Once Again… What’s in a Name?

No sooner than I go out of town to a conference than an interesting debate begins in the blogosphere. It appears that the question of the appropriate label for what Christians traditionally have referred to as the “Old Testament” is being debated.  This is not a new debate among bibliobloggers; back in January 2006 I started a similar debate. This time around Claude Mariottini got the ball rolling and Richie (at a blog called “Ecclesiastical Mutt”), Chris Heard, and Chris Weimer have all responded.

My position hasn’t changed since my previous post, so I thought I would reprint it here for you all.

Old Testament/First Testament/Hebrew Bible/Tanak: What’s in a Name? Quite a Bit Actually!

Labels don’t really matter that much, do they? A rose by any other name would still smell as sweet — or so they say. A little while ago there was a discussion on the biblical studies email list about different names for the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible/Tanak. This discussion highlighted the significance that each of the different monikers has as well as potential problems with pretty much all of the terms. When it comes right down to it, it does make a difference what label you do use since each of the names relate to a particular community of faith and audience. That being said, I don’t think there is anything wrong with employing the various labels at different times depending on your intended audience.

From the get go, it should be noted that all of the different terms are, in fact, external labels. The collection of books that make up the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible/Tanak do not have any self-referential label. The closest you get to a self-referential title are the references to parts of the canon by the terms such as “Torah,” the “Torah of Moses” (Ezra 3:2; 7:6; Neh 8:1), the “Torah of the LORD” (Ezra 7:10), or the “book/scroll of Moses” (2Chron 25:4; 35:12; Neh 13:1).

Once you get outside the books of the Hebrew Bible you find references to “the law of the Most High,” “the wisdom of all of the ancients,” and “prophecies” in Sirach 38:34-39:1. Similarly, in the Greek translation of Sirach (completed around 132 BCE), you find reference to the Law, Prophets, and the “other books” — the last phrase being a disputed reference to the third division of the Hebrew Bible. A similar (disputed) reference to the tripartite Hebrew canon are found in 4QMMT, while there are a few reference to a bipartite canon in other DSS such as the Community Rule (1QS) and the Damascus Document (CD).

Within the Christian New Testament the books of the OT are referred to variously as “the Law and the Prophets” (Matt 7:12; 22:40; Luke 16:16; Acts 13:15; Rom 3:21) or “Moses and the Prophets” (Luke 16:29, 31; 24:44) or the like. One of the most common ways the NT refers to the books of the OT is by the generic term “scripture” (Gk. γÏ?αφὴ; usually in the plural, “scriptures”). So for instance, in 2 Timothy 3:16 the books of the OT are referred to as “Scripture” that is “God breathed” (Gk. θεόπνευστος).

The point of this survey is to illustrate that there was no uniform way that Jewish or later Christian communities referred to the collection of books that make up the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible prior to the second century CE.

The traditional Christian label is the Old Testament. This label for the books otherwise known as the Hebrew Bible or Tanak (note that in some traditions it also includes additional apocryphal/deuterocaonical books) is probably the most common label used overall. Its first known usage appears near the end of the second century CE. Melito of Sardis reportedly went to Palestine and “learned accurately the books of the Old Testament/Covenant” (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 4.26.14). Irenaeus also employed the term, though it is only after him that you find undisputed uses the labels “Old Testament” and “New Testament” for the two collections of books in early Christian writings (e.g., Clement, Tertullian, Hippolytus, etc.).

Since this term arose within a Christian context, it isn’t surprising that it is tied to a Christian understanding of these books being only one part of the two part Christian Bible: The Old and New Testaments. Historically, however, there is some difference of opinion within Christian circles what books actually make up the “Old Testament.” The early history of the debate over certain books is quite complex. It ended up that the Protestant tradition limited the term to refer to the books of the Hebrew Bible, while other Christian traditions, e.g., Catholic and Orthodox, include the books commonly referred to as apocryphal or deuterocanonical.

One of the main objections for using this term in biblical scholarship is that it clearly presupposes a Christian understanding of the Bible, which not everyone in biblical studies (obviously) shares. But even within Christian circles, this label is considered misleading by some since it may be interpreted as unnecessarily devaluing one section of the Christian Bible by calling it “old” or by implying that the “new” testament supersedes the “old” testament (the different understandings of the relationships between the testaments is beyond the scope of this post). This dissatisfaction spawned the use of the terms First and Second Testament. These terms are an attempt to recognize the two parts of the Christian Bible without some of the negative baggage associated with “Old” and “New Testament.” I believe this term was coined by James Sanders and has been adopted by the Biblical Theology Bulliten and a growing number of Christian scholars. Even John Goldingay employs it throughout his recent book Old Testament Theology: Israel’s Gospel (IVP, 2003; he only uses the term after the first chapter).

The label Hebrew Bible originates within the Jewish community and is gaining ground in academic biblical studies. It is considered less ideologically loaded than OT, though it has its share of problems. Perhaps the most obvious problem is that it is imprecise, since some of the books are actually written in or contain Aramaic portions. It still conveys religious overtones by including the term “Bible,” while Christians may object because it obscures the connection between the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament. It also doesn’t take into consideration traditions that hold to the expanded Christian canon including the apocryphal books.

Another popular Jewish term for the Old Testament is the Tanak. This term is an acronym for the three major divisions of the Hebrew Bible: Torah, Nebe’im, and Ketubim — TaNaK (תורה נבי×?×™×? וכתובי×? in Hebrew). This is perhaps one of the most common terms used within the Jewish community. Since the label is tied to the contents and order of the Jewish Hebrew Bible, it has the same, if not more, limitations as the term Hebrew Bible. Of course, this traditional Jewish division and ordering of the books appears to be quite old and even reflected in some of the NT passages noted above (also see Matt 23:35).

Other terms have been suggested, but none have really gained widespread usage. Perhaps the traditional labels, albeit problematic, are the best we have. As long as they are used with charity and understanding, I don’t see much of a problem. I have never been offended by any of my Jewish friends referring to the Old Testament as the Hebrew Bible or the Tanak, nor do I think they have been offended when I or other Christians refer to the Old Testament. I probably use the awkward “Old Testament/Hebrew Bible” the most, and reserve “Old Testament” when engaging specifically Christian theological topics and concerns. And I’m still not sure what I think of “First and Second Testament.”

What label(s) do you use and why?

This entry was posted in Best of Codex, Bible, Biblical Canon, Old Testament. Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Once Again… What’s in a Name?

  1. Chris Weimer says:

    What do you think of the encompassing “Jewish scriptures”? If you wanted to get more specific, you could, but this pretty much sums it up, no? Is it too simple?

    Chris Weimer

  2. Richie says:

    That is a lot of good stuff to chew on. I wonder if the change to First and Second Testaments actually eliminates the devaluing of one testament for the sake of the other. It seems to me that it just switches the emphasis. Both sets of adjectives are sequential in nature.

    I would agree that it is mostly the intended audience and the subject matter that should determine the usage, and also admit that I use Old Testament 90% of the time.

    Hopefully this won’t throw another log onto the fire, but the discussion reminds me of an experience from a class I took last quarter. It was a class on the Hebrew Prophets and someone asked our professor how she could use BCE instead of BC when she listed dates. Her reply was simply that from the perspective of the people living at that time, there was no concept of BC or AD, we only see that distinction in hindsight. For her, using BCE had no bearing on her faith; it was simply a way of representing the historical period in a way that is accepted across disciplines. I personally am comfortable with both ways of dating, but with reference to the current debate it makes sense to me that a similar approach could be used when choosing labels. More important, I suppose, would be clarifying the terms we do use for the sake of our readers.

    Thanks for reposting your thoughts!

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  4. Jim Getz says:

    Most of my Jewish colleagues find the whole “First and Second” Testament as annoying as Old and New Testaments. It is still at least latently supersessionist.

    Personally, when I think Old Testament I think LXX, including the Deuterocanonical works. It’s a document of the Church to be interpreted by the Church. When I think Tanakh, I think of a Jewish canon to be interpreted in terms of rabbinic principals. When I think Hebrew Bible, I think of the academy and the study of a foundational document by moderns who may or may not hold this to be “factual” or even “true.”

    Generally speaking, I use “Hebrew Bible” unless I’m preaching in a church or giving a talk at a synagogue, then I’ll use the appropriate term for that faith community.

  5. slaveofone says:

    I’m pretty fond of “Torah”, “Hebrew scriptures” and “Christian scriptures” (or the combined “Hebrew and Christian scriptures”). And I definitely prefer “bibles” over “Bible”. As far as I’m concerned, there is no such thing as “The Bible”.

    Might as well throw in some others…

    “Qumran community” or “Qumranites” instead of “Essenes”…

    I prefer to call myself “Anabaptist” instead of “Christian”.

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  7. “Old Testament” used in relation to the Hebrew Bible is something of a misnomer for all but the last few centuries. Clearly the Septuagint (and versions thereof, including the Vulgate) was the Old Testament of Christianity until the Reformation. Certainly those Church Fathers using the term were not thinking of or reading the Hebrew texts. The confusion is a modern one. Still, since one would expect this term to appear primarily in more Christian than scholarly contexts, the religious affiliation of the user/work should clearly indicate to the reader what he/it means by “Old Testament.” Unless the reader is a ditz, of course….

    “Hebrew Bible” is the most effective, and most accurate when viewed as not exclusively, but largely descriptive of the language it’s written in. That was the explicitly recommended and preferred term with various Jewish scholars I was priveleged to study with.

    “Tanak/Tanakh/TaNaK/etc” is a bit outré, even if there were an agreed spelling, as it’s more commonly referred to as Miqra’ in Modern Hebrew. Using it in English is just a bit twee.

  8. Michael Helfield says:

    I personally do not have a problem with “Old Testament” and “New Testament”, since both terms (in my mind) accurately locate the discourse of a given talk or article. I am aware of all the issues involved, but as a busy academic I do prefer a system of appellation that will indicate to me in a quick fashion what group of texts an issue pertains to (notwithstanding the issues of canon). For the record, I am a Jew, educated as such, who later ended up studying the Classics, and is now interested in New Testament Studies and Early Rabbinic Literature.

    I think professors and/or priests/ministers/pastors (and the like) should use their own judgment about terminology. Audience is an important factor. Some people seem to be tense about this issue, while others simply do not care at the predent moment. I think there is an inherent danger in making a mountain out of molehill, if you will. Having said that, I think writers should have the liberty to use various synonyms and not be forced into one nomenclature.

  9. Jeff Garcia says:

    I find myself often referring to the Old Testament as “the Bible”, and subsequently the New Testament as such. I guess part of the issue, for me at least, is that when you study Second Temple Judaism scholars often mention post-biblical material or post-biblical language, which assumes that what is contained in the Tanak is the biblical material. That being said, I often use the term “Hebrew Scriptures” as well as the “Septuagint.” Although all these terms contain biases, I think that the “Hebrew” Scriptures is the fairest name, as it is derived from the language of the material.

    At the end of day, my assumption is that in most cases it would be better to use inclusive rather than exclusive language. I don’t mean inclusive of material but of scholars. Certain language may preclude scholars from Jewish circles, and vice versa, from interacting in serious discussion because of the present biases.

  10. Ken says:

    How about just Professor of History or Ancient History? Or, Comparative Literature? Or, Religion? Biblical Studies? Theology? Or, a combination of the above depending on one’s methodological approaches. If someone asks about your specialization(s) then you can give a more nuanced response that is sensitive to the sensibilities of your audience.

  11. Shawn says:

    I would have to agree with Ken.

    The problem seems to be a confusion with a variety of subsets in the field(s) that we study. There is Canaanite Religion, in its broad and varied forms. Then a subset of this is “Israelite� religion; yet there is debate how this can be defined and at what point it begins. Most of us seek to understand this latter aspect, “Israelite� religion which is a subset of a larger geographical/historical context. But most importantly, a subset of that religion is the literary corpus which that group(s) produced (Dearman, Rleigion and Culture in Ancient Israel, 1992); HB, OT, etc. Most of us want to know about the culture/people that expressed this “Israelite� religion and sometimes use their literary writings to access that. Saying we are scholars of HB/OT is inaccurate since we regularly use archeology, inscriptions, other ANE material and other texts not in our canons; not to mention a variety of reading lenses that have nothing to do with the communities who produced these texts. In these ways I appreciate Ken’s designations (Ancient History) which seem to recognize we are not scholars of the text, but of the people behind those texts; and if the methodology changes so can the self-designation (ie: Comparative Literature if we are more interested in the intersection between the texts than the people who wrote them. But are these always distinguishable?). Then if we are to use designations like HB, OT, etc. Tyler’s comments regarding the need for clarity and definition when they are used is important. But I also appreciate his notion that labels are just that, imperfect signifiers that require constant definition.

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