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What is in a name?

Prior to the age of dialogue and intra-Christian as well as wider (interreligious) ecumenism, things were simpler in regard to what each community called its holy scriptures. Jews had their name for their books (miqra--that which is read), Christians, who disagreed among themselves as to exactly which books actually constitute canonical scriptures, had their name(s) for the canonic collection. Not much effort was used to discuss as to what it might be called. The Jews called their holy scripture "Tanakh," derived from Ta (Torah), Na (Neviim), and Kh (Khetuvim). Christians used the term "The Holy Bible" in the myriad languages to which these books were translated. The title was derived from the Koine Greek "Ta Biblia" (the books) and was translated into Latin "Biblia" It contained the Old and New Testaments. Christians knew that the Old Testament was the scriptures of the Jews, which they believed to be divinely inspired and to which they added the distinctly Christian writings that were written later than the inherited books of Judaism.

As positive encounters between Jews and Christians increased it became obvious not only that there were rather different interpretations of their common scriptures but also that there were even different numbers and the order of books within the scriptures of the two communities. Out of a deep-seated desire to take into consideration the values of each other, the terminology was changed. German scholars published critical editions of Biblia Hebreica. In academic and dialogical circles there was a marked increase of using "The Hebrew Bible" instead of "The Old Testament." The word "old," it was suggested, alluded to something passe, outmoded, not as good as "new," and it appeared to reflect the widely used theology of super-sessionism or dispensationalism, at first almost universally used by Christians but recently used mostly by evangelical or fundamentalist Christians. Many Christians argue that the word "old" does not necessarily mean of lesser value, because old may simply mean "older" and possibly even of great(er) value, just as some antiques are more valued than more recent products.

Many people were satisfied with "Hebrew Scriptures." The problem seemed solved. But, then, why use the name "New Testament" if there is no "Old Testament"? Why use "Hebrew Scriptures" when some of the books of that canon are in Biblical Aramaic? If one were to go by the original language of the Testaments, then should not the New Testament be "The Greek Testament" or the "Koine Greek Testament" (He Kaine Diatheke)? Or, if we wish to distinguish the scripture of the Jews from the New Testament, should it not be called the Christian Testament--hence, Hebrew Scriptures and Christian Scriptures? That would seem logical, but the problem is that the Scriptures of Christians also include the Hebrew Scriptures!

Others have suggested that one may dispense altogether with ideas of "old" and "new" and instead simply number them. Thus the older of the two would become "The First Testament" and the one written later would become "The Second Testament." This seemed to be so convincing that for some time the Journal of Ecumenical Studies in editing submitted manuscripts has changed the authors' usage of "New Testament" to "Second Testament." One can find references to the "Second Testament" occasionally elsewhere but not as much the "First Testament.' For most Jews there is but one eternal covenant between God and Israel; hence, it would not need to be numbered as "first," especially taking into account that for Jews the New Testament is simply not their scriptures Thus, first and second does not really make sense to Jews. Indeed, what sense does a "Second Testament" make if there isn't a "First Testament"?

If we start numbering the covenants/testaments might we not wish to introduce additional numbers? There is, in fact, a "third testament," the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg, (1) but others may say that the Glorious Qur'an is chronologically earlier than Swedenborg's writings, and, hence, the Qur'an deserves to be called the Third Testament. Yet, it is not likely that this would be acceptable to Muslims whose theology claims that the Qur'an as revealed to Prophet Muhammad is but a replication of the eternal Book of God, preceding all worldly holy writings--and therefore there is nothing "third" about it. It is also obvious that the terms "first" and "second" testament do not escape the value judgment implicit in "old" and "new." In modern culture to be second is not nearly as important as being first (anyone watching sports knows that). I as well as many others may rather prefer for the scripture of my (our) community to be "first," at least for us.

We have a conundrum. What to do? Should we at J.E.S. impose a standard editorial usage, as we did with linguistic sexism? Or, do we say that we value diversity and pluralism and allow for a variety of usages? There seems to be a useful precedent. The Society for Biblical Literature, for instance, mentions the phrase "New Testament/Second Testament" but then uses "New Testament" in subsequent entries. It seems best that we, as editors of J.E.S., allow all alternative titles, such as Hebrew Scripture or Old Testament, or New Testament or Christian Scripture or Second Testament, urging our authors to be aware of the connotations of their usage and that editorial modification be used only if we feel that a deliberate denigration of a community whose scripture is referred to is intended. In that case we should enter into an explicit correspondence with the author with the purpose of arriving at a mutually acceptable terminology. We should not live in an insulated world that does not respect the titles that the religious communities themselves use. The Christian book is called "The Holy Bible," and one of its parts is called the "New Testament" (Novum Testamentum). The vast majority of textbooks and commentaries in the field bear the titles of Old and New Testament. This reality should not be ignored by academic publications.

I am inviting our readers to share with us their opinions in order to help us arrive at a thoughtful and constructive policy on use of scriptural titles. Should they be aware of issues in regard to scriptures in other religious traditions (such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, or Sikhism), we would also appreciate their input.

Paul Mojzes, Co-Editor


Rosemont College

Rosemont, PA

(1) The Word of the Third Testament; see
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Title Annotation:sacred book
Author:Mojzes, Paul
Publication:Journal of Ecumenical Studies
Article Type:Column
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2014
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