I had the great honor of asking Dr. Tremper Longman (Distinguished Scholar of Biblical Studies at Westmont College) a few questions about Christians and their relationship to the Old Testament.
Many Bible-reading Christians are quite fond of the New Testament. What factors could contribute to them seeing the Old Testament as a bore, or as confusing, in comparison to the New Testament? Why is the New Testament generally viewed in a more positive light?
Tremper: The positive reason why the New Testament is generally appreciated more than the Old Testament is that it tells us about Jesus’s life, teaching, and his work on our behalf. There is certainly nothing wrong with wanting to know more about Jesus! That said, ignoring the Old Testament is like walking into a movie with ten minutes to go to the end. It’s hard to really understand what’s going on. Yes, the Old Testament is not easy to read, but it is more than worth the effort. God reveals himself to us in the pages of the Old Testament. We learn about creation, the entrance of sin and death into the world, and God’s work of redemption as he pursues restoration with his fallen human creatures. We not only learn about the history of redemption that leads to Jesus, but also we learn how God wants us to live as a holy people in the law and how to navigate life well in the wisdom literature. The psalms teach us how to pray in every season of life. The prophets warn us about God’s judgment against sin and call us to a life of social justice and individual obedience. We could go on and on. Yes, the Old Testament is long, distant from us culturally and temporally, but we encounter God there and by knowing the Old Testament we come to a deeper understanding of the New Testament.
If Jesus is the “full revelation” of God, why do we need the Old Testament?
Tremper: For many reasons, including those that I mention in the answer to the previous question. But here let me state what may not be equally obvious to all Christians and that is we need the Old Testament because we read about Jesus in the Old Testament. Let’s remember what he told his followers in the period between his resurrection and his ascension on more than one occasion, that “all the Scriptures” (referring to what we call the Old Testament) anticipated his coming (Luke 24:24-27, 44-49). In other words, if you want to know about Jesus, you must read the Old Testament and the New Testament! Notice how often the New Testament cites the Old as pointing to Jesus and that is just the beginning of the Old Testament witness to Jesus!
For those who want to grow in their knowledge and appreciation of the Old Testament but don’t know where to start, what advice would you give them? In your Christian walk have you always had a good “relationship” with the Old Testament?
Tremper: I became a Christian about forty-five years ago, the summer before college. I too was mainly attracted to the New Testament, but as I matured in the faith I saw the importance of the Old Testament. Indeed, it was because of Christian neglect of the Old Testament that I decided to teach and write on the subject of the Old Testament to help my fellow Christians understand and appreciate its importance to our knowledge of God and our Christian life. Of course, there are times even now when I struggle to understand the significance of parts of the Old Testament, but that just gets me to study harder and prayerfully reflect on its message more intently. In terms of reading the Old Testament, I would suggest reading through it from Genesis on and keep doing it. Sometimes I read a section of the history of redemption (Genesis through Esther) and also a psalm or two, a chapter from the wisdom books (Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes), and a section from the prophets. The important thing is to read a little bit each day. Also it is important to use a very readable, yet accurate translation like the New Living Translation or the New International Version. In addition, I would recommend a good study Bible (there is more than one, but I would recommend the NLT Study Bible or the NIV Study Bible). In addition, for those who want help, I would recommend a couple of books that I wrote, Old Testament Essentials (IVP, 2014) or Making Sense of the Old Testament (Baker Academic, 1999).
Being that so many imperatives in the Old Testament are not regarded as binding, how is the Old Testament still relevant today? Also, how can we tell what’s still binding for Christians today and what’s not?
Tremper: First of all, we start with the Ten Commandments. These are general ethical principles that are then applied in the case law that follows. The case law applies the principles of the Ten Commandments to specific situations that are relevant to the Israelites at their redemptive historical moment and also to their sociological situation. For instance, Deuteronomy 22:8 says “When you build a new house, make a parapet (a fence) around your roof so that you may not bring the guilt of bloodshed on your house if someone falls from the roof.” Now this case law is an application of the sixth commandment “you shall not murder” to a house’s architecture. Is this still binding? Yes, but not exactly in the same way since, unlike ancient Israel, we typically do not use our roofs for living space. That said, this case law gets us to think through what the sixth commandment means in our architecture. If we have a pool, then we should build a fence around it and so forth.
By the way, we call these types of law moral laws and they are still binding on Christians today as we try to live our lives in a way that pleases God. After all, Jesus said “truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished” (Matt. 5:18). Now it is true that the purpose of some of the laws, particularly those that are connected to Israel’s religious rituals (sacrifices, food laws, etc.) have been accomplished and so we do not observe them today, but even so, the theology of, say, sacrifice is important for us to understand why Jesus died for our sins, so in that sense they are still relevant to us as Christians.
Two more matters need to be addressed because they are frequently misunderstood by Christians. First, the law was never the means to relationship with God in the Old or the New Testament. Remember that the Ten Commandments begin with a statement of God’s gracious redemption of Israel (“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery,” Exod. 20:2). Israel was saved by grace and not the law. Second, the Old Testament law concerns not just behavior but heart attitude toward God. The tenth commandment (“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male and female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor,” Exod. 20:17).
Much more could be said about this subject and I do in chapters ten and eleven in another book that I wrote entitled Reading the Bible with Heart and Mind (NavPress, 1997). Christians who want to know more about how and in what way the Old Testament law still applies to us today can go there for more information.
Thank you, Dr. Longman!
Having authored or co-authored over thirty books which have been translated into seventeen different languages, Dr. Tremper Longman III (phD, Yale University) has a background in ancient Near Eastern studies. His latest, The Fear of The Lord: A Theological Introduction to Wisdom in Israel (a monograph on wisdom), is available for pre-order. Other works of his include Genesis (The Story of God Bible Commentary) (co-edited with Scot McKnight), God Loves Sex (2014, coauthored with Dan B. Allender), as well as Psalms: An Introduction and Commentary.
For InterVarsity Press, he has produced five books: How to Read Psalms, How to Read Proverbs, How to Read Genesis, How to Read Exodus, and How to Read Job (co-authored with John H. Walton). He is one of the main translators for the New Living Translation and has served as a consultant on other popular translations of the Bible such as the Message, the New Century Version, and the Holman Standard Bible. As a prolific writer, Dr. Longman has written and continues to write extensively for both the academy as well as the layperson.