This post is very much a personal reflection about a journey I am still on.
For years I didn’t think much about the Old Testament. I read it sometimes, looked up passages occasionally, appreciated Isaiah and Ezekiel. But I didn’t really spend much time considering what I thought about it. After all, I am a christian, living in the new covenant, and following Jesus is my greatest priority. Of course I needed to understand Jesus in his Jewish context, and that meant in the context of the Hebrew scriptures, but I didn’t need to have a settled view on the many difficult questions raised by the Old Testament.
Eventually, a couple of years ago, I started to pray that God would lead me into a better understanding of the Old Testament, especially the difficult questions. And then I began to do some reading, thinking and research. And I think God has started to lead me somewhere.
So here is where I am up to. I’m not finished yet – there is much I have yet to work out. But I think I can at least see a little way ahead.
Issues that need to be resolved
The Old Testament is full of stories and writings that are way out of my experience. Some parts seem to conflict with science, archaeology or christian ethics. Some parts are from a culture and time so different to ours that we cannot easily relate to them, and certainly must be wary of making judgments based on our contemporary way of thinking. Major issues include:
- Evolution and Genesis
- The pre-history stories of Noah, Babel, etc and the parallels with other Middle eastern legends
- the lack of historical and archaeological evidence for Moses, the Hebrews in Egypt and their exodus from it
- the commands to wipe out whole tribes in Canaan, and the doubts about the historicity of the accounts of this period
- the interpretation of prophecy
- the applicability of the Old Testament to christians today
- Can we really regard the Old Testament as inerrant, and what difference does that make?
I’m not suggesting all these doubts are justified or that there aren’t satisfactory responses to these issues. But these are some of the matters that any thoughtful reader might wonder about, and they are certainly among the issues sceptics raise.
But doubts can be the gateway to new truths, so I wanted to understand.
Clearing the decks and identifying the boundaries
A lot is said about the Old Testament by both christians and sceptics, some of it quite unjustified by the evidence I have seen. I thought I would frame my discussion with some statements I believe are extreme and not really supported by the evidence, to clear the decks for a more thoughtful approach in my next post.
Common christian views which I think lack evidence
Good science is compatible with the creation accounts in Genesis 1 & 2
Very few scientists think this. According to Denis Lamoureux, there are several significant incompatibilities.
If we question any part of the Old Testament, we have jeopardised the entire Bible
The truth is (I suggest) that questioning only throws into doubt certain doctrines about the Bible. It doesn’t make much difference to core christian beliefs, for the classic creeds barely mention the Old Testament. Many faithful christians question the OT and grow in their faith as a result.
Archaeology supports the historical truth of the Old Testament
As far as I can see, this is only a half truth. Archaeology certainly supports many aspects of the OT, especially the time from David onwards, but offers little support and not a few doubts about the earlier events.
The fulfilment of prophecy provides good evidence for the truth of the Bible and of Jesus
Some prophecies do that, but some appear not to have been fulfilled. To use prophecy in this way misunderstands it, to some degree.
Jesus and the New Testament writers quote the Old Testament as if it is history
I don’t think this is as clear as is claimed. Jesus and the NT writers often quote the OT in a less than literal manner and they sometimes reference non-Old Testament Jewish legends which do not appear to be historical.
Common sceptical views which I think lack evidence
Why take notice of the writings of barbarous Iron Age goat-herders?
In many respects, the Old Testament is of a different, and ‘higher’, quality than many of the writings of nations around Israel. It contains some sublime writings of lasting value. It is essential for understanding the development of religious ideas, and for understanding Jesus.
The God of the Old Testament is genocidal and nasty
It is true that there are some aspects of God’s behaviour portrayed in the OT that are hard to accept. But there are also many tender, loving and sympathetic aspects, ‘higher’ than adjacent contemporary cultures. A quick count shows the good outweighs the ‘bad’. Both aspects should be considered by any fair-minded reader.
Because stories like Noah are unbelievable, we can write off the entire Bible
Few would say this, but many infer it. But it isn’t logical and is not the view of scholars. The Bible isn’t a single book, but scores of writings by dozens of authors, sometimes re-written and edited by more writers still, and critical questions about (say) Exodus tell us nothing about the historicity of Mark’s Gospel. Even books which critical scholars regard as largely unhistorical tell us a lot about the Hebrew people.
It’s either literal factual history, or nothing
Ancient peoples didn’t write like moderns do, and had more flexible views on mixing history and other forms of writing. Books which include non-historical elements may nevertheless contain history too.
The track record of prophecies show they are worthless.
This also is a misunderstanding of prophecy, and ignores some ‘successful’ prophecies.
Moving right along now
I haven’t attempted to demonstrate or argue these conclusions – I want to move onto ideas better justified by the conclusions of scholars and faithful to God – but you can find some of the reasons in previous posts referenced below.
So next post I will examine in more detail ways I have come to see the Old Testament in a new light. It hasn’t damaged my faith at all to examine these questions- in fact, I feel it has enhanced it.
Please return for the next part of the journey.
Check out previous posts on the Old Testament
- Believing the Bible: the Old Testament Part 1 and Part 2 .
- Book review: Inspiration and Incarnation – Old Testament scholar Peter Enns addresses three significant issues. These issues are further discussed in The Old Testament and Ancient Near Eastern Literature, Variation in Old Testament teachings and Interpreting the Old Testament.
- Book review: ‘I love Jesus and I accept evolution’ by Denis Lamoureux – with PhDs in Old Testament theology and evolutionary biology, Denis Lamoureux can speak with some authority on this subject.
- Book review: Evangelical Faith and the Challenge of Historical Criticism – a number of scholars examine the implications of historical studies of the Bible.