Seven golden rules for Christian theologians concerning the Old Testament and its relationship to the New Testament*
There are things that should be said more than once and cannot be repeated often enough.
- Sigmund Freud
By Gerd Lüdemann
Professor of History and Literature of Early Christianity
University of Göttingen
Visiting Scholar at Vanderbilt Divinity School
(1) Historical criticism has effectively undermined the validity of the great majority of Old Testament citations by the authors of the New Testament; indeed, it is seldom possible even to imagine that Old Testament writers can have had in mind the persons and events that New Testament writers claimed they did. The oft-proposed thesis that this issue cannot be resolved either negatively or positively does not hold. The long and short of it is that New Testament authors have systematically mistaken or distorted the meaning of Old Testament texts in the service of polemical and doctrinal agendas. Matthew's five citations of prophecy in his nativity account are among the best-known examples of the practice, and perhaps the most comically inapposite. In the interest of honesty and better communication with the public, academic theology needs to demonstrate the same kind and degree of intellectual honesty that long ago led natural science to disavow the Ptolemaic world picture.
(2) From the standpoint of critical scholarship, Israel first entered history not during the Patriarchal period, nor that of the Judges, but with the establishment of the Davidic kingdom. This political dynasty saw the slow emergence of monotheism from Israelite polytheism and competing forms of Yahwism, culminating after the shock of the Exile (587–539 BCE) in the exclusive veneration of Yahweh. The narrative combination of "Yahweh alone" with the legends of Moses and the Exodus constitutes a projection of the belief system of a subjugated Israel of Persian and Hellenistic times onto the beginnings of Israel more than 700 years earlier. Historically speaking, the Old Testament is not so much the literature of ancient Israel as it is the Jewish Bible of Persian and Hellenistic times.
(3) Broad sections of the Old Testament are understood as historical reports to whose factual nature their pious and revered narrators attested. Where cultic, legal, or wisdom traditions did not involve historical narratives, Jewish theologians nevertheless anchored them within the historical framework of Israel and looked on them as the authentic words and deeds of Old Testament persons. As a result, the historical value of the Old Testament for events and persons preceding the time of the Babylonian Exile is actually slight.
(4) None of the books of Moses come from Moses; none of David's psalms from David; none of Solomon's sayings from Solomon; none of Daniel's visions from Daniel. Only a very few words of the Prophets stem from prophets whose names grace those books. There was no Exodus out of Egypt, no revelation in the Sinai, and no handing down of the Ten Commandments. Abraham, Isaac, Moses and Joshua are mere names; Jericho was never captured. These statements cannot be repeated often enough, for they are necessary correctives to a fallacious sacred story that allowed church functionaries and collaborating politicians to maintain power for almost 2000 years.
(5) Within the theological faculties of German universities the primary (if not the only) validation of the Old Testament is its testimonial support of the divinity of Jesus Christ. But since many Old Testament scholars consider Christological exegesis of the Old Testament to be scientifically unsupportable, they no longer belong to the confessional Christian faculty. One would think that in the interests of intellectual honesty they ought to speak openly about their confessional dilemma. For colleagues from other areas of the theological faculty, this might serve as a salutary challenge to collaborate on both curricular and confessional reforms, to loosen the chains of doctrinal bondage, and thus advance the cause of academic and scientific freedom.
(6) When the relation of the Old to the New Testaments is assessed using objective criteria alone, one cannot rationally understand the New as the fulfilment of the Old nor the Old as the preview of the New. Rather, the New Testament must be seen as an independent body of writings, and the "Old Testament" – more accurately termed the Hebrew Bible – as an anthology belonging first and foremost (though perhaps not exclusively) to Judaism. This recognition will throw light on the fact that from its beginning the Christian Mission met with little success in most Jewish communities. The missionaries quite understandably encountered both a lack of understanding and resentment at their misappropriation of the holy scriptures of those they sought to convert.
(7) Statements central to Christian theology such as "God brought his people Israel out of Egypt" or "God raised Jesus from the dead" are untenable. In the first case, the Israelites were not driven out of Egypt, and in the second Jesus' physical resuscitation never took place. Failure to acknowledge these and other crucial errors of fact continues to eat at the heart of Christian doctrine – at the belief system of a Church that has always understood itself to be part of the 2000-year-old story of God acting in history.
*Based on Gerd Lüdemann, Altes Testament und christliche Kirche: Versuch der Aufklärung (Springe: zu Klampen, 2006). I thank Martha Cunningham for translating an earlier draft into English and my old friend Tom Hall for assistance with matters of style and content.