Face to face with the Old Testament

Old Testament scholar

The Old Testament presents a number of problems for many christians. We are taught it is the inspired Word of God, yet it contains many things we find difficult – Genesis 1-3 is contradicted by evolution, God commands his people to invade and kill, and there are some strange events that are hard to swallow (e.g. the Nephilim, Noah’s Ark, God trying to kill Moses but not succeeding, and a talking donkey).

The Old Testament is probably a major reason why many people brought up as christians reject their belief, and it probably causes far more difficulties to christians than the New Testament does.

For many years, I put the problems aside. Jesus was the basis of my faith, and the New Testament told me all I needed to know about him, and how to follow him. I read the Old Testament mainly for understanding Jesus as a Jew, and I left the problems on the backburner.

But a couple of years ago, I started to pray that God would show me how to understand the difficult and nasty parts of the Old Testament, and then I read a few good books on the topic. Whether God has answered that prayer or not is not for me to judge, but I have certainly come to some conclusions…..

Doctrine vs scholarship

One of the biggest difficulties for christians assessing the Old Testament is the fact that scholarship (history, archaeology, theology and textual studies) doesn’t support the evangelical christian “dogma” that the Old Testament is the inspired Word of God, equal in authority to the New Testament, historically reliable and perhaps even inerrant.

So what’s an honest christian to do?

Should we hold onto the doctrine despite the historical evidence, in faith that God’s word will be vindicated in the long run? Or should we accept the findings of the scholars regardless of how destructive that might be for our faith?

Is the choice so stark?

Not all the problems are caused by sceptical scholarship – there are internal difficulties that are obvious just by reading. So we can’t avoid some sort of re-assessment. But at the same time, the Old Testament contains the scriptures Jesus knew and respected, so we can’t just throw them away.

I decided I needed to find a middle view, that respects the scholarship and accepts that God still revealed himself through the Old Testament, even if I had to learn anew how God did that.

An assessment of the Old Testament on one page

I have been reading and pondering for a while now, and over the past couple of months I have reviewed scholarship on the Old Testament and tried to summarise it in as few words as would be reasonable. My first attempt is at What the scholars tell us about the Old Testament. As I learn more, I will update this page.

I learnt in this process that there is a wide range of scholarship on most Old Testament matters, from minimalists who tend to reject everything for which there is no archaeological evidence (and there is very little archaeological evidence for the nomadic people of the early Old Testament) through to the maximalists who tend to accept most of the Old Testament text and look for archaeological evidence to support it. I chose to be most influenced by scholars in the middle – who used both text and archaeology to synthesise their conclusions.

Two people I respect led the way

Two scholars and writers have led the way in my thinking, and made it easier to understand and accept a new (for me) view of the Old Testament.

CS Lewis

I have blogged about CS Lewis’ view of the Bible before. Lewis has been perhaps the most influential christian writer in my life, and I have enormous respect for his knowledge, judgment and integrity. As a scholar of the ancient world, he had a good understanding of ancient literature and myth.

His view was that God used myth as well as history to reveal himself in the Old Testament. he sums up his view in a letter:

“If you take the Bible as a whole, you see a process in which something which, in its earliest levels (those aren’t necessarily the ones that come first in the Book as now arranged) was hardly moral at all, and was in some ways not unlike the Pagan religions, is gradually purged and enlightened till it becomes the religion of the great prophets and Our Lord Himself. That whole process is the greatest revelation of God’s true nature. At first hardly anything comes through but mere power. Then (v. important) the truth that He is One and there is no other God. Then justice, then mercy, love, wisdom.”

So I see no reason to be fearful of the idea that the early parts of the Old Testament are largely mythical, with the amount of history increasing as we go through the Old Testament. That is how the stories read.

I am particularly by Lewis’ observation that this “whole process is the greatest revelation of God’s true nature”. I take this to mean that we can learn a lot about God by the way he apparently revealed truth – not by overriding and imposing on human writers, but by moving subtly to lead his people towards truth.

And this view resolves some of the difficulties I began this post with – those events may not be historical.

Peter Enns

Peter is a contemporary Old Testament scholar whose writing I have found very helpful. He honestly faces some of the internal and external evidence that questions the traditional evangelical view (and therefore supports CS Lewis’ view, though I don’t recall him ever referring to Lewis).

He argues (again like Lewis) that we should embrace the way it seems clear God has given us the Old Testament, and he shows that in some respect, Jesus and the New Testament writers also didn’t hold an inerrant, fixed view of the Bible.

Exciting rather than threatening

I have come to see this new understanding of the Old Testament as exciting rather than threatening.

If it is indeed the way God has chosen to reveal himself to the human race, we should embrace it rather than expect God to have done it a different way. (This is important for both evangelical christians and ex-evangelical ex-christians!)

It doesn’t change anything I believe about Jesus. My reasons to believe are based on the New Testament alone, and I still see the Old Testament as providing background to Jesus’ teaching and mission. I can report that my faith in Jesus and my commitment to serving him through serving people has not diminished in the slightest since I came to these conclusions.

And it removes the very real difficulty of believing that God really did command wholesale killing of men, women and children.

Does this mean the Bible isn’t the inspired word of God?

If we look to the Bible itself for what we should believe about it, we will find many of the evangelical statements about the Bible (inerrant, infallibility, Word of God) are not found there – see What does the Bible say about itself?

CS Lewis didn’t think his view of the Old Testament negated the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. However the doctrine of inspiration is based on just one verse (2 Timothy 3:16) and its meaning is ambiguous, so we need to define what we mean by “inspired”.

I will come back to this point later, but we may well ponder, if these doctrines about our scriptures are important and true, why has God not made them clear?

But how can we know what to believe?

Many people seem worried about this, but I don’t find it a problem. The Old Testament belongs to the old covenant, which has been replaced by the new covenant, and the New Testament. Christians have no part in the old covenant.

So we don’t need to know what in Old Testament history is truly historic. We can understand the Old Testament as an early stage in God’s revelation of himself. We can appreciate how it shaped the thinking of Jesus and the apostles. But it is replaced as a means of God’s revelation to us by the New Testament. As Paul says (Romans 7:6):

“we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code”

Join the discussion

I encourage you to read What the scholars tell us about the Old Testament, pray and consider these things, and share your conclusions in the comments.

Photo: Flickr Creative Commons

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  1. UncleE,
    I think you are majorly on the right tracks with this. A minor possibly reorienting quibble: that believers have been freed from the Law to serve in the Spirit, that is not quite the same thing as the Law being “replaced.” The Law may be said to have been reshaped by the Spirit. As Paul said: “the Law is holy, and what it commands is holy and upright and good….the Law is spiritual.” Rom. 7: 12, 14 I think we will better understand the OT as “historical myth” in Gen. 1-11, the rest perhaps mythologicalized history in varying degrees after that. Way to go guy, keep up the good work!

  2. Hi, and thanks to both of you for your encouragement.
    I think the Law is replaced or finished as an authority – or I guess more accurately, it never was an authority for us gentiles, and it still isn’t. I think we don’t take Jesus seriously enough when he said in the last supper that this was a new covenant. But we mostly agree, which is nice. 🙂

  3. This is so confusing to me.
    As in our emails i said i came from a YEC perspective and all this is…so difficult to take in. How on earth do i get this interpreted without my old views getting into it.

  4. Yeah, it’s difficult because the church has for so long taught something different. But we are quite comfortable with ambiguity in our news and our history. So some ambiguity in the Old Testament shouldn’t really be a problem. Of course any ambiguity is a problem if we believe the Bible is inerrant, as many YEC believers are, but that just suggests to me that inerrancy is mistaken.
    I am a christian, so the real question for me is the New Testament – can I have confidence in the stories of Jesus? The good thing is that I can – see for example The gospels as history and Jesus and the historians.

  5. I am so grateful I’ve found your site. As a believer who took a long break from faith due to issues with the Old Testament (which then spread to other areas, as tends to happen), I have been devouring your perspectives and summaries the past few weeks. Of course, now I expect to have issues with other believers who believe the Bible is the inerrant/literal Word of God, but this is a much better place to be than where I was a few weeks ago.

  6. Hi, I’m so glad you have found this site helpful, and thanks for letting me know, it is encouraging. I set this site up for people in exactly your situation. I have been on a long learning journey myself, and so it is good to share that with others. I hope you continue to make progress in your thinking, believing and living! Please feel free to discuss anything that you want. Eric

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