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What’s in a Title? (Of Religious Texts)

August 27, 2018

This post is being prompted by my reading of a review of a new translation of the Hebrew Scriptures (more often called “Old Testament” by Christians), by Dr. Phillip Long, found here.  If you follow such things, his review is worth a few minutes.  I actually don’t keep up on recent biblical translations much, but having read this prompted some thoughts about the importance of how we title things, especially those that are so widely read or referred to.  And, on top of that, given a special sacred and often authoritative status, as is the Bible, whether only the pre-Christian Jewish Bible or the expanded one including the “New Testament”.  My thoughts, below, come from reflections based on my ongoing reading of scholarly works (and others) on the Bible, history of the Ancient Near East, Christian origins and Christian spirituality.  So below is what I posted as a comment on Dr. Long’s blog regarding this newly released translation called “The First Testament”.

I’m glad to see a move away from the title “Old Testament”, but not fully satisfied with “First Testament” either. I’d like to see Christians broadly get more comfortable with what a great many scholars of the Bible have been using for a long time: “Hebrew Scriptures”. Of course, coupling “New Testament” to that is not good parallelism, and “Greek (or Greco-Roman) Scriptures” for “NT” is not quite apropos, either, as “NT” authors were mostly Jewish also, though writing in Greek… so it’s complicated.

But the fact that the big majority of Judaism takes the “First Testament” as the ONLY canonized Bible, the implication of a second or later testament without the qualifier of “Hebrew” seems too disregarding of what actually came via their ancestors. And, at least in some sense, that body of work has been co-opted by Christians in adding to and re-labeling the historical first portion, whether as “first” or “old”.

Another reason I feel including “Hebrew” with “Scriptures” or even with “Testament” is appropriate is to keep from implying (as in “First Testament”) that these scriptures are necessarily the earliest or the only (maybe with NT added in) “Word of God” given to humanity. I know many from India and regions nearby (Hindus and others, including Western scholars or devotees) would like to chime in with a probably-valid contention that at least portions of THEIR scriptures are significantly older and they have a comparable claim to being divine revelations.

I think I’m o.k. with Testament, in that covenant/testament is central there, so if that is kept, right now my preference would probably be “Early Hebrew Testament”, leaving room for a later “new covenant” (Hebrew scriptural term) potentially called something clumsy like “Later Hebrew Testament in Greek”. This might be seen as both more accurate and more suitable to keeping respect for Jewish beliefs that do not recognize the later as “testament” or scripture. Not a “hill to die on” but something to give further thought to.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. August 27, 2018 3:38 pm

    I usually refer to Western Civilization’s Old Testament as the Mishnah and Tanakh. That usually rings the bell (alarm?) for novices to take more serious consideration — by Hellenistic Christology/Christianity — of their religion’s inescapable (yet sadly distorted & ignored; i.e. Roman anti-Semitism) deep roots in Second Temple Judaism/Messianism. It takes MORE than one lens to truly see ALL the components and context of a subject. 😉

    • September 2, 2018 6:37 am

      So true. Mishnah and Tanakh are terms that are little known and used among Christians… even at levels of theological (or pastoral) training. I wonder even how many Jews know or use them. Any idea? Talmud maybe more?

      • September 2, 2018 9:39 am

        Well, I think it’s pretty safe to say that a lot more (orthodox?) Jews know the terms and understand their full meaning and context than most all Christians do… if not ALL Christians, including most pastors/ministers and their seminaries.

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