Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Restoration of Old Testament Christianity

In the "Introduction" to his most recent book, What the Gospels Meant, Gary Wills points out something I found especially interesting: the first biblical scenes depicted in Christian art were not scenes from the New Testament.

Naturally, one would guess that the artists of the catacombs would first portray Jesus. I imagine depictions of him healing a blind man, stilling the storm, talking with the woman at the well, and, above all, hanging on the cross. But all such guesses would be wrong.

True, early Christian artists eventually made Jesus a prominent subject of their work. Most often, we're told, they portrayed him as the Good Shepherd, the one who had graciously gone out seeking the lost sheep, now carried on his shoulders. But before they focused on Jesus, the artists of the church turned their attention to other subjects: Noah, Abraham, Joseph, Moses, Job, and other characters from what Christians would someday call the Old Testament, but which the earliest Christians knew simply as "the holy Scriptures" (2 Timothy 3:15).

From this, Wills makes the point that these typical subjects of early Christian art reflect something bigger: the first followers of Jesus reported more than His words, and stories about what He had done. That much they knew. In fact, some of them were eyewitnesses to the events they told.

But to them, much more than simply talk about Jesus, it was just as important for the first believers to connect the hero of their stories to the promises of God recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures; to relate the Christian message to the legacy and hope of the descendants of Abraham which they knew from their sacred writings.

According to Luke, this point of Christian emphasis was something that started with Christ himself. Speaking with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, Jesus began with Moses and all the Prophets and explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself (Luke 24:27).

Later, Jesus reminded his disciples that he had told them, Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms (24:44).

As he explained to them the meaning of his death and resurrection, Jesus opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures (24:45).

Starting with that example from Jesus, the early church did more than simply announce that God had raised the crucified Jesus to new and unending life. They were also intent on showing that the deeds of God in Christ were perfectly consistent with the words of God in Scripture. Indeed, one might call this the New Testament pattern. Notice how this turns up in the following passages (with emphasis added):

But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteous from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. --Romans 3:21-22

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures. --1 Corinthians 15:3-4

If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's descendants, and heirs according to the promise. --Galatians 3:29

The last of these quotes--with its reference to Gentile believers being the descendants of Abraham--points to something especially significant. It shows that when Christians of the first century used the language of the Old Testament to describe what God had done through Jesus, they were not simply drawing a line from promise to fulfillment. More than that, they were expressing their view that Jesus Christ is what the Scriptures were all about all along, that one kind of relationship between the Old Testament and the Christian faith is a relationship of identity or essential content.

This does not mean that Christians overlooked or suppressed the literal sense of the Old Testament. For example, Stephen's sermon recorded in Acts 7 contains many references to specific people, places, and periods of time. Nevertheless, the first believers in Jesus also saw in the Old Testament references to Christ and strong continuity between ancient Israel and the Christian movement:

For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers, that our forefathers were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spirutal drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ. --1 Corinthians 10:1-4

Here I won't go into the whole question of why Paul says it was a rock (as opposed to fire and cloud) that traveled with the Israelites in the desert, something unexpected to say the least, and sort of funny when you think about it. My main purpose is to simply say that there are plenty of good, biblical reasons for abandoning the old language of "restoring New Testament Christianity." For any such restoration, according to the New Testament itself, would depend upon the history, vocabulary, themes, and promises found in the Old Testament. More than that, the New Testament appears to assume that Christian readers of the Old would, in its pages, consistenly meet up with Christ and with themselves and the movement of which they were a part.

I want to stop here and ask: What do you think? What makes sense, or what doesn't? Why is this right, wrong, or some of both?

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