Previously on this page, I referenced a famous passage from early Christian literature in which Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, describes a debate he had with some members of a Judaizing party who refused to accept Ignatius’ teaching regarding Jesus because this teaching was not found in the Old Testament (“the archives”). Ignatius responded that Jesus was in fact found in the Jewish Scriptures, and that the only proper way of interpreting Scripture is in light of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection (Phil. 8.2).
This method of interpreting Scripture is called christological exegesis, and it was a common form of interpretation in the early church. According to this view, all of the Old Testament points to and foreshadows Jesus of Nazareth. Irenaeus of Lyons, a second century bishop and apologist, summarizes this hermeneutic well: “If any one, therefore, reads the Scriptures with attention, he will find in them an account of Christ, and a foreshadowing of the new calling. For Christ is the treasure which was hid in the field, that is, in this world (for “the field is this world”); but the treasure hid in the Scriptures is Christ, since He was pointed out by means of types and parables” (Adv. Haer. 4.26.1). The OT, therefore, is only read correctly when it points to Christ – and not just OT prophecies of Messiah, but all of the Old Testament. In effect, the NT is read back into all of the OT, as later Christian perspective provides a “hermeneutical key” for unlocking the “true meaning” of OT texts. In modern times, this approach to Scripture has fallen out of favor as readers instead pursue authorial intent and the single “original” meaning of a given text. But, given that the direct descendants of the apostles found this hermeneutic to be meaningful (if not necessary for Christians), I think it’s worthy of more attention than the usual scorn we tend to heap on it.
Before we can ever get to questions of how this method of reading works and whether it is a violation of the canons of valid interpretation, two examples will suffice to show how christological exegesis worked in the early church. The first example comes from Clement of Rome, writing sometime in the second half of the first century. In a discussion on examples of faithfulness in the OT (1 Clem. 9-12), Clement retells the story of Rahab, the prostitute who helped Joshua take Jericho (1 Clem. 12:1-7; cf. Josh 2). Clement concludes his summary of the story with the following note regarding the scarlet cord that Rahab tied to her window to guarantee her protection from the invading Israelites: “And in addition they [the Israelite spies] gave her a sign, that she should hang from her house something scarlet – making clear that through the blood of the Lord redemption will come to all who believe and hope in God” (1 Clem. 12:7). Clearly, the “original meaning” or “authorial intent” of the writer of Joshua did not have Christ’s bloody death on the cross in mind, so this is a clear example of the early Christians reading their faith back into the OT through typology.
A second example is found in the Epistle of Barnabas, another early Christian document that likely originated in Alexandria in the late first or early second century. “Barnabas” devotes a large portion of his letter (Barn. 6:8-16:10) to allegorical interpretation of the OT along these lines. Barnabas interprets much of the OT Levitical law in light of God’s salvation in Christ, going so far to criticize the Jews for interpreting the food laws of the OT literally, when they were instead originally meant to have strictly a spiritual sense. Thus, to eat an animal that has a divided hoof in fact means to associate with a righteous person who “not only lives in this world but also looks forward to the holy age to come” (Barn. 10:11). In contrast to these ancient Jews who misunderstood the true force of the Law, Barnabas argues, “we, having rightly understood the commandments, explain them as the Lord intended. He circumcised our ears and hearts for this very purpose, so that we might understand these things” (Barn. 10:12).
Poor Clement and Barnabas: these texts are met with little more than laughter when I’ve heard them read in classes, an example of the worst kind of exegesis. And indeed, they do flagrantly violate the basic rules of historical-grammatical or historical-critical exegesis, the approaches that characterize almost all biblical studies today. The fact that Paul uses exactly the same method of interpretation (Gal 4:21-31, re: Sarah and Hagar) is something of an embarrassment to many scholars of a more conservative stripe, who twist themselves into hermeneutical contortions by arguing that such interpretation was acceptable for the Apostle Paul only (the fact that his disciples and the disciples of the other apostles continued to use the same method of interpretation, presumably with their blessing, seems to be completely ignored), whereas it is forbidden for all other interpreters, ancient or contemporary. Thus, if the NT writers don’t specifically identify a point of typology, it’s off-limits for us today, merely a case of “crass allegory” and a futile exercise in creative eisegesis.
What if, however, in selling ourselves to be placed under the yoke of a modernist hermeneutic, we Christians are missing out on an aspect of what it means to truly read Scripture as a Christian? But are there any limits on christological exegesis (that is, allegorical interpretation)? Was there any rhyme or reason for its practice in the early church, or was it completely arbitrary? With these questions in mind, in the coming weeks I’d like to share some insights on this matter that a new book from Margaret Mitchell has provided.