A Hermeneutic of Peace: The Spiritual Reading of the Old Testament Through Christ

What difference would it make to our theology if Jesus had died in bed of old age or if he had been killed as an infant? If his death is primarily a sacrifice of appeasement, then an infant sacrifice might be quite fitting. If he is a model for right living, then modeling dying in old age would be most fitting. What is missing in old age dying or infant sacrifice, and a theology which might accommodate such a death, is the political nature of his death. He was a political prisoner killed by imperial power on an instrument designed to reinforce the subjugation of slaves and noncitizens. His was a political death brought about by human violence. The point is not to isolate the political, but to recognize that the violence that is accentuated and exposed on the cross (which is political) pertains to every human sphere. The political along with its violence is not isolated from the religious, the social, and the personal. Each of these spheres are addressed in the New Testament, but not discreetly or separately. The New Testament uses battle imagery, legal imagery, family imagery, or psychological imagery, so as to describe the form of universal enslavement and emancipation (another image). There is no singular way of describing the problem and solution as both are pervasive and pertain to everything, while overlapping in a central nexus. It is, in the language of the New Testament, of cosmic proportions, pertaining to the word and world, so that we speak it and live in it. If the problem is violent (dealing in death throughout) then the danger is that we will miss it. More than a danger, the interpretive frame focused on the cross as a religious sacrifice or Jesus as a moral example, demonstrate the violence remains. This interpretive frame is demonstrably subject to an overlooked pervasive violence, which means a peculiar hermeneutic is necessarily part of the answer.

The incarnation tells us the answer is worked from the inside out, and this pertains to our hermeneutic strategy. As Paul describes, Jesus came “from a woman, coming to be under the Law” (Gal. 4:4). A sacrificial theology “satisfied” with a dead Jesus, or an ethical theology content with a moral Jesus, or even a political theology focused on a revolutionary Jesus, all suffer from attempting to contain the solution in the problem. In Paul’s language, they make Christ fit the Law. They all suffer from fitting the answer to a facet of the problem. By the same token, if we fit Jesus to the frame of the Old Testament, he might be taken as another sacrifice, another prophet, or another revolutionary. This explains the interpretive strategy demonstrated in the New Testament in its reading of the Old Testament and the predominant hermeneutic of the church fathers. The presumption is not only that Christ is the interpretive key to the Old Testament but this key entails suspending a literal, flat, violent, reading.

Paul, in explaining the significance of Mount Sinai says, “These things are told allegorically” ((Gal. 4:24) in David Bentley Hart’s translation). As Hart explains in a note to his translation, “Again, one should not assume that Paul does not mean precisely what he says, and does not take the tale to be essentially (not merely secondarily) allegorical. His interpretive habits are rarely literalist.” Paul is explaining the significance of the Law, but in his explanation, he is also making it clear that all people, both Jews and Gentiles, were enslaved to the fundamental elements or principles of the cosmos (τὰστοιχεῖα τοῦ κόσμου in 4:3) which included the Law. These “elementary things” might entail any number of things and there is a sense in which the obscurity and plural valence of the term gets at its inescapable nature. According to Hart, the “Stoicheia” might refer to material constituents of the world, the elementary aspects of language, or they might refer to idols. Paul may be likening the religions of the world to children’s earliest lessons prior to Christ, much as he describes the Law as a schoolboy’s tutor or custodian. Perhaps it is something like the deep grammar which religion and language share (in a Girardian sense) with the Law.

His argument in verse 8 is, if Galatian Christians return to the law this would amount to returning to idols or the impoverished Elementals which formerly enslaved. All religion, and particularly the Jewish religion, in Paul’s explanation, suffered from this deep grammar or this elementary way of talking that enslaves all religionists prior to Christ. To read the Old Testament and the law literally, as of equal weight and as a guiding prefix to Christ, would be nothing short of “turning again to the weak and impoverished Elementals” and to once again be enslaved (4:10). Paul is teaching the Galatians that the Law, including the story of Hagar, Jacob and Esau, and the story of Sinai, have a role on the order of a maidservant. To treat the maidservant as if she is the freewoman is to mistake freedom for bondage. “Cast out the maidservant and her son, for by no means shall the maid servant’s son inherit along with the freewoman’s son” (4:30). The allegorical interpretive strategy puts the container of the Law in its proper place. It was a tutor, a maidservant, a part of what is now counted as among the impoverished Elements.

In Corinthians Paul explains that to miss the allegorical sense in which Christ was present in the Law is to miss the true spiritual food and true spiritual drink for “the rock was the Anointed” (I Cor. 10:4). Paul makes the point throughout that in light of Christ, “Now these things have become typological figures for us, so that we should not lust after evil things, as indeed those men lusted” (10:6). To take the letter of the Law as an end in itself, or as Christ says, as if it contains life, is to fall under the same principal under which the Israelites lusted and which caused them to be idolaters. In both Galatians and Corinthians, Paul is describing a fundamental desire connected with the Law and elemental principles which caused them to “go whoring” after idols (10:7-8). He once again emphasizes that the correct reading is the spiritual understanding which reads Christ as the end of the lesson: “Now these things happened to them figuratively, and were written for the purpose of our admonition, for whom the ends of the ages have arrived” (10:11).

A spiritual or theological reading will find Christ in the Old Testament, so that the focus is not on the text per se (or the intent of the author, etc.) but on Christ. As Paul explains in 2 Corinthians, God is the authority in whom we should have confidence due to Christ (3:4) and not the words of scripture. It is God, “Who also made us competent as ministers of a new covenant, not of scripture but of spirit; for scripture slays but spirit makes alive” (3:6). A text-based faith or a letter-based competency is a “ministry of death” (v. 7) but the spirit and the spiritually based hermeneutic lifts the veil of the Law, in Paul’s simultaneous explanation and demonstration of this interpretive method. This spiritual reading is not focused on the historical events but on the lesson to be drawn, allegorically, for the admonition and edification of contemporary readers.

As Hebrews puts it, God has spoken in the Old Testament through a multiplicity of sources and in a variety of ways. This plurality of words and messengers is contrasted with the singular message and messenger in which this plurality is overcome (Hebrews 1:1-3). Hebrews, like Galatians, argues that the former word or Law from God was imperfect because it came by way of secondary mediators – angels, or prophets, or Moses – and the message did not come directly from God. The implication is that the human mediators marked/marred the quality of the message and this is in contrast to the perfect representation of Christ. This imperfect message shaped by imperfect messengers resulted in its hearers perishing in the desert, missing both the promised land and the promised rest. They were bound to death by the imperfection of the message but now the full message has resulted in freedom from bondage to the former message.

As Romans states it, “But now we have been released from the Law, having died wherein we were imprisoned, so that we slave in newness of spirit and not in scripture’s obsolescence” (7:6). It is not that the Law or the scriptures are abolished but their punishing effect, or the idolatrous desire which they accentuate and aggravate, have been suspended. “For when we were in the flesh the passions of sin, which came through the Law, acted in our bodily members for the purpose of bearing the fruit of death” (7:5). Paul’s cumulative description of this Law includes Moses, Sinai, Jacob, Esau, and the various commands subsequent to Abraham. The Law and scriptures (or the gramma or word) must include much of the Old Testament, but it is also connected at a deep grammatical level (the elementary principle, the childish language, the idolatrous inclination) with the universal law of sin and death. At points in Romans, it is not clear what law he might be referencing (the prohibition in Genesis, the Mosaic law, or some sort of natural law) and it no long matters, as all law is the law of sin and death.

Origen draws out his allegorical hermeneutic from this Romans passage (7:1-3) but his larger point is to bring about peace, inclusive of peace between the Old Testament and the New.

The word ‘woman’ doubtless stands for the soul that was held fast by the Law of Moses, and about which it is said, ‘so long as her husband lives, she is bound by the Law.’ But if her husband, doubtless, the Law, has died, he calls her soul, which seems to be bound, ‘released.’ Therefore it is necessary for the Law to die so that those who believe in Jesus should not commit the sin of adultery.

 He concludes that Moses is dead and the Law is dead “and the legal precepts are now invalid.” He patterns his claim, an allegorical hermeneutic rightly handling the Law, after the Apostle and with an appeal to Jesus. “Do you want me to bring forth proofs from the Scriptures that the Law is called Moses? Hear what he says in the Gospel: ‘They have Moses and the Prophets, let them listen to them.’ Here, without any doubt, he calls the Law Moses.”[1] The woman, according to Origen, stands for every soul bound by the Law and thus drawn into adulterous desire. The dead husband stands for a Law that no longer rouses adulterous desire. And all of this in a series of sermons on Joshua.

His point is, like this woman defined by the Law and subject to desire, now that we understand Joshua is Jesus (the same name in the Hebrew) we can also understand the true enemy. What is slain by Joshua is this adulterous sin that afflicts the soul:

You will read in the Holy Scriptures about the battles of the just ones, about the slaughter and carnage of murderers, and that the saints spare none of their deeply rooted enemies. If they do spare them, they are even charged with sin, just as Saul was charged because he had preserved the life of Agag king of Amalek. You should understand the wars of the just by the method I set forth above, that these wars are waged by them against sin. But how will the just ones endure if they reserve even a little bit of sin? Therefore, this is said of them: “They did not leave behind even one, who might be saved or might escape.”[2]

The battle the Christian has joined with Jesus/Joshua is against sin. Both the surface (the wars and carnage) and deep violence of the Law (sinful desire) are suspended in Christ as hermeneutic key.  In this sense,  one can agree with the refrain to “sanctify war,” as it is a war to become holy in body and spirit by destroying “all the enemies of your soul, that is “the blemishes of sins.” The battle is one in which you “mortify your members” and you “cut away all evil desires” and you are crowned as a victor by Christ Jesus – our true Joshua.

Origen’s point, as he states it plainly in Homily 12, is “that the wars that Jesus/Joshua waged ought to be understood spiritually.” He references Hebrews to make his case that the entire Mosaic system, inclusive of the tabernacle, the sacrifices and the entire worship are a “type and shadow of heavenly things,” and so too the wars that are waged through Jesus, “the slaughter of kings and enemies must also be said to be ‘a shadow and type of heavenly things.’”[3] He defends this allegorical suspension and transformation of the Law by appealing directly to Paul: “All these things, which happened figuratively to them, were written for us, for whom the end of the ages has arrived” (I Cor. 10:11).[4]

Origen expands on Paul’s argument (referencing Corinthians and Romans) to make the case that one who clings to a fleshy reading or a literal circumcision also clings to wars, the destruction of enemies, and Israelites seizing kingdoms. This literal sense mistakes Joshua the son of Nun for the son of God.[5] The one who is an outward Jew and who insists on circumcision, in Origen’s explanation of Paul’s allegory, is committed to reading the violence of Joshua literally and in the process misses what it means to be a Jew secretly and to receive the circumcision of the heart. This fleshly reader of scripture misses Jesus’ casting out and destroying those powers ruling our souls so as to fulfill his word, “Behold, the kingdom of God is within you.”

This violent non-allegorical or non-Christocentric hermeneutic of the original readers will only increase the violent work of the Law and will not achieve peace:

Then that Israel that is according to the flesh read these same Scriptures before the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, they understood nothing in them except wars and the shedding of blood, from which their spirits, too, were incited to excessive savageries and were always fed by wars and strife. But after the presence of my Lord Jesus Christ poured the peaceful light of knowledge into human hearts, since, according to the Apostle, he himself is “our peace,” he teaches us peace from this very reading of wars. For peace is returned to the soul if its own enemies—sins and vices—are expelled from it. And therefore, according to the teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we indeed read these things, we also equip ourselves and are roused for battle, but against those enemies that “proceed from our heart”: obviously, “evil thought, thefts, false testimony, slanders,” and other similar adversaries of our soul. Following what this Scripture sets forth, we try, if it can be done, not to leave behind any “who may be saved or who may breathe.” For if we gain possession of these enemies, we shall fittingly also take possession of “the airy authorities” and expel them from his kingdom, as they had gathered within us upon thrones of vices.”[6]

Origen concludes that apart from this non-violent allegorical reading of scripture it is questionable that “the books of Jewish history would ever have been handed down by the apostles to the disciples of Christ.” Christ “came to teach peace so it is only by transforming these tales of “physical wars” into figures of “spiritual wars” that these books are made worthy of being read in the churches. “For what good was that description of wars to those to whom Jesus says, ‘My peace I give to you; my peace I leave to you,’ and to whom it is commanded and said through the Apostle, ‘Not avenging your own selves,’ and, ‘Rather, you receive injury,’ and, ‘You suffer offense’?”[7]

It comes down to a choice between the violent, fleshly, inheritance of the Law and Moses or the peace of Christ, and to cling to the fleshly reading, according to Origen, is disqualification from the inheritance of Christ. “If, therefore, you wish to be made worthy to pursue the inheritance from Jesus and if you wish to claim a portion from him, you must first end all wars and abide in peace, so that it may be said concerning the land of your flesh, “The land ceased from wars.”[8] Origen’s Christocentric allegorical hermeneutic has the peace of Christ as its continual aim and only the defeat of sin and violence are worthy of Christ. He suggests that the primary enemy of Jesus is the root of “bitterness” (the meaning of “Amorite”) that continues to dwell in those who continue to “strike out violently” (the meaning of Edom) and may linger on even in those who dwell in peace (the meaning of “Salamin”) but the lesson is clear:

The ones who strike violently are those who, placed in contests, endeavor to overcome devilish abodes and structures. But peaceful ones are those who produce peace for the soul after overcoming fleshly desires. Nevertheless, a hostile power, bitterness, steadfastly continues and strives to persist in both.[9]

Origen extends the reading of Paul, in what he describes as a cruciform hermeneutic applied to Joshua.

To what then do all these things lead us? Obviously to this, that the book does not so much indicate to us the deeds of the son of Nun, as it represents for us the mysteries of Jesus my Lord. For he himself is the one who assumes power after the death of Moses; he is the one who leads the army and fights against Amalek. What was foreshadowed there on the mountain by lifted hands was the time when “he attaches [them] to his cross, triumphing over the principalities and powers” (Col. 2:14-15).[10]

This allegorical reading, far from unusual, is the hermeneutic that prevailed in the apostolic period, the early Church, and it was the approach of much of Judaism in the first century. It is the approach of Hebrews, Galatians, I & 2 Corinthians, and Romans. As Hart points out, “Philo of Alexandria was a perfectly faithful Jewish intellectual of his age, as was Paul, and both rarely interpreted scripture in any but allegorical ways.”[11] 

The literal interpretation, with the peculiar meaning it will take on in the modern period (literalism) is a development arising only with the Reformation, prior to which the spiritual reading was normative. “From Paul through the high Middle Ages, only the spiritual reading of the Old Testament was accorded doctrinal or theological authority.”  Hart’s conclusion seems to echo Origen, “Not to read the Bible in the proper manner is not to read it as the Bible at all; scripture is in-spired, that is, only when read ‘spiritually.’”

To read the Bible as if it encourages violence or as if God is violent is to miss Christ, the New Testament, and the predominant witness of the church. To read the Bible through the hermeneutic born in the sixteenth century is, according to Hart, “at once superstitious and deeply bizarre.” This late Protestant invention is “not Christian in any meaningful way.”


[1] Origen, The Fathers of the Church: Homilies on Joshua, vol. 105, Translated by Barbara Bruce, (Washington D. C. The Catholic University America Press) p. 29. This blog is the product of a discussion with Matt Welch who prompted me to read Origen, provided me the text, and then pointed me to the key passages which I have deployed above. Matt has also pointed me to Hart and provided me with his translation of the New Testament. Matt’s friendship and dialogue through the years have been a key demonstration to me of Christ’s peaceful hermeneutic.

[2] Origen, 94

[3] Origen, 120

[4] Quoted as the opening to Homily 13.

[5] Origen, 125

[6] Origen, 130

[7] Origen, 138

[8] Origen, 168

[9] Origen, 204

[10] Origen, 29

[11] David Bentley Hart, Good God? A Response, a post in response to Peter Leithart on his blog at https://theopolisinstitute.com/leithart_post/good-god-a-response/ All the Hart quotes are from this blog.


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Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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