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The Use and Exposition of
 The Old Testament 
By the Early Church Theologians
1.  Introduction   2.    Exegesis in the 1st & 2nd Centuries   3.    Exegesis in the 3rd & 4th Centuries   4.  Exegesis in the 5th Century 
    2. 1  New Testament Theologians 3. 1  The Alexandrian School 5.  Conclusion
    2. 2  Jewish Objections 3. 2  The Antiochene School 6  Bibliography
    2. 3  The Apostolic Fathers 3. 4  The Carthaginian School    
    2. 4.  The Apologists

the beginning of the Church's history, the Old Testament (T'nach), the Bible of Jesus, was the primary sacred Scripture of the Church. It was fundamental to the life of the first congregations of the early Church. It was used to persuade Jews that Jesus was Messiah. It was used as primary authority to be quoted in all considerations. The Jewish Bible was therefore the "unimpeachable sourcebook of saving doctrine" to the Christian Church (Kelly 1968:53).

T'nach is a summary title drawn from the Hebrew first letter of the terms Torah (Law), Nebiim (Prophets) and Ketubim (Writings); the three-fold Jewish subdivision of their Holy Scriptures.
Josephus refers to it as containing 22 books, but this arrangement, to coincide with the Hebrew alphabet, was achieved by artificially considering 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings as two books, the twelve minor prophets as one book, Ezra-Nehemiah and 1 and 2 Chronicles as one book each, and by attaching Ruth to Judges and Lamentations to Jeremiah (Kelly 1968:53).
The use of the Septuagint translation (pre-Christian common Greek) of the Old Testament by the Church outside of Palestine led to the use of books beyond the traditional Hebrew canon which were considered useful by the synagogues but were not part of Holy Scripture itself. These deutero-canonical (as the Roman Catholic and allied churches name them) or apocryphal books (as the Protestant churches generally call them) were more trusted in the West of the Roman Empire and there they became accepted as doctrinally authoritative.
During the second century some Christians under the influence of gnostic philosophies came to look with suspicion upon the Old Testament and even to reject it completely as alien to the gospel of Christ, but these persons were regarded as heretics and outside the stream of true Christianity (Kelly 1968:52).
The Church's first problems with the use and exposition of the Old Testament arose from the Christian interpretation as opposed to the Jewish interpretation of the same texts. This conflict of understanding had already shown in the ministry of Christ with regard to the Jewish leaders as reflected in the New Testament Gospels.
Later, the Christian use of the Old Testament developed it's own variations, represented eventually in the schools of exegesis associated with the cities of Alexandria, Antioch and Carthage. In these three cities the exegesis seems to have centred, respectively, on the truth, the text, and the dogma. So that from the fresh vitality of Christian faith there began a sad decline into systems of belief by the natural effect of human energies.

2.1 New Testament Theologians  
earliest use and exposition of the Old Testament by theologians of the early Church is found in the writings of the Apostle Paul. He seems to start from a literal understanding of the text. His declaration to the skeptical Athenians that –
 "He made from one, every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth,
 having determined their appointed times, and the boundaries of their habitation"
Acts 17:26,
reflects a literal understanding of the Genesis account of human origins and dispersion.
Writing to the Roman Christians, whom he was yet to meet, Paul bases his teaching of the universal corruption of the human race upon a literal understanding of the Old Testament "Adam" (Romans 5:15). Yet, he has no hesitation in also seeing within the literal a secondary significance as a type/metaphor of a larger truth –
".. death reigned from Adam ... who is a type of Him who is to come" 
Romans 5:14.
This typological method of interpretation, in harmony with the literal method, seems in general use among the theologians of the New Testament period in their exposition of the Old Testament. For instance, John's Gospel cites even Jesus as alluding to the dream-ladder of Jacob at Bethel as a type of His future mediatorship between God and humanity –
 "Truly, truly, I say to you, you shall see the heavens opened,
 and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man" 
John 1:51.
This dual view (literal and typological) of the Old Testament seems derived directly from Jesus' own use of the Old Testament Scriptures.
"And beginning with Moses and all the prophets,
 He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures"  
Luke 24:27.
Jesus' typological use of the "manna", the "serpent" of bronze, etc., from Israel's history became a method which the early Church leaders continued to use. The early Church was sure that the Law was fulfilled in Jesus; that the Last Days had come in Him; and that the whole Old Testament was to be read in the light of His coming and completed work. In this regard a quote from John's Gospel is significant –
"His disciples remembered that He had said this;
 and they believed the Scripture
[the Old Testament], and the word [the explanation] which Jesus had spoken" 
John 2:22.
The typological use of the Scripture however, did not call into question the primary underlying literal sense, as it later did in some uses of allegorical interpretation by later scholars. No conflict was seen between Melchizedec as the historical friend to Abraham, on the one hand, and the same Melchizedec, without record of ancestor or descendant, being seen as a symbol of Christ's uninherited, earned priesthood in contrast to the Aaronic inherited priesthood, on the other (Hebrews 7).
If confusion later arose in the minds of some believers it was, according to the New Testament, because they had "become dull of hearing" (Hebrews 5:11), and also because some opponents of the gospel, as taught in Paul's Letters, were accused by Peter that they even –
 "distort [this Scripture] their own destruction" 
2 Peter 3:16.
2.2 Jewish Objections  
official Jewish opposition to the Christian use (by Jewish and Gentile believers) of the Hebrew Scriptures was really more from the use or purpose to which it was put than to the exegetical or expository methods used. That the "Immanuel" child of Isaiah (7:14) could be Jesus of Nazareth was unthinkable because of it's implications rather than from the method of interpretation, for the great rabbinical school, the "House of Hillel", had already won wide acceptance in liberating texts from confinement to so-called "slavishly literal" interpretation (Britannica 1977: "Hillel") by giving precedence to their oral tradition.
Textual Corruption
Nevertheless, in official Jewish reaction, the Greek translation of Aquila (140 AD) attempted to prevent this Christian use of the "Jewish" Bible by an "exceedingly literal, unidiomatic translation that incorporated rabbinic exegesis" utilizing "certain idiosyncratic rules of translation first practiced by (rabbi) Akiba" a vehement opponent of Christianity (Britannica 1979: "Aquila").
Sadly . . .
Unfortunately, this polemical translation of the Old Testament influenced Jerome's Latin Vulgate version and was incorporated by Origen of Alexandria into his Hexapla compendium of versions.
2.3 The Apostolic Fathers  
extensive and authoritative use that Clement of Rome, Ignatius and Polycarp make of the Old Testament seems to support Kelly's comment that – "For the first hundred years, at least, of its history the Church's Scriptures, in the precise sense of the word, consisted exclusively of the Old Testament" (1968:52) (This does not imply any lack of confidence in the growing New Testament writings during this time, but these documents were still not all generally known and were still in process of becoming that canonical collection).
instance, Clement quotes proof of the resurrection from the book of Job (Clement I, 26:1-3), finds examples of the virtuous life in Old Testament believers, and found, in the Old Testament's prophecies and teachings, every New Testament doctrine of any significance. His use of typology is somewhat unstable however, for he uses it to try and read back from the fulfilled type or antitype (e.g. Christ) into the type (e.g. Isaac) what is most definitely not there. This weakening of the literal meaning, from being the basis for any secondary typological sense, heralded the unfortunate extravagances of allegorical interpretation that developed later.
to his own time also, as most preachers today, he also uses the generally accepted beliefs of his time to prove the truths of the gospel. Yet, in spite of failings of this kind Clement, with his fellow theologians of the early Church, ultimately rested upon the authority of the Old Testament Scriptures as understood in the light of Jesus the Fulfillment.
the so-called "letter of Barnabas" the allegorical method of exegesis becomes apparent (probably an Alexandrian response in line with Jewish philosopher Philo's method, and affected perhaps by Hadrian's recent destruction and renaming of Jerusalem) and sadly heralds the great slide away from a literal understanding of the Old Testament.
This has given rise to a mythical formula for calculating Christ's return.
2.4 The Apologists  
reaction to the skepticism of the intellectual world of their time, men such as Justin Martyr write in defence of the faith. Their approach was heavily influenced by the prevailing philosophies of the time (Stoic "logos") and they tended to see the Old Testament as the perfect philosophy in anticipation of Christ.
To Justin the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies in Christ was the absolute proof of the truth of the Christian message.

3.1 The Alexandrian School  
influenced by the Jewish teacher Philo's method of harmonizing Greek philosophy with the Old Testament, the Christian school that developed at Alexandria came to rely heavily upon the allegorical method of interpretation. Plato's perspective that truth does not lie in the specific but in the general (the "form") set the climate of thought in this city. Preoccupation with what the text 'should' say led to a disregard for the plain historical significance of the Old Testament. So-called hidden, figurative, or spiritual meanings were looked for in the text, sometimes probably in avoidance of unpopular meanings, and the author's intentions in the text were easily disregarded. Clement of Alexandria and his pupil Origen are typical examples of this kind of exegete.
Clement taught that the whole Old Testament is a parable with hidden meanings and that this method of exegesis alone recognizes the true divine content of Scripture.
To Origen each text had a three-fold meaning: the literal, the moral, and the spiritual. He taught that the stumbling block of the literal in Scripture is there to encourage the exegete to seek for the superior meaning, the spiritual (allegorical), which is comprehended within the teaching of the Church.
3.2 The Antiochene School  
Gnostics use of allegorical exegesis to support their heresies apparently alerted the Christian school in Antioch to the dangers of this (Alexandrian) method. Also, in contrast to Alexandria, Aristotle's philosophy dominated thought in this city. Their exegetical method was grammatical, rational and realistic. Lucian, Theodore of Mopsuestia, Nestorius and Diodore of Tarsus were leading theologians of this school.
Diodore emphasized that the author's intention in the text was paramount and therefore a thorough understanding of the text was essential to the exegete. Their emphasis upon the historical and grammatical sense of a text led to the unfounded accusation from some that they denied divine inspiration in the text.
3.3 The Carthaginian School  
answer to the assertions of heretical exegesis and claims, this school emphasized that the Old Testament was only to be interpreted in the light of the Apostolic Tradition, that is that which was generally accepted in the Church. Irenaeus, Vincent of Lerins, Tertullian and Cyprian were products of this school.
school believed that, as Vincent of Lerins formulated it, Scripture was to be interpreted in accordance to that which is believed everywhere ('quod ubique'), always ('quod semper') and by everyone ('quod per omnibus creditam est'). By this method the abuse of exegesis would therefore be avoided, but unfortunately also any generally accepted practices or beliefs of the Church that had become entrenched were put beyond exegetical correction from the Scriptures; much as Jewish traditions had done to their understanding of Holy Scriptures, such as Christ had repeatedly rebuked. The typological and allegorical methods were still accepted subject to Vincent's three-fold constraint.
Tertullian the doctrine of the Church under which the exegesis of the Old Testament should take place was the 'Regula Fidei' – the Rule of Faith. It was the continuity of this Church tradition which gave safety in interpretation. 

represents the continuance of the exegetical principles of this Carthaginian school in the fifth century. He made extensive use of both allegorical and typological method. The former provided his neo-Platonic mind with a way of avoiding the difficulties of understanding a literal interpretation of, for instance, Genesis, especially the creation story. (see The Genesis Prologue). To him the author's thinking, the context, the fear of the Lord, a knowledge of the original language, exactness and empathy with the issues, and humility are very important to a proper understanding of the text, as well as harmony with the doctrine of the Church.
unfortunate example of Augustine's exegesis is his use of the phrase "compel them to come in", in the parable of the Feast (Luke 14:23), to theologically justify the use of violence by the Roman military to enforce the closing down of dissident congregations (Donatists) for their unity with the church in Rome at his request. This exegesis later provided the theological justification for the terrible atrocities of the Spanish Inquisition.
Athanasius, though of Alexandria, and Hilary of Poitiers had similar views as Augustine on the importance of reading the Old Testament in the light of the teachings of the official Church. They held that the organised Church holds the key to true interpretation of the Scripture because it has the Apostolic Tradition.
As later centuries showed, this was no less a path of exegetical abuse than that of the Alexandrian school had been. 

history of Old Testament use and exposition in the Christian Church shows great diversity yet it has a strong common basis. It was firmly believed that the Old Testament was fully inspired of God and authoritative in the life and teachings of the Church. Even though it was believed that the Old Testament had been fulfilled in Christ, this did not in any way reduce the significance of these Scriptures as a source of teaching and correction.
the formal Church, by insistence upon it's monopoly in determining true tradition, in the light of which the text of Scripture was then to be interpreted, helped to smother the individual lay person's relationship to the Old Testament as a spiritual power and it became largely a source of stories to intimidate and dramatize, in disregard of the Holy Spirit's anointing upon the understanding of the individual believer.
As the Apostle John
had written to Christian believers –
"I write these things to you about those who are trying to deceive you. But the Anointing that you received from Him abides in you, and you have no need that anyone should teach you [as final authority]. But as His Anointing teaches you about everything, and is true, and is no lie – just as it has taught you, abide in Him."
1 John 2:26-27.
It is the intimacy
of this personal relation to Jesus Christ (the 'abiding') which allows His Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, to affirm the reality of that which God had given through the prophets of Israel, in the continuity of the consistency of God through the truth of Old Testament Holy Scripture.
Kelly, J.N.D. 1968 Early Christian Doctrines. London, UK: A & C Black 
Lake, Kirsopp 1965 The Apostolic Fathers. London, UK: W Heinemann Ltd. 
Landman, C. & Whitelaw D.P.  1985 Windows on Origins. Pretoria, RSA: Unisa. 
Stevenson, J. 1987 A New Eusebius. Cambridge, UK: SPCK 
Walker, Williston 1959 A History of the Christian Church.  Edinburgh, UK: T & T Clark.
New Encyclopedia Britannica 1979 Chicago, USA: Britannica.  

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