The word of the Lord


Paul Griffin looks at the relationship between the Old and New Testaments, calling for a greater appreciation of the Old Testament


In ND February, Peter Toon wrote about how we should read the Bible. This is a subject that a thousand theologians working for as many years could hardly exhaust, but no one can doubt the sense of his article, that the two Testaments must be united in the totality of Christ's message. The Old Testament only gains religious meaning for us that way; otherwise, we shall be doing what I remember Suffolk villagers doing when I was very young, and picking from it texts to quote as sufficient authority in themselves. Exodus 22.18 tells us 'Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live', they might say, and it was hard to convince them that this did not mean that we needed to have recourse to the death penalty for spiritualists. If it does not mean that, as I profoundly hope, it is because Jesus, in the opinion of our Church, did not include that rule in the Law he had come to fulfil.

Because of its variety, we are compelled to employ a pick-and-mix attitude to the Old Testament. We cannot discard it, because it is so clearly a part of our Lord's message to us, and a glorious part.


The lectionary

Those old Suffolk people were able to refresh their considerable knowledge of the Old Testament at Matins and Evensong. With the decline of non-liturgical services, it has become necessary to introduce a third reading at the Eucharist, otherwise we should never hear 'Comfort ye, my people' or 'I know that my redeemer liveth.'

Even so, ours is not quite the same principle as guided the choice of lessons in the old lectionary. The new ones are short, no bad thing in itself; but they are sometimes scrappy in a restless sort of way and confusing to readers, starting and ending in the middle of verses, omitting bits, and sometimes just as baffling to congregations as the longer passages of the original Prayer Book lectionary.

On the other hand, they do carry out the principle enunciated by Peter Toon, by making clearer their relationship to the whole message of Christ. It is of course intended that the readings should hang together with each other and with the season of the year, and some of the interrelationships are a credit to the people who devised them, though it may need a pretty effective and intelligent preacher to tie them together.

The whole business is a triumph when you remember that the Bible started in two different archaic languages on which scholars still never cease working; that translations, however good, can never be perfect; and that the natures of the two Testaments are so different.


Neutral scholarship

Yet I would like to think that there was some regular way of reading the Old Testament at greater length. The story of Joseph, for example, or the beauty and profundity of the Book of Job, cannot be properly appreciated half a dozen verses at a time. Private reading can help, but the need exists alongside so many other calls on our time that much recedes more and more from public knowledge.
Anyway, the old habit of quoting 'texts' is now seldom a tiresome characteristic of those who know their Old Testament. I wonder if that fact has not weakened the effect on us of many wise statements in the New Testament, which hearers assume can be explained away like that text about witches in the Old.

If you look at what is said to dismiss some of the statements in Paul's Epistles, you may see what I mean. Textual criticism can legitimately cast doubt on certain passages, but textual criticism is or should be conducted by neutral scholars. What they leave of Paul's letters contains plenty to provoke the extreme 'Paul is a menace' school, and the much commoner 'Paul is a splendid chap where he agrees with me' school.

I hardly dare suggest it, but could it be that the ancient Suffolk approach to the Old Testament is not quite so outdated where we turn to the reading of the New?

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