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What to Call the Old Testament?

For centuries Christians have used the designations "Old Testament" and "New Testament" to organize works that they have included in the Bible.  Until recently these titles have been accepted within the Christian context without question.  But is there a need to examine our presuppositions?

The first known use of the term "Old Testament" is found in the writings of Melito of Sardis around 170 C.E. (Old).  In his article "Uncertain Terms:  the Title of the First Volume of the Christian Bible," Brooks Schramm asserts that Melito used this term in a purely relational sense to differentiate between the first volume of the Bible appropriated from Judaic tradition and new Christian writings that were deemed Scripture (Schramm). [Instructor’s Comment:  not anti-Jewish designation for Melito?]

But as times have changed, so have the connotations associated with the words "old" and "new."  In our society of materialism and conspicuous consumption, marketing has taught us that "new" is always better, while "old" often conveys a sense of obsolescence.  Aggravating the situation, the anti-Judaism line of thought that began with the early Church Fathers continues to this day in many strains of modern Christian theology.  In my own experience I have often heard preaching from Jesus’ words in Luke 19:41-44 where he weeps over the city of Jerusalem:

When He approached Jerusalem, He saw the city and wept over it, saying, "If you had known in this day, even you, the things which make for peace! But now they have been hidden from your eyes.  "For the days will come upon you when your enemies will throw up a barricade against you, and surround you and hem you in on every side, and they will level you to the ground and your children within you, and they will not leave in you one stone upon another, because you did not recognize the time of your visitation." (NASB, emphasis added)

This and other passages like it are used to build the case that the Jewish leaders of Jesus’ time were blind to the coming of their long-awaited Messiah.  Having failed to recognize Jesus for who he was, the children of Israel supposedly forfeited their unique status as the chosen people of God to the new Christian Church, while a newer and better promise supersedes the covenant with Israel.

Though this message is proclaimed from pulpits around the world every week, other voices are speaking out, suggesting that we examine what the name "Old Testament" has come to symbolize and how it sounds to a modern Jewish audience.  It is in this context that we will explore other potential labels for this body of writing.

Our task is not as easy as it might first seem.  For starters, Christian groups don’t all mean the same thing when they refer to the Old Testament:

General Agreement:
Protestant / Roman Catholic / Greek / Slavonic


Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 Samuel, 2 Samuel, 1 Kings, 2 Kings, 1 Chronicles, 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi

Roman Catholic / Greek / Slavonic


Tobit, Judith, Additions to Esther, Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus (or the Wisdom of Jesus, Son of Sirach), Baruch, The Letter of Jeremiah (Baruch ch 6), Additions to the Greek Book of Daniel, 1 Maccabees, 2 Maccabees

Greek / Slavonic


1 Esdras (2 Esdras in Slavonic, 3 Esdras in Appendix to Vulgate), Prayer of Manasseh (in Appendix to Vulgate), Psalm 151 (following Psalm 150 in the Greek Bible), 3 Maccabees

Slavonic / Latin Vulgate

2 Esdras (3 Esdras in Slavonic, 4 Esdras in Vulgate Appendix)

Appendix to the Greek Bible

4 Maccabees

Source: Compiled from The New Oxford Annotated Bible (Contents vii-viii).

The Jewish Bible or Tanakh also contains the books of the Old Testament for which there is general agreement; however, their order is significantly different, broken down into Torah, the Prophets and the Writings.

The nascent Church based its collection of Scripture on the Septuagint, an early Greek translation of the postexilic Jewish texts.  While the work on the Septuagint was begun under the Ptolemaic regime of ancient Egypt around the third century B.C.E., it continued to receive additions and edits from various communities over several centuries.  In the end, the Jewish canon appears to have been a recognition by rabbinic authorities [Instructor’s Comment:  maybe not…]of works that were widely considered Scripture by various Jewish communities spread throughout the ancient world (Brettler 456), but not everything that had been translated and included in the Septuagint was accepted in this process.  The Talmud sets aside the rejected materials as Sefarim Hizonim or "Extraneous Books" (apocrypha).

The composition of the Roman Catholic, Greek and Slavonic texts was decided by sectarian authorities at various points in the history of Christendom.  Within Roman Catholic tradition a distinction between the Jewish canon and those books of the Septuagint accepted by the Roman Church is noted through the use of the terms "protocanon" and "deuterocanon" respectively (Newsom 3).  There is no analogous naming tradition within the variants of the Eastern Orthodox tradition.

By opening ourselves to the question of what to call the Jewish texts within the Bible, we also must consider the possibility that "New Testament" will no longer fit the Christian Scriptures.  If, as Schramm attests, the term "Old Testament" was relational, then there can be no "New Testament" without the "Old." [Instructor’s Comment:  good]

I would propose a two-pronged approach to these questions, based on context.  Within a church setting the delineation between Old and New Testaments could be completely marginalized by simply referring to the name of the book in question.  Rather than prefacing liturgical readings with phrases like "a reading from the Old Testament book of Job," the citation could simply be made as "a reading from the book of Job."  By completely removing the vocabulary of Old and New, the question of context is eliminated.[1]  Any historical background required for the lesson or sermon could then be introduced without reference to covenant. [Instructor’s Comment:  Works for liturgical usage.  Any church context for which labels will be needed?]

This system would continue over into the academic setting in one particular matter.  Rather than having Old Testament and New Testament courses, it might make sense to simply place all courses under a general heading of Bible and number them sequentially following an agreed upon arrangement such as chronological introduction of the finalized text.  Survey courses could be divided into several sequential parts, allowing the curriculum to even span two or more traditional labels within the same framework without causing angst about what is Intertestamental and what is New Testament.  Courses like BI 101 could fit nicely into online curriculum categories without having to choose between Old Testament and New Testament.

There are times in an academic setting when subdivisions still prove useful.  For these times, I would suggest the labels Jewish Canon, Alexandrian Collection and Christian Canon.  The first and last divisions in this schema are generally accepted current divisions.  However, Alexandrian Collection is new.  I will address each in turn below.

While some have suggested the terms "Hebrew Bible" and "Hebrew Scriptures" for the Jewish canon, these terms are problematic.  "Hebrew" can be used to refer to both a language and an ancient Semitic culture.  The texts in question are a collection that developed over a long period of time and do not all originate in the time of the ancient Hebrew culture.  Moreover, the original texts of Daniel and Ezra were not written in Hebrew, but rather in Aramaic (Aramaic).  Most likely these terms were designed to designate the language of the Tanakh as read in synagogues today.  If this is the case, then the name is a misnomer for the English translations that are studied in our institutions of higher learning.  [Instructor’s Comment:  good]  Since the collection in question is based upon the accepted texts of Judaism, the term "Jewish Canon" seems a good fit. [Instructor’s Comment:  Who’s using this term?  Are Christians reading it?]

The "Alexandrian Collection" would only include material from the Greek Septuagint that is not included within the Jewish canon.  It takes its name from the library at Alexandria where by tradition the first Greek translations of Hebrew Torah ordered by Ptolemy II were housed.  The term Septuagint would still refer to the common Greek collection handed down under this name, regardless of inclusion within the Jewish Canon.  By retaining these two names a distinction can be made between the sacred collection found only in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions and the full Greek translations of the Jewish canon and other materials.  I have chosen to avoid the word "Apocrypha" because of its obscure origins.  First, the majority of English speakers does not know that it refers to "hidden things."  But more importantly, even those who know the meaning of this Greek word cannot decide whether the term refers to esoteric knowledge within the texts that cannot be understood by the average mortal or perhaps to the idea that these books are somehow substandard and should be hidden away (Newsom 3).

Finally, the "Christian Canon" would replace the now orphaned "New Testament" designation. This term captures both the idea that these writings are important to the Christian faith, but also that they are inclusive only of those books included by Athanasius in his canon of 367 C.E. and finally accepted by all of Christendom by the end of the fourth century (Brettler, 459-460).  Other labels such as "Christian Texts" leave room for misinterpretation and could include everything from the writings of the Church Fathers to last week’s sermon by Jerry Falwell.  [Instructor’s Comment:  Don’t Old Testament books also belong in the Christian canon?]

While Schramm’s article suggests that a broader historical understanding of the roots of the terms "Old Testament" and "New Testament" would allow us to retain these titles, I believe that in the end it would be easier from the point of ecumenical discussion to acknowledge the Judaic nature of the first volume of the Christian Bible.  For no matter how many times it is said that the wording is relational and implies no value system, there will always be room for doubt as long as we live in a culture that assigns such an array of connotative meanings to the word "old."  And as long as preachers are proclaiming that Israel’s covenant with God is dead, the name "Old Testament" will continue to sow discord in ecumenical dialog.

[1] It would also eliminate embarrassing political blunders in the process (Wilgoren).


Works Cited

"Apocrypha."  Encyclopædia Britannica.  2006.  Encyclopædia Britannica 2006 Ultimate Reference Suite DVD 4 Oct. 2006.

"Aramaic language."  Encyclopædia Britannica.  2006.  Encyclopædia Britannica 2006 Ultimate Reference Suite DVD 4 Oct. 2006.

Brettler, Marc Z. and Pheme Perkins.  "The Canons of the Bible."  The New Oxford Annotated Bible.  3rd ed.  Ed. Michael D. Coogan.  Oxford, Eng.:  Oxford University Press, 2001.  453-460.

"Contents." The New Oxford Annotated Bible.  3rd ed.  Ed. Michael D. Coogan.  Oxford, Eng.:  Oxford University Press, 2001.  vii-ix.

Newsom, Carol A.  "Introduction to the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books."  The New Oxford Annotated Bible.  3rd ed.  Ed. Michael D. Coogan.  Oxford, Eng.:  Oxford University Press, 2001.  3-10.

"Old Testament."  Encyclopædia Britannica.  2006.  Encyclopædia Britannica 2006 Ultimate Reference Suite DVD 4 Oct. 2006.

Wilgoren, Jodi.  "The 2004 Campaign: The Vermont Governor; Dean Narrowing His Separation of Church and State." The New York Times.  4 Jan. 2004.  6 Oct. 2006.  <http://select.nytimes.com/search/restricted/article?res=F30D11FA3F550C778CDDA80894DC404482>


Instructor’s Comments

A very good paper.  Uses information helpfully and accurately and sorts through the issues well.

A few things would have made your paper even stronger:

– Stronger case that the connotations of "old" aren’t just a modern problem but were actually intended when the collection was first named;

– A recognition that what’s in the Old Testament is also Christian canon.  To call only New Testament material "Christian" is to support Marcion.

– Clarification of whether Christians are calling what’s in their Bibles "Jewish canon" or whether they are studying the Bible Jews have.  If the former, is that an accurate designation if the order differs?

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