Friday, June 25, 2010

reading the Prophets in the early church

I've picked up (again) Ron Heine's Reading the Old Testament with the Ancient Church: Exploring the Formation of Early Christian Thought (Evangelical Ressourcement; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007). At the end of his chapter, "The Gospel in the Prophets" (97–141), Heine borrows an image from masonry to explain the function of the prophets among the church fathers and their understanding of the gospel.
It might be said that the prophetic texts of the Old Testament served as the mortar for the church's construction of its understanding of Christ. Mortar is not the primary material in the edifice. Bricks are the primary material. The primary material in the church's understanding of Christ is the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Mortar, however, is essential to the edifice, enabling it to take form and hold together. Without the prophetic texts of the Old Testament, the early Christians would not have drawn the conclusions that they did concerning Jesus. The ancient Jewish prophetic texts that the early Christians read and wrestled with in their attempt to understand who Jesus of Nazareth had been and what his life meant for their lives lie close at hand in the Christian Bible. The early Christians were the first to make their way through these texts from a specifically Christian viewpoint.1

One of the few things scholars of Christian origins agree upon is that Jesus' followers, historically, have read the texts of the Hebrew Bible through the lens of the gospel traditions. When God refers to "my son" in a Hebrew biblical text, early Christians hear "Jesus" (not "David," "Solomon," "Israel," or any of a number of other historical referents for that term). Heine shares that agreement (according to the quote provided above).

But we often neglect how the influence also moved in the opposite direction: Through the first four or five centuries of the church's history (and even beyond, including to the present day), the church has also—and simultaneously—understood Jesus from the perspective of Hebrew biblical traditions. If Jesus healed the sick, cast out demons, raised the dead, brought the nations (= gentiles) into the kingdom of God, etc., Jesus' followers insisted on understanding these activities in light of Israel's history and sacred texts.

Heine draws our attention to this point. Jesus did not simply transform his followers' exegetical and hermeneutical understandings (though he did transform them). Jesus himself was recognized and portrayed in tones and hues directly evocative of Moses, David, the prophets, et al. I dare say that without these latter, early Christians (and we, too) would not know what to make of Jesus of Nazareth.

1 Heine, Reading the Old Testament, 141; my emphasis.

No comments:

My Visual Bookshelf