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The Old Testament and the New Testament | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | June 25, 2009 | Ignatius Insight
"The Jewish people's Scriptures are received in the
Christian Bible under the name Old Testament ... The Old Testament and the New
Testament are inseparable." -- Albert Cardinal Vanhoye, S. J., "The Plan of God
Is a Union of Love With His People", Synod Report, October 6, 2008 (L'Osservatore
Romano, October 22, 2008)
In effect, this is a report of a report. Among the many
interventions at the Synod on the Word of God, that of Cardinal Vanhoye on how
the Christian Bible refers to the Hebrew Bible and how it speaks of the Jewish
people was of particular interest. In 1996, the then Cardinal Ratzinger suggested
to the Pontifical Biblical Commission (of which Vanhoye is a member) that this
general topic would be worth considerable attention. The Commission finally
produced a long document. It is about this research that Vanhoye reported to
the Synod. Even if belatedly, I think it worth recording the central points of
The Commission report wanted to put the whole issue of the
relation of the two testaments in a positive context. Since the Old Testament
is basic to the New Testament and the Jewish people as individuals and as a
people are spoken of in the New Testament, the question was simply a fact. The
final text, as Vanhoye admitted, was "not always easy to read," a not unheard
of reaction to academic sounding investigations. The authors wanted to be as
careful and precise as possible.
The operative principle to be kept in mind is that the
Hebrew Bible is also considered to be at the origin and within the context of
the Christian Bible. But the Jewish people do not, as Christians do, see the
Hebrew Bible as containing or even as related to the Christian Bible. To put it
briefly, to be a Christian one must hold the revelational truth of the Hebrew
Bible, but to be a Jew, one must not accept the Christian Bible as the
completion of its own revelation. Thus, Pius XI could say that spiritually "We
(Christians) are all Jews." The Marcionite heresy that wanted to keep the New
Testament but not the Old was declared a Christian heresy. Otherwise, there
could be no coherence between the two testaments.
God's particular plan of salvation begins with the Jews. It
still includes them. There is no room for "anti-Judaism." The Christian Bible,
by itself, is not complete. The Jewish Bible is first necessary. "Without its
conformity to the Sacred Scriptures of the Jewish people, (the Christian Bible)
could not be presented as the accomplishment of God's project." Christians thus
persist in seeing the two testaments as belonging together in a coherent whole.
How many times does the phrase "according to Scripture"
occur in the New Testament? "The Christian faith then is not only based on
events, but also on the conformity of these events with the revelation
contained in the Sacred Scriptures of the Jewish people." As we read of the
life and death of Christ, we cannot imagine its coherence if we do not know how
it relates to the Old Testament.
The New Testament uses the Old Testament because it sees its
authority. It too is the "word of God." The Jewish scripture and people are
seen as looking for fulfillment. The New Testament simply maintains that it is
fulfilled in terms of the Old Testament itself. But there is development within
the Old Testament. Vanhoye uses the example of the presence of God in the
Temple, a presence that ends in Christ's "destroy this temple..." (Jn. 2:19). The
continuity is there, as is the difference, something greater than the Temple.
The Old Testament itself is full of "tensions" between the institutional law
and the prophetic spirit. In this sense, the Christian Testament "conforms" to
the Hebrew Bible. Paul's "justification by faith", not by the law, is faithful
to the law and prophets.
Christ did not fulfill just one aspect of scripture, but as
it were, all aspects at once. Emphasis on the Messiah and the Jews rejecting
Him can cause an exaggeration. The events of the New Testament themselves are
what cause us to look back into the Old Testament for explication. It is not as
if the Old Testament was a roadmap of what would happen. It was the "what
happened" that enables us to see the map. It is not that the Jews who "do not
believe in Christ" did not see what was there. It was the Christian experience
looking at the text that finally saw what was "hidden" there all along. Yet
that meaning is there. Christianity does not "find" something that is not there
in the Old Testament texts, otherwise the two testaments would have nothing to
do with each other.
The Jewish reading of the Jewish Bible is "possible." That
is, it can be read in a manner in which the Messiah is not a single person from
their stock. One cannot simply say that the Christian reading of the Old
Testament is the "only" reading. The Jew will read the same passages as only
referring to the people. To read it as the Christians do means that we take the
events of Christ's life and death as true. In this latter light, the Old
Testament does lead to Him. "While it is possible for Jews who do not believe
in Christ, this reading is not possible for Christians, because it implies
accepting all the presuppositions of Judaism, in particular those that 'exclude
faith in Jesus as Messiah and son of God.'"
If a priori we say
that the Old Testament cannot in theory or practice lead to the conclusion that
the fact of Jesus as Son of God is true, obviously we deny the very unity of
the two testaments that Christianity stands for. The Jewish reading sometimes
"does not imply the refusal of faith in Christ. It simply corresponds to a
reading made before Christ's coming." The implication is that the actual coming
of Christ as an event or fact in history enables us to see the overall plan of
God that was present in both testaments.
Both the Jewish studies of the Bible and the Christian
studies of the same Bible can and should contribute to each other's
enlightenment. There is no reason a Jew cannot read the New Testament to see
what it says. The Christian, to be a Christian, must read the Old Testament. Vanhoye then points out that
much depends on how we see the early years of Christianity and its relation to
Judaism at the time. We forget that scripture did not come before tradition.
"Tradition gives life to Scriptures and then accompanies it, because 'no
written text can adequately express all the riches of tradition,' Tradition
determined, in particular, the canon of Scripture." In this sense, the
Christian canon is larger than the Jewish canon. For the Jews, it was the law
that became the center of their legal, moral, and liturgical life. The
Christian tradition, not denying the law's importance, gives more emphasis on
the prophetic tradition of the Old Testament.
"The Church of Christ is not a nation." Christians did not
impose Jewish customs and ceremonial laws on Christians. They were free of the
law but not the commandments. By calling the Jewish law the "Old Testament,"
Christians do not mean that it is entirely dated. The two testaments are
"inseparable." Some want to drop the term "Old Testament," a term St. Paul
used. It is not a pejorative concept. "The Church fully recognizes the
importance of the 'Old Testament' as the Word of God." Scripture itself
justifies the usage. The first covenant is of Moses, the last of Christ. The
essential covenant with Moses is permanent as its terms indicate. It is still
in effect. The two testaments have much in common, especially their particular
thrust. "The New Testament fully appropriates the great themes of the theology
of Israel." Christ came to fulfill the law.
The fact is that Scripture itself also indicates some
"rupture" in the middle of the history of God's people. The New Testament deals
with specific things that are not in force among them: "the levitical
priesthood of the Jerusalem Temple, the cult forms like animal sacrifice,
religious and ritual practices like circumcision, rules concerning purity and
impurity, dietary prescriptions, imperfect laws such as divorce, and
restrictive legal interpretations concerning the Sabbath." These practices
remain important to Jewish life. Yet, already in the Old Testament some of
these practices were questioned such as animal sacrifices. The Lord preferred
obedience to such sacrifices. Assuming this continuity, the New Testament
merely takes up a movement already found in the Old Testament.
The New Testament does not see Jesus in opposition to the
heart of what Israel stood for. The document puts it this way: "The new
Testament attests that Jesus, far from being in opposition to the Israelite
Scriptures, revoking them as provisional, brings them instead to fulfillment in
his person, in His mission, and especially in His Pascal mystery. In fact, none
of the great Old Testament themes escapes the new radiation of Christological
light." Nowhere in the New Testament is the Covenant as such seen as revocable.
Jeremiah had spoken of a "New Covenant" that would be offered to Israel. The
claim that this Covenant was offered thus is not somehow unbiblical. This New
Covenant is what Christ's death is about. "The Church is composed of Israelites
who have accepted the new covenant, and of other believers who have joined
them." The Church includes those who "belong to Christ."
The Church is not a "substitute" for Israel. Paul uses the
notion of "adoption" or "being engrafted." "The Church is conscious of being
given a universal horizon by Christ, in conformity with Abraham's vocation,
whose descendants from now on are multiplied in a filiation founded on faith in
Christ." Christ is a completion of what went before. The universality of the
Covenant now stands in clearer light. The New Testament is faithful to "the
Sacred Scriptures of the Jewish People." This faithfulness follows the
"prophetic oracles" that tell of a New Covenant.
How do individual Jews appear in the New Testament? During
and after the time of Christ, divisions existed among the Jews themselves.
Indeed, these divisions were already in the Old Testament. The Jewish historian
Josephus divides them into Pharisees, Scribes, and Essenes. Even that is not
complete. The document talks of these divisions in the last century before
Christ, then in Christ's time, in the time of the disciples, and in the time
after the Jewish revolt and the destruction of the Temple by the Romans. The
outlook of the Gospels and Epistles is positive. The Jews are recognized as "a
people chosen by God for the fulfillment of his plan of salvation." This
understanding means that the place of the Jews is central for any Christian
understanding of itself.
As the Jews are the chosen people, so Christ is a Jew. He is
"sent" by the Father. He doesn't just happen along. "The divine choice finds
its highest confirmation in the person of Jesus, son of a Jewish mother, born
to be the Saviour of his people, one who fulfils his mission." The Jewish
people are "chosen" for another divine choice that will complete the "plan of
salvation" for all mankind. Most of those who first attached themselves to
Christ during His own lifetime were Jews, the twelve Apostles being the obvious
We also find in the Gospels and Epistles that these Jews who
did follow Christ ran into opposition from several Jewish leaders, some of whom
are identified by name. The Acts and the Gospels record many of these
altercations which often end in beatings, prison, even death. The New Testament
simply records these incidents because they happened. What else could it do?
Eventually, "the greater number of Jews" followed these leaders in this
opposition that eventually became codified in the Jewish explanation of itself
without the Messiah as recognized and codified in the New Testament by
No one, either Jew or Christian, wants to deny that such
conflict happened. It was not made up. On the other hand, it falls into the
broad context of following the example of what happened to Christ himself. He
told his followers to expect such treatment, especially from political and
religious leaders. Actually, the document points out, the Old Testament, long
before the time of Christ, often excoriates the Jewish leaders more harshly
than did anyone in the New Testament. These incidents, however, cannot today be
taken as a basis for "anti-Jewish feeling." What is found in the New Testament
is not the phenomenon known as "anti-Semitism." Rather, these "reproaches are
addressed to certain categories of Jews for religious reasons, as well as
polemical texts to defend the Christian apostolate against Jews who opposed
One cannot say that protests or opposition to unfair
treatment is "hatred." Jews themselves are famous for pointing out unfair
treatment of their persons and causes. Nor can explaining what one holds to be
true be said to be an unjust exercise of power or fanaticism. To speak the
truth is the very basis of peace, ultimately. As it says in the Acts of the
Apostles "Israel's sin is to have put to death the Prince of Life" (3:15). Does
one have to interpret this statement of Peter pejoratively? It is rather a call
to attention, to conversion and repentance. It may not be accepted. But the
mere saying it is certainly justified. Peter said it because he himself at the
time is being tried by Jewish leaders for stating what he holds to be true.
The examples of Jesus Himself and Stephen at his stoning
show a remarkable forbearance. Peter even mitigates the blame of the Jewish
leaders by saying that they really did not "know" what they were doing. They
dealt unjustly with an innocent man, but they did not understand who Christ
was. In that sense, Christians, rightly or wrongly, see them as instruments of
the plan of salvation itself as foreseen in the Old Testament itself. The text
adds that we no longer have such a polemical situations. Both Jews and Christians
can accept the facts of what happened. No one claims that no sins and faults
occurred. Everyone needs to see the transcendent significance of what happened.
We need not have "prejudice and deliberate
misunderstandings." Again, to conclude, as the document does, with considerable
frankness, "The New Testament is 'in serious disagreement with the vast
majority of the Jewish people,' because 'in it (the New Testament) essentially
a proclamation of the fulfillment of God's plan in Jesus Christ (announced in
the Old Testament'" is present. The disagreement is a fact. The proclamation is
a fact. The "vast majority of Jewish people do not accept this fulfillment."
Who can disagree with that? It does not mean that there are not coherent
reasons for the Jewish view. It does not mean that there are not intelligible
reasons for the Christian view. It does not deny anything of what is common to
both. Paul's example in Romans about the love of his people is to be a model.
This is the only "truly Christian attitude is a situation which is mysteriously
part of the beneficent and positive plan of God."
The framework of this thinking is most useful. Cardinal
Vanhoye did us a favor to briefly point it out. How is the Old Testament seen
in the New Testament? How are the Jewish people pictured in the New Testament?
No one denies that sins have been committed on both sides over the centuries
partly because we were not clear on what was in the traditions of both about
what each other was.
If we ask, "How were the Jewish people treated by Yahweh in
the Old Testament?" the answer is often very harshly, but with love too to call
them back. Christ said to Peter at one point, "Get thee behind me Satan." Sins
can be repented and forgiven. This, as we believe, was one of the real purposes
of there being a New Testament in the first place.
The vast majority of the Jews profess to live with what they
see in the Old Testament. They see nothing further in the New Testament. The
vast majority of Christians see in the New Testament the fulfillment of God's
plan of salvation in Christ for everything, including the Jews and the
Gentiles. Both can admit that the Old Testament portent some kind of further
completion. No one can deny, believer or not, that a possible reading of the
Old Testament sees its completion in the New Testament, as Benedict's Jesus
of Nazareth repeatedly indicates.
But in both cases, Jews reading the Old Testament,
Christians reading both testaments, we need faith, wisdom, and, yes, goodness,
to see the whole. Study alone, dialogue alone, useful as they are, certainly
better than polemics, are not enough. It is not a neutral thing for mankind
that the unity of Scripture is not seen by all. Revelation includes
intelligence. It also includes grace, and the mysterious ways of God. We know
not the day or the hour. It is a good thing.
Related Ignatius Insight Articles, Excerpts, and Interviews:
"A Word Addressed by God to His People": Benedict XVI and the Interpretation of Sacred Scripture | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Introduction to Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger's
God's Word: Scripture, Tradition, Office | Peter Hünermann and Thomas Södin
God, The Author of Scripture | Preface to
God and His Image: An Outline of Biblical Theology | Fr. Dominique Barthélemy, O.P.
Going Deeper Into the Old Testament | An Interview with Aidan Nichols, O.P.
The Pattern of Revelation: A Contentious Issue |
From Lovely Like Jerusalem | Aidan Nichols, O.P.
Origen and Allegory | Introduction to History and Spirit:
The Understanding of Scripture According to Origen | Henri de Lubac
How To Read The Bible | From
You Can Understand the Bible | Peter Kreeft
Introduction to The Meaning of Tradition | Yves Congar, O.P.
The Bible Gap: Spanning the Distance Between Scripture and Theology | Fr. Benedict Ashley, O.P.
The Divine Authority of Scripture vs. the "Hermeneutic of Suspicion" | James Hitchcock
Enter Modernism | From
Truth and Turmoil: The Historical Roots of the Modern Crisis in the Catholic Church | Philip Trower
Singing the Song of Songs | Blaise Armnijon, S.J.
James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown
He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture,
and literature including Another
Sort of Learning, Idylls
and Rambles, A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning,
The Life of the Mind (ISI, 2006),
The Sum Total of Human
Happiness (St. Augustine's Press, 2007), and The Regensburg Lecture (St. Augustine's Press, 2007).
His most recent book from Ignatius Press is
The Order of Things (Ignatius Press, 2007). His new book, The Mind That Is Catholic: Philosophical and
Political Essays, is now available from The Catholic University Press. Read more of his essays on his
the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by
IgnatiusInsight.com staff and readers about current events, controversies,
and news in the Church!
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