Removing the Veil of Misunderstanding 


Therefore, since we have such hope, we use great boldness of speech – unlike Moses, who put a veil over his face so that the children of Israel could not look steadily at the end of what was passing away. But their minds were blinded. For until this day the same veil remains unlifted in the reading of the Old Testament, because the veil is taken away in Christ. But even to this day, when Moses is read, a veil lies on their heart. Nevertheless when one turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. (2 Corinthians 3:12-16)


St Paul makes it clear that there are meanings hidden in the Jewish Scriptures which were only revealed by and in Christ. The texts were read by the Jews only on a literal or ‘surface’ level, but because they weren’t seeking God’s Word, the Christ, they remain blind to the light that these Scriptures contain. So, in Paul’s view, a veil lies on their heart obscuring the meaning God intended for them to find in the Scriptures. Paul’s reading of the Jewish Scriptures is consistent with the other New Testament authors and with the Lord Jesus Himself who clearly taught that Moses and the prophets were writing about Him – not about history as it was unfolding, but about the mystery which was to be revealed by God in Christ. This way of reading Scripture was continued by the Patristic writers who searched for Christ hidden in the Jewish Scriptures. For example, St Gregory of Nyssa said Christ Himself spoke in parables and enigmas to help put His disciples into the right frame of mind for seeking out the meaning of Israel’s Scriptures. Fr John Behr tells us:

After an opening greeting, Gregory states his position: “By an appropriate contemplation [of the text], the philosophy hidden in its words becomes manifest, the surface meaning of the words (τῆς προχείρου κατὰ τὴν λέξιν ἐμφάσεως) having been purified by a correct understanding.”  It is not only the reader who needs to be purified! But, Gregory says, “some members of the church think it always right to follow the letter of Holy Scripture, and do not take account of what is said by it through enigmas and hidden meanings (δι’ αἰνιγμάτων τε καὶ ὑπονοιῶν) for our benefit” (Song Prol.; 4.10–13).


Gregory protests that he does not reject “the wording (ἡ λέξις)”—“should it be of any use, we will readily have the object of our search” (ibid., 4.17–18). “But if,” he continues, “after concealment in certain hidden meanings and enigmas, it is of no benefit at the level of the surface sense, we will, as the Word, instructing us through Proverbs, guides, turn over such passages, to understand what is said as a parable, or a dark saying, or a saying of the wise, or as an enigma” (ibid., 4.18–5.6; Prov 1.6). What we call this “contemplation through anagogy,” whether “tropology” or “allegory” or any such name, is not important for Gregory; what matters is making sure that the meaning of Scripture is understood (ibid., 5.6…  Thus Paul says that the law is spiritual (Rom 7.14), referring also to the historical narratives, and exegetes according to what best suits his purpose, without being concerned about the name for that form of exegesis (ibid., 5.16–18). . . .


[Gregory goes on to note that sometimes when we read passages in the Old Testament we cannot find anything pertinent to our lives today. The text maybe comprehensible but it seems to be speaking about things that would only have been of concern for Jews in ancient times, long before the coming of the Christ. But the very fact that the text has a plain meaning which no longer seems relevant is the best sign that God intended something more from that passage and that is what we need to search the Scriptures to discover: what do they say about Christ?]


The narratives of Scripture do not always offer, on the surface level, anything beneficial for the life of virtue, and so need to be translated, as it were, before such fruit can be offered. After giving various examples, Gregory continues by pointing out that Christ himself “trained his disciples’ acuity through sayings veiled and hidden, exercising them in parables, images, obscure words, and sayings spoken in enigmas,” and rebuked them when they did not understand (ibid. 8.6–14). (John Behr, The Nicene Faith, Kindle  Location 9906-9918 and 9927-9930)


It is not only we who find parts of the Old Testament obscure or of little spiritual value. The Twelve Disciples themselves even found Christ’s words mysterious and had to ask Him to explain their meaning. For the modern reader, used to just picking up a book and reading it, it may seem strange that passages might be intentionally obscure and in need of interpretation (or in Gregory’s words need to be translated into ideas we can benefit from or experience their power). Many a person with good intention sits down to read the Bible only to get bogged down in sections of the Law, or encountering narratives difficult to believe or accept as holy. I may have to accept that some parts of the Bible, God’s written Word, are not meant for me or us and have to read other sections of the Scripture in order to be inspired. We could set out to discover these hidden meanings by searching through the writings of the Fathers or the many Orthodox hymns which use these passages to reveal their meaning. However, if we are impatient modern readers and want to read only those texts immediately comprehensible to us or utilitarian in value, we may have to seek guidance from the Church as to which passages we should set our focus. We might also train ourselves to pay attention to the Scriptures read in the liturgical services and the sermons or books which help explain them. In any case, it means sometimes to hear God’s Word we have to do some work preparing ourselves to understand that God’s ways are not our ways. Divine logic and meaning, and this is to be expected, might be beyond the limits of our intelligence or experience.