In the last 50 years, there has been a renewed interest in biblical studies both in the Catholic and the Protestant circles. More progressively the current direction of the Catholic Church seems to point towards her desire to have theological, spiritual and ecclesiastical roots planted deeply in the Word of God.
The three-volume publication of the work of Pope Benedict XVI on Jesus of Nazareth in 2007 is truly a significant contribution to this renewed interest in the study of Scripture especially Biblical Christology. With the rise of this new enthusiasm among Christians, there arises also a need to have a balanced and a holistic reading and interpretation of Scripture.
Two extreme approaches
Dissociating the Old Testament from the New
Among some Christians, there is a tendency to disassociate the Old Testament from the New Testament. Some even regard the Old Testament as inferior to the New. There are others who think like Marcion (second century) who considered Christianity as radically different from Judaism.
Marcion believed that the God of the Old Testament is different from the God of the New Testament. Early Church Fathers rejected Marcion’s view for it severed the continuity of the revelation of God which begins in the Old and apexes in the New Testament.
This continuity is a fundamental link between the Old and the New Testaments. In fact, the New Testament authors themselves used the Old Testament extensively in their writings to demonstrate not only well-grounded theological reflections but also to show their reflections and prophecies were indeed part of the ongoing revelation of God in biblical history which includes both the Old and the New Testaments.
In order to demonstrate this essential method of theological reflection using the Old Testament as the foundation, modern biblical writers have shown that there are approximately more than 1,000 direct, indirect or partial Old Testament quotations found in New Testament writings.
We notice that even Jesus himself used Old Testament quotations in his arguments and rhetoric with the Scribes and the Pharisees.
For example, in a debate on divorce, Jesus referred to Gen 2:24 (cf. Matt 19:5); He also quoted Deuteronomy 8:3 when he was confronted with the devil in Matt 4:4 or Luke 4:4; He quoted Isaiah 61:1-2 in Luke 4:17-19 at the beginning of his mission.
There are many more instances of Jesus’ use of Old Testament in his preaching. The expression “The scripture says…” has been used 48 times in the Gospel in reference to the Old Testament in general.
Such literary ingenuity and references to the Old Testament are expressions of historical and hermeneutic of continuity between the Old and the New Testaments. We cannot discount this continuity so easily!
Literal and Allegorical Meanings
Extremely, we too have Christians who give in to another position of assigning literal and allegorical meanings to the Old Testament texts. Such proponents simplistically interpret the entire Old Testament as a symbolic representation of that which is found in the New Testament.
Such an exaggerated interpretation makes the Old Testament so absorbed in the New that its unique status is completely lost. However, the allegorical and literal interpretations are not to be completely compromised but to ascertain that they have their time and value in the overall world of the interpretations.
Also to note that far-fetched allegorical and literal interpretations can cause both the NT and the OT writings to lose their value, importance and historicity, which eventually can lead us to naive and superficial spirituality. We ought to be cautious not to fall into any of these two extreme positions.
What we truly need is a balanced understanding and interpretation of the Old and the New Testaments which can be achieved firstly by acknowledging the unity and the diversities found in the respective testaments.
A coherent biblical theology as a discipline presupposes that the two testaments are one aspect of the unity and diversity, continuity and discontinuity within the canon of the scripture.
Jesus is the fulfilment of the old testament writings
One classical approach of explaining the relationship between the Old and the New Testaments is to interpret the Old Testament as preparing the way for Christ. In this way, we consider that the Old Testament prepares the reader in understanding the New Testament through the value of the Old.
In fact, the New Testament writers themselves have presented Jesus in all his words and deeds as the fulfilment of the Old Testament. Namely, there are 16 instances of the Old Testament quotations in the Gospel of Matthew pointing at Jesus as the direct fulfilment of the Jewish Scripture (eg 1:22-23; 2:5-6; 2:15; 2:17-18; 2:23; 3:3-4; 4:14-16; 8:17; 11:10; 12:17-21; 13:14-15; 13:35; 15:7-9; 21:4-5; 26:54-56; 27:9-10).
There are also other numerous instances in the Gospels and other writings in the New Testament demonstrating Jesus as the fulfilment of the Old Testament prophecies. These theological idea of ‘Promise-made’ (OT) and ‘Promise Fulfilled’ (NT) are indeed crystal clear themes connecting both testaments.
The New Testament writers were convinced and they believed that Jesus was the true and awaited Messiah. He was to come and fulfil all that was foretold in the Old Testament.
St John highlights the purpose of his Gospel,“but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31). It was this conviction of the identity of Jesus which was translated into writings by the New Testament writers.
Jesus christ is the hermeneutic key to the revelation of god
In Salvation History, Jesus Christ is the crucial reference point. He is the pivotal point where every idea, image and theme converges as we have seen in the previous paragraph.
Jesus is the hermeneutic key to the interpretation of the revelation of God that runs through the Old and the New Testaments. “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son” (Heb. 1:1–2).
Even Jesus himself understands his calling and mission in relation to the Old Testament, namely during his ministry of teaching Jesus indicated that the Hebrew Scriptures pointed to himself. In John 5:39, we read “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf.”
In the story of Emmaus, Luke depicts how Jesus himself interpreted the scripture to the two bewildered disciples who were on their way from Jerusalem to Emmaus, “… beginning with Moses and all the prophets, He interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself” (24:27).
Later, when they were found in Jerusalem he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you that everything written about me in the Law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled. Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures….” (Lk 24:44-45).
When the time came for the Christian tradition to be written as a Gospel, John tells us that the purpose of those writings was to point to Jesus as the Christ too, “But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (20:31).
Not only the New Testament authors spoke of this with ardent conviction, the Early Fathers of the Church especially Sts Irenaeus (2nd century), Origen (3rd century), Hilary of Poitiers (4th century), Augustine of Hippo (5th century) too had demonstrated the similar conviction and belief in their writings.
When reading their writings, we discern this conviction and belief that Christ is indeed the climax and definitive interpretive key to the revelation of God. St Jerome, fourth century bible scholar nailed this utter conviction of the Early Fathers in these words: “Ignorance of scripture is Ignorance of Christ” (conf. St Jerome’s commentary on Isaiah).
There is no scripture without Christ! Christ is the centre of all that we believe in. All that we believe gain its meanings in and through Christ Jesus.
Everything that we teach, all that we say about God and the relationship between God and his people depend on our understanding of Jesus Christ. Therefore, everything pertaining to our faith depends on our relationship with Christ. This is both the point of departure and the point of arrival!
By Fr Robert Daniel
The Regional Biblical Commission is very grateful to Fr Robert Daniel, SSL, Parish Priest of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish, Silibin, Perak, for this year’s Bible Sunday Message. Fr Robert holds a Licentiate in Sacred Scripture from the Pontifical Biblical Institute, Rome.
QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION