Did early Christians interpret Old Testament violence “through Jesus”?

Christians have long viewed Jesus as a hermeneutical key of sorts to the Old Testament. Because of this, the whole of the Hebrew Bible, and indeed the whole of Israel’s story, is made to serve Christian ends. Behind every passage, behind every event in the history of the Jewish people, there must lie Christ’s sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins. Every Hebrew hero, moreover, must demonstrate the doctrine of justification by faith [in Christ] (cf. Hebrews 11, Romans 4).

For Christians then, it is Jesus alone who grants spiritual insight into the true meaning of Israel’s scriptures. Until the Hebrew Bible is interpreted “through the lens of Jesus,” therefore, its pages lie inert and darkened (cf. 2 Corinthians 3:13-16, John 5:39).

Competing gods: a warlike Yahweh & a merciful Christ

As of late, some Christians have employed this hermeneutical program toward mitigating the theological damage done by so-called Old Testament “texts of terror”—passages in which Israel’s god commits and commands acts of violence. Accordingly, when such passages are read “through the lens Jesus” they are proven to be incomplete and even inaccurate portrayals of God. Since Jesus manifests to the full God’s eternal nature and compassionate heart, so it is argued, God must be, and always have been, a nonviolent being. Since the God revealed definitively in the crucified Christ suffers violence peaceably, returning hate with love, he does not, and indeed cannot, strike down those who oppose him.

To understand God’s true character then, these Christians believe the merciful Christ must supplant the warlike Yahweh.


Setting aside the christological assumptions underlying this pacifistic interpretive strategy (i.e. Christ’s example is not constrained by historical context but is representative of God’s immutable disposition), I want to propose that the model outlined above is, more importantly, incompatible with early Christian interpretation of Israel’s scriptures. While the first Christians did sometimes interpret Old Testament divine violence “through Jesus,” these readings never yielded a nonviolent deity (more on this below). Early Christians affirmed without equivocation the historicity of God’s militant past.

Here are a few examples.

  • Jesus threatens unbelieving towns with a fate worse than that of Sodom (Luke 10:10-12, 17:28-30). Like Sodom and Gomorrah, cities that reject Christ will be utterly demolished at the coming of the son of man.
  • Stephen recalls without comment that the Israelites “dispossessed the nations that God drove out [of Canaan]” (Acts 7:45). The exodus from Egypt and the conquest of the Promised Land are central to Stephen’s historical narrative which begins with Abraham and culminates with Christ.
  • Paul also retells Israel’s history, this time from Moses to the Messiah. He notes without objection that God “destroyed seven nations in the land of Canaan, [and] gave them their land as an inheritance” (Acts 13:19).
  • The writer of Hebrews warns his readers that God will slay the disobedient just as he did among the Israelites in the wilderness (Hebrews 3:16-19).
  • Later on in Hebrews, the author acknowledges that Old Testament figures successfully “conquered kingdoms,” “administered justice,” “became mighty in war,” and “put foreign armies to flight,” through faith in Israel’s god (Hebrews 11:32-34).

In discussing Israel’s wars and God’s bouts of bloodshed in these texts and others, no appeal is made to Christ’s merciful example or ethic as interpretive key. Rather, the reader is left to conclude that violence committed by God and on God’s behalf is morally justified.

The LORD’s destructive wisdom

Those early Christian texts which do in fact reference Christ in the context of Old Testament violence present an even greater problem for the irenic interpretive model in question, for, as will become apparent, Christians sometimes attributed Yahweh’s slaughter of sinners to the person of Jesus. Consider the following.

In taking over the Jewish scriptures early Christians identified their Messiah with Yahweh’s personified wisdom. They did so explicitly (cf. 1 Cor 1:24, Col 2:2-3, Luke 11:49, Diognetus IX, Justin Dialogue with Trypho 61) as well as implicitly—comparing Christ’s participation in creation with Lady Wisdom’s function as Yahweh’s assistant at the founding of the world (John 1:1-3, 1 Cor 8:6, Col 1:15-16, Heb 1:2-3, cf. Proverbs 3:19, 8:22-31, Wisdom 7:22-26, 9:1-2; 9-10, Philo Fug. 109).1 Wisdom’s instrumental role in the construction of the cosmos (e.g. that God created all things “through” or “by” Wisdom) was now applied to Christ.2

Jewish tradition did not, however, limit Wisdom’s role to the orderly design of creation. In associating Christ with Yahweh’s wisdom, Christians were also making Jesus into the author of Israel’s often violent historical narrative. According to the ever-popular book of Wisdom, for instance, Lady Wisdom was responsible for both the salvation of the righteous and the condemnation of the unrighteous in the history of Israel. Wisdom “drowned” the Egyptians at the Sea of Reeds (10:18-19), “punished” Israel’s enemies in the wilderness (11:8-9), and “willed” the destruction of the Canaanites by the hand of Joshua (12:3-7). Yahweh’s wisdom was thus not simply a serene craftswoman. After the majesty of creation, she designed the destruction of Israel’s enemies.

Paul makes reference to this influential passage (Wisdom of Solomon 10-12) in his contemplation of Christ’s involvement with the Israelites in the wilderness: just as Wisdom provided water out of the rock (Wisdom 11:4-7), so Christ was the rock that followed the people (1 Cor 10:4, cf. John 4:13-14, 6:32-35, 7:37-39);3 just as Wisdom felled the disobedient in the desert with “a multitude of irrational creatures” (Wisdom 11:15-20), so Christ unleashed snakes upon those who tested him with idols and sexual immorality (1 Cor 10:9-10).

As the divine wisdom present at creation then, Christ was also the agent of Yahweh’s destructive power throughout Israel’s history.

The LORD’s angel of death

The identification of Christ with the angel of Yahweh beginning with, so it seems, Justin Martyr, produced similar results (1 Apology 63, Dialogue with Trypho 61).4 Through this connection, Justin, Tertullian, Origen, and other second century Christians freely credited Jesus with various acts of violence, the consumption of Egypt’s firstborn (Exodus 12:23, cf. Numbers 20:16) and the destruction of Sennacherib’s horde (2 Kings 19:35) included.

Precedence for this strange christological development may lie in 1 Corinthians 10:9-10 as well as Jude 1:5. In the former text, Paul parallels Christ with “the destroyer,” a name given to the angel of the Lord (Exodus 12:23, 2 Samuel 24:16). He writes: “We must not put Christ to the test, as some of [the Israelites] did, and were destroyed by serpents. And do not complain as some of them did, and were destroyed by the destroyer.”5 Somewhat incredibly, Paul suggests here that it was Christ who plagued the faithless wilderness generation as God’s destroying angel (cf. Ehrmans’ How Jesus Became God).

Like Paul, the writer of Jude also regards “Jesus” as the one who “destroyed” some Israelites for disloyalty: “Now I desire to remind you… that Jesus, having saved the people out of the land of Egypt, later destroyed those who did not believe” (Jude 1:5).6 As Jude goes on to explain, the retribution executed by the Lord Jesus in the past prefigures the vengeance that will soon be delivered by “our only master and lord, Jesus Christ” (Jude 1:4; 14-15).7 The imprisonment of rebel angels in Tartarus (cf. 1 Enoch 10, Jubilees 5:6) and the incineration of Sodom and Gomorrah (cf. Genesis 19:12-13, Irenaeus Against Heresies 3.6.1) are given as two further examples of Christ’s [angelic] work (Jude 1:6-7).

So while this angel of the Lord christology was not well-developed until the second century, we see in Paul and Jude a willingness to ascribe to Jesus the activity of Yahweh’s death-angel.

Taking into account all of these results, and contrary to the claims of some Christians today, it appears the first followers of Jesus were wholly uninterested in neutralizing Biblical depictions of divine violence by means of Christ’s nonviolent [earthly] life and teachings. Moreover, when early Christians did in fact interpret Old Testament “texts of terror” with Christ as hermeneutical key, they were quite comfortable attributing Yahweh’s butchery to Jesus himself. This they accomplished by adopting Yahweh’s wisdom and Yahweh’s angel as Christophanic manifestations.

 


1—The incarnation of God’s word in John 1 draws upon Sirach’s poetic depiction of Wisdom: “The Creator of all things gave [Wisdom] a command, and my Creator chose the place for my tent. He said, ‘Make your dwelling (κατασκηνόω) in Jacob, and in Israel receive your inheritance.’… All this is the book of the covenant of the Most High God, the law that Moses commanded us as an inheritance for the congregations of Jacob” (Sirach 24:8; 23). As did God’s word later in history, God’s wisdom tented in Israel as the law of Moses (cf. 1 Enoch 42:2, Baruch 3:36-37).

2—Dunn explores the various ways early Christians appropriated Wisdom in Christology in the Making 163-212.

3—Paul views Christ, the giver of blood and of spirit, as the rock of Israel’s mythic past: “They drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ” (1 Corinthians 10:4).

4—Though not explicitly equated with the angel of Yahweh in the book of Joshua, Justin conflated the “commander of Yahweh’s army” with the angel and, in turn, with Christ (cf. Joshua 5:13-15). The commander aids Joshua in Yahweh’s war against the inhabitants of the land: “I will send an angel before you, and I will drive out the Canaanites, the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites” (Exodus 33:2, cf. 23:20, 32:34).

5—Yahweh says this of his angel: “Pay careful attention to him and obey his voice; do not rebel against him, for he will not pardon your transgression, for my name is in him. But if you carefully obey his voice and do all that I say, then I will be an enemy to your enemies and an adversary to your adversaries” (Exodus 23:21-22).

6—The committee behind the NA28 has concluded that Ἰησοῦς is the original reading of Jude 1:5. Ἰησοῦς introduces far more difficulty into the text than does either κύριος or θεός.

7—Paul’s rhetoric serves the same ends as Jude’s: Christ has issued judgement in the past and therefore will judge those who defy him in the present (1 Corinthians 10:22, 11:32).

One thought on “Did early Christians interpret Old Testament violence “through Jesus”?

  1. Although I’m very sympathetic with the progressive movement in Christianity, this is one aspect that I think is the murkiest, at least for certain segments. Both Old and New Testaments ascribe wrath – particularly in the form of violence in history – to both YHWH and Jesus. One can decide that these texts are just wrong, but you can’t just hold up Jesus as a corrective.

    Liked by 1 person

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