The early Christian church searched the Old Testament to find passages that seem to tell of the Messiah, or Redeemer or Savior or King that was to come to Israel’s aid. And, by analogy, come to the aid of the early Church during periods of persecution and suppression. The Christian church was not always persecuted during its first 300 or so years. It was generally tolerated except when it came into conflict with the Roman understanding of social order that required sacrifice to the Emperor, though exemption certificates could at times be purchased.
Pliny the Younger wrote to Emperor Trajan about 112 asking how to deal with Christians while he was governor of Bithynia, now Turkey. Pliny found though Christians seemed to lead good lives, Christianity was a “bad and…extravagant superstition… spread like a contagion, not only into cities and towns, but into country villages also, which yet there is reason to hope may be stopped and corrected.” Trajan’s reply has been preserved. In part it reads, “These people are not to be sought for; but if they be accused and convicted, they are to be punished; but with this caution, that he who denies himself to be a Christian, and makes it plain that he is not so by supplicating to our gods, although he had been so formerly, may be allowed pardon, upon his repentance.” (Pliny the Younger, Epistolae, Book X, letters 97, 98.)
The periods of persecution and suppression of the early Church include:
1. Nero (c. 64-68)
2. Domitian (r. 81-96).
3. Trajan (112-117). Christianity is outlawed but Christians are not sought out.
4. Marcus Aurelius (r. 161-180).
5. Septimus Severus (202-210).
6. Decius (250-251). Christians are actively sought out by requiring public sacrifice
7. Valerian (257-59).
8. Maximinus the Thracian (235-38).
9. Aurelian (r. 270–275).
10. Diocletian and Galerius (303-324).
The persecution of Christians in the western Roman Empire ended for the most part in 313 with the Edict of Milan. This document has never been found and the only reference to it in the Eusebius of Caesarea’s Historia Ecclesiastica Book X (Chapter 5, Copies of Imperial Laws <http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf201.iii.xvi.v.html> ) written about the end of persecution:
When I, Constantine Augustus, and I, Licinius Augustus, came under favorable auspices to Milan and took under consideration everything which pertained to the common good and prosperity, we resolved among other things, or rather first of all, to make such decrees as seemed in many respects for the benefit of every one; namely, such as should preserve reverence and piety toward the deity. We resolved, that is, to grant both to the Christians and to all men freedom to follow the religion which they choose, that whatever heavenly divinity exists may be propitious to us and to all that live under our government.
Given this long history of intermittent suppression, it is not surprising that the early Church turned to the Hebrew scriptures to look for hope to sustain their faith in Jesus Christ. They turned to the books of the Former Prophets (the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings). Samuel was included in many Jesse Tree renderings because Samuel spoke of the attributes of a king chosen by God, who would rule over Israel; protect the people from their enemies (1 Samuel 10:1) and who would be attentive to the will of God. (1 Samuel 16)
They read the books of the four major prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel and Ezekiel. All twelve of the minor prophets show up in Jesse Tree because of references to the hoped for Messiah. Habakkuk is the most common. Habakkuk’s prayer was popular with its vision of the wrath, majesty, and salvation of the Lord (Habakkuk 3:1-19). Zechariah, another popular figure, is included because of the passage: “Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he” (Zechariah 9:9). Another popular passage was from Hosea 14:57: “I will be like the dew to Israel; he shall blossom like the lily, he shall strike root like the forests of Lebanon...they shall flourish as a garden, they shall blossom like the vine...”
Looking at the Old Testament as a text that foreshadows the conception, birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and even Mary, his mother, is not a mindset that is easily understood in the 21st century. But it was the usual method of thinking about the Old Testament in the Middle Ages and is called typology.
The medieval monks, clergy, and artists looked for passages in the Old Testament that they thought prefigured events in the life of Jesus and of his mother, Mary. For example, the darkness at noon on the day of Jesus’ crucifixion was foreseen in a passage from Amos. “I will make the sun go down at noon, and darken the earth in broad daylight.” (Amos 8:9) Using typology, one looks at one event as revealing or prefiguring another event, or an event as fulfilling a prior prophesy, or two or more events that imitate each other in some providential way. Here are several more example of typological reasoning to help illustrate this way of thinking. The birth of Eve from the rib of Adam was seen as paralleling the birth of the Church from the pierced side of Jesus. Cain leading Abel out to slay him was a foreshadowing of the Jews taking Jesus from Jerusalem before the crucifixion. The laughter of Ham was seen as prefiguring the taunting of Jesus during his passion. During the Middle Ages, it was assumed that every event in the Old Testament had its typological twin in the New Testament.
This sort of reasoning becomes especially prominent in the Biblia Pauperum, a type of picture Bible that became popular toward the end of the medieval period.
This page from a Biblia Pauperum shows the three frequently linked stories of the sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham, the raising up of the bronze serpent by Moses and the Passion of Our Lord.
British Library King’s 5 f.17. Netherland (The Hugue) 1405.
The text on the left reads:
According to Genesis xii, 7-18, when Abraham has raised his sword to sacrifice his son, an angel of the Lord prevented him from heaven, saying: 'Do not lift your hand against the boy'. Abraham signifies the heavenly Father, who sacrificed his son (that is, Christ) on the cross for us all, so that in this way he might give an indication of the Father's love.
The text on the right reads:
According to Numbers xxi, 4-8, when the Lord wanted to free from serpents the people whom the serpents had bitten he instructed Moses to make a brass serpent and hang upon it a stake so that whoever looked at it would be rid of serpents. The serpent hung up and stared at by the people signifies Christ on the cross, which every believing person who wishes to be rid of the serpent (that is, the devil) should gaze upon.
David’s scroll reads, “They have pierced my hands and my feet.” The scroll from Isaiah is a reference to Isaiah 53 and the suffering servant poem. The verse on the scroll is a paraphrase, “He was sacrificed because he himself wished it, and he bore our sins.” Job’s scroll is Job 40.20 in the Vulgate, “Canst thou draw out the leviathan with a hook?” The bottom line reads, “The suffering of Christ snatches us from the gloomy abyss.” Habakkuk’s scroll says, “There are horns on his hands: there his strength is hidden.”(Habakkuk 3.4b.)
To illustrate the linking of Old Testament with New Testament, here are a few examples of well-known Old Testament writings that tell the coming of Jesus, his life, and his death, and medieval understanding of Mary: (A few of these references will be familiar to most modern Christians since they are read during Advent and sometimes at other times of the liturgical church year.)
1. Numbers 17.24a. “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near-a star shall come out of Jacob and a scepter shall rise out of Israel …” This passage was linked to the genealogy in Luke 3.24: “son of Jacob, son of Isaac, son of Abraham, son of Terah, son of Nahor…” This is also linked with references to the star of the Magi.(Matthew 2.2)
2. Isaiah 40.3: “A voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’” The verse from Isaiah prefigured the preaching of John the Baptist as written in Matthew 3, Mark 1.1-14, Luke 3.2-18, John 1.6-18.
3. Isaiah 53.3. “He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.” This verse foretold the rejection of Jesus by his family, especially the verse John 7.5: “For not even his brothers believed in him.”
4. Jeremiah 31. 15: “Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more.” This verse foreshadowed the killing of infant and toddler children by Herod as written in Matthew 2.18.
5. Hosea 11.1: “Out of Egypt I call my son.” This verse was thought to refer to the time that Jesus and his family spent in Egypt as told in Matthew.
6. Micah 5.2: “O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel.” Even the gospel writers understood this verse to foretell the birthplace of Jesus Christ though Mark seemed to assume that Jesus was born in Nazareth.
7. Zechariah 13.6: “And if anyone asks them, ‘What are these wounds on your chest?’ the answer will be ‘The wounds I received in the house of my friends.’” The verse from Zechariah was linked to John 19.1: “Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged. A similar verse is found in Matthew 20.19 when Jesus foretells the manner of his death. “[T]hey will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified; and on the third day he will be raised.” Luke 23.22 is part of the speech that Pontius Pilate has with the crowd. “A third time he said to them, ‘Why, what evil has he done? I have found in him no ground for the sentence of death; I will therefore have him flogged and then release him.’”
8. Malachi 4.5: “I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes.” Jesus identified John as Elijah in Matthew 11.14: “and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come.
9. Noah was saved by the wooden ark (Genesis 6-9) as the wood of the cross became an instrument of salvation with the death and resurrection of Jesus.
10. Isaac carried the wood for his sacrifice (Genesis 22:6), and this was linked symbolically with Jesus carrying his cross before the crucifixion (John 19:17).
11. The passage from Zechariah 12.10, “when they look on me whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn.” This foreshadowed the piercing of the side of the crucified Jesus as described in John 19.34, “one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water.”
12. Linked to this verse about blood and water are two sacraments of the Christian church, namely the Eucharist and Baptism.
13. Jacob’s ladder (Genesis 28:10-22) has been linked to both Jesus and Mary. Jacob’s ladder was seen as the reference in Jesus’ comment to his newly recruited disciples that they will see “the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man” (John 1.51). The ladder image is again referenced both to Jesus’ statement that he was the gate or door to heaven (John 10:9), and the Ascension.
14. In addition, the ladder symbol is applied to Mary as the ladder or mediator between earth and her Son, the Redeemer.
15. The ladder was a symbol for the Cross when applied to humankind. Believers will ascend by the ladder of faith to Heaven and unbelievers will descend to Hell.
16. Joseph being thrown into the pit in the wilderness by his brothers (Genesis 37:23-4), and Jonah being swallowed by the fish (Jonah 1:17) were two stories that looked forward to laying the body of Jesus in a tomb. (Matthew 27:60, Mark 15:46, Luke 23:53, John 19:42)
17. Moses beheld the burning bush and God spoke to him from the bush. (Exodus 3:1-6). This was seen as a parallel to Angel Gabriel appearing to Mary and revealing to her the significance of the child she was to carry.
18. Moreover, as the bush held fire but was not consumed by it, so Mary held within her God manifested as Jesus, and she was not harmed by his birth and remained a Virgin.
19. The three days that the three young men were in the fiery furnace (Daniel 3:13-30), and Jonah was in the belly of the big fish (Jonah 1: 17), were thought to presage the time between Jesus’ crucifixion, death, and resurrection.
20. Daniel in the lion’s den (Daniel 6:10-24) was compared with the passion, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
21. Besides, the Daniel in the lion’s den story has been interpreted as symbolizing Mary’s virginity. Just as Daniel was protected by an angel of God without the seal being broken, so Mary was kept a virgin.
22. The anointing of David by Samuel (1 Samuel 16:13) paralleled the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist (Matthew 3:13-17, Mark 1.9-11, Luke 3:21-22, John 1:31-34). Thus both the Old Testament Samuel and the New Testament John the Baptist appear in Jesse Trees. Yet, John the Baptist appears in Jesse Trees quite rarely when compared to Samuel.
23. The phrase from Hosea 11.1 “out of Egypt I called my son” was seen as an allusion to Matthew 2.19-21 when Joseph brought Mary and the child Jesus from Egypt to Israel.
24. A staff alluded to the Virgin. In Latin this is a word play between virgo (virgin) and virga (rod or stem). The oldest example may be the letter of Jerome (c. 347-420) to Eustochium (Letter XXII) using Isaiah 11.1. In the letter, Jerome wrote, “The rod is the mother of the Lord—simple, pure, unsullied; drawing no germ of life from without but fruitful in singleness like God Himself. The flower of the rod is Christ.”
25. Jesus as the “righteous branch” of David (Jeremiah 23.5) appeared in a sermon of Pope Leo I the Great (reigned from 440-460) wrote for Christmas. “David’s Lord was made David’s Son, and from the fruit of the promised branch sprang One without fault, the twofold nature joining together into one Person, that by one and the same conception and birth might spring our Lord Jesus Christ.”
26. The rod of Jesse image of Isaiah 11.1 was blended with the rod of Aaron described in Numbers. Aaron’s staff became a snake before Pharaoh (Exodus 7:9), and then sprouted, producing buds and blossoms, and ripe almonds. (Numbers 17:8). Just as a rod without a root produced fruit so Mary without marriage brought forth a son. The rod of Aaron was probably the source for the apocryphal story about how Joseph was chosen to the guardian of the Virgin Mary as her husband. (See previously mentioned references to the Infancy Gospel of James and Pseudo-Matthew.) The figure of Aaron’s rod was then linked to images from Isaiah of the virgin who will give birth to a son. (Isaiah 7.14) The figure became more dense by the Middle Ages. Mary was the vine and Jesus the flower or fruit of the vine. This was yoked to the image of Jesus as the true vine from John 15.1-4.
This typological reasoning resulted in considerable complexity in the various meanings that could be placed on the figures of a Jesse Tree no matter where it appeared, window, manuscript, carving in wood and stone. In fact, the name typological window is given to stained glass windows made especially to link Old Testament stories with New Testament events. But that is a separate subject that I cannot begin to discuss now.
In summary, the Old Testament references in the Jesse Tree was meant to link together the Old and New Testaments. The Old Testament was not viewed as a free standing compilation of Jewish history, law, poetry, wisdom and stories. The Old Testament was seen as the prelude, the forerunner of the New Testament, even to the point that everything in the Old Testament had a parallel in the New.