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The problem of the two testaments: pedagogical motives for shifting from "Old Testament" to "Hebrew Bible."

In undergraduate courses using literary approaches to both Bibles, I find it useful to exhibit an element of rebellion against Christian hermeneutics by renaming the "Old" and "New" Testaments as the Hebrew and Christian Bibles. Here, I offer a pedagogical defense for shifting the students' orientation from the epithet "Old" to the epithet "Hebrew." To rechristen, as it were, the "Old Testament" as "Hebrew Bible" is not a new idea (see Boadt; Brooks); however, the basic issues that my students confront while assimilating the new epithet "Hebrew" may be of use to other teachers of the Bible.

Undoubtedly, there is a personal need for Jewish teachers to insist upon the term "Hebrew Bible" to encourage students to view the Hebrew texts accurately in the cultural context of the differences between Judaism and Christianity and to end the tradition of misrepresentation and often denigration of Judaism and Jews. But there are also tenable linguistic, historical, literary, theological, and cultural motives for the shift to the epithet "Hebrew Bible": (1) to alert students to the need for some knowledge of the Hebrew language, (2) to raise the issue of the different ordering of the biblical books in Jewish, Catholic and Protestant traditions, (3) to teach students the sociohistorical differences between Israelites (Hebrews) and Jews, (4) to raise the issue of unity versus diversity and divergence in the two Bibles, (5) and, most important, to acquaint students with the Christian appropriation or co-optation of Hebrew texts.

In addition to addressing these complex issues that I can only raise but not resolve here, the revisionist pedagogical maneuver of renaming the Bibles helps students enter the postmodern debate within the University today, especially within departments of English, regarding how, even whether, to teach the Western tradition and which texts, if any, to include in the canon. The current University debate is part of a three-thousand-year process of revisionism, and disorienting the students by renaming the two testaments that are the sources of Western textuality develops their ability to think critically about our literary and cultural heritage. Shifting from "Old" to "Hebrew" is the beginning of the unsettling but surprising process of unlearning and learning in which students, like Saul, may start out looking for asses but find a kingdom of knowledge.

A discussion of the problem of the two testaments and what to call them not only gives students a postmodern perspective for reading both Bibles but also warns fundamentalist students that what they will find in both Bibles may not jibe with what they were taught in their communities of faith. Today many students who take Bible courses have varieties of faith that are extremely unsophisticated, aggressive, and even hostile to secular-critical communities of scholarship. Fundamentalist students (both Christian and Jewish) are desperate to see biblical texts as windows to historical and spiritual truth. The rise of Fundamentalism on campus can turn what we used to call Jewish-Christian dialog into hostile monologues. To teach students critical thinking that does not accept easy, superficial answers, any pedagogical maneuver should be used that can begin to show students the differences between their views and postmodern critical views of biblical texts and the differences between Jewish and Christian interpretations of the Hebrew Bible.

The name Hebrew Bible serves as a pedagogical reminder to students that this Bible was written in Hebrew and Aramaic. Many undergraduates come to an introductory course in the Bible with the misconception that the Hebrew Bible was written in English. Thus it is essential for the professor to be able to read directly the original Hebrew text. The teacher can translate to the students surprising information such as that the Garden of Eden story contains no reference to Satan; that Sunday is not the Sabbath; that Christ was not the last name of that famous Jewish baby whose first name may have been Yehoshua; that there are two creation stories, the six-day account and the Adam and Eve account; or that the virgin birth assertion is based on the Greek parthenos |virgin~, which is a mistranslation of the Hebrew almah |young woman~ in Isaiah 7:14. My students are most surprised by the original Hebrew titles of biblical texts: Koheleth instead of Ecclesiastes, Names (shemot) instead of Exodus, "In the Desert" (bamidbar) instead of Numbers. By the end of the course, I have awakened a perceived need in the students for some knowledge of Hebrew language and style and a new understanding of the problems and misconceptions of reading the Hebrew Bible in an English translation. I am not trying to essentialize the text by suggesting that its real or pure meaning is found in the original Hebrew or, worse, that only Hebrew readers can understand the Hebrew Bible. The point is, however, to show the students that translations, like all textual readings, are interpretations. Some translations such as the "virgin birth" become increasingly hard to justify when the text is considered in its own historical and linguistic contexts. Rather than advocating the true reading to the students, I try to point out that some translations do not approach the complexity of the Hebrew text, and some translations are intended for certain specific theological and historical uses outside the original contexts. Perhaps the most fundamental point to make in a course introducing the Hebrew Bible is to remind the students that what they have in their hands is not the Bible, but only a translation that, like all readings, is another interpretation.

The renaming of the "Old Testament" also forcefully presents to the students the different order of the books of the Hebrew Bible in the Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant traditions. For most of my Christian students, the shift from the Hebrew to the Christian Bibles is simply a matter of turning a page from Malachi to Matthew. The epithet "Hebrew" makes it easier to introduce the acronym Tanakh -- Torah, Neviim, Ketuviim -- that represents the order of the books in the Hebrew Masoretic text: the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings (wisdom and historical writings). The so-called Five Books of Moses, the Law, is first and central to the Hebrew Bible and to Judaism. Christian students, however, tend to view the prophetic writings as normative because their traditions reorder and close the Hebrew Bible with the Later Prophets as typologically foreshadowing the Christ. For Jews, all of the prophets turn us back, via allusions and quotations, to the Torah -- not forward to the Christ. Thus I raise the complex issue of the canon. For millennia, Jews have had no trouble experiencing a sense of literary and theological closure when reading the last chapter of the Hebrew Bible in the traditional Jewish ordering of the books: "going up" to the rebuilt temple in 2 Chronicles 36. By ending one's reading of the Hebrew Bible according to the Christian ordering of books, one can more easily slip into the misguided belief that the Hebrew Bible is a series of short convulsive sobs of a dying dispensation rather than a national literature based on religious truths.

Every semester, at least one unsophisticated, curious student comes to my office to ask me if Jews still sacrifice animals according to scriptural ordinances. Thus I have come to realize the anachronistic misunderstandings of Jews when a student's only experience with Judaism is the reading of ancient Hebrew biblical texts. The title "Hebrew" Bible helps the students differentiate between the ancient Hebrews or Israelites and modern Jews and to understand that not all of Jewish worship and observance is scripturally based. In fact, many biblical prohibitions are seen as hortatory warnings and are often unobserved depending upon one's Jewish religious orientation. To prevent anachronistic misunderstandings of Judaism, I stress that the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E. was much more than the destruction of the Temple; it was the end of a religious tradition often called Hebraism. Judaism, etymologically derived from Judah, is a postbiblical phenomenon influenced by many extra-biblical points of contact: Hellenic thought, rabbinics, Arabic and even patristic influences. The prolific writer-scholar Jacob Neusner in his book Judaism and Scripture forcefully reminds Christians and Jews that while they often mistakenly view Judaism as "the religion of the Old Testament," "Judaism understands the Hebrew Scriptures as only one part" of the whole Torah that includes the Mishnah, the Talmuds, and midrashic writings (xi). Neusner here reflects the orthodox Jewish viewpoint in his privileging of rabbinics over the Hebrew Bible. In most orthodox Yeshivot (Jewish seminaries), far more time and attention is devoted to the study of Talmud than to the Hebrew Bible. Non-orthodox Jews, however, have been more influenced by the Holocaust and the continued existence of the state of Israel than anything distinctly biblical. Certainly, modern forms of Judaism would seem very alien to Jeremiah or to Moses. Nevertheless, postbiblical Judaisms are living religious traditions that should not be spoken of in the past tense. Spending time in the course on the differences between Hebraism and Judaism challenges the students' presuppositions and constricting prejudices about the Jew as solely a biblical being or about Judaism as solely the religion of the so-called Old Testament.

The assumption behind the titles "Old" and "New" Testaments is that a systematic and conceptual unity exists between the two Bibles despite their different languages, different historical contexts, different literary styles, and the multitude of different, often contrary, and inconsistent ideological viewpoints. Teachers using literary approaches to the Bibles should strive not to blur differences. Although the Christian Bible seems to use literary poetics and vocabulary similar to those in the Hebrew narratives, the Christian Bible shifts and stretches the meanings of Hebrew words as they were translated from the original Hebrew to the Septuagint Greek to the Vulgate Latin and then to modern English. Paul's use of the word "law," for example, seems much closer to Roman or Greek law than the Torah Law and Life encountered in the Hebrew Bible. One could claim that there is a tradition, a continuity of meaning, in both Bibles based on a vague definition of a covenant between the human and the divine. One could even argue for a continuity based on contrasts: covenant reciprocity versus unilateral grace, law versus gospel, promise versus fulfillment, works versus faith. But these contrasts often become simplistic and spurious, as in the foolish gnosticism of a vengeful, angry Yahweh versus a loving, compassionate Christ. Nothing in Israelite history is more remarkable than their continued existence, because of God's mercy, in the face of their sustained apostasy in the desert and in the days of the Judges. In the Christian Bible, Jesus is certainly capable of anger in the Temple, and the Gospel writers offer some very frightening apocalyptic sayings. The assumption of an absolute identity in the authority and an unbroken unity in the argument of the "Old" and "New" Testaments is the power and the vice of orthodox Christian hermeneutics.

Robert Alter in The Literary Guide to the Bible has succinctly explained why some literary scholars have rejected the notion of a systematic literary or theological unity between both Bibles. Alter rejects Northrop Frye's benign notion of the Bible as "The Great Code," as a typological and symbolic unity that transcends its separate parts to form a universal whole:

as a matter of literary history there is surely no warrant to imagine that the ancient Hebrew writers composed their stories and poems and laws and genealogical lists with the idea that they were providing a prelude to another set of texts, to be written in another language centuries later. (11)

The American literature scholar Sacvan Bercovitch has gone so far as to claim that the Hebrew and Christian Bibles are incompatible because the Hebrew stories are "communal," "historical," "nationalistic," "incomplete," and "prospective." The Christian story is "individual," "suprahistorical," "universal," "completed," and "retrospective" (226). By using the words "incomplete" versus "complete," Bercovitch has bought into the usual Christian view of the supersession of the "New" over the "Old." The deeper question that students should be encouraged to wrestle with is whether there is any continuing theological tradition that is accessible via the diverse and divergent biblical narratives and poems.

There is even debate over the issue of theological continuity and cohesiveness within the Hebrew Bible. How do we reconcile the philosophical skepticism of Koheleth (Ecclesiastes) with the orthodox beliefs in Proverbs, or the eroticism of The Song of Songs with the grieving of Lamentations, or the different views of Solomon in 1 Kings and 2 Chronicles? Asking the students to compare the different versions of the ten commandments in Exodus and Deuteronomy raises the issue of diversity and divergence, of ta biblia, the books, whose contradictory viewpoints and reinterpretations have been brought together perhaps by rabbinical openness and tolerance, by the literary habit of what Michael Fishbane calls "inner biblical midrash" (subjecting earlier canon to radical reinterpretation |35~), by the accidents of cultural history, by slavish deference to sources, or by scribal incompetence. We do not know.

To stress the disunity and incompatibility of the Hebrew and Christian Bibles also in their fundamentally different view of whether the kingdom of God is of this world (Hebrew) or the next world (Christian) not only separates the two testaments even further than renaming them but also encourages students to jettison their dogmatic understanding of Torah or Jesus as the exclusive revelation of God. Mediated to us via the human word, what God said on Sinai is different from what He said in the Galilee. Neither Jews nor Christians are the sole possessors of the truth. Furthermore, there are other texts that validate themselves as divine, such as the Koran. Perhaps we can strive for an inter-sympathy of religious creeds in the classroom rather than the notion that if your God is not my God, one of us is wrong. To teach students critical reflection and standards of literary and historical evidence, we cannot allow texts that validate themselves as divine to remain unquestioned. The burden of proof and the intellectual cost of such acceptance is too high if our mission in secular universities is to teach critical thinking.

The title "Old Testament" also reveals to students a distinctively Christian understanding of the Hebrew Bible: the "Old" finds its completion or telos in the "New." The epithet "New" connotes "new and improved" and presupposes the finality and victory of Christianity over Judaism, which tragically missed its historical opportunity by rejecting Christ. The church's position has always been that the Old Testament is a witness to Christ and that only as such can it claim a place as "scripture" -- holy writ rather than literary texts.

In other words, the Christian Bible offers a specific literary and theological interpretation of the Hebrew Bible and, as such, is an appropriation, conceptually and intellectually, of Hebrew theological reflection. This Christian reinterpretation construes the theological reflection offered in the Hebrew Bible in the light of the proclamation that Jesus was the Christ and Risen Lord. Reinterpretations of Hebrew biblical texts were required to fit Jesus into a messianic framework of expectations. Hebrews is a good epistolary example of the radical reinterpretation of the Hebrew Bible. Christian scripture sees itself and the theology it offers as in some way completing or fulfilling the Hebrew Bible. The implication is clear -- without the New Testament the Old is tragically incomplete, a truncated text. The Christian Bible is presented as the theological and hermeneutical key to the Hebrew Bible. Without the Christian Bible the full scope and depth of the revelation of Yahweh in the Hebrew Bible would not be accessible.

Gabriel Josipovici has written that "it is very difficult to find ways of letting the Hebrew Bible speak in the face of the interpretative tyranny of the New Testament . . ." (275). The pedagogical danger is that students begin to view the figurative language that the Bibles have in common as foreshadowings of Christ in every image of blood, or rising, or bread, and then twist the Hebrew Bible into Christocentric, ahistorical readings. The shift from "Old Testament" to Hebrew Bible is not an attack on Christianity, but an honest look at how co-optation impoverishes the appropriated text or tradition. The Church Fathers were not alone in viewing the Hebrew Bible as merely a preface to the Greek Christian Bible. The roots of calling the Hebrew Bible the Old Testament can be traced from the first century C.E. right through to the mid-nineteenth-century work of Wellhausen, the History of Religions School, and also to German Higher Critics such as de Wette, Vatke, and Graf, and even to more modern "Old Testament" theologians such as Eichrodt and von Rad. Thus the writings of Judaism have been co-opted and their meanings displaced to express theological ideas that Jews did not and often still do not understand. The renaming of the Old Testament leads students to ask the deeper question of what is the meaning of scripture and where does that meaning reside? Is literary and theological meaning in the text itself or in the acceptance and appropriation of the text by a community of belief?

Historically speaking, Christian scholars can no longer claim that the New Testament replaces or fulfills the so-called Old not only because of the theological bias implied but also because, since the discovery of the Ras Shamra, Nag Hammadi, and the Qumran libraries, Christianity can no longer be seen as a direct offshoot of so-called "normative" Judaism (See Gray; Pagels; Robinson; and Vermes). Many scholars today regard the non-canonical libraries such as the Dead Sea Scrolls (Qumran), certain Apocryphal writings such as the Book of Enoch, and the Gnostic Gospels (Nag Hammadi) as more important than the canonized Hebrew Bible for understanding the formation of and the thought processes in the Christian Bible. For example, the extreme statements forbidding divorce in Matthew are more similar to Qumran literature than to the Hebrew Bible. Christianity appears now to be just one among a number of religious groups that could trace their origin to one strand of Judaism in the first century C.E.

Thus the title "Old Testament" resonates with a commitment to a theological position that is foreign to the narrative, theological, and historical contexts of the Hebrew Bible, foreign to any historical school of literary interpretation, and foreign to the most recent discoveries of extrabiblical texts such as the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran. The name "Old Testament" indicates a failure to read the Hebrew Bible in and of itself.

Yet the discussion of literary and cultural co-optation should be welcomed in the classroom because of the relevant questions it raises about the current University debate over the teaching of Western heritage, especially in core curriculum courses. The renaming of the Bibles is the starting point for teaching students the important cultural truth of how easily literary texts are appropriated, embellished, reinterpreted, and revised. Moreover, literary canons are selected, changed, and enforced with enormous historical, literary, and theological consequences. The current debate over the teaching of Western culture and canon, with its diverse feminist, Marxist, New Historicist, and deconstructionist approaches, becomes less threatening to both students and teachers when we realize that this self-criticism and revisionism is part of our inescapable biblical cultural heritage that extends from biblical literature to postmodernism: the rabbis reinterpreted, even twisted, scripture in midrashim (a massive library of narrative and commentary on the Hebrew Bible); the later Gospel writers Luke, Matthew, and John radically revised the earlier Mark; and, more recently, Derrida has exposed the fictionality of supposedly non-fictional texts that privilege their use of metaphorical language (see Schneidau 248-307). Thus when literature teachers want to remove certain patriarchal texts from the canon and replace them with women writers, we should remember the vitriolic revisionist Talmudic debate over whether to include Esther, Susanna, and The Song of Songs in the Hebrew Bible. It behooves us to remember that the selection and transmission of a canon has historically taken place within power struggles between communities of scholars. These agonistic debates are often rancorous and laced with insult. In fact, the Talmud records an actual revolt of young rabbies against one Patriarch -- Gamliel II. Today, within both university and religious communities, canons are open to constant revision and embellishment -- if not the primary texts, certainly the secondary texts that offer a variety of ideological perspectives from Marxism to Deep Ecology. This pluralism and diversity perhaps will prevent any single perspective from masquerading as the politically correct or truly objective perspective.

Literary approaches to the Bible have always argued against the atomistic tendencies of earlier biblical criticism oriented towards analysis of form and source: those methods seeking the historical truth behind the text, beneath the centuries of literary embellishment and revision. But literary approaches to the two Bibles should also demonstrate that traditions are not fixed but fluid processes that can go beyond their present forms and seek new forms of expression, for good or bad, as in the Christian co-optation of Hebrew biblical texts and, now, the renaming of the "Old Testament."

The renaming of the Bibles also introduces undergraduates to one of the most important tenets of postmodern literary theory. Value-free and presupposition-free reading and teaching is impossible: interpretation is always interested, never disinterested. Each generation interprets texts in terms of its own questions, problems, anxieties, and assumptions. The issue of Christian appropriation of the Hebrew Bible places renewed critical attention not only on the Hebrew texts but also on the constitutive activity of "interpretive communities" of faith in the determination of biblical meaning (see Fish).

It is important constantly to rethink pedagogical strategies for teaching different perspectives for reading texts, especially texts that are potentially divisive, dangerous, or have been subject to political or ecclesiastical control. I do not think that literature teachers can stop the misreadings and misappropriations of texts such as the terrifying misreading of Salman Rushdie's novel of magical realism, The Satanic Verses, which was read as a critique of Islam by Moslem clerics. But college literature teachers can alert students to the problematic issue of what to call a collection of books written in the Iron Age (Hebrew Bible) and how to read this collection of texts in its literary, historical, linguistic, cultural, and theological contexts. Furthermore, the problem of the two testaments is a paradigmatic issue for the need, in a democratic pluralistic society, for listening to other voices in a spirit of openness, inclusion, and tolerance rather than passing over opposing voices in silence.


Alter, Robert, and Frank Kermode. The Literary Guide to the Bible. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1987.

Bercovitch, Sacvan. "The Biblical Basis of the American Myth." The Bible and American Arts and Letters. Ed. Giles Gunn. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1983. 221-33.

Boadt, Lawrence, C.S.P., H. Croner, and L. Klenicki, eds. Biblical Studies: Meeting Ground of Jews and Christians. New York: Paulist, 1980.

Brooks, Roger, and John T. Collins, eds. Hebrew Bible or Old Testament? Studying the Bible in Judaism and Christianity. Notre Dame: U of Notre Dame P, 1990.

Fish, Stanley. Is There a Text in This Class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1980.

Fishbane, Michael A. Text and Texture: Close Readings of Selected Biblical Texts. New York: Schocken, 1979.

Frye, Northrop. The Great Code: The Bible and Literature. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983.

Gray, John. The Legacy of Canaan: The Ras Shamra Texts and Their Relevance to the Old Testament. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1965.

Josipovici, Gabriel. The Book of God: A Response to the Bible. New Haven: Yale UP, 1988.

Neusner, Jacob. Judaism and Scripture: The Evidence of Leviticus Rabbah. Chicago Studies in the History of Judaism. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1986.

Pagels, Elaine. The Gnostic Gospels. New York: Random House, 1979.

Robinson, James M., ed. The Nag Hammadi Library in English. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1988.

Schneidau, Herbert N. Sacred Discontent: The Bible and Western Tradition. Baton Rouge: Louisiana SUP, 1976.

Vermes, Geza. The Dead Sea Scrolls: Qumran in Perspective. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977.

Goldman, assistant professor of American literature at Trinity University, San Antonio, is interested in the intertextual conversation between 19th-century American literature and the Bible. He is the author of Melville's Protest Theism: The Hidden and Silent God in Clarel (Northern Illinois UP, 1993). He has published essays recently in Texas Studies in Literature and Language, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, Shofar, and Soundings.
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Author:Goldman, Stan
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Date:Jun 1, 1993
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