How to read the Old Testament: Wisdom from an old dude

In keeping with prior posts on hermeneutics (that is, how to read and actually understand the Bible in some reasonable fashion), more hermeneutics, discovering the nature of God, and too many posts to link to directed at shaking a bit of sense into mindless pop Christian culture, check out Ben Witherington, once again, as he provides a great post on how we should read the Old Testament in light of the New Testament.

The “old dude” I’m referring to is “Saint” John Chrysostom, one of the gems of the Early (4th Century) Church. We don’t hear too much from Chrysostom, and some may never of heard of him. It seems as though many people assume that there were no brilliant theological minds between the Apostle Paul and Martin Luther (or Calvin, for you Reformed folks). Born in 349, Chrysostom was actually a contemporary of Augustine, who was 5 years younger. Chrysostom became the Archbishop of Constantinople, while Augustine joined the Church in Italy after being converted in Milan. Of course, at that time there was still only one church, although Rome always seemed to always claim a higher status. While both men are considered saints in both the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, the West seemed to follow Augustine’s thinking, while Chrysostom seems to carry more clout in the East. But, enough history.

The point that Witherington & Chrysostom make concerning the reading of the Old Testament is that since the coming of the New Testament (basically, I think, the appearance of Jesus) the Old Testament must be read and interpreted in light of the New Testament. Here’s a quote that Mr. W quotes from Chrysostom:

Now when you see these things merely sketched out you neither know everything nor are you totally ignorant of everything, but you know that a man and a horse are drawn there, though they are indistinct. But you don’t accurately [or fully] know what sort of emperor or what sort of prisoner it is until the truth of the colors comes and makes the face distinct and clear. For just as you don’t ask everything of that image/portrait before the truth of the colors, but if you receive some indistinct knowledge of what is there, you consider the sketch to be sufficiently ready , in just that same way consider with me the Old and New Testaments , and don’t demand from me the whole fullness of the truth in the [OT] type…For as in the painting, until someone draws in colors it is a shadowy sketch.

Much weirdness comes from reading the Old Testament separate from the New, and as a consequence confusing how the testaments fit together. Witherington says:

Now what is so interesting about this whole hermeneutical approach is that it believes that one must do justice to the history if one is to do theology and ethics right. Christianity was a religion grounded and founded in history, and so theology proper was a reflection on God’s mighty acts in history which had a before and after to them. It was not an abstract science or philosophy where one took ideas and simply linked them together without them arising out of historical events and their substance. In the end, Chrysostom’s hermeneutic mirrors that of Paul and the author of Hebrews. It would be my view that we should go and do likewise.

Good stuff again from Mr. Witherington. Go read the whole article.

8 thoughts on “How to read the Old Testament: Wisdom from an old dude”

  1. I’m not following your logic, and perhaps it’s just a matter of semantics. That “lack of understanding” is precisely what I’ve been talking about. We may be saying more or less the same thing, but I’m not sure.

    Your initial comment drew a distinction between the written New Testament and the Revelation of Jesus; all I’m saying is that for the purposes of the point I’m making, they’re non-distinguishable.

  2. Those who sought to enforce the Old Covenant upon the church revealed their lack of understanding about the Old Testament. Remember what Jesus told a similar group: “You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me,yet you refuse to come to me to have life.”

    The Old Testament points to Christ. It doesn’t “need” the New Testament to do that. Any who employ its testimony otherwise do not understand it at all.

  3. My initial post was not necessarily limited to the Bible literature, but for us, today, that happens to be what we have. In the 1st Century, oral teaching also was seen as authoritative; in fact, the written word (Paul’s letters, for example) may have been seen as perhaps less authoritative than Paul’s teaching in person. References to the Word of God and the Gospel in the NT seem to apply to an oral teaching that was considered authoritative, prior to the letters and Gospels being “published.”

    That being said, Paul gets quite riled up in Galatians when some teachers from Jerusalem apparently continue to try to enforce Old Covenant concepts without viewing things through the fuller revelation of the Gospel.

    I believe that for us today, the NT and OT together form a cohesive unit, and we run into problems when we try to view one without the added perspective of the other.

  4. The revelation of Jesus is granted. Your initial post was about the written literature to which my remarks are addressed.

    Again, both Jesus and the Apostles defined this very revelation of Jesus on the exclusive terms of the OT literature. Even the revelatory experience at Pentecost was contextualized by Peter exclusively through OT references.

    My point (if there is one) is that the OT does indeed stand on its own as inspired literature, and for a significant period of time was their only textual authority for the fledgling church.

  5. You say “Much weirdness comes from reading the Old Testament separate from the New,” and yet that’s precisely how the early church did read it; the New was written and understood on the exclusive basis of the Old.

    Not on the exclusive basis at all, but on the revelation of Jesus:

    In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son…” Hebrews 1:1,2

    The OT may be “complete” in a sense (at least historically speaking), but I don’t think you could say that it is the complete revelation of God or of His plan for salvation. The OT begs for the “color” that came in the revelation of Jesus and the Gospel of the Kingdom.

  6. You say “Much weirdness comes from reading the Old Testament separate from the New,” and yet that’s precisely how the early church did read it; the New was written and understood on the exclusive basis of the Old. Both the Apostles and Jesus himself relied on the Old to make sense of their ministries. The OT is not an incomplete document(s) but requires just as much (if not more) spiritual discernment than does the New.

    You want weirdness? The NT book of Hebrews has the strangest, most inexplicable explications of OT passages out there. In fact, had it not already been included in the canon, I’d be inclined to say that the writer should have been required to take a basic course in exegesis before attempting an inspired work of literature. Just goes to show you, if it’s not one thing it’s another.

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