WHAT LANGUAGE WAS SPOKEN by the first Christians? On one level, we can say it was Aramaic or Hebrew with a sprinkling of Greek. On another level – the level of spiritual thought – we must say that the first Christians spoke the language of the Torah, what Christians today call the Old Testament.
The first Christians’ cultural and spiritual frame of reference was the Jewish Scriptures, the same tradition revered by all Jews of their day. The difference between them was that the first Christians believed that the promises of the Torah and the Prophets were fulfilled in Jesus Christ.
The Scriptures Are Fulfilled
From the first, Jesus affirmed that He was realizing what had been foretold. “So He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up. And as His custom was, He went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and stood up to read.” After reading Isaiah 61:1, 2 He announced, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4: 18, 19, 21). When His fellow-townsmen rejected Him, He moved on to Capernaum.
In Matthew’s Gospel the story of Jesus’ ministry begins with another prophecy: “…and leaving Nazareth, He came and dwelt in Capernaum, which is by the sea, in the regions of Zebulun and Naphtali, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Isaiah the prophet, saying: ‘The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, by the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan,
Galilee of the Gentiles: The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and upon those who sat in the region and shadow of death Light has dawned.’ From that time Jesus began to preach and to say, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’” (Matthew 4:12-17).
The New Testament Quotes the Old
There are a number of times in the Gospels when specific Old Testament texts are quoted in the belief that they are fulfilled in Christ. Some of these claims are interwoven into the stories of Christ’s teaching and miracles. Thus, in the Sermon on the Mount the Lord announces: “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled” (Matthew 5:17, 18).
In Luke’s Gospel the Lord speaks more directly: to say that He fulfills the Law means that the era of the Law was at an end. “The law and the prophets were until John. Since that time the kingdom of God has been preached, and everyone is pressing into it. And it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one tittle of the law to fail” (Luke 16:16, 17).
Several times in the course of his preaching the Lord Jesus tried to show His disciples that He was the realization of these prophecies. He explained His use of parables in terms of an Old Testament prophecy: “Therefore I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. And in them the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled, which says: ‘Hearing you will hear and shall not understand, and seeing you will see and not perceive; for the hearts of this people have grown dull’ … that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying: ‘I will open My mouth in parables; I will utter things kept secret from the foundation of the world’” (Matthew 13:13-15, 35).
In a similar way the Lord confronted the Pharisees citing the Prophet Isaiah: “Why do you also transgress the commandment of God because of your tradition? … Thus you have made the commandment of God of no effect by your tradition. Hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy about you, saying: ‘These people draw near to Me with their mouth, and honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me and in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men’” (Matthew 15:3, 7-9).
The Passion Prophesied and Fulfilled
As Jesus’ time with His disciples was drawing to a close, He tried to prepare them to see His coming Passion as fulfilling the words of the prophets. “Then He took the twelve aside and said to them, ‘Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and all things that are written by the prophets concerning the Son of Man will be accomplished. He will be delivered to the Gentiles and will be mocked and insulted and spit upon. They will scourge Him and kill Him. And the third day He will rise again.’ But they understood none of these things; this saying was hidden from them, and they did not know the things which were spoken” (Luke 18:31-34).
Later, of course, the Twelve would see that Christ’s death and resurrection fulfilled the prophets’ teaching and would proclaim it as such. They taught, for example, that His triumphal entry as king into Jerusalem was such a fulfillment: “All this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying: ‘Tell the daughter of Zion, ‘Behold, your King is coming to you, lowly, and sitting on a donkey – a colt, the foal of a donkey’” (Matthew 21:4, 5).
Prophecies Made Clear by the Risen Lord
It was only after Christ’s resurrection that the disciples came to understand how the Old Testament’s Messianic prophecies were pointing to the Lord Jesus. When the risen Christ appeared to two disciples on the road to Emmaus He explained these prophecies to them. As the Gospel recounts it, “He said to them, ‘O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! Ought not the Christ to have suffered these things and to enter into His glory?’ And beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself” (Luke 24:25-27).
After Jesus vanished from their sight, their response was swift as they began to absorb the meaning of this experience: “And they said to one another, ‘Did not our heart burn within us while He talked with us on the road, and while He opened the Scriptures to us?’” (Luke 24:32). From then on, the early Christians would open the Scriptures by showing how the Law, the Prophets and the Psalms could only be understood as revealing Jesus of Nazareth and His saving work.
From St Cyril of Alexandria
“The Israelites used to say that the Messianic prophecies were fulfilled, either in the persons of some of their more glorious kings or at least in the holy prophets. They did not correctly understand what was written about Him, so they missed the true direction and traveled down another path… For their good [Jesus] draws them away from such a supposition…
“He brings forth Moses and the prophets, interpreting their hidden meaning and making plain to the worthy what was obscure to the unworthy. In this way He settles in them the ancient and hereditary faith taught them by the sacred books which they posessed. For nothing which comes from God is without its use. All have their appointed place and service.”
(St Cyril of Alexandria, On Luke, 12, 24)