Jesus and the Old Testament

The Word of God grows its roots in the heart the more one shares it with others. That is why one of the surest ways of growing in knowledge and love for the Scriptures is to teach them to others, an opportunity I had for the first time (at least, as a theology professor) this semester in a course on the Old Testament. Some bright undergraduates, our diocese’s deacon candidates and their spouses, and I set out to gain a deeper understanding of the sacred texts that are foundational for both Jews and Christians. First, however, we had to tackle the issue of how one should read and interpret them.

It is well-known that the divide between historical and theological study of the Bible has been a mainstay in higher education for decades. The predominance of the historical-critical method has separated biblical studies from theology in many seminaries and theological schools.[1] One need only look at the major figures in 20th century theology—Rahner and von Balthasar among them—to see that very few were thoroughly biblical in approach. While the Second Vatican Council, in Dei Verbum, sought to encourage a prayerful study of the Word of God, this movement was seemingly stymied by the rise of the scientific approach to the Scriptures. The historical legitimacy of the events of the Old Testament were called into question. Quests for the “historical Jesus” divided the Jewish man of Nazareth from the supposed “Christ of faith.” Ultimately, while promising to bring more clarity to biblical interpretation, such approaches often served to undermine the faith of believers. As a student in a class I TA’d for in graduate school once told me after learning about the so-called historical Jesus: “I feel like someone just told me Santa Claus doesn’t exist.”

This statement shows that we are not talking about a dilemma confined to academia. Gerard Sloyan, a leading figure in American catechetical renewal, spoke the following words at a gathering of catechists, theologians, and catechetical scholars in 1964 (a year before the Council’s close):

Relevance, the Christ-life here and now, are matters that are being deferred because so much time is required to relate the Emmanuel prophecy to Jesus the Messiah or to reconstruct the post-exilic situation. Relating Assyria to the monolithic threats of bigness in the young lives of students, making Syria and Ephraim meaningful in terms of all the “deals” they have witnessed by age fifteen in which canny men of little faith agree to sup with the devil—we are not finding time for that. Besides, it is mere accommodation. It departs from the primary literal sense. In other words, I find us retreating from the real work of catechetics because it is proving so satisfactory to teachers at the moment to give biblical lectures to young people. The reason? Well it is such a relief from the many years we spent giving them theological lectures. We have discovered the Bible lately, and we rush impetuously to share our treasure without taking time to do with it what the church has always done: teach Christ from it.[2]

Indeed, earlier in the last century, the Jesuits Josef Jungmann and Johannes Hofinger had advocated a return to the kerygma for catechesis, combining an evangelizing Christ-centeredness with a liturgical emphasis and a view of the Scriptures as salvation history—elements embraced in our own day at least in part by faithful initiatives such as Notre Dame’s Institute for Church Life and the many dioceses utilizing books such as Fr. James Mallon’s Divine Renovation or Sherry Weddell’s Forming Intentional Disciples. But at the time of Sloyan’s lecture, the kerygmatic movement was quickly derailed in the United States by the rise of the historical-critical study of the Bible. The Word of God seemingly could no longer offer a wealth of theological and spiritual insight; it was a collection of texts from the past that needed to be deconstructed and reconstructed in order to find what objective meanings actually lay therein.

In our Old Testament class we tried to bridge this chasm by studying the Scriptures from the heart of the Church. Such an ecclesial hermeneutic avoids the twin errors of historicism and fundamentalism by approaching the Bible with the logic of the Incarnation: “For the words of God, expressed in human language, have been made like human discourse, just as the word of the eternal Father, when he took to himself the flesh of human weakness, was in every way made like men” (Dei Verbum §13). Thus, the foundation for understanding a given text is ascertaining what the sacred writers actually intended—traditionally called the “literal sense”—a task which necessarily calls upon the methods of historical and literary studies. And yet the Bible must be “read and interpreted in the sacred spirit in which it was written,” demanding our attention to the unity of the biblical revelation, the living tradition of the Church, and the analogy of faith (DV §12). The first of these guideposts reclaims the unity of the Bible and therefore salvation history. A given text must be read in light of the whole narratio, as Augustine called it, a story which has Jesus Christ as its interpretive key and climax. An off-shoot of this approach is that there can be no ultimate or fundamental opposition between the Old Testament and the New, between a “God of wrath”—to use the words of one of my students—manifested in the life of Israel and a meek God of mercy crucified and risen for members of the Church. Rather, to continue the reflections of the same student, such a position is latent with “biases and misperceptions” found “among those of us who only had a cursory knowledge of the Old Testament.”

The second and third guideposts extend the interpretive context beyond the texts of Sacred Scripture to the entire life of the Church. Because the biblical text is a narratio written by and for a community of believers, it should be read in continuity with the way in which those believers worship, teach, and live in accord with the Word of God. Likewise, because God is active in this community and ensures its fidelity to his Word, an interpretation of a given text can never stand in contradiction to how God has already spoken through his Church. Truth cannot contradict truth—this is a logical necessity but, even more, this third and final guidepost bears witness to the truth present in the second. God has spoken in a definitive way in the Scriptures, but this same Word is continually spoken in the life of his Church, opening up greater and greater understandings of it.

It is important to note that, for some, these three guidelines can seem like a pious imposition upon the scientific accuracy of the historical study of the Bible. John J. Collins is not alone when he claims that “the internal pluralism of the Bible, both theological and ethical, has been established beyond dispute.”[3] But this view fails to recognize that the Church’s interpretive guideposts actually spring from within the very nature of the Scriptures themselves. For if, as Dei Verbum claims, the intention of the human authors is a “sacred” one, then two things must follow: first, even on the level of the literal sense alone, to abstract the author’s intention apart from the believing community is to fail to recognize the Scriptures’ primary historical context. The believing community and its liturgy is the original home of the Bible. In the words of Scott Hahn, the Bible and the liturgy share a formal and a material relationship.[4] The relationship is formal because the texts themselves were canonized for the very purpose of their use in the liturgy. It is material because the very content of the Scriptures is overwhelmingly liturgical. To recall one instance of many, Moses and Aaron’s initial conversation with Pharaoh is not only to request that he let the Israelites go, but that he let them go that they might worship God (Ex 5:1-3).

Second, it is true that the literal sense must be the foundation for any proper reading of a biblical text, but alone it will be insufficient. The Catechism thus speaks of the “spiritual sense” of the Bible, recognizing a triple-fold way of interpreting sacred texts by way of a medieval couplet inspired by Patristic exegesis:

The letter speaks of deeds; Allegory to faith;
The Moral how to act; Anagogy to our destiny (CCC §118).

Because God is the primary author of Scripture, he can include within the Bible’s words and events meanings that do not contradict or deny the literal sense but that nevertheless surpass it. Thus, in keeping with the Christological analogy of the Incarnation, to emphasize solely the humanity of the text apart from its divine authorship is tantamount to Christological heresy.

And yet, heresies always come in pairs. An antiseptic historicism fails to appreciate the full breadth and depth of the Word, but an overly-spiritualized fundamentalism fails to see its gritty and particular humanity. Perhaps the threat of the latter is why Dei Verbum is often lauded for its endorsement of the historical-critical method, but, strangely, commentators seem less interested in its call to read the Scriptures within the living tradition of the Church. It is true that one can sometimes find within early Christianity the spiritual usurpation of the Hebrew Scriptures, when an interpreter would see Christianity as the sole meaning of the letter of an Old Testament text—a practice that recent scholars, including Joseph Ratzinger, have lamented. But an ecclesial hermeneutic avoids this problem by anchoring the spiritual sense in the literal: the Old Testament maintains its own integrity while remaining open to a fulfillment which transcends it.

“Fulfillment” will always be the pivotal issue at hand when a Christian endeavors to read the Old Testament in its fullness. Dei Verbum claims that the Old Testament is ultimately a preparation for the coming of Jesus Christ, an advent anticipated by prophecy and a typological reading of the old covenant’s persons and events. The claim is a controversial one for, as we have just seen, in its extreme version it would rob the Old Testament of its own intrinsic meaning. That is why, as St. Thomas explains, “all senses are founded on one—the literal.”[5] So, too, should it be noted that, traditionally, the proper use of typology has seen Christ and the Church not as the very meaning of the Old Testament’s words, but as the further fulfillment of its realities. Human beings use words to signify realities, St. Thomas explains, but God can use these same realities to signify other realities.[6] Thus, the words of Exodus regarding the crossing of the Red Sea have their own historical value, though the event itself prefigures the salvation effected by baptism in the new covenant. Or, as Jesus himself claims: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up” (Jn 3:14).

Still, even with these important caveats, there is one controversial claim that remains—that Jesus is indeed the promised messiah. There a Christian must make his stand. The disquieting boldness of this claim, heard and embraced by those Jews such as Peter and Paul who became some of Jesus’s earliest disciples, is not simply assuaged by a typological reading (as fruitful as such a reading is) for it pushes through the border between the Old and the New to claim that Jesus is, in some way, the reality that fulfills the primary meaning of certain Old Testament promises and that he is the ultimate meaning of all of them.

Helpful in this regard is an insightful passage in Pope Benedict XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth, where the pope emeritus recalls the book by Rabbi Jacob Neusner, A Rabbi Talks with Jesus. In his book, Neusner enters into the gospels, placing himself among the crowd gathered around Jesus, listening to his teaching and respectfully reflecting upon it in light of the Torah and rabbinic tradition. Benedict recalls a particular moment in which Neusner imaginatively retires to a certain town for prayer and study with other Jews. Another rabbi offers his own interpretation of the Mosaic Law and asks Neusner whether Jesus had said the same:

I: “Not exactly, but close.”
He: “What did he leave out?”
I: “Nothing.”
He: “Then what did he add?”
I: “Himself.”[7]

Here Neusner, while respectfully disagreeing, has identified the central claim of Christianity with regard to the Old Testament.

This relationship between Christ and the Old Testament became the pressing issue as our class reached the end of the semester. The covenant made with Abraham—the promise of a land, a nation, a universal vocation—after the exile and, even after the return under Persian rule, how would this actually come to pass? The Law of Moses, symbolized by the first commandment—how could it be fulfilled? For my students, two things became thematic in the texts we read: God’s utter fidelity to his covenant and the infidelity of the people of God. The golden calf at the bottom of Mt. Sinai. The desert wanderings (which David Stubbs tellingly describes as a “breviary of sin”), culminating in the idolatry at Moab.[8] The Judges cycle, in which the author tells us “everyone did what was right in his own sight” (Jgs 17:5; 21:25). The failure of the kings. The division of the Kingdom. The conquest and the exile. Such a litany manifests the stubborn mercy of God and the “incurable wound,” as Jeremiah 30:12 calls it, of sin. Earlier in the semester it seemed to us that the repeated lesson of the Scriptures was to turn back, so that God would relent in his just punishments. But near the end we realized that Peter Leithart’s observation rang truer:

The message of the prophets is not “Israel has sinned; therefore, Israel needs to get its act together or it will die.” The message is, “Israel has sinned; therefore, Israel must die, and its only hope is to entrust itself to a God who will give it new life on the far side of death.” Or even, “Israel has sinned; Israel is already dead. Cling to a God who raises the dead.”[9]

If Leithart is correct, and I believe he is, then the fulfillment Jesus Christ brings to the Old Testament is not merely typological, nor is it the result of spiritualizing promises which seemingly cannot be fulfilled in a literal way. Within the litany of mercy and sin is a trajectory that calls for a fulfillment that cannot be accomplished by a mere human attempt to return to fidelity to the Law. Paul, the well-trained Pharisee, knew this when he claimed that the Law justifies no one but convicts everyone. Incurable wounds, to use Jeremiah’s phrase, demand one who can cure the incurable. The wages of sin demand one who can overcome even death.

To stay for a moment with Jeremiah—within his oracles he had already prophesied the coming of a new covenant, one not written on stone but on the heart (Jer 31:31). In the same passage, he connects this newness to a fundamental continuity underlying all of the covenants: “I will be your God, and you will be my people” (Jer 31:33). This, I believe, is the core message found in all of the promises and covenants of the old covenant. Is this not the very point of the land, the nation, and the universal vocation? Is it not the very reason for giving the Law? Jeremiah has not, therefore, simply reinterpreted Israel’s history in light of the exile but has identified the heart of this history and its message. “I am the Lord your God . . . You shall not have other Gods besides me” (Ex 20:2-3). “Hear O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone!” (Deut 6:4). He must be our God, and we must be his people.

In our final class, we spoke of Jesus Christ as the culmination of all we had read. He is the embodiment of the fidelity of God and the healing of incurable wounds. His is the “blood of the covenant,” as Matthew has it, and yet, Luke tells us, the “new covenant” is in this same blood.[10] He is, thus, both continuity with the promises made to the patriarchs, Moses, and David and astounding novelty as foretold by Jeremiah. This claim is found implicitly and explicitly in all of the pages of the New Testament.

Once again, for the Christian, it is a claim that is unavoidable. If the new covenant is, as St. Thomas teaches, the grace of the Holy Spirit given to the Church which is Christ’s Body, then it allows us to participate in him who is the fulfillment of all that had been promised. In Christ, in a definitive way, the unbreakable bond between God and his people is established. Perhaps most amazing is the fact that, in the liturgy, the Word and the sacraments allow us, sinners though we are, to share in it.

Featured Image: Flemish Breviary, Tree of Jesse, 1500; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.

Brian Pedraza is Assistant Professor of Theology at Our Lady of the Lake College—A Franciscan University, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

[1] For those interested in this subject, Joseph Ratzinger’s 1988 Erasmus Lecture is required reading, and the forward to the first of his Jesus of Nazareth trilogy, written as pope, is profitable.

[2] Gerard Sloyan, “Catechetical Crossroads,” Religious Education 59 (1964): 148-149.

[3] John J. Collins, The Bible after Babel: Historical Criticism in a Postmodern Age (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005), 160-161.

[4] Scott Hahn, Letter and Spirit: From Written Text to Living Word in the Liturgy (New York: Double Day, 2005).

[5] Summa Theologiae, I, q. 1, a. 10.

[6] Ibid.

[7]  Jacob Neusner, A Rabbi Talks with Jesus (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2000), 107-108, cited in Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth (New York: Doubleday, 2007), 104-105.

[8] David L. Stubbs, Numbers (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2009), 113.

[9] Peter J. Leithart, 1&2 Kings (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2006), 18.

[10] See Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, “The New Covenant: A Theology of Covenant in the New Testament,” Communio 22 (1995): 635-651.


Brian Pedraza

Brian Pedraza is Associate Professor of Theology at Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady, in Baton Rouge, LA, and is the author of Catechesis for the New Evangelization: Vatican II, John Paul II, and the Unity of Revelation and Experience.

Read more by Brian Pedraza