Tuesday, 2 September 2014

What is the point of the Old Testament (and why is there So Much of it?)

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I would guess that this is a question that strikes most Christians at one point or another.

And in practice, most Christians don't really take much notice of the Old Testament. The old Church of England was an exception - because a regular church-goer would hear much of the OT read-through each year. However, probably all Christian denominations focus on the New Testament, and some almost exclusively so (for instance, some modern evangelicals).

Yet when we pick-up the Bible - most of it is Old Testament. Why so much?

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The usual explanation is the the Old points-to the New... OK, but why is there so much pointing? Surely a bit of pointing would be enough - not hundreds of pages?

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Well, there it is; and it is apparently up to us to discover what is the best use to make of the OT.

My suggestion is to regard it as the history of God's interactions with His people; told mostly from the perspective of those people - in other words from an (inspired) human's-eye-view and not, therefore, from a God's-eye-view.

(This is a possible to answer to why the OT is so long. So we can 'correct-for' the multiplicity of different perspectives.)

If regarded in this fashion, the Old Testament looks like a collection of examples of the constancy of God's personal loving concern for His people - this a constant factor lying behind what are depicted as great variations in His people's understanding, love and concern with God.

Since there are multiple examples over time, and multiple forms (annal, fable, poem, prophecy etc) there is redundancy in the OT; but since there is redundancy (as well as multiplicity of forms), we are not (I think) supposed to regard the OT as either wholly essential, or complete; nor as saying the same thing as the NT; nor that all parts of the OT are saying exactly the same thing (rather, they illustrate broadly the same general theme).

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I think we can (and perhaps should) reasonably regard the OT as a resource or compendium to be probed and explored for particular and personal helps in our understanding of God's relation with His people (and therefore ourselves).

In practice, this is probably almost exactly what is done by most Christians - but I don't think we should feel so guilty about it - I mean about picking and choosing within the OT, and leaving-out a lot of it altogether!

In a sense, that is probably what the OT is actually for! Something for everybody, but everything for nobody.

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15 comments:

T.D. Kryeter said...

Two points that should be kept in mind when considering the amount of material in the OT vs the NT.

The OT can be broken down into vastly different sections. The Torah was always held as the most important, the various histories that follow, the Wisdom literature including the Psalter, and finally the Prophets. And all of these different genres came from different eras prior to the Incarnation.

The NT on the other hand only covers the time from the Annunciation until the reign of Domitian at the latest, making for a much shorter time frame for writing material. Even then, the NT is not a small percentage of the overall Bible.

And let's not even get into the Apocrypha...

I do have a hunch that a church community that starts ignoring the OT will eventually apostatize. I grew up under a more fundamentalist tradition, and the OT was very prominent as a subject for sermons. My limited experience of the Mainline or watered down Evangelicals is that they prefer a "cute, cuddly" reading of the NT.

Bruce Charlton said...

@TDK - I certainly agree we need the OT. It is just a question of how - realistically - to approach it.

Samson J. said...

What an odd post!

I would guess that this is a question that strikes most Christians at one point or another.

What, really? I only ever felt this way when I was a brand-new Christian. Nowadays I find the OT, and its stories, far more interesting than the NT and its dry, abstract bits of advice.

Why the OT? Here's a different way of explaining it: reading the NT without a general understanding of what happened in the OT is like reading Return of the King without the first two books.

Samson J. said...

I do have a hunch that a church community that starts ignoring the OT will eventually apostatize. I grew up under a more fundamentalist tradition, and the OT was very prominent as a subject for sermons. My limited experience of the Mainline or watered down Evangelicals is that they prefer a "cute, cuddly" reading of the NT.

Agree with this, very much. The OT is where you see humanity at its basest and most real.

Bruce Charlton said...

@SJ - So it *did* strike you at one point or another. So it *isn't* that odd a topic!

The topic seems like something worth mentioning, in case (as so often) the OT is some kind of stumbling block (that is certainly how it is portrayed in secular culture). Exactly the kind of thing this blog is about!

Samson J. said...

So it *isn't* that odd a topic!

Well, no hurt feelings were intended, I assure you. Maybe "odd" wasn't the right word, but you must admit that the question - "Why the OT?" - sounds kind of funny...

Anyway I agree with the previous commenter that NT-and-Jesus-only churches are susceptible to making Jesus into whatever they want.

Jon Behrens said...

I must gently disagree. There is a reason Christianity calls the two sections of the Bible 'testiments.' The word is related to testimony or evidence. In other words, the NT is the new evidence of the working out of God's plans and promises.

In that view, there is nothing 'new' in the NT. All the great themes of Christianity - grace vs. works, blood atonement, resurrection, the New Covenant, etc. - are thoroughly explained in the Tanak. In the Gospels we see those concepts worked out in the life of Christ. In the letters of Paul, we have a bridge between the Hebrew speaking God and the Greek speaking world of the first century.

Books have a beginning for a reason. That's where the characters are introduced, the plot is set and background is established. Reading the Bible NT first is the same as reading the last chapter of a novel and thinking you have appreciated the book. It is simply not possible to understand Christ's disputes with the Pharisees or Paul's letters without a thorough grasp of the OT.

Knowing that Christ died for your sins and that the Father loves you is wonderful, but if that is all that you know, you are missing the depth that God wants you to have.

Bruce Charlton said...

@JB and SJ - Well, if the OT isn't a problem for you, then fine.

In the UK it is only the NT-orientated evangelical churches which are young, vigorous, recruiting and growing - all the other denominations are moribund, and mostly corrupt.

@JB - "there is nothing 'new' in the NT" - This seems just plain false - but I think I know what you mean in the sense that knowing the NT, the themes can be found in the OT. But lacking the NT one would never know that they were there.

Samson J. said...

Reading the Bible NT first is the same as reading the last chapter of a novel and thinking you have appreciated the book. It is simply not possible to understand Christ's disputes with the Pharisees or Paul's letters without a thorough grasp of the OT.

Haha, my point exactly, in saying that skipping the OT is like skipping FotR and TTT. Without the background material, you won't understand who these people are or why anything matters.

Of course, I've argued, only half-seriously, that all you *really* need to summarize the Christian story is the first chapters of Genesis, the last chapters of Matthew, and the last chapters of Revelation...

Well, if the OT isn't a problem for you, then fine.

Quite the opposite, I assure you - there came a time, I'm not quite sure when, when I realized that I found it hard to take the NT seriously without being familiar with the OT and how things got to the point that they were at when Jesus appeared on the scene.

Jon Behrens said...

Again, I would gently disagree. It is not just the themes of the NT that are found, but the details as well.

Take for example the New Covenant, the essence of which is that Israel will be restored, that the Law (Torah) will be written on their hearts, that once again He shall be their God and they shall be His people and their sins will be forgotten.

That first shows up in the Torah, Dt 30:6-10. Then again in Ezekiel 11:17-21, Ezekiel 36:22-38. Then in Jeremiah 31:31-34. When many Christians encounter the concept in Hebrews 10, they are given the impression that it's a NT thing. It's not.
You said something I found very wise in your post a couple of days ago on Wittgenstein, "This fits my oft-stated conviction that the proof-texting/ chapter-and-verse way of reading scripture segmentally - as if it was a law book or list of rules - obscures its truth and leads to confusion and conflict."

I couldn't agree more. I hope none of this sounds harsh - I don't mean it to be. It's just that you asked the question about why there's so much ink in the Tanak(OT). I find that there's a depth and richness to God's word that only opens up once one knows the Tanak.

Be blessed.

Bruce B. said...

I rarely read the OT except the Psalms and Proverbs. This is because I'm still trying to pick a denomination to raise my family in. I keep imagining that I'll suddenly notice something decisive in the NT.

Bookslinger said...

It took me four readings of the entire Bible to overcome the Western cultural tradition that a disconnect exists between the OT and the NT. At the same time I had read the Book of Mormon about five times, which may have helped because in the Book of Mormon there is no apparent disconnect/conflict between pre-Christ and post-Christ eras.

The Book of Mormon prophesies about "plain and precious parts" being removed from the Jewish Bible. (The BoM considers the NT to be "Jewish".) I assume those parts would have lessened the apparent disconnect; the missing OT parts having made the OT a stumbling block for Jews, and the missing NT parts making the NT a stumbling for many Gentiles/mainstream Christians.

As to the relative sizes of the OT and NT, I think the LDS concept of "The Great Apostasy" comes into play. The authority held by the apostles was lost when they died off and no apostles/prophets replaced them. Though Popes claimed authority, they wrote nothing that was claimed as canon, at least not on the level as the NT authors.

According to LDS belief, Apostolic Christianity, ie., "true" and "authorized" Christianity ended when the last apostle died, essentially because the apostolic keys of authority were not passed on to new apostles. What happened after that, in spite of well-meaning local leaders who knew the true doctrines, they no longer had keys of authority, no longer had priesthood, and eventually drifted further and further away from the truth with each generation.

Therefore, the NT period lasted less than a century, whereas the OT covers millennia. Had there not been a Great Apostasy, had apostolic succession continued, we would have more post-Christ canon.

I think the "early Church Fathers" were sort of a bridge between the apostles and the Popes, and while they wrote many good things, again nothing rose to the level of canon.

Some of the writings of early Church Fathers give credence to the Restoration performed by Joseph Smith Jr. Starting in 1830. LDS doctrine more closely matches 1st and 2nd century Christianity than it does 4th century and post-Nicean Christianity.

And, I believe LDS doctrines more close match 1st and 2nd century Christianity than post-Nicean Christianity matches 1st/2nd century Christianity.

Someone wants more post-Christ (NT) scripture? Read the LDS Doctrine and Covenants, and from 3 Nephi onwards in the Book of Mormon.

Anonymous said...

During the mortal ministry of Jesus, "the scriptures" meant what we call the Old Testament.

One question about the Old Testament is why isn't there more of it? It references books that we no longer have. Margaret Barker sees its lack of an explicit temple theology as a black hole at the center of its universe. Some of the Church Fathers charged that some Christological passages had been expunged.

Bruce Charlton said...

Thanks for the comment - but please use a pseudonym.

Leo said...

Bruce,
Thank you.
Leo (real name)