We earlier had a guest post by Marc Zvi Brettler, an internationally renowned scholar of ancient Judaism, as related to his book The Bible With and Without Jesus (HarperOne, 2020), co-authored with New Testament scholar (and my long-time friend) Amy-Jill Levine. Many of you will know of Amy-Jill: she is an extremely popular lecturer, full of energy, humor and wit, author of numerous important books on Jesus and the New Testament. Here now is her follow-up post, a complement to Marc’s.
My friend and frequent co-author, Marc Zvi Brettler, just posted on this blogsite, “Marcion is Alive and Well – and What to do About It.” Marcion, back in the second-century C.E., distinguished between what he perceived to be the angry and inept Old Testament God and the wise and loving God of the New Testament. Although Christian authorities proclaimed this view heretical, it still has traction. When we hear the contrast between the “Old Testament God of wrath” and the “New Testament God of love,” or other such comparisons that throw the Old Testament under the camel, that’s Marcionism.
Why it exists is more complicated topic. Here are the top seven reasons.
First, People don’t read. It’s much easier to accept a stereotype that fits into a broader narrative than it is to see if the stereotype itself is credible. Marc’s blog and its links, especially Eva Mroczek’s chart (https://docs.google.com/document/d/1BG5PvCO5pTTATcgBF-Da5j9p0myFgg9wj1ECkrRhFbI/edit?fbclid=IwAR2YMomv0s6SmBpG9kjOt5rroKd9tkp7XB7m7QaV8iHGEpx-vAbzsJeYpKE) provide the initial corrections.
Reading failures continue when people take verses out of context. For example, Christians have told me that because Jesus makes “all things new,” the Old Testament is defunct. The argument begins with the wrong premise. The phrase about making all things new, from Revelation 21:5, is set after the world has been destroyed about one and one-third times. As Revelation 21:1 puts it, “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away.” These lines echo Isaiah 65:17, “For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.” Christians who think we’re there now have misread both divine timetable and desk calendar.
Alternatively, Christians, misreading Paul’s letters, think that Torah’s commandments are impossible to follow, designed to drive us to despair, and so prompt us to throw ourselves on the mercy granted through the cross. This approach, which makes God a sadist, misreads both Torah and Paul. Addressing sin, the Hebrew text emphasizes shuv-ing, “turning” (Hebrew: shuv) from the bad and to the good. As for following Torah, John the Baptist’s parents had no problem (Luke 1:6 describes them as “righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord”); neither did Paul (see Philippians 3:6). For Paul, “the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good” (Romans 7:12). As the apostle to the gentiles (Romans 11:13), Paul proclaimed that gentiles should eschew their local deities and turn to the God of Israel. Gentiles were not, however, to convert to Judaism and therefore were not to follow those commandments that kept Jews distinct (we might think of Torah as an ancient model of multiculturalism). The commandments did not apply to non-Jews.
A second reason Marcionism prevails is bad advertising. The first line of a Christianity Today review of Brent Strawn’s excellent volume, The Old Testament Is Dying: A Diagnosis and Recommended Treatment (Baker Academic, 2017) is “What do Christians do with the Old Testament, with its weird laws, brutal violence, and unpredictable God?” (https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2017/july-web-only/man-shall-not-live-on-new-testament-alone.html). Why not lead with “What do Christians do with a text that proclaims not only love of neighbor but also love of stranger (Leviticus 19:18, 34), that offers multiple perspectives on the glories of creation (Genesis 1-2), and that provides Israel a set of practices that help them resist assimilation, preserve their cultural integrity, and celebrate their identity?
The advertising problem also concerns visuals. Pictures of the Old Testament God – since Jews traditionally do not depict the divine in art, the artists were likely Christians – God looks old, if not cranky. Or, we get Moses in the God role, and it’s a quick slide to Charlton Heston, looking angry and wielding a staff that portends an NRA product. Jesus, in paintings and on camera, is usually someone I’d date, like Jeffrey Hunter or Jim Caviezel.
.Finally, on advertising, we need to think about the connotations of the terms we use. If we think “Old Testament” means “outdated, useless, remaindered Testament,” we have misapplied the adjective. Old (I note that I’m old, and old is fabulous) should be thought of as honorable, epitomizing wisdom gained by experience, bedrock. We would equally dishonor the New Testament were we to think of it in term of “callow” or “faddish.”
A third reason why Marcion’s view continues is, I suspect, the fear that non-messianic Jews were right all along. Since there are no distinct signs of the messianic age – -no general resurrection of the dead, final judgment, or peace on earth –why is a New Testament needed? A variant of this view surfaces in the question a minister asked Marc, “If the revelation of the Old Testament were sufficient, why would we need the new?” One simple response is to paint the Old Testament and subsequent Judaism in such noxious terms that anything looks better in comparison. That the New Testament offers hellfire, damnation, and other eschatological unpleasantries is just a minor problem. Further, the minister asks the wrong question. We could equally ask ‘If the New Testament were sufficient, why do we need pastors to interpret it?” All texts require commentary. Nor does a new covenant abrogate the old: promises to David do not abrogate promises to Abraham.
Marc’s posting flags “poorly trained and uninformed evangelical/atheist social media.” Each contingent warrants notice.
Fourth, professional atheists (you know who they are) read the Bible selectively, see the text as endorsing a bellicose God, and so reject its theology. An alternative response is not rejection but wrestling. The biblical etymology given for Israel is “to wrestle with God” (Gen 32:29), and that is what Jewish tradition teaches. The Tanakh depicts Cain’s complaint about being exiled, Abraham’s plea for the righteous in Sodom, Moses’s defense of Israel who, after liberation from slavery, complained about the food in the desert, numerous psalms plus the entire book of Lamentations, and Job’s multi-chapter kvetch. We could add Jesus’ plea, “let this cup pass from me,” and his cry from the cross, taken from the beginning of Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The biblical God allows free will and exhorts people to live morally: “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live” (Deuteronomy 30:19). In cases of the so-called “angry God,” the biblical response is not atheism; it is lament, protest, and acting to bring about the good.
Fifth, some pastors see Torah as designed to point to Jesus, and now that it’s done its job, it is defunct. They fail to see how the commandments not only preserve but also celebrate Jewish life, even today (these pastors are not often wont to celebrate multiculturalism). They fail to see how the stories are both good literature and prompts for discussions of morality; they fail to see the wisdom in Wisdom literature or the sacrality of the Psalms. They fail, in effect, to see its ongoing meaning: texts can do more than point to Jesus, as Marc and I demonstrate in our The Bible With and Without Jesus (HarperOne, 2020). While he does find the Old Testament to be inspired, Pastor Andy Stanley speaks of the need for Christians to become “unhitched” from the “Jewish Scriptures” (see, e.g, https://www.christianpost.com/news/christians-must-unhitch-old-testament-from-their-faith-says-andy-stanley.html). The call is both ahistorical and sad. Jesus proclaims that he does not come to abolish Torah; to the contrary, in the Sermon on the Mount he makes Old Testament commandments more rigorous. His followers, James, Paul, etc., do not unhitch their Scriptures, they read them instead in light of the Christ event, and they continue their Jewish practices. To unhitch Jesus and his followers from Torah jettisons Jewish believers and leads nicely into both Marcionism and antisemitism.
Sixth, bad theology begins with children’s education. Christian children do not, generally, grow up hating the Old Testament. To the contrary, many Christian children love it, since it has all the good animal stories, as opposed to Jesus drowning two thousand pigs. Yet many of my students have recounted how their Sunday School teachers spoke about the Old Testament God who demands rules, rules, rules, while Jesus talks about love.
Finally, lectionary-based Churches convey an “Old Testament” bad message. For example, while pairing the “Ten Commandments” (Exodus 20:1-17) with Psalm 19 (“The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul; the decrees of the LORD are sure, making wise the simple”) is a good move, the lectionary undercuts this praise of Torah with 1 Corinthians 1:21, “For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe.” For a sermon preached for the National Cathedral this past March on why this is a terrible lectionary reading, see https://cathedral.org/sermons/sermon-dr-amy-jill-levine/).
Pitting one Testament against the other is a nasty game, and no one wins. Separating the God of the Old Testament from the God of New Testament is a Christian heresy, for the God who created the heavens and the earth is the same God to whom Jesus taught his disciples to pray, “Our father.” Let’s retire the image of the “Old Testament God of wrath” or the view that “Old Testament” means “less good” or “replaced Testament.” To do so would make us all better readers of the Bible, better prepared to engage healthy Jewish-Christian relations, and better able to do theology.