The Old Testament in the
Orthodox Church

by Fr. R. Stergiou


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 and the Marcionites vehemently against their attempts to exclude the Old Testament from the Canon, and was victorious in this endeavour.

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 analyse 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.

The place of the Old Testament in the early Church

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 Paul, the Law of the Old Testament was only ever a pedagogical instrument "therefore the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ" (Gal. 3:24) and as a measure or shadow of things to come "for the law, having a shadow of the good things to come" (Heb. 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". 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 finalised until the sixth century, Christians of the Early Church read and understood the Old Testament with the above mentioned union in mind.

Although the Early Church had recognised 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 behaviour. 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 Tim. 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.

The Canon of the Old Testament

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 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, Cyril of Jerusalem and Athanasius support the use of the Hebrew Canon, where as John Chrysostom and Basil the Great support the use of the Alexandrian Canon. Although the local Synod of Jerusalem in 1672 stipulated that the Alexandrian Canon was to be used, the second Canon of the Council of Trullo (691) 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 included in the greater Canon. For example, the Russian Orthodox Tradition or the Slavonic Bible includes 2 Edras, whereas the Greek Orthodox Tradition of the Septuagint does not. This lack of uniform use led P. Bratsiotes 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.

Divine inspiration of the Old Testament

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".

On the other hand, however, neither the Old Testament nor the Church can convince the unbeliever of the Old Testament's divine inspiration and authority. In fact, one who does not accept divine inspiration of the Old Testament, may subscribe to many views. Among the many possibilities which they may subscribe to, two could be:

The Natural Theory of Inspiration: which completely rules out any divine influence in the compilation of the Old Testament, or

The Moral Theory of Inspiration: which considers that the Old Testament authors were divinely influenced in their writings through the holy life they led.

Orthodox theology does not accept either theory because they both emphasise the human or natural elements of the Old Testament's compilation. Whereas The Natural Theory excludes any divine contribution, The Moral Theory perceives Divine involvement on a passive level. The importance of distinguishing between natural and divine revelation has been sufficiently summed up by Fr. Dr. T. Adamopoulo in his book titled Divine Revelation and the Old Testament (p. 31):

"Divine revelation however is to be distinguished from natural revelation. Whereas the former involves a direct, first hand, special and unmistakable communication from God to Man, the later is directly involving the attestation itself as evidence of the existence, presence, attributes and power of God within the universe".

It is therefore suffice to say that the Orthodox Church claims that the author of the Old Testament is truly God Himself, but equally the work of men in different times and places. The Church also presupposes and confesses that God can and does reveal Himself, and that man comes to know Him in His self-revelation only through a deep spiritual experience found within the Church.

Critical scholarship of the Old Testament

The late biblical scholar B. Vellas expressed his opinion of a critical approach to the Old Testament ... [by holding] the view that any type of critical analysis of the Old Testament should not alter its authority or authenticity, and that it is to be in accordance to the expressed views of the Fathers of the Church. This view is of course generally accepted by the Orthodox Church as a whole.

For example, in the area of authorship, it is doubtful that the books of Judges, Samuel, Kings, and many of the Psalms were written by their traditionally attributed authors. However, the Orthodox Church considers them as divinely inspired and thus keeps them in the Old Testament Canon. So in the final analysis, the Orthodox Church accepts critical scholarship of the Old Testament with the presupposition that it is interpreted within the confines of the Church....

Vellas also undertook research in the field of Orthodox critical scholarship of the Old Testament and concluded that it began in 1859 by C. Contogones. However, the discovery of a short unpublished handwritten letter in the archives of the BFBS, proves that this opinion of Vellas is invalid. The letter i9 actually attributed to an Orthodox Bishop -Hilarion of Tornovo - written between 1825-26. This, of course, proves that Orthodox Old Testament criticism was actually pioneered by Metropolitan Hilarion in the 1820's and not in 1859. After carefully analysing this manuscript, one may conclude that despite its generally conservative outlook, it clearly contains valuable critical comments which do not contradict the Church Fathers, and do in fact contribute to a better understanding of the Old Testament.

Use of the Old Testament in Orthodox worship

The Bible is practically the sole source of the Church's liturgy, both in form and content. The liturgical pattern of the Church, its cycles of feasting, fasting, psalmody and prayer are all expressly biblical. In the liturgy, the Bible comes alive and shows itself for what it really is: the living Word of God. Typological appreciation is central in liturgical use of the Old Testament and in the very biblical character of the liturgy itself through psalms, verses, quotations and adaptations of the Old Testament in hymns and Canons.

In order to better understand just how the Orthodox Church uses the Old Testament in worship, we must focus our attention to the selection procedures of the 'readings' found in various services. This selection of Old Testament readings did not happen fortuitously in the worship of the Orthodox Church. By choosing these texts, the Church wanted to directly unite her liturgical life with biblical revelation. By studying the liturgical books of the Orthodox Church, one may extract the following information:

1. The reading of the Old Testament occurs during ecclesiastical periods, great feast days, and on a daily basis in certain services. During all these services, biblical representation is exclusively from the Old Testament.

2. The Church uses many of the Old Testament's characteristics (history, prophecy, pedagogy) as criteria in her selection of readings. At times the selection of these texts are directly related to the message of the feast, and at other times they are indirectly related. However, the Church never selected readings which were totally unrelated to the theme of the feast but selected readings with definite elements of divine revelation which united the soteriological work of Christ, and the redemptive work of the Church.

3. In the liturgical life of the Church, some of the books of the Old Testament are read in their entirety (Genesis, Proverbs, Isaiah and Jonah), some are not read at all but most are read as extracts directly related to the feast.

Having studied the readings of the Old Testament in Orthodox worship, we have not only confirmed their dynamic presence, but their deep theological meaning for the Church. This selection of readings made by the liturgical conscience of the Church secured the articles of our faith which are founded in the text of the Old Testament. These articles of faith are: 1) The union of the two Testaments; 2) The place of the Old Testament in God's divine plan; and 3) its meaning as a 'protoevanel' of Christ.

The union between the two Testaments

For the Orthodox Church, a more accurate way of expressing the relationship between the Old and New Testaments would be to state that they are identified as equal to each other. Such an understanding accommodates for a biblical union in the framework of divine revelation which is expressed in the description "prediction - prototype - fulfilment" accurated formulated by D. Doikos.

The Church not only saw Christ and His soteriological work in the prophecies of the Old Testament, but in persons, events and in the laws of ancient Israel. These "types" or "prototypes" (such as the Cross, the Resurrection of Christ, and even Baptism) found their fullness in the soteriological realities of the New Testament and the Church. And even though all aspects of the Old Testament are not a "prediction" or a "promise", nor in the New Testament is everything "fulfilment", the formula "prediction - fulfilment" is the most satisfactory description of the Church can give in attributing her liturgical union of both Testaments.


The Spiritual method of interpreting the Old Testament has been in use by the Orthodox Church for centuries. The Church may therefore be accused of not even considering other studies (archaeological, cultural, historical, or literary studies) concerning the Old Testament. At no time in history was the opportunity so great to measure the Old Testament as it is in the present, and in the study of the Old Testament there is certainly much that can be measured. It would be erroneous to insist that the Church was not interested in using other studies to measure the Old Testament given that the Church:

  1. Did not have to deal with questions of today's calibre on the Old Testament.
  2. Did not have an appreciation for history.
  3. Lacked sufficient scholarly information
  4. Tended to spiritualise everything which was holy.

These, and of course many other factors, cannot lead us to conclude that Orthodox Old Testament exegetes were indifferent to the use of other forms of study, but they studied the Old Testament to the measure which was at hand.

Critical analysis of the Old Testament, was in fact initiated and greatly developed by theology in the West. Comparatively, even though some work has begun in this field, Orthodox theology in general seems to be deficient. One thesis for this deficiency held by the biblical scholar P. Vasileiades is that the Orthodox Church did not experience the period of enlightenment and the subsequent Renaissance....

In light of this, Orthodox theologians must be encouraged to undertake other forms of study - parallel with the spiritual approach - in order to broaden our understanding of the Old Testament. However, modern radical criticism which is characterised by scepticism and the aim of demythologising not only provides a new "way" of exegesis, but also new "content". This is why V. Kesich, in his book "Criticism, the Gospel and the Church" (p. 162), recommends that Orthodox exegetes must:

"... work within a definite framework of revelation as it is given in the Bible (or Old Testament). The critic ... cannot reject the dogmas of the Church and replace them with his own. His work is marked upon the dependence of Tradition through participation, and then in freedom he can approach his material ... in order to bring out the meaning of the Scriptures".

Even though the different Traditions of Orthodoxy may differ in which books they include in the Old Testament Canon, the fact remains that the Conscience of the Church generally accepts the Septuagint (LXX) or Alexandrian Canon....

For the Orthodox Church, the Old Testament is not perceived as a magical book which fell out of the sky, but as the authentic witness of her faith. The Old Testament developed an ecclesiological character corresponding to the teachings of the Church which of course are founded on biblical revelation. For the Orthodox Church, the Old Testament is not an antithesis to the New, but is united to the New, and is as equally important in the perception of the message of salvation.

The Byzantine liturgical Tradition of the Orthodox Church simulated the authors of the New Testament, the Apostolic Fathers, and the Fathers of the Church. For its selection of Old Testament readings in its Liturgical Tradition, the Orthodox Church used the Messianic - Eschatological dimension of the Old Testament as a guide, with the certainty that it would be fulfilled in the Person of Jesus Christ.

from Voice in the wilderness, v. 5(4-6), 1997
Greek Orthodox Church of St. George, South Brisbane
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