The “rolling interpretation” of the Old Testament

In the opening paragraph of his book Jewish Messianism and the Cult of Christ (SCM Press, 1998) William Horbury outlines a basic model for understanding the relation of the Old Testament to history. His leading contention is that the Old Testament “forms the backbone of any study of messianism in the Second-Temple period,” so it is specifically the relation of the Old Testament to that period of Jewish history which encompasses the New Testament narrative that is under consideration.

The model is valuable because it highlights the importance of historical context both for the production and for the interpretation of the Jewish scriptures. It consists in two stages.

1. The “process of the composition and redaction of the Old Testament culminates in the first part of this period, the two centuries of Persian rule.” Historically speaking, it was the experience of exile that motivated and gave distinctive shape to the Old Testament as a corpus of political-religious literature. The Old Testament emerged largely to account for the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, the loss of the land, and the subjection to foreign rule, and to articulate the hope of a return to the “Eden” from which Israel had been expelled (cf. Is. 51:1-6).

2. In the later part of the second temple period, the centuries after the conquests of Alexander the Great (356-323 BC), “Jewish tenets and customs take shape above all as part of a rolling interpretation of the Old Testament; the law and the prophets and other books are expounded, elaborated, supplemented, and rewritten with contemporary needs and interests in view.”

Messianism, which is Horbury’s specific interest in this book, remains influential in the second temple period because of the “convergence between its thematic importance in the Hebrew Scriptures and the pressures of contemporary Jewish life.” It is at the interface between scripture and political reality that the relevant theological vision is generated.

The book of Jubilees is a good example. It is a rewriting of early history, from creation to Moses, in response to the perceived decline in Torah observance in the Hasmonean period, probably around the middle of the second century BC. “Like most writers of history,” Wintermute says, “the author of Jubilees was concerned to review critical events of the past in order to expose their significance for understanding his own contemporary political, social, or cultural situation.”1

Jesus and his followers used the Old Testament in a similar fashion. They retold Old Testament stories, mostly by way of allusion, in order to give expression to and make sense of extraordinary new developments within second temple Judaism. For example, Jesus reworked Isaiah’s parable of the vineyard of Israel, which originally had reference to the Babylonian exile, in order to warn of the catastrophic implications of the rejection of his own prophetic mission to Israel as the Son who would inherit.

In this process Daniel 7-12 plays a particularly important role. For Jesus it was presumably simply part of the scriptures, but it belongs historically to the second stage of Horbury’s model—the adaptation of the Persian era perspective to a later state of affairs. Daniel’s prayer in chapter 9 is met with a recalibration of the trajectory of Jeremiah’s seventy years of exile that lands firmly in the Hellenistic period.

The vision is of the incursion of a Greek king who would seduce many Jews and desecrate the temple, and of the faithful resistance under suffering of some, who would be vindicated before the throne of God and be rewarded with rule over the nations. This transitional text, arguably, constitutes the core of the rewriting of history that we find in the New Testament.

The final point to make is that as Christianity gained traction in the Greek-Roman world, the Old Testament underwent a further phase of reinterpretation to meet the demands of a somewhat alien theological orthodoxy.

  • 1J.H. Charlesworth, The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha Vol. 2, 37.
Samuel Conner | Tue, 08/06/2019 - 15:05 | Permalink

Thank you; this is helpful.

Perhaps one could include a faint dotted line from the bottom left text toward the bottom right.

It has been suggested (credibly, to my mind; but what do I know?) that 1 Enoch influenced Tertullian, who thought it belonged in the OT canon, toward the infernalist vision of eschatology. Or maybe he liked infernalism for other reasons, and that contributed to his understanding of 1 Enoch as canonical, or to his wish to have it acknowledged in the canon (as support for a favored doctrine, perhaps). Inasmuch as infernalism is a significant innovation (compared with the eschatology of the OT canon) and has been an important “feature” of the Western/Latin tradition down to the present, this possible influence seems worth noting.

Tertullian’s interest in 1 Enoch is worth noting, but I’m not sure it’s relevant here, is it? Does it affect how Christians in the early period reinterpreted the Old Testament? Perhaps how they reinterpreted the New Testament.

My bad.

From my limited understanding of 2nd Temple period “theology”, such as it was, the conception of “what’s wrong” was more complex than the straightforward analysis “in Adam’s fall we sinned all” that underlies the Church’s (modern) analysis of ‘the human predicament’

As I understand it (and my understanding is both limited and filtered by/through those from whom I gained it, pre-eminently Michael Heiser), in the 2nd Temple period, in addition to “the Fall” of Genesis 3, the strange events of Genesis 6:1-2 and the events surrounding the Babel tower/scattering of the nations were regarded to have contributed to “what has gone wrong” in the course of human history, that required YHWH to intervene to set thing right (through Abraham/Israel). Paul arguably draws on at least two of these threads in his Romans 5 discussion of Adam and Christ and in his interest in how Jesus defeated/disarmed “the powers.” Babel seems to hold less interest for him, though Heiser thinks that the Babel incident and the “table of nations” are connected with the ideas underlying Psalm 82 and Dt 32:8-9 and that Paul’s missionary journeys were in fact a re-assertion of YHWH’s authority over the nations the governance of which had been delegated to lesser “deities”/”powers” (Dt 32:8) but that they had misgoverened (Ps 82).

  It that’s right, it reinforces your argument. 1 Enoch contains forms of things that can be discerned in Paul, both of which differ from later Church analysis of “what has gone wrong” and that requires YHWH to create anew to rectify.