What to call the first half of the Christian canon? How about The Old Testament!

One of the limitations of being a pastor is that you don’t very often get to hear your colleagues and minister friends (or anybody, really) preach and lead worship, because you yourself are so occupied on the majority of Sunday mornings.

So for the last five years since I retired I have enjoyed from time to time visiting a variety of churches, mostly, but by no means exclusively, in my own denomination, the United Church of Christ.

In doing so I have experienced all manner of worship, some good and not so good preaching, and generally interesting approaches to the Lord’s Day worship of the people.

But one troubling feature of many of the  worship services I attended is the practice of calling the Old Testament reading by another name. I think this is a bad practice, and further adds to the confusion in the pews about just what the role of Scripture is in worship. Because we don’t pick these readings at random, as if we could just as easily pick some other one (say Kahlil Gibran or e.e. cummings.) No, these reading are our canon of Scripture, and define our identity as Christians.  The word canon comes from the word “rule” or “measure,” and it’s one of the ancient rules of our tribe, but now seemingly in jeopardy.

The most common practice that I have noticed is for congregations to call the first reading, “A Reading of the Hebrew Scriptures.”  It sounds good and fair, and who could object?   Well, me for one.

The reasons for calling it this are right-minded (a supposed sensitivity to Jews for one thing), but wrong-headed. For one thing, it isn’t entirely true, as the Hebrew Scriptures differ somewhat, and have an entirely different canonical order. And they are not actually all in Hebrew as there is some Aramaic in them. In academia, where I suspect this bad habit has been picked up by well meaning but misguided ministers, it makes a certain sense to call the academic study of the Hebrew Scriptures “the Hebrew Scriptures,” but congregations aren’t classrooms, and the liturgical use of Scripture is a different creature from the academic study of it (although the latter should certainly inform the other.)

So Sunday service bulletins should call it the Old Testament, which has the advantage of being the near universal practice of the ecumenical church, and also theologically correct, since it precedes the New.Old Testament doesn’t imply super-sessionism (the great fear of the revisionists), only chronology, and points to the arc of the whole Christian narrative, which is obviously contained in both of the two testaments.

Calling the first readings the Hebrew Scriptures also wrongly implies that the New Testament is the Christian Scriptures (sometimes, believe it or not, even just called that in some of our churches), which of course is dangerously false, as the Christian canon is both the Old Testament and the New Testament. Remember Marcion?

Furthermore, we Christians read the Old Testament (or should) through a different set of lenses than the Jewish community, precisely because of the New Testament. Which is to say that we read them in the light of the life, teaching, passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, or as we say in the jargon of the theological world, Christologically.And other common euphemisms for the old Testament, such “Our Common Scriptures,” or “First Reading” or “First Lesson” are no better, and share the same flaws. Some of this language may well be appropriate in an inter-faith service, but I am talking about it being used in our own worship.

Given the despicable history of Christian anti-Semitism it is understandable that we are trying to be sensitive to our Jewish brothers and sisters, whose faith and ours do indeed share common roots. But my Jewish rabbi colleagues, and I have had many of them, tell me they don’t understand this practice and it gives them no solace.

They (usually) would like to be in conversation with us, but not as a way to find some new religion that is netiher Jewish nor Christian. My best rabbi friend tells me that our honesty with each other comes about because he doesn’t apologize for being a Jew, and I don’t apologize for being a Christian, and so we can talk about where we agree and where we differ.And one of the places where we differ is in having different Scriptures, although they do indeed overlap. And for Christians, our Scriptures are the writings contained in the Old Testament and the New Testament.

So why else do we do this?  I think we do this to signal to ourselves and others how open we are,  and to make our mostly middle class congregants feel good about themselves, which is actually not what divine worship is for.So if you are calling the first reading something else in your congregation, just stop it. It’s proper name is the Old Testament!

(Photo:  Moses the Prophet, Icon from the Eastern Orthodox Church)
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4 thoughts on “What to call the first half of the Christian canon? How about The Old Testament!

  1. >To my mind "Old Testament" is an add-on name for Tanakh, Hebrew Scripture, or Jewish Bible. I've talked to Jews about this, and of course looked it up. But I actually formed my opinion before doing all that.However, when one reads from the "Hebrew Scriptures" in a Christian church or setting, I'd guess most of the audience won't know all this.I know the Tanakh organizes things in a different order, and varies on the Apocrypha (as does the Christian Bible) and that most Christians read through Christological lens.Jesus was a Jew, and it behooves even a Christian to benefit from reading the same Bible he did, through his eyes. When He taught, he indeed referenced the Torah, the Hebrew Scriptures, the law and the prophets. Christianity hadn't been invented yet.Yes I know you know all this and have formed your opinion rightfully so, I'm simply chatting with you. I've wondered what's best to say in reference to "Old Testament" readings. Use of that term has long bugged me, even before I became an official theology student; I'm often the exception in a church for having read, memorized and studied in depth much of scripture, w/o said formal education.Thanks for this writing, you remind me I need to be more clear in word and deed on my own position on the matter."Old Testament" has so many theological and psychological meanings. Loaded with meaning.

  2. >Thank you for your thoughtful comments. My first Old Testament teacher, Phyllis Trible, always referred to the Hebrew canon as TaNaKh, which as you know stands for the three Hebrew words for the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings. That, as you also know, is not how our Christian OT canon is organized. I think it was acceptable for her to do so in an academic setting, as I said. But I think it would be as just as wrong to call the first reading a reading from TaNaKh as it is to call it from the “Hebrew Bible,” since it is not our canon but the Hebrew canon. Why do we need do start making up new names for this part of our Bible after all these centuries? It is just another one of the many things the mainline church does for reasons that baffle me, and frankly alienate me, and distract me from worship.And these little tweaks see, to be akin to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. There are much larger issues at stake in our churches.These “innovations” also distance us from our separated brothers and sisters in Christ, who outnumber us, and they make us appear to be a sect of some kind. And I do think we make sectarian moves that are without adequate ecumenical conversation or theological foundation. This is just one of them.Rick.

  3. >Ah yes, so well explained! Helpful.Perhaps for me the answer is to use OT with Christians, and Hebrew or Tanakh with Jews or others; when Hebrew, Judiasm, Torah are the topic.You've not doubt noticed that "OT" doesn't mean much to a Jew, especially an Orthodox Jew.My agenda has been for Christians to realize the ancient roots of our Bible, to understand "we" didn't write it all, and the Jews have so very much to do with our faith. I for one enjoy my chumash, both Hertz and Stone Scroll eds, lol. I want to know the Bible Jesus used. However, your comments remind me this isn't the true agenda, and can be distancing…my inner Pharisee rears its ugly head.As for canon, isn't that a man-made thing, like chapter breaks and heading titles? (Not that man isn't inspired!) I've printed various books and sections of Scripture with no verse, chapter or heading breaks, and also one of only the red letters of John. Makes reading the Bible a different experience; however for study of course the editing is wonderful.Thanks for the heads up!(p.s. another of my personal agendas is Christians who think faith and religion is only about the West, and modern-day believers…another topic entirely and my ego again roars ;))

  4. >Thank goodness for a sensible statement on this. Too often the academic approach to things impinges on the 'real' world of the 'ordinary' church. It's visible in changing BC and AD to some other thing like Common Era or somesuch, and to that other peculiarity "G-d"? What the heck is that supposed to be? I was told that using the word 'God' was offensive to the Jews. Can't for the life of me see how, since it isn't the word they use anyway! (And how on earth do you say 'G-d' in ordinary speech. Methinks some people protest too much!

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