Rediscovering the Old Testament

…or a defense of the Old Testament (that may not sound like it to some readers).

This year in class I had the kids read a lot more Scripture, and this is going to increase even more in the upcoming year. It is not that I was opposed to Scripture before (of course not!), but that as I am approaching my fourth year, I am able to do more things that I want to with the curriculum. Last year, we started reading a lot more of the Old Testament together at school, and this coincides with my effort to read through the Bible again in my own time. I have really enjoyed reading the Old Testament, but there was a time when the Old Testament was a bit of an embarrassment for this Christian (although, unlike some ancient and modern folk who would cut-up the canon, I never felt the need to resort to that). In fact, reading the Old Testament often brings up questions like “how can the Bible say that when we don’t do that?” and “Those people sure don’t act like Christians!”

In seminary, some of my professors told us, “Jesus isn’t in the Old Testament” and seemed to be disappointed that Christians even bothered to use the Old Testament. This is why it is in fashion to call the Old Testament the “Hebrew Scriptures.” This is not a Catholic, or classically Christian, position. While certainly recognizing the relationship of the first testament to the Jewish people, for Catholics, the Old Testament is important because it contains the history of salvation, God’s progressive revelation to mankind, and sets the stage for the Incarnation. I do see value in studying the first testament from the perspective of the Jewish people, but we must not neglect the study of it from a Christian perspective either! This is why I find the Old Testament so interesting. The Old Testament is, from a Catholic perspective, part of the development, the special events of salvation history leading up to the “good news” of the story. The “happy ending,” the incarnation, puts the Old Testament in proper perspective. Once in perspective, I think we can appreciate the events and teachings of the Old Testament using the multiple senses of Scripture, but because we are viewing the Old through the lens of the New, the more troubling parts are placed in their proper perspective. The Catechism explains it thusly:

Christians therefore read the Old Testament in the light of Christ crucified and risen. Such typological reading discloses the inexhaustible content of the Old Testament; but it must not make us forget that the Old Testament retains its own intrinsic value as Revelation reaffirmed by our Lord himself. Besides, the New Testament has to be read in the light of the Old. Early Christian catechesis made constant use of the Old Testament. As an old saying put it, the New Testament lies hidden in the Old and the Old Testament is unveiled in the New.

It is very hard to explain the Old Testament in this way to those who insist on taking every word of the Bible literally, or to those that don’t believe the New Testament is the lens through which the old is read. However, the Fathers of the Church certainly understood the value of the Old Testament placed within a proper context. On a related note, people who know me, know that I am reluctant to quote the Old Testament when explaining Catholic morality, unless I first explain the context of the Old Testament. This is because for every part of the Jewish law that Catholics follow, there are those that we don’t, and some people suggest we are being inconsistent. I don’t think we are inconsistent, although the fundamentalist, both the Christian and anti-Christian, might disagree.

So for Catholics, Jesus is certainly “in the Old Testament,” albeit in a much more hidden way than the New, but he is there, so much so that St. Justin and other Fathers believed the theophanies contained in the Old Testament were incarnations of God the Word. We should not only read the Old Testament regularly, but should contemplate it as inspired Scripture, containing the earlier, yet incomplete, parts of salvation history.