The First Battle For the Bible

BY THE YEAR 150, the Christian church exhibited many features that would mark it for centuries: Christians baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; they celebrated the Lord’s Supper weekly; they were governed by a bishop, presbyters, and deacons. But they still lacked one thing that would become central to Christian identity: a New Testament. Their only Holy Scripture was that collection of sacred writings later called the Old Testament, which they generally read in the Septuagint version—a Greek translation pre-dating Jesus by over a century.

Of course, the documents now found in our New Testament had already been written: Paul’s letters between 50 and 65, the four Gospels and Acts by 90 or 100, and the other books by that time or a little later. Paul’s letters had gradually been collected and circulated; by 96, for example, the church at Rome had a copy of 1 Corinthians.

For the earliest Christians, who were Jews, the Sacred Scriptures were the fixed authority, and they were used to demonstrate that Jesus was Messiah and Lord. About a century later, the situation changed. Converts to Christianity, who now came from among the pagans, readily accepted Jesus as the Christand the Son of God, but they often found the Scriptures a stumbling block.

These strange writings portrayed God in highly anthropomorphic terms: with hands, feet, arms, and eyes—and passionate emotions. God could be talked out of a decision he had made by Abraham or Moses. The Hebrew preference for the concrete over the abstract led to unsettling expressions like “circumcise your hearts.”

These fell with a clang on the ears and minds of educated Greeks who, following their philosophers, held a highly abstract idea of God. God was the supreme One, Being itself, far above the world of human beings and their troubles, “Thought Thinking Itself,” as Aristotle wrote. In comparison, the God of the Jewish Scriptures was an embarrassment, even a scandal.

Unless, of course, one knew how to interpret those Scriptures correctly.

Around the year 140, two teachers put forth their own unique solutions to this problem of interpretation. Ultimately, the church rejected both—and in doing so, it clarified its own orthodox position.

Mr. Literal

The first of these teachers, Marcion of Sinope, came from a city on the Black Sea and made a fortune as a ship owner. Around 140 he went to Rome and joined the church there, to which he made a large donation. Four years later, he was excommunicated, and his money was returned to him. Thereupon he founded his own church.

Marcion read the Old Testament intently. He interpreted it literally, and only literally, and concluded that the god of the Old Testament was an inferior god, the creator and judge, distinct from the God of love who was the Father of Jesus Christ. This creator god was ignorant (he had to ask Adam where he was);he contradicted himself (first forbidding Moses to make graven images, then ordering him to make the image of a serpent); and he commanded dreadful slaughters, even of women and children. This reading led Marcion to a radical decision: these Jewish Scriptures must be thrown out of the church.

But Marcion did not leave the church without a Bible; he created the first known New Testament “canon,” or list of authoritative books. Marcion’s hero was Paul, who had rejected the power of the Law to save. Paul had also written of “my gospel” (Rom. 2:16), which must be the Gospel according to Luke, sinceLuke was Paul’s companion. But both Paul’s letters and Luke’s Gospel contained quotations from the Old Testament that, Marcion believed, had been inserted into the authentic documents by Judaizing Christians. So he purged these books of Jewish influence.

Mr. Spiritual

The author of the Epistle of Barnabas was Marcion’s diametric opposite. Probably written in Alexandria, Egypt, ca. 135, this pamphlet is also deeply concerned with the interpretation of the Old Testament in the church. But if Marcion took the Old Testament only literally and threw it out of the church, Barnabas took it exclusively as figurative.

In Marcion’s mind, the Jews interpreted the Scriptures correctly and worshiped the inferior god of justice. In Barnabas’s mind, the Jews failed to understand their own Scriptures, and they interpreted them incorrectly—that is, literally.

Barnabas worked out an extensive explanation. Moses, he wrote, received the covenant on Sinai. But, when the Jews worshiped the golden calf, the covenant was broken and never restored. The Jews then listened to a wicked angel, who told them to interpret their Scriptures literally. In fact, though, the whole Old Testament is an enormous Christian allegory.

Barnabas gives several examples. The prohibition against eating pork really means avoiding men whopray only when they are needy, for swine bellow only when they are hungry. The prohibition against eating rabbits, hyenas, and weasels really warns against deviant sexual sins (from the nature of these animals). The law of kosher, eating only animals with cloven hooves that chew the cud, means associating only with people who meditate on the Lord and have one foot on earth, one in heaven.

In his pièce de résistance, Barnabas writes that when Scripture attests that Abraham circumcised 318 men, it really teaches the redemptive work of Jesus Christ, for the number 318 in Greek (which used letters for numbers) is the first two letters of Jesus’ name (iota and eta, IH = 18) and tau (T = 300),which represents the cross.

The Church’s Verdict

In rejecting Marcion and not following Barnabas, the church began to define its own position. Against Marcion, the church asserted that the God of the Old Testament and the Father of Jesus Christ are one God. The Old Testament was and remains the Word of God, to be interpreted in light of Christ. Against Barnabas, the Old Testament had a true literal sense. God did make a covenant with Abraham and gave the Law to Moses.

A few decades after Marcion, a Gnostic teacher named Ptolemy wrote a letter to a woman, Flora, who had asked him how to understand the Law of Moses. Ptolemy undertook what modern scholars call a “source-critical” approach—using the supposed literary sources of Bible books to throw light on their meaning. The Old Testament represents not one lawgiver, but three: God himself, Moses, and the Elders. Ptolemy could quote the Gospel according to Matthew to prove his point: God made marriage indissoluble (Matt. 19:6), Moses granted divorce as an exception (Matt. 19:8), and the Elders invented corban (Matt.15:2).

Thus there are three levels in the Old Testament: God’s law, which Christ fulfills (such as the Ten Commandments); the law of Moses, which Christ abolished (such as “an eye for an eye"); and symbolic legislation (like unleavened bread, circumcision, and animal sacrifice), which provided images of higher realities; with Christ, the practices were abolished but the higher truth remained.

Thus Ptolemy accepted some Old Testament texts literally, understood others figuratively, and rejected still others as invalid. Modern Christians should not rush to reject Ptolemy, for he saw a real problem. One might consider two verses from the King James Bible: Exodus 20:14, “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” and Exodus 22:18, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” Both are Holy Scripture, God’s Word. Must both be interpreted today in the same way?

What did the Christian church do about the right interpretation of the Old Testament? That question could not be answered definitively until there was a New Testament, for the authoritative message of Christ and about Christ would also provide the key to interpreting the Old Testament.

The New Testament canon took shape gradually. By 150 or so, the three synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) were accepted and circulated together. There was more resistance, in some quarters, to the Gospel according to John, because the Gnostics made use of it (the oldest commentary on that Gospel is by a Gnostic). By the end of the second century, however, it was generally accepted. Sixteen other books were also accepted: thirteen Pauline letters, but not Hebrews; Acts, as the continuation of Luke; and the first epistles of Peter and John. Thus, by the year 200, a canon of twenty books was almost universally acknowledged. This New Testament made a Christian interpretation of the Old Testament possible, but itdid not of itself provide one.

Solving the Two-Testament Puzzle

In essence, there are two ways to relate the Old Testament to the New. One is history, envisioning a process of divinely guided progress and progressive revelation that comes to its fulfillment in Christ. Irenaeus of Lyons (died ca. 200) and later, in their own way, the Antiochene exegetes followed this path. The other way is that of promise and fulfillment, shadow and reality, type and antitype. This was the way followed by Origen (died 254) and by the Alexandrian school of interpretation.

Irenaeus, a Greek by birth, was the bishop of Lyons in Gaul (now France) at the end of the second century. His great work was Against the Heresies, by which he meant various forms of Gnosticism. The Gnostics denied the historicity of the gospel: neither the historical Jesus (whose flesh, they said, was not real anyway) nor the events of his life meant anything for salvation; they were all signs of an eternal, invisible reality. Matter and the world were the product of an inferior god, and the human call was to escape from the body, matter, and time and to return to the higher world from which we fell.

In response, Irenaeus proposed a sweeping historical vision, a great ellipse with Adam and Christ as its two foci. Matter was created by the one God who is also the Father of Jesus Christ; salvation took place in time and history; and Old and New Testaments form a single vision within this historical sweep.

Moreover, the interpretation of all of Scripture had to be guided by the Rule of Faith, a loosely formulated confession of faith in the one God whose name is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; in the saving cross of Jesus Christ; and in the work of the Holy Spirit in the church. Irenaeus thereby established the principles for the “right interpretation” of the Scriptures, guided by the Rule of Faith, and insisting the whole Bible portrays one continuous history, from creation to redemption and consummation.

Origen’s Pastoral Approach

Origen did something wholly new and ultimately necessary: he worked his way through almost the whole of the Old Testament (and the New, too), verse by verse. The second-century crisis of interpretation was resolved in the third century by actually interpreting the Scriptures. To dismiss Origen’s interpretation as “allegory” is to do him injustice. Real allegories are relatively rare in Origen.

It is better to say that he did almost anything to find something in a word or a phrase in the Old Testament that would speak to Christians of his day. Sometimes he was reminded: water reminded him of baptism, wood of the cross, bread of the Eucharist. Sometimes he saw types: Joseph a type of Christ, the bride of the Song a type of the church. Sometimes he saw moral lessons: the Christians of the New Covenant must go beyond observing the Law to selfless charity.

The way that Origen trod was unexplored before him, and his influence on the tradition of exegesis has yet to be fully grasped. As one admirer wrote, Origen was a vessel of precious nard; the vessel was shattered, and the perfume has filled the whole world.

Thus the crisis of interpretation was resolved by seeing Christ as the key to understanding the Scriptures. The door has been unlocked, but in a modern interpretive environment shaped by critical methods that owe little to faith, we still have not fully entered into the world it leads to.

By Joseph T. Lienhard, S.J.

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #80 in 2003]

Joseph T. Lienhard is professor of theology at Fordham University, New York.
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