For the topic of the October Synod of Bishops in Rome, Pope Benedict XVI has chosen “The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church.” The agenda committee, after polling bishops and others, published a working document known as the instrumentum laboris. High on its list of topics was the Old Testament, which, the committee frankly acknowledged, “seems to be a real problem among Catholics, particularly as it relates to the mystery of Christ and the Church” (No. 17).
As a professor of Old Testament for many years at Weston Jesuit School of Theology (now part of the new Boston College School of Theology and Ministry), I would like to contribute to the synod by posing and answering four frequently asked questions: How does the Old Testament fit in the Christian Bible? How should we understand its depictions of violence and hatred for the enemies of Israel? Did all its miraculous events actually occur, or are they literary inventions? What should we call the Hebrew books in the Christian Bible: the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures, the First Testament?
How does the Old Testament fit in the Christian Bible?
The question should be reversed: How does the New Testament fit in the Christian Bible? The short answer is that the Old Testament reaches its climax there (though it continues beyond). Modes of divine activity and communication depicted in the Old Testament—word, wisdom, spirit, glory, Davidic kingship—are expressed in the New Testament in a full and personal way in Jesus.
Biblical authors were storytellers, not essayists; their books present narratives, not arguments. Modern-day men and women tend to use stories to illustrate a point or to entertain, but biblical authors viewed the story itself as significant because it expressed God’s action in the world. Prizing their history as revelatory of God, they sometimes described it in different versions, for, to them, God’s activity was far too subtle and complex to be caught in one version. Yet, despite the variety, biblical writers never lost sight of a single divine intent from creation to consummation.
The biblical story began with the creation of the world populated by the 70 nations (the number given in Genesis 10); it continued with the calling of Abraham’s family out of those nations and, somewhat later, with the establishment of the nation Israel as God’s special people (Exodus-Deuteronomy). The historical books (Joshua to Kings) and the prophets tell and interpret the subsequent history—the periods of the judges, the kings and the exile in the sixth century B.C. Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah develop exilic themes and history.
In the mid-second century before Christ, the Book of Daniel saw history from a different angle and spoke in veiled language of the end of earthly kingdoms and the definitive coming of God’s kingdom. Daniel, and books like it, ignited Jewish dreams of the imminent arrival of God’s kingdom; these persisted for the next three centuries. The community at Qumran, whose library is known as the Dead Sea Scrolls, nurtured dreams of a new exodus and conquest of the land, and the definitive establishment of God’s kingdom. Adapting this apocalyptic framework, Jesus preached the kingdom of God, and New Testament writers understood Jesus as the culmination of the history described in the ancient Scriptures. If one understands this view of history, one understands how the New Testament fits in the Christian Bible.
Since biblical writers were convinced that their history exhibited an overarching divine plan, they saw connections among events in that history. A biblical event or person could foreshadow a later one or, conversely, echo or “fulfill” an earlier one. Sometimes these cross-references are called “typological,” part of a network of hints. The network can operate between the New and the Old Testament or within each Testament. An example of typology is the portrait of Moses in Exodus, which echoes the portrait of Joseph in Genesis: both Joseph and Moses are shepherds-turned-rulers; both were separated early from their families, survived conspiracies to murder them, endured exile, married daughters of foreign priests and fathered two sons; and both, one dead and the other alive, left Egypt together (Ex 13:19). The typology shows a mysterious power operating in the lives of the two leaders. The typology continues in the Gospel of Matthew, in which Jesus is portrayed as sharing some traits of Moses (the slaughter of the innocents in Matthew 2 echoes the slaughter in Exodus 1; Moses and Jesus both teach on a mountain). The cross-references among Genesis, Exodus and Matthew are not merely ornamental; they lend depth and meaning to biblical events.
How should we understand the Old Testament’s depictions of violence and of hatred for the enemies of Israel?
The two major reasons for the Old Testament’s depiction of violence are the nature of human beings—prone to evil schemes and violence—and the nature of the Old Testament God—just and compassionate and involved. In the dramatic world of the Bible, the compassionate God hears the cry of those oppressed by evildoers and in justice responds to rectify the situation. God “judges” the world (the Hebrew word has the sense of ruling and governing) by upholding the righteous and putting down the wicked. Evil in the Old Testament is imagined concretely—embodied in particular people and embedded in institutions and systems like families and nations. Not surprisingly, the Lord is frequently portrayed as a warrior who roots out evil and rescues Israel by defeating its enemies. But the divine warrior is not a nationalist. God turns against Israel when it rebels.
Four things soften this seemingly harsh portrayal. First, the war imagery is not the main purpose, which is to show God “judging” (i.e., ruling) justly. Second, when the psalmists cry for “vengeance” (a divine righting of wrongs), they place entirely in God’s hands both timetable and implementation. Third, the Old Testament reveals a God who is merciful as well as just. When the two are in conflict, it is mercy and compassion that usually win out (see Exodus 32-34 and Hos 11:9). Fourth, the Old Testament concern for justice inspires Jesus’ program of God’s rule, which means the elimination of unjust structures and the building of a righteous and obedient community.
Perhaps the most succinct comment on God’s justice was passed on to me by a friend from Georgia, who quoted an elderly janitor of a poor black church: “If the Lord doesn’t come back with power, he won’t do me much good.”
Did all the miraculous events narrated in its books actually take place, or are they literary inventions?
I will here simply illustrate the difference between modern ways of describing extraordinary events and the biblical writers’ ways. (For a more extensive treatment of biblical historicity, see Am. 1/2/06.) I suspect that if we witnessed something entirely out of the ordinary and had no idea of its cause, we would describe it in two paragraphs. Our first paragraph would objectively describe the phenomenon, and our second paragraph would discuss possible causes, psychological, physical or epistemological. If we believed in God, we would also add divine intervention as a possible cause. In other words, when we report unparalleled events, we tend first to give an objective description and then to provide an interpretation of the event.
But biblical writers go in a different direction. Preferring the narrative form to the essay, they give their interpretation as they tell the story. They describe and interpret in one paragraph; they are “one-paragraph” writers. For example, the author of the account of Elijah’s miraculous ascension into the heavenly world in 2 Kgs 2:1-18 incorporated narrative features that interpreted it: Elijah was “taken up” like Enoch in Gn 5:24 and the righteous psalmists in Pss 49:16, 18 and 73:24. Like Moses, Elijah’s final resting place was unknown, and like Moses’ successor, Joshua, Elijah’s successor, Elisha, used his master’s cloak to split the Jordan River and cross over. Through purely narrative means, the attentive reader learns that Elijah was accepted by God as righteous, that he authentically continued the mission of Moses, and that Elisha, his successor, will carry on his work. Modern readers interested in “exactly what happened” are bound to be frustrated by the account. In short, biblical writers were one-paragraph people for whom narrative details communicated both the event and its significance. Modern people, however, typically need two paragraphs, one to describe the event and another to give the meaning.
What to call the Hebrew books in the Christian Bible?
New Testament writers customarily refer to their sacred library as “Scripture” (graphe sometimes in the sense of “this scriptural passage”), “the Scriptures” (graphai), “the Law and the Prophets,” but never as “Old Testament” (or “Covenant”). “Old Testament” and indeed “New Testament” as designations of a collection of books came into use only in the late second century, when Christians realized that their sacred writings formed a collection with a table of contents, with certain books included and others excluded. The use of the word “testament” for books was based on texts such as 2 Cor 3:14, “for to this present day the same veil remains unlifted when [the people of Israel] read the old covenant, because through Christ it is taken away.” Another influence was the Letter to the Hebrews, which asserted that the new covenant is superior to the old.
Many scholars today avoid the term “Old Testament” on the grounds that it implies supersessionism, the replacement of Old Israel by New Israel. The word “old” in our culture often implies worn out and ready for replacement. Since the Holocaust, Christians have rediscovered their deep bonds with the Jewish people and realized that the anti-Judaism in Christianity fueled the catastrophic anti-Semitism of modern times. Christian scholars today avoid derogatory references to Jews and highlight the Jewish matrix of Christianity. Some Christians opt for “less imperial” terms than “Old Testament” and use instead “Prior Testament,” “First (and Second) Testament” or “Shared Testament.”
A number of Christian scholars (I among them), however, use “Old Testament” without apology. We find substitute terms awkward and unable to resolve the main difficulty, which is supersessionism, the view that the Christian church supersedes or replaces the Jewish people as God’s chosen people. All Catholic biblical scholars that I know fully embrace Pope John Paul II’s famous rejection of supersessionism when he affirmed that God’s bond with Judaism is “the covenant never revoked.” The Jewish New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine in The Misunderstood Jew: The Scandal of the Jewish Jesus (Harper, 2007) also affirms the validity of “Old Testament” on the grounds that the books were not all written in Hebrew, that Orthodox Christian Churches use the Old Testament in Greek translation, and that Protestant and Catholic Churches differ somewhat in their list of books. “Old,” therefore, is good (as it would have been in the ancient world) as long as we regard “Old” as synonymous with accepted and revered, and “New” as synonymous with renewed and brought to a new stage.