According to the Scriptures (in Their Entirety)

farkasfalvyFarkasfalvy’s goal in this chapter is to expound the relationship between Christianity and the Jewish Scriptures. The formula given is a paraphrase of 1 Corinthians 15:3–4: “All that has been written has been written for us.” By “All that has been written,” Farkasfalvy means Paul means the entirety of the Jewish Scriptures; by “us,” he means the Christian Church.

What Farkasfalvy offers is a description of what the early Christians and New Testament writers believed to be the status of the Old Testament in light of the life and teachings of Jesus Christ, and its canonical relation to the New Testament. Moreover, he offers this candidly as the present and official view of the Church. However, Farkasfalvy imagines nothing in this opening chapter would face much disagreement across denominations, and I agree. The reader, then, can expect a presentation of the Christian view on the subject, but with no apology.

Anytime the word Scriptures appears in this précis, it refers to the Jewish Scriptures (i.e., the Old Testament). Though these days it typically includes both Testaments, the word in its New Testament usage refers strictly to a body of sacred literature originating among the Jewish people. Our use here will follow suit.

Literally, Paul’s words are “First of all, I have given over to you what has been given over to me, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, was buried and rose from the dead according to the Scriptures.” This passage is significant in many respects. First, it is the oldest extant documentation of belief in the resurrection of Jesus (c. AD 54-57). Second, these phrases “given over to you” and “what has been given over to me” describe the giving and receiving process of a tradition, identifying Paul as but one link in a chain of transmissions which originates in the first apostolic eyewitnesses. Paul thus reveals not merely a pre-creedal consensus among early believers, but that he, Paul, is “giving over” nothing new, nor something he has personally devised, but only what was “given over” to him: by implication, with nothing added or removed. He writes in continuity with a pre-existing apostolic tradition, which he cites as his source. The contents of this tradition are threefold: “Christ died for our sins,” “was buried,” and “rose from the dead.” (We can reasonably assume Paul is not being exhaustive.)

What Paul gives is “according to the Scriptures.” As mentioned earlier, by “Scriptures” he invariably means the Old Testament, but the Old Testament in its entirety, not merely the prophetic texts pertaining directly to Christ as the Messiah—such as Isaiah 53:9 or Hosea 6:2. In the original Greek, Paul’s opening phrase (i.e., “First of all…”) does not use the word “First” in the sense of chronologically prior, but in the sense of most important. Moreover, the opening phrase does not modify only the doctrinal statements on the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, but also their Scriptural attestation. In other words, Christ’s death and that death’s accordance with Scripture are equally “first of all.” For this reason, we should not interpret this passage as though referring exclusively to a handful of verses that seem to have Christ in mind. Nor should we interpret it as though referring to a general but vague Scriptural “anticipation” of Christ (Farkasfalvy prefers the more literal translation “according to,” over the softer translation “in accordance with,” which you will find in some editions). Instead, the Christian Church presupposes “the faith which the people of Israel have put in their sacred writings and regard these writings as the authentic word of God.”[1]

This statement falls in line with the early Christian experience. The very first Christians were Jews. In fact, the Christians did not initially think themselves as separate from the Jewish people. (Though Jesus had severe things to say to the Pharisees, so has the Jewish Talmud.) God’s call was to the Jew first, and the call to the Greek (i.e., the Gentiles) was a matter of dispute for a time. In fact, this dispute would contribute to the ultimate split between church and synagogue (probably AD 85).[2] For at least a period, it was remarkable if a Christian was not a Jew. Henry Chadwick notes: “To the earliest Christian communities, Christ was not the founder or originator of the community of God’s people, but the climax of an already long story of a divine education of humanity through the special illumination given to the prophets of Israel.”[3] Gentiles would convert to Christianity—that is, undergo a process of becoming something new that they weren’t before—but no conversion, as the word was used then, was necessary for Jews. Christian piety existed in continuity with prior Jewish piety.

Practicing what he preached, Paul, the alleged Apostle to the Gentiles, recruited his first followers from among the Jews by preaching in their synagogues. Moreover, it becomes evident after reading through the New Testament that the argument of a Christian preaching to a Jew always begins with a passage from the Jewish Scriptures, for it forms the basis that Christian missionaries prove that Jesus is the Messiah and the Son of God. Mark repeatedly quotes from the books of the Law as well as the Prophets, thereby suggesting the Old Testament in its totality bears on the new covenant of Christ. Paul uses the same method in Romans 3:21.

The Christian mission, as indicated earlier, does not relegate the Scriptures to mere proof text, extant solely (or even primarily) for the purpose of establishing antiquity and credibility for the new religion. The first Christian missionaries presupposed the authority of the Old Testament Scriptures. While they began their witness with Jewish passages and based their arguments upon them, the argument went in the other direction as well. From Luke 24:44–45, the early church fathers received as given that Christ was the key who unlocked the meaning of the Scriptures, which were only fully understandable in Christ. So the earliest extant writings of the Apostles demonstrate that the Church is the fully entitled proprietor of the Scriptures, capable of understanding and announcing their meaning.

So faith in Christ is not only founded upon the Jewish Scriptures, but this faith also introduces a full and authentic understanding which gives rise to new interpretations and exegetical practices. This, however, is not circular reasoning because the former precedes the latter. It is only after Christ’s identity as the Messiah and the Son of the God is confirmed that this new, Christocentric program can begin. The Old Testament sanctions Christ’s identity, and then the prophetic word, as it were, emanates from Him, reflecting back onto the Old Testament, casting it in a new light without altering the text. In the history of salvation, Christ is a late appearance: a climax. Exegetically and biblically, He is the center: the starting point. All subsequent exegetical endeavors begin with Christ, not Genesis. Christianity, far from continuing former practice, began a new, non-linear exegetical program.

Moreover, it was not the Apostles who bequeathed this status to Christ after His Ascension. Christ Himself did not rely solely on His wondrous deeds to accredit His claim that He was the Son of God, but He positioned Himself as the fulfilment of the Scriptures. This is done in Isaiah 61:1–2, a passage Christ holds as the certification of His identity in Luke 4:21.

In Matthew, Jesus is presented as a Legislator, a second Moses continuing the work of the Torah, although on a higher level and with a higher rank than Moses. It was Christ’s repeated formula when teaching to begin with “You have heard it said to those of old…” and then add “…now I tell you…” This formula insinuates that what came before, while holy and authoritative, is incomplete, and His purpose as the Second Moses is to legislate for the purpose of “bringing to completion” or “to a fullness of perfection” the Law and the Prophets (Mat. 5:17). John, in chapter seven, responds to the criticisms of Jesus’ enemies by asserting those who reject Jesus also reject Moses, since to the accept the prophetic text of one is to accept the fulfillment of the other (Jn. 5:45–46).

The New Testament has more narrative than didactic passages, but the text still shows Christ repeatedly referring to the Scriptures and teaching in Jewish synagogues: “His messianic identity is clearly indicated and coutlined by means of scriptural references (Mk. 12:10–11, 36–37), although—in typical Markan style—without directly asserting that Jesus fits anybody’s image of an expected Messiah.”[4] However, there is one item of importance in the triple synoptic tradition. Retold in close parallel renderings in the first three Gospels, the Parable of the Wicked Vinedressers illustrate Christ’s status among the prophets and legislators of the Scriptures:

“The comparison of Israel to a vineyard originally is rooted in Isaiah (5:1–7). In Jesus’ parable, however, the vineyard is only a peripheral theme referring back to the old scriptural comparison. In the center of the story stand the vineyard’s owner and his servants, who are being sent one by one to the vinedressers (or tenant farmers) to pick up the fruits they owe as payment to the owner. The servants symbolize Israel’s prophets being sent in unbroken succession. As they all fail to carry out their mission, the owner finally sends his own son, whom the vinedressers kill. In the parable, Jesus’ coming is presented as the culminating event which concludes a succession of divine missions by which the prophets of the Old Testament have been dispatched in steady but unsuccessful succession.”[5]

That Christ’s mission transcends those who came before because he arrives last is a given. Throughout Scripture, we find greater glory is given to what comes last in a series. Though all the days of creation were good (indeed, very good), it is only the final day, the Sabbath, that is holy. This is so because it represents the completion of God’s creative project: the ends toward which everything else had worked. Similarly, humanity’s late appearance in the order of creation signifies their higher status, as the “crown of creation.” He comes last because a way needed to be prepared for him by what arrived before. The same logic applies to Christ. As the conclusion to a sequence, Christ not only teaches in continuity with the prophets, but He is the end toward which they worked, and His mission transcends theirs.

Finally, what do we mean when we say that Christianity inherited the Jewish Scriptures? This word, inheritance, is typical when describing the transmigration from Judaism to Christianity. However, to reduce the ascension of Christ to a concept of inheritance would be at once to say too much and too little.

On one hand, it says too much because it assumes that Judaism had a closed canon which the Christians simply picked up and stapled to the New Testament. This isn’t to suggest that the Jews had no “idea of a canon,” or did not view certain books authoritatively as inspired by God, but only that it wasn’t until after the First Jewish War (c. AD 90) that Judaism canonized their body of sacred books into the Tanakh. A more accurate description than inheritance is “the Christian Church took over and began to use books which, at a later time, Judaism eventually included in its canon of Scriptures.”[6]

We must remember that the Scriptures were written over many centuries by various authors. Moreover, the books did not always enjoy equal status. The Pharisees believed the books of the prophets shared the same inspired nature as the Torah, and therefore the two existed on equal terms. The Sadducees did not. (Paul would exploit the doctrinal disparity that arose from this in Acts 23.) Even the idea that all of these texts together constituted a single book, rather than a canonical collection of books, would not exist until Origen. In sum, the Christian church did not simply pick up a finalized and ready-made sacred text, but rather made its own decisions about what should or shouldn’t be canonized. Farkasfalvy writes:

“All in all, the use and interpretation of Scripture by the early Christian Church is not a mere imitation of a practice pre-existent in Judaism, but a new theological program based on the apostolic faith in Christ. In the practice of the nascent Christian Church, the Jewish holy books function and are interpreted as documents of a Christ-centered salvation history with its full and true meaning apparent only in the light of the Church’s faith in Christ.”[7]

On the other hand, to say Christianity inherited the Scriptures is to say too little because “the faith that Christians have in the inspiration and canonicity of the Old Testament coincides only partially with what Jewish communities believe about their holy books.”[8] Chadwick adds that the term canon was “being used for the standard of authentic teaching given by the baptismal confession of faith well before it came to be used for the list of accepted books. The criterion for admission was not so much that traditions vindicated an apostolic authorship as that the content of the books was in line with the apostolic proclamation received by the second-century churches.”[9] For this reason, the Christians could include a book like Hebrews in their canon, despite its anonymous author. Still, I would add to Chadwick’s words that apostolic authorship, though not the sole criteria, was nonetheless highly prized and practically guaranteed inclusion in the final canon if it could be confirmed. (Moreover, the inclusion of books like Hebrews which did not have confirmed apostolic authorship was a point of dispute among the early churches.)

Remarkably, Judaism and Christianity ventured to close a canon, denying the addition of further inspired texts, around the same time. Moreover, the Christian Old Testament is strikingly similar to the Jewish Tanakh, despite drawing on separate criteria for their compilation. The only austere disparity is the Christian Church included the so-called Apocrypha, which the Jews did not. (This would become a point of controversy during the Reformation, but not before). Nonetheless, the similarities are enough to demonstrate how deeply the early Church believed the Jewish Scriptures to be “in line” with apostolic preaching.

In addition to the text, the Christians and the Jews share significant theological understandings of the Scriptures. Both believe the Scriptures to be God’s inspired word, transmitted through chosen individuals in history, and prompting them to speak by the Spirit to God’s people. These concepts reflect the Church’s Jewish origins.

I conclude by repeating our original formula: “All that has been written has been written for us.” The Christians spoke of the authority of the Old Testament with as much conviction as the Jews. They did not demote it; rather, belief in the Scriptures was normative for faith in Christ, and the argument of fulfilled prophecy was central to the conversion of many to Christianity (Justin Martyr being a notable example).

However, in light of the New Revelation, the early Christians developed some radically new concepts about the biblical texts and revelation by making Christ the entry point into Scripture. While members of the early church with Jewish backgrounds simply retained their Jewish ideas about the Bible (though because of their faith in Christ’s Messianic identity and divinity would also introduce a new outlook and give Scripture a new interpretation), the Gentile Christians, who did not grow up hearing the Scriptures, would first learn about Jesus through evangelical preaching and only afterwards be introduced to the Old Testament as Jesus’ “pre-history.” Therefore, the new exegesis imitated a converting Gentile’s experience of the Jewish Scriptures; both Jew and Gentile now approached Scripture on equal terms, as though for the first time, so that, exegetically, there is “neither Jew nor Greek.”

“All that has been written has been written for us.” I end with the words of Farkasfalvy:

“[Paul] expresses here the claim which the first Christian generation—and even apostolic Christianity before Paul—formulated: The Scriptures belong to them, and their own Christological interpretation fulfills the Bible’s ultimate purpose and enables its correct and full comprehension.”[10]

VOCABULARY.

at·tes·ta·tion, n.
Affirmed to be correct, true, or genuine: …we must also conclude that not only the Messiah’s death, burial, and resurrection, but also their Scriptural attestation are “of first importance.”

ker·yg·ma, n.
The proclamation of religious truths, especially as taught in the Gospels: Hosea 6:2 is a most attractive candidate because it refers to a specific chronological detail (the “third day”) of the apostolic kerygma.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY.

[1] Denis Farkasfalvy. Inspiration & Interpretation: A Theological Introduction to Sacred Scripture (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2010), p.15.

[2] Henry Chadwick. The Oxford History of Christianity: The Early Christian Community (Oxford University Press, 2002), p.46.

[3] Chadwick, p.22.

[4] Farkasfalvy, p.20.

[5] Farkasfalvy, p.20.

[6] Farkasfalvy, p.21.

[7] Farkasfalvy, p.23.

[8] Farkasfalvy, p.22.

[9] Chadwick, p.32.

[10] Farkasfalvy, p.24.

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