Christians and the Old Testament: don’t expect Jesus to solve your problems (or do; it depends)

When Christians run up against interpretive challenges in the Old Testament–like killing Canaanites to take their land or the meaning of the Adam story vis-a-vis science–a common way of handling these challenges is to make an appeal like:

“Yes, but we can’t just look at these passages on their own terms. We have to keep the whole Christian canon in mind and see how the Gospel affects our understanding of this Old Testament passage.”

I agree, pretty strongly in fact, that Christians now read the Old Testament in light of the entire story, which finds it climax in Christ. I’ve written a bit about that, and my two commentaries (Ecclesiastes and Exodus) are attempts to flesh this out in detail.

But we need to remember what we’re doing when we read the Old Testament in light of Christ–what we are committing ourselves to, hermeneutically speaking.

The very declaration “We need to read the Old Testament story in light of Christ” is an implicit acknowledgement that the Gospel-lens through which we read the Old Testament changes what we see; changes what is “there” on the plain-sense level. The Gospel drives Old Testament interpretation beyond what it means when understood in terms of its ancient tribal parameters.

In biblical studies, “midrash” is the word often used to describe the transformation of the meaning of biblical texts by later communities of faith. Midrash (a Hebrew word) is tricky to define. Generally, I define midrash as an approach to the text that goes beyond and beneath the “plain meaning” of the text for the purpose of addressing some difficulty in the text or bring that past text into conversation with present circumstances.

Handling biblical texts this way was a staple of Jewish biblical interpreters beginning after the exile–beginning already within the Bible in 1 and 2 Chronciles, which utterly reinterprets Israel’s history in light of the exile and failure to re-establish independence as before.

The Persians were now running the show–followed by the Greeks and then the Romans (with a relatively brief period of Jewish independence in between).The older biblical traditions–which presumed an Israel that was settled in the land, with king, temple, and sacrificeneeded to be brought into a troubling and challenging present.

Here is the irony: respect for the texts of the past was expressed in terms of transforming them to speak to present realities.

Judaism has followed it own trajectory of transformation. Its existence is a testimony to the transformation of Israel’s Scripture to adapt to the harsh reality of continued Jewish existence outside of the land and without a temple. To remain connected to the past left them no choice but to transform.

Christianity is also a transformation of Israel’s past story in light of changing circumstances–though the “changing circumstance” is not nationalistic but the belief that the crucified and risen messiah is the culmination of that story.

Both faiths handle Israel’s story in a midrashic manner–reframing Israel’s ancient story to address a present circumstance outside of its scope.

Christianity’s connection to the Old Testament isn’t seen in how the New Testament writers are more faithful to the original intention of the Old Testament, or that they get closer to the “deeper” intentions of the Old Testament that lie buried beneath the surface. Actually–seeking these “deeper” intentions is already an indication that some transformation is required.

Christianity’s connection to the Old Testament is centered on the belief that Jesus’ death and resurrection is, hermeneutically speaking, in the driver’s seat.

The Gospel gives us not only the permission but actually demands that, ultimately, our responsibility is to read of the Old Testament as subject to Christ. We are performing an act of “Christian midrash“–an act that is an expression of faith that the Gospel ultimately defines the big picture of who God is, engaging Israel’s story but not bound by it. 

In my writings, when I camp out in and drive home the original meaning of the Old Testament–such as what I think the Adam story is doing in its ancient Israelite context, or how to understand Canaanite extermination–I am not marking off the boundaries of Christian interpretation. I hear this criticism now and then, and it is wide off the mark. Rather, I am trying to drive home the degree to which the Christian story requires a transformed reading of the Old Testament.

Sometimes this transformation will augment the Old Testament, and many other times will shift its direction, neutralize it, or even cancel it out and subvert it. This diverse process of transforming Israel’s story is already modeled for us by the New Testament authors. (Few things drive this home for me than reading how Paul handles the Old Testament in Romans, but that’s another 80-part blog series. Don’t hold your breath.)

I know that this way of looking at biblical interpretation can cause some discomfort, but I also feel it goes with the territory of being a follower of Jesus. At the end, all things–even Scripture–bends the knee to the risen Christ.

  • DonaldByronJohnson

    The way I word it is Jesus is the goal of all Scripture. As a believing Jew, Jesus was subject to the OT (as correctly interpreted) or he could not have been the Jewish Messiah. And Jesus shows up how to interpret the OT, so the OT interpretation is subject to Jesus.

  • mark

    Not bad, but the real key is this: We need to come to an understanding of what it means for God to reveal himself in Jesus, then come to an understanding of of what it means that God’s self revelation in Jesus took place in the context of late Israelite/early Jewish society. Only then can we come to grips with how the Israelite scriptures fit in to God’s plans for mankind in Jesus.

    I am trying to drive home the degree to which the Christian story requires a transformed reading of the Old Testament.

    Sometimes this transformation will augment the Old Testament, and many other times will shift its direction, neutralize it, or even cancel it out and subvert it. This diverse process of transforming Israel’s story is already modeled for us by the New Testament authors.

    I would say that a “transformed reading of the Old Testament”–shifting its direction, neutralizing it, cancelling it out, subverting it–is actually a falsification of it. What we need is as accurate an understanding of the original intent as possible, reading it as it is, and then to place that within the total context of human history as understood from the perspective of God’s self revelation in Jesus.

    At the risk of sounding like a broken record here, I suggest that among a number of good starting point are Mircea Eliade’s “The Myth of the Eternal Return,” Christopher Dawson’s “Progress and Religion,” and Mark S. Smith’s “The Memoirs of God.”

    • mark

      I forgot to add: I think we also have to be open to the possibility that the “diverse process of transforming Israel’s story” that is “already modeled for us by the New Testament authors” reflects theological concerns of early Christian thinkers. If we compare Jesus’ use of the Israelite scriptures to that of some of the early Christian writers, there is a difference and it’s not necessarily the case that Paul’s approach, to take one example, is normative for Christianity in general. Paul wrote from his own cultural perspective, not sub specie aeternitatis. If our God given intellectual powers have led to greater understanding of the past and of human nature in all its aspects, we cannot shy away from evaluating the success and utility of the models deployed by NT authors. Again, I believe that Jesus’ own approach differs.

  • Brian P.

    Ummm… Yeah… The New Testament authors exegetically run pretty loose with the Hebrew Scriptures. They’re the origins of our “transformed reading” of the OT. Not sure what’s too new about this. Perhaps at one point Scripture wasn’t read like a flat book. Perhaps it was more… Christ as center, Gospel as stories about Christ (hey, let’s stand up while they’re read and have them read from the aisle!), Epistles kind of a next tier out, …, through the Law and Prophets, all the way out to the deuterocanonical. As if there are concentric circles with more and more spiritual authority as we work our we out from the edges back into a center of Christ. Is this something new about how Scripture is conceived??? Liturgically, this is how we’ve exegeted a very long time. Perhaps this is in part a matter of institutional amnesia that came as an unintended side effect of sola scriptura and western systematizing of theology. We want all the authors to say the same thing. They don’t. (Shouldn’t even be a shocker if one believes in revelation.) Also, btw, that whole killing of Canaanites is likely just a backstory.

    • Barfly_Kokhba

      Perhaps it has to do with written language–letters and literature–being viewed as a visual art (I’m just spit-balling here). Graffiti, tagging.

      From the strictly secular standpoint Hebrew/Biblical culture begins not long after Writing is invented by Humans. Perhaps the delineation between Visual Art and Writing, i.e. the difference between the Mona Lisa and the Book of Samuel, was not as sharp back then as we pretend it is now.

      Post-Biblical exegetical (or midrashic) schools and methods such as Gematria, Catechesis, Mishnah, Kabbalah, Gemara, and, to a point, even Sola Scriptura (inasmuch as it is a method of religious interpretation) etc. would seem to fit with that idea. The letters evoke ideas. The ideas beget words. The words define epochal cycles of biological evolutionary development, our modern human epoch beginning with the Word itself. Alpha and Omega.

  • Daniel Merriman

    James Kugel in the introductory material to his”How to Read the Bible” makes the point that modern textual criticism really traces its roots back to Spinoza. There is clearly an alternative method that was extant not only in Second Temple Judaism but also in the early Church, and is honored even today by the Eastern Orthodox. Yet evangelical scholars viscerally recoil at the mere mention of “allegory.” They dishonor the Church Fathers, and honor a heretic (Spinoza) by accepting his premise that Scripture should be studied just like any other text. How sad.

    • Brian P.

      Yup. It’s a relatively new way of reading the sacred text that’s co-opted the term “traditional” in many camps. In some ways, Evangelicals are “traditional” only within the constructs of a mind of the Western Enlightenment. (And don’t get me wrong, I’m not interested in going back to clerical abuses of the Church; I think we can do much better in bringing about a New Creation in ways we exegetic as well as in ways we get along with insiders and outsiders…)

  • Peter Kirk

    Thank you for this excellent response (conscious or not) to my comment on this blog a week ago, “But weren’t you taught in Sunday School what the main point of the Old Testament is: Jesus! ;)”

  • Bev Mitchell

    “Christianity is also a transformation of Israel’s past story in light of changing circumstances.” A great example is Saul, getting knocked off his feet, listening to Christ’s self-revelation, picking himself up, dusting himself off, being led into Damascus, meeting Ananias and the others and receiving the Holy Spirit. Following all of this, Christ’s “chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel” had a lot of transformative thinking to do, including how the Torah and other scriptures should be interpreted. Experience has a way of doing this, especially experiences of Christ.

    BTW, I see that Beale and Carson’s (eds.) 2007 huge “Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament” is now available as a Kindle book. Also in Kindle format, Beale’s 2012 “Handbook on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament: Exegesis and Interpretation” should be very helpful for understanding the larger commentary.

  • Karen K

    Dr. Enns, I wondered if you see this applying to the New Testament as well. It seems to me that Scripture itself is a product of on-going re-readings. The New Testament covers a much shorter time span than the Old Testament so we don’t see the extensive re-readings that occur in the OT. Although there does seem to be interpretation happening even in the NT. If recontextualization happens in the OT, happens in the NT, and continues to happen in interpretive communities in Church history, I wondered if you would apply the same Gospel hermeneutic to reading the NT–and how that might affect certain teachings. It seems the Church’s response to slavery is an example of this; slavery is not just considered neutral or tolerated, but an evil that should be eradicated. We have gone beyond Paul to calling the ownership of other human beings, sin. It then makes me wonder in what other ways this would affect our reading of the NT. Luke Timothy Johnson has touched on some of this in his book “Scripture and Discernment.” Anyway, I would be interested in your take as to whether you see this hermeneutical principle applying to the NT as well, and in what ways.

  • Lothat

    Hi Peter,

    how would you deal with the famous passage in the synoptic gospel where Jesus seems to be saying that the whole Torah was perfect?

    By the way, I greatly enjoy your blog and openness!

    I’ve started a post about my definition of progressive Christianity and would feel greatly honored to read your opinion on it.

    Kind regards.

    Lothar’s son – Lothars Sohn
    http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/

  • Ryan Hite

    Jesus never said he would solve your problems. He merely showed the way by which we can solve our own problems.

  • James

    It’s instructive to consider the continuing impact of Hebrew scriptures had there been no Christ and therefore no Christian scriptures. We get an idea. of course, by studying Orthodox Judaism today and their use of sacred scripture. In the Protestant world, it could be Dispensationalism in the modern era weighs the Old Testament too heavily with respect to the New. It gives the impression the ‘church age’ is a an interlude in salvation history and that, in any case, the ‘millennial kingdom’ reverts to the Jews. We need to begin and end the Christian faith with Christ or we will get off track–as important as its roots in Judaism no doubt are.

  • Rev. Michael Davison

    Reading the First Testament (Old) through the lens of Christian faith discounts the gospel that exists in the First Testament and locates the salvation story of God only in Jesus of Nazareth as if no other salvation exists. It also represents the narrow orthodox theological view that the only point of Jesus was his death on the cross which actually limits the power of his life as an example of faithfulness to his understanding of God as well as Jesus’ teachings about what makes for meaningful living in response to one’s experience of God. Maybe post-modern Christianity needs a revived definition and understanding of “gospel” that is not solely located in the person of Jesus of Nazareth whom Christians call “Christ.”

  • debhurn

    I can’t help thinking how Jewish readers might find commentaries such as this to be intrusive and proprietorial. I would also expect that to justify the Christian right to “transform” [shift-neutralize-cancel out-subvert] the Hebrew Bible by pointing to the existence of Jewish Midrash would be spurious and offensive.

  • Josh

    ’80-part blog series’ lol.

  • rvs

    Thanks for this–I am being armed with a vocabulary that will help me to perpetuate Christian reader-response theory.

  • dangjin

    I just wonder if Enns is looking for another excuse to ignore the truths of the Bible in order to justify his disobedience and rebellion against God?


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