In With the New; In With the Old Too

Today I’m resuming my series of notes on entries in Common Errors in English Usage with a note on the “Bible” entry (p. 37).

I taught “The Bible as Literature” at Washington State University for many years. Because in nonsectarian one-semester courses like this the vast majority of the material covered comes from the Jewish Bible, I told my classes that we would not be using the Christian terms “Old Testament” and “New Testament.”

For me and many other teachers the principal interest of Biblical texts is as part of the history of ideas. An important aspect of such a course is to discuss the evolution of the Biblical text in its original contexts, and most of that is Jewish. For each selection studied I would try to begin with elucidating the literal meaning of the text, then go on to explain the various modern scholarly theories about its original meaning.

I would often then go on to trace the development of varying views on the text, sometimes within the Bible itself, or among Jewish scholars, Christians and.Muslims. Occasionally I would branch off into Medieval interpretations when they were important for literary purposes, as for instance in the use of the Song of Songs to venerate the Virgin Mary.

The label “Old Testament” forecloses the debate on all this complexity by accepting the view of the Gospel writers that the Jewish scriptures are an incomplete foreshadowing of Christian revelation. So in class the terms we used were “Jewish Bible” and “Christian Scriptures.”

These are neutral terms, offensive to hardly anyone, but unfortunately many teachers and students are committed to either a Christian or Jewish view which makes them reluctant to abandon their own religious terminology. I offer the terminology I prefer because I hope that at least some of my readers will find it attractive.

“Old Testament” is a slippery term for other reasons too. For Jews and Protestants it excludes several books originally written in Greek rather than Hebrew which are included in Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Bibles (the so-called “deuterocanonical” books). These books include some of the finest and historically most influential writing in the Bible, such as Ecclesiasticus and the additions to the Book of Daniel. I always tried to include at least some selections from them.

Then there is the Samaritan Bible, which consists solely of the the first five books of the traditional Hebrew Bible—the Torah.

“Old Testament” is just too narrow a term for this complex collection of material.

I once participated in a grant that tried to convey to public high school teachers how they could incorporate the study of the Bible into their classes without violating the Constitutional separation of Church and State—a particularly strong legal distinction in the state of Washington. Many were eager to hear what we had to say but dismayed when we explained they would have to treat the subject from a neutral, purely human point of view, without promoting a particular religious interpretation.

For similar reasons, instead of the Christian-based terminology “BC” (“before Christ”) and “AD” (Anno Domino, Latin for “year of the Lord”) I always used “BCE” (“before the common era”) and “CE” (the common era).  Although this terminology was popularized at first by Jewish writers, it has spread among all sorts of scholars engaged in historical study. Of course “Common Era” has a Christian bias in that the period covered by it is identical to that referred to by the old “AD.”

But the fact is that even though Jews, Muslims, and others continue to use their traditional calendars for religious purposes, in the globalized world we inhabit the calendar which puts us in the year 2014 predominates. It really is “common” in both senses of the word: “shared” and “popular.”

If you’re curious about nonsectarian Bible study, you might look at the textbook I used, Stephen L. Harris’s Understanding the Bible. A new copy is pricey, but you can find earlier editions being offered quite cheaply. They are perfectly adequate for a beginner.

If you want to dig further into historical/literary Bible study, you can explore some of the books on the bibliography I put together for my course. Nothing new has been added since I retired, but anyone seeking to understand modern Biblical studies should start with the classics. And yes, I have read most of them.

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