Christian Themes

(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

The ancient collection of books considered sacred by Jews and Christians is known by the Jews as the Hebrew Bible and by the Christians as the Old Testament. Most of the books were written in classical Hebrew, and about two-thirds are prose and one-third are poetry. The Old Testament, along with the New Testament, forms the Christian Bible, but the Jewish Bible does not add any further books. Christianity and Judaism share a majority of the books in each of their Bibles. For example, all the books in the Jewish Bible are in the Christian Old Testament. The Jewish Bible contains twenty-four books divided into the three sections of Torah (Law/Teachings), Nevi’im (Prophets), and Kethuvim (Writings). These categories only roughly describe the actual content of the books. For example, the book of Joshua, which is considered part of the Prophets section, describes the Israelites’ conquest of the land of Canaan; no prophet is mentioned. Furthermore, the book of Genesis, the first book of the Torah (and the Bible), does not contain many laws or teachings.

The Christian Old Testament appears in several forms according to varying Christian traditions. Protestants have the shortest Old Testament, corresponding with the Jewish Bible in content but not order. For example, the book of Ruth is found in the Writings section of the Jewish Bible because of its late date of composition; however, it is located after Judges in the Christian Old Testament because the story of Ruth is set during the time of the Judges. The Roman Catholic Old Testament contains several additional books such as the Tobit and Wisdom of Solomon, but Protestants consider these books nonauthoritative and label them Apocrypha (a Greek word meaning “hidden away”). The Greek Orthodox Old Testament boasts an even larger collection of books.

These varying lists of biblical books demonstrate that not all Christians—throughout history and in the modern world—consider the same books to be authoritative. In fact, during the early, formative period of Christianity, different canons, or lists of inspired books, developed. The word “canon” comes from a Greek word that means “measuring stick,” but in Christianity it took on a metaphorical definition of “boundary” or “list.” The Old Testament was canonized in stages, and the process concluded sometime around the destruction of the second Jewish temple in 70 c.e. However, Christians throughout the ages have ignored various biblical books and thereby created a canon within a canon.

The Old Testament contains numerous types and genres of literature. There are narratives such as the Joseph story in Genesis 37-50; songs like the ancient Song of the Sea in Exodus 15; poems like the love poem of the Song of Songs (Song of Solomon) or the lament poems found in Lamentations; prophecy like Isaiah 11; proverbs like the book of Proverbs; short stories like the book of Ruth; genealogies like Genesis 5; and legal materials like Leviticus 12. Because most of the authors of these books share a relatively similar religious, economic, and political background, there are important themes running throughout most of the books. However, the books also display an astonishing diversity of...

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Hebrew Bible Christian Themes

(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

The earliest Jewish followers of Jesus, including the New Testament writers, had a set of scriptures—probably a Greek version of the Old Testament called the Septuagint. However, it is unclear exactly what books were included in this collection because the New Testament makes reference to the first two sections, “the Law and the Prophets,” but fails to mention the third division. These sacred writings were important to these early followers as they related to their daily life, religious practices, and theology. Therefore, it seems natural that the New Testament writers would depend quite profoundly on the Old Testament in their writing and thinking about Jesus.

Because of their newly acquired belief that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah, these authors began to read the Septuagint less as a historical narrative about the people of Israel and more as an announcement of Jesus’ appearance to the world. When these early Jews attempted to explain the significance of Jesus as the Messiah, they went to their scriptures to see if they could find meaning. However, they did not simply quote the Old Testament as the final word on an issue nor did they provide an extended commentary on any Old Testament book. Instead they alluded to or quoted briefly from the Old Testament to strengthen their argument about the person and work of Jesus. The writer of the New Testament book 2 Timothy offers the following statement about the Old Testament, which he calls “sacred writings” and “scripture”:But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.

Paul, a Jew turned Christian apostle and one of the writers of the New Testament, quotes from various Old Testament books including Isaiah (twenty-eight times), Psalms (twenty times), Deuteronomy (fifteen times), Genesis (fifteen times), and the Minor Prophets (five times). As a member of the Jewish sect called the Pharisees, Paul would have studied the Old Testament extensively and learned to apply it to his world. However, after Paul encounters Jesus in a vision (Acts 9, 22), his understanding of the Old Testament radically changes. Now, Paul views the Old Testament as a text that bears witness to the Gospel. For example, in 1 Corinthians 15, Paul writes that Jesus’ death and resurrection on the third day are “in accordance with the scriptures,” although he does not continue to define exactly what Old Testament passages he has in mind. Also, Paul uses allegory and typology in his analysis of the Old Testament. These two ways of reading deserve differentiation: Allegorical readings are necessarily ahistorical because they look for symbols within a text that contain secret meanings that differ from the literal meaning; Old Testament typological readings are historical because they view an Old Testament personality, object, or event in connection with a New Testament personality, object, or event, thereby creating two meanings—a historical one and a deeper, more spiritually significant one. For example, in Galatians 4, Paul uses allegory to explain why Abraham has two sons, Ishmael and Isaac, by two different wives, Hagar and Sarah. In Romans 5, he identifies Adam, the first man, as a type of Jesus.

New Testament scholars generally assume that the historical figure, Jesus, had a basically standard Jewish view of the Old Testament. However, demonstrating how and when Jesus used scripture in his teaching proves difficult because one is never certain whether the Old Testament quotations in the Gospels are authentic reports of Jesus’ words or simply sincere usages of the Old Testament by the Gospel writers to establish the link between the teachings of Jesus and the teachings of the Old Testament. Additionally, Jesus, as portrayed in the Gospels, appears ambivalent about the authority of the Old Testament. In general, Jesus refers to it as a source of authority; however, on several occasions, he criticizes the law.

In the Gospels’ presentation of the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the Old Testament is quoted. In fact, the Gospel of Mark, considered the oldest of the Gospels, begins with a quotation from the Old Testament book of Isaiah and then demonstrates how John the Baptist, Jesus’ predecessor, fulfills this prophecy. Furthermore, when Jesus is crucified in Mark 15, Mark has Jesus quote from the Septuagint Psalm 21: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Mark may intend for the quotation to invoke the entire psalm, which is a lament and cry for help. Matthew’s Gospel is characterized by multiple fulfillment quotations from the Old Testament, where some specific Old Testament prophecy is fulfilled by the actions of Jesus. Furthermore, Matthew begins his Gospel with a genealogy, a familiar genre from the Old Testament, which states that Jesus is “the son of David, the son of Abraham” before providing a list of descendants beginning with Abraham and ending with Jesus. Even the Gospel of John, which differs considerably in content from the other Gospels, quotes from the Old Testament. Additionally, in John 19, when Jesus is about to die, the writer has Jesus say “I am thirsty” and then blatantly gives the reason for this request—to fulfill the Old Testament scripture (Psalm 69).

The New Testament writers used the Old Testament because they believed in God’s plan of redemption, which surely began with figures such as Abraham and Moses, yet culminated in the work of Jesus of Nazareth, whom they proclaimed the Messiah and whom they used as their lens through which to view the Old Testament.

Obviously, early Christianity did not designate the Old Testament as the sole written authority for faith. The early Christians knew it was also important to have writings about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Therefore, although the religion centered on a person, a set of writings, the New Testament, became a source of inspiration. The “problem” of the function and authority of the Old Testament first occurs during this time when the early community embraced another set of writings. Yet, the Old Testament does not present any real problem for the early Christians because it remains an important part of the nascent tradition as the sacred writings continue to shape Christian theology, practices, and liturgy.

The early Christian church read the Old Testament in ways similar to the New Testament writers, including typology and allegory. For example, Clement of Alexandria (c. 150-c. 215 c.e.) identifies the musical instruments listed in Psalm 150 as different parts of the human body; according to Clement, these body parts unite to praise God. However, not all scholars believed in the allegorical interpretation of the Old Testament. In fact, we can summarize interpretation within this historical period with the following question: Should Christians allegorize the Old Testament or read it literally?

Marcion (d. c. 160 c.e.), the most famous early Christian heretic, believed in two gods—one God of Law who created the world and another benevolent God of the New Testament who was the Father of Jesus. This dualism led him to reject the Old Testament as Christian scriptures and to view it as an accurate revelation of a Creator God that must be interpreted literally. However, his contemporaries disagreed strongly and tried to formulate theories or theologies as to how the Old Testament and New Testament could stand together as sacred writings. Saint Irenaeus (120/140-c. 202 c.e.), for example, argued that the law of the Old Testament was valid until God had begun a revelation in Jesus. This historical outlook appreciates the old covenant while maintaining the ultimate priority of the new covenant brought by Jesus.

Origen (c. 185-c. 254 c.e.), one of the foremost allegorists of the early Church, concerned himself mainly with the spiritual sense of the Old Testament, which meant the allegorical interpretation, because he thought that...

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Hebrew Bible Bibliography

(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

Ackroyd, P. R., and C. F. Evans, eds. From the Beginnings to Jerome. Vol. 1 in The Cambridge History of the Bible. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1975. This reference work contains numerous articles that, although slightly outdated, help orient the reader to the relevant issues within biblical scholarship.

Brueggemann, Walter. Introduction to the Old Testament. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003. An explicitly Christian theological reading of the Old Testament by one of America’s leading biblical theologians.


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