The Center of the Old Testament

A few days ago, Phil Sumpter wrote two related posts (“Picking Up Posting Again” and “Louth drew on Childs“), the former ending with links to two earlier posts of his working out some thoughts on Christological interpretation of the Old Testament (“Is Christological Interpretation OK?” and ” Jesus in the Old Testament?“). I recommend all these posts as thoughtful notes on the subject which I’m also now going to address. The comments in the last-mentioned post are especially interesting, and are directly relevant to what follows here.

Dispensing with introductory banter, I’ll get right to it: the center of the Old Testament is the Anointed, the Son of David. Everything revolves around him: from his appearance to his absence, thoughout the books of Israel collected into our Old Testaments, the sun around which everything revolves is the Son of David.

Notice in Genesis and through the Pentateuch how there is the creation of a race, and a continual process of God selecting one single family out of all the families of the world from which would come His chosen king. It is the line of the firstborn of all humanity, and therefore the rightful ruler over all humanity. God creates Adam, his firstborn son, the Son of God, then comes Abel replaced with Seth, then Seth’s line down to Abraham, then Isaac, then Jacob/Israel, then the disqualification of Reuben, Simeon, and Levi in favor of Judah, then Perez, and his line to Boaz, then to the son of Jesse, David. Throughout, these tales are all related by prophets, from the prophetic viewpoint solely, one that follows the preferences of the God for whom they speak. These prophets know of the Divine promise to David, that he would never lack an heir: there would always be a Son of David to rule.

This promise of a Son of David is especially prominent in the book of Isaiah, where the imagery related to the Son of David, the ruling scion of the House of David in Jerusalem, reveals an intriguing and rather surprisingly high status for the Son of David as the firstborn Son of God, with comcomitant authority, and amazing imagery. All of the prophets describe failures and successes of the Sons of David, and they describe the usurpation of rulership by those unqualified, whether Israelite or foreign. Yet there is always the unspoken hope of another Son of David, the hope of the unfading and eternal Divine promise of an Anointed One to always be. Removal of an actual kingship from Judah at the time of the Babylonian exile didn’t stem the hopes, but rather crystallized them. The hoped-for Son of David, the Son of God as described in Isaiah and the Psalms, would come, and the kingship would one day be established, and the Son of David would rule over all the earth. These are exactly the expectations voiced by the apostles and other disciples of the New Testament.

But God had a surprise! The promises were understood in a particular way, but were to be fulfilled in another. Prophecies of the sufferings of the righteous (which happened more often than not in Israelite history, perpetrated by any number of ill-qualified rulers) were often ignored in thoughts concerning the Son of David, though they play such a central role in the great prophecies of Isaiah, for instance, and throughout the Psalms. As Paul said, “Every Scripture is God-breathed”―He inserted his own words here and there as desired, to point to something amazing He Himself was about to accomplish: His incarnation as the Son of David, and the fulfillment of all the hopes, expectations, prophecies, and every last jot and tittle of the Scriptures. This Son of David was the Son of God in a very real and much more immediate way than the Son of David had ever been before, as all history was established to accomplish exactly this.

The presence or absence of the Son of David, the Son of God, is spread throughout the Old Testament writings, and thus it is not only acceptable, but necessary to recognize this. To deny it is to deny the motivation for the writing of those Scriptures themselves, and the entire prophetic tradition of Israel.

Over the centuries, this connection has not been lost in the Church, where Patristic Christological interpretation of the Old Testament was the only valid form of interpretation. This in itself is a legitimation of such interpretation that stands above all critique by lesser authorities, however erudite they may find themselves. Church hymnography, especially the particularly rich imagery of Byzantine hymnody, shows the refinement of this form of Christological interpretation of Scripture through the centuries. In this, it merely extends and continues the form of interpretation utilized by the apostles themselves in the New Testament writings. But we should not consider this Christological interpretation to be so severe a break with the original intent and focus of the Old Testament writings themselves, in light of the above. The focus was always God’s promise being worked out in the world through the Son of David, His firstborn son, the firstborn of all humanity and its rightful ruler. This is the very origin of the texts. A rejection of any interpretation that recognizes that centrality of the Son of David and the extension and extraordinary resolution of those promises in the person of Jesus Christ is simply not Christian.

But even aside from this religious value and application, the centrality of the Son of David within the Old Testament needs greater recognition. Current (generally Protestantized) scholarly squeamishness regarding Christological interpretation has blinded the exegetical field to this very obvious centrality. It doesn’t help that the atomizing tendencies of so-called higher criticism, the supposed pinnacle of Biblical studies, distort the texts, which are deprived of their own witness, their own voice, in the form in which they sit before us on the very page. Theoretical and worthless fore-drafts are proposed, with preposterous social dimensions invented, a ridiculous practice that is never presumed for any other ancient writing of any other culture. It’s a peculiar honor!

In short, regarding Christological interpretation of the Old Testament, I say: Bring it on! The more, the better. This is only the proper exegesis that can be expected of these writings because of their origins.

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9 Responses to The Center of the Old Testament

  1. Doug says:

    Kevin, I must be misreading you. You don’t really mean to give Messianic readings priority to the extent of excluding other readings of the Bible, do you?

    Shivim Panim laTorah.

    I certainly agree that Messianism is a central theme of the Prophets; but in the Torah and the Writings, things are a bit more complicated. For example, if someone argued that the central theme of the Bible was the explication of the law, I could not say that he was wrong.

    Similalry, one could, for example, read Job solely through a Messianic lens, but there is so much more going on that I hardly feel that is the central feature of the book that shouts out to me.

    On the other hand, I can only agree wholeheartedly with your attack on the higher criticism — which is at best so speculative that, as you correctly state, is never presumed for any other ancient writing of any culture. Certainly, higher-consciousness has yet to penetrate the faith-consciousness of any significant religious group that I am aware of — while liberal study bibles duly recall, in all its dullness, elaborate theories of redaction, I have yet to hear of any significant mystical or religious experiences that have resulted. The end route of the higher-criticism is at best a type of base cynicism, a notion captured best by the Hebrew word apikoros. Those who claim to be people of faith while still embracing higher criticism inevitably end up apologizing for it — explaining why they believe despite higher criticism. Perhaps I could forgive if the higher critical theories had a better logical or historical basis, but they are, in the end, just as fantastic as any pagan myth.

    And why must we engage in this? Even a skeptic can admit that the Hebrew Bible is an exceptionally beautifully piece of literature, with a complexity that can easily outlast a lifetime of study. For those of faith, who see beyond that beauty to the deep levels of mysticism, the inspired words of Scripture are even more compelling.


    On an unrelated note, how are you liking Herbert Besser’s new work. At the end of the day, is his argument more than “Jesus was a Pharisee” or “Jesus was almost a Pharisee”?

  2. Hi Doug,
    I don’t think I was sufficiently detailed in the above. It was late, after all, and these are just jottings on the way, I suppose.

    I do think the initial motivation for the Pentateuch and Former Prophets as we have them was precisely the legitimation of Solomon as Son of David, in short. Various of the other writings are then also gathered to that initial core, including those writings that are only tenuously related in subject matter. But this is more of a way to describe the shape of the canon as it stands, I suppose. Also, I don’t think “Messianic” is really the best word to use, as this already bears so many connotations that typically don’t include what I’ve got in mind: a real dynastic sucession is a far cry from the apocalyptic connotations of “Messianic”. But, too, there is the possibility (as within traditional Christian readings, even aside from allegory) of finding the presence or expectation of the Son of David described even by his absence in the text. But that is something that’ll need more work.

    Herb Basser’s book is great! It’s very dense, and best enjoyed in small doses, mostly because it’s so thought-provoking. He’s certainly not a “Jesus was (almost) a Pharisee” of the usual superficial type (with its concomitant Interfaith Head-Tilt of Compassion), but very definitely a “the earliest traditions in the NT align with all Jewish literature, being Jewish” kind of guy. He takes as his model for Matthew’s Gospel the early writings on the Baal Shem Tov! The depth and breadth of Basser’s knowledge of Jewish literature that he brings to bear here is amazing. It’s the approach and reading of a mature thinker. It’s so refreshing to read something that’s actually both good and new regarding the Gospels!

    We completely concur on higher criticism, that hidebound and stinking beast. It may be a cash cow of sorts, but it’s an intellectual wasteland. Basser, for instance, completely sets aside the standard transmission theories. They bear no weight as they don’t describe what he’s found in the texts. His approach is novel, refreshing, erudite, and extremely intelligent, unlike 99% or more of Biblical criticism these days.

  3. Phil Sumpter says:

    Hi Kevin,

    thanks for interacting with my post. I think I have two concerns:

    1) I don’t think the Father’s read the OT exactly the way the NT reads it. I’m not clued up enough to know, but it seems to me that they were working with a different agenda and another level of sophistication.

    2) Prophecies are applied to Jesus that had nothing to do with a coming Messiah, e.g. “Israel,” as in “I will bring my son up from Egypt”. Here, the function of the nation is transported to Jesus by Matthew.

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  5. Doug says:

    You point out valid points, but I find myself reading the Bible differently than you.

    As you know, Torah is an ambiguous word in Judaism, can refer to the Pentateuch, the Tanach, the writings of Chazal, or the entire religious tradition. I have long thought that Christianity suffered from not having a similarly ambiguous word; which would allow you to make your point more clearly — that the themes you see developed in the Septuagint flow clearly into the Christian New Testament and the patristic writers. Sadly, the most influential Christian academics in the English/German speaking worlds often treat the Hebrew Bible with the same gleeful dismissiveness that they treat post-Scriptural Christian authors.

    So, in the end, I think our difference in emphasis reflect in part (a) the complexity of the source text — that it contains so many layers of meanings; and (b) the text is in — in fact — deeply suspended in different religious traditions (and does not , which help complement and bring out different characteristics.

    And I think that is fine — it is like fine cooking or wine, where the complexity of different tastes allow two different tasters to both enjoy a meal, but their different tastebuds cause them to focus on different aspects.

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  7. Doug, Yes, we can only expect some difference in readings because of our two spearate traditions. That’s only to be honest and to have integrity at the same time!

    At least in Orthodox Christianity, Παραδοσις “Tradition”, partakes of roughly the same flexibility as “Torah” in Judaism, connoting the entire spectrum from Scripture through the unwritten and lived aspects of the Faith and its elaboration in canonical rulings (of which some are considered law and some merely guides, a very complicated matter) and Patristic literature (which may or may not be considered authoritative, depending on the general trend of the rest of Tradition). It’s messy, but humanly so.

    What I’m exploring with this idea is the way that the king (Son of David) pops up in various unexpected places, as in Deuteronomy, in Judges (“there was no king in those days”), and even as a kind of unspoken presence in books like Esther and Daniel, and the Maccabees.

    But also, I think it’s very clearly the case that the “Son of David” was exactly what all those Judeans were expecting in Jesus in those exclamations during his ministry. These indicate a high “Davidology” one might say, one rooted in the Scriptural traditions themselves, but particularly through a reading that finds the Son of David central: the expectation of the return of the King of Israel. This was an authentic and living tradition at that time, almost wholly subsumed into Christianity, and being largely rejected in Judaism after the Bar Kokhba War. It also explains why Jesus made so many people nervous. It wasn’t the discourses and arguments (which were not so scandalous, but root and branch representative of those current in the first centuries even in wider Jewish circles). It was that Jesus had this big following as a scion of David that got the attention of the authorities, which resulted in the crucifixion. The “titulus” after all, didn’t say “heretic” but “King of the Jews”. Whether mockingly intended or not, this was what He was executed for.

    It’s a direction that I’ll keep going with. I think there’s alot of potential there.

    Phil, the Fathers took their cues precisely from the New Testament’s use of the Old. The patterns of interpretation were systematized and then applied to the rest of existent Scripture. It’s not just those few isolated examples in the NT that govern their interpretations, but the patterns of exegesis which motivated them. This is why I mention Patristic elaboration and refinement of that exegesis. It’s not merely the end result of those readings, but the result of the same underlying principles that generated those readings. And if we take them at all seriously, we have to recognize that there were many others who were reading it in the same way, and these were quick to jump on board the ship of the Church, so to speak.

    But I should clarify: while I do think it was this focus on the Son of David (particularly the establishment of an institutionalized and prophetically- [and therefore Divinely-] backed hereditary Kingship) is what motivated the initial collection and form of the Hebrew Scriptures as we have them now (with many older elements included and recontextualized to support it), and this initial formation is independent of any current religious affiliation, the elaboration of this hypothesis of mine will really only be coherent within the context of an Orthodox Christian perspective. How could I write otherwise? I would not and should not write otherwise. I believe that this is what happened. It is as historical and as real and as verified as my own existence and that of this entire world. And so I’ll elaborate upon that, without the false dichotomizing and scholarly handwringing and pseudo-erudite bullsh*tting so common to such things. The time for such things is over―they have done nothing for the Faithful except instill doubt and disbelief and the ruin of souls.

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