Trinity College

Orthodox Understanding of the Old Testament, and Contemporary Orthodox Exegesis

Course Code: 
Last Offered: 
Winter/Spring 2022
Next Offered: 
Winter/Spring 2024

The Old Testament as Scripture in the early Christian Centuries and Orthodox issues of Hermeneutics and Exegesis of the Bible in the 21st Century


Rivalry and bitter doctrinal opposition between early Christians and Jews are well documented in many sources, including in the New Testament (Matt 22:34-23:36, Acts 15:1, etc) and very early Christian and Jewish polemical texts (Justin Martyr Dialogue with Trypho, the prayer Birkat haMinim [“curse on the heretics”], and others). The harsh vocabulary reveals this: Jews call the Christians “minim” (breakaway schismatics, heretics) while Christians call the Jews “hypocrites” (Matthew, Mark Luke, passim). Given this fact, in the later 2nd and 3rd centuries when both the rabbis and the Christian leaders were making the decisions which established both Jewish and Christian canons – i.e., definitive collections of which books would be recognized as the divinely inspired texts showing God’s revelation – it is not surprising that the Jewish canon excluded every text not in Hebrew, but very surprising that the Christian leadership insisted on including every book that contemporary Jewish mainstream faith regarded as holy, even including some in Greek, not in Hebrew, and condemning Jewish-book-denying as “heresy” (Marcionism); Early Christians spoke of their single collection combining Jewish books and Christian literature not as two parts – Old and New Testaments – but rather gave the Jewish writings a kind of priority of revelation by calling them “the Scriptures”: Matthew 21:42. 22:29//Mark 12:24 and 19 other NT texts and calling the entire compendium simply “Bible” [“THE book”]. “Gospel” referred not to a certain book but to the fundamental message of Christian preaching (the kerygma - :”announcement”) [Romans 1:1-4 et passim], The Jews came to call their sacred book Tanakh, an acronym of the first Hebrew letter of each of the Hebrew Text's three traditional subdivisions: Torah ("Teaching", also known as the Five Books of Moses, or Pentateuch), Nevi'im ("Prophets") and Ketuvim ("Writings")—hence TaNaKh. (The name "Mikra" (מקרא) meaning "that which is read" is another Hebrew word for the Tanakh).

 Given the Christian hostility described above to Jewish doctrines – or more precisely to Jewish rejection of Christian Messianic theology as a reading of what was said in “The Scriptures” and to Jewish adherence to the legalistic doctrines of Torah as promoted by the rabbis --  Early Christian insistence that the Jewish books must be a significant portion of the Holy Bible is at first glance hard to understand: what was (and still is) the basis for this dogma, and more importantly, how could this be useful and understood as providing the inspired truth of Christian theology? Why is Marcionism heretical?  Is God the Creator and Protector put before us for belief and faith in Jewish writings to be recognized as the Father of Jesus Christ with a plan for all the ages (Ephesians 3:9)? Christians and Jews of the first centuries of the Christian era came to very different understandings of the Divine message. This course explores these diverse readings, and diverse methods to interpreting, of the Old Testament Scriptures in order to understand the historical trajectory, which has led Christians to the unique Christological theology which makes the Jewish Bible an integral, indispensable portion of “The Scriptures.” In fact, for the most part the NT Gospels, Acts, and the letters of Paul are created as interpretative readings of “the Scriptures.”

The term used here is “Jewish Bible” rather than the more modern “Hebrew Bible,” because to understand the emergence of the Christian vision, it is necessary to study the Bible as the early Christians read it, i.e., in Greek; we will pay a lot of attention to the Septuagint or Greek-language version of the Jewish Scriptures, the Christian Word was first heard, and to this Jewish milieu the Christian Word first spoke [Matt 4:23, Mark 1:21-2, Acts 9:20, etc.]. Indeed, the very first preaching (kerygma) of Jesus as Christ [Acts 2:14-39] is a statement about what the Scriptures actually were saying all along, and Jesus’ teaching is constantly about what the Scriptures mean to say [Mark 12:24 etc.]. Paul’s preaching of Jesus – written years before there was a formal written gospel – depends utterly on the continuing relevance of the Jewish Scriptures [Romans 1:1-4, 1 Cor 15:3-4, etc.]. Without the Jewish Scriptures, there would be no Christianity (as Marcionite schismatic events of the 2nd century CE were to demonstrate dramatically). It is noteworthy that the Byzantine chronicler John Malalas of Antioch (c. 491 – 578) distinguished “Jewish Scriptures” (ἐν ταῖς Ἑβραἵκαῖς γραφαῖς = OT) from “divine/sacred Scriptures” (ἐν ταῖς θείας γραφαῖς = NT) in his Chronographia.

But to make clear this Christian dependence on Jewish Scripture while explaining thww competing interpretations our study must be a double-barrelled one. On the one hand, we need to grasp the variety of Jewish “readings” of the Word of God found in such writings as the later prophets, later Psalms and Wisdom Books, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the “Apocrypha”, rabbinic exegesis of the Law, the Jewish liturgies, and so on; this must be done by reading the texts themselves, not post-hoc Christian statements about what Jewish theology says. On the other hand, we need a thorough examination of the Christian reception and understanding and apologetic use of the Old Testament Scripture – including the concept of “Old” – by studying closely the function of the Old Testament references in writings from the New Testament and the Apostolic Fathers on into the Patristic era, and also in early liturgical usage (especially Melito of Sardis and Andrew of Crete). Of particular importance will be analysis of citations of Jewish Scripture in New Testament writings, followed by reading in early Patristic exegesis of the “Old Testament”.

Of course, none of this study will be possible without some direct knowledge on the part of students of the Hebrew writings which were – over long time – brought together to constitute the Tanakh; the course will give students some familiarity with the contents and words of many sections of the Old Testament and will contextualize each separate book in regard to its origins. However, Israelite history and culture as such will not be our primary goal; instead, our task is to understand how Orthodox Christianity originates as – and is inseparable from – a theological vision of the true meaning of the Old Testament. Because of this, we will not attempt to study the entire Old Testament, but will concentrate on those portions which have received the core attention of Christians both in the New Testament itself, in patristic exegesis, and in liturgy: the “five books of Moses” plus Joshua (the so-called Hexateuch), Kings David and Solomon and the prophets of the historical books, the Psalter and “Wisdom texts” e.g. Proverbs and Job, the 16 prophetic books, and the late Greek-original-language books. We will especially discuss the “canon question,” i.e. the various assemblages of texts given status as “Scripture” during the centuries of “Bible” formation by both Christians and Jews.


While gaining familiarity with the Old Testament texts themselves, we must at the same time evaluate what Orthodoxy is to say in response to modern emphasis on “historical-critical” methodologies for Old Testament reading. This will lead to a serious evaluation of the core Orthodox exegetical notion of theoria, i.e., eschatological-theological reading of all Scripture as being a word about Jesus Christ; how can this approach – which is absolutely key to Orthodox understanding of God’s revelation and purpose – be correlated in any way with modern schools of thought? Do the two methodologies in fact offer the possibility of dialogue, with critical analysis offering help to theology, and theology giving a direction to Biblical criticism? Eastern Christian readers have until very recently ignored these key critical-methodological developments, but modern Orthodox find that they can do so no longer; there must be a dialogue of encounter by the Orthodox with major issues of critical methodology, and in our course we will have to raise this question, asking both what Orthodox faith ought to learn from modern exegesis and also what critique or correction a solidly-based Orthodox critical reading of the New Testament might offer in response to some of the extravagances of recent Western critical interpretation. What tools of critique can we offer modern Orthodox Biblical scholars who have tried – in the face of conservative opposition – to maintain that there can be, indeed must be, a responsible Orthodox methodology of Bible study?

Intellectual goal of the course III. IS ACADEMIC UNDERSTANDING RELEVANT?

How will the academic questions described above affect our ability to live as Christians; is hermeneutic reading of the “Old Testament” relevant for the faith and practice of the church? Does knowledge of the critical and methodological issues enhance our understanding; is it necessary? Does Orthodox exegesis of Scripture have a place in the ecumenical dialogue? And as a missiological question, are Orthodoxy and Judaism in fact speaking the same Biblical language?