The Bible is traditionally made up of two sections, the Old Testament and the New Testament. These designations are not found in the scriptures themselves. It is the Church Father Tertullian in the 2nd century C.E. who is credited with these names. Now there are many testaments or covenants in the scriptures. Tertullian probably had Hebrews 8 in mind which in turn references different portions of the Old Testament particularly Jeremiah 31:31-34. The Old Testament established Israel as the people of God. The New Testament however establishes the Church as the new people of God, that is, those who come to God through faith in Jesus name, both Jew and Gentile. The New Testament is therefore the fulfilment of the Old. More can be said about this powerful analogy but we must recognize that it is an analogy. Early Christians adopted this viewpoint and over time they became the popular names of the two major portions of scripture.
Names are descriptive in nature. They do not serve just as arbitrary place holders or reference tags for things. They correspond to things in reality. They pertain to identity, what something is and the properties that distinguish it from others. The traditional designations are important and useful. We need to recognise how the scriptures would organically identify itself.
The Bible is rooted in Jewish thought. For example the Old Testament corresponds to the Hebrew Bible which is known as the Tanakh, an acronym for Torah, Nevim, Ketuvim, that is, the Law, the Prophets and the Writings. This Jewish way of looking at the scriptures is unfortunately lost on most Christians. In an earlier post I briefly proposed a rearrangement of the Bible to reflect its Jewishness. Anchoring our understanding of it in the consciousness that gave it to us is important. I am not saying our Bibles are referenced wrongly and everyone needs to adopt my way. I simply wanted something that would keep me conceptually tethered to its identity.
“The Prophets” was used metonymically to refer to the entire canon. It constitutes the largest section of the Tanakh. Furthermore, God’s word came to Israel through the prophets. The Bible was known as the prophetic “writings”. It showed how God interacted with his people and the message he was communicating with them. In the Bible an intimate story was being presented in a very sophisticated manner. The names they gave it served as summaries of how they viewed and interacted with the text in their society and through it with God himself.
One of the most common way of referring to the Bible in the text itself is as the scriptures. Scripture is simply a writing but it has the acquired nuance in English of referring to religious texts. Technically, scripture was used for a certain passage in the Bible and the plural scriptures was used for more than one passage, or the entire Bible. It would be confusing to us to today to say the writing or the writings. In human history, living on this side of Gutenberg, we take writing and other forms of media for granted. They certainly had other writings but Holy Writ was integral to their identity as a people, so the writings could only possibly refer to one thing.
Since “the writings” is the most common designation I think it should reflect in how we view the sections of the Bible. The “Old” and “New” suggests to the modern Christian a certain disconnect even though it actually doesn’t mean that. The new is not what you get when you discard the old. As I explained in the New Creature in Christ, it means a restoration and a fulfilment of the old. It is a renewal, life out of death, a new creation out of the old. Instead of Old and New Testaments I propose “Former and Latter Writings.” This is I think very much in keeping with how the ancient Jewish people understood the text and referenced it. Former and Latter were already being used as the designations of the two major sections of the Nevim, that is, the Prophets. Also former and later indicates continuity between the two sections.
The former writings were characterised by the prophetic tradition. One of the major themes of the later writings is how the prophetic writings were fulfilled in the Messiah. Fulfilment of prophecy was not merely a prediction occurring neither was it a question of probabilities. It meant something far richer and more startling. The Messiah was not enacting isolated passages but in him the various threads of Israel’s story, its call and mission, had come to a glorious climax. He was the embodiment of his people’s hopes and their hope was in YHWH, their God.
All most all of the authors of the latter writings were apostles or at least they knew one. They were authoritative eyewitnesses of the events surrounding Jesus. It is sometimes remarked in the Gospels how after his resurrection (post post-mortem if you will) they then understood how he fulfilled the scriptures. The resurrection was the epicentre of the seismic change in their lives. It truly came as a shock to them. They simply were not expecting it. It forced them to re-evaluate how they knew and understood the Holy Scriptures. Going back through it they realised this had been YHWH’s plan all along. They therefore did not discard the prophetic tradition but they saw their mission as the next stage in the divine plan. Even as I write these things I struggle to put them down in a few short lines. The counsel of God, his plan and purpose, is so great. I am beginning to get a sense why at the end of Romans 11 Paul had to just take a moment to extol God’s wisdom.
Jesus told his closest disciples, “as the Father has sent me so do I send you, receive the spirit.” An apostle is essential a missionary, an ambassador. He was charging them with the same prophetic commission that he himself had received from above. The impartation of the spirit is reminiscent of how the prophets were inspired by the spirit to speak the words of God. The prophetic tradition had reached a climax in Jesus but it also entered a new missional phase. The New Testament is as such the apostolic writings.
All the Gospels conclude with Jesus commissioning and dispatching his chosen disciples into the world. The prophets Isaiah and Micah speak of the law going out of Zion and the nations gathering to her. The national vision of Israel was to be the model for the world. The idea of the people of Israel being the light of the world is very common in the former writings. Jesus drew upon this symbol heavily in his teachings. The nation was God’s servant, his prophet, through whom his word would reach all the nations. In times of disobedience the prophets often said God would make them a byword, turn them into an insult that the other nations would use. This represented a complete failure in their mission. Instead of being exemplary they had turned into a cautionary tale. It is through Jesus that the world has come to believe in the God of Israel. The Church is made up of all categories of people from all over the world. The Church is also a part of how this mission is spread across the globe.
The Tanakh was limited to the Jewish people. In their writings, the apostles were declaring that God had fulfilled his plan, espoused in the prophetic writings, and was inviting everybody, both Jew and Gentile, to participate in the good news. In an almost paradoxical sense, their writings were fulfilling the scriptures as well. There was now an imperative in their message to send the scriptures to the world. In the apostolic tradition the sacred writings had been re-imagined from ethnic literature to a truly global set of documents. They had essentially invented the Bible as we know it today.