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published: 3/17/04
updated: 6/10/13


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The Old Testament



"All things must be fulfilled which are written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the psalms concerning me."

--Jesus, Luke 24:44

What is the Old Testament?

The Christian Bible is made up of two sections, the "Old Testament" and the "New Testament." The Old Testament ("OT" for short) is essentially the Jewish Bible, or Tanakh, with some minor variations. It includes religious law, historical narratives, wisdom literature and prophetic writings.

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The Name "Old Testament"

The word "testament" (Hebrew berīth, Greek diatheke), means "covenant." The term "old testament" thus refers to the covenant which God entered into with Abraham and the people of Israel, and"new testament" refers to the covenant the earliest Christians believed God has entered into will all believers through Christ.





This perspective can be seen in the New Testament itself. At the Last Supper, Jesus speaks of the new testament in his blood. In the second letter to the Corinthian church, the Apostle Paul declares himself a minister "of the new testament" (2 Co 3:6), and calls the covenant entered into on Mount Sinai "the old testament" (3:14). Because the old covenant was embodied in the Jewish scriptures, it was an easy step to use the term "Old Testament" to signify those scriptures.

This use of the term to specifically refer to the Jewish scriptures (as opposed to the old covenant embodied in them) seems to have occurred fairly early, especially in the East. Melito of Sardis and Clement of Alexandria called the scriptures "the books of the old testament" (ta palaia biblia and ta tes palaias diathekes biblia, respectively). Origen repeatedly speaks of the "so-called" Old Testament in reference to the scriptures.

In the Latin West, Tertullian frequently called them the "vetus and novum instrumentum" and Cyprian once mentions the "scriptur veteres et nov." The Greek usage ("testament") subsequently became established among Latin-speakers as well and has been the term used by the Christian world ever since. {1}

The Books of the Old Testament

Protestant Christians recognize only the books of the Old Testament that were included in the Jewish Bible, while Catholic and Orthodox Christians include several more books, known as the "Apocrypha" as part of the canonical Old Testament. The Apocrypha is discussed in the next article.

The total number of books in the Hebrew canon is 24, the number of scrolls on which these works were written in ancient times. The Christian Old Testament contains a larger number of books for two main reasons. The Catholic canon, which was based on the Greek-language Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Bible, absorbed a number of books that Jews and Protestants later determined were not canonical; and Christians divided some of the original Hebrew works into two or more parts, specifically, Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles (two parts each), Ezra-Nehemiah (two separate books), and the Minor Prophets (12 separate books).

The books of the Old Testament that all Christians agree on are:

LAW/PENTATEUCH: WISDOM/POETRY: MINOR PROPHETS:
Genesis Job Hosea
Exodus Psalms Joel
Leviticus Proverbs Amos
Numbers Ecclesiastes Obadiah
Deuteronomy Song of Songs Jonah
    Micah
HISTORY: MAJOR PROPHETS: Nahum
Joshua Isaiah Habakkuk
Judges Jeremiah Zephaniah
Ruth Lamentations Haggai
1, 2 Samuel Ezekiel Zechariah
1, 2 Kings Daniel Malachi
1, 2 Chronicles    
Ezra    
Nehemiah    
Esther    

The Old Testament in the New Testament

The Old Testament has played a major role in Christianity from the very beginning of the faith. Jesus, the apostles, and the earliest converts quoted from it, alluded to it and understood the Christian faith in light of its teachings.

All the books of the Old Testament except Esther, Ecclesiastes and the Song of Solomon are quoted in the New Testament, and there are about 300 quotations in all. {1} It was not known as the "Old Testament" at that time, for the "New Testament" did not yet exist. It was simply the "scriptures," which revealed the nature, will and actions of the one true God, Yahweh.

Quotations of the Old Testament in the New, which are very numerous, are not made according to any uniform method. When the New Testament was written, the Old was not yet divided into chapters and verses, so it is referred to by topic rather than citation. For instance, when Luke (20:37) refers to Exodus 3:6, he quotes from "Moses at the bush", i.e., the section containing the record of Moses at the bush.

In general, the New Testament writers quote from the Septuagint ("LXX") version of the Old Testament, as it was then in common use among the Jews. But it is noticeable that these quotations are not made in any uniform manner. Sometimes, e.g., the quotation does not agree literally either with the LXX. or the Hebrew Masoretic text. This occurs in about one hundred instances. Sometimes the LXX. is literally quoted (in about ninety instances), and sometimes it is corrected or altered in the quotations (in over eighty instances).

Quotations are sometimes made also directly from the Hebrew text (Matthew 4:15, 16; John 19:37; 1 Corinthians 15:54). Besides the quotations made directly, there are found numberless allusions, more or less distinct, showing that the minds of the New Testament writers were filled with the expressions and ideas as well as historical facts recorded in the Old.

Christian Doctrine of the Old Testament

How are Christians to regard the Old Testament, given that it is essentially the sacred text of another religion? The answer lies in Christianity's view of its relationship to Judaism. The early Christians decided that while Judaism was the true revelation of God and the foundation of Christianity, Christianity represented a new era of God's dealings with the world so the extensive body of Jewish law was no longer binding. Similarly, the general Christian attitude toward the Old Testament may be summarized as follows:

Religious principles and ideas (such as the notion of a sovereign God who is active in human history) are appropriated; religious practices (such as dietary laws and sacrificial routines) are not. {1}

Thus the Old Testament is useful and edifying in that it tells of the true God's actions in Israel, but it does not carry the same level of authority or relevance as the New Testament.

An interesting exception to this general consensus is Marcion, a teacher who was declared a heretic in 144 AD. Influenced by Gnosticism, Marcion taught the God of Judaism was an entirely different God than the God of Christianity. The Old Testament God created the world and was obsessed with law, while the New Testament God redeemed the world and was characterized by love and grace.

Marcion therefore built a collection of Christian scripture that excluded not only the entire Old Testament, but also any New Testament books that seemed to him to emphasize law or good works at the expense of grace. Although his views of the Old Testament were never very influential, he had a great impact on Christian history in inspiring the church to concentrate its efforts on officially establishing the canon of scripture.

Another notable aspect of the Christian view of the Old Testament is the effort to find Christ within its pages. Since God's will is eternal and unchangeable, Christian theologians reason, he must have always planned to enter history through Christ, and it is therefore not unreasonable that hints of the life and work of Christ may be found in the Old Testament.

This has been a common Christian perspective since the early church, but John Calvin is perhaps one of its most important exponents. Calvin argued for an essential equality and continuity between the two testaments. Both present law and grace, and both witness to Jesus Christ (though the Old Testament does so "from a distance and darkly"). For Calvin, "the Old Testament happens to occupy a different chronological position in the divine plan of salvation from the New; its content (rightly understood), however, is the same." {2}

Despite their essential continuity, however, Calvin also noted several important distinctions between the two testaments, which represent the general Christian perspective on the Old Testament:

  • The New Testament has greater clarity than the old, especially with regard to invisible and spiritual things.
  • The Old Testament presents only images of truth, whereas the New Testament presents it directly.
  • The laws of the Old Testament lack the ability to effect change from within, but the gospel of the New Testament provides this in the work of the Holy Spirit.
  • The Old Testament evokes a response of fear and trembling, but the New Testament produces freedom and joy.
  • The Old Testament was revealed only to Israel; the New Testament is a revelation to all of mankind.

Doctrinal Statements on the Old Testament

To illustrate the above summary of Christian perspectives on the Old Testament as it applies to today's Christians, following is a selection of modern doctrinal statements on the Old Testament.

United Methodist Church:

The Old Testament is not contrary to the New; for both in the Old and New Testament everlasting life is offered to mankind by Christ, who is the only Mediator between God and man, being both God and Man. Wherefore they are not to be heard who feign that the old fathers did look only for transitory promises. Although the law given from God by Moses as touching ceremonies and rites doth not bind Christians, nor ought the civil precepts thereof of necessity be received in any commonwealth; yet notwithstanding, no Christian whatsoever is free from the obedience of the commandments which are called moral.

Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America:

The Orthodox Church regards the Old Testament to be a preparation for the coming of Christ and believes that it should be read in light of His revelation.

Southern Baptist Convention

All Scripture is a testimony to Christ, who is Himself the focus of divine revelation.


References

  1. August Merk, "Old Testament." The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. XIV (1912).
  2. George J. Reid, "Canon of the Old Testament." The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. III (1908).
  3. Alister McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction, 197. Italics his.
  4. McGrath, 198.

See Also

  • Context of Christianity
  • Jewish Sacred Texts

Links on the Old Testament

  • Old Testament Gateway - "a comprehensive, annotated, academic directory of internet sites on the Old Testament."