Why bother with the Old Testament

A sermon for the ‘Debate the Preacher’ series at St John’s Anglican Cathedral, Brisbane on Sunday, 2 February 2014.

It has fallen to me to begin this new series of ‘Debate the Preacher’ as we explore the significance of the ‘Old Testament’ for us today. Over the four Sundays of February we shall have an opportunity to hear different scholars from St Francis Theological College offer perspectives on the contributions that this part of the Bible makes to our lives today.

Speaking of perspectives, what are we to make of the title for this series? How do we imagine the title to be punctuated? To put it another way, is our topic a question or an argument?

Have you come here this evening expecting to be told why you should actually bother with the OT? Or have you come to hear someone tell you it is OK not to bother with that part of the Bible? Those are very different perspectives and we can signal the difference by the way we punctuate the sentence. 

So whether you have come to seek release from the challenge of reading the OT, or seeking to be persuaded that this is actually something you should do, we have each come with some assumptions. We also come from particular contexts and life experiences. All of this will shape our perspectives, and meaning is largely constructed through the perspective of the interpreter. You may find what I say confronting or challenging, traditional or revisionist, helpful or a waste of time. What I will have said will be the same, but your perspective will largely determine what you make of my words.

And then to the debate after the service ends …

Defining our terms

One of the first challenges we may face when thinking about the OT is which set of books is  intended, and what is the best way to name them these days. We can start with the latter issue since that opens the way for the deeper issue of which texts comprise the OT.

It is common these days to find Christian people seeking to avoid the term, ‘Old Testament’. In its place we typically find terms such as ‘Hebrew Bible’, or ‘Jewish Scriptures’. There are good reasons for doing that, as well as even stronger reasons—in my mind—not to do so.

The positive reasons for dropping the label ‘Old Testament’ begin with the unfortunate perception that ‘Old’ implies ‘no longer of value’. In a consumer culture obsessed by the quest for the latest new thing, clearly a ‘New’ Testament is better than an ‘Old’ Testament. Quite apart from the age profile of the average Anglican congregation, one might expect such an argument to have little appeal in Anglican circles. We value tradition and do not chase after the latest new thing.

More insidiously, ‘Old Testament’ can suggest a supersessionist attitude towards Jews and their religion, and reinforce latent Christian anti-Semitism. The traditional name for these books within the Bible that we share with Jews does tend to imply that the religion centred around those books is an earlier and less-developed version of the latest ‘religious operating system’ that we enjoy as Christians.

On this side of the Holocaust, Christians are rightly sensitive to anything that smacks of supersessionism or excludes Jews as the despised other. For many people, calling these books the ‘Hebrew Bible’ or the ‘Jewish Scriptures’ is an overdue recognition of our debt to Judaism and of the historical reality that two-thirds of the Christian Bible belongs first of all to the Jews.

However, despite my sympathy with all these arguments, I do not accept the fashion of re-badging two-thirds of our Bible in this way. In my view the Christian scriptures known as the ‘Old Testament’ are related to the Jewish scriptures, perhaps better described as the Tanakh, but are not to be confused with them.

The reason for this is very simple, and it is connected with the fact that there is no such thing as ‘the Christian Bible’, but rather a great many different variants of the Christian Bible. The collection of biblical writings that passes as ‘the Bible’ for most Westeners these days is not the ancient Bible of Christianity, but a novel form of the Bible created at the time of the European Reformation for the use of Protestant faith communities in NW Europe.

Up until the Reformation—and therefore for more than one thousand years—the normative form of the Christian Bible was an enlarged version of the Old Testament together with the commonly-accepted books of the New Testament. The Christian OT derived from the ancient Greek version of the Jewish Scriptures, and included a dozen or so additional writings not included in the normative Hebrew version of the Jewish Bible. These were parallel and competing versions of the Jewish Bible, until the Protestants decided to adopt the Jewish set of books for their Old Testament as part of their protest against Rome. In the East, of course, there were none of these internal debates over the contents and form of the Bible, and the ancient Greek Bible with its larger OT continues to be the canonical text of the Orthodox religious communities.

When the Protestant Reformers took upon themselves to reshape the OT within the Christian Bible they only half completed the job. They deleted the books found only in the Greek version, but kept the remaining books in the same sequence as found in the Septuagint Greek and the Latin Vulgate versions. The end result was a Protestant OT that contained only the books found in the Tanakh, but arranged them in the traditional Christian order that differs significantly from the Jewish arrangement.

That was not simply a sloppy job. It actually created a third form of the OT, even if it is one that most Western people mistake for the original Bible. We now have a Jewish set of Scriptures with 22 books arranged in three sections, a Catholic/Orthodox Old Testament with around 52 books arranged in five sections, and a Protestant Old Testament with 39 books also arranged in the same five sections. These are not the only variations, but they are the major ones and suffice for our purposes this evening.

Except when I am intending to refer to the Jewish Scriptures (in which case I use the term, Tanakh), I therefore insist on using ‘Old Testament’ for the first two-thirds of my Christian Bible. There is an ancient and obvious link between the Christian Old Testament and the Jewish Tanakh, but they are not the same document. What I am speaking about this evening is not the role of the Tanakh in the life of the Christian community, but the role of Old Testament.

In doing that I am conscious that my OT may not be the same as yours. That is most likely because I am using the ancient Christian Old Testament while you may be using a Protestant edition of the OT that deliberately choose to exclude a dozen or writings that had been part of the biblical inheritance of Christians since the first century. Those so-called ‘apocryphal’ books continue to form part of the Bible for Anglicans, Orthodox and Roman Catholics.

As an aside, let me just add that this diversity in the forms of the Bible does not faze me. In fact, I appreciate that diversity and I claim it as part of my biblical authority to hold opinions that someone else may not approve. If the Great Church cannot even agree on what books constitute the Bible, then I think I can cut myself a bit of slack on a number of other disputed beliefs and practices as well.

Why is the place of the OT in Christianity up for debate?

Given the historical aspects of the Old Testament as ancient part of the biblical legacy of Christianity, why are we beginning this conversation over a month of Sundays? The reason is, of course, that all of us feel some degree of discomfort when engaging with these ancient Jewish texts that now form two-thirds of our Bible.

Let me absolutely plain here: these are Jewish texts. They constitute the largest part of the Christian Bible, but they are not Christian texts. They are canonical texts for Christians, but in accepting them in that way we are adopting into our context documents that come from another very different context.

Out of our desire to acknowledge and respect the Jewishness of these texts we may feel that there is something awkward about even using them these days as Christians. Just as we would no longer consider it appropriate (I hope) for a group of Christians to celebrate a Passover Seder during Holy Week, should we stop using their Scriptures and just make do with our own? For reasons that will be covered later, this is not my view; but it is one with which I have some sympathy.

We sometimes hear it said that we are a ‘NT church’ and therefore should not pay as much attention to the Old Testament. Indeed a colleague said exactly that at Clergy Summer School last month. It is almost as if a biblical passage from the OT only has relevance for us if we can find a NT text to affirm it or modify it in some way. This is a view with which I have almost no sympathy, and it drives me to affirm that we are a ‘biblical church’, rather than a NT church. Not a ‘Bible Church’, mind you; but a biblical church! There is a difference even if we cannot parse it out this evening.

Part of the reason for this series that we are beginning tonight is that we do sense some profound differences between OT and NT. This is right to do, and far better than reading the OT so thoroughly through our Christian perspectives that these ancient Jewish texts only speak with a Christian accent. But a growing awareness of those differences, and the need to redress almost 2,000 years of Christian anti-Semitism, can cause us to lose our nerve when it comes to reading these texts.

The ‘problem’ of the Old Testament

There are a great many complexities and challenges about reading the OT as Christians, just as there are when Jewish people seek to read the same texts as Jews. I have rehearsed some of these in other places, so I will not recite them again here.

Suffice to say that the length and complexity of the OT, and its cultural distance from our time and place—as well as its uncritical acceptance of violence, patriarchy, gender discrimination—all combine to make these texts problematic for Christians in the twenty-first century. This is compounded by issues around literal readings of these ancient pre-modern texts, and perceived conflicts with history and science.

The power of the Old Testament

Rather than focus on the things that make it tricky for us to use the OT, I want to sketch some of the positive reasons why we should make the best use we can of these ancient Jewish texts that constitute such a large proportion of our Christian Bibles.

First of all, the OT provides historical depth to our tradition. Even when the events themselves are not historical, these are ancient stories and ancient songs that derive from the historical experience of our ancestors in the faith. Their contexts were different from ours, and their beliefs about God are not the same as ours, but they represent the mountain spring from which the river of faith flows. The faith that matters to us did not begin with Jesus and was certainly not created in the last few hundred years. It has ancient roots deep behind historical memory. Some of us are privileged to visit the biblical lands and dig up the past with our own hands, but for most of us the OT is our birth certificate as people of faith.

Secondly, the OT simply covers a larger sample of life and holiness than NT offers. Most likely we can account for the creation of all of the NT writings within about 100 years of Easter. Some would argue that much less time is needed, but I prefer this is more modest claim. During that one hundred years and across the limited range of texts gathered into the NT, there is a much smaller sample of life and faith than we find in the OT. Many issues are just not addressed directly in the NT, but we find texts within the OT that do so—and they invite us into an engagement with Scripture (and with the Spirit of Christ).

A third reason for bothering with these ancient Jewish texts in the Christian Bible is that these are the formative texts of the Western religious tradition. In saying that I am conscious that these are actually ‘Eastern’  texts, even though they have shaped the Western tradition so deeply. If we want to understand our own cultural tradition we simply have to engage with the writings of the Old Testament.

Far more than a cultural legacy is involved at this point. These are challenging spiritual texts: the Law, the Prophets, the Poems. The Law invites us to imagine ourselves in a covenant with God, and it is a communal covenant rather than simply a private quest for salvation. The Prophets challenge us to be authentic about living out the implications of that covenant, and to focus on the things that really matter: mercy, justice, humility. And the Poems of Israel provide us with a songsheet for the human soul as we pass through times of success and times of tragedy.

The danger of a Christianity without the Old Testament

The idea of ceasing to bother with the Old Testament is not a new one. It was a very real option for Christians in the middle of the second century. By that time a majority of Christians were not of Jewish descent, and some Christians considered too close an association with Judaism to be a negative element following successive Jewish revolts against Roman rule. Indeed, some Jews were also eager to dissociate themselves from Christianity and sharpen the divide between the two religions.

Marcion (ca. 85–160 CE) was a Christian leader from what today we could call northern Turkey. He was something of a lightning rod for those Christians seeking to discard the Jewish aspects of Christianity, and get rid of the Old Testament. While often represented as a heretic and trouble-maker, Marcion may actually have been a traditionalist who argued for a view that was contested in his own time. However that may have been, the debate that Marcion brought to focus with his publication of the very first edition of the New Testament, led ultimately to the NT as we know it today—and to the affirmation that the OT is an essential part of the Christian Bible.

We owe Marcion a deep debt, and especially for his unintended consequence of making us claim our Jewish heritage as an essential element of Christianity.

To discard the OT from our Bibles—or even just from our lectionaries—would be to suffer a loss of access to these profoundly spiritual texts. Can we really contemplate a Bible without the Law? A Bible without the Prophets of Israel? A Bible without Job or the Psalms?

Such a truncated Bible would mean we could never understand either Jesus or Paul. They were both Jews, of course. Their Bible was the Tanakh, or—in Paul’s case—the Septuagint.

Worse still, if we are not willing to ‘bother’ with the OT we shall end up with an excessively spiritualised and individualised Christianity. ‘Me and Jesus’ too often substitutes for the biblical faith that calls us to participate in intentional covenantal communities of faithfulness. The OT is absolutely essential for a Christianity that offers more than fire insurance or get-out-of-jail cards for isolated individuals.

Finally, and most importantly, a Christianity without the OT will lead us back to Auschwitz. Christian anti-Semitism is fed by self-serving Christian rejection of the Jews and their Bible. A Christianity without the OT is not Christianity at all, but a Jesus cult that promotes a toxic religious message that is bad for everyone, and fatal for the Jews.

So, yes, I think we should bother with the Old Testament!

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