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Once Again… What’s in a Name?

30th May 2007

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?

Posted in Best of Codex, Bible, Biblical Canon, Old Testament | 12 Comments »

Goat Skin DNA, Dead Sea Scrolls, and Tehillim

15th May 2007

Goats and Scrolls
While it is not odd to see the Dead Sea Scrolls in the news — especially with the scroll exhibit touring the United States — there is an interesting article by Judy Siegel-Itzkovic in the Jerusalem Post today about how DNA evidece from the goat skins used to make the parchment for the Scrolls helped piece together some of the Scroll fragments. The article, “How goat skin DNA solved a mystery of the Dead Sea scrolls,” doesn’t really say anything new, but is interesting nonetheless. Here are some relevant excerpts:

Scientists at the Hebrew University’s Koret School for Veterinary Science near Rishon Lezion are helping to piece together some of the 10,000 fragments of Dead Sea Scrolls found decades ago in Qumran by examining the DNA profiles of the goats whose skin was used to make the parchment and reducing the number of possible matches.

Dr. Galia Kahila Bar-Gal said during a journalists’ tour at the nearby Hebrew University Veterinary Teaching Hospital, where students learn and treat animals, that she and colleagues were looking at genetic forms from each fragment to know which came from specific animals. Once they know that two pieces came from the skin of the same animal, it is easier to piece them together, she said.

Scrolls and Tehillim
The Dead Sea Scrolls also made the headlines in the Jewish Tribune, according to the blogger with the coolest moniker, Mississippi Fred MacDowell. He recounts how he was sent a clipping of a letter to the editor of the London-based Agudist newspaper that claimed “Secular and non-Jewish scholars have to admit that the Tenach scrolls are word-for-word identical with our texts and not with those of Samaritans (Kusim) and early translators (Septuagint – Greek, Targumim in various Aramaic dialects, et al). But the spelling is often different, in many vavs, yuds and alephs.” MacDowell responds to this claim with an interesting discusision of the view of the Dead Sea Scrolls in many orthodox Jewish communities and his response to such claims. In particular he talks about the various textual tradtions found among the scrolls, let alone the high number of unaligned texts. You can read his discussion on his blog, On the Main Line, in his post “A threat to Tehillim? Dead Sea Scrolls in the Jewish Tribune.”

The only beef I would have with MacDowell’s post is found in this paragraph:

In fact three or four kinds of Hebrew texts were found at Qumran (depending on how you divide it). The first are Bible texts that are much like the masoretic text (and comprise about 60% of the material), the second seems to be a type of Hebrew text that the Septuagint was translated from (only about 5%), the third is like the Samaritan Pentateuch, lacking only the ideological changes that are present in the Samaritan version (also about 5%). A fourth type are texts that can’t be placed into any of these categories (about 105), and finally there are non-Biblical Hebrew texts which are unique to Qumran, comprising about 20% of the total. In other words, exactly the opposite of what the writer claimed.

Some of the numbers didn’t quite ring true, and I believe may be based on Tov’s older estimates (there are also some issues with breaking down the scrolls in this manner, but I won’t get into that for now). The most recent figures I have seen break down the biblical scrolls found at Qumran as follows:

  • Proto-Masoretic (forerunners of the text that forms the basis of our versions of the OT) (47%)
  • Texts like the “Samaritan Pentateuchâ€? (2.5%)
  • Texts like the Septuagint (3.3%)
  • Unique Texts (47%)

Either way, MacDowell’s point remains valid. Despite the variety found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, MacDowell is correct to point out the following:

And the Dead Sea Scrolls proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that the massoretic text is not late, it is at least as old as the Samaritan and the Hebrew Septuagint. Conversely, it also proves that 2000 years ago “the Bible” was not exclusively massoretic.

That’s the good news, if indeed this is good news. But its important to understand that these massoretic Dead Sea texts are actually massoretic-like, not identical with our own text. This means that many words as spelled differently in ways that don’t matter, as the letter writer notes, but also that many words are not the same at all.

It’s a good read; make sure to peruse it for yourself.

Posted in Biblical Canon, Dead Sea Scrolls, Old Testament | Comments Off

McDonald on the Biblical Canon

11th January 2007

Danny Zacharias has an interesting interview on the canon of the Bible with Lee Martin McDonald over at Deinde. The interview revolves around the recently published third edition of McDonald’s book, The Biblical Canon: Its Origin, Transmission, and Authority (Hendrickson, 2007; Buy from or The interview is interesting, though I wish McDonald would have expanded on some of his views of the orgin and role of the LXX for canon studies!

McDonald also edited a collection of essays with James Sanders that is also essential reading for those interested in questions of canon: The Canon Debate (Hendrickson, 2002; Buy from or

Some other books on the question of canon include the following:

  • John Barton, Holy Writings, Sacred Text: The Canon in Early Christianity (Westminster John Knox, 1998; Buy from or
  • Roger Beckwith, The Old Testament Canon of the New Testament Church (Eerdmanns, 1985; Buy from or
  • Hans Freiherr von Campenhausen, The Formation of the Christian Bible (Translated by J. A. Baker; Fortress Press, 1972; Buy from or
  • Christine Helmer and Christof Landmesser, eds., One Scripture or Many? Canon from Biblical, Theological, and Philosophical Perspectives (Oxford University Press, 2004; Buy from or
  • Martin Hengel, The Septuagint As Christian Scripture: Its Prehistory And The Problem Of Its Canon (Baker, 2004; Buy from or
  • Bruce M. Metzger, The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance (Oxford University Press, 1997; Buy from or
  • Andrew E. Steinmann, The Oracles of God: The Old Testament Canon (Concordia Academic Press, 1999; Buy from or

Of the above I would wholeheartedly recommend Hengel and the Helmer and Christof Landmesser volume, though all of them are worthy of reading.

Posted in Bible, Biblical Canon | 1 Comment »