History and Sources

How did the early Christians interpret the Jewish scriptures?

From the very beginning, the emergence of Christianity as a distinct tradition depended on the young community’s exegesis of the Hebrew scriptures. Since the majority of the earliest Christians were Jewish by birth and education, they naturally regarded the Hebrew Bible as their own and as authoritative divine revelation. But the tradition of messianic expectation that had evolved especially in the later writings evoked continual scrutiny and reexamination among Jews everywhere: When would the Messiah come? And how was one to identify him? Largely on the basis of their reading of scripture, the early followers of Jesus found the answers in Jesus. By a process that would come to be known as “typological exegesis,” early Christians saw in numerous Old Testament personages anticipations or “types” of Christ. Abraham, for example, was a type of God the Father in his willingness to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, who was in turn a type of Christ. Jonah, who emerged alive after three days in the belly of the whale, was a type of Christ’s resurrection after three days in the grave. A variation on the theme of typology saw in Jesus the perfection of realities only adumbrated in the Hebrew scriptures. Aaron’s priesthood, for example, was merely temporary (as evidenced by the destruction of the Temple), but that of Christ was eternal (Hebrews 7).

In addition to discerning these and other typological antecedents of Christ, interpreters saw in many prophetic writings veiled allusions to the Christ who was to come. In the so-called “suffering servant” texts of Second Isaiah, for example, early Christians detected such striking parallels to what they believed were the very essence of the life and death of Jesus that they felt the prophet could only have been referring to this Messiah. In the Greek Testament, Jesus suggests a parallel between the works he now performs and Isaiah’s references to a Spirit-filled anointed one who preaches good news to the poor, frees the imprisoned, and heals the blind, and likens himself to Elijah and Elisha (Luke 4:16-30). These are only a few of the ways in which early Christians found legitimation for their views in Jewish tradition.


This is a web preview of the "The Handy Religion Answer Book" app. Many features only work on your mobile device. If you like what you see, we hope you will consider buying. Get the App