Saturday, January 12, 2008

Scripture: Out with the old, in with the new?

A fellow blogger, the Weekend Fisher, recently blogged about an article written in the Jerusalem Post ("Nothing old about it") by Shmuley Boteach (SB). The newspaper article suggests that Christians need to retire the term "Old Testament"; Weekend Fisher (WF) considers the various names by which the Old Testament can be called. I left a lengthy response on her blog, but I hadn't made any comments about the arguments made by the article. This blog post will be about both the article and the post. I will tackle the subject of "dispensationalism" which seems to be rearing its ugly head in the Church recently. [The citations I make after quotes refer to the paragraph number of the article and blog post.]

The issue SB takes with the "pejorative" (SB 7) terms Old Testament and New Testament is their connotation: "'New' connotes vibrant, alive and fresh. 'Old' brings to mind stodgy, musty and out-of-date." (SB 4) Moreover, the former projects a bias against the Mosaic covenant and the latter a preference for the Christian covenant. The terms he prefers are "Hebrew Bible" and "Christian Bible" (SB 7), terms which I will dissect later. Moreover, Christians have "contradicted themselves by referring to the Hebrew Bible as obsolete". (SB 7) He says it is difficult for America to promote "biblical values ... most of which come from Hebrew Scripture (opposed to the New Testament)" while at the same time considering Hebrew scriptures to be "rejected because of their irrelevance". (SB 9) He questions the juxtaposition of modern-day America being "based on the principles of the 'Old Testament', which suggests an eternal relevance, while describing those same scriptures as archaic and prehistoric". (SB 9)

He suggests new names as part of the "cleaning up [of] the language" which has become a part of our culture: political correctness. Perhaps we should call the Old Testament the Senior Testament? "We no longer call twentysomething women 'girls' or 'gals'. We no longer insultingly refer to Native Americans as Redskins, or to African-Americans as Negroes." (SB 8) I take issue with that last example -- not that I am in the practice of using the word "Negro", but the United Negro College Fund has not changed its name in its 64 years of existence. He also suggests the word "'goyim' ... likewise be retired" because of the "pejorative connotation" it has accumulated. (SB 19) Does humanity now allow a word to be its master? The word goyim means "nation" or "people", and is synonymous with Gentile (that is, a non-Jew). Must we edit our Scriptures now that the term can be used in an offensive manner? Did God's providence fail Him when He placed in the minds of the authors of Scripture that particular word? Surely He must have known it would eventually be used pejoratively!

There is also a confusing sentiment in the article, which sometimes suggests dispensationalism or religious pluralism, and sometimes disregards Christianity. Although he "enjoys an extremely warm relationship with the Christian community and has the highest admiration for [his] Christian brothers and sisters", he notes "sadly, there are Jews who, sometimes out of ignorance for their own faith, find their spiritual home in Christianity." (SB 3) He begins his article by mentioning a "Jewish-born Christian chaplain" who described "how he had chosen Jesus as his personal Messiah". (SB 2)

I do not think Christianity (or Judaism) has ever been about "personal" salvation: God promised something to Abraham and his offspring. It is never about "God and me" (or worse yet "me and God"), it is always about God's action for His people. I don't think it's so much choosing Jesus as your personal savior as it is recognizing Jesus is the world's savior and accepting it. There is not an array of personal saviors out there for us to pick and choose from: there is one Savior who has called us, who has chosen us. It's not a matter of finding your spiritual home, it's a matter of recognizing God's will and freely assenting to it. When you start dispensationalizing it -- that is, saying God made the Mosaic covenant as a concession to the Jews, and the Christian covenant as a concession to some Jews and many Gentiles, and even the Muhammadic (?) covenant as a concession to other Gentiles -- you are making each of those covenants, which proclaim exclusivity, incorrect in that regard, and you make their Author, the Almighty God, a liar.

Historically, the first Christians were Jews. It would appear the rate of conversion to (or, if you prefer another term, rate of acceptance of) Christ of the Jews slowed down rather early on, and Christianity was welcomed more by the myriad pagan Gentiles. But that does not change the fact that the Apostles and disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ sought to educate their fellow Jews about who Jesus was (the Christ, their awaited Messiah) for the sake of their salvation. It was not a matter of turning from God to Christ, it was a matter of acknowledging God's plan in Christ: the alternative was not simply reject this "Jesus" and sticking with God, it was rejecting the Messiah and waiting for God to fulfill a promise already fulfilled! The one who seeks and finds must stop seeking; the one who knocks must stop knocking when the door is opened. Tertullian wrote this some 1800 years ago (Prescription Against Heretics, XI):
[I]f I have believed what I was bound to believe, and then afterwards think that there is something new to be sought after, I of course expect that there is something else to be found, although I should by no means entertain such expectation, unless it were because I either had not believed, although I apparently had become a believer, or else have ceased to believe. If I thus desert my faith, I am found to be a denier thereof. Once for all I would say, No man seeks, except him who either never possessed, or else has lost (what he sought). The old woman (in the Gospel) had lost one of her ten pieces of silver, and therefore she sought it; when, however, she found it, she ceased to look for it. The neighbour was without bread, and therefore he knocked; but as soon as the door was opened to him, and he received the bread, he discontinued knocking. The widow kept asking to be heard by the judge, because she was not admitted; but when her suit was heard, thenceforth she was silent. So that there is a limit both to seeking, and to knocking, and to asking. “For to every one that asketh,” says He, “it shall be given, and to him that knocketh it shall be opened, and by him that seeketh it shall be found.” Away with the man who is ever seeking because he never finds; for he seeks there where nothing can be found. Away with him who is always knocking because it will never be opened to him; for he knocks where there is none (to open). Away with him who is always asking because he will never be heard; for he asks of one who does not hear.
I turn now to the blog post. WF rejects (as do I) the terms "Hebrew Bible" and "Christian Bible". To call the Jewish scriptures "Hebrew" (rather than "Jewish") "rejects the idea of a New Testament that is for Hebrews as well", while "[t]he term 'Christian Bible' implies that those books belong to 'another religion' (an idea the Jewish authors of those books rejected)." (WF 2) The fact of the matter is that both sets of Scriptures are divinely inspired by God, for the same people (the whole world) and to the same end (that of revealing the savior of the world, the Messiah, the Christ, our Lord Jesus). The new covenant "is not merely for all nations other than Israel, but ... which includes Israel as the firstborn." (WF 2)

She recognizes the "distaste" for the term Old Testament, and would use "Early Testaments" or "First Testament" if she were to avoid "Old". (WF 3) But she points out the historical status of the Mosaic covenant: "nobody has performed the morning and evening sacrifices since the Romans demolished the Temple in 70 A.D." (WF 3) She considers the term "Worldwide Bible" as a possibility for the New Testament if the Old Testament were called the Hebrew Bible, because it "reveals the Torah" -- that is, "Jesus ... the incarnate, living and breathing Torah of God" -- "going forth from Jerusalem into all the world." (WF 2) She is also content with calling the Old Testament simply by "a value-neutral term ... the 'Tanakh'." (WF 6)

I disagree with Hebrew Bible for the same reasons as WF: there are Hebrews for whom the New Testament is just as much a part of their Bible. In addition, Hebrew is a race, the descendants of Eber (cf. Gen 10:21-24) of whom Abraham is one, not a religion; Judaism is a religion: call it the Jewish Bible if you must. But I also disagree with Christian Bible because it forwards SB's misconception that Christians consider the Jewish Scriptures to be "stodgy, musty, and out-of-date" (SB 4), "turgid and dreary" (SB 6), "obsolete" (SB 7), "archaic and prehistoric" (SB 9). SB supports this with another misconception, that Christianity's "doctrine of exclusivity" insists "on the uselessness of other religions." (SB 11) On the contrary, the Church values that which is true in all religions because it sees in those truths (among the falsehoods) the seeds of the Holy Spirit in preparing those peoples for the true faith of God, preparation for the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It's exactly the same with Judaism: it is true up to the point where it denies a trinitarian God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; it is true up to the point where it denies that Jesus is the Messiah and God. God cannot be truly God if He says to Christians that Jesus is the Messiah and says to Jews that Jesus is not.

Judaism was the seed from which the Gospel sprouted, as Jesus was "born under the law" (Gal 4:4): but unless that seed dies, no fruit will come forth (cf. John 12:24). This is why the temple was destroyed, as a sign that the preceding covenants had done what they were destined to do by their Creator, to lead all peoples and all nations to Christ, the mediator of a "new" (Jer 31:31; Luke 22:20; Heb 8:13), "better" (Heb 7:22), "everlasting" (Jer 32:40, 50:5), and "eternal" (Heb 13:20) covenant. The Mosaic covenant had to be fulfilled and completed: it had to "die" so that the everlasting covenant could spring forth and grow and blossom. The seed had to give way to the glory of the flower.

As for "religious pressure", it is a fine line we walk when one religion can dictate (or strong-arm) another religion's practices, nomenclature, etc. An example is the prayer for the conversion of the Jews found in the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite (the so-called Tridentine or Traditional Latin Mass), which some Jews are up in arms about now that the 1962 liturgy is being celebrated more frequently around the world; they want the language changed. The 1960 revision of the prayer dropped the word perfidis (which means "faithless" or "unbelieving", rather than "perfidious" or "treacherous"). Some suggested that the 1965 version of the prayer (or even the 1970 version) be used now when the 1962 liturgy is used. The prayer is for the conversion of the Jews, and it uses scriptural language (as found in the letters of Paul) to Jews as being "blinded" and covered by a "veil" (cf. 2 Cor 4:4; 2 Cor 3:14). We seek the conversion of the hearts not to another God, but to the true identity of God, that they come to believe in and accept Jesus as the promised Messiah, the Son of God, true God and true Man.

As for the terminology used, the names Old Testament and New Testament are perfectly acceptable to me (as they were to early Christians). The testament testifies to -- is a witness to -- the covenant; the covenant is not the book nor its pages. The covenant is the pact made between God and His people. The blood of Jesus Christ is the new covenant. The "Old Testament" is an older witness to older covenants. And they are older! We do not insult the older scriptures by calling them so -- ancient and decrepit are not the same.

The fact that they are older does not make them of no use to Christians; on the contrary, the Church has taught that both the Old and New Testaments are the inspired Word of God:
The complete books of the old and the new Testament with all their parts ... are to be received as sacred and canonical ... because, being written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they have God as their author, and were as such committed to the Church. (Dei Filius, c. II, nn. 6-7)
For what was said and done in the Old Testament was ordained and disposed by God with such consummate wisdom, that things past prefigured in a spiritual way those that were to come under the new dispensation of grace. (Divino Afflante Spiritus, n. 26)
The plan of salvation foretold by the sacred authors, recounted and explained by them, is found as the true word of God in the books of the Old Testament: these books, therefore, written under divine inspiration, remain permanently valuable. "For all that was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope" (Rom. 15:4). ... Now the books of the Old Testament, in accordance with the state of mankind before the time of salvation established by Christ, reveal to all men the knowledge of God and of man and the ways in which God, just and merciful, deals with men. These books, though they also contain some things which are incomplete and temporary, nevertheless show us true divine pedagogy. These same books, then, give expression to a lively sense of God, contain a store of sublime teachings about God, sound wisdom about human life, and a wonderful treasury of prayers, and in them the mystery of our salvation is present in a hidden way. Christians should receive them with reverence. God, the inspirer and author of both Testaments, wisely arranged that the New Testament be hidden in the Old and the Old be made manifest in the New. For, though Christ established the new covenant in His blood (see Luke 22:20; 1 Cor. 11:25), still the books of the Old Testament with all their parts, caught up into the proclamation of the Gospel, acquire and show forth their full meaning in the New Testament (see Matt. 5:17; Luke 24:27; Rom. 16:25-26; 2 Cor. 14:16) and in turn shed light on it and explain it. (Dei Verbum, nn. 14-16)
So we cannot say that Christians find the Old Testament to be worthless; the Church does not permit us to! Neither can we say that Christians find the old covenants to be worthless, because they were instituted by God for divine reasons so that the new covenant would be receivable by not only Jews but Gentiles as well. However, the older covenants have given way to the new one, which is everlasting. They have served their purpose.

We also have Scriptural evidence of old-vs-new terminology. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 3:14-16: "But their minds were hardened; for to this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ is it taken away. Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their minds; but when a man turns to the Lord the veil is removed." Paul clearly equates reading "Moses" to reading "the old covenant", and says a veil is over the eyes of those who fail (or refuse) to see Christ (i.e. Messiah). The letter to the Hebrews calls the previous covenant "old" as well (Heb 8:6,13).

Also in Hebrews is the term "former commandment", which opens the doorway to the comparison of one covenant being "better" than the other: "On the one hand, a former commandment is set aside because of its weakness and uselessness (for the law made nothing perfect); on the other hand, a better hope is introduced, through which we draw near to God. And it was not without an oath. Those who formerly became priests took their office without an oath, but this one was addressed with an oath, 'The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind, "Thou art a priest for ever."' This makes Jesus the surety of a better covenant." (Heb 7:18-22)

Keeping up this theme of the better covenant in the blood of Jesus (rather than bulls or goats) is Hebrews 8:6 (again): "Christ has obtained a ministry which is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises." Even Hebrews 11:39-40 points to the necessity of this new covenant, arguing that the righteous who died with faith in a coming Messiah, "though well attested by their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had foreseen something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect." What does "apart from us they should not be made perfect" mean? I think it means that faithful Jews, before Christ, were not completed in their faith until the Messiah, Jesus Christ, actually came, and so the righteous dead were not made "perfect" until the time of the Christians, which was only begun with the institution of a new covenant. Thus, even those Jews who died in God's grace before the time of Jesus needed this new covenant to be "perfect"!

As for the "first covenant" (a term found in the letter to the Hebrews), we read that "if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion for a second" (Heb 8:7) and that the Holy Spirit, through the prophet Jeremiah, "in speaking of a new covenant ... treats the first as obsolete." (Heb 8:13). The author again uses the term in Hebrews 9:1-18. It might be used again in Hebrews 10:8-10 where the author says that Jesus "abolishes the first in order to establish the second" (Heb 10:9), "the first" referring to the "sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings" (Heb 10:8) of the Mosaic covenant, "the second" referring to the will of God in inaugurating the new covenant (cf. Heb 10:10).

The term "new covenant" is found in abundance (Jer 31:31; Luke 22:20; 1 Cor 11:25; 2 Cor 3:6; Heb 8:13; Heb 9:15; Heb 12:24). If it is "new", that distinction is in relation to something old(er) than itself. And not just older, but "becoming obsolete and ... ready to vanish away" (Heb 8:13 -- the language of the letter suggests that it was written before AD 70, when the Temple was still standing).

Finally, the terms are found in early Church Father literature. Here is a list of some of the earliest occurrences I have found in Schaff's "Ante-Nicene Fathers", Vol I.

In 2001, the Pontifical Biblical Commission released a document (with preface signed by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger) entitled "The Jewish People and their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible". (The term "Christian Bible" in this document means the whole Bible.) One section in particular has attracted attention amid the recent displeasure over the Good Friday prayer for the Jews found in the 1962 rite.
22. The horror in the wake of the extermination of the Jews (the Shoah) during the Second World War has led all the Churches to rethink their relationship with Judaism and, as a result, to reconsider their interpretation of the Jewish Bible, the Old Testament. It may be asked whether Christians should be blamed for having monopolised the Jewish Bible and reading there what no Jew has found. Should not Christians henceforth read the Bible as Jews do, in order to show proper respect for its Jewish origins?

In answer to the last question, a negative response must be given for hermeneutical reasons. For to read the Bible as Judaism does necessarily involves an implicit acceptance of all its presuppositions, that is, the full acceptance of what Judaism is, in particular, the authority of its writings and rabbinic traditions, which exclude faith in Jesus as Messiah and Son of God.

As regards the first question, the situation is different, for Christians can and ought to admit that the Jewish reading of the Bible is a possible one, in continuity with the Jewish Sacred Scriptures from the Second Temple period, a reading analogous to the Christian reading which developed in parallel fashion. Both readings are bound up with the vision of their respective faiths, of which the readings are the result and expression. Consequently, both are irreducible.

On the practical level of exegesis, Christians can, nonetheless, learn much from Jewish exegesis practised for more than two thousand years, and, in fact, they have learned much in the course of history. For their part, it is to be hoped that Jews themselves can derive profit from Christian exegetical research.
At times, this section ignores the fact that the Christian reading of Scripture is the correct Jewish reading of Scripture. The whole Bible is the Christian Bible; the first part is the Jewish Bible and has been duly inherited by Christians because of their patronage through the Apostles and Jesus Christ, Jews all! We cannot call the Old Testament worthless, although we can call the old Mosaic covenant defunct, since it has been surpassed by the new covenant in Jesus Christ. As Jesus and his Apostles proved, the Jewish Scriptures can be read from a Jewish point of view and testify to the new covenant. It requires a veil to be lifted, however, and for that, I will pray.

1 comment:

albert cooper said...

The new testament is the Roman Catholic Faith which sees the old testament of course as revalent.But the Jews are in error,still awaiting for the Messiah that they imagine he should be,and not what he is is.