The Old Testament

In the Old Testament, expressions associated with our understanding of faith are related to the notion of firmness. The Hebrew root mn is used in various forms in the Old Testament and it refers to firm places, posts, positions and stability, and when used of human beings it signifies confidence, trust, loyalty and faithfulness (Gen. 15.6 and Hab. 2.4).* 2 * * The two most important nouns derived from the verb ‘to trust’ ( aman) are emuna and emet, the first referring to firmness or stability, the second to truthfulness and faithfulness. Both can be understood as being divine or human: the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob shows firmness and faithfulness to His chosen people, thus His people are expected to remain firm and faithful to her Chooser. Human firmness and faithfulness are based on reverential fear: ‘The fear of the Lord’ is paradoxically inseparable from trust in Him. On the divine side, instead of fear, we find jealousy: God is ‘jealous’, He does not tolerate any rival and thus demands fear and trust (Exod. 20.5). [1] [2]

After the Babylonian conquest in 587 AD, the Jewish people went into exile. In response to their despair, the prophets deepened the word ‘trust’ to involve the entire life of the community. The most important sign of this deepening is the wordplay in Isa. 7.9: ‘If ye will not believe, surely ye shall not be established’. (Also translated as ‘If you do not believe, you will not understand’.) In this verse, ‘to believe’ and ‘to be established’ are expressed by two different forms of aman. The meaning of this verse is that if you do not have a deep trust in the Lord, when facing your enemies around the city, your life will not be saved. Thus faith as firmness and salvation as the act of the Lord in the worldly sense are linked; and on a deeper level, faith and salvation in the theological sense are connected. Faith in this ancient sense is realized in a situation of utmost peril.

In the age of the prophets, the importance of the individual, the ‘person’, slowly comes to the fore. The believer is more and more the individual representing the community. His faith is less based on fear and more on hope and love, such as in Isa. 28.16, 40.31 or 43.10. This development is reflected in the wisdom literature, such as the Book of Job. Job not only believes ‘in’ the Lord but believes his own blamelessness. His faith develops from fear to hope and from ‘hearsay’ to ‘seeing’ (Job 42.5). In Psalms, the ‘lovingkindness’ (hesed) of the Lord is stressed as a feature of His ‘truth’, ‘faithfulness’, ‘strength’, the right answer to which is equally faithfulness, testimony and praise. The intimate relationship between the soul and God is now most important. Faith is about the personal closeness of the psalmist to God: ‘The Lord is my rock, and my fortress, and my deliverer; my God, my strength, in whom I will trust’ (Ps. 18.2). The Lord becomes ‘my God’ (eli), a God not only of the community but of the psalmist himself.

One of the most important Old Testament verses about faith is Hab. 2.4b: ‘the just shall live by his faith’. ‘Faith’ in the original Hebrew text is 'emuna (firmness, trust, faithfulness). From the context, it is evident what the prophet wants to tell us: when facing a dreadful enemy, the just (tzaddik) has no other way of surviving than to trust the Lord and His promise of life. ‘Faith’ here is keeping in mind this promise in the face of death and destruction; if the just survives the crisis, it is because of his faithfulness to the Lord’s promises. In this sense, the just live by trust, faithfulness. This verse is referred to in Rom. 1.17 and Gal. 3.11, where we find the Greek word pistis, faith, in a more general sense than is conveyed by the Hebrew ’emuna. In this context pistis means believing. For Christian authors from Augustine to the Protestant Reformers, the verse possessed a central role in emphasizing the priority of faith in justification.

Before the composition of the New Testament texts, important changes occurred to the ancient notion of faith in the Hellenistic Judaism found in big city centres, such as Alexandria. The Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible (the Septuagint, or LXX) and the composition of various extra- and non-canonical writings (such as Ecclesiastes, the Wisdom of Solomon etc.) introduced the notion of biblical faith into Greek thought. The Septuagint translated all words with the root mn into Greek words with the root pist- (pistis, pisteuein: faith, to believe), thereby offering an overall interpretation of pistis in a culture which had previously connected this word mainly to Plato’s theory of perception.

The Hellenistic Jewish philosopher Philo worked in Alexandria too. Without his interpretation of the Old Testament faith as a virtue - a virtue characteristic of



heroes like Abraham - the birth of the New Testament notions of faith would be unimaginable. Philo connected the ancient Jewish notion of faith as faithfulness and firmness to Platonic and Stoic conceptions of faith as a power of conversion from unbelief to the trust in God. In view of some New Testament texts, such as the Letter to the Hebrews, Philo’s identification of faith with virtue is especially important. By faith, understood as a virtue, the central figures of the Old Testament attached themselves to the One God and rejected non-philosophical polytheism. In Philo, the bearer of faith is no longer the community but the individual aspiring to live a philosophical life in the framework of a Hellenized Judaism.

  • [1] 1Avery Dulles, The Assurance of Things Hoped For: A Theology of Christian Faith (Oxford: OxfordUniversity Press, 1994), ch. 1.
  • [2] 5mn refers to the root composed of three Hebrew letters aleph, mem and nun (as in amen). In the Unicode Block (Spacing Modifier Letters), aleph is written with the sign U+02BE - ’ - to express what is called a ‘modifier letter right half ring’.
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