The “Old Testament”

Everybody knows that the Old Testament is the “Jewish” part of the Bible. I’ve written earlier about the fact that “the Bible” means three different things to Jews, Catholics, and Protestants. Now it’s time to clarify another misconception that many people share: that the Jewish Bible consists of the Old Testament alone.

It’s true, of course, that none of the books of the New Testament or Apocrypha are part of the Jewish Bible. But that doesn’t mean that what is left is the Old Testament. Here’s why:

• First, of course, “Old” Testament implies the existence of a “New” Testament, which Jews don’t in fact accept. (Exactly why Christians call these parts of their Bible “Testaments” will be the subject of a later post.) That is why some considerate Christians have begun to refer to this part of their Bible as “the Primary Testament” or (awkwardly) “the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament.” So Jews who refer to their Bible as “the Old Testament” are speaking from a non-Jewish perspective.

• But there’s a much more important reason not to call the Jewish Bible “the Old Testament.” It’s not just a matter of perspective; the contents of the two books are arranged in a different order. That means each one tells a different story.

The Old Testament starts (of course) with Genesis, and carries the historical story all the way through the book of Esther. Then there’s a short grouping of (mostly) poetic books, followed by the prophets, ending with Malachi.

The Jewish Bible starts out the same way as the Old Testament, and (with one slight change) follows the same order as far as the end of the book of Kings. But the Jewish Bible is not divided into history, poetry, and prophecy, but into Torah, Prophets, and Writings. (They’re capitalized because these three parts of the Bible each play a different role in Judaism; more on this in a later post.) So the first five books, from Genesis to Deuteronomy, constitute a section on their own. Then come the books of the “Prophets,” divided into a historical section and a prophetic section. Finally, the catch-all “Writings,” ending with Chronicles.

Both versions begin with the creation of the world. Here’s how the Old Testament ends:

Mal. 4:4*
Remember ye the law of Moses my servant, which I commanded unto him in Horeb for all Israel, with the statutes and judgments. 5 Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD: 6 And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.

Then you turn the page, and the New Testament begins:

Matt. 1:1
The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.

“Elijah” shows up in ch. 3, in the person of John the Baptist, and the Old Testament prophecies ending with Malachi begin to be fulfilled.

The Jewish Bible tells a very different story—it is a book not of fulfillment but of potential:

2Chr. 36: 22
And in the first year of King Cyrus of Persia, when the word of the LORD spoken by Jeremiah was fulfilled, the LORD roused the spirit of King Cyrus of Persia to issue a proclamation throughout his realm by word of mouth and in writing, as follows: 23 “Thus said King Cyrus of Persia: The LORD God of Heaven has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and has charged me with building Him a House in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Any one of you of all His people, the LORD his God be with him and let him go up.”

It ends with the beginning of the return from exile. The historical story told in the Bible actually continues (with the books of Ezra and Nehemiah), but the Bible itself ends as the Torah, its first and (for Jews) most important part ends—with the Jews on the point of returning to their homeland.
Bottom line? The Old Testament is arranged to introduce the New Testament. The (Jewish) Bible is arranged to introduce the Jews to a life in their land. So even though they contain the same material, they tell a very different story.

*(Jews will notice that there are 4 chapters in the Christian version of Malachi rather than 3—but that’s just because the chapters and verses are numbered a bit differently. More on this in a later post.)

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2 Responses to “The “Old Testament””

  1. Three Different Bibles « The Bible Guy Says:

    […] aside for now.) All of the books in the Jewish Bible are found in the two Christian Bibles as well, though they are arranged in a different order there. With just three exceptions, all of these books focus on the (somewhat rocky) love affair between […]

  2. Late Biblical Hebrew (Part 3) « The Bible Guy Says:

    […] of Chronicles is actually the same as the beginning of the book of Ezra, something I mentioned in my post on “The Old Testament” and will discuss more fully in a future […]

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