Whose Testament Is It Anyway? Hearing the Authentic Voice of the Old Testament
The emergence of the academic discipline of “biblical studies” is a post-Reformation, post-Enlightenment phenomenon that developed in opposition to dogmatic theology. Within that discipline, emphasis on the historical-critical method has caused preoccupation with either proving the historical accuracy of the text, as seen in the biblical archaeology movement, or getting “behind” the text, as seen in the quests for the Historical Jesus or Paul within Judaism. While each approach does offer some valuable insights into Scripture, the divide between biblical studies and dogmatic theology has led to some detrimental consequences.
One question which arises in the milieu of biblical studies is “What is the unique voice of the Old Testament?” Brevard Childs, the founder of canonical criticism, asks this question as a corrective to the Church’s premodern allegorical hermeneutic. In his opinion, Christian allegorization of the Old Testament assumed the text had lost its original meaning. He summarizes the problem in his book Biblical Theology: A Proposal: “The problem with traditional Christian allegory was its refusal to hear the Old Testament’s witness and to change its semantic level in order to bring it into conformity with the New Testament” (p. 54). Instead, Childs suggests we need to avoid reducing the Old Testament to its horizontal level (that is, its relationship to the New Testament) and recover the Old’s “vertical” sense by dwelling on how it “continues to bear its own witness within the context of the Christian Bible” (pp. 52-53). Childs actually takes a somewhat moderate line here by still describing the Old Testament as part of the Christian Bible, while many scholars prefer to call the Old Testament the “Hebrew Bible.” Childs’ discussion raises a fundamental question: who was doing more faithful biblical theology: the Church Fathers, or modern biblical theologians?
To answer the question, it is important first to consider how the Bible reads itself. The first passage of importance is John 5, where Jesus performs a healing on the Sabbath—causing the Pharisees to object on the grounds that it was a Fifth Commandment violation. Jesus launches into an extended discussion about his authority as the Son of God (5:19-29) and those witnesses which testify to him (5:30-47). Of the witnesses who testify to Christ, he points out John the Baptist (5:30-35), the works which the Father granted him to accomplish (5:36-38), and the Scriptures (5:39-47). In discussing the Scriptures, Jesus makes a bold claim (5:45-47, RSV; emphasis added), “Do not think that I shall accuse you to the Father; it is Moses who accuses you, on whom you set your hope. If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote of me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?” Jesus claims that the writings attributed to Moses testify to the work of Jesus as the Messiah. Here, the Scripture functions as a mirror: if one does not believe in Jesus as Lord, the true meaning of the text is obfuscated, but faith transfigures both the person who exercises it and the text itself. While the Pharisees reject Christ and are unable to fully comprehend the Scriptures, the Road to Emmaus tells the opposite story, as disciples unknowingly walking with Christ come into a fuller understanding of Scripture as “beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). To fully understand Moses and the rest of the Old Testament, one must fully embrace Christ.
The point is further accentuated in Acts 8 when Philip encounters the Ethiopian eunuch. As the eunuch is traveling home, he reads about the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53. Philip asks (8:30), “Do you understand what you are reading?” The eunuch responds (8:31), “How can I, unless someone guides me?” So Philip “beginning with this scripture” teaches the eunuch the gospel of Jesus (8:35) and subsequently baptizes the eunuch (8:36-39). Philip’s hermeneutical strategy of christological interpretation in Acts 8 now seems self-evident to Christians, but it was not so for the first generation of Christians. As Hans Boersma says in Scripture as Real Presence, “without Isaiah being read christologically, it was impossible for early Christians to maintain that Jesus was the one that the church claimed he was. After all, the church could only make her claims about Jesus on the basis of the Scriptures—and, at least until well into the second century, this meant on the basis of the Old Testament” (p. 226). The original Christian Bible was the Old Testament understood in a new way, with the Holy Spirit breathing new life into the old words as they testified to Christ.
While there are others, a final passage of significance is 1 Corinthians 10. Paul, in discussing Israel’s Exodus, says, “I want you to know brethren, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same supernatural food and all drank the same supernatural drink. For they drank from the supernatural Rock which followed them, and the Rock was Christ” (10:1-4; emphasis added). Notice Paul’s wording. The rock did not “point to Christ” or “foreshadow” Christ. The rock was Christ. In the story of the Exodus God does not look forward to a later redemption by Christ but actively and sacramentally participates in Christ.
The conclusion here is twofold. The first is that, contrary to many opinions, pre-modern exegesis which tended towards allegorization was not arbitrary. Quite the opposite. The allegorical reading of the Fathers recognized that the cross bleeds into all moments of reality, and that all stories participate in the narrative of redemption through Christ. This framework can only be gained once we become untethered from chronology. The cross is not merely a self-contained moment within history but Eliot’s “timeless moment.” As the moment of all moments, the lamb who was crucified before the foundation of the world (Rev 13:8) is an active agent in all of history. The rock was Christ.
Childs raises one more objection, however. He argues that the New Testament’s use of the Old is a form of redactional activity involving the text’s pre-history, and is therefore inadmissible in an approach which values the final form of the text. While Childs’ desire to avoid preoccupation with hypothetical compositional developments is admirable, taking away the New Testament’s use of the Old hamstrings biblical theology. His reasoning falls short here for a few reasons. First, he seems to assume that the essential criterion of meaning, for any given allusion or quotation, is authorial intention. Yet one could make this argument about any literary device. What is more important than authorial intention is the canonical placement of the quotation or allusion. Based on textual positioning, its meaning can be approximated without needing to peer into the author’s mind. Second, inter-textual echoes may go deeper than the author consciously intended. The author did not have to directly intend all connotations of an allusion on his own. Based on the texts in question, the Church as an interpretive community can draw a fuller sense of meaning from the connection.
Such a project is necessary because attempts at recovering “authorial intent” must almost always fail. There are an exponential number of factors we would need to get just right to fully understand what Paul himself was thinking and intending in his reading of the Exodus story which underlies 1 Corinthians 10. Third, and finally, if an allusion is present in the text, it is a literary component of the text which cannot be ignored. Allusions can radically change a text’s meaning. They must be dealt with in serious biblical interpretation. The New Testament’s use of the Old is not so much about the compositional history, as Childs assumes, though it is easy to see how one could get bogged down. The way the New Testament authors interact with the Old Testament is much more profound than that. It is about the canon’s own self-awareness—where meaning unfolds through salvation-history and the Church’s attempt to keep up with it.
So whose Testament is the Old? The answer is Christ’s and, by extension, his Church’s. Only in view of this principle can our souls (and the text) be fully transfigured so that we, with our ears opened, can hear its authentic voice.