Jewish and Early Christian Methods of Bible Interpretation

        Judah Gross

        Jewish commentaries and interpretations of the Bible have been prolific since the earliest times of Jewish history.  They have been used to explain and develop a monotheistic culture and society with certain values. Early Christians, in the first and second centuries, also wrote many commentaries and interpretations on the Bible.  The observations of Early Church authors sought to give validity to their new religion by using Old Testament sources to retroactively foresee the coming of Christ, assert his position as savior and G-d, and, to a lesser extent, create their own style of interpretation wholly unique from their Jewish counterparts. 

        In the first and second centuries Christianity was still under scrutiny by Jews and Pagans alike.  Early Christian scholars are known as the Apostolic Fathers and the Apologists; the Fathers were the leaders of the Early Church who were either directly or indirectly connected to the apostles, which is to say they were alive in the same generation and may have known them.  The Early Church thinkers accomplished their task of asserting their status through apologetics, which extolled Christianity and criticized paganism and Judaism; apocalypses, which spoke of other worldly knowledge and asserted Jesus’ position in heaven; and interpretations of the Old Testament, which proved Jesus’ position as messiah.  These groups gave a spiritual account of the Old Testament, understanding the text through allegory and parables, not hard facts and history.  Justin Martyr, an apologist, explains this by saying,

…what the prophets said and did they veiled by parables and types, as you admitted to us; so that it was not easy for all to understand the most [of what they said], since they concealed the truth by these means, that those who are eager to find out and learn it might do so with much labor.[i]

Jewish writers of the same time, part of an older religion, wrote and translated more literally.

        Three passages, Akedat Itzchak, the Binding of Isaac, Israel’s victory over Amalek, and the concept of in novissimis diebus (“in these last days”) found in Micah 4 and Isaiah 2, are key in understanding biblical exegesis of the time. These three cases illustrate the new allegorical approach to interpretation that the Apostolic Fathers developed.  They are examples of simple narratives from the Old Testament that the early Christian leaders deciphered in a way to prove Jesus’ divinity and validity.

        The Akeda has been always been very controversial in Jewish tradition, leading to a rich discussion of its meaning and morals.  It is impossible to exactly understand the Akeda.  However, one basic concept concerning it is that the Akeda can be used in the etiology of why Jews no longer practice human sacrifice and instead sacrifice animals, as G-d told Abraham not to slaughter his son.  In the Christian belief of the time period, the Binding of Isaac demonstrated a similarity to the crucifixion of Jesus.  Isaac was to be sacrificed by his own father and willingly went with him, even carrying the wood for his own immolation. 

        There are also different understandings of Israel’s triumph over the nation of Amalek as written in Exodus 17: 8-15. To the Jewish people, victory represented the power of G-d in the face of one’s enemies.  In the Jewish tradition the battle was won because Moses kept his hands straight up in the air with the help of Joshua and Hur.  The Apologists, namely Justin Martyr in his discussion with Trypho, explained that the victory was achieved because of two reasons.  First by the actions of Moses who, instead of putting his hands vertically, acted as a type of cross by stretching out his hands horizontally and having them propped up on a rock.  The second account was in regard to the military leader of the conflict, Joshua, who had the same name as Jesus and fought in the battle itself.  This signified that to be led into Israel, the people of Israel must follow the cross and Jesus. 

        The true nature of early Christian thought versus Jewish thought can be seen in the commentary on the phrase in novissimis diebus.  This phrase’s explanation in Jewish tradition speaks of both the time period of Ezra and Nehemiah when the Temple was rebuilt as well as in the day when the Messiah will come and the Temple will be constructed a third time.  The Apostolic Fathers interpreted “in these last days” to refer back to the time period of Jesus with the notion that the church is visible to all people and that from Zion the teaching of Jesus spread out from Jerusalem. 

        Gen 22: 1-19 is the story of the Akeda, with the narrative as follows:  As a test, G-d commands Abraham to sacrifice “your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love.[ii]  Abraham takes Isaac and two servants to Mount Moriah.  Abraham and Isaac walk up the mountain alone with Isaac carrying the wood for the burnt offering.  Isaac asks his father, “The fire and wood are here, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?[iii]” Abraham explains that G-d will provide the offering.  Abraham then arranges an altar and binds his son to it.  He prepares to sacrifice his son, raising the knife to kill him, when an angel calls to him and instructs him not to proceed but instead to sacrifice a ram that was caught in a thicket next to them.  Abraham does as he is told and returns with his son and servants to Beer Sheva. 

        Though the Apostolic Fathers did not live in the same geographical area and had limited contact with one another, there is a common basis for their exegetical interpretations of the story of the Binding of Isaac.[iv]  The root of their commentaries is that Akedat Yitzchak is an allusion to the crucifixion of Jesus.  In both cases the sacrifice, or in the case of Isaac the would-be sacrifice, carry the wooden instruments of their destruction up to the location of their demise.  In the case of the Akeda, Isaac carries the timber that Abraham would have used to immolate him to the top of Mount Moriah, and in the crucifixion, Jesus carries the cross itself up the Via Dolorosa to Golgotha.  From this, many Apostolic Fathers gather that Isaac was typologically similar to Jesus, both prepared to be sacrificed for the sake of others.  This idea is most prevalent in the Epistle of Barnabas where Barnabas, a convert and Apostolic Father, writes, “The Lord […] was going to offer the vessel of the spirit as a sacrifice for our sins, in order that the type established in Isaac, who was offered upon the altar, might be fulfilled.”[v]  Iranaeus, another Apostolic Father and Bishop of Gaul, believes in the same concept, but instead of putting the emphasis on Isaac and Jesus, he parallels it to G-d and Abraham.  They were both voluntarily giving up their only son, their beloved son.  In the case of G-d and Jesus, this is done for the redemption of fellow man, and with Abraham and Isaac this is done to please G-d.  The Early Church writers Origen, Tertullian, Cyprian of Carthage, and Clement of Alexandria all have similar exegeses on the typology of Isaac.[vi]  All of these Apostolic Fathers independently wrote similar interpretations of Akedat Yitzchak, each making the near-sacrifice of Isaac into a figure of the redemptive sacrifice of Jesus.

            The morals of the Binding of Isaac are prevalent throughout Jewish tradition and liturgy.  One of the reasons for the holiness of Jerusalem is the faith Abraham displayed in the Binding of Isaac.  The altar in the Temple is supposed to be in the same location as the one that Abraham used to sacrifice the ram in place of Isaac, setting the precedent for animal sacrifice in Judaism.[vii]  The Binding of Isaac can also be seen in the liturgy of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.  The Torah portion containing Akedat Yitzchak is read during the second day of Rosh Hashanah.  The entire second day of Rosh Hashanah seems to be remembering the Akeda.  In fact, the origin of the blowing of the shofar is to remember the ram that replaced Isaac as a sacrifice to G-d.[viii]  In the Jewish tradition, the Binding of Isaac is also remembered on Passover.  The Akeda is interpreted as a historical precedent with regard to the miracles associated with the holiday.   Because Isaac was Abraham’s first-born son, it is believed that G-d spared the first-born Israelites over the first-born Egyptians because he remembered the Binding of Isaac.  Similarly, there is an idea that the reason the blood of the lamb was spread over the door was to remember that just as the ram was sacrificed in the place of Isaac, the lamb is being sacrificed to save the first-born Israelites.[ix]  This idea comes from the Mekhilta of Rabbi Ishmael, which said “ And when I see the blood, I will pass over you.  I see the blood of the Binding of Isaac.[x]  Jews are also reminded of the Akeda on a daily basis, as the idea of G-d granting life is in the Shemone Esrei, a part of the daily liturgy. 

        Akedat Yitzchak is a troubling story in the Torah where G-d toys with the lives of Abraham, Isaac, and Sarah.  Some believe that the Devil told Sarah what was happening on Mount Moriah and shock over the loss of her only son accounts for her death. This idea comes from the fact that the Torah portion immediately after this deals with the death of Sarah.  Others believe that the experience of being the “almost sacrifice” scarred Isaac so severely that it accounts for his blindness and deafness in later life.  It is thus not surprising that this story, which was extensively discussed by the rabbis, was interpreted by almost all of the Apostolic Fathers, independent of one another.

        The story of the Israelites’ victory over Amalek due to Moshe keeping his arms raised is found in both Exod. 17: 8-15 and Deut. 25: 17-19.  The amalgamated story goes as follows: While the Jewish people are traveling to Israel, the Amalekites attacked them from the rear, murdering the old and weak.  Moses sent Joshua to lead an army against them while he stayed on top of the mountain “with the rod of G-d in [his] hand.[xi]  As they fought, whenever Moses held his hands in the air, Israel was victorious over Amalek.  However, when his tired arms fell Amalek prevailed against Israel.  Aaron and Hur then propped Moshe’s arms up under rocks to keep them raised and Joshua and the army defeated Amalek.

        The Christian commentator that deals most extensively with this passage is Justin Martyr in his discussion with Trypho, a relatively uneducated Jew.  Trypho cannot understand how Jesus can be the messiah if he endured the agony that he did.  He cannot believe in a suffering, and thus accursed, messiah.[xii]  Justin then seeks to prove to Trypho that the concept of the crucifixion was laid down in the Torah, thus proving that Jesus was the messiah even though he suffered.  Justin reminds Trypho that he, himself, stated that the message of the prophets can only be understood by finding the meaning of the types and parables found in their writings.  Trypho responds, “We admitted this.[xiii]  Following the idea that the text must be interpreted to find its true meaning, Justin explains to Trypho that the battle fought by the Children of Israel and Joshua against Amalek proved two things.  It demonstrated that salvation could be found when one follows Christ and that the crucifixion was foreseen in the actions of Moses.  Justin suggests that when Moses held his hands in the air he held them out to his sides, making his entire body into the shape of the cross, the sign of Christ.  When this was done, because Moses was acting as a type of Christ, Israel was victorious, “and the one prevailing was prevailing through the cross.[xiv]    However, when Moses stopped being a symbol of the crucifixion, Israel was defeated.  Justin also explains that the reason Israel won the battle and the people were later led into Israel was because of the name of Joshua.  This too, he explains, is similar to the history of Jesus.  Justin points out that both Joshua and Jesus, when written in Greek are Ίησούς.  He explains that just as Jesus was victorious over death in his resurrection, Joshua was victorious over Amalek in the battle.[xv]  In Justin’s line of reasoning, following the cross and the name of Jesus will bring you victory in your battles against non-believers, in this case Amalek, and will lead you to Israel and salvation.

        The battle and all interactions with Amalek are a major point of discussion by the rabbis.  However, the emphasis of these discussions is not the method used to win the battle but rather the exact nature of Amalek.  In the bible there is vehement hatred of the wicked nation of Amalek, seen in G-d telling Moses that, "I will utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under the Heaven.[xvi]  There are more Jewish interpretations of the battle of Amalek and G-d’s later commandment that Israel should slay every Amalekite, even the women, children, infants, and animals.  In the Jewish tradition, Amalek is seen as pure, epitomized evil.  This is seen in the attack on Israel, as the assault is entirely unprovoked.  Israel is not an invading army nor are they attempting to settle on Amalekite land. They are merely passing through the area, a complete non-threat.  Despite this, Amalek attacks Israel and not only do they fight Israel unprovoked they slay the Israelites starting from the back of the group where the old and weak were found, the groups that could not protect themselves.  Due to Amalek’s sin of a senseless assault on the defenseless, it is the duty of all of Israel to fight to destroy them.  Even Moses, who at this point is very old, can at least call on G-d to bring about a victory for Israel.  

        The different natures of interpretation practiced by Jews and Christians can be seen in the commentaries on the battle of Amalek.  Christians viewed the battle allegorically and typologically, finding that the name of Christ and the cross will lead the believers to victory against evil and later into Israel.  Christians believed that the Torah was a “singe book about Christ.”[xvii]  On the other side, Jews saw the battle of Amalek as more of a historical fact and, instead of looking for the hidden meaning, delved into the motivations behind the desire to annihilate Amalek.  These two interpretations of the same Old Testament text are indicative of the two distinct styles practiced by Jews and Christians, respectively.

"B'acharit hayamim", in novissimis diebus, or “in these newest days” is the beginning phrase of a prophecy found in both the second chapter of Isaiah and the fourth chapter of Micah.  In both of these books the prophecy of what will happen “in these last days” is the same.  In novissimis diebus, the world will be, for lack of a better word, perfect.  In these last days, the mountain of G-d will stand above all others, the people of the world will gaze on it, all will follow in the teachings of G-d, and all will travel to Jerusalem. And finally, “And they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks: Nation shall not take up sword against nation; they shall never again know war.[xviii]  According to the prophecy, in these last days the world will be at peace.

        The Christian interpretation of in novissimis diebus and the prophecy that follows is allegorical.  The early Christians wrote much on this topic and on Nevi’im in general.  Origen even wrote thirty books of commentary on Isaiah, however these no longer exist.  Dionysius of Alexandria is also supposed to have written a commentary of the book of Isaiah but this too is lost.  Despite these setbacks, Eusebius of Caesarea, a disciple of Origen, does have a commentary based mostly on the books of Origen.  In this work Eusebius explains that the time period of “in these last days” refers to the Roman Empire after the coming of Christ[xix].   This idea comes from sections of the prophecy that describe the word of G-d coming from Zion.  Eusebius interprets this to mean that the teachings of Jesus are spread out into humanity.  This notion also comes from Eusebius’ translation of "B'acharit hayamim" to mean “in the end of the age”.  This leads Eusebius to believe that this is referring to the start of the new community formed because of Jesus’ teachings.  Robert Wilken indicates that this stems from the early Christians having to defend their views against their rivals[xx].  Eusebius interprets the prophecy metaphorically, not seeing Micah and Isaiah as prophesizing a future world of perfection but rather as discussing the current world where the wisdom of Jesus is expanding throughout mankind and the Church, the highest mountain, is visible throughout the world.  This style of interpreting can also be seen in how early Christians viewed Jerusalem.  Origen interprets Jerusalem not as the actual city, but rather believes that references to it in the Old Testament really refer to a heavenly, spiritual city[xxi].  The rejection by the early Christians of the holiness of the physical Jerusalem and the commentary on the prophecy both show the new style of interpretation practiced by the Apostolic Fathers and Apologists in the first and second centuries.

        The Jewish insight into the prophecies of Micah and Isaiah is much more literal than those of the Early Church scholars.  Jews understood these words to be a promise.  The “Mountain of the Lord” referred to in the prophecy is believed to be Mount Zion and Jerusalem.  The reason for this interpretation in the end of the first century, throughout the second century, and beyond is that Jewish Jerusalem was destroyed; and more importantly the Temple was destroyed.  Jews at this time were hoping for autonomous control over Jerusalem, a return of the exiles to Jerusalem, and creation of a peaceful, Jewish kingdom in Jerusalem[xxii].  This belief accounts for the actions of Bar Kochba, who led a revolt against the Romans from 132 to 135 to recapture Jerusalem and Israel.  The conviction in this prediction is so strong that Rabbi Akiba, one of the most learned men in Jewish history and a rabbi in the time of the Tannaim, named Bar Kochba the Messiah[xxiii].  The Jews, as they were a dispersed people waiting for the return to their holy city and land, interpreted the prophecy and phrase in novissimis diebus as looking forward towards the future. They saw these last days as the time of the redemption of Jerusalem and a return to a Jewish kingdom in the city.

"B'acharit hayamim" and the prophecy that follows shows the diversity in interpretations that occurred between Jews and the early Christians.  The Apostolic Fathers and the Apologists explained this text as referring to Jesus, his teachings, and the dispersal of the Church throughout the world.  The Jews, exiled by the Romans after the first half of the first century, saw this passage as a promise that would be fulfilled by G-d to return them to Jerusalem and to rebuild the Temple.  This prophecy also demonstrates the rift between the Jews and the Christians over the holiness of the physical city of Jerusalem. 

        Following the split of Christians and Jews in the first century, the early Christians had to develop their own methods of interpretation for the Bible.  For the Apostolic Fathers, this allowed them to study the Old Testament and make their own inferences regarding the text.  They taught these findings of their religion to new Christians.  The Apologists were able to use their commentaries on the Bible to give validity to their new religion in the face of the Jewish people and the pagans.  Justin Martyr especially used this tactic in his dialogue with Trypho.  Justin argues the existence of forms of Christ in the Bible, citing the battle with Amalek, as discussed above, as well as several other sources of evidence in the Torah.  He discusses the Paschal sacrifice in the Passover story as reference to Jesus being the lamb of G-d.   The red thread used by the harlot in the story of the Spies shows that salvation can be found through the red blood of Christ.  Finally, he explains that the cross shape of the serpent Moses fixed to his staff was truly what healed the Jewish people in Num. 20: 8-9.  This is also done by the Apostolic Fathers that comment on the Binding of Isaac, finding suggestions of Christ in the Akeda.  The Apologists use the Torah itself to prove the authority of the new Christian religion.  In other cases these insights into the Old Testament are used to update the Bible to make it more applicable to the new traditions held by the Christians.  The spiritual interpretations used by Eusebius in his commentary on the prophecy in Isaiah 2 and Micah 4 explain that devotion to the physical land of Israel and Jerusalem are no longer necessary.  To the Jewish people, Israel and Jerusalem possessed a certain kind of holiness.  However, to Christians this was counter-intuitive, as they were living in other lands and were not encouraged to move to Israel.  Eusebius and the other Apologists explained that the one true Jerusalem is a spiritual place and that the Mountain of the Lord is the Church, visible throughout the world.  Jewish interpretations at the time were much more historically and factually based, as Judaism was already an established religion based on the Torah.  The Bible was a narrative to be explained, not a source to prove the divinity of Christ or to justify the new traditions of a developing religion.  In that way, the styles of interpretation of the Bible of the early Christian and Jewish scholars differ in the first and second centuries.



[i] Justin 90

[ii] Gen 22: 2

[iii] Gen 22: 7

[iv] Manns 102

[v] Ibid. 105

[vi] Ibid. 106

[vii] Ibid. 65

[viii] Ibid. 66

[ix] Levenson 181

[x] Manns 60

[xi] Exod. 17: 9

[xii] Allert 232

[xiii] Justin 396

[xiv] Allert 235

[xv] Ibid. 235

[xvi] Exod 17:14

[xvii] Wilken, “Early Christian Thought” 72

[xviii] Isaiah 2: 4

[xix] Wilken, “In Novissimis Diebus” 5

[xx] “In Novissimis Diebus” 8

[xxi] Wilken, “Early Christian Chiliasm” 302

[xxii] Wilken, “In Novissimis Diebus 6

[xxiii] Wilken, “Early Christian Chiliasm” 305

 

 

 

Works Cited

Allert, Craig D. Revelation, Truth, Canon, and Interpretation. Leiden, the Netherlands: Koninklijke Brill, 2002. 

JPS Hebrew-English Bible. 2nd ed. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1999. 

Levenson, Jon D. The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son: the Transformation of Child Sacrifice in Judaism and Christianity. Binghamton, NY: Yale UP, 1993. 

Manns, Frederic, ed. Proceedings of a Symposium on the Interpretation of the Scriptures Held in Jerusalem. The Sacrifice of Isaac in the Three Monotheistic Religions, 16 Mar. 1995, Studium Biblicum Franciscanum. Jerusalem: Franciscan Printing P, 1995. 

Schaff, Philip. The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus. Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 1867. 

St. Justin Martyr, "Dialogue with Trypho." Early Christian Writings. 20 December 2007 <http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/justinmartyr-dialoguetrypho.html>.

Wilken, Robert L. "Early Christian Chiliasm, Jewish Messianism, and the Idea of the Holy Land." The Harvard Theological Review 79 (1986):  298-307. 

Wilken, Robert L. "In Novissimis Diebus: Biblical Promises, Jewish Hopes, and Early Christian Exegesis." Journal of Early Christian Studies 1 (1993):  1-19. 

Wilken, Robert L. "In Novissimis Diebus: Biblical Promises, Jewish Hopes, and Early Christian Exegesis." Journal of Early Christian Studies 1 (1993):  1-19. 

Wilken, Robert L. The Spirit of Early Christian Thought. Harrisonburg, VA: Yale UP, 2003. 

 


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