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“Vintage Scriptures,” Anyone?

Biblical scholar Amy-Jill Levine examines attempts to re-name the Good Book.

By Amy-Jill Levine

In the 1970s, the language of biblical studies changed in academia and in liberal churches. Instead of studying the “Old Testament,” students and congregations were now to speak of the “Hebrew Bible,” “Hebrew Scriptures,” “First Testament,” or even “Jewish Testament.” Those who promoted this shift in vocabulary did so with the best of intentions. They recognized that for many students in the classroom and worshippers in the pews, the term “Old Testament”—with an emphasis on “old”—connoted something outdated, useless, and needed to be replaced. Similarly, these days thirsty teenagers purchase not “Old Coke,” but “Classic Coke”; shoppers buy “vintage” clothes and “antique” cars, not “old” ones. “Gray Panthers,” “The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP),” “senior citizens”—all fine terms; “old folks” is insulting.

Further, because a number of Christian (and a few Jewish) readers associate the “Old Testament” with Judaism (hence the alternative designation “Jewish Bible”), revisionists promoted alternative designations lest anyone conclude that Judaism too was outdated or replaced. Changing the label might stop “supersessionism,” that is, the claim that the church supersedes and therefore replaces the synagogue. Moreover, a more “neutral” label like “Hebrew Scriptures” might lead to the respecting of religious diversity in the classroom. Some Jewish students resisted the term “Old Testament,” since the very name conveys a Christian view: there can be no “Old Testament” apart from a “New Testament.”

Consequently, “Old Testament” was relegated to the trash heap of terms that fail to meet the goals of interfaith acceptance or current scholarly fad. “Hebrew Bible,” “first Testament,” “Jewish Scriptures,” and even “Literature, Religion, and Faith of Ancient Israel” courses popped up across the country, along with their counterparts, for no longer could “New Testament” be used. Students instead began to register for courses in “Christian Scriptures,” “Second Testament,” or “Literature, Religion, and Faith of early Christianity.”

As with many well-intended efforts, the attempt to re-label the Bible does more harm than good. “Hebrew Scriptures” or “Hebrew Bible” is inappropriate for several reasons. First, the Old Testament of some churches, such as Greek Orthodoxy, is not the “Hebrew Bible,” but the Greek translation of the Hebrew. The new vocabulary thus relegates Orthodoxy, a multifaceted tradition that too often falls off the radar when public discourse addresses “Christianity,” to oblivion. Greek Orthodox students in the classroom were told that their language of “Old Testament” was insensitive; their occasional protest that shifting the terminology to “Hebrew Bible” erased their tradition went unheeded.

Second, Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Eastern Orthodox communions consider the Deuterocanonical Writings part of the Old Testament. This collection, written by Jews and preserved in Greek, includes the history of the Maccabees, the well-known story Susanna and the elders, the books of Judith and Tobit, Additions to the book of Esther, the Wisdom of Jesus ben Sirach (Ecclesiasticus), and the Wisdom of Solomon. For Protestants, the collection, known as the “Old Testament Apocrypha”—that is, “hidden books”—lacks canonical status. The shift in vocabulary to “Hebrew Bible” thus creates a Protestant default. In attempting to avoid anti-Semitism, the shift in terminology promoted a generally unacknowledged anti-Catholicism. Finally on the “Hebrew Bible” label, some of the canonical material included in the books of Ezra-Nehemiah and Daniel is not in Hebrew, but in Aramaic.

The shift in terminology creates problems rather than resolves them. As a professor, I found that “Hebrew Bible” confused the students. A few hesitated to sign up for the course because they thought they needed to know Hebrew (conversely, every year at least one student would ask, “In what language is the Hebrew Bible written?”); a few had never heard of the “Hebrew Bible” but did want an “Old Testament” course. Two or three Christians complained that by rejecting the term “Old Testament” I was erasing their own religious vocabulary, and their Jewish counterparts wanted to know why I wasn’t using the “Tanakh,” which is the term preferred by the synagogue. “Tanakh” is an acronym for the Torah (Pentateuch), Nevi’im (Prophets), and Ketuvim (Writings).

The alternatives to “Hebrew Scriptures” or “Hebrew Bible” are even less helpful. “First Testament” fails to eliminate supersessionism or confessionalism, for “first” implies a “second” and perhaps a “third” or “fourth.” Christians may well find the equivalent “Second Testament” demeaning. If “Old” as in “Old Testament” connotes something outdated, then “Second” as in “Second Testament” has even worse connotations: second place, secondhand, second-rate. Moreover, the term “First Testament” or “First Covenant”—the Greek word diathteke, meaning “Testament as in “New Testament,” is the term also used for “covenant”—appears in the New Testament’s Letter to the Hebrews in a negative way. Hebrews 8:13 states: “In speaking of ‘a new covenant,’ he has made the first one obsolete. And what is obsolete and growing old will soon disappear.” “First Covenant” could also be translated “First Testament.” Whereas Hebrews is talking about the covenant made between God and Israel at Sinai and not about the canon of the synagogue explicitly, the phrasing blights the term “First Testament.”

A few scholars opt for the label “Jewish Scriptures,” perhaps in the hope that it will increase Christian students’ recognition that the text is not just the Old Testament of the church. Unfortunately, “Jewish Scriptures” conveys the message that the material is of no relevance to the church. In some cases, “Jewish Scriptures” reinforces the idea that the text is equivalent to Judaism. Nor is the linguistic equivalent, “Christian Scriptures,” an appropriate designation for the New Testament; to call the New Testament “Christian Scriptures” implies that the Old Testament is not part of the Christian canon.

By seeking a common term that would not offend anyone, well-meaning scholars thus erased not only Judaism’s distinct use of the canon but also the Catholic tradition, or relegated Christianity to second-class status, or confused a number of people. The problem with the expression “Old Testament” lies not in the labeling, but in a combination of cultural attitudes and Christian education. “Old” need not mean “bad.” One speaks of “golden oldies,” not “golden newies.” Bob Seger observed, “Still like that old time rock and roll, that kind of music just soothes my soul.” The “old time religion” is still “good enough” for many. Little Christian children do not grow up thinking that “Old Testament” means “’less good’ or ‘not good’ Testament.” It is not the terminology that needs to change: it’s Christian education. Instead of using the falsely neutral, Protestant, linguistically inaccurate term “Hebrew Bible,” Christians might simply use the title “Old Testament,” which is the title found in most family and pulpit Bibles. Jews should continue to use “Tanakh.”

The separate labels of “Tanakh” and “Old Testament” prevent the canon of one group from being subordinated by or subsumed into the canon of another; they have the added benefit of indicating that synagogue and church each has its own story, told in its own order. The church’s narrative starts with Genesis, and Part One (skipping the deuterocanonical works, which are often printed at the end of the new Testament) ends with the prophet Malachi. This conclusion makes abundant sense. First, it follows the order of the earlier Greek translations, created before the finalization of the material in the “Writings,” or Ketuvim, section. Further, Malachi predicts the coming of the prophet Elijah before the “great and terrible day of the Lord” (4:5). Elijah was the 9th-century BCE prophet for whom, as the song goes, the sweet chariot swung low: he ascended to heaven (see 2 Kings 2:11-12), where he awaits his future role as forerunner of the messianic age. Malachi states that Elijah will “turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents” (4:6) in the process of preparing for the messianic age.

The first document in the New Testament, the Gospel According to Matthew, functions almost like a précis of Israel’s history. Opening with the genealogy of “Jesus the Christ, the son David, the son of Abraham” (1:1), the first two chapters offer seven citations from the prophets that Jesus is said to fulfill. The most famous of these appears in Matthew 1:22-23: “All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means, ‘God is with us.’’” Even for Joseph, Mary’s husband, connections are drawn to Israel’s past. Unlike the Gospel of Luke, which identifies Joseph as the son of Heli (Luke 3:23), Matthew 1:16 lists Joseph’s father as Jacob and so connects Jesus’ adoptive father to that earlier Joseph, son of Jacob. When the first-century Joseph receives prophetic dreams and takes his family to Egypt for protection, connections to the first Joseph are confirmed. Matthew thus sets out a model whereby the story of Jesus echoes the stories of the Old Testament.

For Matthew, John the Baptist, the forerunner of Jesus, fulfills Elijah’s role. Jesus states: “for all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John came, and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come” (11:13-14). The Gospel of Mark opens with John the Baptist, who here as well assumes the role of Elijah. Not only does John the Baptist herald the coming of the messianic age—as she states, “The ax is lying at the root of the trees” (Matt. 3:10); he also announces the coming of the one more worthy than he (mark 1:7). In Mark 9, Jesus cryptically identifies John the Baptist with Elijah: “I tell you that Elijah has come, and they did to him whatever they pleased” (v. 13).

Luke’s Gospel offers yet a third means of demonstrating how the Christian message fulfills the promises to Israel. The Gospel starts not with the annunciation of the angel Gabriel to Mary but with the miraculous conception of John the Baptist by the aged Elizabeth and Zechariah (Luke 1). The story recapitulates the numerous special births of the figures of Israel’s past, starting with the birth of Isaac to the aged Abraham and his infertile wife, Sarah (Gen. 18; 21). Genesis records that this same Isaac would later pray “to the Lord for his wife, because she was barren; and the Lord granted his prayer, and Rebekah his wife conceived” (25:21). The infertile Rachel begs her husband Jacob, “Give me children, or I shall die” (Gen. 30:1); ironically, she dies giving birth to Benjamin (35:16-19). Hannah, unable to conceive, prays for a child and, after bearing her son Samuel and then dedicating him to God, sings a hymn of liberation that will be echoed in Mary’s Magnificat. Hannah sings, “The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength. Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry are fat with spoil…. The Lord makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts. He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor” (1 Sam. 2:4-5, 7-8). Mary echoes in her song, “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:52-53). When the book of Judges introduces Manoah and his “barren” wife (13:2), readers immediately know that they will have a child, and they do—Samson. When the prophet Elisha seeks to thank the wealthy woman of Shunem for her hospitality, his servant Gehazi notes, “She has no son, and her husband is old.” One does not need to be a prophet to predict what will happen next (2 Kings 4:8-17).

Finally, the Gospel of John provides its own anchor into the earlier material even as it moves into the notice of fulfillment. John’s famous opening, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (1:1), recollects the opening lines of the book of Genesis: “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep.”

The rest of the New Testament continues to evoke the ancient materials. Taking a universal scope, Paul suggests that the errors made by Adam find their correction in the Christ (Rom. 5), and the book of Revelation promises that “everyone who conquers” and remains faithful during times of intense persecution inherits Eden (2:7). Because of this history of interpretation, not only does the church present itself as the continuation of Israel’s history; it also re-imagines the Old Testament as a Christian book.

This is not Judaism’s canonical story or way of reading Scripture. The Tanakh ends not with Malachi, for this prophet comes in the Nevi’im, the middle section in the canon. Rather, the last passage in the Tanakh is 2 Chronicles 36. The chapter introduces the edict of King Cyrus of Persia, the ruler who conquered the Babylonian Empire in 538 BCE and whom Isaiah called “God’s anointed” or “God’s messiah” (Isa. 45:1 reads: “Thus says the Lord to his anointed [messiah, Christ], to Cyrus, whose right hand I have grasped to subdue nations before him, and to strip kings of their robes, to open doors before him—and the gates shall not be closed”). According to he Chronicler, Cyrus proclaims: “The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever is among you of all his people, may the Lord his God be with him! Let him go up” (2 Chron. 36:23).

Judaism’s Scriptures thus have as their goal the return to Israel; in modern terms, this would be “making aliyah” or, literally, “going up.” A few medieval Hebrew manuscripts end not with Chronicles but with Ezra-Nehemiah. But the same message of return to one’s origins prevails, since Nehemiah’s language of “God” and “good” harkens back to the Genesis creation in which “God” (Elohim) saw that everything was “good” (tov). The Tanakh thus ends not with a promise to be fulfilled by something new but with an injunction to return to one’s home, to one’s roots. For a modern analogy, sports metaphors prove helpful. Christianity is football (and not just because of possible “pigskin” references). There is a linear sense to the Christian canon; one moves from the promise of the line of scrimmage to the goal of the (eschatological) end zone. Judaism, at least as understood by the canonical order, is baseball. The concern is to return to Zion, to go home.

 

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Amy-Jill Levine is E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Professor of New Testament Studies at Vanderbilt University Divinity School. She has been awarded grants from the Mellon Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the American Council of Learned Societies. Along with publishing commentaries on several books of the Bible, she has recorded the "Introduction to the Old Testament," "Great Figures of the Old Testament," and "Great Figures of the New Testament" for the Teaching Company's Great Lecture series.

Excerpted from The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus, by Amy-Jill Levine. Copyright 2006. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers.

 

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