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Ronald Hendel

Genesis and Jesus

Paying attention to the conversation.

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To many early Christian interpreters, Genesis also seemed to talk back in this conversation with the New Testament. Many read the New Testament through Genesis, as the Gospel of Matthew invites one to do, and they also read Genesis through the New Testament. In other words, they read Genesis as if it was talking about Christ, usually in a cryptic way.

For instance, the first sentence of Genesis reads: "In the beginning, God created heaven and earth." But some early Christian interpreters understood this verse as meaning "In the Son, God created heaven and earth." The first chapter of the Gospel of John provides the key to this understanding, where it says "He was in the beginning with God, and all things were made through him." If Christ was "in the beginning" with God at creation, then perhaps "in the beginning" in Genesis refers to Christ. By reading Genesis 1:1 in this way, Genesis and the Gospel of John were saying the same thing, one cryptically and the other openly.

But others regarded this interpretation as fanciful. The Church Father Jerome complained, "most people think that the Hebrew reads, 'In the Son, God made heaven and earth,' which the facts of the matter prove to be mistaken." Jerome was a good Hebraist, and he had no patience for obvious misreadings of the Bible. But he saw allusions to Christ in other verses of Genesis, which many today find fanciful. The interpretation of Genesis has many such twists and turns.

Genesis and Jesus have accompanied each other during the two thousand years of Christian culture. Elsewhere in the New Testament Jesus is depicted as a "New Adam," a "New Melchizedek," and a "beloved son" (like Abraham's son) who must be sacrificed. When Jesus returns, he will restore humanity to its original state of blessing in a new Garden of Eden. All of these concepts take their force from the New Testament dialogue with Genesis. The Christmas story too, as we have seen, has roots in Genesis, and draws on it to nourish its deeper meanings.

Ronald Hendel is Norma and Sam Dabby Professor of Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies, University of California, Berkeley. He is the author most recently of The Book of Genesis: A Biography (Princeton Univ. Press).

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