Ideological Issues of the term, “Old Testament”
*This post was originally published bilingually in English as well as Korean back in 2017. Now the post is separated in each language. For the Korean version, see here
Christian Scripture, commonly called “the Bible,” is divided into two sections, the Old and New Testaments. The Old Testament comes first in the Bible and occupies an enormously large portion of it, compared to the New Testament. The “New Testament,” of course, means a new covenant, whereas the “Old Testament” gives an impression that this particular corpus of texts is something old: so it is perhaps obsolete or inferior to the new covenant. I know Christians don’t think this way, but, in terms of the designations themselves, it is true that people rarely think that something “old” is equal to or better than something “new.” Even Jesus says “no one puts new wine into old wineskins” (Luke 5:37). For this reason, there are people who don’t like the name “Old” Testament, and some of them prefer the term “the First Testament.” Despite the limitations or the negative connotations of the name “Old” Testament, however, most Christians seem reluctant to replace the old name with the alternative. That is, perhaps, because they are so deeply familiar with the name “Old Testament.” Or maybe they think that the designations are not a big deal, as far as they are aware that the Old Testament is as important as the New Testament. In other words, even though the “Old Testament” is not the best designation for the corpus of these texts, the discussed problems do not strongly motivate most Christians to seek an alternative for the “Old Testament.” With respect to this point, the mentality of many biblical scholars would probably be the same. Nevertheless, most biblical scholars, whom I know or read, usually prefer the “Hebrew Bible” to the “Old Testament.” Then what on earth caused them to abandon their old habit, to push them out of their comfort zone, and to use an alternative, “Hebrew Bible?”
The answer is more ideological than semantic. The term “Old Testament” presupposes its newer version, “the New Testament.” And, of course, the New Testament is a part of Christian Scripture. An implication of the designation, “Old Testament,” which always presupposes a corpus of texts designed only for Christians, therefore, is that this large, first part of the Bible is “basically” written for Christians. But is this book not originally written for Jews? Christians do not have a right to monopolize these texts. Nevertheless, as a result of the hegemony that the Christian empire has achieved in the Western world, Christians call this book “the Old Testament” without realizing its problems. If Christian hegemony is recognized to be achieved in peaceful and ethical methods, Christians’ appropriation of the Jewish Scripture as the “Old Testament” for themselves might not have been a serious issue. Unfortunately, however, Christians’ influence on world history is not at all positive.
Since the Edict of Milan in 313, in which Constantine the Great proclaimed to treat Christians benevolently within the Roman Empire, the Western world had been violently ruled by Christian leadership. And, I believe, all the atrocities of Christian violence began with their canonization of the Jewish Scripture as the Old Testament. Stepping on the power of the Roman Empire, Christianity was enthroned to the most powerful position in the world, and eventually the book, originally Jewish Scripture, became a part of Christian Scripture. At the same time, (Western) Christians falsely accused Jews of being “Christ-killer”; continuously reinforced antisemitism in various ways; and developed an idea that Jews’ position as God’s chosen people was superseded by Christians according to God’s will. Consequently, Jews lost their right to possess the Word of God. Furthermore, the West attacked the rest of the world (Africa, the continents of America, and the East), plundered, and colonized them, believing that the wealth that they violently obtained is God’s gift as some biblical texts, especially from the Old Testament, literally endorse such actions. The world history written by Western Christians is immoral and inhuman, at least by the standards of our time.
Biblical scholars are the ones who are aware of those problems so well. (Some “conservative” or allegedly “evangelical” biblical scholars still stick to the traditional designation, “Old Testament.”) Also, one of the hottest subject matters in biblical scholarship these days is to establish justice through their studies. For biblical scholars, the term “Old Testament” gives an impression that using the term reinforces Christian hegemony stained with violence. For biblical scholars who try to make up for the mistakes of the past, the ironic name “Old Testament” needs to be replaced by an alternative. And they are now using the term “Hebrew Bible.” As indicated earlier, the name is more ideological than semantic. As a matter of fact, semantically speaking, the term, “Hebrew Bible” is as defective as the “Old Testament,” because the term indicates that the Old Testament is written in Hebrew only. It is true that a great deal of the first section of the Bible is written in Hebrew. But Aramaic also takes a little bit of portion, and even Greek, the main language of the New Testament, appears in some texts, especially Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical texts, which are certainly canonical in many denominations in Christianity, especially the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. Despite all these limitations of the designation, biblical scholars stick to this expression as they are in need of an alternative to the ideologically biased term “Old Testament.” Calling this book “the Hebrew Bible” or something other than “the Old Testament” does not give an indulgence for the sins of Christians. Should we not, nonetheless, have to ask for forgiveness through such repenting actions?