The Living Word, Not Literalism

Previous post in the series:  Reading the Word of God, Becoming Scripture.  First post in the series: Jesus Christ, The Word of God and Scriptures.

In Orthodox Tradition, one way we enter into a relationship with the living Word of God is through the Scriptures.   Jesus Christ who is the Word of God is found hidden and then revealed in these written texts.  The Word of God, Jesus Christ, then lives in us and the Word becomes written on our hearts.  Because of the living nature of the Word, the Tradition of the Church has various warnings against an overly literalist reading of the Scriptures.  In this post we will look at a few comments that we find in our Tradition which address the issue of biblical literalism.

The Jewish biblical scholar, Geza Vermes, notes:

“Neither in the inter-Testamental period, nor in earlier biblical times, was the recording of history as we understand it a strong point among the Jews. Chroniclers are concerned not with factual information about bygone events, but with their religious significance. In Scripture, the ‘secular’ past is viewed and interpreted by the prophets as revealing God’s pleasure or displeasure. Victory or defeat in war, peace or social unrest, abundance of harvest or famine, serve to demonstrate the virtue or sinfulness of the nation and to forecast its future destiny.“  (The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English, Kindle Loc. 1344-48)

The fact that Christians did not read the Scriptures first and foremost for historical/factual information is a hermeneutic already found in Judaism.  Scripture is less concerned about bygone events than it is about where God is to be found today and where God is leading us.  Limiting Scripture to its most basic, literal meaning, meant for the Church Fathers not comprehending the God who is outside of human history and not bound by it.  So Tertullian says in the late Second Century:

First of all, in Genesis, it says: “Adam and Eve heard the voice of God walking in the garden in the cool of the evening. And Adam and his wife hid from the face of the Lord God in the midst of the trees in the garden” (Gen 3.8). To those who are unwilling to enter the treasury of the passage, who will not even knock at its door, will I put this question: can they demonstrate that the Lord God, who fills the heaven and the earth, who uses heaven as a throne (in a material sense, they must presume) and the earth as a footstool for his feet (Is 66.1), is contained by a place which, by comparison with the heaven and the earth, is so narrow, and yet that this garden (which they must suppose to be corporeal) is not filled with God but is so much greater in its size than he that it can contain him walking in it, so that the sound of his footfalls is audible?

It is yet more absurd that, on this interpretation, Adam and Eve should, out of fear of God through their transgression, hide themselves “from the face of God in the midst of the trees in the garden.” For it does not say that they simply wished to hide, but that they actually hid. How then is it, according to their view, that God speaks to Adam and asks: “Where are you?”  (On The Lord’s Prayer, Kindle Loc. 3286-96)

Tertullian says even logic tells us we cannot read the Scriptures completely literally, the anthropomorphic images of God simply are inconsistent with what we know about God.  We have to adjust our thinking and imagination in order to make sense of these passages.  The text doesn’t make literal sense, but we can make sense of the text and accept its truthfulness when we adopt the proper interpretative framework.

St. John of Damascus considering the many passages in the Bible which ascribe to God physical body parts (the hand of God or God’s eyes) writes:

Since we find many terms used symbolically in the Scriptures concerning God which are more applicable to that which has body, we should recognize that it is quite impossible for us men clothed about with this dense covering of flesh to understand or speak of the divine and lofty and immaterial energies of the Godhead, except by the use of images and types and symbols derived from our own life. So then all the statements concerning God, that imply body, are symbols, but have a higher meaning: for the Deity is simple and formless.

Hence by God’s eyes and eyelids and sight we are to understand His power of overseeing all things and His knowledge, that nothing can escape: for in the case of us this sense makes our knowledge more complete and more full of certainty. By God’s ears and hearing is meant His readiness to be propitiated and to receive our petitions: for it is this sense that renders us also kind to suppliants, inclining our ear to them more graciously. God’s mouth and speech are His means of indicating His will; for it is by the mouth and speech that we make clear the thoughts that are in the heart: God’s food and drink are our concurrence to His will, for we, too, satisfy the necessities of our natural appetite through the sense of taste. And God’s sense of smell is His appreciation of our thoughts of and good will towards Him, for it is through this sense that we appreciate sweet fragrance. . .  His anger and fury are His hatred of and aversion to all wickedness, for we, too, hate that which is contrary to our mind and become enraged thereat. His forgetfulness and sleep and slumbering are His delay in taking vengeance on His enemies and the postponement of the accustomed help to His own. And to put it shortly, all the statements made about God that imply body have some hidden meaning and teach us what is above us by means of something familiar to ourselves, with the exception of any statement concerning the bodily sojourn of the God-Word. For He for our safety took upon Himself the whole nature of man, the thinking spirit, the body, and all the properties of human nature, even the natural and blameless passions.  (Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Kindle Loc 464-74, 481-85)

For St. John of Damascus any anthropomorphizing of God – mentioning God’s body parts or human emotions – automatically tells us that text is to be read in some symbolic or mystical fashion.  Those texts are referring exactly to some hidden meaning about God.  The anthropomorphic images are used to help us understand God, but they in no way give us a actual portrayal of God.  To read them literally would be to misunderstand the text completely.  The only exception to this rule for St. John is when reading about Jesus Christ in the Gospel for there God is truly incarnate and that truth is expressed precisely in the Christ’s human body and human behavior.

St Maximos the Confessor in two passages offers us the same teaching.

When a man sticks to the mere letter of Scripture, his nature is governed by the senses alone, in this way proving his soul’s attachment to the flesh. For if the letter is not understood in a spiritual way, its significance is restricted to the level of the senses, which do not allow its full meaning to pass over into the intellect. When the letter is appropriated by his senses alone, he receives it Judaic-wise merely in the literal sense, and so lives according to the flesh, spiritually dying each day the death of sin on account of his forceful senses; for he cannot put his body’s pursuits to death by the Spirit in order to live the life of bliss in the Spirit. ‘For if you live according to the flesh, you will die,’ says St Paul, ‘but if through the Spirit you put to death the body’s pursuits, you will live’ (Rom. 8:13).”   (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 19141-51)

For St. Maximos to read the Scriptures purely literally is to live according to the flesh, not the spirit.  It is the way of death.

“Everyone who does not apply himself to the spiritual contemplation of Holy Scripture has, Judaic-wise, also rejected both the natural and the written law; and he is ignorant of the law of grace which confers deification on those who are obedient to it. He who understands the written law in a literal manner does not nourish his soul with the virtues. He who does not grasp the inner principles of created beings fails to feast his intellect on the manifold wisdom of God. And he who is ignorant of the great mystery of the new grace does not rejoice in the hope of future deification. Thus failure to contemplate the written law spiritually results in a dearth of the divine wisdom to be apprehended in the natural law; and this in its turn is followed by a complete ignorance of the deification given by grace according to the new mystery.”    (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 19567-75)

Reading the Scriptures purely literally explains for Maximos exactly why the Jews misunderstood Christ and did not recognize him as Messiah or as God.  The literal reading of Scripture fails to lead a person to Christ or the Kingdom of God.

A person who does not penetrate with his intellect towards the divine and spiritual beauty contained within the letter of the Law develops a propensity for pleasure – that is, an attachment to the world and a love of worldly things; for his knowledge derives merely from the literal expression of the Law.   (St. Maximos, THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 19489-91)

It is not only a failure to see the incarnate Word that results from an overly literal reading of Scripture.  Such a literal reading of Scripture has an impact on daily life and behavior.  So we see in the desert fathers this story  of misreading the Scriptures because of being overly literal.

A certain brother went to Abba Poemen on the second Sunday in the Fast of Forty Days and repeated unto him his thoughts, and sighing over what the old man had told him, he said unto him, “I had almost kept myself from coming here today”; and the old man said, ” Why?” Then the brother said, ” I said in my mind, peradventure during the fast the “door will be closed against thee“; and Abba Poemen said unto him, ” We do not learn to shut a door made of wood, but to close the door of the tongue.”  (The Paradise or Garden of the Holy Fathers, Kindle Loc. 80-83)

Next:   Literalism: The Word of God vs. Scriptures

Reading the Word of God, Becoming Scripture

Previous post in series:  Christ in the Old Testament

“When you read Holy Scripture, perceive its hidden meanings. ‘For whatever was written in past times was written for our instruction’ (Rom. 15:4).”    (St. Mark the Ascetic, The Philokalia, Kindle Loc. 2997-98)

St. Mark, writing in the 5th Century, reflects an attitude common in the ancient Church about reading Scripture.  He calls us to look for its “hidden meanings.”   The obvious, literal meaning is there and is true, there was no question about that.  What was also believed is that because the manuscript really contained a divine meaning, there was more to the text than its most obvious reading.  God is revealing Himself to us through the Scriptures and we need to be aware of this and to look for it.  The “hidden meaning” exactly would not be immediately obvious to us, but if our hearts were pure and prepared we would recognize the revelation hidden in the obvious.  God is the Lord who reveals Himself to us in nature as well as in the Scriptures, but we have to have the heart ready to see in order to become aware of the revelation.  The Patristic writers certainly believed that is how the authors of the New Testament read the Old Testament.  They saw this, for example, in how St. Paul interprets the Jewish scriptures (see 1 Corinthians 9:9-11 or Galatians 4:21-25).   As many of the Fathers understood it, the Transfiguration of Christ (Mark 9 and parallels) is about the apostles being transfigured so that they could see Christ as He always is.  Christ’s divinity remained hidden in His humanity, but in that moment of the transfiguration, their eyes were opened and they saw the revelation of God which had been hidden from them.  The apostle’s eyes were opened, and so can ours be as we read the Bible and move beyond the literal text to the revelation contained in them.

We have to put the effort into fully understanding the Scriptures, which also means understanding how the early Church fathers read the biblical narrative, how they interpreted the text and used them in their own explanations and argumentation.  St. John of Damascus offers this:

“If we read once or twice and do not understand what we read, let us not grow weary, but let us persist, let us talk much, let us enquire. For ask thy Father, he saith, and He will shew thee: thy elders and they will tell thee (Deuteronomy 32:7). For there is not in every man that knowledge. Let us draw of the fountain of the garden perennial and purest waters springing into life eternal. Here let us luxuriate, let us revel insatiate: for the Scriptures possess inexhaustible grace. But if we are able to pluck anything profitable from outside sources, there is nothing to forbid that. Let us become tried money-dealers, heaping up the true and pure gold and discarding the spurious. Let us keep the fairest sayings but let us throw to the dogs absurd gods and strange myths: for we might prevail most mightily against them through themselves.   (Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Kindle Loc. 3199-3204)

In the above quote, I first note the use of the Deuteronomy 32:7 passage.  It gives us a sense how the Fathers made use of all Scriptures sometimes very creatively using what otherwise is a text completely understandable in its original context, to further their own arguments.  They saw the Scriptures as speaking to them and not just historical texts whose meaning was limited to its original use.  St. John is putting into practice what he read in Romans 15:4 that the ancient scriptures were written for our instruction.  The Scripture is not so much history but instruction in how we should live today.  That is part of the hidden message we had to discern in the manuscript.

When we meditate wisely and: continually on the law of God, study psalms and canticles, engage-in fasting and vigils, and always bear in mind what is to come – the kingdom of heaven, the Gehenna of fire and all God’s works — our wicked thoughts diminish and find no place.  (St. John Cassian, THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle  Loc. 2530-32)

Cassian reveals another common thought in the Patristic mind – the Scriptures should not be read as ancient texts revealing past history.  They really help prepare us for what is coming – the eschaton, the Kingdom of God and the final judgment.  So to try to milk from the Scriptures ideas about how God created the world, is to read the Bible badly and for the wrong purpose.  Those old texts point to Christ and to the future Kingdom of God.  We should read them accordingly.

We read the Scriptures to come to  know our Lord Jesus Christ, the Word of God incarnate.   When we truly understand the Scriptures, God begins to write on our hearts.  We become His scriptures!

St. Maximos the Confessor proclaims:

“When God comes to dwell in such a heart, He honors it by engraving His own letters on it through the Holy Spirit, just as He did on the Mosaic tablets (cf. Exod. 31:18).”     (Kindle Loc. 15522-24)

As St. Paul has it:

You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on your hearts, to be known and read by all men; and you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.  (2 Corinthians 3;2-3)

St. Maximos continues:

“A pure heart is perhaps one which has no natural propulsion towards anything in any manner whatsoever. When in its extreme simplicity such a heart has become like a writing-tablet beautifully smoothed and polished. God comes to dwell in it and writes there His own laws.”   (The Philokalia, Kindle Loc. 15528-30)

The Word of God comes to dwell in us and we become the living Scriptures bearing witness to Christ in us.  The Word becomes written on our hearts, and the printed text of the Bible is superseded by the human fulfilling the role that God always intended for us.  We are created in the image of the Word, created to bear the Word in our hearts.  In the beginning, God did not write Scriptures.  Rather God created us humans to be the living Scriptures.  It was a role in creation which lost through sin.  The written manuscripts became necessary to remind us of what we are to be.

Next:   The Living Word, Not Literalism

Christ in the Old Testament

“… the treasure hid in the Scriptures is Christ, since He was pointed out by means of types and parables.”    (St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies and Fragments, Kindle Loc. 6350-51)

Previous Post in the series:  The Old and The New Covenants.  First post in the series: Jesus Christ, The Word of God and Scriptures

Wisdom. King David. Prophecy.
Wisdom. King David. Prophecy.

Central to the teachings of Christ is that Moses and the Prophets wrote about Him.  We have already encountered this in several of the blog posts in this series.

Jesus said:  “You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me; yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.  . . . If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote of me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?”   (John 5: 39-47)

In this post, we will look at several quotes from St. Irenaeus of Lyons (d. 202AD) and how he applied Christ’s own words to the Scriptures.

For if ye had believed Moses, ye would also have believed Me; for he wrote of Me;“(John 5:46) [saying this,] no doubt, because the Son of God is implanted everywhere throughout his writings: at one time, indeed, speaking with Abraham, when about to eat with him; at another time with Noah, giving to him the dimensions [of the ark]; at another; inquiring after Adam; at another, bringing down judgment upon the Sodomites; and again, when He becomes visible, and directs Jacob on his journey, and speaks with Moses from the bush. And it would be endless to recount [the occasions] upon which the Son of God is shown forth by Moses. Of the day of His passion, too, he was not ignorant; but foretold Him, after a figurative manner, by the name given to the passover; and at that very festival, which had been proclaimed such a long time previously by Moses, did our Lord suffer, thus fulfilling the passover.”   (St. Irenaeus of Lyons,  Against Heresies and Fragments, Kindle Loc. 5535-41)

In the above quote, St. Irenaeus shows that in the 2nd Century Christians believed that the anthropomorphic appearances of God in the Old Testament were actually appearances of the pre-incarnate Christ.  It is the Son of God who speaks to Moses from the burning bush and in every occurrence in which Moses spoke with God face to face as a man speaks to a friend (Exodus 33:11).  Christ is thus hidden from us in each manifestation of God in the Old Testament if we read the Jewish Scriptures with no knowledge of the Holy Trinity.  But in Christ we see in these Old Testament theophanies that Christ is appearing to the saints of the people of God.  In Christ we come to realize what these holy men and women are seeing when they encounter God.   The authors of the Old Testament books themselves did  not fully understand what they were witnessing, but still they reported these anthropomorphic experiences.  In Christ we understand more fully what they were encountering yet couldn’t fully describe.  That is why the Old Testament theophanies are not able to fully explain that it was the Word of God who they encountered.  Once the incarnation occurs in Christ, we are able to see Christ the Word in the Old Testament texts.

“But since the writings (litera) of Moses are the words of Christ, He does Himself declare to the Jews, as John has recorded in the Gospel: “If ye had believed Moses, ye would have believed Me: for he wrote of Me. But if ye believe not his writings, neither will ye believe My words.”  He thus indicates in the clearest manner that the writings of Moses are His words. If, then, [this be the case with regard] to Moses, so also, beyond a doubt, the words of the other prophets are His [words], as I have pointed out. And again, the Lord Himself exhibits Abraham as having said to the rich man, with reference to all those who were still alive: “If they do not obey Moses and the prophets, neither, if any one were to rise from the dead and go to them, will they believe him.”     (St. Irenaeus of Lyons,  Against Heresies and Fragments, Kindle Loc. Loc. 5203-8)

Not only did Moses and the prophets encounter Christ the Word of God, it is Christ the Word who speaks to them and gives them the words which they record in the Scriptures.  Moses and all the prophets were telling us what they heard from Christ, so that when we encounter these same words, phrases, ideas, and metaphors in the New Testament we recognize Christ in the Old Testament.   Scholars speak about the New Testament being filled with echoes of Old Testament ideas and phrases – this is because in fact the Old Testament authors were hearing Christ and recording what He said.  It is the Old Testament authors who are actually echoing the New Testament!

And teaching this very thing, He said to the Jews: “Your father Abraham rejoiced that he should see my day; and he saw it, and was glad” What is intended? “Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness.” In the first place, [he believed] that He was the maker of heaven and earth, the only God; and in the next place, that He would make his seed as the stars of heaven. This is what is meant by Paul, [when he says,] “as lights in the world.” Righteously, therefore, having left his earthly kindred, he followed the Word of God, walking as a pilgrim with the Word, that he might [afterwards] have his abode with the Word. Righteously also the apostles, being of the race of Abraham, left the ship and their father, and followed the Word. Righteously also do we, possessing the same faith as Abraham, and taking up the cross as Isaac did the wood? follow Him. For in Abraham man had learned beforehand, and had been accustomed to follow the Word of God. For Abraham, according to his faith, followed the command of the Word of God, and with a ready mind delivered up, as a sacrifice to God, his only- begotten and beloved son, in order that God also might be pleased to offer up for all his seed His own beloved and only-begotten Son, as a sacrifice for our redemption.      (St. Irenaeus of Lyons,  Against Heresies and Fragments, Kindle Loc. 5320-29)

Every encounter with the Word of God by the holy men and women of the Old Testament is thus an encounter with Christ.  And each encounter with Christ is also a revelation of God the Father, even as Jesus said: “He who has seen me has seen the Father; how can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father in me?” (John 14:9-10).  Each theophany in the Old Testament was thus really an encounter with the pre-incarnate Word of God, but each encounter also revealed the Father to all.  For Christ is the image of the Father.  “He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities—all things were created through him and for him” (Colossians 1:15-16).

Fr. St. Irenaeus, Christ is now obvious in the Old Testament texts.  He reads the Torah (Pentateuch) as a typology and preparation for the coming of Jesus the Christ.  Joshua, the protégé of Moses, shares the same name as Jesus in the Old Testament.  Thus everything Joshua does prefigures Christ and is thus prophecy.

“Take unto you Joshua (᾿Ιησοῦν) the son of Nun.” (Numbers 27:18)  For it was proper that Moses should lead the people out of Egypt, but that Jesus (Joshua) should lead them into the inheritance. Also that Moses, as was the case with the law, should cease to be, but that Joshua (᾿Ιησοῦν), as the word, and no untrue type of the Word made flesh (ἐνυποστάτου), should be a preacher to the people. Then again, [it was fit] that Moses should give manna as food to the fathers, but Joshua wheat; as the first-fruits of life, a type of the body of Christ, as also the Scripture declares that the manna of the Lord ceased when the people had eaten wheat from the land.(Joshua 5:12)”     (St. Irenaeus of Lyons,  Against Heresies and Fragments, Kindle Loc. 9079-89)

The books of the Old Testament clearly witness to Christ, but do so by hiding Christ in the very text which records the events of the Old Testament as well as in the events and people of the Tanahk.   Jesus Christ has fully revealed the meaning of the Old Testament.  His image, found on every page of the Scriptures, is now obvious to all of those who are in Christ.

The Holy Prophets
The Holy Prophets

“For every prophecy, before its fulfilment, is to men [full of] enigmas and ambiguities. But when the time has arrived, and the prediction has come to pass, then the prophecies have a clear and certain exposition. And for this reason, indeed, when at this present time the law is read to the Jews, it is like a fable; for they do not possess the explanation of all things pertaining to the advent of the Son of God, which took place in human nature; but when it is read by the Christians, it is a treasure, hid indeed in a field, but brought to light by the cross of Christ, and explained, both enriching the understanding of men, and showing forth the wisdom of God and declaring His dispensations with regard to man, and forming the kingdom of Christ beforehand… ”    (St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies and Fragments, Kindle Loc. 6354-59)

Next in the series:  Reading the Word of God, Becoming Scripture

The Old and The New Covenants

“The grace of the New Testament is mystically hidden in the letter of the Old.”  (St. Maximos the Confessor, The Philokalia, Loc. 14653)

Previous post in series: Interpreting the Scripture (III)

Clearly the Church Fathers saw all of the Scriptures as essential.  The Old Testament bore witness to Christ.  The New Testament was hidden in the text of the Old Testament.  The New Testament revealed the meaning of the Old Testament.  Christ who was but a shadow in the Old Testament, now is fully revealed in the New.  You cannot completely understand either Covenant without the other.

We have already encountered how Jesus read and understood the Old Testament:

Jesus said:  “You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me; yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. I do not receive glory from men. But I know that you have not the love of God within you. I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not receive me; if another comes in his own name, him you will receive. How can you believe, who receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God? Do not think that I shall accuse you to the Father; it is Moses who accuses you, on whom you set your hope. If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote of me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?”   (John 5: 39-47)

And he said to them, “O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself. . . .    Then he said to them, “These are my words which I spoke to you, while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled.”    (Luke 24:25-27, 44)

Jesus and Moses
Jesus and Moses

Our Lord Jesus Christ had no doubt that the Old Testament was written about Him, and that Moses and all the prophets were writing about the Messiah when they presented the prophecies and promises of God.  So too, St. Cyril  of Jerusalem writing in the  4th Century says:

“Pass from the old to the new, from the figure to the reality. There Moses was sent by God to Egypt; here Christ is sent from the Father into the world. Moses’ mission was to lead a persecuted people out of Egypt; Christ’s, to rescue all the people of the world who were under the tyranny of sin. There the blood of a lamb was the charm against the destroyer; here, the blood of the unspotted Lamb, Jesus Christ, is appointed your inviolable sanctuary against demons. Pharaoh pursued that people of old right into the sea; this outrageous spirit [i.e., Satan], the impudent author of all evil, followed each of you up to the very verge of the saving streams [i.e., your baptisms]. That other tyrant is engulfed and drowned in the Red Sea; this one is destroyed in the saving water.”   (A Patristic Treasury: Early Church Wisdom for Today, Kindle Loc.  Loc. 3540-45)

The stories and history of the Old Testament prefigure Christ, to make the Messiah visible and recognizable.  The narrative of the Old Testament helps us to understand who Jesus is and how He is bringing about the salvation of the world.  St. Maximos the Confessor who like all Fathers expounded on the Scriptures said:

“The Law is the shadow of the Gospel. The Gospel is the image of the blessings held in store. The Law checks the actualization of evil. The Gospel brings about the realization of divine blessings.”  (The Philokalia, Loc. 14659-62)

St Maximos reads Zechariah 4:1-4 –

“And the angel who talked with me came again, and waked me, like a man that is wakened out of his sleep. And he said to me, “What do you see?” I said, “I see, and behold, a lampstand all of gold, … And there are two olive trees by it, one on the right of the bowl and the other on its left.”

Maximos comments:

I think that the olive tree on the left side of the candlestick signifies the Old Testament, in which the emphasis is mainly on practical philosophy; while that on the right signifies the New Testament, which teaches a new revelation and brings each believer to a state of contemplation. The first supplies the qualities of virtue, the second the principles of spiritual knowledge to those who meditate on what is divine. The first clears away the mist of visible things and raises the intellect to realities that are akin to it when it is purged of all material fantasies. The second purifies the intellect of its attachment to materiality, with resolute strength knocking out as though with a hammer the nails that rivet will and disposition to the body.”   (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle  Loc. 19193-99)

Both Covenants are needed to understand either of them.  The Old and the New are vitally linked together for our salvation.  St. Maximos continues:

4305450050_b159553183_m“The Old Testament makes the body obedient to the intelligence and raises it towards the soul by means of the virtues, preventing the intellect from being dragged down towards the body. The New Testament fires the intellect with love and unites it to God. Thus the Old Testament makes the body one in its activity with the intellect; the New Testament makes the intellect one with God through the state of grace. So close is the likeness to God which the intellect acquires, that God, who is not known as He is by nature in Himself to anyone in any way at all, is known through it just as an archetype is known from an image.  Since the Old Testament is a symbol of the practice of the virtues, it brings the body’s activity into harmony with that of the intellect. Since the New Testament confers contemplation and spiritual knowledge, it illumines with divine intellections and gifts of grace the intellect that cleaves to it mystically. The Old Testament supplies the man of spiritual knowledge with the qualities of virtue; the New Testament endows the man practicing the virtues with the principles of true knowledge.”  (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 19199-209)

We only can grow spiritually when we properly read and comprehend both Testaments together.  The Old can be properly understood only in and through the New Testament.  The New not only fulfills the Old but also explains its purpose and mission.  The New Testament however does not point back to the Old, but rather in Christ points to the eschaton – to the Kingdom of Heaven yet to come

“Just as the teachings of the Law and the prophets, being harbingers of the coming advent of the Logos in the flesh, guide our souls to Christ (cf. Gal. 3:24), so the glorified incarnate Logos of God is Himself a harbinger of His spiritual advent, leading our souls forward by His own teachings to receive His divine and manifest advent. He does this ceaselessly, by means of the virtues converting those found worthy from the flesh to the spirit. And He will do it at the end of the age, making manifest what has hitherto been hidden from all men.”    (St. Maximos the Confessor, The Philokalia, Loc. 15042-50)

Next in the series:  Christ in the Old Testament

Interpreting the Scripture (III)

“For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are open and laid bare to the eyes of him with whom we have to do.”   (Hebrews 4:12-13)

Previous post in this series: Interpreting the Scripture (II)


The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews gives us an insight into the Word of God which is what so many of the Church Fathers wrote about.  The Word of God is living – we don’t simply read it and then read a meaning into it.  Rather the Word of God discerns our thoughts and out intentions and opens our understanding of the Scriptures based upon what we are capable of receiving from Him.  There is a true and living interaction between the Scriptures and the one who is reading them.  Reading the Scriptures properly is to have a full relationship with the Word of God.  We bring our thoughts, faith, hope and love to the Scriptures and the Word of God interacts with us, relating to us those things about Himself which we are prepared to receive.  This is why the reading of the Scriptures is also combined in Orthodox Tradition with fasting and prayer.   The Word of God is not print on a page, the Word of God is Jesus Christ.  This is part of the mystery revealed in the incarnation.

In the previous blog we encountered how the Patristic writers saw the interaction between the Scriptures and readers of the Bible when those reading held false or distorted ideas about God.  In the end, their interpretations of the Scriptures were also distorted.  To have the right relationship with the Word of God, one must have right faith, and have a heart and mind committed to serving God.  In this post, we will look at some other issues Orthodox teachers have noted about relating to the Word of God – not the Bible text, but to the living Word who interacts with us.


First, a comment from St. Augustine admitting that it is possible that some texts in the Bible may have had a specific meaning to the author of the text and to those to whom the text was originally written, but we no longer know, or even can know that meaning.  History now separates us from those in the original discussion and we don’t know (and can’t know) all of the circumstances, meanings and nuances of those texts.  Scholarship cannot uncover some things which have been lost to history.  Augustine writes:

The words, “And now you know what is restraining”—i.e., you know what hindrance or cause of delay there is—“that he may be revealed in his own time” [2 Thess 2:6], show that he [St. Paul] did not make an explicit statement, since he said that they knew. But we who do not have their knowledge wish, but are unable even with great effort, to understand what the apostle referred to, especially since his meaning is made still more obscure by what he adds. For what does he mean when he says, “The mystery of lawlessness is already at work; only He who now restrains will do so until He is taken out of the way. And then the lawless one will be revealed” [2 Thess 2:7–8]? I frankly confess I do not know what he means. ”  (A Patristic Treasury: Early Church Wisdom for Today, Kindle Loc. 5909-14)

St. Augustine was willing to acknowledge, what many pastors and biblical commentators today will not admit, that the meaning of a passage is beyond us.   Today, many biblical commentators fear that to acknowledge there are things in the Scritpures we do not know, or even cannot know, might cast doubts on their interpretation of things.  And the reason is because truthfully it is their personal interpretation of the Scriptures, rather than what the Scriptures actually say.  These commentators really are saying that God is not smarter than they are, that is why they understand everything the Scriptures say.  But if the Word of God is active and alive, the Word may interact with some people, some who are no longer with us, revealing His full meaning.  But that meaning is no longer ours to have.  It means we have to stand silent in the face of certain Scriptures.  We must be humble before God and neighbor recognizing that the Scriptures really do contain the mysteries and revelation of God, yet we might not be the people to fully understand them.


Acknowledging that the Scriptures might still have hidden in them the Word of God but that we cannot access the meaning of those texts takes away from all of us the arrogant claim that we alone know the full meaning of all the Scriptures.  The saints through the centuries realized there are many reasons why we might not fully understand some passages of Scripture.   Just because we are able to discern the meaning of a word or name or thing in Scripture at one point in the text, means we fully understand that word or name every time it is used in the Bible.  The Word is living, and consequently, the Word may have different connotations in different passages and in the minds of the different authors using the words.  St Maximos the Confessor expounds:

“Not all persons and things designated in Holy Scripture by the same word are necessarily to be understood in exactly the same way. On the contrary, if we are to infer the meaning of the written text correctly, each thing mentioned must clearly be understood according to the significance that underlies its verbal form. If always understood in the same way, none of the persons, places, times, or any of the other things mentioned in Scripture, whether animate or inanimate, sensible or intelligible, will yield either the literal or spiritual sense intended. Thus he who wishes to study the divine knowledge of Scripture without floundering must respect the differences of the recorded events or sayings, and interpret each in a different way, assigning to it the appropriate spiritual sense according to the context of place and time.”   (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 19118-26)

All scriptural texts have a context in which they were written, a context in which they were originally understood.  And every reader of the text also has a context which shapes the reader’s understanding of the text before them.   St. Maximos reflecting on the Gospel comments:

“Pilate is a type of the natural law; the Jewish crowd is a type of the written law. He who has not risen through faith above the two laws cannot therefore receive the truth which is beyond nature and expression. On the contrary, he invariably crucifies the Logos, for he sees the Gospel either, like a Jew, as a stumbling-block or, like a Greek, as foolishness (cf. 1 Cor. 1:23).”   (The Philokalia, Loc. 14473-78)


The reader of the Bible must be as inspired as the original authors in order to comprehend the message intended in the Scriptures.  St Peter of Damaskos in a more lengthy discourse gives us further insight into this living relationship between the reader of the Bible and the Word of God.

“I am not speaking here about the mere act of listening to a passage of Scripture or to some other person; for this does not by itself involve purity of intellect or divine revelation. I am speaking about the person who possesses knowledge but distrusts himself until he finds another passage from Scripture or from one of the saints that confirms his spontaneous knowledge of the scriptural passage or of some sensible or intelligible reality. And if instead of one meaning he should find many as a result of giving attention to either the divine Scriptures or the holy fathers, he should not lose faith and think that there is a contradiction. For one text or object can signify many things. Take clothing, for example: one person may say that it warms, another that it adorns, and another that it protects; yet all three are correct, since clothing is useful alike for warmth, for adornment and for protection. All three have grasped the purpose assigned by God to clothing; and Holy Scripture and the very nature of-things themselves confirm it. But if someone whose intention is to rob and pilfer should say that clothing exists in order to be stolen, he would be an utter liar, for neither the Scriptures nor the nature of things suggest that it exists for this purpose; and even the laws punish those who do steal it. The same applies to everything, whether visible or invisible, and to every word of the divine Scriptures. For the saints neither know the whole of God’s purpose with regard to every object or scriptural text, nor on the other hand do they write down once and for all everything that they do know. This is because in the first place God is beyond comprehension, and His wisdom is not limited in such a way that an angel or man can grasp it in its entirety. As St John Chrysostom says with regard to a certain point of spiritual exegesis, we say about it as much as should be said at the moment, but God, in addition to what we say, knows other unfathomable meanings as well. And, in the second place, because of men’s incapacity and weakness it is not good for even the saints themselves to say all that they know; for they might speak at too great a length, thus making themselves offensive or unintelligible because of the confusion in their reader’s mind. As St Gregory the Theologian observes, what is said should be commensurate to the capacity of those to whom it is addressed. For this reason the same saint may say one thing about a certain matter today, and another tomorrow; and yet there is no contradiction, provided the hearer has knowledge and experience of the matter under discussion. Again, one saint may say one thing and another say something different about the same passage of the Holy Scriptures, since divine grace often gives varying interpretations suited to the particular person or moment in question. The only thing required is that everything said or done should be said or done in accordance with God’s intention, and that it should be attested by the words of Scripture. For should anyone preach anything contrary to God’s intention or contrary to the nature of things, then even if he is an angel St Paul’s words, ‘Let him be accursed’ (Gal. 1:8), will apply to him. This is what St Dionysios the Areopagite, St Antony and St Maximos the Confessor affirm.”   (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 31801-59)


How we read a text – what meaning we derive from it, is thus not merely found in scholarly research.  The meaning of the text appears to us to the degree we are faithful to Christ as Lord, have a pure heart, and have entered into Church, the Body of Christ.  The contemporary Orthodox theologian Andrew Louth summarizes this understanding of God’s Word this way:

“What does all this add up to? It suggests to my mind an attitude to Scripture that sees it not as some flat collection of infallible texts about religious matters, but rather as a body of witness of varying significance – some clearly crucial, as witnessing very directly to Christ, others less important (though never of no importance), as their witness to Christ is more oblique. And the criteria for importance are bound up in some way with the way the Church has taken them up into her experience. There is a hierarchy, a shape: the Gospel Book at the centre, the Apostle flanking it, and then a variety of texts from the Old Testament, generally accessed not through some volume called the Bible, but from extracts contained in the liturgical books, along with other texts: songs, passages from the Fathers and so on. The Scriptures then have a kind of shape, a shape that relates to our experience of them.   (Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology, Kindle Loc. Loc. 395-401)


Next: The Old and The New Covenants

Interpreting the Scripture (I)

Previous: Hidden Meanings in the Text

In this blog series, we are exploring what it means that Jesus Christ is the Word of God incarnate (John 1) while simultaneously we also refer to the Bible, the written text as the Word of God.  Orthodoxy in its hymns certainly places an emphasis on Jesus being the Word of God incarnate.   The Word is a person rather than a book.  We understand that the Scriptures witness to Christ (John 5:39-40).  The Scriptures as the Word of God have many peculiar elements to them  (such as being subject to scribal error, see Textual Variations) that would certainly tell us that they can be considered the Word of God only in a particular way.  They can be translated into many languages with all the linguistic and cultural nuances that introduces to the text, and yet still be considered the same Word of God.  And as every English speaking person knows, the number of different translations into one language can be many and they can have so many variations in the translations as to make one wonder if the same original text can have so many different possible meanings.

Modern scholars point out many facts about the Scriptures’ composition and development some of which question the divine inspiration of the Scriptures.  These insights of modern scholarship however are often not new but were well known in the ancient Christian world.  St. Irenaeus of Lyons (martyred in 202AD) for example is aware that the each of the four Gospels were written for differing audiences and for different purposes.  He writes:

“The Gospel according to Matthew was written to the Jews. For they laid particular stress upon the fact that Christ [should be] of the seed of David. Matthew also, who had a still greater desire [to establish this point], took particular pains to afford them convincing proof that Christ is of the seed of David; and therefore he commences with [an account of] His genealogy.”   (Against Heresies and Fragments, Kindle Loc. 9161-67)

St Peter of Damaskos  (12th Century) is keenly aware that some Christians in his day doubted that the Letter to the Hebrews was written by St. Paul and believed rather that it was written pseudonymously. Peter rejects the claim but the point here is these things were disputed long before modern scholarship came along.

“Again, some say in their lack of experience that the Epistle to the Hebrews was not written by St Paul, or that St Dionysios the Areopagite did not write one of the treatises ascribed to him. But if a man will pay attention to these same works, he will discover the truth. If the matter pertains to nature, the saints gain their knowledge of it from spiritual insight, that is, from the spiritual knowledge of nature and from the contemplation of created beings that is attained through the intellect’s purity; and so they expound God’s purpose in these things with complete accuracy. Searching the Scriptures, as St John Chrysostom says, like gold-miners who seek out the finest veins. In this way they ensure that ‘not the smallest letter or most insignificant accent is lost’, as the Lord put it (Matt. 5:18).”  (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 31860-75)

As St. Peter notes, St. John Chrysostom was interested in every tiny mark or unusual twist in the texts of the Scriptures.  Everything was significant since the writings were considered to be God’s Word and not merely human endeavors.  Though indeed the written texts belong to human effort and a spiritual need, the authors were inspired by God to write.  So, Scripture is always a work of synergy between God and humans – not only between those who wrote them and God but also between the reader of the texts and God.  So St. Justin Martyr admits there may appear contradictions in the scriptural texts when we read them literally, but this is dealt with by the way we read/interpret the text.  The problems is in our understanding of differing texts, not in what God is saying to us.

St. Justin the Martyr
St. Justin the Martyr

“I am entirely convinced that no Scripture contradicts another. I shall admit rather that I do not understand what is recorded, and shall strive to persuade those who imagine that the Scriptures are contradictory to be of the same opinion [about Scripture] as myself. “  (A Patristic Treasury: Early Church Wisdom for Today, Loc. 867-69)

St. Augustine who wrote voluminous comments on the Scriptures was aware that the texts of the Scriptures were troublesome to interpret.  He believes the Scriptures to be true and grants that any one text can have different interpretations.  After all, Scripture is God’s Word, and so one would expect that at times we humans might realize God’s Word is much deeper than we can comprehend.

“What more liberal and more fruitful provision could God have made in regard to the sacred Scriptures than that the same words might be understood in several senses, all of which are sanctioned by the concurring testimony of other passages equally divine?”  (St. Augustine, A Patristic Treasury: Early Church Wisdom for Today, Kindle Loc. 5578-80)

“But the truths which those words contain appear to different inquirers in a different light, and of all the meanings that they can bear, which of us can lay his finger upon one and say that it is what Moses had in mind and what he meant us to understand by his words?”  (St. Augustine,  A Patristic Treasury: Early Church Wisdom for Today, Kindle Loc. 5820-22)

“For all the differences between them, there is truth in each of these opinions. May this truth give birth to harmony, and may the Lord our God have pity on us so that we may apply the law legitimately, that is, to the end prescribed in the commandment, which is love undefiled.”  (St. Augustine,  A Patristic Treasury: Early Church Wisdom for Today, Kindle Loc. 5829-31)

“When so many meanings, all of them acceptable as true, can be extracted from the words that Moses wrote, do you not see how foolish it is to make a bold assertion that one in particular is the one he had in mind? Do you not see how foolish it is to enter into mischievous arguments which are an offense against that very love for the sake of which he wrote every one of the words that we are trying to explain? ”  (St. Augustine,  A Patristic Treasury: Early Church Wisdom for Today, Kindle Loc. 5824-27)

St. Augustine
St. Augustine

Augustine understands the Scriptures are rich and deep and a divine treasury, so if we approach them imagining them to have one and only one meaning, we are imposing on them human limits and concerns, but God’s Word is not limited by human imagination or intelligence.  It is possible that we will never know exactly what the original author of the Scriptures meant as we are separated by many centuries and by differing languages and cultures.  That still doesn’t mean God can’t or won’t speak to us through the text.  There is inspiration in the reading as well as in the writing of Scripture.

“Prophetic diction delights in mingling figurative and real language, and thus in some sort veiling the sense. (20:16) No doubt, though this book [Revelation] is called the Apocalypse [“the unveiling”], there are in it many obscure passages to exercise the mind of the reader, and there are few passages so plain that they assist us in the interpretation of the others, even though we take pains; and this difficulty is increased by the repetition of the same things, in forms so different, that the things referred to seem to be different, although in fact they are only differently stated. ”  (St. Augustine,  A Patristic Treasury: Early Church Wisdom for Today, Kindle Loc. 5904-8)

St. Augustine admits that in Scripture at times God intentionally veils His purpose and meaning in figurative language.  God wants us to seek out His will, and gives us opportunity to work with Him by using language and images in the Scriptures that we must work with God to understand. Sometimes God uses several incompatible metaphors to give us the same message.  We have to realize that the multiple different images don’t mean there are many differing messages but only that God is emphasizing one message using several different images.

St. John of Damascus commenting on Genesis 1 notes that earlier church fathers had interpreted Genesis 1 differently from each other and had come to various beliefs about the nature of the heavens and the earth.  He accepts all of these interpretations as possible and perhaps with the limits of the science of his day as probable.  He is acknowledging that we do read the Scriptures with and through the lens of our own knowledge, and that it is possible to come to different conclusions from the text of Scriptures based upon the assumptions we begin with.  But these differences are not about the doctrine of God, but only about an understanding of the earth or all of creation itself.  Thus, following his reasoning, we understand how it is that now modern science in studying the created order has come to some conclusions different than any of the earlier saints might have thought.  But this is OK .   We are using the scientific knowledge that God has given our generation to study and understand the created world.  This doesn’t in anyway compromise the nature of God.  God is the Creator, no matter how we understand science or the creation.  The ancients for example thought all created things were made up of one of 4 elements, or that human body was governed by the humors.  We now think about atoms and sub-atomic particles as making up all things and we know the relationship between energy and matter which the ancients didn’t know.  So, St. John tells us:

“But further, God called the firmament also heaven, which He commanded to be in the midst of the waters, setting it to divide the waters that are above the firmament from the waters that are below the firmament. And its nature, according to the divine Basilius, who is versed in the mysteries of divine Scripture, is delicate as smoke. Others, however, hold that it is watery in nature, since it is set in the midst of the waters: others say it is composed of the four elements: and lastly, others speak of it as a filth body, distinct from the four elements.

Further, some have thought that the heaven encircles the universe and has the form of a sphere, and that everywhere it is the highest point, and that the centre of the space enclosed by it is the lowest part: and, further, that those bodies that are light and airy are allotted by the Creator the upper region: while those that are heavy and tend to descend occupy the lower region, which is the middle. The element, then, that is lightest and most inclined to soar upwards is fire, and hence they hold that its position is immediately after the heaven, and they call it ether, and after it comes the lower air. But earth and water, which are heavier and have more of a downward tendency, are suspended in the centre. Therefore, taking them in the reverse order, we have in the lowest situation earth and water: but water is lighter than earth, and hence is more easily set in motion: above these on all hands, like a covering; is the circle of air, and all round the air is the circle of ether, and outside air is the circle of the heaven.    (Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Kindle Loc Loc. 767-780)

The thinking of the Church Fathers is that the Scriptures are not so concerned with what we today would call science.  The Scriptures can be read literally, but that is not their main purpose.  They are opening heaven to us.  They are revealing the divine life to us, and we need to see the Scriptures exactly in that light and having that purpose.   The Scriptures are not revealing the scientific nature of creation but rather are revealing the Creator of the universe to us.  So Symeon Metaphrastes writing in the Makarian Homilies makes this commentary on a text of the Pentateuch:

Moses indicates figuratively that the soul should not be divided in will between good and evil, but should pursue the good alone; and that it must cultivate not the dual fruits of virtue and vice but those of virtue only. For he says: ‘Do not yoke together on your threshing floor animals of a different species, such as ox and ass; but yoke together animals of the same species and so thresh your corn’ (cf. Deut. 22:10). This is to say, do not let virtue and vice work together on the threshing floor of your heart, but let virtue alone work there. Again he says: ‘Do not weave flax into a woolen garment, or wool into a linen garment’ (cf. Deut. 22:11); and: ‘Do not cultivate two kinds of fruit together on the same patch of your land’ (cf. Deut. 22:9). Similarly, you are not to mate an animal of one species with an animal of another species, but to mate like with like. All this is a concealed way of saying that you must not cultivate virtue and vice together in yourself, but you must devote yourself singlemindedly to producing the fruits of virtue; and you must not share your soul with two spirits – the Spirit of God and the spirit of the world – but you must give it solely to the Spirit of God and must reap only the fruits of the Spirit. It is for this reason that the psalmist writes: ‘I have prospered in all Thy commandments; I hate every false way’ (Ps. 119:128).”  (THE PHILOKALIA,  Kindle Loc. 32528-45)

The reading Symeon uses  and his reasoning for reading the text in this particular way is exactly that of St. Paul:

For it is written in the law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it is treading out the grain.” Is it for oxen that God is concerned? Does he not speak entirely for our sake? It was written for our sake, because the plowman should plow in hope and the thresher thresh in hope of a share in the crop.  (1 Corinthians 9:9-10)

The Fathers often saw the Scriptures as refuting the pagan legends of the creation of the world.

Creation dragons
Creation dragons

But their interpretation of the Scriptures also shows us that they were not intending to read the Bible to refute modern science. Modern scientific ideas were not on their radar screens at all.  Their refutation of pagan ideas of creation was to bring all people to the knowledge of the one true Creator of the universe.  We are to read the Scriptures for the same reason today.

Next:  Interpreting the Scripture (II)

Hidden Meanings

In the previous blog, Textual Variations, we saw that there is a parallel between the incarnation of God the Word in Jesus Christ and the idea that the Scriptures are also considered the Word of God.  Just at Jesus’ human body hides His divinity and yet reveals the self-emptying nature of God, so in the written words of the Scriptures is hidden the revelation of God in the letters and words on the pages and yet in them we can encounter God.  For example, Origen in the 3rd Century says of the Scriptures:

“The treasure of divine wisdom is hidden in the baser and rude vessel of words. “  (A Patristic Treasury: Early Church Wisdom for Today, Kindle Loc. 1892-93)

The letters and words written on a page of Scripture use the same alphabet and grammar as any other written document.  The same words that are found in secular or profane writings are also used in the Bible.  It is not the written letters or words themselves which are holy, but rather the written word is made holy by the message conveyed through “the baser and rude vessel of words.”  The holiness is hidden in the text, and revealed to the one who reads the text or hears it proclaimed.  This is the synergy between God and us humans.  It is in our reading of the Scriptures that the meaning becomes manifest.


Thus we see that the incarnation of God’s Word is experienced in many ways in our lives – not only in the holy Scriptures but also including through the sacraments as well as all the life in the Church.  We physically experience divinity in and through the material world of the written text, in the material elements of the sacraments, and in the life of the Church which is the Body of Christ.

The texts of Scriptures are full of hidden meanings – if one delves into the Scripture getting beyond their literal reading, one encounters layers of meaning which speak to us about God’s revealing Himself to us.  We see this thinking already in the New Testament’s reading of the Old Testament in which the obvious literal meaning of a text is superseded by a spiritual reading of the text.

But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign; but no sign shall be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so will the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will arise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.  (Matthew 12:39-41)

The Evangelist Matthew understands Jesus to teach that the very point of the story of Jonah is not so much a history lesson as is it is a prophecy of the death and resurrection of the Messiah. [Which is also why Jonah’s prophecy is read on Holy Saturday in the Orthodox Church.]  Thus we see in prophecy the incarnation of the Word of God is hidden yet also revealed in Christ.  St. Cyril of Alexandria (d. 444AD) writes:

“The word of the holy prophets is always obscure. It is filled with hidden meanings and is in travail with the predictions of divine mysteries. ”  (A Patristic Treasury: Early Church Wisdom for Today, Kindle Loc. Loc. 4960-61)

The early Christians took their cue from the New Testament’s interpretation of the Old Testament to see there are hidden meanings in the most obvious of texts. St Paul proclaims to the Christians at Corinth:

For it is written in the law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it is treading out the grain.” Is it for oxen that God is concerned? Does he not speak entirely for our sake? It was written for our sake, because the plowman should plow in hope and the thresher thresh in hope of a share in the crop. If we have sown spiritual good among you, is it too much if we reap your material benefits?   (1 Corinthians 9:9-11)

Such a Scriptural interpretation of older scriptures led the Patristic authors to conclude that the reading of the Old Testament needs to be done in Christ or the meaning hidden in the text will never be revealed.

“For there are many mysteries hidden in the divine Scriptures, and we do not know God’s meaning in what is said there. ‘Do not be contemptuous of our frankness’, says St Gregory the Theologian, ‘and find fault with our words, when we adroit our ignorance.’ It is stupid and uncouth, declares St Dionysios the Areopagite, to give attention not to the meaning intended but only to the words.’ But he who seeks with holy grief will find. This is a task to be undertaken in fear, for through fear things hidden are revealed to us.”  (St Peter of Damaskos, THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 29489-502)

The Patristic writers realized one could easily misread the Old Testament text if one only literally read the words and didn’t seek the Christological meaning of the text.  Even St. Paul reads the Scripture seeking its hidden meaning:

Tell me, you who desire to be under law, do you not hear the law? For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave and one by a free woman. But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, the son of the free woman through promise. Now this is an allegory: these women are two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar. Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia; she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children.     (Galatians 4:21-25)

So St Peter of Damaskos says:

“Let him who understands take note. For the Logos wishes to transmit things to us in a way that is neither too clear nor too obscure, but is in our best interests. St John Chrysostom says that it is a great blessing from God that some parts of the Scriptures are clear while others are not. By means of the first we acquire faith and ardor and do not fall into disbelief and laziness because of our utter inability to grasp what is said. By means of the second we are roused to enquiry and effort, thus both strengthening our understanding and learning humility from the fact that everything is not intelligible to us. Hence, if we take stock of the gifts conferred on us, we will reap humility and longing for God from both what we understand and what we do not.”  (THE PHILOKALIA,  Kindle Loc. 31210-16)

Some of the texts in Scripture are easy to understand – they are written to help bring us to faith in God and love for the Creator.  Other texts are hard to understand, and intentionally so to make us stop and read and reread a text in order to reflect on it to see its real meaning.

But there are some things about God which remain a mystery for us – things which are too great and too marvelous for us.

If, therefore, even with respect to creation, there are some things [the knowledge of] Which belongs only to God, and others which come within the range of our own knowledge, what ground is there for complaint, if, in regard to those things which we investigate in the Scriptures (which are throughout spiritual), we are able by the grace of God to explain some of them, while we must leave others in the hands of God, and that not only in the present world, but also in that which is to come, so that God should forever teach, and man should for ever learn the things taught him by God?  . . .  If, for instance, any one asks, “What was God doing before He made the world?” we reply that the answer to such a question lies with God Himself. For that this world was formed perfect by God, receiving a beginning in time, the Scriptures teach us; but no Scripture reveals to us what God was employed about before this event. The answer therefore to that question remains with God, and it is not proper for us to aim at bringing forward foolish, rash, and blasphemous suppositions [in reply to it]; so, as by one’s imagining that he has discovered the origin of matter, he should in reality set aside God Himself who made all things.    (St. Irenaeus of LyonsAgainst Heresies and Fragments, Kindle Loc. 3153-57, 3164-69)

Additionally, while the Scriptural texts themselves can be clear in their meaning, or might contain a hidden meaning, the spiritual life of the reader of the text also affects what the person will be able to understand from the text.  The 11th Century monk Nikitas Stithatos points out:

The reading of the Scriptures means one thing for those who have but recently embraced the life of holiness, another for those who have attained the middle state, and another for those who are moving rapidly towards perfection. For the first, the Scriptures are bread from God’s table, strengthening their hearts (cf. Ps. 104:15) in the holy struggle for virtue and filling them with forcefulness, power and courage in their battle against the spirits that activate the passions, so that they can say, ‘For me Thou hast prepared a table with food against my enemies’ (Ps. 23:5). For the second, the Scriptures are wine from God’s chalice, gladdening their hearts (cf. Ps. 104:15) and transforming them through the power of the inner meaning, so that their intellect is raised above the letter that kills and led searchingly into the depths of the Spirit (cf. 2 Cor. 3:6; 1 Cor. 2:10), In this way they are enabled to discover and give birth to the inner meaning, so that fittingly they can exclaim, ‘Thy chalice makes me drunk as the strongest wine’ (Ps. 23:5. LXX). Finally, for those approaching perfection the Scriptures are the oil of the Holy Spirit (cf. Ps. 104:15), anointing the soul, making it gentle and humble through the excess of the divine illumination they bestow, and raising it wholly above the lowliness of the body, so that in its glory it may cry, ‘Thou hast anointed my head with oil’ (Ps. 23:5) and ‘Thy mercy shall follow me all the days of my life‘ (Ps. 23:6).    (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle 38302-38331)

Thus it is not only the text which has meaning – the reader interacts with the text and then based upon the reader’s own spiritual maturity is able to draw meaning from the text.  People who have progressed further in the faith might also receive greater enlightenment from any one text.  So St Peter of Damaskos notes:

This is especially true of the person who has made some progress in the practice of the moral virtues, for this teaches the intellect many things related to its association with the passions. Nevertheless, he does not know all the mysteries hidden by God in each verse of Scripture, but only as much as the purity of his intellect is able to comprehend through God’s grace. This is clear from the fact that we often understand a certain passage in the course of our contemplation, grasping one or two of the senses in which it was written; then after a while our intellect may increase in purity and be allowed to perceive other meanings, superior to the first. As a result, in bewilderment and wonder at God’s grace and His ineffable wisdom, we are overcome with awe before ‘the God of knowledge’, as the prophetess Hannah calls Him (cf. 1 Sam. 2:3).”   (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 31791-801)

Any text of Scripture has meaning, but not all meanings are accessible by any one reader.  God gives to each reader as they are capable of understanding.  Thus our spiritual growth and progress shapes what we are capable of learning from the scriptural text.  Scriptures are the living Word of God and do interact with the reader.  The synergy between the reader and the text opens meanings to the reader, each given the meaning according to their ability just as each person in the parable received the talent from the Master  (Matthew 25:15).

Next:   Interpreting the Scripture (I)

Textual Variations

Previous Blog in the series:  Scriptures: The Written Word of God

As we consider the relationship between Jesus, the Word of God, and the Holy Scriptures, we recognize that Jesus is said to be both perfect God and perfect human.  The written Scriptures are also said to be inerrant, and yet it is well known that in the long history of the transmission of the Scriptures scribal errors and variations did enter into the text.  Modern scholars often point out these variations, but they were also well known in the ancient Patristic world.

Modern scholars sometimes try to recreate what they think might be the best or oldest version of the manuscripts making up the books of the Bible.  However, to be real, we can never recreate some perfect biblical manuscript, because no such one manuscript containing all the biblical texts ever existed.  There were always a number of manuscripts and variations in the texts existed from the earliest days of the transmission of texts.   Some non-believers use these variations to show that a literal reading of the Bible can’t be done.  This especially worries those who hold to a completely literalist reading of the text.  Atheists often take advantage of this to try to lead people to lose faith since the texts aren’t perfect.   But in Christian traditions which are not slaves to a literal reading of the text, the variations in the texts can create new insights into the reading of Scripture as well as help us appreciate the depths of God’s written revelation.  Since it is God’s revelation which is true and inerrant, errors in the written text used to communicate the revelation are not seen as invalidating the unchanging truth of God.  Even though the ancients valued and interpreted every tiny dot and letter in the manuscripts, they were amazingly calm about variations they knew existed.  They had a greater faith in God than in the inerrancy of the manuscripts.

We can look at 3 instances of early church Fathers considering variations in the Scriptural texts which were well known in their day.  First, St. Irenaeus of Lyons (d. 202AD),  writing in the 2nd Century notes that there is a known variation in text of Revelation 13:18 in which some report the number 666 but other texts say the number is 616.  St Irenaeus says:

Such, then, being the state of the case, and this number being found in all the most approved and ancient copies [of the Apocalypse], and those men who saw John face to face bearing their testimony [to it]; while reason also leads us to conclude that the number of the name of the beast, [if reckoned] according to the Greek mode of calculation by the [value of] the letters contained in it, will amount to six hundred and sixty and six; that is, the number of tens shall be equal to that of the hundreds, and the number of hundreds equal to that of the units (for that number which [expresses] the digit six being adhered to throughout, indicates the recapitulations of that apostasy, taken in its full extent, which occurred at the beginning, during the intermediate periods, and which shall take place at the end),–I do not know how it is that some have erred following the ordinary mode of speech, and have vitiated the middle number in the name, deducting the amount of fifty from it, so that instead of six decads they will have it that there is but one. [I am inclined to think that this occurred through the fault of the copyists, as is wont to happen, since numbers also are expressed by letters; so that the Greek letter which expresses the number sixty was easily expanded into the letter Iota of the Greeks.] Others then received this reading without examination; some in their simplicity, and upon their own responsibility, making use of this number expressing one decad; while some, in their inexperience, have ventured to seek out a name which should contain the erroneous and spurious number. Now, as regards those who have done this in simplicity, and without evil intent, we are at liberty to assume that pardon will be granted them by God.     (Against Heresies and Fragments, Kindle Loc. 8557-69)

Irenaeus believes the number 666 is the correct reading and he assumes the number 616 occurs in some manuscripts due to a scribal error which he notes frequently happens.  Amazingly he doesn’t panic over the variation and even thinks God will pardon those who did this accidentally.  For Irenaeus the text does not become meaningless by this error, nor does it mean the text is no longer Scripture.  He understands the letters, numbers, words and sentences of the Scriptures are the human element through which God’s truth and revelation are preserved and brought through the generations (Tradition!).  The letters are subject to human error, but the meaning and purpose of God’s revelation is not altered by these human mistakes.

The second instance is found in the writings of St. John Cassian (d. 435AD) who is commenting on Matthew 5:22.   Cassian shows an awareness that there are variations in manuscripts, and like any modern biblical scholar he also thinks some manuscripts are “better”, more reliable in preserving the original message,  than others.  Cassian believes that the less reliable manuscripts have added “without cause” to the original text, so the changed manuscript reads “who is angry without cause.”  Cassian thinks this addition was made to soften Christ’s teachings.  Cassian believes we are not to be angry with our Christian brothers and sisters.   He thinks some found this so difficult to live by, that they changed the manuscripts to say only if the anger is without cause is it wrong, but if we are provoked by the other than the anger is justified.  Cassian thinks Christ taught the much harder truth that anger is sin no matter what the cause of the anger.  Anger against a fellow Christian can’t be justified in this thinking.  So Cassian writes:

The Lord Himself teaches us to put aside all anger when He says: ‘Whoever is angry with his brother shall be in danger of judgment’ (Matt. 5:22). This is the text of the best manuscripts; for it is clear from the purpose of Scripture in this context that the words ‘without a cause’ were added later. The Lord’s intention is that we should remove the root of anger, its spark, so to speak, in whatever way we can, and not keep even a single pretext for anger in our hearts. Otherwise we will be stirred to anger initially for what appears to be a good reason and then find that our incensive power is totally out of control. The final cure for this sickness is to realize that we must not become angry for any reason whatsoever, whether just or unjust. When the demon of anger has darkened our mind, we are left with neither the light of discrimination, nor the assurance of true judgment, nor the guidance of righteousness, and our soul cannot become the temple of the Holy Spirit.”   (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle  Loc. 2171-86)

Cassian thinks the original teaching of Christ is really shocking and intentionally so.  Can humans living in community really exist without getting angry with one another?  Can we really learn to live so at peace with other Christians, that we ignore their faults, foibles and sins?  Cassian thinks some tried to make the teaching of Christ more manageable and doable by softening it and making it less demanding.  He thinks we need to stick with Christ’s words and intentions rather than with our ideas about what is possible.

The 3rd instance of textual variation comes up on the writings of St. Augustine of Hippo (d. 430AD) who was a contemporary of St. John Cassian.  Augustine is well aware that the Greek Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Scriptures sometimes differed significantly from the known Hebrew and Aramaic texts.  Yet both were considered inspired, sacred Scriptures.   He considers what sense we are to make of these variations and how we might know which is the correct reading of the Scriptures.  Augustine offers this explanation:

“The Septuagint translators, being themselves under the guidance of the Holy Spirit in their translation, seem to have altered some passages [in the Hebrew text] with the view of directing the reader’s attention more particularly to the investigation of the spiritual sense. ”  (A Patristic Treasury: Early Church Wisdom for Today, Kindle Loc. 55780-82)

Augustine believes the Jewish Septuagint translators in rendering the Hebrew texts into Greek were in fact as inspired as the original authors of the texts.  He believes the same Holy Spirit was at work in the authors as in the translators.  This same inspiration led the translators to try to draw out of the texts the more spiritual rather than literal meaning of the words.  So they were not merely translating, they were interpreting/clarifying the texts under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.  God was continuing to act in and through the Scriptures which are His living Word, not dead letters carved in stone (2 Corinthians 3:6-7).  Augustine continues:

“Since we find nothing else in the Scriptures than what the Spirit of God has spoken through men, if anything is in the Hebrew copies [of the Old Testament] and is not in the version of the Seventy [the Septuagint], the Spirit of God did not choose to say it through them [the seventy translators], but only through the prophets. But whatever is in the Septuagint and not in the Hebrew copies, the same Spirit chose rather to say through the latter, thus showing that both were prophets. . . . As the one Spirit of peace was in the former when they spoke true and concordant words, so the selfsame one Spirit has appeared in the latter, when, without mutual conference, they still interpreted everything as if they had only one mouth.”  (St. Augustine,  A Patristic Treasury: Early Church Wisdom for Today, Kindle Loc. 5886-91)

Augustine argues that the Jewish translators were in fact inspired prophets of God.   God chose to render some things only in and through the Hebrew texts and this is what the original prophets proclaimed.  But God who continues to act through history also inspired those charged with preserving and translating the texts.  So God added or changed the message when the Septuagint translators were at work because both the times had changed and so had the people who needed to hear the message anew.  Thus even though God’s eternal Word is rendered in print, the written word does not limit or fix the possible meanings of the text nor its power in new generations of believers.


This idea will be the same truth that is understood in the incarnation of Word of God in Christ.  Though Jesus is fully human, this does not in any way limit or contradict that He is fully God as well.  The incarnate Jesus does not change or limit the eternal Word of God.  God Himself chooses to place the limits of space and time on His divine powers in the incarnation.  But this does not shackle divinity.  It is a great mystery which is made obvious when the inspired and sacred Scriptures are translated into a new language.  God continues to direct His revelation to the world in the living and active Word, which is not limited by the physical means used to convey the spiritual message.   The power of God’s living Word was never limited to or by the stones on which it was carved.

“For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”   (Hebrews 4:12)

“You have been born anew, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God; for “All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord abides for ever.” That word is the good news which was preached to you.”    (1 Peter 1:23-25)

Next:  Hidden Meanings in the Text

Scriptures: The Written Word of God

Previous Blog: Jesus Christ, The Word of God and Scriptures

The first Christians did not need to write any Scriptures, they accepted as inspired and as their own, the Tanak, the Jewish Scriptures.  Those are the texts that the Lord Jesus and His apostles read, memorized discussed and prayed.  These Scriptures as we saw in the previous blog bore witness to Jesus as Messiah and Lord (John 5:39-46; Luke 24:10-49).  And from the beginning, the Christians believed Christ fulfilled all of the prophecies and promises of the Jewish Scriptures.  The New Testament is filled with quotes from the Old Testament as well as countless echoes of the ideas and themes presented in them.

The Christians, however, besides reading the Jewish Scriptures, were writing materials, and by the early 2nd Century, Christians are already also referring to these early writings as Scripture.  As far as we know, in the Christian epistle known as 2 Clement we encounter

“… the first Christian writer to apply the term ‘Scripture’ to a quotation from the Gospel: ‘And also another Scripture (graphê) says, “I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners” ’ (2 Clem. 2.4 citing Mt. 9:13; Mk 2:17), thereby assigning biblical status to the words of Jesus and granting them the same dignity and authority as the Old Testament. The same idea is implicit in the phrase: ‘The Bible and the Apostles indicate …’ (2 Clem. 14.2), where ‘Bible’ refers to the Septuagint and ‘the Apostles’ to the New Testament.”   (Geza Vermes,  Christian Beginnings, Kindle Loc. 2974-80)

Not only were the Christians beginning to recognize as authoritative Scripture the apostolic writings, they also were interpreting the existing Jewish Scriptures increasingly from a Christian point of view.  The Christians began to claim to have the correct understanding of the Jewish Scriptures – the Scriptures were written about the Christ, and properly interpreted in Christ.  For the followers of Jesus the curse of Amos 8:11-12 was finally lifted, for once again the People of God were able to hear the Word of God in Christ Jesus.

“‘Behold, the days are coming,’ says the Lord GOD, ‘when I will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the LORD. They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they shall run to and fro, to seek the word of the LORD, but they shall not find it.”  

The Jewish Scriptures were seen as having Christ hidden in them, but now Christ Himself fully revealed the meaning of the Scriptures.  Everyone was able to hear God’s Word again.  Even texts which were totally understandable from a Jewish “literal” reading, were seen to really have Christ hidden in them and now revealed by Jesus as to their true content.  Origen, writing at the beginning of the 3rd Century, commenting on the words of St. Paul says:

“For whatever was written was written for our instruction. This is like what he said elsewhere: they were written down to instruct us, on whom the ends of the ages have come (1 Cor 10:11). If you inquire in what sense these Scriptures were written, consider that they were written this way for us:

You shall not muzzle an ox when it is treading out the grain. Is it for oxen that God is concerned? Or does God not speak entirely for our sake?  (1 Cor 9:9-10; Deut 25:4).

This was also written for our sake:

Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and the other by a free woman (Gal 4:22);

thus we would know that these statements are allegorical and that they represent the two covenants. For our sake, it was written that the people ate manna in the wilderness and drank water from the rock; thus we would understand that they ate spiritual food and drank spiritual drink from the rock following them, which rock was Christ. Both these and other such spiritual mysteries had been hidden from eternal times but are now manifest through the prophetic writings and the coming of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”   (Romans: Interpreted by Early Christian Commentators, Kindle Location 7145-52)


Sacred writings are given to us by God as a gift and means for us to discover Him and to know Him.  In them spiritual mysteries are hidden, simultaneously, God is revealing Himself through the events written about and in the words of the Bible. St. Augustine writes:

And so, since we are too weak to discover the truth by reason alone and for this reason need the authority of sacred books, I began to believe that you would never have invested the Bible with such conspicuous authority in every land unless you had intended it to be the means by which we should look for You and believe in You. ”  (A Patristic Treasury: Early Church Wisdom for Today, Kindle Loc. 5753-55)

Thus the Scriptures are a help to us, given by God to direct our search and to help us recognize truth.  We don’t have to guess where to find truth, God tells us where and how to find it.  St Peter Damaskos says:

“Similarly he sees how by means of words and letters-through fragments of inanimate ink-God has revealed such great mysteries to us in the Holy Scriptures; and how, even more wonderfully, the holy prophets and apostles gained such blessings through their great labor and love of God, while we can learn about these matters simply by reading. For, inspired by the Logos, the Scriptures speak to us of the most astonishing things.”  (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 27638-42)

God cares about us, and God understands that we humans cannot always understand divine revelation or even the spiritual life.  So God finds ways to communicate to us using such things as metaphors, images, poetry and even fictional stories like parables.  This is done to help us deal with things that might otherwise be too great and marvelous for us.  St. Maximus the Confessor puts it like this:

“The Logos of God is called flesh not only inasmuch as He became incarnate, but in another sense as well.… When he draws near to men who cannot with the naked intellect come into contact with intelligible realities in the naked state, He selects things which are familiar to them, combining together various stories, symbols, parables and dark sayings; and in this way he becomes flesh. Thus at our first encounter our intellect comes into contact not with the naked Logos but with the incarnate Logos, that is, with various sayings and stories.… For the Logos becomes flesh in each of the recorded sayings.”   (Toward an Ecology of Transfiguration: Orthodox Christian Perspectives on Environment, Nature, and Creation, Kindle  1524-29)

The Scriptures in this way help introduce Christ to us.  They are in some way a pre-incarnation of the Word of God.  They are written in familiar terms, stories, and using symbols which gently introduce us to the Divine Word of God.  God of course remains beyond our comprehension and yet reveals Himself to us in historical events as well as in the sentences and letters of the Holy Scriptures.

St. Maximos presents it this way:

“Just as God in His essence cannot be the object of man’s spiritual knowledge, so not even His teaching can be fully embraced by our understanding. For though Holy Scripture, being restricted chronologically to the times of the events which it records, is limited where the letter is concerned, yet in spirit it always remains unlimited as regards the contemplation of intelligible realities.”   (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 17499-504)

The Scriptures, a written word, are understandable to us.  The Scriptures are miraculous in that in these words and sentences are hidden the deepest mysteries of God.  Yet these same letters and paragraphs reveal God to us.  The Scriptures thus contain writings that are restricted in time, reflecting the human thought of particular periods in history, yet always also containing the timeless revelation of the eternal God.  So we are encouraged to read the Bible for in and through the literal expressions and stories, the heavens are opened to us.  We are transfigured and transformed by the Scriptures as we move from their earthly and literal nature to their divine meaning.  Thus the Scriptures are essential to our life as Christians.

So among the revered desert fathers, we find these teachings:

“God demands nothing from Christians except that they shall hearken unto the Divine Scriptures, and shall carry into effect the things which are said in them, and shall be obedient unto their governors and the orthodox fathers.”  (The Paradise or Garden of the Holy Fathers (Volume 2), Kindle Loc. 3884-86)

Abba Arsenius used to say, “thou shalt do nothing without the testimony of the Scriptures.”   (The Paradise or Garden of the Holy Fathers (Volume 2), Kindle Loc. 3523-24)

St Symeon the New Theologian says that we need to compare what we learn today in the church and what we see in the lives of our teachers with the Scriptures.

“But you yourself should also study the divine writings – especially the works of the fathers that deal with the practice of the virtues – so that you can compare the teachings of your master with them; for thus you will see and observe them as in a mirror. Take to heart and keep in mind those of his teachings that agree with the divine writings, but separate out and reject those that are false and incongruent. Otherwise you will be led astray. For in these days there are all too many deceivers and false prophets.”   (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 35213-22)

Finally we read an admonition to live the Scriptures and not just stand in awe of them, or else they will be forgotten.

One of the old men used to say, “The Prophets compiled the Scriptures, and the Fathers have copied them, and the men who came after them learned to repeat them by heart; then hath come this generation and [its children] have placed them in cupboards as useless things.”   (The Paradise or Garden of the Holy Fathers (Volume 2), Kindle Loc. 972-74)

Next:  Textual Variations

Blessing Water: A Passage into the Kingdom

Philip found Nathanael, and said to him, “We have found him of whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”  (John 1:45)

Jesus and Moses

Then Jesus said to them, “These are my words which I spoke to you, while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures   (Luke 24:44-45)

And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself. (Luke 24:27)

One of the clear claims of the Gospels is that Moses in composing the Torah was writing about Jesus the Christ.  Whatever insight Moses was given prophetically about the Messiah, no matter how little he might have understood it, he was preparing the people of God to recognize the Messiah when He appeared on earth.

Jesus said: “If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote of me.”  (John 5:46)

The notion that the Old Testament, the Jewish Scriptures, are really a foreshadowing  of the reality of the Messiah, is well established in the New Testament as well as in the Patristic writers through the centuries.  That one could search the Old Testament to find evidence that Jesus is the Christ, was how  early Christians tried to convince their fellow Jews to believe in Jesus.

These were more fair-minded than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so.   (Acts 17:11)

The early Christians saw throughout the words of the Scriptures and in the divine actions recorded there glimpses of the Christ.  Nearly every action in the life of Christ was seen as foreshadowed in an event written about in the Old Testament.  Thus the baptism of Christ described by all 4 evangelists (Mark 1:9-11; Matthew 3:13-17; Luke 3:21-22; John 1:29-34) was understood to be foreshadowed in events of the Old Testament involving water.  So Roman Catholic scholar Jean Danielou writes about the notion of typology and how events of the Old Testament foreshadowed, or were types of the baptism of Christ:

“In all three cases a Divine judgement must strike a sinful world, sinners at the time of the Flood, Egyptians at the Exodus and the inhabitants of Jericho: in all three cases only those who have passed through water and are assembled in a dwelling-place will escape the judgement: in all three cases a man is selected by God to be the instrument of salvation. The three essential components of typology, the sacramental, the eschatological, the Christological are here united. They prefigure that salvation which will be finally secured when sinful humanity, secure in the ark of the Church under the leadership of Jesus Christ, will escape the coming judgement.” (From Shadows to Reality, p 286)

Every major event in the life of Christ was done for our salvation.  We better understand how these events in Christ’s life (many which are celebrated as Feast days in the Orthodox Church) are saving for us, when we fully understand the events in the Old Testament that foreshadowed them.  Noah’s ark at the time of the flood, the Israelite crossing the Red Sea during the Exodus, and the Israelite crossing of Jordan before taking the city of Jericho are all clear stories about God’s saving actions with His people.  Whatever truth they tell us about history, their real significance is comprehended only in how they reveal Christ’s life to us.  Jesus is the person in whom our salvation is accomplished.  This is how Moses and the prophets and the Psalms were written about Jesus.