The Old Testament in the Orthodox Church


My beloved spiritual children in Christ Our Only True God and Our Only True Savior,


by Father R. Sergiou

The place of the Old Testament in the Orthodox Church is a problem 'as old as the Church itself.' The two major problems were whether the Old Testament was to be included in the Biblical Canon, and which version of the Old Testament was to be used. This 'problem' was not an issue for the authors of the New Testament, nor the Early Christian Church. In fact, the place of the Old Testament in the Church was defined by the Church from very early in the Christian centuries. The Church fought the Gnostics (heretics) and the Marcionites (heretics) vehemently against their attempts to exclude the Old Testament from the Canon, and was victorious in this endeavor.

On account of these and other historical and doctrinal events, the Old Testament received its due place and authority in the Orthodox Church. In this essay we will attempt to examine the place and authority of the Old Testament in the Orthodox Church, and analyze the reason why the Church included it in the Christian Biblical Canon. We will also discuss why the version of the Old Testament used was chosen.

It is conclusive that the Old Testament was the only form of Scripture which was used by Jesus Christ, the Apostles, and the first Christian community. However, this covenant was also understood by the early Christians as the scriptural foundation and preparation for the Incarnation of God. Evidence of the view in early Christian thought is predominant in the writings of the Apostle Paul. The great Apostle views the Old Testament as the preparation of the New, through direct methods such as typology, and through indirect methods such as prophecy. According to Saint Paul, the Law of the Old Testament was only ever a pedagogical instrument "therefore the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ" (Galatians 3:24) and as a measure or shadow of things to come "for the law, having a shadow of the good things to come" (Hebrews 10:1).

While the books of the New Testament were being compiled, the Church's understanding of the Old Testament was slowly being converted from "the only form of Scripture" to "a preparation of the New Covenant" [Testament]. This view was being contested by the Gnostics who were not concerned with the inspiration or authority of the Old Testament, but on how the Old Testament was to be related with the up and coming New Covenant. This led the Early Church to responsibly look at establishing the union of both Testaments, the Old Testament being a prefigurement of the New. Even though the Biblical Canon had not been finalized until the 6th century. Christians of the Early Church read and understood the Old Testament with the above mentioned union in mind.

Although the Early Church had recognized the Old Testament in its preparatory character, it remained in the Church not only as a source of pedagogy but as an influence to all facets of Christian communal life including education, politics, and social behavior. Evidence of this is again found in the Apostle Paul when he states: "All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction. And for training in righteousness" (2 Timothy 3:16). From these indications one may conclude that the Old Testament was readily available for all Christians and in fact widely read on a personal level.

Etymologically speaking, the Greek term "canon" bears a striking resemblance to the Hebrew word "for a measuring rod". For the Church however, it came to mean a collection of the Old Testament and New Testament books which were accepted as "Divinely inspired". The books which were not accepted in the Canon as Divinely inspired were still accepted as "holy books" and were classified as "apocrypha". What is confusing however, is the fact that there is more than one Canon of the Old Testament used by the various Christian denominations. In this section we will focus on the Old Testament Canon of the Orthodox Church.

Among other versions, the two main Canons of the Old Testament are the "Palestinian Canon", also known as the "Hebrew or Masoretic Text" and the "Alexandrian Canon" also known as the "Septuagint" translation. The main difference between these two versions is the number of books. The former contains 39 books and the later has 10 extra books referred to as "Deuterocanonical". The Protocanonical books were understood as those which directly dealt with the Salvation of humanity. The Deuterocanonical books of the Alexandrian Canon were understood in a pedagogic light and thus the Septuagint (the translation of the 70 Hebrew Scholars) received its authority because it was adopted by the Church.

In the history of the Orthodox Church there have been inconsistencies not only by the Church Fathers, but also by many local and even Ecumenical Synods as to which Canon is to be used. For example, Saint Cyril of Jerusalem and Saint Athanasius support the use of the Hebrew Canon, where as Saint John Chrysostom and Basil the Great support the use of the Alexandrian Canon. Although the local Synod (Council) of Jerusalem in 1672 stipulated that the Alexandrian Canon was to be used, the second Canon of the Council of Trulo (691 A.D.) sanctioned the use of the Hebrew Canon.

The Orthodox Church accepted the Alexandrian Canon (Septuagint LXX) as divinely inspired, appropriate for reading in church, and on a personal reading level. The shorter or Hebrew Canon remained as the Canon par excellence, and was most valuable for giving validity to basic Christian doctrines...

Not only are there inconsistencies between the use of the two different Canons, but there are also inconsistencies in the different Traditions of Orthodoxy on which books are to be concluded in the greater Canon. For example, the Russian Orthodox Tradition or the Slavonic Bible includes 2 Esdras, whereas the Greek Orthodox Tradition of the Septuagint does not. This lack of uniform use led P. Bratsiotes (Greek theologian) to make the following observation (quoted by S. Agourides in his article The Bible in the Greek Orthodox Church, p. 240): "it is for this reason that the fixing of the Canon of the Old Testament is proposed as one of the subjects of a future Great Synod of the Eastern Orthodox Church". So even today, the issue of the Old Testament Canon remains open for discussion.

The subject of Divine inspiration of the Old Testament by Orthodox Theologians as a whole is only now beginning to receive the attention it needs. The eminent Orthodox Biblical Scholar P. Bratsiotes believes that the Divine inspiration of the Old Testament is: "related to the communication of Divine Truth, whereas the supervision of the Holy Spirit is related to its accurate expression" (quoted by S. Agourides in his article The Bible in the Greek Orthodox Church, p. 101). So it is understood that Orthodox theology cannot speak of an Old Testament without first affirming its divine authorship. How then is Divine authorship related with the human intervention of the Old Testament's compilation? Although he is not a biblical scholar, P. Evdokimov sufficiently answers this question when he stated: "God is the principal cause, while man is the instrumental cause."

(To be continued)


"Glory Be To GOD For All Things!"--Saint John Chrysostom


With sincere agape in His Holy Diakonia,
The sinner and unworthy servant of God

+Father George