© 2019 Rev. Rodney Schofield All Rights Reserved.
Yesterday was the 1600th anniversary of the death of St Jerome, one of the great early biblical scholars. He’s renowned for translating the Bible into Latin from the original Hebrew and Greek sources – we know it as the Latin Vulgate. It wasn’t the first attempt to produce a Latin version of the Bible, and what’s known as the Old Latin version continued to be used alongside it for several centuries afterwards – so that, for example, the famous St Augustine Gospels which Pope Gregory gave to St Augustine of Canterbury at the end of the 6th century combine a mixture of the two. Jumping ahead to the present day, we can see similarities in the English versions that now abound, which often blend previous translations (not least Tyndale’s Bible from the early 16th century) with scholarly insights reflecting the much wider range of ancient manuscripts that have since come to light. Here I really must mention a famous name associated with our own Catholic parish: Chester Beatty was a wealthy American who resided some of the time at Little Chart whose passion was collecting biblical papyri from places like Egypt; in 1931 he acquired the earliest known New Testament codices P45 and P46.
However, the New Testament didn’t of course exist until decades after the time of Jesus. When he quotes the scriptures he’s referring to what we call the Old Testament, which it’s clear he knew very well indeed. We hopefully are familiar with the gospels and the letters of St Paul, but I doubt we could compete with either Jesus or Jerome in appreciating what preceded them in the Hebrew scriptures – and even though we have a three year lectionary cycle that includes many passages from the Old Testament there’s still a considerable amount we never hear read in church.
St Luke’s account of our Lord’s childhood mentions his visit to the Temple in Jerusalem at the age of twelve. It indicates that by now he was extremely well-versed in the Hebrew scriptures, more than able to hold his own with learned scribes, who were ‘amazed’ at his understanding. It’s also Luke who tells us of Jesus’ lifetime habit of attending the synagogue each Sabbath day, and of his evident literacy no doubt acquired in the rabbinical school in Nazareth. Later on, in his teaching ministry he’s sometimes addressed as a Rabbi himself, an indication of how thoroughly he’d absorbed the scriptures. Indeed he clearly interpreted their message in very personal terms, as in his early description of the Temple as his ‘Father’s house’. When at the age of thirty he preaches in the synagogue at Nazareth he refers to himself as the one upon whom Isaiah’s prophesied ‘Spirit of the Lord’ has descended. It is exactly the same when, on the day of his resurrection, he explains recent events to Cleopas and his friend as they walk to Emmaus:
Beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.
Of all the prophets he seems to have derived his main inspiration from Isaiah. This has sometimes been called the ‘fifth Gospel’ because, as Jerome put it, the life of the Messiah is recounted in such a way as to make one think the prophet ‘is telling the story of what has already happened rather than what is still to come’.
The book of Isaiah is actually quoted in the New Testament more than any other book of the Hebrew Bible apart from the Psalms (there’s a psalm quotation by Jesus himself in Luke 20) – and the obvious explanation is that Isaiah was the book that gave most guidance to our Lord during his so-called ‘hidden’ years. Why should this be so? Although we now recognize historical development within the book of Isaiah (Isaiah 1, 2 and 3 as it were), there are common themes running throughout – a focus on God’s holiness and on his desire for righteousness and faith, and for peace and justice; ritual purity and cultic practices are not enough in themselves, and are actually condemned if they replace such essentials as social justice or personal humility. The Temple plays only a minor role in the vision of the new and hoped-for Jerusalem; in those passages where it is mentioned, the emphasis is on opening its doors to foreigners and to the nations of the world. Visions of a new age often highlight the coming of an individual champion of peace and righteousness. In particular there is the passage from Isaiah 61 which was quoted by Jesus in his ‘manifesto’ at Nazareth:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.
This ideal Messiah also appears in other passages of Isaiah where he is described as ‘the servant of the Lord’, although in each case the reference may be a wider one as well, implying that Israel as a whole will one day also be God’s true servant. But above all there is the celebrated ‘suffering servant’ passage (in chapters 52 and 53) which seems to speak of an individual who heals and redeems by vicarious suffering. It expresses confidence in the power of God to heal wounds and to forgive sins; it clearly draws on traditional Jewish ideas such as the annual ritual of the scapegoat, sent away into the wilderness bearing the people’s sins and it also suggests a reminiscence of Moses, who once offered to die for his people (Exodus 32). Isaiah also reminds his readers of God’s past graciousness to them through their own ordeal in the wilderness..
The idea of ‘service’ is certainly suggested in Jesus’ use of the term ‘Son of man’. This phrase occurs repeatedly throughout the book of Ezekiel, where the prophet is addressed in this way; but it does occur once in Isaiah as well:
Thus says the Lord: ‘Keep justice, and do righteousness, for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed. Blessed is the man who does this, and the son of man who holds it fast.’
Here the stress shifts from the phrase itself to the way God’s salvation is hastened by the implementation of his will. Jesus’ Sonship of the Father would therefore be fittingly expressed, not just in the unpretentious phrase ‘Son of man’, but in a ministry of Isaianic self-offering. His divine glory would be radiated through the love and compassion of his human life: Jesus was very much ‘the Man for others’, as we say. His ministry would represent the inner truth of what the prophets had begun to express in earlier times – and it was his interpretation that Jesus’ followers adopted in their own reading of the scriptures: ‘Christ’ was the key to understanding them in their deepest sense. Hence, the 2nd Letter to Timothy exhorts:
But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings which are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.
The reference to ‘all scripture’ here means of course the Old Testament. Making the same point several centuries later, St Jerome could rightly say that ‘ignorance of scripture is ignorance of Christ’. My emphasis now is that it was not the apostles nor the early Church Fathers who initiated this insight; it evidently derived from the Lord’s own reflection on the Hebrew Bible that he knew so well (from his earliest childhood acquaintance with the sacred writings).
What we don’t know with any certainty is how complete was the array of scrolls that were kept in his day in the synagogue at Nazareth. While synagogues undoubtedly varied in their facilities, each of them would certainly have been equipped with an ‘ark’ where the sacred scrolls were kept. Ideally this should have been a full complement of texts, but in places there may have been little more than the basic five books of the Law: literary and archaeological evidence indicates that the Torah chest typically held from two to nine books rather than what the 1st century Jewish writer Josephus reckoned to be the complete set of twenty-two. The obvious explanation is that scrolls were expensive items, and not all communities could afford them. Further, it was not until the end of the 1st century, in the aftermath of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem (which happened in 70 AD as a response to the Jewish uprising against their Roman rulers), that the centre of Jewish religious life was transferred to a town called Jamnia; under the leadership of Rabbi Johannan ben Zakkai a decision was reached as to which writings were to be the holy books and which were forbidden – or at least excluded from the canon of scripture. Mishnah Hagigah considered that, although the opening chapter of Ezekiel was scriptural, it should not be discussed with any student ‘unless he is wise and understands it for himself’; Rabbi Akiba even taught that anyone who read an excluded book would have no share in the world to come.
The New Testament itself refers several times to the main categories of the Hebrew Bible, understood as a combination of the Law (Torah), the Prophets (Nevi’im) and the Writings (Ketuvim). By the Law was meant the Pentateuch, the five books of Moses which gave instruction, particularly about ritual requirements and moral behaviour. The Prophets embraced more than the prophetic books that Christians classify as such: to Jews, the historical books (Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings) are also included as ‘the Former Prophets’, being seen as God’s word spoken through events. Again, what we would term the twelve ‘minor’ prophets were normally combined on a single scroll. The Writings include books such as Psalms, Proverbs and Job, together with the so-called Five Scrolls (the Song of Songs, Lamentations and so on) and the quasi-historical documents Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, along with 1 and 2 Chronicles: most of these were written much later than the Pentateuch itself, although it should not be forgotten that nearly all the scrolls were redacted (altered or amplified) more than once in the course of time.
In each synagogue whatever scrolls were available would be read and interpreted following a yearly lectionary cycle. In Jesus’ day, however, there may have been other ‘non-canonical’ scrolls available, given what we now know from sources such as the Dead Sea Scrolls. Judaism was by no means united in its religious outlook, and different sects often generated literature which reflected their views: the Essenes were one such sect. There was in fact a wealth of ‘apocryphal’ writings that appeared in the inter-testamental years, particularly in the century before Christ. Another complicating factor was the emergence of a Greek translation of Hebrew biblical texts begun in the 3rd century BC and completed by the early 2nd century: this is known as the Septuagint (commonly abbreviated to LXX) because of the legend that seventy scholars were involved: it provided a text for the Jewish diaspora in Egypt who spoke Greek and understood very little Hebrew. However, the Septuagint includes writings that never became part of the Hebrew biblical canon: among these are the first two books of Maccabees; Tobit; Judith; Wisdom of Solomon; Sirach; Baruch, including the Letter of Jeremiah; additions to Esther; and additions to Daniel. These additions were read by the early (Greek-speaking) Christian Church and are included in Catholic versions of the Bible; whereas Luther – who also omitted the Letter of James (‘an epistle of straw’) from his New Testament – influenced most Protestant churches to leave them out, although today they may often be found inserted between Old and New Testaments as the Apocrypha. Luther was certainly not afraid to express his views:
I so hate Esther and Second Maccabees that I wish they did not exist; there is too much Judaism in them and not a little heathenism.
As regards the text of the accepted Jewish writings (and the same observation applies to the canon of Christian scripture): there were inevitably variations that resulted from scribal errors or intended improvements, hence we can not be certain exactly what version of (say) Isaiah was known to Jesus. In the mid-2nd century AD Justin Martyr composed his Dialogue with Trypho (apparently a learned Jew), and cautions him about the latest Greek translations: ‘Your teachers’, he says, ‘attempt to make their own translation. You should also know that they have deleted entire passages from the version composed by the elders.’ It took several centuries longer before rabbinic scholars addressed the issue of textual discrepancies. The outcome is known today as the Masoretic Hebrew Bible, which added vowels, pronunciation marks and stress accents together with marginal notes to what was previously a consonantal text (so today we read the Hebrew word for God, YHWH, as Yahweh as opposed to its earlier pronunciation Jehovah). Even so, English translations can still vary considerably. The RSV renders Job 13.15 as ‘Behold, he will slay me; I have no hope’ whereas the AV (using the Masoretic version) is more positive, ‘Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him’. Which is correct? – the Mishnah, a collection of rabbinic writings compiled around 200 AD, acknowledged that texts can sometimes be ambiguous, with a degree of truth to be found in more than one reading.
The only scriptures known to the first generation of Christians were those inherited from Jewish tradition. Over the next 50 to 100 years they endeavoured to discover their ‘true’ meaning, which had been ‘veiled’ until now. There were many obscurities, but they approached the task with the same assumptions as the Jewish scribes:
(1) The biblia – the books or scrolls – are cryptic, and mean far more than is apparent on the surface. Whereas in secular writing truths are usually communicated in plain words, a divine communication has hidden depths not immediately apparent. This is surely implied in the passage from 2 Peter that comments on the letters of Paul (and incidentally seems to imply that Paul’s letters were by now included in liturgical readings):
There are some things hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures.
The apparent criticism here is actually an affirmation of the letters’ spiritual value. If there were no difficulties, it might be a sign of superficiality! Necessarily, therefore, there is an accompanying warning, that it is possible for the uninstructed to read the wrong message. Note too, that at the start of the 2nd century, when 2 Peter was written, the existing corpus of scripture was being expanded by the addition of new Christian writings;what later came to be called the ‘canon’ (i.e. rule) of scripture – the officially authorised Christian Bible – was not yet in existence. The process which led to this was chiefly one of common usage.
(2) A second assumption is expressed in another late NT letter (2 Timothy), as quoted earlier:
All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.
Although initially there may have been a selection of so-called proof texts which clarified God’s purposes in Christ (St Matthew’s Gospel contains quite a number of these), in principle the Hebrew scriptures were appreciated collectively as divine teaching of enduring value. Their interpretation might not always be immediately apparent, and indeed might be read differently with the passing of time. Yet no passage, however obscure, was necessarily irrelevant to later generations (whether Jewish or Christian). To give one example: prophets often issued warnings about what might happen unless people mended their ways or (more encouragingly) advised that God would not abandon his people in their difficulties. Such messages were invariably delivered in response to contemporary circumstances, and their primary aim was not to foretell events far into the future. Nevertheless, their inspired wisdom was seen to be perennially valid, provided one could unlock its truth. One well-known example occurs in the book of Daniel:
I, Daniel, perceived in the books the number of years which, according to the word of the Lord to Jeremiah the prophet, must pass before the end of the desolations of Jerusalem, namely, seventy years … Seventy weeks of years are decreed concerning your people and your holy city.
Here Jeremiah’s message of hope has been revived in oppressive circumstances centuries later through the expedient of interpreting a ‘year’ as ‘a week of years’. A precedent is set for Christian commentators too (here the author of 2 Peter):
With the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.
The re-interpretation of the scriptures for a contemporary audience is found throughout the OT itself, not least in the prophets: for example, while Amos tells us that his visions occurred in king Uzziah’s time, verses in chapter 9 extend his prophecy to a later date when ‘the booth of David’ has fallen – in other words, to the exilic period. Paul enunciates the key principle, when he observes to the Corinthians:
Now these things happened to them as a warning, but they were written down for our instruction.
Or again, he writes to the Romans about Abraham’s faith:
The words, ‘it was reckoned to him [as righteousness],’ were written not for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in … Jesus.
(3) Thirdly, if the scriptures are indeed God’s word, there must be a fundamental harmony in their testimony. Hence, a particular word or phrase need not always be taken at face value – it may sometimes, for example, be better understood through cross-reference to a passage elsewhere in the OT. Details matter, even though their significance may be discovered within an altogether different context. This approach can be very helpful: in the story of Moses in the bulrushes, he is hidden in ‘a basket’. That at least is the common, and perfectly valid, English translation of the word. In Hebrew, however, the word is teba which means an ark – the very word used in the story of the flood. At once a wealth of meaning is unlocked for us, and the parallels between Noah and Moses become mutually illuminating. The one small detail of language testifies to God’s providence in time of need.
It can happen, of course, that biblical texts throw up difficulties or anomalies: if God’s word speaks with one voice, these challenge the exegete to delve more deeply to uncover the proper meaning of the text. That is not in doubt, but the issue here is: do efforts to find consistency in the scriptures, to find these hidden truths, defy or ignore the obvious literal meaning? In later rabbinic circles, for example, it was shocking to contemplate the description of an ancestral hero as behaving badly. Their a priori assumption, sitting in judgement on the text, was that the words could not possibly be taken at face value. So in Genesis, confronted by the sentence ‘Rachel stole her father’s household gods’, the rabbinic response was to deny that stealing had occurred. Rather, it was argued, Rachel took the objects into her own custody in order to prevent her father falling into sin. Or when ‘the sons of Jacob answered Shechem and his father Hamor deceitfully’, it could not possibly mean that these patriarchs were liars – hence ‘deceitfully’ must be read as ‘prudently’ or ‘wisely’. Is such re-interpretation, however, not simply a rewriting of the text?
We should not, however, overlook the fact that Jesus himself had his own evaluation of the tradition he inherited. In the Sermon on the Mount, he stated:
Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them.
There follow several examples of how he reads a deeper meaning into the received teachings by stating a new law, ‘But I say to you …’ In one place too he offers a rather different evaluation of the inherited deposit, viz. between God’s initial intention and the concession subsequently allowed to human weakness:
For your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.
Whereas in the modern world it is frequently assumed that ‘the latest is the best’, it may be (following Jesus’ guidance) that we need to assert the opposite, namely, that our aim should be to discover once again God’s original purpose in creating the world ‘and all who dwell therein’.
To conclude therefore: the value of the Hebrew scriptures is today assessed in a variety of different ways (although verbal or textual inerrancy seen in the light of our previous discussion is clearly not a viable option:
(1) The OT is to be revered in its entirety as God’s word. Although this is associated with fundamentalist ideas, it should be remembered that not all who hold this position are so literal-minded. Origen, the great Christian biblical scholar of the early 3rd century, probably adhered to this position, but he distinguished between different levels of meaning – for example, the literal, the moral and the spiritual. Sometimes all these aspects are of value: the story of Israel’s passage through the wilderness can certainly be understood as an historical event, but it can be seen as an allegory of pilgrimage from unbelief to Christian faith, or again as symbolising the ultimate passage of a believer from this world to the next. At other times (such as Israel’s conquest of the land of Canaan) we may prefer a purely spiritual interpretation!. Yet the sacredness of the text has led some into questionable territory. Origen himself suggested that, even if the listener did not understand what he or she was hearing, there was nevertheless a spiritual benefit. The great Augustine was inclined to think that a headache might be relieved if one rested one’s head at night upon St John’s Gospel.
Again, throughout the Christian centuries the practice known as sortes biblicae (biblical ‘sortilege’) has remained in popular usage: the Bible is opened at random, a finger is pointed at the page, and the words discovered thereby are believed to convey God’s special truth for the one who seeks guidance. Undoubtedly, a message is there to be found, but whether it is interpreted at its most profound level is another question. The danger here is that God’s word can be manipulated into meaning anything or everything.
(2) A somewhat different view is that the OT should be understood as the record of a progressive revelation of God’s purposes. Gregory of Nyssa thought along these lines in the 4th century AD; but it was particularly during the 19th century that the notion of religious development gained a stronger hold, encouraged by evolutionary ideas. Thus, a primitive phase was seen in the Bible, which still bore traces of superstition or even animism. Then came a nomadic phase when theism grew, and Abrahamic faith in a tribal God known as Yahweh emerged. This belief then faced new challenges when Israel, as the people came to be known, finally settled in Canaan: other gods competed for their attention, and some lapsed into polytheism or syncretism. But in the end a firm monotheism came to prevail, as championed by the major prophets; and in post-exilic times, if not before, this became Israel’s normative religion.
This developmental summary is really an over-simplification, not wholly borne out by archaeological or literary evidence, but it does correspond to a sense that there are degrees of spiritual insight in the Hebrew scriptures, with some of the most profound texts found in (say) Isaiah or Job, rather than (say) in the earlier genealogies. In the late 18th century it may be noted that German rationalists began to prune the books of the OT: Georg Bauer notoriously rejected the Pentateuch as primitive and chauvinistic, Joshua and Judges as barbarous, most of the history as crude, many of the prophets as too judaical, and the only spiritual worth he found was in the writings of those few individuals who had risen above ‘the common prejudices’. Those who followed him were a little more generous, but still in agreement that wisdom literature, such as Proverbs, was all that could sensibly be called ‘divinely inspired’. Here, I daresay, we can note ideas that fed into Nazism.
It shouldn’t be forgotten that a similar onslaught had already been made in early Christian times by a wealthy lay Christian at Rome named Marcion. For him, the OT was influenced by false notions of God and was therefore simply superseded by Christian teachings. He also favoured an edited version of Luke’s Gospel and the writings of St Paul – but was less selective than Thomas Jefferson in his 1820 minimalist version of the Bible, which omitted all miracles, the resurrection and ascension, and the Holy Spirit. Jefferson’s work remained in obscurity until recently, but around the mid-2nd century Marcion posed a serious challenge to the Church, which opted in clear favour of retaining the Hebrew scriptures, so long as they were properly interpreted. A couple of centuries later, the great St Jerome counselled new Christians to read first the Wisdom writings, then the Gospels, followed by the NT Letters, then the Pentateuch and the Prophets, and last of all the Song of Songs.
(3) Another way of expressing what is of most enduring value within the hugely diverse spiritual range of books in the OT may be the phrase ‘a canon within the canon’. The idea is familiar from liturgical practice in the Church. The Gospels are recognised as the core texts of the NT, whereas the letter of Jude (say) hardly attracts any attention at all. It is the Gospels that help to shape the interpretation we place upon Jude, rather than vice versa, and for this reason the reading of the Gospel is the highpoint of the ministry of the word. Similarly, in Jewish practice, it is actually the Torah (the Pentateuch) that has pride of place. The Prophets and the Writings, as we now know them, are seen as supplementary to the Law. Christians, as we have seen, would not necessarily agree here, since we understand Christ himself as the key to all these books, and indeed in the NT’s teaching it is by the Holy Spirit that we are led into the fullness of truth. Truth is a contextual matter, where meaning is often discovered by relating passages to each other across the whole canonical Bible. Nor is our knowledge of Christ drawn wholly from the Bible: it is passed on from generation to generation of Christians in the Church, and there is an enduring tradition of understanding and interpretation. The Reformation catch phrase sola scriptura does not do justice to the lived inheritance of faith.
(4) Finally, although we certainly need to appreciate the Hebrew scriptures historically as the original preparatio evangelica, this leaves open the question concerning the most appropriate forms of ‘preparation for the gospel’ in today’s culturally complex world. This might suggest postponing study of the OT in favour of exploring insights in other religions or cultures: there may well be other valuable paths that can lead us towards Christian faith. Such privileged authority as the OT can claim needs to be seen, therefore, in relation to the merits of a wider range of spiritual writings.