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The Old Testament and the New Testament | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | June 25, 2009 | Ignatius Insight

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"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 this presentation.

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 example.

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 Christians.

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 it."

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.

Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University.

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 website.

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