If not 'Old Testament' then what?

I have felt unhappy for a long time with the name 'Old Testament' to describe the first section of the Christian Bible. I use it but simply for lack of an alternative.

It is not that I don't believe in the idea that there is an old and a new covenant/testament (the Bible is clear on that); my niggle is simply with using those terms to describe the two parts of Scripture. Those books do not constitute the old and new covenants respectively so at best it is slightly confusing.

It also tends to close down the wide-ranging significance of the two sections of the Bible by squashing everything in them into the distinction between old and new covenants. But if we read them with such a narrow lense we would miss so much!

Perhaps we might say that they bear witness to the old and the new covenants and there is a lot to be said for that (though it is Jeremiah - not a NT writer - who introduces the idea of a new covenant) but we still have the problem of an overly narrow descriptive name.

Now if used with care the language of OT and NT is OK but in real life it is hard to escape the feeling that for many Christians OT = old, not-very-relevant, etc. So there is an inclination to avoid it. Or an inclination to dismiss it with a simple, "but that's in the Old Testament." I wonder if a different name would mitigate such inclinations.

NT authors describes Israel's holy texts as 'scripture' or 'the scriptures' (not the Old Testament). It was the creation of the NT canon that required renaming Israel's scriptures so as to differentiate them from the new ones.

But the problem of renaming raises the thorny problem of finding a better alternative.

Some people refer to the OT as 'the Hebrew Bible'. I have some problems with that.
1. being picky, not all of it is in Hebrew.
2. more importantly, for a Christian there is only one Bible and the OT is a part of it. To call it 'the Hebrew Bible' seems to require that the NT be a second Bible (the Greek Bible? [but then, might parts of it have originally been in Hebrew or Aramaic?]).
3. also 'the Hebrew Bible' tends to refer to the OT with the books organized in the order found in medieval and modern Jewish Bibles. Christian Bibles follow a different (though still Jewish) order. So the OT is not 'the Hebrew Bible' as such if we think organization is of any relevance.

Some people refer to the OT as 'the Jewish Bible'. There are two problems here.
1. See 3 above.
2. This implies that the NT is composed of Christian (and not Jewish) texts. But that is pure anachronism. Most NT authors were Jews and most of them were writing for Jewish followers of Jesus (Paul, being the most notable exception). NT texts are Jewish texts (and even Luke-Acts, which may well be by a Gentile, is very Jewish in its theology).

A similar problem accompanies 'Israel's scriptures'. Setting aside debates on the import of the word 'Israel' in this name (which parts of Israel recognized which scriptures and when?) we also have the problem that it suggests that NT texts are not 'for Israel'. But such a view may well be anachronistic reading back later distinctions between Jews and Christian alien in the first century. I guess we could refer to the OT as Jewish scriptures accepted by all Jews and the NT as 'extra scriptures accepted by some Jews'. Apart from being cumbersome it has the effect of undermining the value of NT texts (questionable ones) in relation to OT (accepted by all).

So what then?

Tanak, the Jewish name for the books (minus apocrypha) is a big improvement. It simply designates the three sections - Torah, Prophets, and Writings. It has the downside that it presupposes an organization of the canon that is not identical with that found in the Christian OT. Strictly speaking the OT is not the Tanak (even if the books within both are identical - if we set aside discussions on the apocrypha).

Perhaps Christians could draw inspiration from the Jewish approach and make up a word like
The PHoPP (Pentateuch, History, Poetry, Prophets)
The THaPP (Torah, History, Pentateuch, Prophets)

The GALoR (Gospels, Acts, Letters, Revelation), or GAER (if you prefer 'epistles' to 'letters'.

To be honest ... I can't see that working!!!

John Goldingay suggests 'first testament' and 'second testament'. That's a little better but I'm still niggled by the 'testament' part.

I prefer the NT word 'the scriptures'. Obviously, once the NT canon is formed, we need a way to extend that term to cover the NT but also to find a way to distinguish it from the OT. How about 'first scriptures' and 'second scriptures' or 'earlier scriptures' and 'later scriptures'.

On the other hand, such chronological terminology feels a little theologically neutered. The advantage of Old Testamanet and New Testament is that it is a highly theological way of describing the collections.

Any suggestions?


James Goetz said…
I'd scratch saying "First Scriptures" for the Old Testament unless you insist on completely ignoring higher criticism.:)
Bernard Martin said…
Hi Robin,

Regarding your preference for the use of the NT term 'the Scriptures', a case could be made that this was the approach of the NT writers (see 1Tim5v18, 2Peter3v16).

jps said…

I've heard the Hebrew/LXX Bible called the 2/3 Bible : )

HeathThomas said…
Great issue to discuss!! I know some refer to the OT as the Old(er) Testament and the NT as the New(er) Testament. But boy is that cumbersome. Or the Covenant and the Renewed Covenant. I suppose we must wrestle with the first issue of are we dealing with the TEXT (the body of literary material) or are we speaking of the TIME to which the testaments refer. Once that is settled, then we can begin to tackle how to address labelling these. For my part, if focussing upon the TEXTS, I prefer the title Scriptures for the whole thing, recognising that the OT is Israel's Scriptural heritage (and the Church's heritage as well, cf. 2 Tim 316-17 amongst other places), & the NT focuses this heritage specifically upon Christ and fleshes out what this means for the church. But what a long-winded explanation for two titles 'Old' and 'New' Testaments. Oh well, I just taught on this in my OT! Intro class. Hope you're well!

David Reimer said…
Personally, I'm content with OT/NT ... at least Jeremiah gives it a semblance of scriptural warrant! :)

But I do feel the weight of discontent. I dislike Goldingay's choice, and much prefer the solution that John Miller argues for in an appendix to his book The Origins of the Bible: Rethinking Canon History (New York: Paulist, 1994). In fact, the appendix is entitled: "Note to Bible Publishers".

Miller suggests that the terms "Prophets and Apostles" provide a helpful and defensible way of referring to the scripture of both synagogue and church using terms indigenous to both.


(Miller is an intriguing guy, btw! Always intereting stuff to ponder.)
Anonymous said…
Parts A & B come to mind!

What else?
Robin Parry said…

I quite like 'Prophets' and 'Apostles' (and it does echo Ephesians).

I am not sure that 'prophets' does justice to the range of books in the OT. I guess Moses was a prophetic guy so that covers Torah (kind of). I guess the history books might be classified as 'former prophets' (though I am not comfortable with that). I suppose that the Psalms might be read in prophetic ways (as NT does) and yet ...

'Scriptures' seems more inclusive. Less problematic.

But once you add the NT and need to differentiate the two sections of scripture the problem reappears.

I can see the attraction of OT and NT but there has to be a better alternative (though, to be honest, it would never catch on after all this time)
David Reimer said…
Robin mused: I am not sure that 'prophets' does justice to the range of books in the OT.

You mentioned Ephesians (2:20; 3:5), but I think Jesus was OK with it too (well, at least the "prophets" bit):

Matthew 26: 55 At that hour Jesus said to the crowds, “Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs to capture me? Day after day I sat in the temple teaching, and you did not seize me. 56 But all this has taken place that the Scriptures of the prophets might be fulfilled.” Then all the disciples left him and fled.

Luke 18: 31 And taking the twelve, he said to them, "See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished.”

Maybe the content of "prophets" here is debatable, but it seems pretty inclusive!

Of course, for Josephus, the "prophets" were authors of scripture: after all, that's how Samuel could write of events that followed his death! ("...everyone is not permitted of his own accord to be a writer, nor is there any disagreement in what is written; they being only prophets that have written the original and earliest accounts of things as they learned them of God himself by inspiration...", C.Apion 1.37 (Niese numbering).)

Miller claims that the "prophets and apostles" moniker was a common patristic form of referring to the complete Christian scriptures, though he doesn't give the references himself, instead pointing to Hans Von Campenhausen's Formation of the Christian Bible (Fortress, 1972), pp. 257, 263.

YMMV! :)
Anonymous said…
What is YMMV?
YMMV is "Your Mileage May Vary"
Anonymous said…
Happy Valentines Day!

For all those people in the world who don't know it, God is their mystery Valentine -- because

"God shows (present continuous!)his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died (past tense) for us." Rom 5:8.
Robin Parry said…

interesting! I guess that I would be happy to use 'the prophets' to refer to the OT books subject to a qualification Goldingay makes in 'Models of Scripture' - that we can speak of the OT as prophets so long as we realise that we are extending the term beyond its more natural useage. That it applies in a looser way to some texts than to others.

Perhaps I'll try it out
Unknown said…
Why not just "Holy Scripture" to refer to the whole canon? Simply stop using any designation that refers solely to that collection of books from Gen-Mal or Matt-Rev. And publishers could lead the way here.

"Prophets and Apostles" is okay, but the apostles were prophets after all, just post-christ. And of course Moses as well as the authors/editors of the history books were prophets too (understood as covenant prosecutors). I don't think Goldingay is correct in suggesting that using "prophets" in this way stretches its natural usage. Prophets were not a bunch of guys walking around prognosticating all the time.

But if one must refer to those old, pre-Christian writings as a separate collection, then TNK seems to do the trick just fine.
Robin Parry said…

Thanks. On Goldingay and prophets. Nobody is suggesting that prophets were people who went around foretelling the future all the time. But if you consider the classic books by prophets (e.g., Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah) they are a very different kind of book from, say, Joshua or the book of Proverbs. To describe Jeremiah as a prophetic book is unproblematic. To describe Proverbs as prophetic does require some stretching of the term. I am not opposing that but we do need to be clear what we are doing when we do it.

Your proposal is interesting. To some extent it will depend on historical issues regarding when the early Jesus believers considerdd the 'scriptures of Israel' to be a closed collection. If they thought of the collection as still open then you could make a case that Jesus-believers closed their canon later than non-Jesus-believers. But I suspect it might be a tricky case to make.

In one sense Christians regalary do refer to the OT+NT as 'The Scriptures' but I still think it is of some use to be able to distinguish the scriptures that look forward to the coming of Messiah and those that reflect back on it after the event.
Anonymous said…
As a Messianic Jew, I find this debate intriguing. I am reminded of a story about Helen Shapiro (a Messianic Jew), who went into a Golders Green bookstore, to acquire a copy of the OT. The Rabbi, with a twinkle in his eye said: 'Well, how old would you like it to be'?

I simply call it the Tanakh and the NT the Messianic Scriptures. It suits the church and the synagogue well to keep clear demarcation lines between the two. But the early Jewish believers only knew the Tanakh. Yeshua only used the Tanakh. And to Jews who don't believe in Yeshua, the 'Old' Testament is an insult.
Unknown said…

Good thoughts in follow-up.

Regarding the issue about the close of the canon, I too am not sure how such a case could be made, though I do suffer under the impression that the TNK had not been deemed "closed" during Jesus' day. Increasingly so, maybe, but not rigidly.

Regardless, the apostles thought they too were writing authoritatively and thus expected the churches (or individuals) to whom they were writing to obey the words therein, much like they obeyed the words of the graphe, the TNK.

Clearly, the concept of an authoritative body of writings existed in the minds of the apostles, and the concept that that body of writings was "open"—insofar as their authoritative writings were concerned—seems implied.

But really I was just getting at the sheer ability of the church (and her publishers) to just call it all "Holy Scripture." It doesn't rest so much on what folks in the first century thought as much as it relies on the fact, based on tradition with good bit of apostolic history thrown in, that the Christian canon stretches from Genesis to Revelation.

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