A few weeks ago, I mentioned that I was reading a book called A Vision for the Church edited by Markus Bockmeuhl and Michael B. Thompson (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1997) (see the post “Paul’s Vision for the Church“). The first chapter “Septuagintal and New Testament Conceptions of the Church” by William Horbury. In his chapter, Horbury discusses the relationship between the Septuagint (LXX – the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures – the Old Testament) and the early church’s self identification. In other words, the early church understood who they were by reading their Old Testament.
For example, Horbury writes:
[W]hen the Scriptures were read at the time of Jesus and Paul, even non-visionary hearers shared conceptions of the congregation which arose from association and development of the manifold biblical descriptions and images. The Christians were keenly aware of their separate loyalty (1 Cor 16.22), but this was owed to the messiah of Israel; they spoke and thought of themselves as essential Israel, and applied to themselves most of the relevant biblical vocabulary. So in the biblical manner, without special introduction, Paul could speak of betrothing the Corinthian church as a pure virgin to Christ (2 Cor 11.2). To a great extent, therefore, NT conceptions of the Church were ready-made before the apostles preached; and this is true not only of the imagery most readily applicable to the pre-existent or ideal Church, but also of descriptions of the empirical assembly. (1)
From this introduction, Horbury examines two Songs and the Blessing of Moses (Exod 15 and Deut 32 and 33) and the Wisdom of Solomon. Concerning the longer Song of Moses (Exod 15), he concludes:
Thus far, then, the material studied from the LXX has disclosed five attributes of the congregation which are also prominent marks of the NT Church. Constitutionally and liturgically, it is a body in which men and women each take part, and it is governed by a divinely-appointed ruler. To turn to theological attributes, it can be described as a community of faith, the congregation of the redeemed who believe and confess. Correspondingly, in this corporate confession it is a community of the divinely inspired, and its confession is led by prophecy. As Godâ€™s own peculiar people and portion, it is watched by the angel-deities to whom the heathen nations are allotted. Its faith is faith not only in God, but also in the appointed ruler, and a great ruler to come will be the focus of its unity. The shape and ethos of the Pauline churches are anticipated here; and although the theological attributes are not made normative in these texts, the fact that they are exhibited by the congregation of the Exodus as described in the Pentateuch accords them authority and influence. (9)
Finally, after examining the various names given for the people of God in this OT passages, Horbury concludes his chapter with this:
It can be said, in conclusion, that the messianic element in Christian faith, and the concurrent Christian modification of the concept of the people of God, are foci of what can be called new in NT conceptions of the Church. Far more, however, is inherited from Judaism as represented the LXX translation, including what might be thought characteristically Christian associations of the Church with faith, confession, inspiration and the messiah. (15)
If I am understanding Horbury correctly, then he is saying that most of the elements of the church were identifiable from the LXX. From the Septuagint, people could learn that God was building a people of faith. It would be a confessing people that relied on inspiration. So what would be missing?
As Horbury said, the missing piece of the puzzle was Jesus Christ as Messiah. This is what’s “new” in the New Testament. The people of God in the Old Testament knew that there would be a messiah, but they didn’t know who, when, how, etc. In the New Testament, those questions were answered.
As the questions about the messiah were answered in the person of Jesus Christ, other information about the church was clarified. While Paul spends much of his writing space considering the implications of the gospel to the people of God, the book of Hebrews also tackles these questions. Importantly, the book of Hebrews shows the connection (both comparisons and contrasts) between the lives of God’s people in the OT and the lives of God’s people in the NT.
While the idea that the “shape and ethos of the Pauline churches are anticipated” in the Old Testament may be fairly new to me (and perhaps others), it was apparently obvious to Paul. Remember that he was probably thinking about the Old Testament when he wrote that all Scripture was inspired and useful (2 Timothy 3:16).
What do you think? Do we find indicators of the church in the Old Testament? Do you think that the primary difference is in the person of Jesus Christ and the gospel? Are there other differences between the people of God in the OT and the people of God in the NT?