Getting to the roots of the Christian faith

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By Peter Mullen

 

“It’s not possible to preach the whole gospel from the New Testament alone, but it is possible to preach it from the Old Testament alone.”

When a friend of mine, a learned priest, said this the other day, it would be more than an understatement to say I was startled. But then he explained himself and I saw at once the extreme folly in the Archbishop of Canterbury’s proposal that the church should fix the date of Easter.

This is not merely folly, but folly compounded by iconoclasm, amounting to an attack on the integrity of the Christian faith itself. Of course, I don’t think the Archbishop intended such an attack – but he ought to have thought for a bit longer before making that proposal. And this is why…

Christianity did not emerge one bright morning out of nothing and nowhere: the faith has a pre-history without which it does not begin to make even a scrap of sense. For example, we worship Christ as the Messiah – that’s what the word Christ means. But the concept of the Messiah is not Christian. It is an historic doctrine of Judaism, that is to say from the Old Testament.

Christianity says that Christ was the sacrificial Lamb of God who died for our sins. That is another teaching derived not from the New Testament but from the Old.

Jesus declared, “I am the Good Shepherd.” When he said those words, he was referring to Psalm 23 – The Lord is my Shepherd – and to many other verses in the Old Testament that tell us that God is the Shepherd of Israel. Christ is God incarnate and the church is the new Israel.

Now let us get even closer to the centre of the matter. Jesus said to his disciples, “I have desired to eat this Passover with you” (Luke 22:15). Those tender words would be quite meaningless in the ears of anyone who had no idea of what the Passover was. Thus the origins of the Holy Communion are in the Passover Supper, a feast of the Jews.

Moreover, the crucifixion of Jesus, which, according to St John, followed directly after the Passover meal, was the divine act by which we are delivered from our sins. And this deliverance is what was foreshadowed in the Passover observed by the Jews before their deliverance from Egypt.

The first 14 verses of St John’s gospel – “In the beginning was the Word…” are a re-telling of the Jewish creation story in the first chapter of Genesis. For St Paul, Christ is the Second Adam – which would be a senseless concept unless you’d heard of the First Adam. Can you imagine someone reading St Paul’s “As in Adam all men die, so in Christ shall all be made alive” without having heard of the story of the Fall in Genesis chapter 3? Without that Old Testament reference, St Paul’s account would be a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing.

“Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son and shall call his name Immanuel, God with us.” Those words are not originally from the gospels but from the prophet Isaiah 700 years before the birth of Jesus.

“My God, my God, look upon me; why hast thou forsaken me?” Terrible words uttered by Jesus on the cross, but he did not invent them: he was quoting the opening of Psalm 22, which proceeds to say: “They pierced my hands and my feet: I may tell all my bones: they stand staring and looking upon me. They part my garments among them: and cast lots for my vesture.”

To whom does that refer unless it be Christ?

The Resurrection itself is foreseen in the words that come next: “I will declare thy name unto my brethren: in the midst of the congregation will I praise thee.”

The whole story of the arrest, trial and sacrificial death of Christ is foreseen by Isaiah, the Old Testament Jew and his words are not fanciful but explicit: “He is despised and rejected of men: a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief… surely he hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows… he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him: and with his stripes we are healed.”

Few of the parables or miracles of Jesus make any sense unless you can trace their origin in the Jewish Scriptures.

For example, the feeding of the 5,000 – reported in all four gospels – refers back to the time when God fed the Israelites with manna in the wilderness.

And then there are the numerous stylistic and structural similarities between the Old Testament and the New – for instance St Matthew’s painstaking organisation of his gospel into five clear sections to complement the books of Moses, the first five book of the Old Testament from Genesis to Deuteronomy.

Thus the Christian faith is inexplicable and even nonsensical apart from its Old Testament background and so to sever the link between the movable Jewish Feast of Passover and the correspondingly movable Christian Easter does not only render the Old Testament redundant: it rips the heart and significance out of the Christian witness found in the New.

So there is more at stake here than the convenience of schoolteachers and the prosperity of the retail trade. The whole historical unity and coherence of the Christian faith as prophecy and the fulfilment of prophecy is at stake.

I suppose the slogan of those who would deny the significance of all this and rush to fix Easter might as well be, “Hang all the Law and the Prophets!”