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The Oxford Study Bible Study Bible supplemented with commentary from scholars of various religions.

“Ownership” of Scripture

If emerging Catholic Christianity, institutionalized as the “Great Church,” decided to retain Jewish Scripture as part of its canon, this did not mean that Christians accepted Jewish interpretations of those Scriptures. In the course of the second century, mainstream Christianity warred on two fronts. Against the Jews, Christian writers claimed that the “Old Testament” was theirs, was in essence a Christian book that contained hundreds of references to the coming of Jesus and the development of the Christian religion. Yet over against various Christian groups deemed heretical by the Great Church, Catholic Christians ferociously defended the importance of retaining these Jewish documents as “Scripture.”

During Christianity's early expansion, many converts to the new faith either had no interest in preserving Jewish Scripture as part of the Christian sacred books, or believed that much in the Old Testament was inspired by a “lower” God who could not be identified with the Father of Jesus. For the most radical of these dissenters—such as Marcion, an important second-century critic of Catholic Christianity—it was best simply to dispense with the Hebrew Bible entirely: Jesus' teaching did not “fulfill” Jewish Scripture, but replaced it wholesale. Nor should Christians give their allegiance to the deity who supposedly inspired those writings. Marcion even went so far as to pit the words and deeds of the “lower” Creator God of the Old Testament against those of Jesus' Father, the true God. Yet if the Old Testament was rejected, what could serve as “Scripture” for Christians? Marcion made a “canon” of Christian documents—his was the first Christian attempt at formulating a canon—which consisted of ten letters of Paul plus an expurgated version of the Gospel of Luke, omitting references to the Creator God as Jesus' Father and to the birth stories of Jesus, which in Marcion's view subjected Jesus to disgusting material processes.

The teachers of the Great Church were outraged by Marcion's move. One outcry against Marcion's teaching issued from the late second-century bishop of Lyons, Irenaeus. Against Marcion, Irenaeus insisted that both Testaments proclaim one and the same God. The correctness of this belief, Irenaeus claimed, is guaranteed by the unbroken succession of bishops who transmitted the authoritative teaching from earliest Christian times—whereas Marcion was a latecomer upon the scene who had no privileged access to the ancient Christian traditions. But, as we can recognize from our vantage point, Irenaeus had no universally accepted canon of Scripture to replace the one that Marcion had given his followers. Indeed, it was in the struggle with second and third century dissidents that leaders of the Great Church slowly came to a consensus about which books should be included in the Christian canon.

If Marcion had resolved the problem of Jewish Scripture's relevance to Christianity by excising it, other second-century Christians adopted different approaches. In this period a variety of movements developed which we group under the umbrella term “Gnosticism.” Common to many Gnostics was the view that the Creator of the world, also the giver of Old Testament Law, was a lesser deity whose ignorance of the High God, and of his own limited importance, led him to utter the embarrassing boast, “I am God and there is no other God beside me” (Exod. 20.2–3; Deut. 4.35 ). He was so ignorant that he had to ask Adam in the Garden of Eden, “Where are you?” (Gen. 3.9 ). His attempt to prevent Adam from eating of the tree of knowledge shows his envy, and the expulsion of Adam from Paradise to prevent his partaking of the tree of life shows this deity's malice. This is the God who says that he will visit the sins of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations (Exod. 20.5 ), that he will make people's hearts thick and their minds blind so that they cannot understand (Isa. 6.10 ). What sort of a deity is this, that we should worship him, the Gnostic author of the Testimony of Truth asks scathingly? The valuations placed by “mainstream” Christians upon the Biblical stories could also be reversed by Gnostics: the wise serpent in Genesis 3 becomes a sympathetic character who helps Eve to achieve knowledge. In such ways, Gnostic authors referred to the Biblical text—but only to deprecate its authority or to reverse the moral values that Catholic Christians had read within its pages.

The approach to Hebrew Scripture of Ptolemy, a Gnostic teacher associated with the Valentinian school, is gentler. Writing to Flora, a potential follower, Ptolemy informs her that there has been much misunderstanding among Christians about the Mosaic Law: the truth is, it issued neither from the “perfect God” nor from the devil, but from an intermediary deity, a “just God.” Parts of the Old Testament are divinely inspired and others are human creations that carry varying degrees of authority. Offensive legal injunctions such as the law of retaliation (Exod. 21.23–25 ), should be rejected. Other parts, such as the ritual laws, should be given a symbolic interpretation, not practiced literally. Yet, Ptolemy claims, even the “pure” laws, such as the Ten Commandments, are problematic: since Jesus is said to have fulfilled the law (Matt. 5.17 ), even the supposedly “pure” legislation must not have been perfect. Ptolemy, like many other Christian Gnostic writers, differentiated between the types of teachings which “ordinary” (i.e., Catholic) Christians accept and those appropriate for the spiritual elite, for those who are truly enlightened.

Except for his notion that a “lesser” God inspired the Old Testament, Ptolemy's view does not differ much from that of an “orthodox” second-century writer, the author of the Epistle of Barnabas, who uses a variety of interpretive devices to rescue the Old Testament for Christian use. For one, “Barnabas” (as we may call the anonymous author) believes that the Old Testament provides its own corrective interpretation: the prophets themselves railed against the Hebrews' ritual and sacrificial practices, thus showing that they, like Christians, advocated their abolition. Since some Hebrew practices such as circumcision were not unique to the Jews, they can safely be abandoned. The dietary laws were meant to symbolize moral virtues and vices: the prohibition against pork means that we should not associate with people who resemble swine; that against eating hare, that we should not be “corrupters of boys.”

Barnabas also furnishes an early Christian example of typological interpretation, in which various details from the Old Testament are said to prefigure, or represent in advance, events fulfilled in the New Testament. Thus the scapegoat of Leviticus 16 who was sent into the desert bearing away the Israelites' sins is a “type” of Jesus, who suffered for human sinfulness. Likewise, when Moses stood upright with his arms outstretched surveying a battle (Exod. 17.8–13 ), he is a “type” of Jesus' cross.

Typological explanation was much developed by the mid-second-century author, Justin Martyr, in his Dialogue with Trypho. In this text, Justin stages a debate over correct interpretation of the Old Testament between a Jew and a Christian. In Justin's view, all features of the Jewish ritual rule pointed ahead to Christianity. Thus the Passover lamb is a “type” of Christ; the offering of fine flours, a “type” of the Eucharistic bread; the bells on the high priest's robe, “types” of the apostles. The Jewish interlocutor, Trypho, responds: Why then were such laws given to the Jews to be celebrated physically, not just understood typologically? Because of their sinfulness, Justin answers: Fleshly circumcision was ordained to separate the Jews from other nations and to make them suffer for their sins that culminated in their murder of Jesus. Dietary laws, sabbath observances, sacrifices—all these were for the hardness of the Jews' hearts as punishment for their wickedness. The only beneficial parts of Hebrew Scripture are thus those in which we can find a Christian referent. Just as “Barnabas” claimed that the covenant was “ours, not theirs” (i.e., that it belonged to the Christians, not to the Jews), so Justin argues against Trypho that the Scriptures are “ours, not yours.” God's gift of prophecy has been taken away from the Jews and given to the Christians.

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