Who Owns the Old Testament

Who owns the Old Testament - Judaism or Christianity? This is a very natural question to ask, especially since the Old and New Testaments are nearly always found, in Christian practice at least, bound together as one book. Yet it is difficult to assess to what extent Christianity is sensitive to the fact that what the Church has called the Old Testament is also the property of Judaism and Jews, and that the Church by no means has a monopoly on it. Because of a strong awareness that the Old Testament is read by Jews, many people prefer to avoid altogether the term Old Testament (which is of course not used by the Jews themselves). At the heart of the matter is the fact that the term Old Testament was coined by Christians to distinguish these writings from the ever-growing literature of the early Church that began to be regarded as having religious authority. This appeared to put the Old Testament on an inferior footing to the New Testament and devalue it, a move that is felt to be insensitive to Jews. A further complication arises when we learn that the twenty-four books accepted as canonical by Jews (and most Protestant Christians) are increased to twenty-seven by Catholics, including some books that were not originally written in Hebrew.

The question of what Christians should do with the texts they had inherited from the ancient Israelites was the subject of lively debate from the earliest centuries of the Church. Fuel was added to the debate in the form of one overriding factor which Christianity had then and still needs to resolve: the existence of fundamental inconsistencies between the Old Testament and the New. The classic case of rejection of the Old Testament within Christian tradition is that of Marcion, a very influential churchman of the second century. He emphasised Paul's contrast between Old Testament law and New Testament gospel to an extreme degree, so much so that he rejected the whole of the Old Testament. He went so far as to claim that the loving Father of the New Testament was in fact a different God from the angry God of the Old Testament! This may be a rather extreme response, but the problem is one that still worries many today. Again, the factor which led Marcion to reject the Old Testament was, primarily, the problem of irreconcilable discrepancies between the two Testaments.

Marcion's rejection of the Old Testament was deliberate. As was the rejection in the 1930s, when anti-Jewish feeling in Nazi Germany put pressure on the Church to deny the Old Testament. The form that rejection of the Old Testament often takes in modern day Christianity is very different, amounting usually to an embarrassed silence about that part of the Bible. This attitude, which might well be said to be typical of very many Christians, is rarely articulated clearly. Of particular importance here to Christians is the supposed difficulty and obscurity of so much of the Old Testament; the apparently cruel and primitive nature of large parts of it; and also the feeling that it is irrelevant to the modern world and even contradicts the scientific views of our age. The fact that the same could be said for the New Testament is conveniently overlooked by such Christians.

The alternative to rejecting or quietly ignoring the Old Testament is to affirm its importance for the Church and to attempt to integrate it with one's understanding of the New Testament. After all, what we call the Old Testament was the Bible of Jesus and of Paul, who both felt it important and relevant to quote and read from it, as the following examples highlight:

At Luke 4:18, Jesus, whilst visiting the synagogue as a child, is quoted as reading a passage from the Book of Isaiah: 'The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the broken-hearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised.'

Some of the words from this passage have been underlined to assist in a comparison between Luke's New Testament rendition of this quote from Isaiah and the form which it takes in the Old Testament itself, where Isaiah 61:1 reads:

'The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me; because the Lord hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound.'

Surprisingly, the two passages differ. The Old Testament makes no mention of 'recovering of sight to the blind' whereas Luke does, and he substitutes 'heal the broken-hearted' and 'them that are bruised' for the Old Testament's 'to bind up the broken-hearted' and 'them that are bound.'

There appears to be no logical explanation for the differences, except that the text has either suffered corruption or the Old Testament which Jesus read from is not the same as the one in use today.

Here are two examples of Paul's usage of the Old Testament:

Isaiah 64:4 reads: 'For since the beginning of the world men have not heard, nor perceived by the ear, neither hath the eye seen, O God, beside thee, what he hath prepared for him that waiteth for him.'

Paul quotes this passage in I Corinthians 2:9 where he says: 'But as it is written, Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.'

It is noticeable that the words underlined do not occur in Isaiah. The Bible commentary of Henry and Scott explains: "The best opinion is that the Hebrew (Old Testament) text has been distorted.." Whereas Peake's Commentary offers the following explanation: "The source of the quotation is very uncertain. If from the Old Testament the points of contact are so slight that no confidence can be felt in this derivation. If the source is not the Old Testament, Paul has quoted another work under a misapprehension."

Psalm 40:6-7 reads: 'Sacrifice and offering thou didst not desire; mine ears hast thou opened: burnt offering and sin offering hast thou not required. Then said I, Lo, I come: in the volume of the book it is written of me.'

Paul reproduces this passage in Hebrews 10:5-7: 'Sacrifice and offering thou wouldst not, but a body thou prepared me: In burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin thou hast no pleasure. Then said I, Lo, I come (in the volume of the book it is written of me) to do thy will, O God.'

The misquote is clear. Peake's Commentary says (p.896): "As usual the writer (Paul) quotes from the Septuagint which reads 'but a body hast thou prepared me' instead of 'mine ears thou hast opened' as in the Hebrew version." Henry and Scott's compilers have said: "This is a mistake of the scribes. Only one of the two statements is true."

By ignoring the language in which it was first revealed, as most Christians tend to do as a matter of routine, it became very easy to interpret passages from the Old Testament and mould them to conform to New Testament views. Hence, a common way of handling the Old Testament in the early Church was to allegorise it. In this way many non-existent prophecies about the coming Messiah, the Resurrection and even the Trinity were supposedly found in the Old Testament by Christians as proof of the correctness of their beliefs. Invariably, these became to a large extent the only texts Christians were content to quote from the Old Testament. This brought with it another problem, and which again deserves an answer: what should be the response to those cases in which the New Testament understands the Old in ways that diverge from the original meaning, particularly when the peculiarities of the original Old Testament language are ignored?

The New Testament uses Old Testament material in a wide variety of ways. Sometimes the New Testament authors state explicitly that they are quoting from the Old so as to show that the events recorded in the New Testament fulfil the promises of the Old. For example the passage which Matthew quotes in his Gospel, chapter 27, verse 9:

'Then was fulfilled what had been spoken by the prophet Jeremiah, saying, And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of him on whom a price had been set by some of the sons of Israel...'

This excerpt turned out to be one of Matthew's best known mistakes. The statement he ascribes to Jeremiah is not found anywhere in the Old Testament Book of Jeremiah. A passage similar to it, however, is found in Zechariah 11:13. Horne observed in his Bible commentary (Vol.2/pp.385-386): "Some scholars think that it is an error of Matthew's version and the copier wrote Jeremiah instead of Zechariah; or it may be a later addition."

Another of Matthew's famous errors is found in his Gospel at 2:23: 'And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, He shall be called Nazarene.'

This prophecy is not found in any of the books of the prophets in the Old Testament. Manfred, a Catholic scholar, wrote in his The Questions of the Question: "The books which contained this description have been destroyed, because in any of the present books of the Prophets we do not find the statement that Jesus would be called a 'Nazarene'."

Psalm 14 of the Latin and Greek translations of the Old Testament read: 'Their throat is an open sepulchre, with their tongues they have used deceit; the poison of asps is under their lips. Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness, their feet are swift to shed blood. Destruction and misery are in their ways and the way of the people of peace have they not known. There is no fear of God before their eyes.'

This passage is not in the Hebrew Old Testament, nor is it found in the current English translations. Nevertheless, we find Paul quoting this passage in its entirety in the New Testament in his letter to the Romans 3:13-18! Where did he get it from? Which version of the Old Testament was Paul using when writing his letter and why do modern English translations not rely on the same version when reproducing Psalm 14 so as to match the usage of Paul. Footnotes in the New International Version attempt to piece together the statement in Romans by citing excerpts from four different Psalms and Isaiah, but the effort is hardly convincing, particularly when we remember that the passage is quoted in its entirety in Psalm 14 of the Latin and Greek versions.

Mark's Gospel highlights again the concern about the New Testament authors' insufficient knowledge of the Old Testament. He states in his Gospel 2:25-26: 'Have ye never read what David did... How he went into the house of God in the days of Abiathar the high priest, and did eat the shrew bread.'

This is incorrect because the high priest at the time of this incident was not Abiathar but rather Ahimelech, as can be seen in the Old Testament at I Samuel 21:1. Therefore, Peake's Commentary says (p.684): "The reference to Abiathar is a mistake."

In view of the above comparisons, one is left a little less than fully convinced about the New Testament's handling of the Old Testament. Why were the New Testament authors unable to reproduce accurately the texts they needed from the Old Testament? And are these inaccuracies compatible with a work that claims for itself Divine inspiration? Corruption of the text (Old Testament and New) is one obvious answer, something that Professors of Biblical Exegesis have long since affirmed for the Old Testament at least. This can be seen from even a cursory look at Peake's Commentary on the Bible (edited by Arthur S. Peake, once Professor of Biblical Exegesis at the University of Manchester, is a compilation of commentaries, articles and works by the editor himself as well as, amongst others, Professors of Hebrew and Old Testament Exegesis, a Professor of Divinity, Semitic Languages, New Testament Exegesis and a Professor in New Testament Greek. It was published by Thomas Nelson and Son Ltd (London) in 1919 as a single 1014 page volume) which has the following to say about various Books of the Old Testament:

It says in the concluding statement to the commentary on the Book of Joshua (p.255): "According to critical investigation the book appears to be a medley of contradictory narratives, most of which are un-historical."

Commenting on Judges chapter 17 and 18 it states (p.269): "In not a few places the text has evidently been tampered with by scribes, who took offence at practices which were from a later point of view irregular."

In its commentary to I Samuel 2:3 we read (p.275): "These verses do not make sense; the present wording cannot be the original one, but must be due to mistakes in the copying. We cannot now discover the original form."

Again in I Samuel, this time against verse 14:18, it says (p.288): "The introduction of the Ark in I Samuel 14:18, is due to a corruption of the text."

On p.292, commenting on II Samuel 23:4-7, it states: "The text and translation of the last line, and of 5-7, are uncertain; there is no agreement amongst scholars as to how they are to be restored."

On page 321, in the commentary to II Chronicles, chapters 29 to 32, we read: "The Chronicler in this long section writes, from his own point of view, much that is quite un-historical... it is probable that another source (or witness?) was utilised by the Chronicler but he himself is evidently responsible for many of the variations."

Commenting on Ezra 4, verses 6 and 7 (p.327): "These are two stray verses which have been left in the text here by mistake. This offers a good example of the way in which fragments of sources are jumbled together in our book... Scholars have suggested a number of solutions, but they differ from each other considerably."

In the introduction to the Book of Hosea, we read (p.534): "As will be apparent from the notes, the text is in places very corrupt. We must often resort to conjectural emendation, and reach only a possible approximation to the original text."

Commenting on Zechariah 6:9-15, it says: "The text is considerably confused, partly through accident, partly it would seem by deliberate alteration."

It would appear that Christianity's attachment to the Old Testament will continue, and along with it all of the problems highlighted above!


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