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Should the Old Testament Even Be in the Bible?

A week or so ago I started to describe how I’m thinking of one of my future books, that I’m tentatively calling The Battle for the Bible.  The book (if I write it) will be about how Christians got the Old Testament and saw the Old Testament as *their* book rather than the Jews’, who had misinterpreted it and given up (without their knowledge) any claim to it.  My argument is that this dispute is what ultimately led to the history of anti-Judaism among Christians, which is eventually what led centuries later to anti-semitism.

It will take a long time in the book to show how it worked – it’s a complicated issue.  In my first two posts I stated the thesis in its bald terms, and I received several negative comments about it by readers who thought it can’t be that simple.  And of course they are right.  It’s not.  But I haven’t started to explain how it all worked.  You have to see the whole system before you can tell whether it works or not.  (I’ve just spent three days in in Pythagorio on the Greek Island of Samos, birthplace of Pythagorus, the famous Greek philosopher and mathematician. If you were to tell a person who knew absolutely nothing about math that with a right triangle the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the square of the two other sides, they would think you were nuts.  You have to show it and explain it before it makes sense.  So too any historical view.  You can’t just state it and expect anyone to buy it.  You have to show how and why it works….)

Anyway, my proposal to myself will not adducing all the evidence, but it will be doing more of that then I’ve done so far.  My entire proposal is about 8000 words lone, and so this will take a few more posts at least to lay out the skeleton of the case.   Here’s the next bit.  (If you’re not remembering the lead-in, see the two earlier posts https://ehrmanblog.org/why-do-christians-have-an-old-testament-another-trade-book/ and https://ehrmanblog.org/is-the-old-testament-a-christian-book/)

 

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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.

 

An Early Christian Conundrum:  Is the Hebrew Bible Part of the Christian Scripture?

First I must deal with the all-important prior question I have already alluded to.  If, very early in their history, Christians chose to bypass precisely the laws and instructions the Bible enjoins on the people of God, why did they see any utility of having the Old Testament at all?  If it was outdated, why not simply jettison it altogether?

Early Christians took a number of different approaches to that question.  One view can be assigned to the historical Jesus himself and his very earliest followers – the disciples and their converts.  These were Jews …

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How “Jews” Became “Children of the Devil” in the New Testament
Is the Old Testament a Christian Book?

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    RRomanchek  June 12, 2019

    Great post and comments. I learn more about the history of my heritage daily. Thanks!

  2. Avatar
    billw977  June 12, 2019

    I never really took Jesus’ words in Matthew 5 to mean we must continue to follow the laws of the OT. Jesus said he’s come to fulfill the law. He was going to take care of it (fulfill the requirements), but until then (his crucifixion) we must keep the law of the OT and teach others the same. I figured that was everyone’s take on it. Well, apparently I’m wrong, but anything else would be contradictory to the new wine (new law) that was coming. Even Matthew talks about the new wine (9:14 – 17). Following Jesus and his ‘new wine’ is more righteous than all the man made rules of the scribes and Pharisees. Wasn’t he just doing his ‘read between the lines’ conversation he liked to do? Like if you don’t eat my flesh and drink my blood type conversation?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 14, 2019

      Yup, that’s how it’s usually taught these days. But if you read the text carefully, it’s not what Jesus says.

  3. Avatar
    Martintee  June 14, 2019

    Glad to be on your blog . This is the first time I’ve ever posted anything on a blog. I’m fascinated with the importance of the history of Christianity. I’ve often argued with some Christian friends why they don’t abide by the dietary and other bizarre practices set forth in Leviticus , etc. for example they will argue that homosexuality is an abomination but seem to have no reluctance to eat shellfish. When I point out that those passages are on the same page and inquire why one is correct and the other not, I have had unconvincing answers . Can you tell me what the best argument would be for a Christian to try and rectify the incongruity.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 14, 2019

      When I was a Christain I tried to reconcile it by saying that some of the laws were given to help out the Israelites in the times of their ignorance (poor Israelites….). And so they had misconceptions and God catered to them, or gave them fair warning (e.g., don’t eat pork). (Everyone says that’s because raw pork will kill you; but notice, he doesn’t say don’t eat chicken!) Other laws, I argued, were eternal. How did I know which were which? The ones I agreed with were the ones that were eternal!

      • Avatar
        Pattylt  June 14, 2019

        I’ve heard the explanation that the OT laws that were priestly or cultural were no longer needed but the ones that were moral laws remained. I still have problems as how one decides between some of them!

        To me, they jettisoned the ones that they either didn’t like or inhibited evangelizing…kind of arbitrary to me.

  4. Avatar
    Cliffschilke  June 14, 2019

    Returning to the theme of my prior post, it is not the impact of Jewish Christianity on Gentile Christianity which may be relevant, but rather the impact of Judaism on Gentile Christianity. Prof. Oskar Skarsaune, in his IN THE SHADOW OF THE TEMPLE, p. 82, asserts that “when the gospel message was first addressed to Gentiles it was addressed primarily to these groups”, i.e. “God – fearers”, “and among them it found a wide hearing”. Who were the “God- fearers”. Pagans who attended synagogues in the Jewish Diaspora who no longer found spiritual significance or meaning in traditional pagan polytheism nor in any of the newer mystery religions coming to the Mediterranean at the time. What did they hear in the synagogue – – reading and exposition of the Torah and ritual prayers. There they learned that the God of Israel was holy, unlike pagan deities, and intolerant of human moral or physical pollution. Indeed to approach Israel’s God, except through sacrifice, was actually quite dangerous. They also learned that they could not approach Israel’s God since Israel’s God had an exclusive relationship with Israel, unavailable to anyone except Jews. Conversion to Judaism, however, was difficult and rare, not simply because of the dietary restrictions, but also because of the requirement of male circumcision, painful and aesthetically repugnant to most Greek speaking non-Jewish men. Inherent in this situation – – a great psychological tension and conflict. On the one hand, hunger for a safe and meaningful way to approach a holy God. On the other hand except through conversion, inability to satisfy that hunger. The Christian message, at least in its Pauline version, offered a solution. I think however that the real spiritual breakthrough moment for God-fearers, must have been the crisis for Judaism of 70 A.D. God-fearers who had not yet converted to Christianity but continued to attend the synagogue would have certainly known of this crisis. The temple at Jerusalem was destroyed. The sacrificial rites offered twice a day on Israel’s behalf had ended. God’s earthly dwelling was gone. Where was God and how could God, holy God, now be safely approached. Israel’s answer was a reemphasis of Jewish identity with commitment to more intense study of the Torah and a more rigorous application of Jewish law in personal life. The Christian answer was belief in Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross, the meaning of which was confirmed by his resurrection, clearly more preferable for God-fearers.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 16, 2019

      I”ve never been a huge fan of the “God-fearers” hypothesis. There certainly were some gentiles here and there who sympathized with Jewish views. But I see no evidence that they were a large (let alone coherent) group, even though scholars talk about them as if they were an established fact. My view is that scholars invented them as a fact because it helped make sense of their theories of the expansion of Christianity, not because they are well documented.

      • Avatar
        Cliffschilke  June 16, 2019

        Does the following from the Wikipedia article on the “Second Temple” suggests otherwise regarding the God-fearers. This article discusses a part of the Temple which Herod reconstructed as the “Court of the Gentiles”. Of greater interest to me, under the section, “Archaeology” was the following: “in 1871, a hewn stone measuring 60X 90 cm and engraved with Greek uncials was discovered near a court on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem and identified… as being the Temple Warning inscription. The stone inscription outlines the prohibition extending unto those who were not of the Jewish nation to proceed beyond the soreg separating the larger court of the Gentiles and the inner courts…. Translation:’ let no foreigner enter within the parapet and the partition which surrounds the Temple precincts. Anyone caught violating will be accountable for his ensuing death’ “. Why would Gentiles not deeply interested in Jewish faith and religious practice come to the Temple in Jerusalem? Does anything you know of suggests that the Temple was simply another stop in a grand tour of interesting sites in antiquity for the affluent Greek speaking population of the time on vacation? It seems to me that the archaeological evidence suggests a much larger group of Greek speaking non-Jews highly motivated to make the expensive and probably dangerous journey to Jerusalem seeking a more immediate experience, insofar as that was possible, of the religious rites practiced at the Temple. In other words, the God-fearers.

        The Wikipedia article on the ” Temple Warning inscription” states that two of these tablets have been found and that ” both Greek and Latin inscriptions on the temple’s balustrade served as warnings to pagan visitors not to proceed under penalty of death. ” The references for this last assertion includes something from Josephus: Of the War, Book V. as well as an article by Elias Bickerman : The Jewish Quarterly Reiew, v. 37, no, 4, pp387-405.

        A warning in Latin to pagans on Temple walls not to enter too far into the temple— doesn’t that imply a rather large group of pagans?

        • Bart
          Bart  June 17, 2019

          No, the court of the Gentiles is not evidence of “God-fearers.” It’s just the place where curious gentiles could come to check out the splendor of the place. Just like there are times / places where visitors can come into Mosques, or Mormon temples, and so on, I shold think.

      • Avatar
        Hngerhman  June 20, 2019

        Dr Ehrman –

        Do you mean you are skeptical of (a) God-Fearers as a historical phenomenon per se, and/or (b) the use of God-Fearers as a hand-waving catch-all that smuggles in the false appearance of a concept doing a lot of heavy lifting in an argument? Would you mind unpacking your thoughts on God-Fearers a touch more (or point me towards suggested further reading)?

        • Bart
          Bart  June 23, 2019

          Both I guess. I’m not confident that we have much evidence of a large number of gentiles adopting most but not all the practices of Judaism, let alone that these were targets of the mission of the early church. For the former, I just don’t think there’s much evidence. For the latter, the early evidence (Paul, Acts) points in the opposite directoin.

          • Avatar
            Hngerhman  June 24, 2019

            Thanks – very interesting! I’ve recently been listening to Goodman’s “History of Judaism” as well as Fredriksen’s “When Xns Were Jews” and “Paul: Pagan’s Apostle” on audiobook, and the ancient synagogue donation inscriptions get referenced as if gospel (pun intended) around the existence of God-Fearers (explicitly in Fred., more implicit in Good.), as a historical phenomenon and a category concept. Your skepticism about the lack of evidence makes me ask myself why I was so readily accepting of them as a relevant class of (potential) early church participant.

            Re: the negative evidence in Paul/Acts against them being a target rich environment for proselytizing – thanks, that hadn’t yet occurred to me in that way.

            Re: existence, are there any studies or sources you rec one read that cast a strongly critical eye towards God-Fearers (at their existence per se, or at the conceptual leap that these people who were inscribed as donating were deep into Jewish practices)?

          • Bart
            Bart  June 24, 2019

            The classic study that called them into doubt was: Kraabel, A. T., “The Disappearance of the ‘God-fearers,'” Numen 28 (1981), pp. 113-26.

          • Avatar
            Hngerhman  June 24, 2019

            Thanks for the rec!

  5. Avatar
    Cliffschilke  June 14, 2019

    Finally, God-fearers who converted to Christianity would have wanted to keep the Jewish Torah, having understood its spiritual and moral significance through long exposure in synagogue attendance, but now reinterpreting the Jewish Torah through the lens of Christian belief in Jesus. Also they would have continued to attend the synagogue which actually had a physical Torah, an expensive and probably not widely owned physical object not usually available in personal homes or to many people. I have read that Christian worship in the synagogue alongside Jews continued at least throughout the second century A.D.

    You have written that acceptance of stories of miracles done in Jesus name and their demonstration of the power of Jesus’s God was the factor driving the expansion of early Christianity. This is what our early texts say. That does not mean to me that that was the real causal factor. Humans of the first century did not have a very sophisticated understanding of human psychology and therefore the reasons that they offered to themselves explaining their own behavior were often, by contemporary standards, psychologically not very good. The motivating factor in changing one’s religion because one hears the story of miracles about someone else, in my opinion, is not psychologically very compelling. On the other hand, the hunger for a connection to God, often an unconscious hunger, articulated in a language of sacrifice familiar in one form to pagans and in another form to Jews, and the satisfaction of that hunger— now you have a real reason for giving up one religion and adopting another.

    The Christian answer to satisfying that hunger is interesting: first the Pauline version, belief in Jesus’s sacrificial death and resurrection, and an eschatological wish for his imminent return, but then gradually transformed into a cultic reenactment of sacrifice, the early common Christian meal sharing bread and wine in Jesus’s name being transformed into a sacred reenactment of sacrifice, conducted by an anointed and spiritual elite– priests– permitting after confession man to safely approach a holy God by actually eating God.

    I don’t know, not being a historian of early Christianity, when the surviving literary sources document that gradual transformation. I would be very interested in hearing from you your understanding of this historical issue.

  6. Avatar
    billw977  June 14, 2019

    I see that my comment from a couple of days ago didn’t get posted. Did I do something wrong?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 16, 2019

      I don’t know. I don’t recall not posting one from you. Maybe try it again, and if I see something wrong, I’ll let you know! (The only comments I don’t post are repeats — when someone already said the same thing in a comment the same day — or ones that are a bit too snarky or gratuitously political or otherwise potentially offensive; that rarely happens.)

  7. Avatar
    billw977  June 19, 2019

    Back when I used to be a practicing Christian I never took the passage in Matthew to mean we are to still follow the ‘old law’. My interpretation was when Jesus said he came to fulfill the law then that would be the end of the ‘old way’. Of course the fulfillment would come on the cross, so he did mean that they were to keep the law up until that time. The writer of Matthew was aware that there would be a ‘new way’ as indicated in chapter 9, the story of the new and old wine. Therefore following Jesus would be ‘more righteous’ than the scribes and Pharisees. I took this passage in Matthew as if Jesus was saying ‘read between the lines’. The same as when he told people to cut off the hands if they caused them to sin or pluck out their eyes. I guess I was thinking that this is the way that everybody read these passages. Anything else would be contradiction, as you’ve pointed out….

  8. Avatar
    jrhislb  June 20, 2019

    Do you know how often the idea of following the Old Testament laws have been rediscovered? I know that there have been popular movements in Sweden occasionally to keep the Saturday as Sabbath among peasants, and a few cases during the 16th century of people who decided that Judaism was the true religion based on reading the Bible. (There being no real Jews to interact with, their version of Judaism probably was a little different from the usual one.)

    • Bart
      Bart  June 21, 2019

      I’m not sure: there certainly were groups of Christians doing that throughout the first five centuries of Christianity. Whether it continued in an unbroken path — I’m afraid I don’t know!

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