By Reader Cyril Shartz
Those who really know and understand the Scriptures are usually people who have spent a lifetime studying them and believing them. All the same, it’s surprising how much we can learn in a short time in the right circumstances. As one of the translators of the Old Testament project of the Orthodox Study Bible, I have found myself in circumstances of that sort for the last few years.
For readers of AGAIN who are waiting for the complete Orthodox Study Bible to come out, I’d like to give you a taste of what I’ve learned as a participant in the project—a sort of “insider’s view” of what the full Orthodox Study Bible will have to offer.
Some members of our project team were experts in Scripture when they joined the team. Others came to the project bringing specialized technical skills more than biblical scholarship, but with a willingness to grow in our understanding of Scripture as we went along. I fall into the second group.
When I joined the project team in 1998, I had read the Bible in its entirety in English a few times, but I was more familiar with the New Testament than with the Old. I had read the New Testament in Greek a number of times, and had read selected books of the Old Testament in the Septuagint Greek text—including the Psalms, which we chant in my parish church in Greek every Sunday.
I can honestly say that while I had something of an understanding of the Bible from various secular and Protestant commentaries, I knew only a little about it from an Orthodox Christian perspective, and what I knew in that respect consisted basically of what I had picked up from assisting in the Orthros and Liturgy in church. Now I understand a little more. The contribution I brought to the project, then, was not so much biblical scholarship as translation skill, since I had spent many years translating secular texts. One of my personal goals when I joined the project was to learn more about the Old Testament. I wanted especially to gain a better understanding of it according to the “mind of the Church.”
I knew that the process would involve not only acquiring some new ideas, but also getting rid of some old ideas. Like a lot of people, I thought of the New Testament as the real Bible of the Christian Church, regarding the Old Testament as being the Scriptures of the Judaic religion from which Christianity sprang. For most people in America who have any notion of the Bible at all, this is the natural assumption.
Western Christianity set aside the textual tradition of the early Church a long time ago, taking the Masoretic Hebrew text as its official Old Testament. Along with this replacement came the tendency to ignore the writings of the Greek Fathers (whose commentary was based on the Septuagint Greek text), placing a primary focus instead on the Old Testament as the history of the Jews and the old Law. We are so much exposed to this outlook, which comes from outside the Orthodox Church, that it seems perfectly reasonable—unless we stop to examine it. As someone who has had an exposure to Protestant ideas, I knew that an examination of that sort was necessary for my growth as an Orthodox Christian.
What is so exciting for me about the Old Testament project is that we are presenting the Old Testament of the Eastern Orthodox Church in English with an Orthodox Christian commentary for the first time. This means that English readers will have an opportunity to read in their own language what Orthodox Christians have always been able to read, if their native language was Greek, Russian, Arabic, Georgian, Romanian, or any of the other languages in which Orthodox Scriptures have existed for centuries. It certainly isn’t the first time that the Orthodox Scriptures have been presented in one of the native languages of the Americas—St. Innocent of Alaska accomplished that long before we were born—but it is the first time that the task has been done in English.
When the full Orthodox Study Bible comes out in several years, you will find, as we have found in working on the project, that the Old Testament is just as directly relevant to our lives as Orthodox Christians as is the New Testament. It is full of Christology, Trinitarian theology, and references to Orthodox Christian doctrines, practices, and sacraments. The way we worship, the way we pray, what we sing and chant, our veneration of icons—we find foreshadowings of all these things as we read the Orthodox Old Testament.
Here’s one example of what I have learned so far. In my old way of thinking, I supposed that the Trinity—and especially the Holy Spirit—was first made known in Christ’s preaching. I doubt if my thinking on the subject is very unusual. In fact, some people even express doubts about the authenticity of passages in the New Testament that mention the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It almost seems that they believe the doctrine of the Trinity to be an invention of the early Church. If they pass over the biblical account of the Incarnation without paying much attention to it—as many people do—they may think the Holy Spirit didn’t do much of anything before Pentecost.
Even before we turn to the Old Testament, though, there are several things that should cause us to wonder whether this “received opinion” about the Trinity is correct. First is the fact that Christ in His preaching and His teaching of His disciples kept saying that the Old Testament spoke about Him and about the Kingdom of God. Second, all of the preaching of the Apostles (as recorded, for example, in the Acts of the Apostles) consisted of the same sort of Christological and Trinitarian explanation of the Old Testament. Third is the fact that our liturgical material is, for the most part, a long chain of quotations from the Old Testament understood in a fully Christian sense, with practically no material from the New Testament apart from the Epistle and Gospel readings.
It has been a joy and a revelation to me to learn to read the Old Testament in an Orthodox Christian sense and to see the Trinity throughout. Let me take you along on a recounting of my journey through the Old Testament and the things I have come to see so far. (Like you, I am waiting for the complete Orthodox Study Bible to come out. Although I have an insider’s view, I have not seen the work of all of my coworkers on the project and probably will not see it until the finished volume comes from the publisher.)
The first eye-opener I encountered about the presence of the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament came when I was reading the Pentateuch in preparation for my task of translating the Book of Deuteronomy. I came across something surprising in Exodus 18. Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses, comes to him and makes a suggestion (which God actually has Moses carry out in Numbers 11): that Moses pick out men to help him in the task of judging.
When we turn to the Book of Numbers, we see how this works out. God tells Moses to choose seventy elders. In verse 11:17, He says, “Then I will come down and talk with you there. I will take some of the Spirit that is upon you and place it upon them; and they will take up the onrush of the people with you, that you may not bear it yourself alone.” When I read this, I asked myself, “Is this the Holy Spirit we’re talking about here?” It seemed to be, but at first I thought this might be an isolated instance.
Then something happened that gave me a way of investigating the matter a little more systematically. In the issue of my local church newsletter that came out at Pentecost, one article mentioned that the Holy Spirit was known in the New Testament by several different names, such as the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, the Spirit of God, the Comforter, and so forth. It occurred to me that the same thing might hold true in the Old Testament as well, so I used a concordance to search through the text. I’ll just mention a few of the notable passages I found. (It will be worth waiting for the Old Testament of the Orthodox Study Bible, because we can expect to find even more.)
There is, of course, the creation story. Right there in Genesis 1:2, I see that the text reads, “the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.”1 I have had an advance peek at the notes on this section, which point out how all three Persons of the Trinity are there in the Bible from the opening words of Genesis. My eyes were beginning to be opened.
We chant Psalm 50 (Psalm 51 in Bibles that follow the Hebrew numbering) every Sunday in the Orthros. Here David says, “Take not Your Holy Spirit from me.” He has reason to be concerned, since he is asking to be forgiven for committing adultery with Bathsheba and for arranging for her husband Uriah the Hittite to be killed (2 Samuel 11; 12). David is probably remembering when he was anointed (chris-mated, as it is expressed in Greek) by the Prophet Samuel, and the Spirit of the Lord descended upon him.
In 2 Samuel 23:2, David, whom we also consider a prophet, says that the Spirit of the Lord spoke through him, just as we say in the Creed that the Holy Spirit spoke through the Prophets. Since we have three references in three different passages to the presence of the Holy Spirit with David, it’s clear that the Spirit is really there in the Old Testament text.
We say in the Creed that the Holy Spirit spoke through the Prophets, so we should expect to find the Holy Spirit in the Books of the Prophets. Indeed we do. But nowhere does the presence of the Holy Spirit play such a wonderful role in the story as in Ezekiel 37, which we read in the evening service on Holy Friday, and which, of course, is a prophecy of the Resurrection.
In verse 37:1 we read, “And the hand of the Lord was upon me, and the Lord brought me out in the Spirit and placed me in the middle of a plain, and this was full of human bones.” A few verses later Ezekiel preaches to the bones: “Thus says the Lord to these bones, ‘Behold I bring you the spirit of life. I will put sinews on you and bring flesh upon you and cover you with skin and give My spirit to you, and you shall live. And you shall know that I am the Lord’” (37:5, 6). Not only does the Spirit carry Ezekiel to the valley of dry bones, but it is the Holy Spirit that brings the bones together, covers them with flesh, and gives them life—using the same word for “spirit” as we see in the creation story—in a foreshadowing of the Resurrection of Christ and the general resurrection.
Then there is the story of Balaam, told in Numbers 22—24. In this entertaining narrative, we see that Balaam, a professional diviner, has been hired by Balak to put a curse on the Israelites. As things turn out, though, he finds himself unable to carry out his task because God tells him that the Israelites have been blessed. The culmination of the tale is that the Holy Spirit—referred to here as “the Spirit of God”—comes upon him. His eyes are opened and he is granted a vision of the blessing of the Israelites, which he expresses in prophecies. This is another instance of the role of the Holy Spirit as expressed in the Nicene Creed, that He “spoke through the prophets,” understood as including a broader group than just the Major and Minor Prophets who helped to author the Old Testament.
These are just a few of the remarkable instances of the Holy Spirit at work in the events of the Old Testament. They are similar enough to what we see in the New Testament, what we know from the Creed and from our hymns and the lives of the saints, that we can be sure our understanding of the Holy Spirit’s role in the Old Testament does not involve forcing the text to say something it doesn’t mean. On the contrary, once we begin to read the Old Testament with “the mind of the Church,” we simply begin to see what was there all the time. After all, the Fathers who formulated Orthodox Trinitarian theology knew not only the New Testament, but also these same scriptural passages of the Old Testament. We, too, can see the presence of the Holy Spirit there, once we begin to look.
This is only one of many areas of theology and biblical interpretation that are greatly illumined when one reads the Septuagint text. May God speed the work of the translation committee so that all can partake of the great riches of this ancient treasure-house of the Faith.
Cyril Shartz is chairman of the translation committee for the Orthodox Study Bible Old Testament Project and a reader/chanter at St. George Greek Orthodox Church in Fresno, California.
1 Translation by Father Richard Ballew. All other translations are my own, based on the New King James Version as brought into conformity with the Greek text of the Septuagint Old Testament edited by Albert Rahlfs (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesell-schaft, 1979).