THE PROBLEM OF THE TESTAMENTS
by Roger Wyatt | 11th August 2021 | more posts on 'Across the Testaments'
Photograph: cottonbro from Pexels
The Problem of the Testaments
For anyone who has taken time to read or study the Bible there is a problem that soon surfaces, namely, the apparent mismatch between the two testaments. In one testament the reader seemingly meets a God of judgement and retribution whilst in the other they encounter a God of love. However, is this an accurate observation and appropriate conclusion? Is the Old Testament, as it is sometimes understood, really just a collection of myths, archaic sayings and commands with no relevance, value or moral force today, and is the New Testament a soft, morally permissive collection of writings completely disconnected from its ancient counterpart?
Historically speaking, both testaments, the Hebrew and the Greek (as I prefer to call them) can be positioned on a continuous timeline. What actually divides both testaments is only a period of around four hundred years, and in fact it is a mistake to say that the Hebrew text does not concern itself with this historical period at all. Moreover, the intertestamental years were a highly formative period for the development of the Judaism described in the New Testament, and it was during these centuries that important manuscripts such as the Septuagint were composed – the Greek version of the Old Testament so often quoted in the New. Moreover, whilst not considered canon, the books of the Apocrypha, in particular 1 and 2 Maccabees, represent important historical documents that bridge the historical period between the testaments (in fact some translations include these books). For anyone wanting to understand this historical interlude, these books are invaluable, along with the writings of the Jewish historian Josephus.
Geographically, both testaments essentially concern themselves with the same region that most would associate today with the Middle East. In fact, it is probably more accurate to say that the geographical context of the writings is predominantly Levantine, with a particular focus on the strip of land known throughout its history under a whole raft of names, such as Canaan, Palestine, Israel, Yehud and Judea. One primary difference between the two sets of writings is that there a shift of wider geographical focus from east to west. The Hebrew Bible concerned itself with countries to the east (and south) of what was the kingdom of Israel until 976 BC – such as modern day Iraq (Mesopotamia, Babylonia), Iran (Persia), Assyria (Syria), Lebanon, Egypt and what would today be northern Saudi Arabia. The Greek testament, in comparison, although centred on the Roman Province of Judea, soon concerned itself with the early spread of the Christian faith into the west – into countries such as Turkey (Asia Minor), Greece, Malta, Cyprus and even as far as Italy.
In literary terms, both testaments represent part of one continuous narrative; a narrative pinned together by the hope of a coming Messiah and his ultimate arrival. From the opening chapters of Genesis to the closing verses of Malachi it is the promise of a coming kingdom and the arrival of a priestly king that is predicted with surprising frequency. Of course, whilst those who adhere to the Jewish faith believe that the Messiah has yet to appear, for Christians he arrived in the person of Jesus Christ, and it is no surprise therefore that the opening chapters of Matthew’s gospel centre on the events surrounding Jesus’ birth. In fact, the opening verse of the first gospel could not be more rooted in the narrative that had gone before it: ‘This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah the son of David, the son of Abraham’ (Matthew 1:1). Moreover, central to any approach to the reading of the Old Testament is an understanding that the historical events recorded inform spiritual realities unfolding in the New. By way of example, the sacrifice of the Passover lamb and subsequent exodus foreshadow the death of the Messiah and the resulting freedom from the slavery of sin. It is with this interpretative lens in mind that the larger narrative across the testaments must be understood.
Culturally, it is commonly perceived that the testaments are disconnected; the Old Testament being the story of the rise and fall of the Jewish kingdom, in general terms known as Israel, whilst the New Testament concerns the birth of the church and a departure from the Jewish faith. In fact, such ideas represent a gross over-simplification of the forward looking message of the Old Testament that has always pointed to an eschatological end point in which cultural divisions were overcome – it has at its heart a message of cultural inclusivity and equality. Indeed, God’s plan for the Gentiles was always on the prophetic timeline: ‘No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations’ (Genesis 17:5). Moreover, the idea that the New Testament represents a departure from the Jewish faith is essentially inaccurate. Jesus was Jewish, the first Christians were Jewish and most of the New Testament was written by Jews. In fact, theologically the Christian faith is clearly understood from the writings of Paul as the very destination point of the narrative direction of the Old Testament; in short, the Jewish people were God’s chosen people through whom the Messiah would come, and through whom the the message of the gospel would be first brought to the world – the very thing that unfolds in the first few pages of the book of Acts. In that regard the testaments are theologically interdependent.
Morally, it soon becomes evident that there are distinctions between what was expected of those living before Christ’s death, living under the authority of the Law, and all who were living after Christ’s death. This distinction perhaps represents the biggest threat to any sense of continuity between the Hebrew and Greek texts, but it is a tension that must be understood within the wider theological narrative of both testaments. The essential moral framework of both is, in fact, exactly the same and grounded in the same foundational truths. First, that God is a moral being, and human beings are made in the image of God, and therefore also moral beings, and second that human beings are free agents who within ordained boundaries have moral choice. Moral choice, by definition, demands the possibility of both good and evil and as such, in the very first story of human co-existence, the progenitors of humankind lived in a world in which there was great moral freedom ‘you may eat from any tree’, and a single prohibition, ‘you must not eat from the tree’. It is the inability of Adam and Eve to obey the first prohibition that resulted in the ‘Fall’; an event that illustrates the simple truth that a choice for evil results in pain, suffering and separation. Moreover, the story reveals the origins of human wickedness as rebellion against God’s will and word, the entrance of sin into the world and the diabolical power that it wields over human beings. As such, the problem of sin becomes the continuous metanarrative in all that unfolds in the pages of the Bible. It is into this metanarrative that the giving of the Law is a feature.
For a disenfranchised people, emerging from slavery, the Law represented the very means through which they were returned to a sense of cultural and religious identity. The laws given to Moses on Mount Sinai are summed up in the ten commandments and lay down the very moral boundaries by which the Hebrew people were to live. These include commands that still retain universal acceptance as the basis of a civilized society, and which were never contradicted by the teaching of Jesus, for example, ‘you shall not murder’, ‘you shall not steal’. In essence, the laws were a response to the ongoing problem of sin that had so blighted early human civilisation. In fact, the given laws were also to provide a societal framework for the Hebrews, and as such relate to an ancient community existing in what was, to all intents and purposes, a brutal world. As such, the laws given to Moses governed how this new community should function. Moreover, many of the laws also sought to bring a distinct quality to the people who obeyed them; they were not to be like the other nations, but to develop their own cultural identity - throughout the history of the Israelites, practices such as the observance of the Sabbath, circumcision, the celebration of the Passover and the following of particular dietary laws, to name just some examples, were the very means of maintaining some degree of cultural and religious distinction. The Law went further than this however, and an equal part of what was expected of this new community centred in and around the Levitical system of sacrifice. Whilst the Law was purposed to reveal God’s righteous standards, and thereby sin, provision was also made for sin’s covering (atonement). In the end, it was the failure of the Jewish people to keep either the commandments or the stipulations of the Levitical code that, over the centuries, resulted in exile and desolation for the then separated kingdoms of Israel and Judah.
All this being said, it should be understood that the Law served an even greater purpose, in line with the greater narrative of a coming Messiah. Namely, that one was coming who would keep the Law and live as a righteous man, being without sin. Moreover, whilst the Levitical system was designed to atone for sin, it is revealed in the New Testament that the sacrifices and rituals were actually pointing forward to a sacrifice that would remove sin, that is, the death of Christ – a perfect sacrifice and the ultimate provision for dealing with the problem of sin in the world. In that regard the Law was fulfilled in the coming of the Messiah, and a new theological message began to emerge; the sacrifice of Christ changed the fundamental way in which God would relate with human beings, no longer through the precepts of the Law, but through a new dynamic fashioned on the strength of the sacrifice – a new covenant open to both Jew and non-Jew (in fact the inclusion of non-Jews in the new Jewish community had always been a stipulated by the Law). The cross, in that sense, is a kind of volta around which the narrative turns. After the cross Jesus was able to say, ‘turn the other cheek’, rather than ‘an eye for an eye’, simply because the punishment Christ received on behalf of humanity allowed for a different possibility than that of vengeance in the face of injustice, that of forgiveness. Moreover, and importantly, because of the cross the moral teaching of the Bible was elevated from its cultural and historic narrowness to embody a higher form of moral expectation which encompassed the very attitude of people’s hearts as well as their behaviour. In that sense, the moral expectations of the New Testament are higher than that of the Old.
Finally, and returning to my opening point. Whilst the Old Testament passages concerning judgement are easy to single out as evidence that the God of the Hebrew Bible is a vengeful God, in fact, filling the pages of the ancient text, albeit it demands more work to uncover, is the revelation of a God who is loving and compassionate and who longs for truth, fairness and justice on the earth. The pages of the ancient text also reveal a God who grieves over evil and delays judgement in the hope that people might respond to his appeals to change. As such, the God of the Old Testament is no different from that of the New Testament, and Jesus’ message equally declares a need to turn from evil and respond to the appeals of a loving God, or face judgement.
In conclusion, I would argue that although the Bible contains a discernible divide, in fact, both the Hebrew and the Greek Testaments share an inter-related metanarrative that is historical, cultural, geographical, theological, and ethical. Moreover, the very foundation of the New Testament is in the Old, informing every page, discourse, and verse. Indeed, the ministry of Jesus is largely incomprehensible when not viewed through the lens of the Old Testament, and the entirety of God’s plan for humanity is only seen in part without it. It is then, I would argue, only together that the two testaments reveal the full problem of the human struggle with sin and the full solution given in the promised coming of the Messiah.