A Hebrew Bible/Old Testament scholar looks at the Bible and culture…


Hebrew Bible, Old Testament: What's in a Name?

My title at the seminary recently changed:  instead of “Professor of Old Testament,” my business card now reads “Professor of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament.”   This was my idea. Why did I ask for such a long, cumbersome title?

For years now, I’ve been willing to stick with “Professor of Old Testament,” the title I was given upon hiring even though, as I’ll explain, I wasn’t totally happy with the title. The matter was raised again for me when my new colleague, Valerie Bridgeman, asked that her title include the label “Hebrew Bible.”  Valerie, a scholar of diverse gifts, joins Lancaster Theological Seminary this fall with responsibilities for teaching worship, preaching, and biblical studies.  Her title is even longer than mine: Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible/Homiletics and Worship.

Old Hebrew. Hebrew Bible.  What’s the difference?  And why did I finally choose both?


Old Testament is a distinctively Christian designation.   It signals that the collection does not stand alone but in relationship with a collection that the church calls New Testament.

One of the early controversies of the church was how to define its relationship with the Jewish faith from which it emerged.   The theologian Marcion of Sinope (on what is now the northern coast of Turkey) advocated a full break, insisting that the wrathful God of Jewish documents was not the same loving God of Jesus.  Other theologians such as Melito of Sardis and Tertullian of Carthage argued to the contrary:  they advocated keeping the old documents alongside new documents about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  The second group won.

That is not to say, however, that these latter “church fathers” embraced Jewish documents or Jewish people.  They kept books like Genesis and Leviticus on very non-Jewish terms, insisting that the writings matter because they point forward to the coming of Jesus as Messiah.  They ranted that that Jews who deny christological meanings of biblical texts are willfully blind.  The early church’s stance on the Old Testament, then, is a mixed legacy:  the church did insist on the continuing validity of these books but limited that validity to Christian interpretation.   The unequal status of the two collections is reflected in their respective titles–Old and New.  (see, too, an article by Brooks Schramm of Lutheran Theological Seminary)

Christian anti-Judaism was not a passing fad of the patristic period.  Quite the contrary, it has thrived throughout all stages of Christian history.  Multiple times and places reveal anti-Jewish rhetoric, legal rulings, art, music, and overt violence.  Visitors to European cathedrals can still see images of the Church Triumphant and the Blind Synagogue and Jews portrayed as monkeys.


Most of the world also knows about the Holocaust, the systematic annihilation of 6 million Jews.   In the decades after the Holocaust, scholars struggled to understand not only Hitler as an individual but also the community mentality that made the extermination of Jews possible.   While a range of factors has been named, many Christian theologians have acknowledged that the church’s negative teachings about Jews helped create the groundwork for this horror. (see my earlier blog post on Holocaust Remembrance Day and Easter)


In light of this recognition, there has been a concerted effort in the past 30 years or so to counter Christian anti-Judaism.  In a wide array of churches, new emphasis has been placed on the Jewishness of Jesus, and study guides for Holy Week now blame Jesus’ death on selected Jewish leaders and/or the Roman empire rather than the Jewish people has a whole.

Post-Holocaust Christian theology also has challenged the church’s continuing use of the term Old Testament.  If the origins of the label are less-than-affirming of Jews and sounds negative to modern ears (the opposite of new and improved), shouldn’t the church give up the label in the interest of econciliation?   Shouldn’t secular settings for biblical studies, like universities, seek the most neutral term possible for this collection of documents?

In the academy, the change has been widespread.  Ph.D.s in this field are regularly named Hebrew Bible (including my own, from Duke University), and Introduction to the Hebrew Bible is the usual nomer for undergraduate classes and textbooks.  It would be hard an institution that is not church-related offering classes in “Old Testament.

I fully share post-Holocaust commitments and strive to help students see that the Christian interpretation of Old Testament texts is not the only or even obvious one.   I find it arrogant to assume that the problems of ancient people mattered any less to the divine one than our own:  if Isaiah 7:14 is only the prediction of Jesus’ birth through a virgin, then what hope was being offered to the people in the text who were staring into the faces of the Assyrian armies?   If the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 52-53 is only a prediction of Jesus, is everyone else who has ever found meaning in the text just deluded?    I count myself among post-Holocaust biblical interpreters who work to fight anti-Judaism at every turn, and I also try to fight the self-centeredness of most biblical interpretation.  So, I don’t teach these documents as relying on the New Testament for their value.  In that regard, I don’t really teach “Old Testament.”

But then again, I’m not completely comfortable with “Hebrew Bible.”

First, the term isn’t  the term isn’t inherently Jewish-friendly.  It’s certainly not a Jewish term. In Judaism, the books that make up Genesis through Chronicles are called simply “Bible” or “Tanak,” an acronym for the three major sections of the collection:  Torah, Nevi’im (Prophets) and Ketuvim (Writings).

Second, the term implies that Christians and Jews are reading the same documents but calling them by different names.  That’s not really true. The Old Testament and the Tanak are similar collections, but they aren’t identical.  In Roman Catholic Christianity, the Old Testament has more books than the Tanak, including books like Tobit and Maccabees. The Protestant Christian Old Testament includes the same roster of books as the Tanak, but the books come in a different order.  In the Protestant Old Testament, the collection ends with prophets, while Chronicles is the last book in the Tanak. (See chart comparing canons) These differences signal differences in the way these books are understood.  Do prophets point forward, as they do in the Christian Bible (from the Old Testament to Jesus), or do they point back to the Torah, as they do in the Jewish Bible?

Third and of even greater importance, the term obscures the fact that the text itself isn’t all that matters to interpretation. Neither Judaism nor Christianity read these books “straight.”   Even if they don’t go as far as the church fathers in seeing every verse as pointing forward to Jesus, Christians read with some attention to the New Testament.   Jews read Tanak in light of Mishnah, Talmud, and other rabbinic writings. (a great introduction to Jewish readings of the Bible can be found at the Kolel center site)  That is, even when Jews and Christians read the same books, they don’t read them in the same way.  Simply changing the name of the Old Testament to Hebrew Bible won’t mean that a Christian will read like a Jew or necessarily respect Judaism. In a Christian worship service, as long as “a reading from the Hebrew Bible” is followed by “a reading from the New Testament,” traditional understandings of the relationship between the testaments likely will remain.

There are smaller problems, too. For instance, if “Hebrew” is understood to refer to the language of the documents, then the label isn’t totally accurate. While scholars do believe much of the writing was composed in Hebrew, some books also contain Aramaic and the longer Roman Catholic Old Testament contains materials first composed in Greek.  Few modern people who read the “Hebrew Bible” are reading it in Hebrew, and few are clamoring to rename the New Testament the “Greek Bible.”

As I sorted through the options, then neither title seemed totally accurate. On the one hand, I resist the anti-Judaism implied in “Old Testament.”  On the other, I can’t deny that my teaching stands apart from Christian perspectives. Even if I  don’t teach the Old Testament as predicting Jesus (which I don’t) and don’t treat the Old Testament  as the background of the New (which I don’t), I still teach in a Christian seminary that privileges claims about Jesus Christ.   Moreover, as much as I invite students to appreciate these writings on their own terms, my own thinking has been shaped by my own heritage.  I have been profoundly shaped by liberal Christianity’s values of inclusion, diversity, non-violence. Of course, these aren’t distinctively Christian values, but  I encountered them via Christianity.  To use a neutral term for these writings seemed like trying to pretend that I read the texts apart from my context.  (I never seriously considered a third term, since one of my own creation wouldn’t recognize the faith communities that preserved the book and since I couldn’t with good conscience claim that I’m teaching Tanak. As much as I want students to appreciate Jewish understandings, I don’t spend enough time teachng Mishnah, Talmud, Rashi, and responsa to claim that students can “do” Jewish interpretation on their own.)

For a long time I’ve been willing to keep the Professor of Old Testament title because the alternative didn’t seem any better.  But I also have lamented that my title didn’t signal my commitments.

After sorting through all of this again, I concluded that a hybrid title would come closer to honestly reflecting my hybrid teaching of this collection: situated within a Christian context but insisting that these documents witness to multiple ways in which humans experienced God in the past and continue to do so in the present.  I believe that such an approach is not only important in disarming anti-Judaism but also in helping people appreciate the diverse ways in these powerful texts resonate with their lives and experiences of God. 

The title is long.  It’s cumbersome.  And it’s not perfect.  But it’s the closest I can come to honestly naming what and how I teach.


Changing (?) Definitions of Rape

I just published a new session in my Reading the Bible as an Adult project:  Bathsheba, Tamar, Absalom, Solomon:  David’s Family Curse? The entry deals primarily with the trans-generational dynamics of 2 Samuel 11-18, how the themes of David’s later life spill over into those of his family.  I talk about David’s fukú , the language that Junot Díaz  uses in his novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao to describe a family curse. But there’s a lot more to discuss  in these stories of David and his children, including the way that different people and different cultures think about rape.

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Holocaust Remembrance and Easter

April 21, 2009, is Holocaust Remembrance Day, in Hebrew Yom haShoah.   A time to remember the 6 million Jews who died in Nazi Germany, the day is a national memorial day in Israel and is observed around the world.

For Christians, the contrast between Yom haShoah and Easter (observed just a week and a half before) is stark.  The beauty of Easter–the lily, the butterfly, the chorus of alleluias-is assaulted with images of emaciated children, piles of bodies, and smoke rising from the crematoria.


auschwitz fence

But the Christian Easter needs Holocaust Remembrance Day.   It serves as a reminder that theology can kill as well as bring life. In the history of Jewish-Christian interaction, more pogroms and other anti-Jewish violence have taken place during Holy Week than during any other time of the year. Throughout history, the claim that Jews are Christkillers has fueled not only anti-Jewish sentiment but also anti-Jewish violence.  Elie Wiesel’s Gates of the Forest weaves a compelling story of how this happened in the past.  A quick look at neo-Nazi websites confirms that it does the same in our own time.

Problematically, Christian anti-Judaism finds its roots in the Bible itself.  In Matthew’s passion narrative (ch 27), the Jews are reported to have willingly accepted the guilt for Jesus’ death-for themselves and for their children. In Matthew, Pilate, the only one with the legal authority to sanction a crucifixion, tries but fails to talk any angry mob out of sending Jesus to his death.  The same Pilate that Luke describes as “mingling the blood of Galileans with sacrifices” and who other sources describe as brutally squashing any rebellion, is described by Matthew as so afraid of the crowd that he relinquishes his power and washes his hands of responsibility.

Some scholars attempt to take away the scandal of Matthew’s account by setting it in the context of 1st century Christian attempts to avoid the wrath of Rome. They see in Matthew the beginning of a trend toward shifting blame from the Romans to the Jews.  They remind us that the gospel writers had political as well as religious motives, and that biblical language about the Jews (as well as about everything else) reflects as much the concerns of later Christian communities as those of the time of Jesus.

But understanding Matthew historically doesn’t the power of its words away.  Rather, it calls interpreters to take responsibility for the implications of the texts they read.  For Christians, it calls for taking ownership of the power of our texts and for finding new energy and new energies for eradicating hate.   Good beginning reading includes Rosemary Radford Ruether’s Faith and Fratricide and Clark Williamson’s Has God Rejected His People?

One complication of attention to the Holocaust is that it has made it difficult for many Jews and Christians to question the policies of the state of Israel or to acknowledge the claims of Palestinians.  Marc Ellis’ Unholy Alliance traces this problem within Judaism, and Palestinian authors talk about the problem as well, such as Mitri Raheb.

In my judgement, combating anti-Judaism doesn’t demand uncritical support of the state of Israel or denying the claims of Palestinians.  Rather, the goal is to counteract hate wherever it is found.

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The Violence Lurking in “Gorgeous Gestures”

“Gorgeous gestures backed by a thousand years of tradition may not be much different from wars and other acts more stark and obvious in their capacity for violence.”

I came across this sentence while reading Lan Cao’s Monkey Bridge (Penguin, 1997), a novel about the experience of a Vietnamese daughter and mother living in Virginia in the 1970’s.
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