Fr John Behr – Reading Scripture


There are indeed many ways in which Scripture is read, and there is also great deal of debate about this, both on a general level and also within scholarly circles. But there is a certain feature of the reading of Scripture which is absolutely fundamental to the Christian tradition, from the initial proclamation of the gospel to the creeds propounded by the Councils. This is so important that Paul repeats it twice within a single sentence: ‘I delivered to you, as of first importance, what I also received, that Christ died in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried and rose on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures’ (1 Cor. 15:3–4). The Scriptures here are what we (somewhat misleadingly) call the ‘Old Testament’; and it is by reference to these same Scriptures that the Creed of Nicaea also states that Christ died and rose ‘in accordance with the Scriptures’. It is these Scriptures that provided the framework, the terms, the imagery, and the language by which the Apostles and Evangelists understood and proclaimed the revelation of God in Christ. They were and still are (even now we have the writings of the New Testament) the primary Scriptures of the Christian tradition (they are, after all, appealed to as the Scripture by the NT texts themselves), the primary texts by which we are led into the revelation of God in Christ.

Yet, proclaiming Christ ‘in accordance with the Scriptures’ in turn means that the Scriptures are read by Christians in a different manner than they were before the encounter with Christ. We see this most clearly in the encounter with Christ on the road to Emmaus. The disciples, when they were accompanying Christ before his Passion, never fully understood who he is; not even Peter when he made his confession on the road to Caesarea Philippi, but a few verse later gets called ‘satan’ for trying to stop Christ going to the cross (Matt. 16:13–23). They abandoned him at the crucifixion; they did not understand the significance of the empty tomb; they did not even recognize the Risen Christ. Seeing all this did not lead them to understand the mystery of the identity of Christ. It is only when he opened the Scriptures and explained, from the Law and the Prophets, how the Son of Man had to suffer to enter into his glory, that they were ready, finally, to know him in the breaking of the bread (Luke 24:13–35). They had read the Law and the Prophets before, of course, but never in this way! A similar example is given in the case of Paul, a Pharisaical Jew who knew the Scriptures thoroughly, but, on their basis, persecuted Christians, until he too was confronted by Christ, leading him to read the Scriptures in a very different way. The Apostle himself reflects on this, and describes it in terms of a ‘veil’ being lifted: the very same veil that Moses placed over his head when descending the mountain now lies over Moses (the text), so that the glory contained therein is not revealed until the veil is removed by turning to Christ (2 Cor. 3:12–18).

Bringing these and other scriptural images together, St Irenaeus describes the Scriptures as a mosaic portraying Christ when seen according to the right ‘hypothesis’ (haer. 1.8.1), so that, in turn, Christ is the treasure hidden in the Scriptures: he was hidden there, ‘indicated by means of types and parables, which could not be understood by human beings prior to the consummation of those things which had been predicted, that is, the advent of the Lord’ (haer. 4.26.1). For this reason, Irenaeus continues, 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 likewise by Jeremiah: ‘In the last days they shall understand these things’ (Jer. 23:20). So, Irenaeus continues:

For every prophecy, before its fulfilment, is nothing but an enigma and ambiguity to human beings; but when the time has arrived, and the prediction has come to pass, then it has an exact exposition [exegesis]. And for this reason, when . . . it is read by Christians, it is a treasure, hid in a field, but brought to light by the cross of Christ.

The Scriptures are shut, veiled or sealed, but unveiled and opened by the Cross, so that without this, it reads only as a ‘myth’, but when read in the light of the cross, Christ is revealed and, he concludes, the reader glorified just as was Moses.

Read the entire article on the Public Orthodoxy blog.

Fr John Behr

Fr. John Behr is the Father Georges Florovsky Distinguished Professor of Patristics at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary.



Author: DanutM

Anglican theologian. Former Director for Faith and Development Middle East and Eastern Europe Region of World Vision International

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