Reading the Scriptures in the Earliest Christian Communities

Many In Israel followed Christ: not all believed in Him.

This is the 2nd Blog in this series dealing with Reading Scripture: the Old Testament, the Torah and Prophecy.   Christianity saw itself as the continuation of the Israel of God; it saw itself as being the people who believed in God’s promises and prophesies and who saw their fulfillment in Jesus Christ.  Christianity thus from its beginnings had a Scripture: the Jewish Bible, the Old Testament.  It wasn’t the Scriptures which were new to the Christians, but the understanding of them which had been made clear in and through Christ.  Eventually the Christians add to their Scriptures the New Testament writings:  texts which the Christians believed contained the true and faithful interpretation and fulfillment of the Old Testament.  The Scriptures of the Jews pointed to Christ, to help everyone recognize Him and the revelation God made through Him.  Conversely it was Christ who made clear the witness and purpose of the Old Testament.

“… when the Hebrews were given the law, their approach to it wasn’t exactly personalized, but something of a personal relationship developed between them and the Torah.  They did not see the law as a code, much less an arbitrary set of rules to be followed.  They saw it as a help, a treasure, and a blessing.  They also saw it as an expression of reality—the way things are, the way they are ordered in relation to each other and to their Creator. … The law, for the Hebrews, was an object of love. … Early Christians approached Jesus Christ and the teaching about him (dogma) in the same way that Jews approached the law.  Even as St. Paul taught that the person of Christ, and life in Christ, supercedes the law, his Epistles began to define who Christ is, how he is both divine and human, and how God exists eternally with his divine Son and his most holy Spirit. … Christians sang about this dogma as the Jews sang about the law.  …  Dogma (general truth) or dogmas (which are expressions of that truth) do not describe a code, a set of fixed and sterile rules.  Rather, dogma describes and defines reality, what is.  Dogmas give a true understanding of God, creation, and human personhood.  They orient our lives.  From dogma, we derive an understanding of reality, an ethos of life, an understanding of how to live, how to stand in relationship with God, the cosmos, the other, and the self.  In other words, they tell us how to ‘do the truth.’”  (Peter Bouteneff, SWEETER THAN HONEY: ORTHODOX THINKING ON DOGMA AND TRUTH, pp 37-38)

New Testament scholar Michael Gorman writing about the Pauline Christian communities of the First Century described how they read the Scriptures of Israel (since the New Testament had yet to be formed – the earliest Christian communities often knew only one of the four versions of what would become the canonical Gospels, and knew only one or two of the New Testament Epistles) as the people of God:

 “First of all, the assembly meets to worship God.  In that context it both hears from God, through prophecy and teaching, and speaks to God in praise, prayer, and hymn-singing.  … Both in speech from and speech to God, and in speech to one another, the assembly especially recites its foundational stories and considers how they can best embody those stories in their life together in the world.  These foundational stories include the Scriptures (i.e., the Old Testament); the creed about the saving acts of God in Christ’s death and resurrection (1 Cor 15:1-8) or incarnation, death, and exaltation (Phil 2:6-11); brief narrative summaries focusing on the significance of Jesus’ death (Gal 1:4; Rom 3:21-26); and narratives of Jesus’ instituting the Lord’s supper (1 Cor 11:17-34).  The assembled believers hear the story and discern the mind of Christ.  Guided by the Spirit, plus the words of Scripture, tradition, and Paul, they look together for God’s specific call to them to be a countercultural community of people infused with the Spirit of Christ, a Christophany—a manifestation of Christ—in and for the world.”   (Michael Gorman, READING PAUL, pp 137-138)

Next: Reading the Scriptures with the Early Church: In Christ