Monday, February 4, 2008

Hebrew Bible or Old Testament? What's the big deal anyway?

It seems appropriate for my first substantive entry to deal at the same time with general issues of blogging about religion and specific issues of terminology in the study of the Hebrew Bible / Old Testament. The ease with which one can create a blog is at the same time really cool and really scary. It's cool because ideas worth sharing can be immediately published for all to see. It's scary because misinformation can be shared just as easily. The subject of religion, particularly dealing with the Bible, is especially prone to receive comment from all kinds of people who know little or nothing about their subject matter. I don't understand why. I would not choose to post my thoughts on subjects that I was unfamiliar with. No posts will be found here on mechanical engineering, computer science, quantum physics, or the like. Yet, many people continue to emphatically state their opinions and interpretations on biblical questions with apparently little or no regard for factual accuracy.
The inspiration for the present commentary came from a blog entry that I stumbled across dealing with the use of the term "Hebrew Bible" to designate what is called the "Old Testament" (OT) by Christians and the "Tanakh" by Jews. The writer there was commenting on a recent news article that advocated the use of the terms "Hebrew Bible" for the OT and "Christian Bible" for the New Testament (NT). The objection was that "Hebrew Bible" implied the Bible was only for the Hebrews (i.e. Jews) and that "Christian Bible" implied the Bible was only for Christians and that Christianity was a separate religion. This obscured the universal message of the Christian Gospel found in the NT. My initial impulse was to offer a corrective comment on the person's blog. I saw that many comments had been left on the blog, so I hoped that perhaps someone had already politely offered correction. The problem, unfortunately, extended much further than just the initial reaction to the possible implications of terminology. The writer went on to offer an account of Jewish history from the biblical period onward that would be almost completely unrecognizable to anyone who has taken a Bible survey class or an introduction to Judaism. Now I don't expect 100% accuracy from non-professionals commenting on the Bible, but it would be nice to detect their awareness of their own limitations. Nothing of the sort occurred. Imaginative history was recounted as fact. The comments, rather than offering serious correction, perpetuated the uninformed nature of the discussion. (Alarming since there were many comments..."the blind leading the blind" came to mind.) It quickly became clear that a corrective comment would be impossible due to the enormity of the factual inaccuracy. There is also the fact that innocent attempts at constructive criticism on blogs or message boards are often misconstrued as "flaming."
I cannot comment on the factual problems in their historical account without quoting or linking to the entry (something I am not inclined to do because of the likelihood that my comments will be misconstrued). I also do not wish to be directly critical of the few people involved in the post there. I am not against interested lay people sharing their opinions. My goal is teaching interested lay people. A well-informed opinion is much more compelling and persuasive than an ignorant rant. Therefore, I will limit myself to a discussion of the terminology that sparked their discussion in the first place. This serves the dual purpose of giving me a chance right off the bat to explain some of the terms that I will use in these posts.
First, to my knowledge, alternative terms for the NT such as Christian Bible, Christian Testament, Second Testament, etc. have not really become mainstream in academic work on the NT. This is likely because most NT scholars are either Christian or come from a Christian background. The term "Hebrew Bible," however, for the OT has become mainstream in academic circles to refer to the canon of Scripture common to Judaism and Protestant Christianity. This terminology is necessary in the field because both Jewish and Christian scholars work on this body of text. The terminology is a convention adopted to allow for common dialogue about the text. Contrary to the mistaken assumption of the blog mentioned above, the term "Hebrew" in Hebrew Bible refers not to a people but to a language. Everyone should be able to agree that we are working on a canon of Scripture written in the Hebrew language (except for a few chapters in Aramaic). For this reason, I have no difficulty using the term Hebrew Bible when I am in an academic setting and the term Old Testament when I am in a confessionally Christian setting. Each term is appropriate in its setting. "Hebrew Bible" does not imply the Bible is only for the Jews. The Jews call their Bible the Tanakh (an acronym for "the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings" in Hebrew). In Christian theology, the Old & New Testaments represent the progressive unfolding of divine revelation first to Israel, then through Israel to the world. "To the Jew first and also to the Greek" (Rom. 1:16). To be fair, I will admit that this was in fact the main point of the blog I found commenting on terminology, but it was inappropriate to attack the term "Hebrew Bible" as obscuring that theological point. "Hebrew Bible" was coined to provide common ground for Jews and Christians to talk about the OT/Tanakh without getting hung up on theological points.
In the Hebrew Bible, the people of Israel are rarely called "Hebrews." There are about 32 instances, most of them occur in Genesis, Exodus, and 1 Samuel. It is noteworthy that the use of the term almost always reflects the perspective of foreign peoples. We have an Egyptian's reference to Joseph in Gen. 39:14 and 41:12. We have Jonah introducing himself in Jon. 1:9. We have the Philistines' perspective in 1 Sam. 29:3. The most common internal designation for the people (that is, the name they use for themselves in the Bible) is either "children of Israel," or "Israel," or "Ephraim," or "Judah." "Children of Israel" (lit. "sons of Israel") alone occurs around 500 times (e.g., Exod. 1:7, 11:10, etc.). The earliest extra-biblical reference to the Israelites comes from an Egyptian stele dating to around 1200 BCE which mentions "Israel" in a list of peoples or cities defeated in Canaan by Pharaoh Merneptah.
The term "Judahite" is used for people from Judah in the biblical books that reflect the period starting around 700 BCE or so. This is the designation that led to the modern name "Jew." For the record, the term "Judah" or "Yehud" or "Judea" was the name of a tribe of Israel and later a province of Persia, Greece, and Rome. The name "Jew" is not a racial slur (contrary to one of the emphatic comments on the aforementioned blog entry). It is the name they use for themselves in much of the post-exilic biblical literature, especially the book of Esther.
The bottom line is that the word "Hebrew" in present-day usage typically refers to the Hebrew language, not the Jewish people. At best, it could be taken as an archaic synonym for "Jew." The biblical usage of the term is rare when compared to the use of "children of Israel" (30 vs. 500). Even there, the context almost always reflects the perspective of foreigners, probably a regional designation kind of like referring to oneself as an "American" rather than as an "Iowan" when overseas. Therefore, the use of the term "Hebrew Bible" should not be taken to imply a Bible that is exclusively for the "Hebrews."
Agree? Disagree? Think I'm making too big a deal of this? I welcome all comments - and I'm open to correction - so let me know what you think.

1 comment:

  1. I don't think you're making too big a deal out of it at all. Semantics are very important, and using a word improperly can easily change the entire meaning of a sentence, paragraph, or page!