Christians reading the Old Testament

The Old Testament Hebrew Bible raises questions of interpretation for a Christian.  To what extent am I, as a Christian, projecting Christian views and values on the children of Israel, the people of Israel, the Israelites?  There are various terms that translators have used to describe the slowing forming group of Yahweh believers over three thousand years ago.  Yahweh was their God and intervened in their lives.  They had a special relationship or covenant with him.  The Hebrew sacred writings were incorporated into Christianity because all the early Christians were Jewish.  However, the writings were not originally meant for Christians, but for the Hebrew people.  Can I really fully understand the Semitic thought process of three thousand years ago?  Will I be able to appreciate how important the promised land of Israel was to Jewish people?  What role did the exodus from Egypt, the Temple, the exile, and the various codes play in their lives?  I can try, but I doubt if I will be fully successful.

The early orthodox apostolic writings

The 2nd century apostolic writers had a loose connection to the original apostles.  Some of these early 2nd century writings were occasionally considered part of the canonical biblical writings.  This post-apostolic group lived after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE.  These authors included Clement of Rome (40-101 CE) and his writings, as well as the so-called Second Letter of Clement, a 2nd century sermon, but not from Clement.  There also was Ignatius of Antioch (50-117 CE) with his letters, and the 2nd century Pseudo-Barnabas letter.  From the late 1st century, the Didache, the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, has intrigued scholars.  The 2nd century Shepherd of Hermas, has an apocalyptic document that included visions, commands, mandates, and parables or similitudes.  Theophilus of Antioch (115-180 CE) and Melito of Sardis (+190 CE), an important bishop of Asia Minor, were writing apologists for Christianity.  Clement of Alexandria (150-215 CE) and his pupil Origen (185-254 CE) played an important role in the developing Christian theology in Alexandria.  Justin the martyr (100-165 CE) gave a great description of the Christian activities.  Irenaeus (140-202 CE), a disciple of the martyr Bishop Polycarp of Smyrna, wrote against various early Christian heretics.

The non-writing Jesus

Jesus did not write anything because he lived in a predominant oral society.  The apostles of Jesus followed suit and transmitted the living oral tradition to their disciples and the new followers of Jesus the Christ.  The apostles did not need to write anything, since they could explain everything.  However, once Christianity moved out of Jerusalem there was a need to write things down in a more permanent form.  The early Pauline letters to the new Christian Churches show how Christianity spread.  Increasing time and distance from the place of Jerusalem and the time of Jesus led to a decision to write things down.  In order to prevent heresy or diverse views, while at the same time encouraging the early Christians, the need for a written record became evident.

The parting of the ways

The distinction between the Old Testament and the New Testament raises the question of whether the separation of the first century Christian groups and the nascent first century CE Rabbinic Jewish groups was just a continuation of an earlier dispute.  Did the fall of the Temple in 70 CE put the final nail in the coffin?  Was this the fracture of Judaism, as the two groups went in different ways?  Already in the second century BCE, there were differences between the Judean Maccabeus group and the Greek Hellenistic Jews.  None of the inspired Jewish biblical writers who called themselves followers of Jesus Christ in the first century wrote in Hebrew, but all wrote in Greek.  Was Christianity, or the forming of the Christian communities, the final stage of this dispute within Judaism about the role of Greek?

The cleansing fountain (Zech 13:1-13:1)

“On that day,

A fountain

Shall be opened

For the house of David,

For the inhabitants of Jerusalem,

To cleanse them

From sin,

From impurity.”

On that special day, there was the wish to have an open fountain for the house of David and the people of Jerusalem, so that they would be able to cleanse their sins and impurities.  This is a rare mention of a cleansing fountain that would become a mainstay of Christianity.

The intercession of Abraham (Gen 18:16-18:33)

“Then the men set out from there, and they looked toward Sodom. Abraham went with them to set them on their way.  Yahweh said, ‘shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, seeing that Abraham shall become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him?  No, for I have chosen him, that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of Yahweh by doing righteousness and justice.  So that Yahweh may bring to Abraham what he has promised him.’  Then Yahweh said, ‘How great is the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah and how very grave their sin!  I must go down and see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry which has come to me.  And if not, I will know. So the men turned from there, and went toward Sodom, while Abraham remained standing before Yahweh.”

The three men, and they are called men, with Abraham set out for Sodom.  However, the men morph into Yahweh and how Abraham must be righteous and just to bring about all that is planned for him.  Somehow there is an outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah because of their very grave sin, without mentioning what the sin is. Yahweh and the three men were going there to see for themselves. It seems as if the men and Yahweh are not one and the same because Yahweh stays behind with Abraham.   

“Then Abraham drew near, and said, ‘Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?  Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city.  Will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it?  Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of the entire earth do what is just?’  And Yahweh said, ‘If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.  Abraham answered, ‘Let me take it upon myself to speak to Yahweh, I who am but dust and ashes.  Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking? Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?’ And he said, ‘I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there.’ Again he spoke to him, ‘Suppose forty are found there.’ He answered, ‘For the sake of forty I will not do it.’  Then he said, ‘Oh do not let Yahweh be angry if I  speak.  Suppose thirty are found there.’ He answered, ‘I will not do it, if I find thirty there.’  He said, ‘Let me take it upon myself to speak to Yahweh.  Suppose twenty are found there.’ He answered, ‘For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it.’  Then he said, ‘Oh so not Yahweh be angry if I speak just once more. Suppose ten are found there.’ He answered, ‘For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.’ And Yahweh went his way, when he had finished speaking to Abraham. Then Abraham returned to his place.”

Abraham asked if they would sweep away the righteous with the wicked.  If there were 50 righteous people, will he spare the city?  Yahweh said yes.  Abraham refers to himself as ‘dust and ashes,’ as he asks suppose there are only 45.  Once again the answer is yes.   Then Abraham lowers the number to 40, 30, 20, and 10. Each time Yahweh says yes.  Abraham is a good negotiator and Yahweh is easy to convince.

How to Study the Bible

Scriptural Study

There are many ways to study the Bible since it is a great book of literature, one of the most studied books of all time. There are a number of technical ways to study the biblical texts.

(1)   Textual criticism is where you study variants in the original Hebrew or Greek texts that are all from the third century on.

(2)   Source criticism has been an attempt to trace the oral traditions before it was written down so that the practically every story is older than its written text.

(3)   Redaction criticism is the study of how the manuscript editions of the texts have changed, which is especially true in the four centuries before Christ, and the first and second century after Christ..

(4)   Comparing the biblical writings with writings from the same era is known as comparative literature study since there are not that many writings to compare.

(5)   Also the finds of Biblical archaeology sites has intensified our knowledge of Biblical times, especially in the Israelite territories.

There were different literary forms that came under the various cultural human influences.  Originally, many thought Moses wrote all the Torah, the first five books of the Bible.  Bible scholars of the last century have been able to locate four distinct strands:

(1)   the Jahwist (J), (950 BCE)

(2)   the Elohist (E), (850 BCE)

(3)   the Deuteronomist (D),(650 BCE)

(4)   the Priestly (P) sources. (600-400 BCE).

The Priestly source put it altogether after the exile around 458 BCE, long after the death of Moses.  Scholars have developed documentary hypothesis with source criticism and careful analysis.

Dating an ancient document is never an exact science.  However, general scholarship about the New Testament books holds that the Gospel of Mark is the oldest Gospel.  The first letter of Paul to the Thessalonians is the oldest document, around the year 50 CE.  Mark, with a hypothetical other source (Q = Quelle), that is now lost, became the source for the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.  The Gospel of John is generally considered to be the latest of the gospels, around 90 -100 CE.

The books of the Bible were formed gradually.  They are the product of Jewish and Christian religious communities that was 95% illiterate.  These stories were first word of mouth, then later in writings.  Moses did not write all the books of the Pentateuch.  Paul did not write all the letters ascribed to him.  Matthew and Luke partially rewrote Mark with other sources.


History versus story

In what sense are these books literal interpretations of what is happening?  History means different things to differ people.  The idea of footnoting has become a general practice that was not known over a thousand years ago.  History sometimes refers to a good story.  Even in our own lifetime we can still argue about the events surrounding the deaths of President John Kennedy, the victims at the OJ Simpson house, or Trayvon Martin.  Thus, it does not seem out of place to question events that supposedly took place either pre-historically or thousands of years ago. They did not have to happen exactly as detailed by men hundreds of years after the events.

These myths are not lies, but stories.  Story telling is an important human activity and essential to the life of any society.  Myths awaken and maintain an experience of awe in the face of the ultimate religious mystery.  Myths explain where the world came from and where it is going.  Myth promotes virtues and a certain social ethical order.  Myth gives individuals a role and identity much like our modern psychology.  Joseph Campbell (1904-1987) and Mircea Eliade (1907-1986) have shown that myth is not a negative but a positive part of life.  If we do not have religious myths, people create their own secular myths in sports, like baseball and football.

            Christian Reflection on the Bible

The Bible, particularly the Christian New Testament, represents the source and foundation of any Christian reflection.  Scripture alone (sola scriptura) sounds easy enough until you realize that there is always an individual human interpretation or an established communitarian way of interpreting the Bible because it is a ‘living document.’  Layers of understanding continue to develop with each new reading.  Thus various biblical passages have served as the source of theological conflict for many centuries.

The Old Testament Hebrew Bible raises questions of interpretation for a Christian.  To what extent am I projecting Christian views and values on the children of Israel, the people of Israel, or the Israelites?  These are the various terms that translators have used to describe the slowing forming group of Yahweh believers of over three thousand years ago.  Yahweh was their God and intervened in their lives and they had a special relationship or covenant with him.  The Hebrew sacred writings were incorporated into Christianity because all the early Christians were Jewish.  However, the writings were not originally meant for Christians but for the Hebrew people.  Can I really fully understand the Semitic thought process of three thousand years ago?  Will I be able to appreciation how important the promised land of Israel is to Jewish people?  How the exodus from Egypt, the Temple, the exile and the various codes played an important role in their lives? I can try, but I doubt if I will be fully successful.

The New Testament language is important for any further Christian theological development.  Twentieth century linguistic analysis has shown the importance of communicative word structures to express realities.  Words are human expressions of reality, but words convey meaning and feeling only within an understandable shared grammatical linguistic social structure.  The authentic meaning of an utterance does not lie in a dictionary, but within the mind of the expression’s originator.  Words exist in a specific historic time and place.  However some words endure and transcend spatial temporal limitations, while other words get lost in a particular misunderstood context.  We now know the importance of the post biblical history of the scriptural texts, the Wirkungsgeschichte, the reception and the interpretation of the biblical texts in a historical context with their variegated meanings.

The study of words and actions, written about and by people who lived many years ago in a far away land with a different language and symbol structure, has inherent difficulties as has been shown by biblical hermeneutic research.  To understand the origins of Christianity, I must be cognizant about first century Palestinian Jewish cultural condition as well as my own biases.  I need to avoid projecting my own experiences and prejudices upon documents written thousands of years ago.  Can I ever really fully understand the men and women of the Mediterranean area who lived over two thousand years ago?  I can try.  Fortunately, a few of these early followers of Jesus, among the elite literate well educated of their time, left some sparse written evidence.  Their cosmology, their economics, and their sociology are not mine.  I must be aware of this from the start.

The traditional canonical Greek bible, the standard collection of twenty-seven books of the New Testament, centers on the good news about Jesus the ‘Christ’, literally ‘the anointed one’, and his followers.  The collected canon of biblical books during the first four centuries is in itself an indication of how the value of these texts developed slowly and emerged over time.  These diverse inspired authors of the second half of the first century of the Christian era provide a basic insight into the thought and practices of the primitive Christian communities.  Our shared sacred documents also reveal information about the perceived role of the Holy Spirit in the activities and expectations of the newly forming Christian communities.

The New Testament was written in Greek, so I must be even more cautious when dealing with the meanings of English or Latin terms derived from the Greek biblical texts.  How did the early followers of Jesus Christ understand themselves and their symbolic activities?