How the Early Church Handled Leviticus

How the Early Church Handled Leviticus September 30, 2022

In the first chapter of the book of Leviticus, displayed vibrantly are the statutes which regulate the holy rite of the burnt-offering. Here we locate the charges of the temple priest, for it is a son of Aaron who sprinkles the blood of a slaughtered beast ‘round about the altar; it is he, the cohen (priest), who strips the animal’s flesh from bone, carves it into pieces, and offers its unblemished remains upon a fiery altar as a sacrifice unto Almighty God (Lv. 1:5-9).

Jordan Bennett | Temple Mount, Jerusalem

Throughout these opening passages, we catch glimpses of the ancient history of Israel; we learn of a conditional covenant, and of the laws which uphold it. But not merely this. For according to both the Church Fathers and the early Rabbis, what lies hidden within these timeless pages assuredly transcends that of simple historical documentation. Truly, the text lives and breathes, and it continues to teach its admirers who dwell after the Biblical period with manifold layers of meaning; Leviticus stretches out beyond the boundaries of time and grabs ahold of all those who gaze upon it—even those hailing from historical and intellectual vantage points that differ from that of the text’s fleshly author.

Beyond the Plain Meaning

Considering this, let us return to the description above, now with new lenses as fashioned by the third-century Biblical exegete, Origen of Alexandria. “I myself,” he writes,

 “think that the priest who removes the hide ‘of the calf’ offered as ‘a whole burnt offering’ and pulls away skin with which its limbs are covered is the one who removes the veil of the letter (2 Cor. 3:14) from the Word of God and uncovers its interior parts which are members of spiritual understanding. He does not put these members of the Word which are known inwardly in some base place but in a high and holy one, that is, he places it ‘upon the altar’ when he explains the divine mysteries not to unworthy men who are leading a base and earthly life but to those who are the altar of God, in whom the divine fire always burns and the flesh is always consumed.” [i]

Here Origen comments in a semi-autobiographical manner, for he was one such priest who coaxed out the “mysteries concealed beneath history.” [ii] He saw beyond the plain meaning of the Biblical text and found application that was readily adapted for those believers who profess faith in Christ. According to the Alexandrian, the spiritual sense of the text is preeminent; indeed, a literal rendering of the Torah is superfluous for Christians because they regard the ritual law as having been fulfilled by the coming of their divine Messiah.

Thus, stemming from his hermeneutical philosophy concerning the Old Testament, “the movement in all of Origen’s exegesis is towards the spiritual away from the literal.” [iii] This exegetical project, while not as prevalent among modern commentators, was a common practice in the Early Church. Since Jesus’ followers adopted the Hebrew Bible as a significant portion of their Scriptural canon, it was therefore unfathomably necessary for them to locate their uniquely Christian theological convictions within this very corpus—not just in the pages of the New Testament.

Christ in the Old Testament

Origen, like so many before and after him, regarded the Hebrew Bible as the unassailable proclamation of the advent of the Son of God; indeed, all of the Hebrew Scriptures—including the sacrificial ordinances described in Leviticus—attest to and prefigure the Christian Messiah. It is a conviction distributed abundantly among the writings of the Church Fathers, but it did not originate with them; the New Testament expresses its validity. Jesus Himself is described as promulgating it in the Gospel of Luke; the text records: “Then beginning with Moses and with all the Prophets, He explained to them the things written about Himself in all the Scriptures (Lk 24:27).” 

The objective of the Church’s early exegetes was twofold. For one, a Christian interpreter of the Hebrew Bible was compelled (by Luke 24:27 or other related revelations) to seek out their Lord, to locate all those references to the divine Messiah which inhabit the books of the Old Testament. Some allusions were relatively transparent, for they were already accredited to the Jesus movement by additional works deemed inspired—those books that were to be included within the New Testament canon. Others, however, necessitated the intervention of a “Levitical priest” who would labor to remove the text’s garment; to crack the shell that conceals Scripture’s hidden layer of Christological meaning.

The Application That Lies Hidden

In addition to the project of finding Jesus in the Hebrew Bible, the patristic commentators also desired to act in accordance with the proclamation that “all Scripture is inspired by God and beneficial for teaching, for rebuke, for correction, for training in righteousness (2 Tm 3:16).” Yet how could laws which govern sacrifices conducted at the Jerusalem Temple be good for instruction when the entire system of ritual offerings that they describe no longer applies to those individuals who have faith in Jesus of Nazareth?

The Christ became, through His passion, the final blood offering by which all who might have faith in Him are reconciled, ransomed, and made righteous before the eyes of a most holy and perfect God; indeed, Christians were urged to cease the practice of animal sacrifice, but the book of Leviticus remains the inerrant Word of the LORD. Ergo, a solution was necessary, and a proper action transpired; a flood of extra-literal exegesis was commenced by the Church Fathers that they might find the Christ, yes, but also as a method of fleshing out the countless applicable ethical and metaphysical gleanings that lie in waiting deep within the assortment of obsolete laws that permeate the Levitical text and beyond.    

 

[i] Origen, Homilies on Leviticus, trans. Gary Wayne Barkley (Washington, D. C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2005), 35.

[ii] Paget, J. N. B. Carleton. “The Christian Exegesis of the Old Testament in the Alexandrian Tradition: 3. Origen as Exegete of the Old Testament.” In Hebrew Bible / Old Testament: The History of Its Interpretation Part 1: Antiquity, edited by Magne Sæbø. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1996, 525

[iii] Ibid., 524


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