Why is it that New Testament commentaries so routinely overlook powerful, vivid allusions to the Old Testament? Why do some cross-referencing Bibles not even bother to refer the reader to the Old Testament passage being quoted? There are several reasons, all of them important —
1. Dispensational theology. There’s a view common in many circles, including many parts of the Churches of Christ, that the Old Testament is a dead letter, repealed, a vile and legalistic body of teachings with no continuing relevance to the community of faith. In these circles, the Old Testament is relegated to the children’s program and to aphorisms. It’s good enough to provide inspirational passages to hang on your refrigerator, but of no value for serious study.
Obviously, Jesus and Paul disagree, as they both taught from the “scriptures,” a word which referred almost exclusively to the Old Testament when they used it. They taught from the Old Testament, and so should we.
2. Western/Greek rationalism. The Old Testament is filled with stories and poetry. We Westerners want to look for laws that haven’t been repealed. We want abstractions. We don’t want to read where God acted omnisciently in a story. We want a discourse on the exact meaning of “omniscient.” To Westerners, truth is scientific, meaning abstract. We want the principle. Easterners want the story and context. And the scriptures were written by Easterners.
As Ray Vander Laan likes to explain, in the high school where he sometimes teaches, students catch frogs in the pond and dissect them. They learn a lot of useful knowledge about anatomy and such. But he tells them, “You can’t learn everything about a frog this way. For example, dissection won’t teach you who his girlfriend was!” This is, at first, very jarring to the students, as they think they are learning about frogs, quite literally, from the inside out. But soon they realize that there’s a whole other aspect of frogs they aren’t learning — their social life, their mating patterns, their connections to their habitat. Vander Laan says that Westerners want to learn how it works. Easterners want to learn the story of its life.
Therefore, Westerners get bored reading the about the Exodus. “Just reduce it to a couple of principles so we can go home!” But the Exodus permeates New Testament thought and writing. Every reference to “redemption” is a reference to freedom from slavery, which to a Jew, refers to the Exodus. Every reference to “law” is about the Law of Moses in some sense. Every reference to “salvation” is an allusion to God’s protection of Israel from its enemies. If you don’t know the back story, you miss the flavor and texture of the vocabulary of the New Testament. You’ll make it to heaven, but you’ll not enjoy the journey as much.
3. Anti-Semitism. This will sound unduly harsh, but there are many scholars who teach this. In the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, the center of Christian theology was Germany. And Germany was in the process of becoming virulently anti-Semitic. They hated Jews. And the culture influenced their scholarship. Early 20th Century Christian scholarship de-Judaized the Bible. It likely wasn’t all that conscious, but you can find plenty of places where a theory is rejected as being “too Jewish.”
This led to some really bad scholarship, re-inventing Paul and Jesus in the mold of Western thoughts and removing them from their actual, historic backgrounds. And the infection spread as German scholars fled Europe and became established in the American university system.
It’s only been in the last few decades that the “Jewish Jesus” is being rediscovered, thanks in part to the work of historians, who’ve corrected many of the errors of the theologians.
As a result, when we read a passage as important as the institution of the Lord’s Supper, the commentators utterly ignore the Jewish background. They don’t even think to look. It’s a Christian institution, not a Jewish one. But, in fact, everyone laying around that table was a Jew. The host was a Jewish rabbi. And they lived, thought, and spoke in a Jewish culture and context. And in the First Century, that meant a context steeped in the Law of Moses and the study of the Old Testament.
Just as modern Christians do today, they spoke in language that sounds coded to others. They used short-hand phrases to refer to entire chapters in the Old Testament. Just as “baptized” to a Christians carries many books worth of meaning, Old Testament words such as “righteous,” “Lord,” and “son of God” were filled with meaning well understood by those present. But for those of us who didn’t grow up reading our Old Testaments, we have to begin with the understanding that there might be more there than first meets the eye and then go looking through the texts, using whatever helps and aids we can find.
Ray Vander Laan lectures
The best starting point is the work of Ray Vander Laan. Here’s what you need to do. Click on this link, download the first 12 mp3s, and listen to them. Twice. In order. It’s about 7 or 8 hours worth of lectures, and they’ll rock your world. These are great, great lessons. And I’m usually far too impatient to listen to a lecture! I can read so much faster. But these are well worth your time.
He speaks at a level that anyone can understand, and he’ll help you see the Bible in a entirely new way — not a radical change in abstract doctrine but as an Easterner would read a book written by Easterners.
Open the link in Internet Explorer and either listen at your computer or else right click on the link and select “Save Target As” to download the mp3 to iTunes or other music software.
If you like that material, then there are additional lectures available at the same link. And you can buy Faith Lessons Vol. 1 – 7 DVDs where he teaches some really powerful lessons on site at various biblical locations. These are extraordinary and perfect for Bible classes or small group study. I’ve posted my own lesson notes for these.
An excellent companion study is Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus: How the Jewishness of Jesus Can Transform Your Faith by Ann Spangler and Lois Tverberg, a book that builds on many of the same ideas as those taught by Vander Laan. It’s a great introduction to reading Jesus as a Jew, and it’s an easy, enjoyable read.
Next, at a more scholarly level, although still accessible, is Oskar Skarsaune’s In the Shadow of the Temple: Jewish Influences on Early Christianity. This critically important work of history forces us to re-read both the New Testament and the earliest Early Church Fathers in light of their Jewish roots. We have been culturally trained to assume that the early church was Greek in its thinking and culture — having utterly rejected Judaism and the Old Testament. It’s just not true.
The Blue Parakeet
Scot McKnight’s The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible is a valuable resources for understanding how all of scripture fits together. I posted several lessons on it from classes I taught at my church. Its value is in helping us to see the over-arching narrative. We talk about “context” in classes, but we often don’t really understand context because we don’t have the entirety of the story of the Bible in mind. McKnight helps us see how to fit each piece into the whole.
N. T. Wright
Wright, James D. G. Dunn, and other “new perspective” authors take the work of historians, such as Skarsaune and E. P. Sanders, and revisit the New Testament in light of how early Christians actually thought. Rather than reading 20th Century worldviews into the scriptures, they try to read and understand as a First Century Jew would have.
It’s a work in process, but a tremendous amount of valuable, insightful work has been done. I’m a particular fan of Wright (obviously). Wright has published numerous books, and while some are quite scholarly and difficult, others are written in a more popular style.
A good place to start (and where I started) is What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? This not his most consumer-friendly book, but it’s a good introduction to his thought regarding how to read Paul and not a difficult read — it just forces you to re-think a whole lot of things.
I would certainly read Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. That book has made a big impact on how I read the end-times passages — and given me a much greater respect for and understanding of the prophets. It demonstrates the essential agreement between the prophets and Jesus and Revelation regarding heaven and hell.
It’s long been taught that neither heaven nor hell is taught very plainly in the Old Testament. But, in fact, we’ve just misunderstood both subjects so badly that we’ve not seen consistency where it plainly exists — imposing a Platonic/Greek perspective where it just doesn’t belong.
But to really get eschatology right, you have to also read Edward Fudge’s The Fire That Consumes: A Biblical and Historical Study of the Doctrine of Final Punishment.
Work through those materials, and the Bible will make a lot better sense, and you’ll discover lessons and ideas that you never suspected might be there.