Historical Books or Former Prophets

In Nobel Prize winner J.M. Coetzee’s newest novel, The Childhood of Jesus, one of the main characters gets into a philosophical debate over the nature of history. In the course of the discussion one of the participants says:

History is merely a pattern we see in what has passed. It has no power to reach into the present.

I think this view of history is similar to the ways in which many Christians regard portions of the Old Testament.


We often refer to the books of Joshua-Esther, following an old tradition, as the “historical books.” There are good reasons to use this label–this section emplots the histories of Israel and Judah (histories because are parallel accounts, like Kings and Chronicles, which contain differences and particular theological interests). But often times when we hear the word “history” we think of it in terms similar to the character in Coetzee’s book–history is in the past, it relates some trivia but for the most part it is irrelevant for those of us living in the present.

Jewish tradition viewed these books very differently. Instead of calling these books “historical,” within the Hebrew canon Joshua-Kings is seen as a collection of “former prophets” (the “latter prophets” being Isaiah and the like), while Chronicles-Ezra were lumped into the “writings,” a catch all collection of texts that were, for the most part, written rather late in the development of the Hebrew Bible. What’s really striking about the designation of Joshua-Kings as “former prophets” is that this moniker regards these books not as dead records of the past but as living voices for the present. They are prophetic books that teach their readers how to live flourishing lives, give warnings concerning dangers to avoid, and provide insights into the fragile states of humankind and the gracious and fractious relationship that we have with God.

When is the last time that you’ve heard the book of Kings preached in church? I’m guessing that it’s been a while, if ever. If more pastors thought of Joshua-Kings as “former prophets” rather than “historical books” would they preach on them more often?

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?

The Reformation, Old Testament and A.D.

Luther-nailing-theses-560x538I still remember the day in Church History class several years ago at Princeton Theological Seminary when our professor made the point that the word “Reformation” is not a harmless, neutral term to describe those historic episodes of the Sixteenth century.  He went on to point out that some Roman Catholic scholars and historians, in fact, decline to use the word, and refer instead to the “Protestant Revolution,” or the “Protestant Revolt,” when speaking of those historic events.   The latter terms, obviously, convey a far different assessment of the meaning and significance of what happened in the Sixteenth Century.  The term “Reformation” after all, implies that the Roman Church of the time was indeed deeply corrupt and in need of reformation, and that the movement led by Luther, Calvin, and others was a good thing that had predominantly positive effects.   Roman Catholics who do not share those judgments may understandably prefer a different word.

I have no problems with Roman Catholics who may prefer a different word here.  However, I would hardly agree that I should not refer to those epic events as the Reformation and celebrate them as important episodes in the history of the Church, even  if there are aspects of the Reformation that are regrettable.  I would strongly object if my Roman Catholic friends tried to insist that I should not use the word, and should call it something more sympathetic to their views, such as the Protestant Revolt, or even something more “neutral” such as the Protestant Secession. Continue reading

Arrested Development and the Old Testament

Many of us, including myself for a long time, view law as something negative–a list of don’ts, punitive rules, commands that box us in and restrict our lives. And for this reason many people, even some Christians, have a negative disposition toward the Old Testament. It is true that the laws in the Old Testament (and also the New) act to constrain our behavior. But constraints are not always bad. In some sense, the only way to truly live is to observe certain boundaries. Instead of stifling creativity and eliminating fun, constraints often enhance artistic creation and produce greater human flourishing.

A recent example of this can be seen in the critical reaction to the new season of Arrested Development. It ran for three seasons as a network TV show and after a long hiatus Netflix released a fourth last weekend. The pre-Netflix show was fast paced, zany, frantic, kinetic, even. Almost every episode was a constant series of hilarity–both overt and subtle–packed cheek and jowl. The new series, I have read, is bloated and overwrought.

There are probably several reasons for the apparent decline in the show’s quality but one of the most relevant to our discussion is the fact that, time after time, critics point to the lack of constraints at Netflix. James Poniewozik, TV critic for Time, put it this way:

Hurwitz was famously constrained by the network system at Fox, but he made genius of necessity. Restrained by content standards, he wrote a kind of poetry of innuendo. Confined by commercials, he compressed and chiseled episodes into sculptures of diamond. On commercial-free, watch-at-your-own-pace Netflix he’s free — to write incredibly intricate plots, to vary the length of acts, to make episodes over 30 minutes long.

The typical length of a pre-Netflix show was about 22 minutes while some of the Netflix episodes push 35. Without constraints, the show lacked creativity, energy, focus, and verve. The way to fix it? Force the creators to work within boundaries:


It’s like this with the rest of human life too. If we are free to do absolutely whatever we want, most of us will end up in decision paralysis or the same kind of flaccid, dullness that apparently characterizes Arrested Development’s new season.

In like manner, if we approach the biblical legal corpus as a set of boundaries intended to create the conditions for human flourishing instead of as a list of rules designed to punish us, we will embrace them more easily and learn from them more readily. And in the process we will adopt a perspective a bit closer to that of the authors that penned them.

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