Scriptures: How Do You Read Them?

Christ is risen!

Indeed He is risen! 

… they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. Then Paul, as his custom was, went in to them, and for three Sabbaths reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and demonstrating that the Christ had to suffer and rise again from the dead, and saying, “This Jesus whom I preach to you is the Christ.” And some of them were persuaded; and a great multitude of the devout Greeks, and not a few of the leading women, joined Paul and Silas.  (Acts 17:1-4)

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The Acts of the Apostles reports that the apostles reasoned, explained, demonstrated, argued, debated or proved (depends on the translation you read what words are used) from Scripture (meaning the Old Testament since that was the only Scripture they knew or had) that Jesus was Lord and Messiah or that the Christ would have to suffer and rise from the dead.  Such passages give us some sense as to how the apostles used the Old Testament in their evangelism, teaching and preaching. They read and interpreted Old Testament passages in particular ways that supported or proved their arguments. A few of the Old Testament passages are quoted in the New Testament, but certainly not all, so we don’t always know what passages they used to support or prove their arguments.  But in dealing with their fellow Jews, they felt confident they could show from the Old Testament that Jesus was both Lord and Christ. The way they use the various passages also shows that the meaning of some Old Testament texts was not fixed but rather was up for debate and discussion.  This continues for several centuries as the post-apostolic and then patristic writers continue to debate from Scripture, calling upon various texts and using them in different occasions to prove different points. Theodoret of Cyrus, for example, acknowledges that many texts may have multiple meanings and the Christian is free to interpret the texts in different ways as long as what they claim does not contradict accepted doctrine.  Referring to a particular text, he says: “Let anyone take this the way they want, however: claiming one thing or the other makes no difference to beliefs” (COMMENTARY ON THE LETTERS OF ST PAUL Vol 2, p 85).  They believed there were many texts that had multiple meanings and this seemed natural to them since they understood the texts to be divinely inspired – so coming from God they certainly would have more than one human meaning since they were revealing the depth of divinity to us.   Additionally, as the Christians increasingly were engaging the Gentiles in discussions about Christ, they had to adapt their teachings and interpretation of the Scriptures to speak to non-Jewish people.  Many issues that interested or concerned the Jews were not of interest or concern to the Gentiles, so the Christians had to be creative in their use of the Scriptures.

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Orthodox scholar John McGuckin writes about the history of biblical interpretation and how from the 2nd Century Christians followed a particular way of reading the Old Testament which suited their efforts to both explicate scriptures and to ‘prove’ their arguments:

“The Church’s first serious, and arguably greatest, exegete of Scripture who could claim a solid philosophical education was Origen of Alexandria (185-254).  His theory of exegesis approached the Scripture more as of a body of oracular literature than as the product of any coherent historical evolution of traditions.  He taught that the divine Wisdom, or Logos, of God had presented Scriptures across the ages as a treasure that could only be unlocked once one had the proper key to understanding.  It was not, in other words, internally logically coherent or self-explanatory in any of its messages.  Truth was hidden and clues were given by the Logos to be recognized by the spiritually refined.  For those who are not spiritually mature, the literal word often led them astray because they were either unwilling or unable to lift their minds on high.  But for those who were attuned to the deeper meanings hidden in the texts by the Divine Logos, it was clear that all things were meant to lead up away from matter and flesh towards an increasing purity of heart that allowed one the possibility of communion with the Logos, who hid himself from the crass and the foolish (Alogoi).  Origen taught consistently that Scripture thus had to be read not historically and sequentially (as if it were a slow linear development) but eschatologically—out of time—and in the realisation that its hidden oracular truths were given in accordance with the mystical profundity of the original messengers who served as vehicles of the Logos, and also in the measure of the spiritual profundity of the reader who approaches them for insight.  In short, there was a steep hierarchy of values in Scripture.

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To begin with, all the Old Testament had to be read in the light of, and subservient to, the New (Origen was the first to introduce this distinction of Old and New Covenants).  But moreover, certain writers weighed more than others, and they were, as it were (using a notion borrowed from Rabbi Akiba) ‘the first fruits of the first fruits.’ This meant, for Origen, that the two greatest authorities in all Scripture were the two prophetic seers, John and Paul. After them came the Book of Psalms (seen by Origen as heavily filled with direct, non-historical utterances by the eternal Logos); then Isaiah, the synoptic Gospels, and the Apostolic epistles; then the other New Testament writings; and finally the remainder of the Old Testament.  This strict hierarch of interpretive lenses means that Pauline literature assumed a very strong dominance on Origen’s exegesis.  Given that Origen’s biblical approach was so heavily used in the Greek Christian world after him, both by his friends and enemies, it meant that the Pauline doctrine on any major topic was pushed to the fore in Christian theological reflection ever after.”   (“Origen of Alexandria and Conscience,” THE WHEEL, p 19)

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