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 In many places the Bible makes clear that former teachings are superseded or given in greater detail later (e.g. John 1:17, Romans 16:24,25, Hebrews 1:1-2).
- As a special example of this, Jesus and Paul taught that the Old Testament Law was fulfilled or completed, and superseded, by the New Testament covenant of grace and the Spirit (see A tale of two covenants).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.
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.