Last week’s Old Testament theology class was led into a deep conversation by some of the week’s readings. The conversation revolved around how Old Testament theology is primarily a Christian endeavor. Jews do not see the project as worthwhile and wonder what Christians are doing. Let me sketch what I mean by Old Testament theology quickly to give an idea of why this became a somewhat heated conversation.

For most of its history Christian theology has read the Old Testament in light of King Jesus. The New Testament writers do this throughout their works, applying texts to King Jesus that were not originally about him but make fuller sense through him. Growing up these faint images we could find of King Jesus in the OT would be called prophesies. While most of them are not actually prophecies about King Jesus, we do see him there somehow. This has been the most normative relationship Christians has had with the Old Testament. For the most part Christians have read King Jesus backwards into the OT.

Starting in the 18th and 19th centuries theologians began using the methods of modern history and science to try and understand the world that the Bible claimed to reveal. These historical-critical methods generated many theories attempting to reveal the development of Israel and her religion. Since then there has a been a strong case made that the Old Testament texts and world should be understood in their own right separate from Christian assumptions.

It is true that the Old Testament did not explicitly lead to King Jesus. There were a number of 2nd Temple Jewish religious groups that did not accept him as the fulfilment of the Old Testament revelation. Therefore, many OT scholars claim that if Christians are to gain the most from what the OT can offer, then it must be understood apart from the Christian leaps to see King Jesus.

While, as an academic studying for a historical degree, I recognize the importance of this project I simply do not think that it is really possible. Here are my quick and most basic reasons:

  1. For Christians, the story of Israel in the OT is only properly understood if King Jesus is seen as the end towards which the story is moving. Paul makes this a key part of his Christian retelling of Israel’s story in Romans 9-11, specifically in Romans 9:3-5. Paul is also convinced that if Jews had properly understood the OT’s teaching they would have recognized that King Jesus was the goal of everything God had revealed (Rom. 9:30-10:4).
  2. Just as Jews do not believe they can interpret the OT properly without their traditional writings of the Talmud and the Mishnah, Christians cannot actually “un-see” King Jesus’ place in the story of Israel precisely because they are Christians who believe King Jesus is central to Israel’s story. The attempt to be more “historically objective” by trying to set aside the centrality of King Jesus when reading the OT as a Christian, scholar or not, does not seem very convincing. With such a mindset a Christian OT scholar forces herself onto a strange continuum; one extreme being the attempted “eradication” of any possible interpretation that might lead to King Jesus on the fears that one’s own Christian faith is destroying “objectivity.” Or, the other extreme, the Christian OT scholar actually believes himself to be truly objective and is simply blind to the fact that they are creating a Christian theology, albeit jumping through hoops to try and convince themselves such themes or ideas are native to the OT and not a backwards reading of the Bible.
  3. I also do not understand the reasoning for wanting to forget King Jesus. I’m not sure who we are trying to prove something to at this point. Jews agree that this way of interpreting the OT does not seem possible. Historiography and communal memory tell us that this claim by scholarship for objectivity is not even a possible endeavor. I do believe that we should try to understand what Israel historically believed about their texts before King Jesus, but there is no point in Christians trying to derive an OT theology out of that. Christian theology, even about the OT, cannot be separate from Christ! In fact, given Paul’s work in Romans 9-11, Galatians 3, and other texts[1] to understand King Jesus’ place in the story of Israel, I think Paul himself would be suspicious of this “objectivity” project.
  4. This point is more speculative, and I would love some input on it, but it seems to me that the idea of objectivity might be a Christian perspective on reality as it is. I offer that this perception of reality as objectively able to be affected separate from “us” is rooted in the resurrection. God, through King Jesus’ resurrection, has begun to restore all things. This restoration is an objective effect that is occurring outside of human subjective perception. Humanity only knows of this purification of all things through the revelation given in the person of King Jesus in his resurrection and ascension. So, all historical and scientific concepts of a reality out there that we are desperately trying to understand would then be rooted in a Christian preconception that there is an objective reality that “we” are interacting with as revealed in the resurrection and ascension. In the end, then, the OT project to understand the objective meaning of the OT texts is just a Christian conceptual adventure from the start. At least this is along the lines I’m thinking. Let me know of any books or thoughts along this line that could correct or help here.

[1] The ones that jump to my mind are Eph 2:11-22 and 1 Cor 10: 1-5.

Posted by Justin Gill

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