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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
    Neurotheologian  June 4, 2019

    I think that the reaon why the Jewish religious authorities did not accept Jesus of Nazareth as a fullfilment of their scriptures is the same reason that many Bible scholars and even new testament scholars 🙂 don’t accept it today! The reason, I think, is that the Messianic secret of the Lamb of Isaiah 53 – the true nature and mission of Jesus was deliberately obfuscated – ‘his glory was veiled’. Isaiah 53 can indeed be seen to refer to Israel / Jacob, but is clearly also referring to a man – a man of sorrows, despised and rejected by men. We can quibble for example, about Matthew’s use of OT scripture, but you only need one clear fulfillment of OT prophecy to be convinced of Jesus’s destiny. Isaiah 53 of course ‘starts’ in Isaiah 52, but it begins in verse 1 with a tantalizing question: ‘Who hath believed our report? and to whom is the arm of the LORD revealed?’. I see this as analagous to the question that Jesus asked his disciples ‘who do you say that I am?’ In fact, I see Isaiah 53 as a kind of prophetic key which can open the door (if we are willing) to the glory of who Jesus really was. I think this is also what Paul was talking about in 2Co 3:15-16: ‘But even to this day, when Moses is read, a veil lies on their heart. Nevertheless when one turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away’. I think this can apply eqaully to Bible scholars today. If you believe in the Messianic secret, I don’t think there is a huge problem is seeing as natural the inclusion of the OT in the Christian Bible. As for the Markian Messianic secret being opposed to the Johanine Messianic revealation, I have posted a possible reconciliation on the historical Jesus section of the members blog.

  2. Avatar
    ddecker54  June 4, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman:

    Most interesting. I look forward to reading chronological details of how/who/why the schism developed. I’m also surprised that so many college students seem to believe that there were people known as prophets who could accurately predict what would happen 8 centuries hence, in spite of the fact that what they were “predicting” (if you actually were to read the book of Isiah) were events in their own time and place.

    Thanks for the blog.

  3. Avatar
    Matt2239  June 4, 2019

    It’s more likely that the problem was liturgical, not biblical. In 1963, the Roman Catholic Church revised its liturgy for the first time in about 500 years. It removed language that enabled anti-Semitic views among the faithful. While anti-Semitism may have made German citizens indifferent to what was happening, the real drivers of the Holocaust ascribed to a faith that first appeared in the late 19th century and was explicitly race-based. Attempting to link early conflict between Christians and Jews to the Holocaust will be granting the written word too much influence. After all, as you’ve said, people today work on Saturday despite the bible’s instruction to the contrary.

  4. Avatar
    Randybessinger  June 4, 2019

    I hope you write it. I think it would be interesting and controversial but in a good and productive way.

  5. Avatar
    mkahn1977  June 4, 2019

    Great topic. I’ve been dealing with the proselytizing my whole life, and it never ends. Legit case of cultural appropriation. Just had a good friend try that same line with me recently and how she supposedly convinced another Jewish friend how the Jewish Scriptures/OT “predicts that Jesus is/was coming.”

  6. Avatar
    Duke12  June 4, 2019

    I’m guessing you’ll have a whole chapter devoted to Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho?

  7. Avatar
    jwesenbe  June 4, 2019

    Once I started to see that the Old Testament was not historically possible it created the possibility that everything that followed could also be historically inaccurate. You pull the bottom brick out, the rest falls.

  8. Avatar
    Pattylt  June 6, 2019

    I’ve often wondered how many OT predictions were written into the Gospels vs. actually said or done by Jesus. In other words, the fulfillment was manufactured. I also wonder if a small sect of Jews had already written or discussed a Pesher type savior from the scriptures before Jesus was even born?
    It doesn’t really matter as I think reading Jesus into the Prophets quickly became all the rage.

    Another point I remember reading…besides the quotes from the OT put on Jesus’s lips, the early Christians needed the ancient authority of the OT to gain approval for Christianity being considered ancient rather than as a new religion which would have really driven much more persecution and outcasting by Rome?

    Count me in as a preorder for the book! I’m somewhat patient. 🤪

  9. Avatar
    jrhislb  June 6, 2019

    Seems like it will be a very interesting book. I hope you treat the history of varying Christian answers as to which Old Testament laws are applicable to Christians. I also wonder whether it bothers most Jews today that Christians use the Old Testament.

  10. Avatar
    rburos  June 7, 2019

    Fredricksen writes of the cognitive dissonance brought by the crucifixion and no Kingdom. And the resurrection and no Kingdom. And the repeated sightings of the risen X and no Kingdom. All these caused the Jews that would have been the first generation of the Jesus Movement to go searching in their own scriptures for insight. Thoughts?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 9, 2019

      Yup, I should think that’s probably part of it. But even before then they had to find justification for thinking he was the messiah in the first place, if they knew he had been crucified.

      • Avatar
        rburos  June 10, 2019

        Ah, you’re thinking not just the first generation, but the *root* of that first generation. Well then, I have cash burning a hole in my pocket waiting for the preorder.

  11. Avatar
    dankoh  June 7, 2019

    I would say that the initial reaction of 99% of the world Jews to Jesus was indifference, and that for the leaders of the Jesus Movement this was worse than active opposition; it says they weren’t important enough to bother with. And of course all the reports of early Jewish opposition and violence to Jesus followers are from the Jesus Movement. But even there, there is evidence of Jewish indifference. In Acts (itself of questionable veracity), Stephen is stoned not for professing belief in Jesus but for disrespecting the Temple. And although the leaders of the Jesus Movement flee J’lem afterwards, they quickly come back and spend the next 40 years there, mostly undisturbed. The Temple leadership mostly didn’t care. (Josephus reports the high priest had James judicially murdered, but doesn’t say why, and also that the people objected and forced the priest’s removal.)

  12. Avatar
    RICHWEN90  June 8, 2019

    Please write this book! I will buy it as soon as it hits the shelves!

  13. Telling
    Telling  June 9, 2019

    Having studied Paul, it looks that his theology was to abandon Jewish customs while linking Jewish prophesy to Christianity, all the while catering to a gentile audience. He even justifies the Crucifixion as a Passover event where Jesus is awarded the status of a lamb for the slaughter. Pharisee and Roman citizen, it appears that Christianity is entirely his baby.

  14. Avatar
    bwilber  June 9, 2019

    Hi Bart.

    I am in the process of writing a book about Jehovah called Warts and All and have dedicated 14 pages to just this subject. Would you be willing to read my work and give me your opinion? Thanks, Bonnie Wilber

  15. Avatar
    TimKendrick  June 10, 2019

    I am REALLY looking forward to this book (wish it was the very next one you were writing).
    Though I still like your original title idea “How Christians Stole the Bible”!

  16. Avatar
    mosheshulman  June 11, 2019

    If I might make a suggestion for an avenue of investigation for this book (which I think will be another great one.) One significant perspective difference is that Jews trace their descent directly to people in the OT. (We call it Tenach.) This means that a Jew reading the Tenach does not see it as just a holy book (it is actually a collection of many books of different kinds) but a book about his ancestors. His ancestors went out of Egypt. Another example, those of priesty descent look at Aaron as a grandfather and Moses as an Uncle. This gives the text a personal nature that the non-Jewish Christians did not share. (Maybe that is why the NT speaks against genealogies?) The Christian allegorizing would be seen as an especially objective thing, and something Jews could never accept.

  17. The Agnostic Christian
    The Agnostic Christian  June 12, 2019

    I got around obeying the 4th Commandment when I was an Evangelical by being taught the Sabbath was a shadow.

    “There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from his. Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will fall by following their example of disobedience” (Hebrews 4:9–11).

  18. The Agnostic Christian
    The Agnostic Christian  June 12, 2019

    Do you ever get frustrated with having to repeat the same thing to generation after generation of Christian youth who are being fed these theological lies about their religion? I commend you for your patience. Not sure I could do it.

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