy—and after some frantic to-ing and fro-ing they settled down to raise the child in Nazareth.
There is little indication that anyone thought much about them in Nazareth. All was quiet until the boy’s cousin John departed for the Judean wilderness and made a splash. It seems many regarded him as a prophet, and he started a revival movement, announcing the imminent fulfillment of all those ancient promises for restoration. Mariam’s son joined his movement, and was baptized by him. But soon enough he started his own movement, and began baptizing and making converts of his own.
This latter movement grew by leaps and bounds, especially since this young man, Joshua (Hebrew Yeshua, Hellenized as Iesous) was apparently able to perform miracles. He opened the eyes of the blind, unstopped deaf ears, cleansed lepers, and even raised the dead. People began to wonder if perhaps he were not the Messiah, since like his cousin he announced that the ancient promises for Israel’s restoration were about to be fulfilled. But he had detractors as well as fans and disciples. For he was saying odd things, claiming divine authority, even saying that he could rebuild the Temple in three days after its destruction, and could forgive sins.
Then, just before Passover, he raised from the dead an old friend who had been buried four days earlier, and who of course had begun to rot. This man stumbled out of his tomb, clean and fresh and alive, after the controversial miracle-worker had stood outside his tomb, saying a brief prayer to God and then telling him to come out of the tomb. The whole nearby city of Jerusalem, filling with people for the Passover, was electrified, and the new movement experienced a sudden surge of popularity. That was why when he entered Jerusalem for the Passover, seated on the donkey, the whole city turned out to acclaim him as the Messiah. They finally believed him. And they also believed his words promising that the ancient promises of restoration were about to be fulfilled. When he commandeered the Temple, the people supported him in this daring act and hung on his every word.
Then, suddenly, the morning after Passover, it was all over. If you somehow slept in that Friday morning, you would have awoken to find that the young miracle-worker had been arrested during the night, had been tried by the Sanhedrin in an extraordinary emergency session, turned over the Pilate, had been tried for treason against Rome, disowned by his former supporters, had been scourged and then crucified. He died on the cross after only a few hours. His followers were now in hiding; his movement utterly discredited. It had been an exciting ride to be sure, but now it was over.
Except that it wasn’t. After about a month his disciples were again back in Jerusalem, saying to anyone who would listen that their Master had arisen from the dead the third day after his burial, and that he had been appearing to them repeatedly since that time. They said that they had watched him ascend to heaven, but not before giving them instructions to spread the word that the promises of ancient restoration had indeed been fulfilled in him, and that they should continue to make disciples and converts for the new movement—and not just converts among fellow Jews, but among those in all the world. They had a sincerity and a courage that were hard to ignore—especially since they continued to do the same sort of miracles that their deceased founder had performed. And they continued to spread his message, through preaching, through letters to their new converts, and (eventually) through writing down the story of their founder and his movement.
I have narrated the story of Christian origins in the style of a Gentile journalist of the day rather than as a believing Christian because I want to give a sense of how shocking and scandalously revolutionary the Christian message first appeared to those who heard it. It turned everything on its head—and not least, the interpretation of how those ancient promises for restoration had been fulfilled and were being fulfilled in the Messiah.
The Christian Exegesis of the Old Testament
The Christian approach to the Old Testament shared with the Second Temple interpreters their approach to the Scriptures in that the Christians combed through the texts carefully to find hidden meanings—i.e. meanings not immediately apparent to an historical critical method of interpretation. But the Christian approach was different than all other Jewish interpretations in that it centered upon Jesus. His life, death, and resurrected glory were the key to understand everything. It was the grid which, when placed over the ancient texts, made everything there finally make sense.
It is important to understand what drove the first Christians to adopt such a revolutionary way of understanding the Hebrew Scriptures. They did not pore over its pages intent to find second meanings as arbitrary proof-texts for their new movement. By suppertime on the day Jesus died, as far as they were concerned, their movement was over, for their hopes had died with Jesus on the cross. What compelled them to rethink absolutely everything was the resurrection of Christ. He returned from the dead, overturning everything that they thought they knew about the history of Israel and Israel’s Scriptures.
Before the Resurrection, most people thought that Israel’s history was leading to a glorified nation. Israel had a mission from God to save the world, to be a light to the nations. Though they had clearly failed that mission, they still expected that God would act to help them fulfill their mission when the Messiah came. They expected the nations of the world to be defeated, and Israel raised in the world to glorious heights after God returned in power to His Temple, restoring His divine presence there.
The resurrected glory of Christ proved that Israel’s destiny was being fulfilled not in a glorified nation, but in a glorified Messiah. In Jesus, God Himself had returned to His Temple and restored His divine presence to His people. On the cross, He had overcome the powers of the world and defeated Satan, the god of this age. Through baptismal incorporation into the glorified Christ and receiving the baptismal gift of the Spirit, His people shared Christ’s ascended glory, for Christ (and His Church after Him) were the new Temple. Messianic Israel—i.e. the Church—was sent out to be a light to the nations, fulfilling Israel’s original destiny and calling. Thus, the trajectory and telos (or goal) of Israel, hinted at since the time of Abraham, had been fulfilled in Christ.
This provided the key to unlock all those hidden secret meanings in the Scriptures. Israel’s history was intended to culminate in Christ. Israel’s Scriptures spoke ultimately of Christ and His Church, and this new way of reading the Scriptures, forced on the Christians by the fact of Christ’s resurrected glory, was completely unexpected. Yet it brought together all the disparate strands and disconnected themes scattered throughout the Hebrew Scriptures in a way that made them all finally make sense. The Old Testament found its unity in Christ. That is what St. Paul meant when he said that Christ had died and been raised “in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). He was not referring to an occasional proof-text yanked out of its context, but to the entire over-arching narrative of Hebrew history from the time of Abraham. Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and ascended glory embodied all of Israel’s history, and provided the answer to all its unanswered questions.
Given this key, we conclude our talk by asking:
How Do Christians Read their Scriptures
Before answering this question, we must again distinguish, because the Old Testament is much different than the New Testament—as the very names “old” and “new” reveal.
First, we read the Old Testament Christotelically—i.e. with Christ as its telos, its goal. That does not mean that we somehow find a Christological meaning to every single verse (how would that work, for example, in the Book of Esther?), but that we see Christ and His Church as the key to Israel’s existence and as the answer to its exilic plight. With Him, Israel’s long exile was over, and forgiveness had come flooding into the world—not just for Israel, but for anyone willing join to commonwealth of Israel as Jesus’ disciples, even if they were uncircumcised Gentiles. We read the Old Testament to find Christ there—not only in scattered hints prefiguring details of His life, but also to learn how Israel’s long journey of covenant, apostasy, and return found its destination in Him. Each event in the Old Testament narrative is another step along the path to Jesus.
We therefore read the Old Testament knowing that it is (in the words of St. Paul) prophetikos, finding its final goal in Christ. Sometimes this means reading the text with shocking literalism, such as in Psalm 22, where the psalmist says, “They pierced my hands and my feet”. Sometimes it means reading the text in a Second Temple way, finding in it meanings not immediately apparent to a plain historical reading, such as in Hosea 11, where God says of Israel, “Out of Egypt I called My son”. Sometimes it means mining historical figures for underlying symbolic meanings, such as in Genesis where Sarah symbolized the new covenant of freedom in Christ and Hagar symbolized the old covenant of slavery in Judaism (as St. Paul saw and wrote about in Galatians 4). This latter method has been styled “allegorical”, and it has enjoyed a long history in the Church, where the term described any deeper Christotelic meaning. The Fathers using this allegorical method did not thereby mean to disparage or deny the plain historical meaning of the sacred text. But they saw that deeper Christological treasures lay buried in the text, and needed the tools of allegory to dig them out.
Secondly, we read the New Testament historically. That is, if the authority of the Old Testament for us lies in what it prophetically reveals looking forward to Christ in the future, the New Testament’s authority resides in what the apostles said look back to Christ in history. That is why (a few examples aside), the Fathers treated the narratives of Christ’s life as history, and not as allegory. Certainly, there were some people back then who did more or less junk the historical meaning, and interpret every Gospel text allegorically. These people are known to us now as “the Gnostics”, and since at least the days of Irenaeus we have recognized they were not really part of our movement.
The New Testament cannot be viewed non-historically, as the Gnostics attempted to do. Everything in the Bible is about the Jesus of history: the Old Testament prophets looked forward to Him, and the New Testament apostles looked back to Him. Thus the choice between an allegorical interpretation and an historical one depended upon one’s place along the historical time-line. For the Old Testament writings which looked forward in time to Jesus—an allegorical interpretation. For the New Testament writings which looked back in time to Jesus—an historical reading.
The role of the apostles as witnesses to Jesus, then, is clear. They wrote their letters to the churches teaching them about the significance of the Jesus of history and how the people in the churches should then live. They wrote their gospels (what St. Justin called their “memoirs”) as records for the coming generations of what the Jesus of history said and did. Even the Book of Revelation is the exception that proves this rule, for it begins with a revelation of the Jesus of history to John in his Patmos exile, and declares what He is doing now and will do at the end of the age. But, we may ask, what is the role of the Fathers?
The Role of the Fathers
The Church Fathers were a varied lot. They lived in a number of different centuries, had very different personalities and gifts, spoke different languages, and wrote to answer different questions, in different contexts. There is, in fact, a tremendous diversity among them, including a diversity of Biblical exegesis. We recall, for example, that Sts. Jerome and Augustine conducted a very public and spirited debate about the meaning of the conflict between Peter and Paul in Galatians 2. The Fathers also differed among themselves about such things as whether or not all would be saved, with St. Gregory of Nyssa offering what was distinctly a minority report—one which the Church at large would later come to quietly set aside. With all this patristic diversity, we may ask, where does their authority reside?
We answer: in their core consensus. The diversity among them makes the underlying unity shine all the more brilliantly, in the same way as the tremendous liturgical diversity of the church at that time make their underlying unity of faith all the more impressive. The Fathers are not authoritative guides because each one had a kind of hotline to God which guaranteed the truth of their writings—for how then could we explain their sometimes spirited disagreements? They are authoritative because their underlying core unity witnesses to the apostolic faith diffused throughout the world.
The Fathers share this core unity, sometimes called “the rule of faith”, because they received it from the apostles. St. Irenaeus is crystal clear about that. In the Creed we confess belief not in “one, holy, catholic, and patristic church”, but in “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church”. The Fathers are authoritative because their consensus witnesses to the faith they received from the apostles. The Fathers are the conduit for the apostles’ authority, not the source of that authority itself.
So, how may we summarize how the Fathers read the Scriptures and how we should read the Scriptures after them? I suggest three main ways: that we read the Scriptures on our knees, before the Cross, and over shoulders of the Fathers.
1. We read the Scriptures on our knees. The Scriptures must be read as the authoritative Word of God. Though they are culturally-expressed (as is everything, both then and now), they are not culturally-conditioned. In other words, their message, when we finally have learned it using the many tools of authentic scholarship, is eternally binding on the Church. Bluntly put, we do not have the freedom to junk what the Scriptures say because we now find that it clashes with our contemporary secular culture. Those who would set aside St. Paul and his counsel regarding gender and sexuality (to choose but one example) arguing that “he was a man of his time” rarely stop to reflect that they are also people of their time—and perhaps people insufficiently critical of the times in which they live. The message of the Scriptures, though expressed through the medium of Second Temple exegesis, is still the timeless Word of God. As such it constitutes the norm through which we judge the teachings of all other ages, including our own.
2. We read the Scriptures before the Cross. The whole Bible is about Jesus, including the Old Testament. This means that we read the Old Testament commandments about requiring circumcision, observing the Sabbath, keeping the food laws, building the Tabernacle and Temple, and observing a festal calendar as provisions for one stage of the nation’s journey to Jesus, not as eternally abiding commandments. If the goal of the Old Testament were a glorified Jewish nation, it would make sense to read these commandments as eternally binding. But the goal of the Old Testament was not a glorified nation, but a glorified Messiah. The commandments of the Old Testament may be read with spiritual profit, provided they are read for what it tells us about Jesus, or as containing a moral message for us today (i.e. with the tools of allegory).
3. We read the Scriptures over the shoulders of the Fathers. The New Testament Scriptures, being the work of the apostolic Church, must be read within the apostolic Church. This applies also to the Old Testament, for Christ gave to His Church the key to understanding the Old Testament Scriptures as well. The apostles assumed that their audience had as their context the liturgical experience of the Church and its public preaching. Wrenching the Scriptures from this ecclesiastical context (as the Gnostics did) is certain to produce a variant and incorrect interpretation. That was Tertullian’s point in his little work The Prescription against Heretics. The point perhaps has continued relevance in the ecumenical setting of today. The consensus of the Fathers and their approach to the Scriptures form the paradigm for our use of the Scriptures today.
I began this address with the suggestion that the Scriptures could stand some unveiling, since
many people today view the Bible simply as a magical book dictated by God—hard to understand, and so best left to one side unopened in a drawer. It is not a magical book; it is something better. It is Christ’s book—and therefore belongs to us, as His Body. It underwent a long process of development, as it grew both in size and significance before it became the volume we have today. Since it is God’s gift to us, we must receive it with reverence and gratitude and place it in our hearts with love.
We need to do this now more than ever. Christendom has fallen, and the world grows ever darker and more dangerous. The contents of the Bible remain mostly unread and unknown in our culture and in the world where we live, which perhaps accounts for the darkness and the danger. When Christ opened the Scriptures to His disciples on the road to Emmaus, their hearts burned within them. May the Spirit of Christ open the unveiled Scriptures to us as well and make our own hearts burn. The world is dark and cold, and desperately needs the light and warmth that this fire provides.