Many Christians have a far greater knowledge of the New Testament than the Old Testament. I suspect for many Catholics, the Old Testament selection they hear as the first reading at Mass on Sundays is the only time during the week when they read from that part of the Bible. Some churches include books of the Old Testament as part of their Bible study classes for adults, but many more focus on the Gospels, Acts and the Epistles.
I’ve recently been reminded of the need to have a greater appreciation for the Old Testament, of the extent to which what is written in the New Testament can only be fully understood against the backdrop of the Old.
The first thing that prompted this thought: On the plane the other day, I was listening to a CD of talks on the Eucharist by Fr. Robert Barron. One of the things Fr. Barron talks about is the Eucharist as sacrifice. Talking about the Last Supper and Jesus’ language, he observes that first century Jews would have understood completely the “temple overtones,” that is, the relationship between the temple sacrifices that related to God’s covenant with Abraham, and Christ’s death as the “one, true and ultimate sacrifice” of the New Covenant. We hear those words, “the blood of the covenant” when we hear accounts of the Last Supper, but we don’t hear them the same way the writers wrote them and the early chuch would have heard them.
Barron also observed that when he asks people what it means to refer to Jesus as the Lamb of God, many people respond by talking about the gentleness of a lamb. Of course the people writing the Gospels had no such thing in mind. To them, the image immediately called to mind the one who has come to be sacrified. But those overtones tend to be lost on us.
The second thing that prompted this thought: As I mentioned the other day, one of the books I’m currently reading is Rowan Williams, Tokens of Trust (about which I’ll write more when I’ve finished reading it). I was struck by Williams discussion of the Ascension of Jesus, which is referenced in the creed. We’ve all seen artistic renditions of this event, which show Jesus being lifted up into the clouds. I suspect many people think those images depict what literally happened.
Talking about the passages in Luke and Acts describing the Ascension, Williams writes: “This is pictorial language, of course, not to be interpreted as if the Bible were thinking of a sort of space travel. The biblical writers knew quite well that God did not live in a literal place above the clouds, but they happily used the strong images of Old Testament poems and psalms to tell us that after a while Jesus appeared no more in matreial form to his disciples. He ‘ascended’, he left the scene, and he now ‘is seated at the right hand of the Father’: when we look at God, we can’t help but see Jesus.” Without some knowledge of that Old Testament imagery, we can’t know how to read those Ascension accounts.
Doubtless some will scoff of my observation of the value of greater understanding of the Old Testament to more fully appreciate the New Testament, thinking it too obvious to be worth mentioning. Indeed, the sheer number of cross-references to the Old Testament in the footnotes and margins of some versions of the New Testament gives a pretty clear clue about the fact that, as Rob Bell puts it, “[w]hat the first Christians did was look around them and put the Jesus story in language their listeners could understand.” Nonetheless, I think it is useful reminder to those who tend to limit their focus to the Gospels, thinking it enough to read about what Jesus said and did. We will miss an awful lot if that is all we do.