“All scripture is written for our learning” we read in one of the Pastoral epistles (2Tim 3.16). The early Church certainly took this to heart, and in doing so it was following the example of their Lord. As a Jewish lad Jesus was taught the Torah, the Psalms and other parts of the Hebrew Bible that is evident in the Gospels. During the times when Christ withdrew from the crowds to be with His Father He would have sung the psalms as was the Jewish custom. (That is why in the monasteries the psalms are sung at the Hours in order to pray with Christ).
After the resurrection and ascension, the first Christians were Jewish who still attended the synagogue where the Torah and Prophets were always read. In the Gentile world and amongst the Diaspora (i.e. Jews who lived outside Palestine) it was the Septuagint Bible (i.e. the Greek version of the Old Testament) that was read. Towards the end of the first century Paul’s letters to different Christian communities such at Corinth and Phillipi and what we know to-day was the Pastoral Letters were bound together with an introduction, which is probably what we know today as the Ephesian letter. (It was this type of manuscript that Augustine was reading when he was converted in Milan in 387). Individual copies of the gospels also began to circulate, of which the most popular was Matthew. Thus for five centuries or so Christians would read what eventually formed the New Testament and a few other letters such as those of Clement and Barnabas from many different manuscripts. One of the oldest manuscripts to survive is Codex Alexandrinus (A02 now in the British Museum). Compiled in the fifth century it included the letter of Clement. It was the many manuscripts carried by the early Christians that became their joy to study or to learn by heart if one could not read such as the desert fathers and mothers in Egypt. Many a saint such as Martin of Tours, who lived in the fourth century, spent most of his day reading and meditating on them.
When we look at the early Fathers their lives were devoted to expounding the scriptures to their students and flock. It was Ambrose expounding on Scripture in Milan cathedral that brought Augustine back to the Church. Parents too handed on to their children a love of Scripture. Perhaps the greatest theologian the Church has ever had, Origen, living in the early third century is a wonderful example of this. His own father, Leonides, a martyr during the time of Septimus Severus in Alexandria, trained his son to not only love the Scriptures but also to become proficient in his understanding of them. At a very early age he became the Head of the Catechetical School in this illustrious city of learning, where he spent his days teaching and his nights pouring over the Scriptures. One of the great contribution Origen made to biblical studies was the Hexapla or a Six-columned Bible of the Old Testament, a work that would occupy him for twenty-eight years. In order to do this competently he learned the Hebrew language; he was already fluent in Greek. As the name suggested there were six different versions that Origen compared. Apart from the Hebrew and Greek versions he also used other versions transcribed in the second and third centuries.
Origen’s aim was to produce a more accurate Septuagint When completed it was nearly fifty volumes in length, and as such made a substantial contribution to further biblical studies, especially in the Eastern Church. He also wrote on many of the New Testament books including the gospels of Matthew and John and Paul’s letter to the Romans while his other writings were full of quotations from Holy Scripture as was the practice of all the Fathers.
His method of teaching Scripture to students is found in the preface of his treatise De Principiis. There were three layers of meaning to discover: literal, moral and allegorical, with the last being the most important as it unveiled the spiritual meaning. With this approach under the guidance of the Holy Spirit who inspired the writers one could discover something of the mystery and depth of God that is not first apparent. For example the Book of Deuteronomy declares a “second law” (i.e to love one’s neighbour) that is “brought to perfection” in Christ, who in His humility of assuming “the form of a servant” has opened “the kingdom of heaven” to all those who live “according to the laws of the everlasting gospel.” Like all the early Fathers, Origen believed that the Hebrew Bible when read properly led to knowledge and truth of Christ.
Origen also encouraged the use of cross references in biblical studies. One example he gave was from Micah when he spoke of upholding justice, loving mercy and walking with the Lord God, (6.8). It should remind one of similar passages in Scripture such as those words of Moses. “I have placed before thy face the way of life and the way of death: choose what is good, and walk in it (Deut. 30.15) and Psalm 13.14 “If my people had heard Me, if Israel had walked in My ways, I would have humbled her enemies to nothing”, and our Saviour’s words in Matthew’s gospel 5.39, “If Israel had walked in My ways.”
To-day a good bible will give cross references for us to look up when reading passages. This helps us to discover the scriptures in a way that the early Fathers did.