Over the course of Lent and Holy Week, being attentive to all the many Scriptural readings in the many different services that Eastern Orthodox Christians are presented with, one is able to realize something quite extraordinary in regard to the nature of Scripture, the person of Christ and the expectations regarding Him of the people around Him, and modern scholarship on all these subjects.
It is obvious that the usage of Scripture in an Orthodox liturgical setting is oracular. That is, whether a New Testament or Old Testament reading, we are to understand that we are hearing the very word of God. In the case of the Old Testament, these are explicitly labeled Prophecies, and are selected in accordance with the typological interpretation that lies at the heart of Patristic exegesis of Scripture, the Church’s patrimony. In the Prophecies we thus have type. In the reading of the Gospels, we are presented with an aural icon of the Word of God Himself. And so, in the Gospels, we have antitype. But type and antitype are intermixed. We learn much of the antitype through the type, and vice versa. The Fathers know this. This has always been a puzzling thing to Biblical literalists, which include academics (more on that below). The entire practice is now, in such circles, passé except in the form of reception history or tradition history. The living thrill of it, the joy and the love of it, is gone in such circles. But it is recoverable if one is willing. The Church remains a heavenly treasury in that regard, for the healing of minds as well as souls!
I have touched on the subject before, tentatively, but I am now thoroughly convinced: the Judeans of Jesus’ day (and before and after) were awaiting the appearance of the legitimate King of Israel, whom they considered would be not only a Son of David, but invested with miraculous powers, and (see especially Psalm 2 and Isaiah 7 through 9) in a very real sense the Son of God. He was expected to restore all the exiles of Israel and Judah, something only possible through conquering all the known world. The expectation was thus, even in the original settings of the Old Testament prophecies themselves, not something solely political, but primarily and particularly infused with the expectation of a presence of the Divine in the person of the Son of David. But the expectation was not, we must clearly realize, fully identical to that of Christian understanding. This is why it is important to understand the Incarnation as God’s Great Surprise. While there was expected to be a divine and miraculous character, somehow, in the Son of David, the annointed (Messiah) and therefore Divinely authorized and empowered ruler of all Israel and all the world, this great king was not expected to actually be an incarnation of God Himself. Nor, for that matter, were the prophecies of suffering (most especially the Song of the Servant, Isaiah 52-53) for the people understood to be attached to this King Messiah, but these were understood in various other ways, and still are by many. In any case, in the Gospels, we find people calling Jesus “Son of David” as well as “Son of God”. The two are terms for the same person: the King of Israel. Their expectations of the miraculous are satisfied and exceeded. The expectation of military triumph, however, was not, for it was not a part of the original prophetic plan, but God chose rather another kind of universal triumph: over death and the power of sin, with the return of the exiles in Hades or Sheol, to Paradise, and to a re-created world in the resurrection. The leaders of the Judeans were fully expecting an insurrection led by Jesus, as occurred in the case of various other (false) Messiahs. While their criteria for the expected Messiah may not have been met (they must have been quite odd for Bar Kosiba to have been acceptable a century later), their fear of losing the good working relationship with the Romans at that point (Pilate and Caiaphas had the longest tenures and working relationship in the Roman period, suggesting a real stability and detente of sorts) surely influenced their treatment of Jesus as merely another pseudomessianic insurrectionist. Even amongst His own disciples and family, however, Jesus seems to have been expected to be the conquering King. Note the Magnificat, the behavior of Peter with the sword in Gethsemane, and so on. The plan of God, however, was not dependent upon the expectations of men, and the results were altogether surprising. No one expected the Crucifixion, nor did they expect the Resurrection! The game was changed. And that’s when the disciples learned that God was doing something altogether different than what they, and generations of others, had expected. We find Peter’s rather harsh commentary on his and the other disciples’ incomprehension reflected in the Gospel of Mark most clearly, though the same is found in the other Gospels as well.
Modern scholarship on all these matters is generally as incomprehending as the disciples were, locked into its own traditions, many of which are simply wrong, and so point students in the wrong direction. Firstly, academic Biblical scholarship is more concerned with producing academics than with producing Truth. That is a given. Truth is not within the purview of the Academy, which latter would likely deny that it is even within the purview of the Church. There is no need to describe the general chaos of academic Biblical studies. It is distasteful and ugly, and generally useless, a sea of filth with very few pearls. People have grown accustomed to accept the word of academics as authoritative, although always the basis of this authority is completely insecure, for it is based in academic opinions, presuppositions, and methodologies which differ throughout the Academy, not one of which, except perhaps the rejection of the Church as authority in guiding their studies, is generally accepted. Academic Biblical scholarship is thus one thing in general and by default: schismatic. In closer evalutation, it tends to be heretical in any number of ways. So it is an extremely dangerous thing for an unguarded soul to take it up. The bald assertiveness of the academic tradition needs to be recognized for what it is: a bunch of old spinsters preferring cards in the drawing room to family life. The life and salvation of one’s immortal soul is the most important thing for a human to be concerned about. Ignoring it is a fine trick that the Enemy has established, not a little through his long influence of the academic tradition. Every person you meet is immortal, and is working out his eternity right here and now through his choices and actions. We accustom our souls to particular behavior, which will not be able to change after the death of our bodies. If you have accustomed your soul to over-enjoying food in this life, in an eternal existence where there is no food, would that not be Hell?
But I want now to explain what I think lies at the root of much of the misunderstanding of Scripture: insensitive reading. This is not uninformed reading, literalistic reading, or allegorical reading, or anything else other than what it says: insensitive reading. The trick is in understanding which senses are in play! It is precisely the development of purified senses that are in cahoots with the nous (that part of one’s intellect that is most closely connected with the soul) that is necessary for sensitive reading. All other reading is insensitive and doomed to fail in grasping the Scriptures. This is seen in all the greatest Fathers commenting on the Scriptures having been ascetics. All of them. Their senses were trained away from the mundane and toward the supramundane, away from earth and toward heaven, away from the physical and toward the Spiritual. This training, which, if we wish it, we may receive during periods of ascetic endeavour (like Lent) and repentance, is necessary for us to benefit from Scripture, and for others to benefit from it as well.
This is something of a ramble, I realize. My thoughts on the subject are a bit inchoate and still need to congeal. But the above is leading in a general direction, obviously a direction away from one thing and towards another!