Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Old Testament, Hebrew Bible, or Tanakh?

Update: Japhy has also written on this topic, covering some additional ground.

In some circles there is a movement to reconsider the use of the term "Old Testament." This change is advocated by some within Judaism because of its implications that the New Testament supersedes the Old Testament. The replacement terms suggested, "Hebrew Bible" and "Christian Bible," are in theory supposed to be confessionally neutral. But each set of terms carries with it a set of confessional suppositions.

The term "Hebrew Bible" implies that those books are for the Hebrews and is a closed set of books for the Hebrews; it rejects the idea of a New Testament that is for the Hebrews as well. The term "Christian Bible" implies that those books belong to "another religion" (an idea the Jewish authors of those books rejected); it implies those books do not apply to Jews or Muslims or Buddhists. It bypasses the good news of God's covenant for the whole world, a new covenant which is not merely for all nations other than Israel, but a new covenant which includes Israel as the firstborn among the nations. "Hebrew Bible and Christian Bible" confesses religious pluralism and sidelines the idea that God might have revealed himself to the whole world though the Jewish Messiah; the terms marginalize any thought of a truth claim in favor of a comfortable "proprietary Scripture" formula. It establishes a sort of religious non-interference pact whose price tag is the universality of God's message and the brotherhood of all mankind under God's new covenant. It also insulates the Hebrew Bible from the idea that there might be fulfillment of its promises in the Messiah who died, the Messiah who suffered with his people, the Messiah who was both a light to the Gentiles and a glory to his own people, Israel. It pigeonholes Jesus as a merely partisan question rather than as the incarnate, living and breathing Torah of God. If I were to use the term "Hebrew Bible" for the one set of books, I would use the term "Worldwide Bible" for the other, since it reveals the Torah going forth from Jerusalem into all the world under the banner of the Messiah.

I have some sympathy with the distaste for calling a collection of Scriptures the "Old" Testament. If I were to avoid using "Old" Testament, I might say "First Testament" or "Early Testaments". True enough about the "old" part: nobody has performed the morning and evening sacrifices since the Romans demolished the Temple in 70 A.D.; there is definitely something old about it not merely in anciency but also in terms of non-survival to the modern world. The annual festivals have not been observed as prescribed by the Torah in nearly 2000 years; it has become impossible to keep the Torah, and no sacrifice for sins is left. And it would probably be in bad taste to confront a Jewish person with the fact that Jesus predicted the fall of the Temple as judgment because the leaders of the day rejected him. Although saying so is factually correct, it misses the most important point: not that Jesus was the downfall of the Temple, but that he was the fulfillment of the Temple promise: the place where God meets man, the place where God hears prayers, the place of forgiveness, the beginning of a covenant for all nations. If we tell Jews about Jesus as the one who was the end of the Old Covenant, they will meet him with resentment; they will accuse their brothers who follow the Messiah of "converting to another religion".

Better if we explain what the Torah did when the Word of God became flesh and tabernacled among us as Jesus the Messiah. It was Jews who took the Torah forth from Jerusalem under the banner of the Messiah. They took it to Egypt and the idols fell; Isis and Osiris and Horus and Ra became memories of the past. The Word of God did this, and Jews under the banner of the Messiah accomplished this thing. It was Jews under the banner of the Messiah who stopped the Assyrians and all the neighboring peoples from worshiping their false gods. The people who once led Israel astray were now cheerfully abandoning their false gods. The Word of God went to Greece and Rome under the banner of the Messiah, and Apollo and Zeus and Aphrodite and Hera became forgotten idols. Again it was Jews who did this, Jews under the banner of the Messiah. When the Jews list the accomplishments of their people, do they remember this?

Better if we explain that God's Messiah, like God's firstborn nation, shared in suffering. Better if we explain that here is real proof of Jesus' Jewishness when he shares in the fate of his people: everybody likes his ideas but nobody wants to admit he's Jewish. And so many people misrepresent him, scorn him, mock him, make snide comments about him without really knowing what he said or did. In this way Jesus is very, very Jewish. In his crucifixion, he joins his people in being hated without cause, in being misrepresented, in being mistreated and executed. Jesus is proof that God has not abandoned, has not forgotten his people or his promises. He has remembered his people and his treasured possession. And finally in his resurrection, Jesus is God's seal on the promise of resurrection for all people.

But for all that, we still have no neutral term for those books. All the terms we have looked at have some confessional weight: whether Old and New Testament, or Hebrew and Christian Bible. My alternatives of First Testament and New Testament, or Hebrew Bible and Worldwide Bible have their own confessional meaning, one which I am glad to stand by. If we want a value-neutral term, we might stick to "Tanakh."

Myself, I will gladly call those books the Tanakh when I am looking for a non-confessional way to refer to them. What's in a name? When the question of the name comes up, I will take the opportunity to explain why I confess what I confess.


Assyria said...

Hello and Shlama(Assyrian for Peace)

You wrote:" It was Jews under the banner of the Messiah who stopped the Assyrians and all the neighboring peoples from worshiping their false gods. The people who once led Israel astray were now cheerfully abandoning their false gods. The Word of God went to Greece and Rome under the banner of the Messiah, and Apollo and Zeus and Aphrodite and Hera became forgotten idols. Again it was Jews who did this, Jews under the banner of the Messiah. When the Jews list the accomplishments of their people, do they remember this"?

I don't agree at all with your comments.As an Assyrian and Christian I'd say it was the Assyrians who carried The Lord's message and Christian faith.

If we look at the early beginnings of the Hebrews,Abraham came from the land of the Assyrians which is today called Iraq,he came from the city of Ur and he at that time believed in One God long before the Hebrews believed in one God.

Second,if you read the story of Jonah,you will see that the ancient Assyrians believed in the word of God as Jonah told them and repented even though Jonah was trying to escape.Also the three magi who visited baby Jesus were from Assyria which at the time was under Persian Occupation,thus in scriptures they refer to them as coming from Persia but they were the ones who gazed the stars and predicted the birth of new kings and that was the reason for their trip to see baby Jesus,and their names were Baltazar,Melchior and Gaspar names which aren't Persian.Amongst the Assyrians there was a group who were astrologists and those were called Chaldeans (the word in ancient Assyrian known as Akkadian means star reader)and the three men who came to be known as Magi came from that group.So the Assyrians were the first to predict and spread the word about the new King that is The Messiah.

Third,the ancient Assyrians had long developed the idea of the Oneness of God,but they called him Ashur.Hence,when The Lord(Messiah) came to earth,the Assyrians were amongst the first peoples to accept the Gospels in their city of Edessa (Urhai meaning the city of life) which is today in Turkey known as Urfa.It was one of their kings called Abgar V who had heard about Jesus and asked him to come and live with him in his city.There's a famous letter of that correspondence.Also,king Abgar V was afflicted with a disease and he was cured after that when The Lord sent him two of his disciples Addai(Thaddaeous) and Mari to preach and heal him.This the Assyrians were the first to believe outside Jerusalem.

Fourth,the Church of The East which most of the Assyrians proudly belong to was the first Church to preach the Gospel not only in the Middle East but as far as India,China,Soumatra,Japan, etc. This is well documented as the Church was erroneously known then as "Nestorian".

Fifth, the Assyrians accepted Christianity as early as the 1st century A.D. and the doctrines of the Church and its Liturgy were well established by the 2nd century Mesopotamia today known as Iraq,the land of the indigenous Assyrians.

Sixth,it's a documented fact that the Hebrews wrote most of their books when they were in Assyria and Babylon and until today their Talmud is known as the Babylonian Talmud.If we look at many stories from the Old Testament we will see that they were taken from Mesopotamian epics of Creation such as the books of Genesis,Noah's story,Moses's birth story,the 10 commandments,because all these are based in ancient Mesopotamian writings.

Seventh,the word Hebrew itself which was used by the Jews before using the word Jew is from the Assyrian language and it means the one who crosses.As for the alphabet used by the Jews today it is also known as Kitav Ashuri meaning Assyrian writing.

Lastly,yes the Assyrians did adopt Christianity as their religion and for their faith they sacrificed a lot and they still are and as their ancient ancestors established Civilization (even with all the negative rhetoric which was spread about them in order to distort history) yet they continued to spread civilization in a different manner when the Christian Assyrian monks spread the Gospel to the four corners of the ancient world armed only with a Cross in one hand and a Holy Book in the other.

It is nice to read things but only when they are firmly established in reality and history.

Thank you

japhy said...

(Long time, no comment.)

The article wasn't loading. I found this one, though, and it seems to be about the same issue. I'm only going to comment on your post, not the article, although after reading the article I have something to say about it. Maybe I'll save it for my own blog (as what I'm writing here is lengthy enough).

I don't want to have the wrong tone here, so I'm going to pray that St. James and St. Peter may intercede for me now and keep my tongue from evil.

MY FIRST POINT is that it's a fine line we walk when one religion can dictate (or at least strongly urge) another religion's practices, nomenclature, etc. An example is the prayer for the conversion of the Jews found in the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite (the so-called Tridentine or Traditional Latin Mass), which some Jews are up in arms about now that the 1962 liturgy is being celebrated more frequently around the world; they want the language changed. The 1960 revision of the prayer dropped the word perfidis (which means "faithless" or "unbelieving", rather than "perfidious" or "treacherous"). Some suggested that the 1965 version of the prayer (or even the 1970 version) be used now when the 1962 liturgy is used.

The prayer is for the conversion of the Jews, and it uses scriptural language (as found in the letters of Paul) to Jews as being "blinded" and covered by a "veil" (cf. 2 Cor 4:4 and 2 Cor 3:14). We seek the conversion of the hearts not to another God, but to the true identity of God, that they come to believe in and accept Jesus as the promised Messiah, the Son of God, true God and true Man.

MY SECOND POINT is that Christians use terminology found in the Bible! The term "old covenant" (or "testament") is found in Scripture (although "first covenant" is found often too). Paul writes in 2 Cor 3:14-16: "But their minds were hardened; for to this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ is it taken away. Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their minds; but when a man turns to the Lord the veil is removed." Paul clearly equates reading "Moses" to reading "the old covenant", and says a veil is over the eyes of those who fail (or refuse) to see Christ (i.e. Messiah). The letter to the Hebrews calls the previous covenant "old" as well (Heb 8:6,13).

Also in Hebrews is the term "former commandment", which opens the doorway to the comparison of one covenant being "better" than the other: "On the one hand, a former commandment is set aside because of its weakness and uselessness (for the law made nothing perfect); on the other hand, a better hope is introduced, through which we draw near to God. And it was not without an oath. Those who formerly became priests took their office without an oath, but this one was addressed with an oath, "The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind, `Thou art a priest for ever.'" This makes Jesus the surety of a better covenant." (Heb 7:18-22)

Keeping up this theme of the new covenant in the blood of Jesus (rather than bulls or goats) is Heb 8:6 (again): "Christ has obtained a ministry which is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises." Even Heb 11:39-40 points to the necessity of this new covenant, arguing that the righteous who died with faith in a coming Messiah, "though well attested by their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had foreseen something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect." What does "apart from us they should not be made perfect" mean? I think it means that faithful Jews, before Christ, were not "completed" in their faith until the Messiah, Jesus Christ, actually came, and so the righteous dead were not made "perfect" until the time of the Christians, which was only begun with the institution of a new covenant. Thus, even those Jews who died in God's grace before the time of Jesus needed this new covenant to be "perfect"!

The term "new covenant" (or "testament") is found in Jer 31:31, Luke 22:20, 1 Cor 11:25, 2 Cor 3:6, Heb 8:13, Heb 9:15, and Heb 12:24. If it is "new", that distinction is in relation to something old(er) than itself. And not just older, but "becoming obsolete and ... ready to vanish away" (Heb 8:13 -- the language of the letter suggests that it was written before AD 70, when the Temple was still standing).

As for the "first covenant" (a term found in the letter to the Hebrews), we read that "if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion for a second" (Heb 8:7) and that the Holy Spirit, through the prophet Jeremiah, "in speaking of a new covenant ... treats the first as obsolete." (Heb 8:13). The author again uses the term in Heb 9:1-18. It might be used again in Heb 10:8-10 where the author says that Jesus "abolishes the first in order to establish the second" (Heb 10:9), "the first" referring to the "sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings" (Heb 10:8) of the Mosaic covenant, "the second" referring to the will of God (cf. Heb 10:10).

MY THIRD AND LAST POINT is that the terms "old" and "new testament" (or "covenant") are found in early Church Father literature. Here is a list of some of the earliest occurrences I have found in Schaff's "Ante-Nicene Fathers", Vol I. (I don't think the chapter titles -- all of them, anyway -- are from the originals, so I'm not considering them in my report.)

St. Justin Martyr
Dialog with Trypho, XI: "new covenant"
Dialog with Trypho, LI: "New Testament"
Dialog with Trypho, LXVII: "old covenant", "new covenant"
Dialog with Trypho, CXXII: "new covenant"
St. Ignatius
Epistle to the Philadelphians, IX: "the Gospel possesses something transcendent" with gloss: "[above the former dispensation]"

St. Irenaeus
Against Heresies, Book III, XII, nn. 5, 11, 14: "new covenant"
Against Heresies, Book IV, IX, nn. 1, 3: "new covenant"
Against Heresies, Book IV, XI, n. 3: "Old Testament"
Against Heresies, Book IV, XV, n. 2: "Old Testament", "New Testament"
Against Heresies, Book IV, XVII, nn. 1,5: "new covenant", "New Testament"
Against Heresies, Book IV, XXVIII, n. 2: "New Testament"
Against Heresies, Book IV, XXXIII, n. 14: "new covenant"
Against Heresies, Book IV, XXXIV, nn. 2-4: "new covenant"
Against Heresies, Book V, XXXIV, n. 1: "New Testament", "Old Testament"
Fragments, XXXVII: "new covenant"

And that's all I'll say for now. Sorry for being so long-winded.

Weekend Fisher said...

Hi Assyria

God's blessings to you!

Far be it from me to say anything *against* the Assyrians. I hope it is not an offense to you that the Messiah was Jewish and his apostles who first spread the message were Jewish. Assyria has a long and proud history and the Assyrians were among the first outside of Israel to believe in the Messiah.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Weekend Fisher said...

Hi Japhy

It's interesting what gets stirred up, isn't it? "What's in a name?" is not a throwaway question.

My point is not that I'm against "Old Testament" (as opposed to New Testament) or "Hebrew Bible" (if opposed to "Worldwide Bible" instead of "Christian Bible"). My point is that the debate over a name is a chance for us to proclaim what's behind that name.

I look forward to your comments on your blog.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

DugALug said...

Hello WF,

Again long time no comment... happy new year.

I've often argued that there should be no 'old' or 'new' Testament... only The Testament. To imply anything else is to imply that God's plan changed at some point.

This idea of separating them is not unlike what the Gnostics and later the followers of Marcion tried to do: portray the God of the OT as mean/mad/wicked God and His replacement (Jesus) as the good/loving/hero. It just doesn't fly.

Not to argue too much. But I'm also pretty sure the word 'Hebrew' was passed from the Egyptians (the word Habiru) to the Babylonians... not the Assyrians (as Assyria said).

'Jew' is what the Babylonian's refered to Hebrews from Judah (it was a racial slur then too).

Also, we could break the 'Old' testament into the books of the law and the books of the prophets like many Jewish followers do.

The other thing I like about just calling it 'The Testament' is that it sends the message that your beliefs must take account for what was written pre-Jesus. Many (and I mean many), don't seem to care about what is in the OT (I can't even get away from the term), yet Jesus himself said He wasn't here to 'do away' with the Law.

Anyway, I've been wary to post anywhere, but your blog is wonderful. Thanks for the deep thoughts.

God Bless

japhy said...

Ok, full response (which includes commentary made here) is at my blog.

Weekend Fisher said...

Hi Jeff

Nice post. I'll send an "update" link to you.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Weekend Fisher said...

Hi Doug

Happy New Year. Glad to see you around.

I can see what you're driving at as far as Marcion being dead wrong or maybe even some of the dispensationalists considering that there's a "Plan B" involved. Still, I'd accept the "old" and "new" language in that Scripture also does. Paul talks about the "old covenant" (looking backward); Jeremiah talks about the "new covenant" (looking forward). It's not meant to imply some sort of radical discontinuity, like apples and oranges. But more of a newness with some continuity, like an apple tree putting out apple blossoms. It's not that God changed plans, but that the plans he put into effect during history came to their next stage during history, so that all the world is now included in the New Covenant. God has revealed more now, sent his word to the whole world now, called for the end of the age where idolatry was tolerated in non-Jewish nations ... revealed himself more fully than he did to Moses. These things are new, though not in Marcion's apples-to-oranges sense.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

DugALug said...


Great points, thanks for the reply.

God Bless

jennifer said...

Great post and following discussion!! Personally, I have no problem with Old Testament and New Testament - the words to me are not charged with any judgments regarding the character of the books. But apparently, to many people, there's a problem. Thanks for addressing this, I'll be on the lookout for further discussion...