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Is the Old Testament a Christian Book?

Yesterday I started describing a trade book that I’m thinking about writing, tentatively called (in my head) “The Battle for the Bible.”    Here is the next part of my self-reflections:

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A major part of my book will deal with one of the great puzzles in the history of religion:  Why does the Christian Bible even have an Old Testament?   And how did the early Christians, most of them gentiles, manage – in their own minds — to wrest it from the Jews by and for whom it was originally written?  If Christians chose not to keep the biblical laws and follow its customs, why did they retain the book?

In my experience, many Christians still wonder about that.   I frequently hear Christians claim there are essential differences between the Old Testament and the New Testament and the religions based on them:  Jews have a religion of laws and judgment, but Christians have a gospel of grace and mercy; Jews think they have to earn their way into heaven on their own merits, but Christians meekly accept the salvation of God as a gift; Jews are condemned for their disobedience, but Christians are saved by their faith.  And then the most frequent claim of all:  the Old Testament portrays a God of wrath; the New Testament a God of love.

These stereotypes can easily be shown to be wrong, just from the Bible itself.   Anyone who wants to see a God of wrath need simply read the final book of the New Testament, the Revelation of John.

Why then do Christians assume a dichotomy between their faith (with their God) and the Jewish religion (and theirs)?  The short answer is that …

To read the rest of this post you will need to belong to the blog.  If you don’t belong, you literally don’t know what you’re missing!  Why not join?  Won’t cost much; every nickel goes to charity; and you can read about matters of importance to your heart’s content.

The short answer is that Christians have long read their Bible differently from Jews.   My argument in this book is that in the early years after Jesus’ death, his Jewish followers began to read their Scriptures in ways that created controversies with Jews who did not accept him as the messiah.   The ramifications of this historical phenomenon were enormous and tragic.  Controversy over the correct understanding of these Scriptures led to serious opposition; opposition led to rejection; rejection led to hatred; hatred led to violence; and violence eventually led to the entire history of Christian anti-Semitism.   It may seem to be an outlandish claim, but the historical lineage can be shown:  varying interpretations of the Jewish Scriptures eventually led to the Holocaust.

I should say at the outset that the vast majority of Christians today have never thought about it that way and, without seeing the evidence, would flat out deny it — especially the millions of good and decent Christians who pride themselves on being decidedly not anti-Jewish and who oppose all forms of anti-Semitism.   That would be true of the vast majority of my undergraduate students, a good number of whom are good Southern Christians (principally Baptist) who oppose religious violence but unreflectively subscribe to views that, historically, led to it.

Most of my students really don’t have any idea why they have an Old Testament in their Bible.  It is just there, so they take it.   I understand that view perfectly well, since it was the one I myself had as a late teenager.   I knew nothing about the Old Testament, of course, and never ever thought that I might want to follow its laws.   Except the Ten Commandments.

More or less.   Today, when Christians tell me (as they often do) that they are not obliged to keep the laws of the Old Testament except the Ten Commandments, I ask them why those commandments and not the 603 others.  They’ve almost never thought about it, except to say that Jesus did away with all the rest.  Then why keep the Bible at all?  And why retain these particular ten?   They generally say that these ten were meant to be valid for all time.  So then I ask them whether they have any principled objection to working on Saturday.  Of course not.  But one of the commandments is not to work on Saturday.  My sense is that most Christians are content to follow the Nine Commandments.

But what else is the Old Testament good for, if it is filled with laws Christians don’t follow, customs they don’t keep, and religious views they don’t accept?   Throughout the ages, theologically more sophisticated Christians have argued that the entire Old Testament was a necessary “preparation” for what was to come.  It was principally meant to point forward to a reality beyond itself, to Jesus and the inspired writings of the New Testament.   For these Christians, the Old Testament is a kind of extended prologue by and large of no real importance or abiding relevance in itself, apart from some of the comforting Psalms and a number of interesting stories about Abraham, Joseph, and Moses that can be taught to children in Sunday School classes.   But the real and ultimate theological significance of the Old Testament is that it anticipates Jesus, through its prophecies of the coming Messiah.

This may seem to be an innocuous interpretive stance.  But it is anything but that.  I will be arguing this is the view that originally drove the historically disastrous wedge between Jews who became followers of Jesus and Jews who did not.

I see this line of thinking, and its results, every semester.   I regularly have students tell me that they simply can’t understand why Jews don’t accept Jesus as the messiah.   The Old Testament predicts everything the messiah would do, and Jesus did it all.   It’s all there, in black and white.  The Bible says that the messiah had to be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2), and Jesus was born in Bethlehem.  His mother was to be a virgin (Isaiah 7:14), and Mary was a virgin.  The messiah was to suffer and die to atone for his people (Isaiah 53), and Jesus was crucified for the sins of the world.  The messiah was supposed to be raised from the dead (Hosea 6:3), and Jesus was gloriously resurrected.

The list goes on and on.   My students genuinely don’t understand:  Why don’t Jews see this?  How can they possibly miss it?  Are they willful and hard-hearted?  Can’t they read?  Are they blind?

My students are not the first to ask these questions.  They go all the way back.   My book will argue that such Christian incredulity at Jewish failure to accept “the truth” of their own Scriptures is what led to the earliest controversies between the followers of Jesus and their non-Christian Jewish families, neighbors, fellow synagogue members, and broader acquaintances.  The questions, and the controversies, then continued and massively intensified for two millennia.  They are rooted in the long-standing Christian view that the Old Testament, properly understood, is a Christian book, not a Jewish one.

The story of how it happened – how Christians, in effect, co-opted the Jewish Bible – is both historically intriguing and socially tragic.  One part of my book will explore the historical intrigue; the other the social tragedy.


Should the Old Testament Even Be in the Bible?
Why Do Christians Have an Old Testament? Another Trade Book.

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    Sinseitional  June 3, 2019

    Doctor E, I very much look forward to what scholarship has to say about this topic. I always thought that the Old Testament was included as a way of inserting an incumbent theology that gave way–read: lost out–to the new theology, aka the New Testament. Just as an incumbent Egypt was in a sense defeated by Moses, just to cite one of numerous examples, the New Testament was thought to “shine” more if it had something to shine against. So the old standby “My god is greater than your god” thought process carried over into a “My Testament is greater than your Testament” sentiment.

    As modern elections tend to illustrate, it is quite difficult to defeat a political incumbent. It just is. BUT, when you do, you are said to have a mandate. The New Testament could be seen as the new mandate if the old mandate/testament was included in its canon.

    Furthermore, as even those in antiquity gave credence to “”old things”, including the Old Testament was a way for the new mandate to attach and associate itself with something already ancient, thereby leveraging instant just-add-water credibility to their agenda.

    This isn’t to suggest that the teachings of the Old Testament were to be wholesale dismissed. Quite bogglingly, including the Old Testament seems to allow this new mandate movement to simultaneously claim, “See, we’re ancient. We’ve included ancient texts. And by the way, our new mandate is by definition better.”

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  2. Avatar
    flshrP  June 3, 2019

    That book is going to be a barn-burner. It zeros in on the basic contradiction of Christianity:

    Matthew 5:17-20 King James Version (KJV)
    17 Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.
    18 For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.
    19 Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
    20 For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.

    Theologians and Christian apologists of every stripe have tied themselves in knots for two millennia trying t o reconcile these words with their peculiar beliefs about the nature of the OT. We are not talking about theological concepts that are logically inexplicable (virgin births of humans, human resurrections, the Trinity, etc). These words of Matthew are as plain as can be–don’t mess with the OT. Every word in it is “gospel”, including all the filth (passing of guilt from parent to child to grandchild and more, slavery, genocide, child abuse, denigration of women who are treated as chattel, hysterical male fear of anything remotely connected with reproduction and normal female physical processes, ritual cleansing of women after child birth, etc). Including every gross and filthy admonition in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy and 1st and 2nd Samuel.

    I hope you’re wearing your best protective armor since I think there will be a storm of negative reaction to your book. Which is the best thing that could happen to start a meaningful conversation.

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  3. Avatar
    AstaKask  June 3, 2019

    I remember hearing Sam Harris say that “anti-Semitism was manufactured, stem to stern, by Christianity.” He was heavily criticized for this, with mentions of other times Jews had been persecuted (e.g., the Maccabean revolt or the Bar Kochba rebellion). What is your view of the matter?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 5, 2019

      Jews weren’t being persecuted in teh Macccabean Revolt or the Bar Kochba rebellion for being Jewish. For political and military reasons the (some of the) Jews in Palestine engaged in an uprising against the Romans, who then went on the attack and wiped the opposition out. These were not religious persecutions per se. The question of whether they were caused by political pressures on Jews to stop practicing Judaism is a fair question though (although the opposition was completely localized).

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  4. Avatar
    tcasto  June 3, 2019

    It is staggering to see how verses were cherry picked from the Old Testament, taken totally out of context, and used to affirm a desired reality.

  5. Avatar
    Eric  June 3, 2019

    And why did they write it in that funny language? I always say, “if English was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for you!”

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  6. Avatar
    d3zd3z  June 3, 2019

    This is definitely a topic I have interest in, given that I have ties to both evangelical Christians and to messianic Jews. I look forward to future posts, as well as to even a book about this.

  7. Avatar
    wostraub  June 3, 2019

    “I should say at the outset that the vast majority of Christians today have never thought about it that way and, without seeing the evidence, would flat out deny it — especially the millions of good and decent Christians who pride themselves on being decidedly not anti-Jewish and who oppose all forms of anti-Semitism”

    Let’s say that only 1% of Christians are anti-Semitic. Let’s also say that only 0.0000001% of the American population is capable of committing mass murder. The facts are these: the Holocaust happened, and mass murders happen. Worse, the world has experienced 2,000 years of anti-Semitism, largely the result of Christians blaming Jews for the killing of Jesus, with the attendant murder of many millions of Jews. We can’t just brush these facts off by saying that there are a few bad apples.

    Christians retain the Hebrew Bible out of tradition, if nothing else. I believe they’re also morbidly attracted to the authoritarian aspects of a wrathful God, as harsh as they may be.

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  8. Avatar
    Hngerhman  June 3, 2019

    First the Afterlife, then Revelation, and now, adding insult to injury, we must steel ourselves for another long wait until a trade book containing your treatment of this fascinating topic hits the stands? You ask too much of us mere mortals, sir…

    Relatedly, have you read J. Carroll’s Constantine’s Sword? I’ve been curious whether you had views on it (both historically as well as sociologically). In what seems like an embarrassment of riches, your proposed book would capture that and so much more.

    NB – The book list above is not even counting the 7th edition of your NT textbook. Any insight as to when that’ll be available for purchase?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 5, 2019

      Yes, I think it’s a terrific book! As to the 7th edition: I’m not sure. I imagine by the end of the summer? It’s in press now as we speak.

  9. epicurus
    epicurus  June 3, 2019

    Have you ever asked people who want the ten commandments followed which set they mean? Exodus 34 contains what is supposed to be the replacement set moses came back with after breaking the Exodus 20 set. Yet 34 is almost completely different (and very boring). Nevertheless, 20 was rendered obsolete by 34.

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  10. Avatar
    Apocryphile  June 3, 2019

    I think when dealing with these stereotypes of the Old and New Testaments, an important point that shouldn’t be lost in the discussion is that, at least to our modern sensibilities, there *are* problematic parts all throughout the Bible. I don’t think we should be afraid of pointing out that many places in the Bible portray a wrathful, even what we could call a ‘primitive’, deity. Whether it is Christ returning in blood-covered robes, or God wiping out (almost) the entire human race in the Flood, one could be forgiven for wondering whether this ‘holy’ book has caused more harm than good through the centuries.

  11. Avatar
    cancilla  June 3, 2019

    I am very interested in the “except for the Ten Commandments” issue. I’ve encountered only a few theologians who consider Jesus to have invalidated the Commandments and I don’t understand the theological basis of thinking otherwise.

    I would also be very interested to see a discussion of all the Old Testament prophecies of the messiah. In particular, I’d be interested to know if the Jews considered them prophecies and, if they did, what they considered them prophecies of. While we’re at it, were there any prophecies about the Messiah in the Old Testament that Jesus didn’t fulfill?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 5, 2019

      Really? Do these theologians think that Jesus taught that it was OK to commit murder and adultery? Interesting theologians!

  12. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  June 3, 2019

    Wow! Quite interesting! Keep going!

    For decades, I have been an avid reader of opinion articles. Indeed, I have read thousands of them. Today, I had the good fortune to read what may well be the best of these articles. It is entitled “Grief Without God” by Amber Scorah. She wrote it following the unexpected, unexplained death of her 4-month-old son. It appeared in the 6/2/19 addition of “Sunday Review” in “The New York Times.” Few there are who can write like she writes. Here are two key examples from the article:

    1. “I am not saying there is no God, but I am saying no God would do this to someone.”

    2. “If belief were a choice, I might choose it. But it’s not. I don’t trade in certainty anymore.”

    Readers of this blog might have an interest in reading this article.

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  13. Avatar
    Todd  June 3, 2019

    That’s a great idea for a book and I would buy it. Currently my wife is at a bible study at her church and they’re still neverendlingly wading through the OT !!!

  14. Avatar
    Joshua150  June 3, 2019

    Excellent idea. This book is needed as a popular work.

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  15. fefferdan
    fefferdan  June 3, 2019

    I know some [certainly not all] Christians who see in the Old Testament a record of God’s providential history with his people Israel, a history that contains crucial lessons for Christians as new “new Israel.” God’s heart toward his people is particularly evident in the prophetic warnings concerning the consequences of not adhering to the Covenant. For Christians, God’s expectation for his people is not based on the Torah per se, but on is the “new covenant” of Jer. 31 — “I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” Unfortunately this often leads to a supercessionist theology in which the Jews are left out, but I think it need not do this. At its best, the theology of the Christian “new covenant” sees the church as the Bride just as the prophets saw Israel a the wife of Yahweh. But both Christians and Jews are God’s people, and can read the “old” Testament not as someone else’s history but as their own.

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  16. Avatar
    godspell  June 3, 2019

    This is all correct, but I think begging the question a bit–does any culture or religion ‘own’ a book it produces? The Old Testament isn’t even what Jews call it, right? Because they don’t recognize the new one.

    Muslims hold both the OT and NT sacred. Should Jews and Christians revile them for that? Shouldn’t it be a uniting factor? Yes, I know, it usually isn’t.

    In the meantime, aren’t at least some of the stories in the OT actually based on stories told by pagans before the OT was written?

    Buddhism came out of Hinduism (and there’s been antipathy there as well). Sikhs borrowed from Hinduism and Islam.

    It is fairly unique that the three Abrahamanic faiths are a process of accretion–each absorbing the texts of the one that came before. But in what sense does Muslims respecting the NT detract from Christianity? (Fascinating to realize that some Muslim scholars believe there are passages in the gospels where Jesus prophesies Muhammad).

    The fact that the majority in each religion are not well-informed about the beliefs of the other two is hardly surprising (many are ill-informed about their own religion as well). Each is determined to be the ONLY faith, and yet each is dependent for its existence on faiths that came before it–and looking nervously at those that came after it.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 5, 2019

      That’s why Jews prefer not to call it the Old Testament, of course.

  17. Avatar
    AlbertHodges  June 3, 2019

    I am telling myself that most of the students you are referring to are Protestants or poorly-instructed Catholics.

    I grew up Quaker. As my intellectual curiosity grew with maturity, I researched all religions for a year. Didnt know any Catholics or Jews, for that matter except in passing.

    For me, there are only two faiths that make any historical sense….Orthodox Judaism or Catholicism/Eastern Orthodoxy. It took prayer and reflection to decide on becoming Catholic but this decision was only made because it was obvious to me that the Catholic Church was what the people of the God of the Old Testament would look like if Jesus was indeed the Messiah.

    Studying the Hebraic roots of Catholic Christianity has only confirmed these beliefs for me.

    Just my 2 cents.

  18. tompicard
    tompicard  June 3, 2019

    >> Controversy over the correct understanding of these Scriptures
    >> led to serious opposition;
    >> opposition led to rejection;
    >> rejection led to hatred;
    >> hatred led to violence; and
    >> violence eventually led to the entire history of
    >> Christian anti-Semitism.

    but possibly more eloquently put

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kFnFr-DOPf8

  19. Avatar
    Leovigild  June 3, 2019

    Have you seek this Lewis Black bit on the Old Testament?

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SC-nz71kmWE

  20. Avatar
    dscottwoodruff  June 3, 2019

    If it were not for Paul’s ministry to the gentiles would it had been likely that there would ever have been a NT or for that matter would there have been a Christian Church? I may be overstating it but it is difficult to imagine that the early followers of Jesus would not have simply been subsumed into Judaism as just another sect and likely would have not lasted very long as a distinct group.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 5, 2019

      It’s hard to imagine what it would be like, that’s for sure. Possibly just a sect within Judaism….

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      • fefferdan
        fefferdan  June 5, 2019

        Perhaps similar to Baha’ism in Islam. Or [less well known] the followers of Shabbatai Sevi in the 17th century. Large numbers of Jews accepted his messianic claim, and a few survive in Turkey today. Unfortunately he himself converted to Islam when the Sultan made him an offer he couldn’t refuse instead of letting him rule the Holy Land as his followers hoped.

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