Trinity College

Orthodox Understanding of the Old Testament, and Contemporary Orthodox Exegesis

Course Code: 
Last Offered: 
Fall 2019
Next Offered: 
Winter/Spring 2022

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


The assemblage of the diverse writings of the Jewish people into a coherent body of inspired sacred Scripture was a work of the complex Jewish society in the Levantine basin from about 300 BCE to the time of the Masoretic editors about 200 AD and later. These writings – stemming from a widely diverse span of times and cultures – were forged into a single “Jewish Bible” that was recognized as the sacred revelation of God – “the Scriptures”: Matthew 21:42 and 21 other NT texts; Wisdom of Sirach Prol.1:1 -- by both Jews and Christians. But despite this common root in God’s sacred Word, Christians and Jews of the first centuries of the Christian era came to very different understandings of the Divine message, and the two groups split – very early in the history of Christianity -- into mutually opposing camps. This course explores these diverse readings of the Old Testament Scriptures in order to understand this 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 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 its Greek versions; we will pay a lot of attention to the creation of the so-called “Apocryphal” or Greek-language books of the Jewish Scriptures, and to the Mediterranean Jewish cultural environment which included them in the Bible; this rich complex culture was the nexus within which the final form of the Old Testament was forged. In this Jewish milieu, itself struggling at the time to forge an authoritative collection of “the 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 of Jesus as Christ (kerygma) [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 gospel – depend 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 schismatic events of the 2nd century CE were to demonstrate dramatically).

Thus 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.

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 Hextateuch), 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-language books. We will, however, 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 – 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?

Pedagogical Goals

The aim of this course is to introduce beginning students to selected texts of the Old Testament, of intertestamental Judaism, and to the early Christian reception and understanding of such texts, together with the critical tools and methodological ideas which make an exegesis possible; as well, there are some beginning readings of contemporary Orthodox critique and struggle with these tools and ideas. For such reading there will need to be some encounter with modern “historico-critical” methodologies for Old Testament study which have become dominant in Western theological studies, and which have raised many issues of meaning which faithful Orthodox find puzzling (and often disturbing).

In the first instance, it is the purpose of good exegesis NOT to get bogged down in critical issues but rather to find out “what the text is saying.” Our first goal is to learn how to read, not to make a survey of themes or ideas or events, or a study of Israelite history. The syllabus is, therefore, oriented toward helping students become close and careful Christian readers of Scripture texts through familiarity with critical skills. From this basis – and, as “thinking Orthodox,” only from such a basis – can we pass on to the fundamental theological issue: what is the central Scriptural word about Jesus Christ, the Word through whom the church is a living body, not a mere institution.

By the end of the course, students will still be “beginners,” but will have acquired methods and facts for carrying on in study and attention for a lifetime.