The Old Testament in the History of the Church

Basil Hall


Symposium: The Old Testament in the Church Today.
The London Quarterly & Holborn Review (January 1965): 30-36.


It was the ecumenically-minded Basel theologian of the eighteenth century, Samuel Werenfels, weary of the theological controversies of his time and of the way in which men insisted on their particular views of what the Bible meant, who summed up the situation in an epigram: 'Men go to the Bible seeking their own dogmas, and find them there.' But it might also be salutary to remember that the Old Testament, by the nature of its long formation and re-editings before it reached us in its present form, poses for us problems of interpretation which are not due to the obtuseness of particular periods of the Church's life but to the variety of content and expression in the books of the Old Testament themselves. Moreover, the letter of Scripture once written is final and belongs to a certain period of time, but life and history go on and from this basic fact alone springs the need to ask what Scripture - and for this article, the Old Testament means to each succeeding generation.

The Old Testament posed a threefold problem for the Church: what parts of the Old Testament were to be considered canonical by the Church; in what way could the sacred book of Judaism be regarded as the sacred book of the Christian Church, and, following upon this, what principles of interpretation could be used? While it may be thought to be unusual to take this threefold problem in this order, yet, in a short article giving no more than a general survey, it may prove to be a useful arrangement in calling attention to the issues. It is fundamental in beginning this inquiry to remember that in the early Church, among the Christians of the Apostolic and sub-Apostolic period, the great majority of believers were of Jewish race and were converts from orthodox Judaism, from Jewish sects, or, if not Jewish by race, then proselytes of the Synagogue. The Old Testament was familiar to them from the Synagogue, either from the Hebrew or Aramaic exposition, or more generally from the Greek version. There is hardly a page of the Greek New Testament on which the Old Testament is not quoted or paraphrased or referred to. The Old Testament Scriptures were regarded without dispute as divine, as the Word of the living God the Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ. But the question of the Canon, of what constitutes by name the inspired books of the Old Testament, is not easy to answer for the first period of the Christian Church. The origins of the Greek translation are obscure (for the books constituting the Septuagint were translated over a wide period of time), as is also the extent of its use among believing Jews, but there can be no doubt of its use from the beginning in the Christian Church. This Greek translation of the Old


Testament, containing as it did books additional to the classical Hebrew text, leaves us with the question: How far did the first Christians regard these 'Apocrypha' (as they were to be called later) as Scripture in the same sense as the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings could be regarded as Scripture? Jewish tradition stated that the men of the Great Synagogue in the time of Ezra and during the reign of the Persian Artaxerxes had fixed the list of books to the number of twenty-four; but 'fixed' should not be given too close precision. A more historically probable assumption is that Rabbinical Judaism decided at Jamnia about A.D. 100 upon the Hebrew Canon in twenty-four books. Nevertheless, it seems that Josephus was not entirely clear about the extent of tho canonical contents of the Writings (Hagiographa). For the early Christians precision about what was and what was not canonical was not a primary need; the general assumption appears to have been that the Law and the Prophets received higher status as the indubitable revelation of God, whereas the other books were less obviously inspired though they could be used for practical religious teaching. In Alexandria and in the Egyptian Churches the Apocryphal books of the Old Testament were commonly used, but Melito of Sardis in the second century discarded them. The Codex Vaticanus, dating from the fourth century, is regarded as one of the earliest surviving manuscripts of the Septuagint and gives the Alexandrine canon which included the Apocrypha. But elsewhere in the Church the position was not yet final. While Augustine gave his authoritative support for the Alexandrine canon in Proconsular Africa, Jerome emphasized the Hebrew canon and described the Apocrypha as ecclesiastical rather than canonical books.

All this development did not mean that the Greek text was fixed and sacred as was the Hebrew text for the Rabbis: there is considerable textual variation in the different surviving manuscripts of the Septuagint used in the Church. This fact helped later to give authority to the Vulgate Latin text of Jerome because this presented a uniform and widely received text. The weight of Augustine's authority meant that the Council of Carthage in 397 held to the Alexandrine Canon. But this was not so final a definition of what was canonical in the Western Church as that decision might imply. For from the sixth century to the sixteenth century there were not lacking distinguished theologians in the Western Church who re-affirmed the distinction which had been made by Jerome between the canonical books and those ecclesiastical books of less authority; for example, Gregory the Great, Bede, Alcuin, Hugh of St Victor, Nicholas of Lyra (the greatest of medieval biblical commentators) and Occam. Not long before the calling of the Council of Trent, which gave full authority to the Alexandrine Canon, Cardinal Ximenes in the preface to the great Complutensian Polyglot wrote of 'the books which are without the Canon which the Church reads for edification'; and Cardinal Cajetan, the Thomist scholar and biblical expositor who had sought to limit Luther's developing career, could write 'the whole Latin Church owes much to Jerome for his separation of uncanonical from canonical books'. It was at the Council of Trent in the Decree on the Canonical Scriptures in 1546 that what had been until then a comparatively open question became a finally closed one, when it declared that the books of


the Alexandrine Canon were all to receive 'equal veneration' and anathematized those who refused to receive the entire books with all their parts, in the Latin text, as sacred and canonical. It is not sufficiently realized that this represented a new development from the earlier views of many scholars of the Western Church. The Protestants, making their appeal to the Word of God as given in the original languages, and rejecting the Vulgate on the ground demonstrated by Erasmus and others that the text had become gravely corrupted in the course of its manuscript transmission through the centuries (there was no really thorough revision of the text of the Vulgate before the end of the sixteenth century), followed the Hebrew Canon as it had been known to Jerome. It is sometimes forgotten, however, that there were different ways of expressing this loyalty to the principles of Jerome. Luther included the books of the Old Testament Apocrypha in his German translation of the Bible and described them as books 'which are not held in the same way as Holy Scripture, and yet are profitable and good for reading', though he rejected 3 and 4 Esdras. In the Reformed Church led by men of the second generation of Reformers, faced with the consequences of the Decree of the Council of Trent on canonical Scripture, there was greater precision in the Confessions of Faith on what books were to be considered as canonical and the Word of God, and what were not: 'The other ecclesiastical books are useful, yet not such that any article of faith could be established from them.' The Westminster Confession of Faith of 1646 states: 'The Books commonly called Apocrypha, not being of divine inspiration, are no part of the canon of Scripture; and therefore are of no authority in the Church of God, nor to be any otherwise approved, or made use of, than other human writings.' Article 6 of the 39 Articles of the Church of England, after listing the canonical books, says: 'And the other Books (as Hierome saith) the Church doth read for example of life and instruction of manners; but yet it doth not apply them to establish any doctrine' - this list of Apocrypha includes 3 and 4 Esdras and the Prayer of Manasses. But for Protestantism in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the subject of the Canon was not a great issue - it either accepted Jerome's view or else came to narrow it to the exclusion of the Apocrypha even for edification. The question, What is canonical?, was replaced in fact by the question, What is inspired?, since it is not canonicity (for this tended to be associated with reliance on the judgement of the Church on what is Scripture), nor history, nor linguistic studies, nor tradition, but the Holy Spirit which makes the Bible authentic. The discussion now revolved on what the nature and extent of the inspiration of Scripture was. What follows from this development when it was subjected to the Higher and Lower Criticism from the late eighteenth century and through the nineteenth century belongs to the history of interpretation and not to the history of the Canon of Scripture.

In the contrast with the treatment of canonicity in the Western Churches from Jerome onwards, the Eastern or Orthodox Churches show a less rigid conception of canonical Scripture. The historian Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea, refused to accept Maccabees as canonical and writes of Ecclesiasticus and Wisdom as books of doubtful status as 'Divine Scriptures', for he regarded the Hebrew Canon as clearly acknowledged Scripture. It is interest-


ing to note that he felt under no compulsion from previous decisions of the Church (indeed where had there been a universal and authoritative decision?) or from tradition to accept clearly what was canonical or not, nor is it fully clear that he accepted the authority of Esther. Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, in a pastoral letter in 365 which he issued because of the dangers arising from heretical use of uncanonical books, stated what those twenty-two books of the Old Testament were which were 'delivered to us and are believed to be divine'. He added that there were other books not included in the Canon which may be read with benefit - Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus, Esther, Judith, Tobit - but he does not mention Maccabees. However, the Council of Laodicea in 363, following the view of Cyril of Jerusalem, had declared for including in the Canon Baruch and The Letter of Jeremiah, as well as Esther. In the Byzantine Church the Bible was called The Sixty Books, that is of the Old and New Testaments, and for the Old Testament adopts Jerome's canon and sets outside of it Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus, Esther, Judith, Tobit and the Maccabees. The Russian Church took over the definition of what was canonical from Athanasius. Precision on what was and what was not canonical does not appear to have been essential in the Eastern Churches: there is no equivalent of the Tridentine decree, unless we accept the Synod of Jerusalem in 1672, held expressly to reject the views of 'the Calvinists' including Cyril Lucar's restriction of canonicity to the Hebrew Canon. But this Synod was not influential later in the Orthodox Churches.

Today the question of canonicity is not of primary importance in the Church, not least in view of the development already described. The essential discussion today lies in the authority of the Bible and the nature of its revelation; even the question of the inspiration of the Bible has an old-fashioned ring. It is significant that the most biblically grounded theology of our time, Karl Barth's Dogmatics, has very little to say about canonicity (partly because this is a matter for historical study and therefore in Barth's eyes of doubtful value in a theology of Revelation). Barth simply concludes that 'the Bible is the Canon because it is so, it is so because it imposes itself as such.'

Let us turn now to the second part of the threefold problem posed by the Old Testament. How could the Church take over the inspired Scriptures of Judaism and make them the inspired Scriptures (together with the Apostolic writings) of the Church? Those inspired Scriptures contained the elaborate code of ritual found in the Torah, and also was intimately associated with a full and elaborate interpretation of Judaism in the Haggadah and the Halaka. The former could not be kept in the literal sense but had to be spiritualized as the foreshadowing of Christ, the influence of the latter had to be set aside as mysteries and commandments extra to the Written Word - Paul had had to fight off both these problems in Galatia and elsewhere. As in Hebrews 10[1], the law must be seen as the shadow of things to come, and as in John 5[41] the Old Testament must be seen as prophetic of the new. But from New Testament times to the present day the theological question persists, by what methods of interpretation can the complex variety of the Jewish books of faith be given a Christian relevance? The problem implicit


in using a Jewish book was twofold: the Jews attacked the Christians for taking up a book to which they were not entitled since they were not the true Israel of God, and, partly in consequence of this attack and of the attack by Pagan writers on its poor style and confusing anthropomorphisms, some Christians wished to set aside some parts of the Old Testament - one went further and wished to discard it altogether. Marcion, about A.D. 140, challenged the anthropomorphisms in the Old Testament and rejected the God of Israel as the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, since the God of Israel is the God of this world, cruel and changeable and very human in his anger. For Marcion the intricacies of allegorical exegesis could not turn the Old Testament into Christian Scripture, and the attempt was futile since Christ had come to save men from the God of this world who is the God of the Jews. It was not that Marcion thought that the Old Testament was untrue; it was all too true and thoroughly deplorable. While this attack came out of the early Gnostic attempt to strangle the Church before it had organized its counter-measures, and has not been repeated in that form, yet the less radical opinion that the Old Testament is a Jewish book and of no great relevance to the Christian faith has not lacked support from time to time among those who wish to simplify the faith, or to find a different preparatio evangelica in the ancient Scriptures of, for example, India or China. It was a profound and essential insight of the early Church to insist on the Old Testament as the Word of God who is the Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ, God the Creator who in his Providence rules the world, who has chosen a people, Israel, to know him and to obey his Word, from whom, in the fullness of time, was born the Saviour of mankind who has established in the world from among all nations the new Israel of God. The Church might have been eclectic in what it decided was to be taken over from the Old Testament, but it was not. Having decided that the Old Testament was Scripture for the Church, and having decided with less clear-cut certainty what was to be accepted as canonical among the Jewish writings, it still had the most difficult problem of interpreting it - not merely as a Christian book, but even for understanding parts of it at all. They had a starting point in the fact that they had not only inherited a Jewish book, they had also inherited something of Jewish methods of interpretation, since the Rabbis had already faced the difficulties in such disparate material by going beyond the literal meaning to typology and allegory, both of which were to find a place in the New Testament in discussing the Old. In the Epistle to the Hebrews Melchizedek is a type of the eternal Christ, and patriarchs and prophets foreshadow Christ's coming - this Epistle was to provide a great stimulus to the allegorists of the Alexandrine school. For the writer of Matthew's gospel the Old Testament is essential to the understanding of Christ's actions, and John's Gospel shows that the Old Testament is prophetic of Christ. But the Church added two further principles of interpretation which the Rabbis tended not to emphasize, and which were consequences of Christian understanding of the Incarnation. First, there was recourse to using the central articles of the faith as the doctrinal basis for interpreting difficult passages; this was hardly a rabbinical method and the Jews have shown no interest in writing a 'Theology of the Old Testament'; secondly, there was the appeal to the


authority of the Church in rejecting certain interpretations or accepting others.

Tertullian, in his reply to Marcion, stated that the teachings of the Apostles might be called in question if they were not supported by the authority of the Old Testament which had prophesied about Christ. The first systematic attempt to provide the rules of Hermeneutics was that of Origen at Alexandria in the fourth book of his De Principiis where he adopted something of the Platonizing method of the Jewish interpreter, Philo. Origen described Scripture as having a body, its literal meaning; a soul, its moral meaning; and a spirit, its mystical meaning for the deepest Christian insights. When to this threefold method an eschatological sense of Scripture was added, especially under the influence of Augustine in his De Doctrina Christiana, the way was made plain for the fourfold interpretation characteristic of the Scholastics. But it should be remembered that the insistence of the Antiochene school of interpretations, whose chief exegete was Theodore of Mopsuestia, on the literal sense in opposition to the Origenists and the tendency to excess in allegorization, was not entirely lost sight of. Nicholas of Lyra, the greatest of the medieval exegetes, was a converted Jew, and he insisted that the literal or historical meaning of the Old Testament must be primary or else there could be no stability in exegetical method-and it is not without point to remember that there was a large Jewish community at Antioch which long before had influenced the Antiochene exegesis.

After the scholastics had overworked the fourfold sense (in spite of the protest of Nicholas of Lyra), the Reformers of the sixteenth century, under the influence of the Biblical Humanists' return to the Hebrew and Greek texts, insisted that exegesis must be properly founded on the historical sense. The Tridentine repristination of scholasticism and its successful and far-reaching theological authoritarianism heavily influenced the rise of Protestant scholasticism. Indeed, it may have originated it through reaction. By the mid-seventeenth century this had put exegesis once again in bondage to dogmatic orthodoxy. Pietism did something to restore a more living exegesis, reaching the great achievement of scholarly depth and concentrated simplicity of expression in the Gnomon of Bengel. It was under the impact of rationalism and Higher Criticism in the century 1780 to 1880 that a profound departure from traditional methods of interpretation took place. At Oxford, for example, Jowett's decision that the Bible should be given the same kind of scholarly treatment, and on the same terms, as other ancient texts, was salutary in the age of Darwin and of the critical methods begun for Roman history by Niebuhr; not least when we remember the sheer fundamentalism and traditionalist allegorizing of Jowett's contemporary, the Regius Professor of Hebrew, Pusey. The consequences of this century of change may be seen in the ways in which it affected three scholarly and thorough Dictionaries of the Bible which appeared at the end of the nineteenth century, and sought to organize the vast changes in approach to the biblical books, especially those of the Old Testament. These were the Roman Catholic Dictionnaire de la Bible, edited by Vigoroux, which used the new archaeological studies, but very cautiously, in view of the declarations on biblical


study of Pope Leo; the Encyclopaedia Biblica, which showed in some articles an excessive zeal in rooting up old exegetical traditions in the name of objective critical methods; and the Hastings Dictionary of the Bible, which sought to give a more moderate account of the consequences of these same critical methods, while providing for the 'spiritually perplexed' a full use of that moralistic interpretation based on critical insights associated, for example, with the name of George Adam Smith. Apart from the first of these works, typology was no longer regarded as a suitable method in exegesis, Today we seem to veer between the outlook foreshadowed by the Encyclopaedia Biblica (for example, in the work of Mowinckel) and that foreshadowed in Hastings' Dictionary (for example, in the various recent series of biblical commentaries originating in Britain). But the time may well be ripe for a return to the use of a measured typology and a theological interpretation by means of the Analogy of Faith (so long feared as the great question - begging term in exegesis). These methods will not prove to be easy-but they have been used throughout the ages by the Apostles, the Fathers, the Scholastics, the Reformers, the Pietists and, with subtleties that are sui genesis, by Karl Barth. Can the preacher of the word do without them?

Reproduced by kind permission of Methodist Publishing House.
Prepared for the web in February 2006 by Robert I. Bradshaw.