Reading the Old Testament

By: Fr. Lawrence Farley


Though Marcion has been dead for a long time, his legacy is still among us.  Marcion was a heretic in the second century who said that the Old Testament was un-Christian, and that the God of the Old Testament was not the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and that Christians should avoid the Old Testament since it was the work of an inferior deity.  The Church of his day rejected his approach, and said that the Old Testament was the work of the Christian God and that we should accept the Old Testament Scriptures as a part of the Christian Bible.  But despite the Church’s emphatic and decisive rejection of Marcion, we still tend to shy away today from the Old Testament.

This unfortunate tendency finds resonance from our current Orthodox lectionary.  In the days of St. Justin Martyr in the second century, the Old Testament was read along with the New Testament Scriptures when the Church met together on Sunday morning for their celebration of the Eucharist.  Later these Old Testament readings were dropped, and now the Church reads only from the New Testament epistles and from the gospels.  The Old Testament, known to the apostles simply as “the Scriptures”, is scarcely read liturgically at all.  Once in a while, at the Twelve Great Feasts, we read three Old Testament lessons at Vespers.  Often they are the same Old Testament lessons, and anyway, many people do not attend Vespers to hear them read.  Marcion may well smile at us, from wherever he is.  It is almost as if we agreed with him, and banished the Old Testament from our public reading of the divine scriptures.

Our current lectionary therefore gives us selections from the epistles and from the gospels, both in fairly miserly amounts.  The Coptic church’s lectionary provides for much more generous amounts of New Testament Scripture than does our Byzantine lectionary.  Perhaps the next ecumenical council may address and correct this deficiency (though no one should bet their church’s building fund on it).  What is beyond dispute is that our Orthodox laity are not as well well-provided liturgically in the lectionary as they could be regarding the Old Testament.

If you doubt this, just try this simple test:  when next the bishop visits your parish and the choir sings the customary hymn, “The prophets proclaimed you from on high, O Virgin: the Jar, the Staff, the Tables of the Law, the Ark, the Candlestick, the Mount Uncloven, the Golden Censer, the Tabernacle, the Gate Impassable, the Palace and Ladder, and the Throne of Kings!”, ask anyone present to explain why the Virgin is proclaimed to be the Jar, the Staff, and all those other things.  It is possible that the person asked may immediately respond, “The Jar?  Oh, that’s because the jar in Exodus held the manna, and Christ is the divine manna and bread of God, whom the Virgin held in her womb.” Possible, but not likely.  Odds are most laity will have no idea why the hymnographer would describe the Virgin with these titles.  That is, odds are that most of the laity have never really read the Old Testament where these stories are described.  The Old Testament remains for most Orthodox a closed book, as if the Bible began not with Genesis, but with the Gospel of Matthew.

Thus it is all the more important for Orthodox to begin their private and devotional Bible reading with Genesis and to continue their reading so that they have a familiarity with the Old Testament.  The hymn writers of “The prophets proclaimed you” clearly assumed that this was the case, which is why they multiplied their typological descriptions of the Virgin as they did.  Using our present Orthodox lectionary in our private reading of the Bible is fine.  It beats not reading the Bible at all.  But even better is reading the Old Testament as well.  For then we will not only be able to understand the hymns of the Church such as “The prophets proclaimed you”, but also the New Testament, since the New Testament clearly assumed familiarity with the Old Testament.  Our Bible is thicker than some might think, and contains riches and revelations we might scarcely expect.