Believing the Bible: the Old Testament – 1


This is the eleventh in a series of posts on Understanding the Bible in the 21st century.

So far, the matters we have been discussing seem, to me at least, to be fairly clear and straightforward. They have been based on clear statements in the Bible (or lack of them) and the clear views of competent scholars.

But today’s topic is very challenging, and I can’t claim to have many answers. I’ll be interested in any reactions please.

Christians and the Old Testament

We don’t need the Old Testament to believe in Jesus. The New Testament is quite sufficient, as I showed (I hope) in Believing the Bible: the New Testament. But we do need the Old Testament to understand Jesus.

So how should a christian understand the Old Testament?

The Bible on the Old Testament

There are a few things we can say fairly clearly:

  • Jesus and the apostles all respected the Old Testament and treated it as scripture.
  • Yet they also were happy to be free and creative with how they interpreted the Old Testament (see How Jesus and the apostles interpreted the Old Testament) – to them it didn’t have a fixed meaning.
  • Jesus was happy to oppose contemporary understandings of the Old Testament, reinterpret some passages and claim to speak with higher authority than the Old Testament Law (see, e.g. Matthew 5:27 etc, Mark 2:23-28).
  • There is clear progression in Biblical teaching, through the Old Testament as well as into the New. For example, the OT law gives regulations for sin sacrifices (e.g. Leviticus 16), then the prophets clarify that God doesn’t actually need the sacrifices (e.g. Isaiah 1:11) but wants justice and mercy (e.g. Micah 6:6-8), then Jesus comes to be the perfect sacrifice and call for our lives to be dedicated to his service (e.g. Luke 9:23-24). In many places the Bible makes clear that former teachings are superseded or given in greater detail later (e.g. John 1:17, Romans 16:24,25, Hebrews 1:1-2).
  • As a special example of this, Jesus and Paul taught that the Old Testament Law was fulfilled or completed, and superseded, by the New Testament covenant of grace and the Spirit (see A tale of two covenants).
  • There are places in the Old Testament which seem to present God in a very different light to how he is revealed in Jesus.
  • There are many Old Testament laws that christians generally believe we no longer need to obey (for example, check out Leviticus ch 12-15 & 20).

These observations allow plenty of scope for interpretation.

What the scholars say

Science, history and archaeology all now have a bearing on our understanding of the Old Testament. (Each of the following statements could be the subject of a separate post, and perhaps will before long, but I will simply summarise here.)

  • Cosmology and biology give a very different picture of the history of the earth and the development of life than that found in the early chapters of Genesis.
  • Few scholars would consider that Genesis 1-11 is in any way historical. Most would say the stories read like myths or legends.
  • With modern understandings, many of the stories are difficult to accept. For example, was the ark big enough for all known species to fit?
  • Archaeology provides very little support for many of the details of the exodus from Egypt under Moses or the conquest of Palestine under Joshua. At the very least, the numbers involved seem to be exaggerated.
  • Thus many historians are doubtful of the historical value of the Bible stories up until the time of King David at least. The stories often read like the legendary exploits of heroes of the past, perhaps based on history, but at least somewhat exaggerated.
  • From David onwards, there is a stronger archaeological and historical basis for the Old Testament stories. There are several schools of thought, from the minimalists, who believe very little is historical, through to the literalists, who believe the Bible is accurate history. The truth may never be known for sure.

Some of these conclusions may seem very negative, even unchristian. But it is worth noting that CS Lewis, one of the most respected christians of the 20th century and an expert in ancient history and literature, believed that Genesis 1-11 was myth, the early history of the Old Testament was not fully historical, and that the history gradually came into focus by the time of King David.

The content and teaching of the Old Testament

Reading the Old Testament is a challenging experience for the thoughtful christian. On the one hand, there is much that is admirable and encouraging – some of the laws show great concern for the poor and victimised, and the picture of God (especially in the prophets) is very exalted yet compassionate. This is generally a far “higher” picture of God than in other religions of the time. On the other hand, God is often portrayed, especially in the earlier books, as what seems to us today as angry, violent and unjust.

Critics focus, quite reasonably, on the negatives, such as the commands to kill all the Amalekites, including women and children (1 Samuel 15:3), but a fair assessment recognises both sides. On this basis, the loving picture of God is stronger than the violent picture, but both are there.

Possible conclusions

We are thus left with a confusing and conflicting picture of God and his commands to us in the Old Testament. What are we christians to make of it?

This is such a difficult subject, I’ll leave it to part 2 (coming soon).


Believing the Bible: the Old Testament – 2 – reasonable conclusions.

Photo Credit: shehan365 via Compfight cc

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  1. Once I started studying the OT, I found it is not so confusing. It actually helps me understand God better – He is indeed ruler over all. And it has enhanced my faith. The laws were established because humans were sinful and had no regard for God, today we have Jesus to teach and guide us. Although I feel it is still important to know the laws of the OT because we must never forget our sinful natures and the consequences of what can and will happen. {I hope that makes sense….} 🙂

  2. I really appreciated your insight on the development of the Israelite understanding of sacrifice, from the regulations all the way to Jesus’ fulfillment.
    And on the first eleven chapters of Genesis, and concentrating just on Chapter One, many biblical scholars would say that passage is a poetic representation of a historical event (or string of events): the process of creation.

  3. Thanks Patty, that certainly makes sense. I too think we learn a lot about God from the OT, it’s just that some parts seem top contradict other parts. I’m glad you have found it helpful. I think your approach is one of several we can take – which I will cover in the second half of this post, coming soon.
    Thanks to Tim. Yes, I think more and more people are thinking that way about Genesis 1, though then we have to decide whether there is anything historical at all in it. Some christians believe in both evolution and Adam and Eve.

  4. unkleE, I’d say a poetic understanding of Gen 1 includes the possibility of evolution for those who want to go that way as well as strict 7 day creation for those who want to go that way.

  5. Yes, that is sort of the way I am heading too – more freedom for each person to see it their own way. I still have a little thinking to do before I write my conclusions.

  6. Hi Unklee,
    Just wanted to ask, what are your thoughts on John 5:33–47 in regards to the Old Testament?
    In particular, John 5:39-40,
    This seems to be stating that the OT bears witness about Jesus. If this is so, how much should then be considered as poetic? Surely we can’t just pick and choose the bits of the Old Testament that only we consider are relevant and ignore other bits can we?
    I understand that there is a now considered to be a New Covenant in Christ that has fulfilled the OT requirements. Furthermore, you could maintain that the Old Covenant was specifically for the ancient Israelites and the NT is for the New Israel.
    However, when referring to Chronicles or Exodus even are these really written as allegory? Or are they written as history?
    Jesus in John 5:45-46 states:
    Do not think that I shall accuse you to the Father; there is one who accuses you—Moses, in whom you trust. For if you believed Moses, you would believe Me; for he wrote about Me.
    So if Moses is referring to Jesus then what should Christians consider to be literal history in Exodus?
    It also seems apparent that there are different types of writing within the OT, including poetry and symbolism.
    But can we really pick and choose if the OT doesn’t represent our modern idea of God, especially in books like chronicles, which may contain poetry, but overall don’t seem to be intended to be allegory?
    Kind regards,

  7. Hi Ryan, these are interesting questions, and I wouldn’t pretend to have all the answers. But here’s my thoughts.
    1. Truth doesn’t depend on literalness. The parables of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son convey important truths, but they do not pretend to be actual events, just stories. So whatever we decide about the genre of different OT books, that doesn’t prevent them conveying God’s truths.
    2. It isn’t a matter of “picking and choosing”. The whole OT stands as scripture, the question is how do we understand it? And there is no silver bullet for this. We christians (and Jews, I guess) have to read thoughtfully and use our God-given minds, but we also must pray for wisdom and allow the Holy Spirit to guide us. Even if we believed the whole Bible was literal and inerrant we’d still have to go through the same process.
    3. Critics of the Bible often ask for certainty. But I don’t recall ever being promised certainty in an intellectual sense – we don’t even get it in science, where we get 95% confidence intervals etc. Rather, we have sufficient information, and we trust God to not lead us astray. So our confidence comes not from our certainty but God’s faithfulness.
    4. So it probably doesn’t matter which bits are literal history, which are “embellished”, and which are figurative. We learn from all of them via the Holy Spirit.
    Thanks for your questions, they are helping me think through the content of the next half of this post.

  8. Thanks for your response,
    I agree with you that parables can and do convey truths.
    And I agree that truth doesn’t depend on a literal understanding, if fact if parables are taken literally the truths they illustrate could be overlooked or misunderstood.
    However, parables that are designed to intentionally express a lesson, teaching or truth are different from accounts that seem to be intended to record an historical account, Such as 1 and 2 Chronicles or 1 and 2 Kings.

  9. “But I don’t recall ever being promised certainty in an intellectual sense”
    I think I understand where you’re coming from,
    After all, my understanding is that Jesus calls people to follow Him and practice his teachings in faith. Jesus doesn’t seem to call people to look for certainty. If there were certainty what role would faith have?
    It could be said that the “proof” of God actually comes from actively following Jesus in practice.
    In this sense, faith may then lead to proof (or at least affirmation), but proof doesn’t necessarily lead to faith. Proof leads to knowledge.
    It could be said in this sense that it is only through following that proof is discovered or understood, which some Christians might call a relationship, as they understand God to be providing them their faith as they follow Christ.
    Furthermore, some people also believe that faith is a gift from God. I think actions provide affirmation of a faith.

  10. I use proof here very loosely. If God exists then faith then would follow to lead to proof as people draw closer to God, however if God does not exist or is not personal then “proof” would have to be purely affirmation.

  11. Ryan, I pretty much agree with your comments on faith, certainty, and following Jesus.
    And I understand that a known parable is different to a story that appears historical but may not be. This difference is important to a historian, but I’m not sure if it changes the meaning for one who is looking to learn about God.

  12. Yeah fair enough, if the God of Abraham does exist, and Christ was indeed raised from the dead, then none of this speculation on the Old Testament really matters.

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