Discover more from Biblical Theology
Should We Use the Words "Old Testament"?
When we use the language “Old Testament,” we’re referring to the thirty-nine books that run from Genesis to Malachi. Occasionally a Bible reader will push back on the nomenclature, arguing that Christians should call those books the “Hebrew Bible” or the “Hebrew Scriptures” or the “Tanak” or the “First Testament” or the “Jewish Bible” instead of the “Old Testament.”
The Old Testament is indeed written in Hebrew, and those thirty-nine books are indeed Holy Scripture. But should we really avoid the label “Old Testament”?
The word “testament” is from testamentum, which Jerome used in the fifth century AD when he worked on the Latin Vulgate. He used testamentum to translate the Greek word for “covenant” (diatheke). The Old Testament was about the Old Covenant.
The New Testament (again: testamentum) was about the New Covenant. The language “New Covenant” is rooted in Jeremiah 31:31: “Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD” (Jer. 31:31–32).
If the twenty-books from Matthew to Revelation proclaim the arrival and spread of the New Covenant news, the contrast would imply the term “Old.” In Jeremiah 31, the “covenant that I made with their fathers” refers to the Sinai covenant, because the Israelites were taken “by the hand” out of Egypt and to Mount Sinai.
Though the Old Testament records multiple covenants, the “covenant that I made with their fathers” is about the event in Exodus 24, when the Lord entered into a covenant with the Israelites at Mount Sinai. Then, from Exodus to Malachi, the Israelites were under the Sinai covenant regulations and agreement.
Jeremiah 31 isn’t the only Scripture that contrasts the new covenant with the Sinai covenant. Consider Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 3. He writes about “the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone,” and he contrasts it with “the ministry of the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:7–8). He uses the language of “ministry of condemnation” versus “ministry of righteousness.” And speaking about the Israelites, Paul wrote, “For to this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ is it taken away. Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their hearts” (2 Cor. 3:14–15).
The language “when they read the old covenant” and “whenever Moses is read” refers primarily to the Scriptures in the Pentateuch, which is Genesis through Deuteronomy. Significantly, these books can be considered “old covenant,” even though these same books speak of covenants with Noah and Abraham. Not only is the Sinai covenant formed in those books, the Israelites remain under the Sinai covenant for the rest of the thirty-nine Hebrew books.
Calling these thirty-nine books the “Old Covenant” or “Old Testament” is a way of highlighting the contrast that places like Jeremiah 31 and 2 Corinthians 3 are making between what happened at Sinai and what Jesus accomplished on the cross.
We should not assume that “Old Testament” is a phrase demeaning those thirty-nine books. The phrase doesn’t imply the irrelevance of, nor does it justify the neglect of, those books. When Jesus spoke about those books, he spoke of the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms (Luke 24:44). He called them “the Scriptures” (Matt. 22:29). Paul exhorted Timothy to preach those books by writing, “Preach the word” (2 Tim. 4:2). Paul said “all Scripture” was God-breathed (2 Tim. 3:16).
The thirty-nine Old Testament books are Scripture and thus the word of God. They are “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16). When Paul traveled to synagogues, he taught from “the Scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead” (Acts 17:2–3).
We need the New Testament as well as the Old, and we should teach from the Old Testament and the New. We should hold both Testaments together because these sixty-six books comprise the epic of God’s saving plan and accomplishment.
Bible readers sometimes want to avoid the language “Old Testament” out of a desire to be sensitive to Jewish contemporaries. After all, Judaism affirms these Hebrew books while denying any “New Testament” revelation. I understand this sensitivity and the desire not to add offense, but the solution is ultimately untenable. Christians proclaim that the Messiah has come and has died on the cross. “Christ crucified” is a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles (1 Cor. 1:23).
By using the language “Old Testament” and “New Testament,” we’re not speaking dismissively about thirty-nine books. We’re saying that the prophecies and hopes written in those thirty-nine books have been summed up in Christ who inaugurated the new covenant.