Reading the Scriptures with the Risen Christ

How was it that the disciples came to know Jesus as Lord, Son of God, incarnate Word? They did not acquire this knowledge by merely accompanying him on his travels around Galilee—the gospels make this point clearly enough. Nor did they come to this knowledge by seeing Jesus nailed to a cross by the Romans. If anything, his death marked him as but one more failed Messiah. Nor did they acquire this knowledge by the discovery of the empty tomb on Easter morning: an empty tomb can be explained in various ways. The New Testament offers one explanation for the paschal faith of the disciples: the risen Jesus appeared to them on Easter Sunday and the weeks thereafter.1 Yet even these encounters could be mysterious, enigmatic, puzzling. Matthew reports the story of Jesus’ manifesta­tion in Galilee: “And when they saw him they worshiped him; but some doubted” (Matt 28:17). Something else was needed to bring full conviction.

Recall the story of St Cleopas and his unnamed companion (St Luke?). As they were walking to Emmaus, a stranger takes up with them. He proceeds to exposit the Scriptures and demonstrate how the sacred writings foretold of the Messiah’s suffering, death, and vindication. Even then they did not recognize him. The two compan­ions prevail upon the stranger to stay for supper. He offers the blessing and breaks the bread. At that moment their eyes are opened. They recognize him as  Jesus, raised from death by the Father in accordance with the Scriptures. The risen Lord then disappears from their sight. In amazement Cleopas and his companion cry out, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32). Fr John Behr elaborates:

Rather, the disciples came to recognize the Lord as the one whose Passion is spoken of by the scriptures and encountered him in the breaking of bread. It is these two complementary ways, the engagement with the scriptures and sharing in the Lord’s meal, “proclaiming his death until he comes” (1 Cor 11.26), that Paul specifies he had received (from the Lord himself in the case of the eucharistic meal) and then handed down, or “traditioned,” to later generations (cf. 1 Cor 11.23, 15.3). These constitute, as it were, the matrix and sustenance of the Christian tradition. From this vantage point, we can now look back to the Cross, the last publicly visible image (the tomb, after all, was empty and seen only by a few, and the risen Christ disappears from our sight when he is recognized), as the sign of victory, as we await the return of the Lord; as the apostle Paul said, he would preach nothing else but Christ and him crucified. The images throughout the early Christian period depicting the Crucifixion constitute, such as that in the Rabbula Gospels, consistently depict the crucified Christ with an upright body and eyes wide open, not because of an inability to depict a dead corpse, but precisely because the crucified one is the triumphant Lord: the Cross itself is taken simultaneously as a reference to the Crucifixion and to the risen Christ. The Christ that Christians are concerned with is always the crucified and exalted one, the one who has now entered into his glory.2

The disciples did not become convinced that Jesus had been raised from death by just reading the sacred writings. The confession of the Crucified as Son and Lord is dependent upon the fresh interpretation of the Scriptures generated by the mysterious events of Pascha. The appearances of the risen Lord precede the paschal interpre­tation. Yet as the Emmaus story suggests, the appearances and apostolic hermeneutic are inseparably intertwined, as we would expect for such a dramatic paradigm shift. “All data are theory-laden,” N. R. Hanson declared back in the late ’50s. Ian Barbour later rephrased the dictum: “There are no bare uninterpreted data.” Philosophers debate the validity of Hanson’s thesis, but it certainly seems to obtain when evaluating the formula­tion of the Church’s resurrection faith. What we believe informs what we see; what we see informs what we believe.

The crucifixion should have demonstrated the falsity of Jesus’ messianic claims. As the Emmaus travelers told Jesus: “We had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21). But then something remarkable happens. The disciples re-group and begin proclaiming Jesus of Nazareth as Lord and Savior:

The disciples did not simply come to understand Christ in light of the Passion. Rather, only when turned again (or were turned by the risen Christ) to the scriptures (meaning what we now call the “Old Testament”) did they begin to see there all sorts of references to Christ, and specifically to the necessity that he should suffer before entering his glory (cf. Lk 24.27), which they then used in their proclamation of Christ. In other words, they were not used merely as a narrative of the past, but rather as a thesaurus, a teasing of imagery, for entering into the mystery of Christ, the starting point for which is the historical event of the Passion. In this it is not so much scripture that is being exegeted, but rather Christ who is being interpreted by recourse of the scriptures. Not that they denied that God had been at work in the past, but their account of this “salvation history” is one which is told from the perspective of their encounter with the risen Lord, seeing him as providentially arranging the whole economy, the plan of salvation,” such that it culminates in him.3

The entirety of the Bible is about the crucified Nazarene. He is found on every page, if one has eyes to see and ears to hear. Israel’s deliverance at the Red Sea symbolizes the paschal victory of the glorified Jesus over the powers of sin, evil and death. When Moses in the wilderness strikes the rock and water gushes out, that rock, the Apostle Paul says, was Christ himself, our eucharistic drink (1 Cor 10:4). The story of Jonah in the stomach of the whale typologically witnesses to Jesus’ stay in the tomb. If we wish to read the Scriptures rightly, we must walk with Jesus and allow him to teach us: “And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27).

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Consider the story of the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8. Philip finds him sitting in his chariot reading the hymn of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53. The eunuch does not ask the question “we would ask today—‘What is the meaning of this passage?’—as if the ‘meaning’ were located in the text itself, and so in the past, and our task is to uncover it, what the text ‘meant,’ and then perhaps to find ‘meaning’ for ourselves in the present by some kind of analogy. Instead the eunuch asked, ‘About whom does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?’ (Acts 8.34).”4 Philip explains to him that the prophecy refers to Jesus of Nazareth and has been fulfilled in his passion. “‘Meaning’ resides in the person of whom the text speaks, and our task is to know this person by understanding how the text speaks of him.”5 The words point us to the Word, and the Word interprets the words. As Christ states in the Gospel of John: “You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me” (John 5:39). Only by understanding that Jesus is the true text of Scripture can we “understand why for the authors of the writings of the New Testament, and those whose work resulted in these writings being collected together, the expression ‘the Word of God’ did not refer to scripture, as it is often assumed today, but to Jesus Christ himself and the gospel proclaiming him, the crucified and exalted one, as Lord.”6 Jesus is the Word made flesh. The exegetical task of preacher and theologian, writes Behr, is not “to retrieve the original, pristine and pure, meaning of the authors of scripture by removing the obscuring sediment of later theological reflection.”7 If such historical meaning exists and can be recovered, it is of only secondary interest to the Church. Historical critics come to the biblical text as historical artifact. Their investigation is focused on the past. I do not question the necessity and worth of their scholarship; but their methods preclude encounter with the living Christ. The Church lives from the future, and she has her own hermeneutic. As Behr has frequently remarked, “If you aren’t reading the Bible allegorically, you’re not reading it as Scripture.”8 The task of the Church is to proclaim Christ crucified and declare the good news of his resurrection. Behr quotes an illuminating passage from St Irenaeus:

If anyone, therefore, reads the Scriptures this way, he will find in them the Word concerning Christ, and a foreshadowing of the new calling. For Christ is the “treasure which was hidden in the field” [Matt 13:44], that is, in this world—for “the field is the world” [Matt 13:38]—[a treasure] hidden in the Scriptures, for he was indicated by means of types and parables, which could not be understood by men prior to the consummation of those things which had been predicted, that is, the advent of the Lord. And therefore it was said to Daniel the prophet, “Shut up the words, and seal the book, until the time of the consummation, until many learn and knowledge abounds. For, when the dispersion shall be accomplished, they shall know all these things” [Dan 12:4, 7]. And Jeremiah also says, “In the last days they shall understand these things” [Jer 23:20]. For every prophecy, before its fulfillment, is nothing but an enigma and ambiguity to men; but when the time has arrived, and the prediction has come to pass, then it has an exact exposition (ἐξήγησις). And for this reason, when at this present time the Law is read by the Jews, it is like a myth, for they do not possess the explanation (ἐξήγησις) of all things which pertain to the human advent of the Son of God; but when it is read by Christians, it is a treasure, hid in a field, but brought to light by the cross of Christ, and explained, both enriching the understanding of men, and showing forth the wisdom of God, and making known his dispensations with regard to man, and prefiguring the kingdom of Christ, and preaching in anticipation the good news of the inheritance of the holy Jerusalem, and proclaiming beforehand that the man who loves God shall advance so far as even to see God, and hear his Word, and be glorified, from hearing his speech, to such an extent, that others will not be able to behold his glorious countenance [cf. 2 Cor 3:7], as was said by Daniel, “Those who understand shall shine as the brightness of the firmament, and many of the righteous as the stars for ever and ever” [Dan 12:3]. In this manner, then, I have shown it to be, if anyone read the Scriptures.9

Christ is hidden in the Old Testament. Apart from noetic apprehension of the risen One, it remains a closed book, a collection of disjointed myths, stories, prophesies and commandments. But once the Messiah is raised from the dead and the Spirit is poured out, the Old Testament becomes luminous testimony to the Kingdom proleptically present in the Eucharist of the Church. In the words of Andrew Greeley: “Christ turned the world upside down; and when the world was viewed from such a remarkable perspective, it suddenly made sense.”10

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Contemporary theology and biblical studies, with its privileging of the historical-critical method, inevitably finds the apostolic hermeneutic an embarrassment. Neither the Apostles nor the Church Fathers treated the biblical writings as documents whose meaning lies exclusively in the text itself. If they had, there would have been neither gospel nor Church. The crucified and risen Jesus, and he alone, is the canon of faith.

Decades ago I attended a conference at Princeton Seminary. The conference was dedicated to the theme of biblical authority and interpretation. Among the distinguished speakers, two in particular caught my attention—the renowned New Testament scholar Jack Dean Kingsbury and the great theologian-provocateur Stanley Hauerwas. At one point in his lecture, Hauerwas announced that if God were ever to put him in charge of the seminaries in the country, his first order of business would be to fire en masse all the biblical scholars. I remember looking over at Kingsbury, sitting not too far away from me. He did not look pleased. Hauerwas would later write a little book, Unleashing the Scripture, in which he vigorously attacks the Protestant principle of sola scriptura and the privileging of the historical-critical method in the Church. He takes up the claim of Stanley Fish that texts do not have meaning in themselves but only emerge as texts through the interpretive process. Needless to say, Hauerwas does not think very highly of the principle of sola scriptura: “When sola scriptura is used to underwrite the distinction between text and interpre­ta­tion, then it seems clear to me that sola scriptura is a heresy rather than a help in the Church. When this distinction persists, sola scriptura becomes the seedbed of funda­ment­alism, as well as biblical criticism. It assumes that the text of the Scripture makes sense separate from a Church that gives it sense.”11 I suspect Fr John might agree.

(29 March 2017; rev.)

Footnotes

[1] See N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (2003).

[2] John Behr, The Mystery of Christ (2006), pp. 27-28.

[3] Ibid., p. 17.

[4] Ibid., pp. 49-50.

[5] Ibid., p. 50.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., p. 47.

[8] See John Behr, “Reading Scripture,” Public Orthodoxy (12 December 2017), and “Lifting the Veil: Reading Scripture in the Orthodox Tradition,” Sobornost 38 (2016): 74-90.

[9] Irenaeus, Against the Heresies 4.26.1.

[10] Andrew Greeley, The Great Mysteries (2003), p. 16.

[11] Stanley Hauerwas, Unleashing the Scripture (1993), p. 27.

(cont)

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