Chrysostom "On The Obscurity Of The Old Testament"

Below is a short review I wrote up for a class presentation, which deals with Chrysostom's homilies (1 & 2) "On the Obscurity of the Old Testament". I interact here mainly with his first homily but if you want to get an idea of how he did exegesis and thought about the relationship of the New Testament to the Old, you may find some of this review helpful. Enjoy.

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If one of the overarching characteristics Diodore of Tarsus’ writings was reverence for the text (e.g. the Bible), strands of this can certainly be found in the works of his one of his students, St. John Chrysostom, whose works also advance a rigorous devotion to and a rather high view of Scripture. This is evidenced, for example, from the beginning of his “On the Obscurity of the Old Testament” by statements such as “the depths of inspired sentiments,” (8) “inspired authors” (10) and later in the same work “see how nothing is passed over by the divine Scripture,” “divine writings” (20) and “inspired composition” (27). For Chrysostom, there is no doubt that God has assumed a prominent role in the composition of the Scriptures.

Yet, Chrysostom also allows for the human element in the development of the text. Interestingly, he seems to assume that inspiration occurs as God inspires the writer, though, not necessarily listener. Thus, whereas the writer cannot falter, the hearer surely can. This is illustrated in his “On the Obscurity of the Old Testament” where he starts by exploring the Pauline statement concerning King Melchizedek: “What I have to say to you is lengthy and difficult to interpret because you are hard of hearing” (Heb. 5.11). Chrysostom stresses the latter half of the sentence maintaining that “it was not the nature of the text but the inexperience of the listeners that made difficult what was not difficult” (9).

Following this, Chrysostom spends quite a few pages sorting through various arguments pertaining to passages of Scripture—particularly in Hebrews—which, in terms of interpretation, appear problematic (later, in Homily II, he does this with a Psalm). Chrysostom, however, presses his “hard of hearing” campaign forward and applies it to the Old Testament, which he claims, “resembles riddles” contains much “difficulty” and has books that are “harder to grasp” (13). This “obscurity” or “hard of hearing” attribute, though, is much more apparent when it comes to the “Jews,” who, have remained deaf and blind to the truths that their ancestors penned in the sacred writings. To put it differently, those who wrote the Hebrew Scriptures, asserts Chrysostom, were certainly inspired by God but also did not know the full extent of the meaning(s) of that which they were writing.

Had the “bloodthirsty” interpreters of the Old Testament been aware that “the Jerusalem Temple would be razed, that the Law would come to an end, and the old dispensation changed,” (15) then they would have immediately killed the prophet who was saying such things. Not only this, argues Chrysostom, but “they would have done violence to the very books had they realized all the outcomes” (17). Chrysostom, in fact, goes to great lengths quoting a multitude of scriptural narratives to prove his point that the Jewish people are guilty of a history if irrationality and ungratefulness concerning the interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures (19). At any rate and despite his caricaturing of the Jewish people, St. John “Golden Mouth” certainly believes that the obscurity of the Old Testament was a necessity. His impetus, again, is that had to be the case in order that Jews were prevented from understanding the ramifications of the coming of Christ ahead of time (21).

This all allows Chrysostom to employ a twofold hermeneutic, that is, an approach to the text that allows for a double sense of a passage’s meaning. He even attempts to shoot down the notion that the things foretold, which were also the things obscured, did have a meaning pertinent to the time they were written but also another meaning, which was for later generations (22-4). This can be encapsulated in one of his favorite quotes: “A veil continues to lie over their (the Jews’) reading of the Old Testament” (24, 27). Chrysostom even explores the notion that obscurity was instituted at Babel, where languages were purposefully confused (35-40) and obscured.

It appears that Chrysostom, who dropped into the middle of decades of conversations and debates regarding the relationship between the Old and New Testaments, certainly provided a number of innovative thoughts and approaches to the matter. Still, his “obscurity” theory raises some questions. For example, his theory that the Jewish people were “bloodthirsty” and thus, would have killed the prophets and the texts had they known what they were really about, suggests that God had to be a trickster working behind the scenes. If this is the case, couldn’t God have just chosen to work with a different people? Or, if the people had killed the prophets and texts, would this have prevented the Christ-event from happening? If so, does this assume that the Christ-event was some sort of backup plan?

Another question worth raising may be: Why, for Chrysostom, does God inspire the writer but not necessarily the reader or hearer? At any rate, it is quite evident that Chrysostom’s chief end was to edify the souls of those listening to him, as is evidenced by his challenging paraneses at the end of his homilies. Just as well, his legacy as a challenging homiletician, theologian and exegete certainly precedes him. Indeed, he was touching on issues that would later become mainstay “hot topics” in Christendom for years to come.

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