Recently I sat down with Jonathan Greer and John Hilber to talk about Behind the Scenes of the Old Testament, a recent book they edited with John Walton. We spoke of the need for such a book, how it was put together, and who should read it. Read on to learn more about why we need a book like this, or join our conversation now:
Why do Christians neglect the Old Testament?
Christian neglect of the Old Testament (OT) is often tied back to Marcion of Sinope (c. 85-c. 160 CE). Influenced by emerging gnostic thought, Marcion believed that the God who created the world—the God of Abraham, Moses, and the prophets—was not the God of Jesus Christ. Marcion viewed The God of the OT as a lower deity, one overshadowed by the highest heavenly God whom Jesus represented. Marcion’s canon included only a partial Gospel of Luke and the letters of Paul; Marcion wrote off the Law and the Prophets, the Bible of Jesus. Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and Tertullian opposed Marcion, and he was eventually excommunicated.
Today the problem is orthodox silence. As a matter of theological confession we affirm that the OT is the Word of God, but all too often we neglect it in our teaching ministries. We tend to undervalue the OT because it does not readily yield to our demands for instant relevance. Even the term “Old Testament” is susceptible to being misunderstood as archaic, outmoded material. We mistakenly think the content of the OT is too difficult, complicated, and distant from us. Sometimes it’s hard for us to correlate the teaching of the OT with that of the New Testament. David Murray adds even more reasons why the OT is neglected here. No doubt teaching and preaching the OT can be difficult, leading many to shy away from it, as we pointed out in a previous post. Instead of laboring to proclaim the whole counsel of God, we grab the low-hanging fruit. Whether we intend it or not, our neglectful silence on the OT loudly proclaims that the first 2/3 of the Bible is superfluous and dispensable.
Although many run from the OT, no one can hide from it. It tells us that God created the universe and chose to bless it through the descendants of Abraham. It tells us of Moses and the prophets, of David and the kings of Israel. In the fullness of time it became the Bible of Jesus. It testifies to him (e.g. John 5:39). He came to fulfill it, not abolish it (e.g. Matt 5:17-21). Paul frequently spoke of its importance for the church (e.g. Rom 15:4; 1 Cor 10:6, 11; 2 Tim 3:15-17). The Bereans validated Paul’s teaching by comparing it to the OT (Acts 17:11). There could be no New Testament apart from the seminal events and ideas of the OT. The New Testament directly quotes the OT around 400 times, and subtly alludes to it thousands of times more. As William Dumbrell and many others have pointed out, the end of the Bible makes no sense apart from its beginning. In his “Preface to the Old Testament,” Martin Luther argued that the OT is the ground and proof of the New Testament and quaintly spoke of it as the manger and swaddling cloths of Jesus.
It’s About History
The God who created the world and set history in motion continued to speak into that world through the OT, and at the right time he spoke through a Son. So says Hebrews 1:1, reaffirming the OT’s claim to be a narrative of the various ways God revealed himself to Israel: In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways. The common factor in all this diverse divine speech is its basis in history. Understanding and communicating the OT is not just a matter of engaging it as a literary text in terms of its original languages, the genre of its books, and the tropes it utilizes. It is also a matter of engaging it as a historical text in terms of the places, events, customs, and cultures to which it refers. The OT as God’s historical speech to Israel paves the way for God’s historical speech through Jesus. The latter is unintelligible without the former. Meredith Cook makes this point well here.
Greer, Hilber, and Walton rightly believe that we best understand the meaning of the OT for the world today when we understand the world to which it was originally written. They implement this thesis by enlisting a wide range of leading scholars who provide up-to-date information in 66 accessible articles (typically 6-8 pages each) on the cultural, social, and historical contexts of the OT drama. To get behind the scenes and learn more about Behind the Scenes of the Old Testament, listen to my conversation with Jonathan Greer and John Hilber:
For More Information . . .
Read an interview with Greer, Hilber, and Walton posted April 19 at Bible History Daily (Biblical Archaeology Society) here.
The conclusion of the review at Leitourgeia (December 14, 2018) is correct:
BTSOT would be an excellently received addition to library of serious biblical scholars and pastors who desire to faithfully teach the text as it is understood from its original context.