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Prophecy and Interpretation

   The most familiar technique used by early interpreters of Jesus is the one that depicts Jesus as the fulfillment of earlier scriptural prophecy. Prophecy in Scripture is the delivery of a message from God, often predicting disaster as a result of the people’s unfaithfulness to the Covenant. A prophet’s message was validated by historical events; the accounts that became Scripture reflect prophecies that came true. For the evangelist Matthew, writing for a Jewish audience, the fulfillment of Scripture was foremost in his mind as proof that Jesus was the Messiah. Other New Testament writers also use the fulfillment of prophecy in Jesus as a validation for the claim that he is Messiah (see Matthew 12:17-21; 13:35; 15:7-9; 21; Mark 4:12, 7:6-7; Luke 24:44-48; John 7:40-42; 12:13-16, 37-41; 19:24; Acts 2:14ff; the letter to the Hebrews, etc.). Jesus is interpreted as fulfilling certain words of the prophets Joel (Acts 2:17-21 quotes Joel 2:28-32) and Isaiah (especially from chapters 40-55), as well as the Psalms of David (Mark 12:35-6 quotes Ps. 110, Luke 20:17 quotes Ps. 118, Matthew 27:46 and John 19:24 quote Ps. 22; Acts 2:25-28 quotes Ps. 16; etc.).

   The fact that the prophetic or other Scriptures were not originally written to predict Jesus is often clear from their contexts, but was evidently not a concern for the early Christian interpreters. They selectively used those texts that could be applied to Jesus, recasting them as metaphors or types for Jesus, and subordinating the rest to the authority of the new interpretation. The authority to make this interpretive shift lay in their conviction of the revelation in Christ--"the kingdom of God depends not on talk but on power" (1 Corinthians 4:20); "the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek" (Romans 1:16).

Use of Allegory by Early Christians

   As mentioned earlier, an allegory is a story that has two levels of meaning: the obvious, literal one and an underlying symbolic meaning. Both levels of meaning can be valid. The literal story of Abraham tells of two sons, one by a slave, one by a wife; reading it allegorically, what might they symbolize?

    This became a favored tool for Christians as they reinterpreted Jewish Scripture. We may not be comfortable with the intent or conclusions of some uses of this method. Paul uses it in Galatians 4:21--5:1, interpreting Sarah and Isaac to symbolize the line of true believers who culminate in Christ, while Hagar and Ishmael stand for the Jews who have rejected Jesus as the Christ. This allegorical interpretation has been one of the biblical texts used in the long history of Christian anti-Semitism, which its author could not have imagined or intended.

   From the early church up until the Protestant Reformation, allegorical interpretation was the primary method used by the church. Some interpreters devised complex allegorical interpretations with layer upon layer of meaning--reading a text for its literal sense, then seeking a parallel moral meaning for the soul, another meaning for the church, and yet another symbolizing the work of salvation in the universe. Thus Hagar and Sarah might represent the soul before and after conversion, the Old and New Covenants, and the damned and the saved. Complex allegorical interpretations of Scripture are not very familiar to us today, however, because during the Reformation, Protestants defied the tradition by choosing to interpret according to the obvious historical meaning of the story. Since then, the modern emphasis on rational, scientific thinking leads us to read for the historical meaning as the key to spiritual guidance in life. Roman Catholicism eventually accommodated this historical approach.

Use of Typology or Prefiguring

   Typology is the technique of using the story of a figure from an earlier time as a "type" that indicates or foreshadows a later person or event in a different historical and faith context. An example of an Old Testament character who indicates someone in the New Testament surfaces when Mary’s song in Luke 1:46-55, the Magnificat, is compared to 1 Samuel 2:1-10, where Hanna dedicates her son to the Temple. Hanna prefigures Mary; the author of Luke draws a parallel between these two miraculous births, and the two mothers who dedicate their infant sons to God’s service.

   In the Gospel of John we find another illustration in 3:14: "And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life." The literal story of Moses lifting up the bronze serpent for the healing of the people, in Numbers 21:8-9, becomes a type for Jesus who is lifted up on a cross for the salvation of the world. An action by Moses is interpreted as prefiguring or foreshadowing the crucifixion of Jesus.

   Another clear and lengthy example of typology occurs in the Letter to the Hebrews, chapters 7-8. The story of King Melchizedek and his relationship to Abraham is told in relationship to knowledge of Jesus, and so prefigures Jesus; "the Son of God...a priest forever" (7:3) because there is no end to his life. In Genesis 14:18 Melchizedek (meaning "King of Righteousness"), the king of Salem (or "King of Peace") and high priest of God--a somewhat mysterious figure who seems apart from ordinary mortals--brings out bread and wine and blesses Abraham after a successful battle. The author of Hebrews interprets Melchizedek as the high priest of the first covenant and Jesus as the high priest of the new covenant, "the guarantee of a better covenant" (7: 22). His authority as priest comes "not through a legal requirement concerning physical descent"--that is, according to the Levitical descent necessary in the Jewish priesthood--"but through the power of an indestructible life" (7: 16). The Jewish Christians to whom the letter is addressed would probably have seen the parallels also between the bread and wine Melchizedek offers Abram in blessing his victory, and the bread and wine of traditional Jewish blessing, as well as the bread and wine of the Eucharist, the body and blood of Christ, that blesses the victory over sin.


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   *An excerpt from The Bible the Book the Bridges the Millennia by Maxine Clarke Beach Copyright © 1998 Maxine Clarke Beach