So why do we call the first part of the Bible the “Old Testament”? Well, for several reasons. First, there is tradition. For hundreds of years Bibles have been published with a page in front of the collection of 39 books from Genesis to Malachi clearly declaring these are the books of the Old Testament. Second, there is Jesus’ declaration that he comes to establish a New Covenant in His blood. We hear these words spoken first at the Last Supper when Jesus breaks the bread, blesses God and invites His followers to “take and eat.” That phrase “New Covenant” becomes identified later with part two of the Christian Bible; we call it the New Testament (the Greek word for “testament” means “covenant”). If these 27 books from Matthew to Revelation make up the New Testament, then the first part must be, well, the Old Testament.
Seldom, if ever, does anyone stop and ask “Why?” Or perhaps even more significantly: “What do we mean when we call these books the Old Testament?” Tradition is a powerful factor in how we think. Now I have no real problem with calling these books the Old Testament as long as we do not fill the word “old” with the wrong content. Frankly, I think sometimes we do. When Christians refer to these books as the Old Testament—if by “old” they mean worn out, used up, obsolete, yesterday’s news—then I think we ought to retire the term altogether. Certainly that’s not how Jesus and his followers looked at their Bible. For them it was God’s Word. In “the Law, Prophets and Writings”—the way they referred to the Scripture—the Voice of God could be heard and felt. They heard prophecies there, stories there, poetry there that found ultimate fulfillment in the New Covenant inaugurated by the Liberating King. For Jesus and his contemporaries the “Old Testament” was not “old” at all. It was as fresh as the morning, as relevant as the Internet news. They were still waiting for some of its prophecies to be fulfilled. There is no sense in which they considered their Scripture old or obsolete. If that is what we mean by “old,” we ought to throw a retirement party and be done with it.
But if by OLD Testament we mean tested, tried and true,
if we mean the foundation upon which the New Covenant is built,
if we recognize that these books point toward the climactic moment of
God’s redemption of the world . . .
then why don’t we just call it what it is: the Classic Testament.
In many ways I prefer “Classic Testament” to “Old Testament” because it can help us reframe the discussion about Scripture. I suggest that this subtle change might pay big dividends when it comes to thinking about the relationship between part one and part two of the Christian Scriptures. Although this is an oversimplification, the Old Testament stands in relation to the New as promise is to fulfillment, as foundation is to temple, as classic is to contemporary. You cannot have one without the other. The earlier paves the way and makes the later possible. That’s why the Christian Scriptures contain both Old and New Testaments or what I prefer to call the Classic and New Testaments.
Now I realize I’m not likely to change many minds on this. I don’t expect Bible publishers to change the introduction page to part one of the Bible. I just want to get you thinking. When you say Old Testament, what do you really mean?