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)