Sunday, June 27, 2010

The "Old" and "New" Testaments

Over a few years now, I've come to dislike the names Old Testament and New Testament. They seem inaccurate and misleading, perhaps like my old socks (full of holes and now discarded in the rubbish bag) and my new socks (which completely replaced the old ones). Or would my jeans be a better example? The new ones I wear when I'm going out -- the old faded ones are still useful, but only for working out in the garden. Old and new can mean many things.

So is the Old Testament, broken and discarded completely, or just faded but still there in the background, or is this a wrong picture completely? Maybe it means just older in age, compared to the newer one? So now we come to complex theological questions including whether or not the Mosaic law has been "fulfilled", and many other thorny issues which I really don't want to start into here.

And then there's the issue of what does the word testament mean to a modern reader (outside of the Bible context). To me,  the only association which comes to mind is to do with the legal jargon of wills. And I don't think the main messages of the two sections have a lot in common with a will! Perhaps covenant, contract, agreement, or promise might substitute better here to help the modern reader???

All I want to really say in this blog, is that the traditional names can be misleading to Christians themselves, and can also be problematic to those explaining Christianity to people of Jewish or Israeli heritage.

So, I want to change the terminology for the OET (Open English Translation of the Bible). So here's some of my argument in question/answer format:
  1. Do we need/want a separation between these two parts of the Christian Bible? Yes, there are good reasons to do with history, age (a gap of several hundred years between their authorships), and contents which make it seem sensible to maintain the divisions.
  2. Should we stick with the "old" and "new" traditions? No, as shown above they can be misleading and even problematic.
  3. Should we stick with the "testament" tradition? No, this is an outdated word in my mind -- meaningless to most people and misleading to others.
  4. What would be the requirements for a new names? We need one term for each of the Old and New Testaments. The two terms should preferably have some meaningful relationship or connection to each other. They should also be relatively simple, i.e., not long complex names, but rather concise and helpful. They should be easily understandable to modern readers and also it should be recognisable (in the context of the major Bible sections) what they are referring to (even though they won't, of course, be familiar at first).
    Of course, no heading can ever fully summarise a long section. So unfortunately some dissatisfaction must be expected, because there are so many important topic areas in the Scriptures which we can't totally represent in the section names.
  5. What would we replace them with then? Yes, this is the big question in my mind, so I'll break my answer into two paragraphs:

    Old Testament: The suggestions that first come to mind are Hebrew Scriptures and Jewish Scriptures. Technically, it's not all Hebrew -- there's some smaller Aramaic sections in there. So Jewish Scriptures seems to fit quite well, and even as a side-effect acknowledges how much Christians have inherited from the Jewish people.

    New Testament: Of course, this was mostly written by Jews as well! We could maybe call it the Christian Scriptures, but that might imply that the Old Testament is not part of the Christian Scriptures. Besides, I'm heading away from the Greek term Christ/Kristos because many readers don't even realise that the term has a meaning. (Some have even thought it to be Jesus' surname). But we can't call it the Messianic Scriptures because there are many messianic prophecies in the Old Testament. Greek Scriptures might seem like the appropriate counterpart to Hebrew Scriptures, but I'm not sure I favour that so much either.
So all that thinking aloud didn't get me to a solution. So we have to look in another direction. Another aspect of the Bible is that large portions of both the Old and New Testaments are historic narratives. I think it's not a bad thing to emphasise that aspect of the Scriptures. So how about using "account(s)" to describe them. The New Testament could be The Messiah Accounts; the Old The Hebrew Accounts (being largely about the rise and fortunes of the Hebrew nation).

What do you think? Just follow the familiar tradition? Don't like these suggestions? Want to offer better ones? Use the comments to tell me what you think.

One advantage of a free (no cost) Bible translation is that we don't have to worry about marketing -- being concerned that people won't buy it if we make changes. I think it's a refreshing opportunity to break with tradition and make some needed improvements.


  1. Another more generic idea: "First Era" and "Second Era", for Old and New Testaments respectively.

  2. Yes, thanks, "era" is another possibility, but it's hard to know what defines an era, or more specifically, when are it's start and end points. I have no problems with "First era" since it begins with the creation story, but wasn't there an era between the Old and New Testaments.

  3. True, the Apocrypha could be “Middle Era” or ”In-between Era” or something.

  4. FYI: when with "First Testament" and "New Testament." They also re-arranged the books in a more chronological order.

  5. Yes, thanks, I've seen that. Encouraging to see others brave enough to change both the names and the order. But I'm afraid I could never get myself to use "Testament" -- a word that only lawyers use nowadays.