Renaming Scripture

By Everett, William Johnson | The Christian Century, October 29, 1997 | Go to article overview

Renaming Scripture


Everett, William Johnson, The Christian Century


AND NOW a reading from the Hebrew Bible," intones the liturgist on a Sunday morning. As I begin to let the familiar phrases of Isaiah wash over me (in English), my eyes fall upon the bulletin. "Next we will hear a reading from the New Testament." The New Testament? But we didn't hear the Old! Or did we? Suddenly my worship reverie is broken by the confusion of clashing terms.

Why are worship leaders renaming the scriptures? My inquiries about this to pastors and scholars have yielded polite toleration, if not annoyance. Apparently I've missed the latest development in religious evolution. Yet no one has been able to explain this change in how we Christians name our sacred scriptures. It isn't as if the names "Old Testament" and "New Testament" were merely products of a passing theological school; Christians have used them from the earliest centuries. My Protestant ancestors reawakened their meaning as "Old Covenant" and "New Covenant," but that was merely a recovery of their original biblical meaning. Today we are hearing not only "Hebrew Bible" but also "Hebrew scriptures," "Jewish Bible" and "Christian scriptures."

My inquiries have turned up two possible sources for these innovations. Biblical scholars pointed me to the terms used by the Society of Biblical Literature, a group of scholars that has spent decades researching the languages, archaeology and history of the world in which the Bible arose. For these researchers the Bible is a literary and historical document whose many claims are embedded among the tells and potsherds of that half-buried world we call the Middle East. What we call the Old Testament has become a piece of Hebrew literature, and those writings in Hebrew that became the sacred scripture of the Jewish communities in the diaspora can and ought to be called the Jewish Bible. (Some scholars have confessed to me that there are some non-Hebrew sections in Ezra and Daniel, hut that slight discrepancy shouldn't affect this overall understanding.) The term "Hebrew Bible" is the proper product of a literary view of these writings.

This terminology seems to have developed apart from any theological considerations or concern for naming the New Testament. From a literary point of view it should probably be called the Greek scriptures or even the Greek Bible. This would parallel "Hebrew Bible." But I haven't seen this usage in church--yet. I guess everyone recognized intuitively that from a Christian point of view this was a bible not of the Greeks but of the Christians, some of whom were Greek.

This parallel led me to reflect on the Hebrew terminology. Maybe Hebrew was not a literary conception hut a cultural one. If this was the bible of the Hebrew people, one could speak of a Hebrew Bible as easily as one speaks of the Jewish Bible or Jewish scriptures. But now we come to the theological questions neglected by the biblical scholars. These Hebrew scriptures are also Christian scriptures. For the past 2,000 years Christians and Jews have been struggling over how to interpret these Hebrew writings. Jewish interpretations are found in the Mishna, Talmud and rabbinical writings. Christian interpretations are organized in the collection we call the New Testament. Thus the purely literary approach to naming these writings avoids and covers up the theological question of their meaning for these historic traditions--not to mention for our worship life today.

Perhaps this is the point--to present the Bible without a theological framework. Certainly this seems to have been the outcome of much of the critical work of the biblical scholars. Now, in deference to their scholarship, this nontheological nomenclature has suddenly appeared at the center of our worship.

Conversations with friends, rabbis and scholars revealed a second reason for this change in worship--to eradicate the Christian claim to have superseded God's "old" covenant with the Jews. This pitting of "old" versus "new" spawned the awful history of Christian genocide and anti-Jewish hostility that led to the Holocaust.

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