Is It Time to Retire “The Old Testament”?

Old TestamentSo 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?

Should We Give up on Private Bible Reading?

Recently I have talked with a number of Christian leaders from various denominations.  They have told me they are giving up on any private reading of the Bible.  They said it with a bit of uncertainty in their voices, wondering if they were doing the right thing, wondering if they were secret heretics.  You see it has been drilled into them that a good Christian has a quiet time every day and part of that includes personal Bible reading.St Dominic with Scripture

Now these leaders aren’t giving up on the Bible altogether, they have just concluded that Bible reading ought to be communal practice not individual.  They point out correctly that the books of the Bible were not addressed to private readers; the various authors expected these books to be read to gathered audiences of the faithful.  Even letters addressed to private persons like Philemon and Titus were expected to be read publicly. Consider Paul’s admonition that “faith comes by hearing” (Romans 10:17); the apostle assumes one who speaks for God and one who listens to the good news.  Revelation 1:3 pronounces blessings upon those who read—that is, those who read aloud to the congregation—and those who hear the words of the prophecy.  The one who reads is one; those who hear are many.

These leaders also cite church history, particularly, the development of the daily office and other regular gatherings of the faithful to chant the psalms and read the Scriptures.  In particular, lectio divina—the  spiritual reading of Scripture—is  not intended as a solitary enterprise; it requires that believers gather and listen to the Scriptures together. It assumes a community of people who are living life together and not just a haphazard collection of people with some common interests.

It’s clear to me these leaders are feeling a bit guilty and are unsure about their decision.  They want to be good Christians.  They see themselves as good Christians.  They want others to see them as good Christians too.   It’s not that they have found private Bible reading unproductive; it’s that they have found engaging the Bible publicly more productive.  It seems to me they have arrived at this point along their spiritual journey in good faith.  They aren’t trying to get out of anything or take any short-cuts.  They’ re serious in their Christian commitments.

For my part, I’m not quite ready to give up on private Bible reading.  On my own blog, I share some reasons why, in case you’re interested.

So, what do you think?  Have you given up on private Bible reading?  Or do you think it is time you did?   If so, why?  If not, how would you convince these leaders that private Bible reading is a practice worth pursuing?

“In pain you shall bring forth children”

I’m now convinced of the obvious: that bringing forth the next generation is the most difficult and most important job on the planet.  

One of the consequences of Adam and Eve eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil–something God directed them not to do–was that “in pain you shall bring forth children” (Genesis 3:16, New American Standard Version).  The passage is complicated, but most of us think we know what that means: that labor and delivery are going to bring immense pain and in some cases death to the mother.  At one level, that certainly seems the interpretation, but there may be more to it.childbirth

 One night we were interviewing Rabbi Harold Kushner on a radio show I co-host, “A Show of Faith” (950 AM KPRC). At the time Kushner was the most famous rabbi in America known best for his book Why Bad Things Happen to Good People?  On this night we were interviewing him about another book he had written, How Good Do We Have to Be?  The topic of conversation turned to the Genesis passage about pain in child-bearing and Kushner made an interesting observation.  In good rabbinic style he said the Hebrew word often translated “pain” in Genesis 3:16 is the same word used in Genesis 6:6 to describe God’s grief and pain over the sorry state of humanity.  You remember: God was so upset he lamented the fact he made humanity in the first place. 

So here was Kushner’s interpretation: the real pain of child-bearing is not the 18 hours of labor (though painful, that pain is soon forgotten in the joy of birth), the real pain comes in the fact that after 18 years of love, teaching, nurturing and raising your children to the best of your ability, they turn against you, disobey you, disappoint you, end up on drugs, end up in prison, etc.  In a sense we share in our Heavenly Father’s pain when we bring forth children who go astray and do not remember us and our sensible teaching.

 Let me add another insight.  Because the two have become one flesh (Genesis 2:24), both man and woman, husband and wife, share the same pain.  The pain of bringing forth the next generation is not unique to women.  Women may experience it more acutely, but men experience it as well.  Medical science, of course, may intervene and lessen the pain experienced by a woman in childbirth, but it is unlikely to be able to stem the tide of pain to fathers AND mothers when children go astray.  Like the other consequences of the first couple’s disobedience (domination, death, work degenerating into toil), both men and women share the same fate.

Most parents will experience significant periods of pain as their beautiful babies become adolescents and adults.  I’ve spent many hours listening to parents whose children have hurt them deeply.  And there are no easy solutions to this.  There’s no perfect strategy to parenting.  Perhaps there is some comfort in knowing that it is a universal experience, and even more, to know that God felt the pain first. 

In The Voice we tried to express this universal, more nuanced aspect of Genesis 3:16.  As we worked through this text, I was interested to note that in the King James Version the Hebrew word is not translated “pain” but “sorrow.”  I think the KJV had it right.  Here is how we rendered it in dynamic translation:

            God (to the woman): As a consequence of your actions,

            I will increase your suffering—the pain of childbirth

            And the sorrow of bringing forth the next generation.

Despite all this, we confess and we believe that children are a gift from God.  We confess and we believe that it is our greatest and most important life’s work.  For a time they are ours to love, to care for, to protect and to teach.  Then, we commend them and their future to the grace and guidance of God.

Is God’s law really a curse in disguise?

So, is God’s law really a curse in disguise?  Well, some Christians think so.  I’ve heard them say as much, likely so have you.  Part of the reason they do is something Paul wrote in Galatians 3:13:

“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who hangs on a tree– . . . “ (RSV)

The phrase I’d like to consider is “the curse of the law.”  What did Paul mean by it?  How did/does Christ redeem us from it?  All this talk of blessing and curses probably strikes you as kind of strange.Paul the apostle

Well, let’s back up to consider the broader context of the letter. 

Not long after Paul left the churches he founded in Galatia false teachers moved in and started teaching a form of the gospel which was not good news at all. These false brothers were insisting that non-Jews live like Jews in order to get in on the benefits of Christ.  What does it mean to live like a Jew?  Well, several things.  They would have to observe Sabbath as a day of rest, keep certain dietary rules and regulations, celebrate Jewish holidays, promise to uphold all of God’s law, which included men being circumcised.  Paul referred to these as “the works of the law.”

When Paul heard his churches had been infiltrated by these Judaizers (as we call them), he fired off the letter we call “Galatians.”  His essential argument is this: no one—Jew or Gentile—is put into a right and proper relationship with God by doing “the works of the law.” Instead, the faithfulness of Jesus has made it possible for those who put faith in Jesus to be made right with God.

In Galatians 3 Paul argues that faith all along has been what made rightness with God a reality.  It started with Abraham and his covenant.  It’s evident in the message of the prophets as well.  Those who trust in “the works of the law”—remember, dietary rules, Sabbath observance, circumcision—soon find they are living contrary to the law.  For Paul, it is clear the law is not the means of salvation. To try to make the law into something it was never intended is foolish.  The law does not justify.  It never did.  It was never meant to. 

So here is where our phrase “the curse of the law” comes in.  Jesus, God’s Anointed, has redeemed us from the curse of the law.  What did Paul mean?  To some degree it depends on what “of” means? You need to know that the word “of” is not found in the original language of the letter, Greek.  It is commonly supplied in English to express the relationship between two words (e.g., the love of God, the friend of sinners, one of my friends).  In Galatians 3 the words are “curse” and “law.” So what is their relationship? In large measure it has to do with how the Greek genitive case—now I’m getting really technical—is interpreted.  Let’s start with what Paul did not mean.  Paul did not mean that the entire law is a curse.  That would be what is known as an epexegetical use of the genitive.  So: “Christ redeemed us from the curse, namely, the law, . . . “ Some have taken this approach and unfortunately missed Paul’s point altogether.  No Pharisee like Paul would have ever thought of the law as a curse.  If you want to know what Jews like Paul thought of the law, read Psalm 119.  The longest chapter in the Bible is a celebration of the law, its goodness and its benefits.  More than that, notice that even before he came to Christ Paul felt confident before God precisely because he was  blameless before the law (Philippians 3:4-6). I think we can safely rule out the epexegetical genitive.  Well the best candidate for understanding what “of” is may be found in the partitive genitive.  The partitive genitive expresses the relationship between a part and a whole.  For example, in the phrase “one of my friends”.  The set is “my friends.” The subset is “one.”  The “one” is part of a whole, “my friends.”  This is probably the best way to read the phrase “the curse of the law.”  The set is “the law.” The subset is “curse.”  The phrase “the curse of the law” could be rendered “the part of the law that pronounces curses.”

“OK,” I can hear you saying, “now in English.”  If you haven’t noticed, there are places in the law—especially Deuteronomy 27-28 (part of the law)—where curses are pronounced against those who violate the terms of the covenant.  Ancient treaties and covenants always included a list of blessings and curses, announcing what would happen if one party kept or broke their promises.  It’s much the same today in modern contracts when a lawyer spells out the trouble you’ll be in if you violate the agreement you made.  In those days the penalties for breaking a promise were called “curses.” I suggest the best way to read Galatians 3:13 is this way: Now Jesus the Anointed, the Liberating King, has redeemed us from that curse-part of the law, since all of us were under the curse. How? He did it by becoming a curse for us, that is, becoming subject to the law that said “everyone who hangs on a tree is under the curse of God” (Deuteronomy 21:23).  Since Jesus hung on the cross, he fell under the curse. Now how did the cursed one—Jesus—liberate us from the part of the law that pronounces curses?  In a word, resurrection.  When God raised Jesus from the dead, he vindicated him as His Messiah and effectively reversed the curse, not just the single curse which affected Jesus but the entire system of curses which affected all of humanity.  In the resurrection Jesus became the curse-buster. As a result, the curses associated with the first covenant have been rendered null and void through Christ’s faithfulness. This apparently had been God’s purpose all along. GhostbustersLogoLarge

I’ve met Christians who question why we read the Old Testament.  “The New Testament has all we need,” they say.  “Jesus did away with ‘the curse of the law.’”  In effect, the Old Testament law was simply a curse disguised as God’s law. Well, in a way, yes, but in the main, no.  He did away with that part of the law that pronounces curses, but he didn’t do away with honor your father and mother, or do not steal, or do not murder.  He didn’t do away with love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.  In fact, Jesus repeats these directives, affirms them, and makes them central to his own teaching.  Yes, Jesus reversed the curse.  Now the blessings and promises made to Abraham extend beyond the patriarch’s kin to all people who put faith in Him.  But the law in all its beauty and goodness remains.


Kyrios Christos at 100

How many books are considered so significant that they are translated and published in English more than 50 years after its first German edition.   I’m referring to Wilhelm Bousset’s Kyrios Christos: A History of Belief in Christ from the Beginnings of Christianity to Irenaeus  (first German edition 1913; English translation 1970). Bousset was one of the founding fathers of the religionsgeschichtliche Schule (the history-of-religions school) in the German academy. Like other scholars in the Schule, Bousset studied religion as a phenomenon of history.  He applied to Christian origins the same kinds of criteria historians apply to the rise of any movement in history.  Bousset argued that the cult of Christ, that is, the worship of Jesus and calling him “Lord” occurred only when Christianity had moved away from its Jewish roots and had been exposed to “pagan” religions.  Under these influences early Christ-followers began to think of Jesus as one would think of a god. So they prayed to him, sang hymns to him, gathered in his name for sacred meals, etc. For Bousset the adoration offered to Jesus by his followers was an unfortunate development in Christian history.Christ enthroned

Almost immediately, Bousset’s conclusions were called into question by the likes of J. Gresham Machen and A. E. W. Rawlinson. But what scholars found difficult to challenge were Bousset’s methods; they were sound. Christianity was a phenomenon of history and so its origin could be understood in historical terms.  Yet in the second half of the 20th century scholars began looking closer to home, in Judaism, for the historical antecedents for Christianity.  The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls and many other texts from the second temple period have given scholars a great deal more information than Bousset had about the period when the Jesus movement was just beginning.  Today there is a new history-of-religions school according to the late Professor Dr. Martin Hengel.  This Schule tries to understand Christian origins as a phenomenon of history but concludes that the central features of Christianity developed from within Judaism not paganism.    

This past 6 months I’ve headed a team of several scholars–Loren Stuckenbruck, Paula Fredriksen, and Larry Hurtado—to create a special session at the Society of Biblical Literature meeting in November 2013 (Baltimore, MD).  2013 is the 100th anniversary of the publication of Bousset’s magisterial monograph.  We thought it might be helpful to take stock of Bousset’s influence on the field of religious studies. Here are a few of the salient questions we hope to address:

(1)   How do we assess the significance of Bousset’s work today (particularly Kyrios Christos), 100 years later?

(2)   How has Bousset shaped scholarly discussion?

(3)   Is there a new history of religions school (a statement made by Professor Martin Hengel in the 1990s)?

(4)   Is there anything Bousset said that we missed?

(5)   Has subsequent research (DSS, pseudepigrapha, archaeology, etc.) proved or disproved any of Bousset’s ideas?

 Four prominent New Testament scholars have agreed to present papers and guide our discussion.  They are

       Kelley Coblentz Bautch, St. Edward’s University

      Larry Hurtado, University of Edinburgh

      Lutz Doering, University of Durham

      Cilliers Breytenbach, University of Berlin

Dr. Jeff Peterson of Austin Graduate School of Theology has agreed for his program unit (Extent of Theological Diversity in Early Christianity) to host the session. Either Paula Fredriksen or I will moderate the session.

Professor Jens Schroeter, editor of the prestigious journal Early Christianity, has agreed to publish the essays in the fall 2014.

As details about the time and place of the session are made known, I’ll share them with you.  If you plan on being in Baltimore, MD in November 2013, I hope you will join us. 




The “Line of Separation”

I’m not often quoted.  Seldom have I said anything original that is worth being repeated, but a few years ago I made a statement which some people have picked up on.  Let me

For the past ten years I have co-hosted a radio show on secular stations.  We have had several names for the show.  The current version is called “A Show of Faith.”  The show airs weekly Sunday nights from 7.00 to 9.00 pm on 1070 KNTH in Houston.  We stream it live over the Internet at

I said I co-host the show because my partners in crime are a priest and a rabbi.  I know.  It sounds like a joke.  “A priest, a minister, and a rabbi walk into a radio station . . . “  But it is not a joke.  We’ve been on the air ten years on three different stations in America’s 4th largest city.  The mission of the show (remember, it is on a secular station) is to talk about events in the news from the perspective of our religions.  We will also have representatives of other faiths: Islam, Bahai, Hinduism, etc.  A secondary mission is to demonstrate that it is possible to be “friends across faiths.”  The rabbi and the priest are two very good friends of mine.  We “agree to disagree and don’t become disagreeable.”

I relate all of this because of the context.  Often, when we talk about events in the news, politics come up.  Now that the election is over, Congress is in hearings, and the President prepares for his annual “State of the Union,” we think about how people ought to engage in the politic process.  Talk radio, the 24 hours new cycle, and Internet news brings events and politics into our world at the speed of light.

There are people who want to keep religion out of the public square. They want to relegate faith to the margins arguing that faith is really a private matter and should not enter in to our public life.  The statement I made, however, was a challenge to this.  Here is what I wrote:

“The `line of separation` does not run neatly through a man’s soul.”

While many want to separate church and state–so much so that there is never any contact between them—I don’t think it is completely possible or even desirable.  Let me say it this way.  We may be able to pass rules and create policies which keep any one religion from dominating our public life, but I don’t think that it is possible to compartmentalize our lives to the extent that faith does not inform our citizenship.  When American citizens step into the voting booth, they take their faiths with them.  When they vote, they vote values which have been formed by their faiths.  When citizens hold public office (from president to dog-catcher), they govern and make decisions based in large measure on the values they have been taught through their faiths.  In a complex world there may be competing values, but in the end mature citizens must cast a vote or make a decision.  “The line of separation between church and state” does not run neatly through a man’s soul.

It is incumbent upon all of us to draw strength and direction from our faith traditions in order to think about what is a  “good life” and a  “good society.” There are competing visions in the arena of ideas, and we need to be players  not just spectators. We dare not let those who wish to silence our voices succeed.  As a university, we have a strategic role to play in shaping the citizens that make us this great country.

Why did God create the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil?

A friend of mine recently asked me this question:

I’m often asked questions like this: why did God put the tree of knowledge of good and evil in the garden if he knew that Adam and Eve would disobey him? I’d be interested to know how you answer that question.

Here is how I responded:

You ask an important question, a question theologians, philosophers, and believers have been puzzling over for hundreds–if not thousands–of years. There is much we do not know about that time, so whatever we say about it must be held humbly. People of good faith debate whether we are to read Genesis 1-3 as literal history or as a metaphor broadly of who created us, why, who were are as human beings, and what has gone so terribly wrong. Regardless of how you read it, there is a looming question: why did God put the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the garden if he knew that Adam and Eve would disobey him? Continue reading

%d bloggers like this: