What Shall We Call the First Testament?

If one thinks about it the church by and large applies a neo-Marcionite lens to the Old Testament; if not by word, surely in deed. The Old Testament doesn’t get the kind of press from the pulpit that its sequel normally gets. Less ink is spilt covering the Old Testament from the academy as well. I believe there are many reasons for this, but it is possible that the very title of the First Testament (aka. the Old Testament) contributes to this lack of attention.

Words carry meaning with every usage, and often there are subtle messages that are implied with the use of words that go unnoticed. In reading Thomas Oden’s book, After Modernity- What?, I began to think about the word old especially in relation to the word new. Oden in the subsection, Newer = Better?, makes an interesting point about the words new and old. These words carry a polemic tone in our modern context (I am using the word modern to speak of a philosophical system, not the current time period). New means progress and progress means better, while old is antiquated or less evolved than new. Think of a new computer; is it not better, faster, and more capable then an old computer? Think of a new flat screen TV is it not clearer, or crisper than an old tube TV? Of course a new flat screen TV is clearer than an old tube TV and a newer computer will be faster than an older computer. So old is worse than new, correct? I am not sure that statement is always true but this view is a bi-product of modernity. Old doesn’t necessarily mean that the object in question is antiquated. New doesn’t always mean more evolved, in fact it can mean the exact opposite, but that is not the overwhelming perception of these words and their usages in our present environment.

Oden didn’t tease out this concept in this particular way, but his writing spurred me to think about the usage of the word old as it relates to First Testament of Christian scriptures. If English speaking Christians are inadvertently substituting the word old for antiquated, or backwards, then it is possible that the corpus’ title is contributing to a hermeneutic that treats these texts as less important then the New Testament.

Is there a title that could be applied to the text that would not contribute to the devaluing of said scriptures? Some have suggested that we use the phrase Hebrew Scriptures. While this label is descriptive in relating the texts’ origins, and fosters a better dialogue between faiths that hold these texts as sacred (Jews and Christians); this suggestion has its drawbacks. The title Hebrew Scriptures may make those scriptures less approachable to non-Hebrews, further removing these texts from the Church. I also think that the acronym TaNaKh, while helpful for those who understand that the acronym stands for the three tier structure of these sacred texts (Torah/law, Nevi’im/Prophets, Ketuvim/Writings), may also have the same effect as the previous term in alienating this section of the Bible from English speaking Christians. One could refer to these texts as the First Testament, which is somewhat satisfactory, because at least the word first doesn’t carry a negative connotation. Also the term first suggests that one look forward to another, a second. This suggestion would also suggest continuity between that which came first with that which follows. However, this expression may be offensive to Jewish exegetes, thus hampering a beneficial dialogue. In the end I am not sure there is a satisfactory phrase one can turn in order to speak of this text, but who knows maybe someone will create a word that fits it perfectly in the future.

No comments yet to What Shall We Call the First Testament?

  • I personally prefer “Hebrew Bible.” It is perfectly acceptable to Jewish exegetes while also highlighting the history and development of the corpus. I think that First Testament is only slightly better than Old Testament. You bring up a valid point with English speaking Christians being turned off by Hebrew Bible…but might that not be corrected with a little education on the subject?

  • parkersmood

    Hello Calvin,

    Thanks for commenting. I hear what your saying, but I suppose my concern has more to do with the knee-jerk reaction that many Christians have to the term initially. My hope is that with enough education, we could begin to make our parishioners actually read the 1st/Old/Hebrew/Tanakh Bible/Testament, without treating it as if were their creepy 3rd cousin who mutters to himself in the corner during family functions (not sure if you have one of those, but they are usually avoided).

    I think there are lots of reasons why the Old Testament is ignored, and by no means do I believe that the title is the sole reason, but I was wondering if it helped contribute to its neglect, by making it seem irrelevant.

    Maybe I should figure out how to make a poll and find out what people prefer to call it.


  • That would be interesting. Among scholars I think Hebrew Bible wins out, though certain Evangelical scholars (such as John Goldingay) prefer First Testament.

    I agree completely that we somehow need to help laypeople read the larger section of the Bible. I’d even argue they need, to some extent, to read it before reading the New Testament/Christian Scriptures. But, that’s a discussion for another day.

  • P-Dermoe

    COOCH! I agree with your analysis. It makes me sad how little attention the Hebrew Bible gets. I have an easier time understanding why those who are younger in the faith would do this. They are told, and rightfully so, that their entire faith/relationship with God hinges of Jesus. Since their lack of Bible understanding leads them to believe there isn’t much if anything about Jesus outside the “New Testament” they focus all their attention and reading on the second testament.

    But this is surely no excuse for why it is ignored from the pulpit. Preachers should be revealing Christ to their parishioners through all the scriptures.

  • Sometimes revealing Christ in the Hebrew Bible makes me nervous. I often agree with the sentiment that he just isn’t there, and I think we often have to do some very bad exegesis to see him there.

    Of course, I don’t think that Jesus not being in the First Testament means that we shouldn’t read it. Ultimately it is the story that leads up to Jesus, and without it we cannot understand Jesus. Moreover, we can’t hope to understand our position as the Church without first understanding, or at least having some idea, of how God worked with Israel. I see the church repeating many of the same mistakes Israel did…and I think a lot of the reason for this is that we don’t read the Hebrew Bible, and when we do we are entirely too quick to find Jesus there.

  • parkersmood

    Calvin I agree with you on this.

    In the preface to his book, The Kingdom of God, John Bright writes, “In careless hands Old Testament studies tend to degenerate into a game of which the object is to find types of Christ and the prefigurement of Christian truth in unlikely places. This is, of course, to discard sound exegetical method. As Christians we read our Old Testament in the light of Christ, and from it we preach Christ. But we are not permitted to attribute to the Bible writers ideas which they did not have in mind, only to discover as best we can what they actually intended to say.”

    I agree with John Bright’s approach. I think that this approach can serve as a corrective to the wide spread exegetical abuse that takes place in the name of Old Testament interpretation. I agree that we should start with the plain sense of scripture first, meaning as Bright suggests, “to discover as best we can what they [biblical authors] actually intended to say”. I believe the intention of the author should be our primary concern; however, that does not mean that we can divorce ourselves from our own vantage point, within redemptive history. Also, we can not ignore the progressive revelatory nature of the Bible. As Christians, we must responsibly contextualize the intended message into our Christian theology, while still preserving the integrity of that original message. In my opinion, though typology is interesting, and at times helpful as a means of illustration, it is an unreliable method of biblical interpretation, which lacks exegetical controls.

    An example of an Old Testament text that is often viewed through typology is the narrative tale of Noah. Christians can look at this story and see how this easily fits into the scheme of redemptive history (that looks forward to the work of Christ) without resorting to the use of typology to make sense of the text. God saved his creation through the obedience of His servant Noah, which was a necessary part of God’s redemptive plan. But there are other ways of preaching Christ and/or the Christian message that don’t rely on the wanton use typology. I believe, as John Bright, that “we read our Old Testament in light of Christ, and from it we preach Christ”.

  • parkersmood

    So much for me trying not to use the word “old”.

  • Your example of Noah is a good one. I agree, to a point. What I would like to see is us leaving Jesus out of the Hebrew Bible, when we read the Hebrew Bible. Then, when we get to the Gospels, Epistles, et al, we can look back and when we look back we can see Jesus. Obviously the NT writers saw him. So I think, as Christians, we can see him. But I prefer to see him as we look back from the NT, as opposed to when we look forward from the First Testament, does that make sense?

    Perhaps we can talk about this over coffee next week?

  • parkersmood

    Something to ponder. Sounds like a plan. I will be roasting a lb of coffee today for our get together.

  • P-Dermoe

    I agree that typology is abused and overdone. I have heard many preachers place Christ in parts of the Hebrew Bible that are a stretch if not dead wrong. There are, however, some parts of the Hebrew Bible where the typology cannot be missed. The Passover, for example, is clearly pointing forward to the work of Christ.
    When I wrote that post, though, I wasn’t even really thinking about types. I had in mind the mass amount of prophecy in the First Testament about the messiah. I suppose I should be more careful and clear.
    I would agree that the author’s intention is invaluable in interpretation. I never teach/preach on a passage without first trying to discover what the author intended to convey. I do, however, also believe that God can inspire someone without them realizing it, so that a statement carries the author’s intended meaning as well as a deeper meaning they may not be aware of (John 11:49-53). Maybe I’m off on that, let me know your thoughts. I’m not easily offended, unless you say meany things that make me cry.

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