“Hey, Get Away from My Bible!“ Christian Appropriation of a Jewish Bible

A few days ago I received the following email from an agnostic reader of this website. The email is copied here in its entirety, with the permission of the sender. The question is direct, profound, and has been a nagging companion of Christianity since its beginning.

Since the Hebrew Bible (that you call OT) was written by Jews for Jews, and that obviously a large number of Jews did not follow Christianity and its appropriation of the Hebrew Bible, why should we trust a Christian interpretation of the Hebrew Bible instead of a Jewish interpretation?

I take this question with utmost seriousness, as I think all Christians should. It gets at the heart of several perennial issues in Christian theology, perhaps most importantly the NT’s use of the OT, which shows us the NT authors at work in articulating their understanding of the “connection” between the gospel and Israel’s Scripture. As I see it, this is really the heart of the matter. So, to rephrase the question, “Why should the first Christians’ claims about the OT (and how the gospel connects with it) have any merit in view of the fact that Christianity did not really take hold with Jews living at the time?” To put it yet another way, “Why should the Christian appropriation of the Hebrew Bible have any persuasive power, given that a larger number of Jews—whose Bible it was—rejected it?”

The basic answer, which I will try expand below, is this: We trust the first Christians in their interpretation of the OT, not so much because of how they interpreted it but because of the one whom they were proclaiming in their interpretation. That may not make much sense. It may even sound a bit odd, so let me try to explain.

There are many, many ways of coming at this very big issue, but let us enter the discussion where the questioner, somewhat innocently, begins: the use of the term “Old Testament.”

The term “Old Testament” has been in use since the time of the first Christians, finding its roots in Paul’s words in 2 Cor 3:6. I only raise the point to underscore how very ancient such a term is. I admit I am (over?)reacting a bit here to the parenthetical comment used by the questioner “that you call OT,” and perhaps drawing undue attention to something he did not even intend. Still, I would not want anyone to be left with the impression that the use of “Old Testament” by Christians is something trendy or worse, driven by anti-Semitism (neither of which are implied by the question). It expresses the belief that what God did by raising Jesus of Nazareth from the dead is both “new” (i.e., not anticipated in the OT) while also being vitally connected to the “old” of Israel’s story. It is that latter point that the NT authors are at great pains to demonstrate.

Having said, that, however, I also feel that the term “Old Testament” has led to a lot of misuse and, ironically, functional dismissal of the OT by Christians. It is sometimes ignored as the “Jewish” part of the Bible, where “law” predominates over the “grace” of the NT. This is a common but unfortunate misunderstanding not only of the trajectory of the NT but the OT, too. With others, it has been not so much ignored but treated superficially and flattened out to make it comply more to the manner in which some Christians understand the gospel. The history of the church is replete with examples of both.

One way some Christian scholars have tried to correct this problem is to refer to the OT as the Hebrew Bible or the First Testament. What these designations do is to remind us that what for us today is part of our Bible was, for the first Christians, the entirety of their Bible—there was no “New Testament” when the NT authors wrote (duh), and it is highly unlikely that the NT authors were thinking as they wrote “Hey, I think I’ll add some books to our Bible.” Saying Hebrew Bible/First Testament encourages Christian readers today to allow this portion of our own Bible, which makes up about 3/4 to 4/5 of our Bible, to have its way with us—this is to say, to read it and, as followers of Christ, to be challenged by it as the NT writers themselves were (especially Paul). Only after our process of reorientation is completed can we really begin to engage the ways in which the NT authors handled their Bible, to appreciate with more nuance how they “appropriated” the Hebrew Bible, as our questioner puts it.

What such a self-reflective interpretive process allows contemporary readers to appreciate more fully is the tremendous amount of theological energy that was expended by the NT authors to align, so to speak, the Bible (what they referred to sometimes as “Scripture” or “the law and the prophets” or “the law, the prophets, and the psalms,” plus some other labels) with what they saw happening around them, what they experienced in the crucified and risen Messiah.

This last remark is a very important point, and it brings us closer to the central issue before us. The force behind the “appropriation” of the Hebrew Bible on the part of the NT writers was not a matter of “watch me convince you of my better way of handling the Bible,” as if it were some academic exercise. What drove the first Christians to appropriate the Hebrew Bible as they did was not simply an attempt to set up an alternative interpretive grid to compete with Jews of the day and to see who wins. What drove the first Christians to do what they did with the OT was their experience of the crucified and risen Son of God.

The first Christians handled their Bible in a way that helped them make sense of this astounding series of events surrounding the first Easter. This is important to understand. The foundation for what they did with the OT was what happened in Palestine in the opening decades of (what we call) the 1st century. In view of the climactic and incontestable event of Jesus’ death and resurrection, the first Christians were now pouring over their own Bible to understand how this new event could be understood in light of Israel’s ancient text, and, conversely, how Israel’s ancient text is now to be understood in light of Jesus’ death and resurrection. The question of biblical interpretation revolved around the resurrection of Christ. The complex, intricate, sometimes gripping, sometimes puzzling way in which the NT writers handled their Bible is anchored in the fundamental Christian conviction that Jesus is the gracious, amazing conclusion to Israel’s story.

It is very important to remember here that the first Christians were not blond haired Europeans, but Jews. To be sure, Gentiles made their way in soon enough (largely through the tireless missionary efforts of Paul), but the first Christians did not see themselves as beginning a new religion to be contrasted with “Judaism.” They saw themselves as being the true representatives of the climax of Israel’s story. They were, in their own minds, being faithful adherents to Israel’s drama, a drama that began many centuries earlier with Abraham and came to a head with God’s chosen Messiah, Jesus.

There is another ball we need to keep in the air as we address the question. We should not think of the Christian appropriation of the Hebrew Bible as diverting from the contemporary Jewish understanding, one that was more easily “connected” to the Bible. The Jewish handling of their own Scripture shows its own type of appropriation of the ancient texts. What do I mean by this?

The Hebrew Bible is a story that speaks of God’s purpose for his people, Israel, in being a special people to him, a people designed, so to speak, to embody what it means to be made in God’s image (think Genesis 1 here). They were to be so much God’s people that their example was to be contagious for all the nations around them, to be a “blessing” to them, as we read in Genesis 12:1-3. Long story short, the OT recounts an ongoing story of how Israel failed to embody this ideal and as a result experienced several series of downfalls, rejections, expulsions, etc.

Two of the more central evidences of God’s blessing to Israel were that they were to be in a land given to them by God, and that they were to have an unbroken line of kings (in the line of King David) rule over them. Israel’s greatest tragedy was when they were taken captive by the Babylonians around 587 BC and exiled to Babylon. When they returned about fifty years later, they had no king, no temple, and encountered various problems in taking back their land and recreating the glory days of the past.

Why is this important to the question? Hang with me.

Israel’s history after the return from Babylon in about 539 BC is well documented, not only in the Hebrew Bible (e.g., 1 and 2 Chronicles) but in other literature of the time, typically referred to as “Second Temple” literature. These texts were written after the completion of the second temple in 516, the first one having been destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC. The second temple was destroyed in AD 70. Hence, that entire period is referred to today as the “Second Temple Period.” A lot was written during that time that helps us see what the Jews were thinking.

Mainly, we can see that they were coming to grips with what it meant to be the people of God in the absence of the ancient promises that demonstrated of God’s blessing.

Sure, they were back in the land, but the newly rebuilt temple was merely a shell of its former self. Plus, the intervening years of captivity introduced all sorts of religious and political drama. In short, their self-concept of what it means to be the people of God—a landed people ruled by a Davidic king over the other nations, not subject to them—was in considerable upheaval.

O.K., again, what does all this have to do with the question? This:

The Jews of Jesus’ day were reading their own Scripture in a way that was driven by these changing circumstances. Even though they came back to the land, they were never really free as they were before the exile. They were subject first to the Persians, then Greeks, and then Romans. They were not ruled by the Davidic king, who had a “torah under one arm and a sword in the other,” who would faithfully lead them as God’s pure people. They were in their own land, but they really weren’t—as long as they had foreign rulers telling them what to do in their own land that God had given them.

[Parenthetically, it may be a minor point, but I think the questioner is making a common error when he says that the Hebrew Bible was written “by Jews for Jews.” It was written by Israelites for Israelites. The difference between the two is significant, for Jews/Judaism is a term properly used to designate post-exilic developments in Israel’s self-understanding. In fact, the term itself owes much to Greek linguistic influence.]

Do you see the point? By the time we get to Jesus and the NT writers, Jews had already had a pretty long history of asking themselves, “In view of these dramatically changing circumstances, how do we connect to our own ancient texts?” To put the matter more pointedly, “How are we now the people of God, in view of all that has happened? Indeed, are we still the people of God? What does that even mean?”

It was the pressure of aligning Israel’s ancient past with present changing circumstances that led Second Temple Jews to do some pretty innovative “appropriation” of their own Bible, particularly since so much of the Hebrew Bible envisions a situation where Israel is the jewel of the nations, with a Davidic king ruling with righteousness and justice from Jerusalem, the center of the world, God’s city.

The first Christians were also Jews and they were engaged in another attempt at Jewish appropriation—although of a VERY different sort—since now one’s true identity as the people of God is centered not on what had been Israel’s defining markers, such as Torah, land, temple, and king, but in Jesus of Nazareth who claimed to bring all of these things, and more, to their proper focal point.

For the Jews, the result of such creative appropriation can be seen, as I mentioned above, in the Second Temple literature they produced. In fact, a struggle to appropriate the Bible in a way that addresses change has its roots within the Hebrew Bible itself, e.g., 1 and 2 Chronicles and many other places where it is clear that older traditions are being rethought at later times (a phenomenon referred to today as “inner-biblical exegesis”). This interpretive journey comes to fruition in the rabbinic literature, at least the names of which are known to most of us: the Mishnah and Talmud. The theological efforts were continued in later medieval “commentaries” on the Hebrew Bible, known as “Midrashim.”

The particulars of Jewish handling of their own Bible in view of changing circumstances is a fascinating, enriching, and challenging topic for Christians, but this is not the place to rehearse all of that. What is important here is the general point, that the failure of many Jews of the day to accept the Christian appropriation of the Hebrew Bible is not because they were sticking to the “real meaning” of the Hebrew Bible that the Christians were handling in such a wacky fashion.

A better way to think of is it is that there were two divergent groups of people who claimed to represent the true “next stage” of Israel’s history as God’s chosen people. For Jews, their answer was their continued attempts to articulate what it means to “be a Jew” in a world context that, simply put, their own Bibles left no room for—a people in diaspora, i.e., scattered, without a true homeland, without a fully implemented religious and political structure. For the other group of Jews—who only later came to include Gentiles and be called “Christians”—the final answer was found not in a more clever and competing way of handing their Bibles, but in their belief that now, in Jesus, God was giving a fresh definition to what it meant to be “the people of God.”

So, why should we today “trust” this “Christian appropriation” of the OT rather than that of the Jews of the day? Let’s rephrase the question. Why should we today trust a “Christ-centered” understanding of the Hebrew Bible rather than a “Judaism-centered” understanding.

I think this rephrasing of the issue puts the question is a much more helpful context, for to ”not trust” the “Christ-centered” understanding of the Hebrew Bible still leaves one with a choice to make: which “re-understanding,” which “appropriation” will you trust? There is no “neutral” appropriation out there waiting to be had.

The Christian answer, in brief, is:

“We handle the Bible the way we do because Jesus is raised from the dead. Jesus’ resurrection does not depend on how the first Christians handled the Bible. They handled the Bible the way they did because of Jesus’ resurrection. The Christian appropriation of the Hebrew Bible is to be trusted because Jesus is raised from the dead.”

This ancient choice is still operative today. Is Jesus raised from the dead or isn’t he? And if so, so what? These are the questions that the NT writers went to great lengths to discuss in the NT letters, especially Paul’s letters. How one answers that question will affect how one looks at any other.

I realize how counterintuitive and wholly unsatisfying an answer like this might be for some to the question raised at the outset. We might have expected a more “methodological” answer, i.e., Christian or Jewish appropriation is better because it handles the text more faithful to its original intention, or because it is more rigorous in its approach, etc., etc. The answer I am giving here, to subordinate the interpretive question of the appropriation of the Hebrew Bible to the central historical question of the resurrection of Jesus, does not seem like a terribly persuasive angle to take. After all, how could this have possibly been understood as persuasive to the 1st century Jewish audience, if they were expected to accept a Christ-centered handling of their own Bible when it was precisely the acceptance of Christ that was such a stumbling block (to use Paul’s phrase)?

These are also very important, perennial questions—in fact, there are several more that come up in contemporary debates about how to understand how the first Christians understood the “connection” between the Good News of Jesus Christ and Israel’s story. Those questions will continue to be addressed by Christian thinkers, questions the precipitating email question only begins to hint at.

Still, these continued complexities aside, the manner in which the first Christians appropriated the Hebrew Bible forces us to consider now, as then, a more basic question, which is, as Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” All other questions of Christian religious meaning, including the Christian appropriation of its own Bible, are subsumed under that fundamental question. I am as modern/Western a thinker as the next person, and I appreciate the degree of cognitive dissonance that this may produce. But, the rule of the resurrected Messiah creates all sorts of cognitive dissonance for modern people—as it did for ancient people—the interpretive question being only one of them.

This leads to a final, and perhaps even more counterintuitive, observation. The ultimate demonstration of the persuasiveness of the Christ-centered climax to Israel’s story may be much more than a matter of how Christians interpret their Bible. It may be in how those who claim to follow the risen Christ embody his resurrection in what they say, think, and do—but that is a whole other area of discussion.

So, to repeat, the question asked of me is fundamental, far-reaching, and of central importance. What I have offered here is admittedly a rough sketch of what I think are some central issues to be considered that, perhaps, provides more of a reorientation of the kinds of questions we should be asking than an answer itself. But, as I see it, that is precisely what is needed, for agnostics and Christians alike.

[Note: Have a comment or question about this article? Email it to me at OTProf@mac.com. If your question seems like it would be of interest, I may respond to it in a post here.]