Reading this article — “Biblical Interpretation in the Early Church” (Oxford Study Bible, pages 129-140) — I’m struck by how hard these particular Christians were working to cope with the cognitive dissonance that came of having appropriated the heritage of the Jews without holding any love, let alone reverence, for Judaism.
“Only a handful of early Christian scholars had sufficient proficiency in Hebrew or Aramaic to consult the Old Testament in its language of composition” (ibid., page 130),
and more importantly,
“those … who did … found themselves under attack for their ‘Jewish’ predilections.”
This intentional ignorance looks a lot like arrogance to me. There’s no sense in this article of the child Christianity loving and learning from its parent, Judaism. Instead, like the gods slaughtering the Titans, there’s only the hostile attempt to eradicate the source.
But that necessitates working double-time to iron out the kinks. Whose scriptures are they, anyway? That’s the next question. Christians of this era said the Old Testament was theirs because it predicts Jesus; Jews said it’s not the Old Testament, it’s the Bible, and it’s theirs because they wrote it and it’s about them anyway.
It seems these early Christians wanted the Jewish scripture, but they wanted it not to be Jewish. They wanted it to mean what they wanted it to mean, no matter what difficulties arose in the effort to prove they were right.
The difficulties were everywhere
They didn’t like the Hebrews’ God, for one thing. Some said he wasn’t the father of Jesus, but a lower deity.* In any case, he didn’t jive well with early Christians for the same reason he’s not popular among some secular people today: he’s violent; he acts on emotions like jealousy and, some would say, vanity; his justice punishes more than the crime and the criminal; he’s harsh.**
* Funny to think this is the same God-history some scholars support today, that the oldest Hebrew God was taken from the surrounding peoples — Babylon, maybe — while today’s evangelical Christians vehemently reject that notion now.
** On a personal note, the interpretation of this God that I’m most comfortable with echoes what the Gnostic Ptolemy thought about the Mosaic law, which “issued neither from the ‘perfect God’ nor from the devil.” That is: “Parts of the Old Testament are divinely inspired and others are human creations that carry varying degrees of authority” (ibid., page 132). Ptolemy also made a distinction between teachings slated for ordinary Christians and those suitable for enlightened ones; I hesitate to label anyone ordinary or enlightened, but I do resonate with the concept of ordinary and enlightened ways of being.
So much for God. Christians of the day had other bones to pick with the Hebrew Bible. To reconcile those, they trotted out typology.
In my biblical studies classes, I was taught that typology is just true. The scapegoat is a tangible prophecy of Jesus. Moses overseeing the battle with his arms outstretched directly prefigures the cross. The myriad of images in the Hebrew Bible, which were later called types of Christ, weren’t figurative in those curricula; for us, the meaning was concrete, immutable. Typology wasn’t interpretation, but fact.
Now as I read about the origins of typology I’m soured by the discovery that, whatever the lasting value of this hermeneutic may be, typology entered the world as one more double-time attempt to lay claim to something that belonged to someone else.
The attempt was ugly. Justin Martyr played a bully card when he told the Jews they’d been given their ceremonial laws to celebrate only physically, not typologically, because of their sinfulness. In other words, I will take your book and tell you what it really means without holding myself accountable to follow its ceremonial rules, but you have to follow them, and also you have to accept that your scriptures no longer belong to you, because you don’t meet my criteria for holiness.
It’s almost comical when you remember that one of the prevailing themes of the Hebrew Bible is that the Jewish nation is God’s chosen people. But no you’re not, the Christians said, not anymore, because now those words are referring to us instead. Does a sillier contradiction exist? To take the whole idea and throw it out while telling yourself you’re actually agreeing with it.
The pattern continued. After typology, early Christians delved into allegory, not only to tap new meaning but to allow them to gloss over the harder stories and intellectualize the beauty of myth. Even so long ago, in Origen’s day, the climate was too analytical to allow the words “God walked in the garden in the cool of the day” to be simply true. So the story was subjected to this binary: either literal or allegorical. If it can’t be literal, then it’s got to be an allegory.
Allegory came in handy for the squirmy bits as well. No one was comfortable with the Song of Solomon being a lovers’ poem. What all that sex talk really meant is that God loves the church.
Too fleshly, too petty or too material, the stories weren’t suitable when allowed to speak for themselves. So these Christians spoke for them, developed an elaborate code, jumped through hoops and wrestled the scriptures into submission.
Why didn’t they give themselves over?
No one says they had to believe any of it. But given that they did, that they liked the idea anyway, why did they refuse to let these scriptures in?
To let something in doesn’t mean you can’t wrestle with or even reinterpret it. The Jews had been doing that forever already with midrash. Belonging to something just means that you engage it, you swim in it, you come from it and go back to it. Most importantly, you respect it for what it is.
It seems to me that the early Christians this article is talking about didn’t want to belong to the Jews’ book. They wanted it to belong to them. So instead of engaging and wrestling, they manipulated, called people names and commandeered. I don’t think that’s the revolution Jesus had in mind.
To be clear, I don’t believe that all this embarrassing, school-yard power-play means that Christianity is somehow a failed project. I do think it calls into question the first courses of its foundation, but Christianity isn’t about Christians. It’s about Christ. That is, if you believe in it.
I’m not sure whether I believe it or not. I do know I can’t turn my back on it. I want to believe it.
But if I do, I’m not going to work from this top-down, arrogant frame of mind. I’m not going to pretend that the Hebrew Bible doesn’t belong first to the Jews. If my choice is to follow Jesus without converting to his religion, Judaism, I’ll hold that in mind. I won’t tell myself that I own any share in some other person’s heritage. Whatever is mine will be so because I belonged to it first, because I loved it, found resonance in it and set my course according to what I found.
I’m a visitor in these pages, at best a dual citizen, but I will not insult the locals by pretending I’m a native.
Also, I won’t work double-time to argue that the stories are anything other than what they are. I will do them the honor of listening to what they say, true or not, uncomfortable or not, acceptable or not. I will listen, because you listen to those you love.