The 1603 painting “Sacrifice of Isaac” by Caravaggio depicts an angel stopping Abraham from sacrificing his son Isaac as an offering in the book of Genesis. Image courtesy of Creative Commons

Is the Old Testament dying?

(RNS) Brent Strawn was teaching at a Methodist church in Atlanta when he asked his class to identify the origin of Jesus’ well-known cry from the cross — “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”

Silence.

The Emory University professor of the Old Testament was stunned.

How could it be that these mostly older adults, faithful lifelong churchgoers, didn’t know that Jesus was quoting directly from Psalm 22?

That’s when it dawned on him: The Old Testament is dying.


TAKE THE QUIZ: How much do you know about the Old Testament?


“The Old Testament Is Dying: A Diagnosis and Recommended Treatment” by Brent A. Strawn. Image courtesy of Baker Publishing Group


 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

That realization, now a book by the same name, argues that many contemporary Christians have lost biblical fluency and can no longer speak the language of more than half their sacred Scripture.

It’s not unusual for scholars to talk about the Bible as a language, but Strawn may be the first to look at it as a dying language.

“If the Old Testament is (like) a language, then like any language, it can be learned and spoken, or conversely, can be forgotten and die,” he writes.

Strawn explains how dying languages revert to a pidgin-like form, with limited vocabulary and an even more limited sentence structure. The New Atheists, such as Richard Dawkins, often speak this broken language, Strawn says, picking and choosing the most extreme passages to support their arguments that the Bible is immoral or contradictory without bothering to understand the whole.

Eventually, Strawn writes, a dying language may become a creole, an entirely new language formed from the contact between an older language and a new one.

For Strawn, purveyors of the prosperity gospel, such as Joel Osteen, Creflo Dollar or “Prayer of Jabez” author Bruce Wilkinson, have repackaged Old Testament stories and themes to such a degree that the text is no longer recognizable; indeed, it’s an entirely new language.

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But is the Old Testament really dying, and is there more than anecdotal evidence to prove its demise?

Yes, says Strawn, whose book examines sermons, hymns and weekly lectionary readings in mainline Protestant as well as Catholic churches.

Professor Brent Strawn of Emory University. Photo courtesy of Emory University/Kay Hinton


 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Strawn analyzed 879 sermons published in collections called “Best Sermons,” and found that only 21 percent of those sermons were devoted to lessons from the Old Testament. As for lectionaries, heard in many churches each Sunday morning, the Revised Common Lectionary omits seven books of the Old Testament and severely underrepresents 13 others, Strawn writes. Contemporary worship songs fare no better at inculcating scriptural knowledge.

His conclusion? The patient is experiencing death throes, and churches and church leaders are largely to blame.

Other scholars say it’s important to point out exceptions. Some groups, such as African-Americans and Mormons, strongly identify with Old Testament stories. The liberation from Egypt in the Book of Exodus and the capture of the Promised Land in the Book of Joshua are foundational stories to each group, respectively.

And there’s some evidence that younger Catholics know more about the Old Testament today than their elders did growing up in the days prior to the Second Vatican Council when the Mass was celebrated in Latin and the Bible rarely studied among laypeople.

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That said, it’s entirely possible the overall decline of religious adherence across the West has affected Bible knowledge. As more Christians and Jews abandon sanctuaries to join the swelling ranks of the unaffiliated — now about 23 percent of the U.S. population — Scripture fluency may be fading.

A popular 2010 quiz by the Pew Forum found that Americans correctly answered 16 of 32 basic religious knowledge questions. Among the findings: Only a slim majority (55 percent) knew that the Golden Rule is not one of the Ten Commandments.

But though general biblical literacy may be in decline, Old Testament fluency is a very particular problem for Christians, the audience Strawn is addressing.

“The Old Testament has often had a more insecure place with the Christian tradition,” said Stephen Chapman, professor of Old Testament at Duke Divinity School. “Even when the Old Testament is known, what’s known is a simplified version.”

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Many Christians know a lot about Jesus and can cite chapter and verse of the New Testament. But they view the New as having superseded the Old.

The notion that the Old Testament is about a God of wrath and the New Testament is about the God of love — a view first propounded by Marcion, a second-century Christian scholar later labeled a heretic — is commonplace among Christians.

Indeed, Marcion’s views are hard to shake even among seminary students today.

“There’s a flight response that the Old Testament elicits,” said William Brown, who teaches Old Testament to would-be pastors at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Ga. “That avoidance response has been with them throughout their years in church. Now they’re forced to look at it.”

Still, critics say Strawn's analysis is limited in scope, and they point out that there is no comprehensive survey that compares Old Testament fluency today with that of past generations.

“The Bible has always been dying,” said Timothy Beal, professor of religion at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. “It’s always reaching an end and being reinvented in a new form.”

Timothy Beal. Photo courtesy of Case Western/Daniel Milner

Beal, whose 2016 book examined the Bible and the arts, said the Bible has undergone many iterations. It started out orally, then it was written on parchment, compiled in codex, printed as books. Now it's ubiquitous in digital form.

Instead of asking whether the Bible is a dying language, Beal wondered if Strawn’s diagnosis might be better understood as a kind of requiem for the end of “printed book culture.”

Animated Bible stories such as "Veggie Tales" and biblical-themed movies with star-studded casts may be a new way to learn and interpret the Old Testament visually.

Jews, who prefer the term "Hebrew Bible" or the acronym "Tanakh" (since they do not recognize the New Testament), may also face similar fluency problems.

But Marc Brettler, professor in Judaic studies at Duke University agreed there’s simply not enough solid data to prove that Bible knowledge is dying. The speculative dimension, he said, reminds him of Mark Twain’s famous phrase: “Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”

“David Playing the Harp” by Jan de Bray in 1670. King David is synonymous with the Book of Psalms. Image courtesy of Creative Commons

“There seems to be some human pleasure in saying something is dying and depicting the current generation as particularly worse off than previous generations,” Brettler said.

Instead of asking if the Old Testament is dying, Brettler said it might be more interesting to ask which limbs of the body are still alive.

For Christians, that’s probably the prophets and the Psalms. For Jews, it’s more likely the Torah, or the first five books of the Bible.

But Brettler also suggested Strawn’s book may have a larger purpose:

“If the book increases biblical literacy, if it’s a good alarm bell that goes off,” he said, “that’s great.”

Comments

  1. If only there was some other religion besides Christianity devoted to using the Old Testament as their foundational text..
    In all seriousness, there is some validity to this article. It drives me crazy to hear people say things like “Jesus introduced a new commandment, love your neighbor as yourself.” New??

  2. Yes, Sandi, that means Leviticus dies with the rest of the OT…what will you do?

  3. Arb, it isn’t that the OT is dying. God’s word will stand the test of time.
    We have children entering theological schools who don’t know Jesus to begin with. We had one on here the other day that didn’t even know that Jesus is God, and claimed to be a pastor. Truthfully, I don’t know what is going on, last days maybe, but whatever it is, it’s really sad.

  4. smiles…..I don’t need to worry about that. God’s word will stand the test of time, my friend. Like I inferred yesterday, you make God too small.

  5. I don’t think it’s dying either, it is more a question of literacy and knowledge about the texts.

  6. Good riddance…it should be relegated to old dusty library shelves along with Beowulf and the Code of Hammurabi. The OT has done enough damage. Now let’s have the NT join it in museums, where we can wonder what we thinking — ever taking seriously any of these two dogmas.

  7. Isaiah 40:6 The voice said, “Cry out.”
    And he said, “What shall I cry out?”
    All flesh is grass,
    and all its loveliness is as the flower of the field.
    7 The grass withers, the flower fades
    because the Spirit of the Lord blows upon it;
    surely the people are grass.
    8 The grass withers, the flower fades,
    but the word of our God shall stand forever.

  8. Now there’s your true RNS news story right there, folks!!

  9. Women can teach, GJ. They just cannot teach men.

  10. My lesson for the day.
    Thank you. Can I have my pants back now?

  11. lol…………lol………..God bless you GJ.

  12. Sounds like to me you should be directed to the old dusty library shelves to get an education.

  13. John 13:34 “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. 35 By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.”

    Just for clarity: Jesus did say “New”. 🙂

  14. I’ve thought about your comment Arb. I would think the interpretation from the time the texts were written would be sufficient, as the further you get away from that time period, the further you are from the “knowledge about the texts”.
    This is the problem today. People are trying to put their own curve on what the texts said, in context, when we already have that. They just don’t like what the texts say, and want to change them. Blessings.

  15. ..and I think not without a dose of sarcasm. He knew exactly how silly it sounded to call this ‘new’, but they were acting quite the opposite at the moment.

  16. Leviticus 19:18 Love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus took it a step further by indicating they must be willing to die for their neighbor (as he did). So it is new.

  17. For all my atheist friends who comment here at RNS:
    I have gone to absolutely no expense to bring you this gift: a free eBook.

    This free eBook brings together the exciting worlds of archaeology and the Bible in ten top Biblical archaeology discoveries!
    Learn the stories behind Biblical archaeology finds like the Pool of Siloam in Israel, where the Gospel of John says Jesus miraculously restored sight to a blind man.

    In Ten Top Biblical Archaeology Discoveries, you’ll discover how archaeology brings the ancient world of the Bible to life, right before your “unbelieving” (my words) eyes.

    http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/free-ebooks/ten-top-biblical-archaeology-discoveries/

    (if you need help with the big words, please raise your hand and ask for help.)

  18. Here is an article written by a scholar in the field. He should help educate those “Christ Myth” believers who sit in their mom’s basement and watch you tube videos on discredited theories.

    http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/people-cultures-in-the-bible/jesus-historical-jesus/did-jesus-exist/

    (You don’t need your tinfoil hats on to read this, btw.)

    PS – It even comes with a free – YES FREE – eBook – free ebook Who Was Jesus? Exploring the History of Jesus’ Life,

  19. If Strawn is right that’s really bad news — the New Testament didn’t supersede the old, it built on it. You can’t really understand the New without the Old.

  20. It still raises the question of what the interpretation would have been back then. Still, you do see with some verses some interpretations that just do not fly.

  21. His interpretation in John 13:34 is new or, if not original to him, at least shared with others. What gets me is when people say that Jesus invented the phrase “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

  22. I agree you cannot. We dare not throw out the Hebrew Scriptures to publish stories…> It is the Capstone of the NT. God’s Word is alive, active and school teachers/preachers cannot throw it outl

  23. That question about literacy and knowledge crosses many pieces of Literature. We get help…God’s Word does not die because some like cute little stories that make money. You cannot serve both..the so called teachers need to sit at the feet of THE TEACHER … a little learning is a dangerous thing.

  24. How true, report of the ‘death of Hebrew Scriptures being dead”…the LIVING WORD of GOD…cannot die. Only the creatures who read it.

  25. The interpretation would have been what it is today – what everyone calls conservative. Scripture is handed down from generation to generation.
    You must figure that if it meant one thing a long time ago, while it was in that era, then that is not going to change as time goes on….also, a “new” interpretation is not going to change the scripture. The solid interpretation handed down through the centuries is what it is, which is what is closest to the time it was written.

  26. To paraphrase Twain: The rumors of the OT’s death are greatly exaggerated.

  27. Arbustin,The problem is, as I see it, not judging an ancient Text by modern standards. Who really cares whether itinerant desert dwellers received the Word of God millennia before us? You can get a lot of “mileage” out of reading the text as it was settled by the translators and early Christians, since we don’t have the original texts. For many of us, that is carried out by reading the same passage in many different translations.

    (That accounts for some of the many translations and sects that we Christians promulgate!)

  28. making a statement about the NT in the second century, when it wasn’t assembled till the 5th, seems suspect. A tiny few knew what the NT said into the 8th century. The NT contains rewrites of the OT stories, the stories of moses and many instances where several verses at a time were copied and pasted into the NT from the old. The story of jesus is a retelling of Mythra with the names changed, how can anyone take it seriously. Only 53 of the names in the bible have been confirmed/verified outside the bible and jesus, moses, and abraham not among them. There has been no confirmation of most of the stories of the OT and very few of the NT stories. The city of Nazareth was destroyed around 700 BCE and not built again till 200 ACE, yet the whole jesus story is wrapped around Nazareth being a real place.

    I don’t know how any intelligent student of the bible could be swayed by the truth of any of it. People who believe the bible is the word of god is at it’s lowest level ever, most think of it as inspired stories or just a book. At the time of the nicene council only 15% of bishops, priests, and the public believed jesus was god, they had to have a meeting and take votes just to make him SON of god.

    Yes the whole bible is dying out as it should, killings of doctors, blowing up clinics, killing in the name of jesus, taking rights from gays and others the christians believe are beneath them has to stop. Thankfully it is.

  29. By the middle of the second century the list of authoritative NT writings, regularly read in church assemblies, was mostly fixed. The Muratorian Fragment lists them all with the exception of Hebrews, James and the Petrines. It just wasn’t CALLED the NT until later. The very early church simply referred to these writings as “The Apostles.”

  30. I’ve read the history of it. Until Constantine ordered the final version it was up in the air, the adding of Revelation was not decided yet. The gospels were edited and rewritten (and it was decided to leave just 4 gospels in), the new beginning and ending of Mark was added. And it wasn’t decided if Jesus was god till the nicene council, big piece. At the council they decided TO TEACH jesus was the son of god, not that he actually was. None of the stories were available to the masses except orally and all those were different each time they were told.

    It’s all very weak.

  31. But we have better rules of evidence than that. No third party testimonies, tacitus and josephus were not even born at the specified time of jesus and both waited till almost their deaths to include anything about jesus, christos was a common title and could be a ruler or a leader, most roman leaders called themselves sons of god. The city of Nazareth was destroyed around 700 BCE and wasn’t rebuilt till after 200 ACE so the stories about jesus and nazareth could not have happened there.

    Jesus was one of many preachers who preached an unconventional message not yet approved by the roman empire. the romans put up with these people till they caused trouble in society, then they crucified or stoned them. Jesus was crucified because he caused trouble, along with many many others before him. At the time it was commonly believed everyone resurrected, so believing jesus resurrected was not special. in your text graves opened and 1000’s of others resurrected as well at the same time, not special. stories about Jesus re-appearing were common and taken from similar stories from Mythra and other dying/savior god stories from the time (none of those happened either). a cemetery has been found close to the execution sites the romans used, it’s where they buried the victims. They have found over 30 boxes with the name Jesus on them, common name, any one of them could be your jesus.

    By definition FAITH is belief without proof. Leave it at that. An attempt to prove the jesus of the NT existed brings it out of the faith realm and into the science realm where evidence is needed and will be examined critically and objectively. Your jesus can not stand up to that kind of scrutiny.

    Jerusalem was dying before christianity and constantine’s mother revived it with the tourist industry once she named the ‘holy’ sites, Nazareth had been abandoned and was revived as a tourist site after christianity took hold. In real light it all seems to come crashing down.

  32. Respectable scholars of today, whether or not they believe Jesus Christ was the Son of God or not, agree he existed. You and your little atheists friends here have been discredited, repudiated, and rejected by serious scholars who are actually working in the field.

    Move along – nothing here to see.

  33. Either what you read is nonsense or you didn’t understand it. Canon of scripture was never even discussed at Nicea. They simply used the writings that everyone already accepted as authoritative to decide the question of Arianism. And no, no one “decided” which gospels to “leave out.” The Fragment from the 2nd century tells us exactly which gospels were considered authoritative AND why all the others were not — because they came after the apostles’ time.

    BTW, the Da Vinci Code was fiction.

  34. I think I made it clear I believe the man existed, just far from the one described in the NT.

  35. Of which you have no scholarly proof that your belief is correct.

  36. in the eye of the beholder dirty.

  37. At least you admit it is merely your opinion.

  38. I choose to use the same rules of evidence as in a court of law. using those rules the story can’t stand. relaxing the rules as you do of course it makes sense to you.

  39. You speak in vague generalities. You’ve proven nothing.

  40. Do away with the last 2000 years of Christianity and you have done away with western civilization – including you!

  41. I notice you couldn’t even begin to refute the scholarship.

  42. I provided websites that provided true scholarship – not your youtube scholarship that you and your ilk traffic in.

  43. Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, just to name a few of your fellow atheists that have pursued atheistic materialism to its logical conclusion and made a big splash on the world’s stage.
    Yawn…

  44. I believe Gene has done best study of Bible Chronology. He believed his studies “prove” Christianity was true. It was his Doubting Thomas experience. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John+20.24-29%2CGalatians+4.4&version=NIV There is nothing comparable in secular history. http://biblechronologybooks.com/ Jesus was born Iyyar 28, Wed this week. Clement of Alexandria confirmed by Gene by priestly cycles of Zechariah, John the Baptist’s father. Also Yom Yerushalayim https://www.google.com/search?q=yom+yerushalayim+2017&rlz=1C1CHFX_enUS520US520&oq=yom+yer&aqs=chrome.2.0j69i57j0l4.6486j0j4&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8 Reunification was fulfillment of Daniel 8 prophecy See above link 2300 days/years=334+1967=2301-1=2300 for no “0” year.

  45. No, read the NT texts Matthew 5, 6, 7 (and here your ignorance is profound!) and you will see a much different story. Typical of your hypocrisy, though.

  46. Yet, you found time to note it! LOL! so it wasn’t ignored. (I hear Frank Sinatra singing “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”)

  47. Yet, you are strangely silent on your sources. Hmmm…youtube? Yup, another youtube scholar, no doubt. LOL!

    Here’s some more scholarship you’ll deny – not refute – just deny. LOL.

    Prof Jursa, an Assyriologist, checked the Old Testament and there in chapter 39 of the Book of Jeremiah, he found, spelled differently, the same name – Nebo-Sarsekim….”This is a fantastic discovery, a world-class find,” Dr Finkel said yesterday. “If Nebo-Sarsekim existed, which other lesser figures in the Old Testament existed? A throwaway detail in the Old Testament turns out to be accurate and true. I think that it means that the whole of the narrative [of Jeremiah] takes on a new kind of power.”
    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1557124/Tiny-tablet-provides-proof-for-Old-Testament.html

    Of course, since this “fact” refutes your cognitive paradigm, you dismiss it with a decisive “nonsense” – even though a “true” scholar rendered it.
    Thank you ror starting me on this wonderful journey of discovery. I had no idea there was so much evidence out there.

    And thank you for NEVER providing any evidence or any scholarship to the contrary.

    Ask the questions: Why won’t ror provide evidence? Why does he sound like a robot caller.
    Break the chains: of atheistic group think
    Join the movement: of thinking people unhindered by a materialistic paradigm
    Be free of atheism.

  48. Of course you never provide proof – just hot air. Lol!

  49. Apparently you don’t either since you never provide any – just your atheistic group think.
    Ask the questions: Why won’t ror provide evidence? Why does he sound like a robot caller.

    Break the chains: of atheistic group think
    Join the movement: of thinking people unhindered by a materialistic worldview
    Be free of atheism’s choke hold on the mind.

  50. Where? Wait! Is it over here? Nope! Maybe your evidence is over here? Nope – not here either. Hmmmm…now where could ROR have put it?
    Oh, please mister ror, post it again. I can’t seem to find it. Lol!
    You atheists are hoots – or is it “You atheists are a hoot” – doesn’t matter.

  51. Got you to reply again.
    (Reduced to name calling, too – yes! LOL)

    And I know you are humming this song:

    I’ve got you under my skin
    I’ve got you deep in the heart of me
    So deep in my heart that you’re really a part of me
    I’ve got you under my skin

    I’d tried so not to give in
    I said to myself this affair never will go so well
    But why should I try to resist when baby I know so well
    I’ve got you under my skin
    etc. etc.

  52. You’ve refuted your credibility and that’s all.

  53. Then you could repost it just for me. You know “to show me”. After all you do say: ask the questions (which I have). But now you don’t want to reprint the “proof”. And you say I’m delusional. LOL.

  54. No proof. No evidence. No credibility. Just your baseless denunciations. LOL!
    You are foolish.

  55. And you have to put your comments in bold print as if shouting gives you any more credibility. LOL!

  56. Just atheistic propaganda that you copy and pasted. Not credible. Not scholarly. Not proof in any sense of the word. Just atheistic propaganda and group think. Lol. You’ve got to better than this.

  57. LOL: Your atheistic presuppositions are laughable.Time for you to repent of your unbelief and believe on Christ.
    Psalm 2
    1 Why do the nations rage,
    and the peoples plot in vain?
    2 The kings of the earth set themselves,
    and the rulers take counsel together,
    against the Lord
    and against His anointed, saying,
    3 “Let us tear off their bonds
    and cast away their ropes from us.”
    4 He who sits in the heavens laughs;
    the Lord ridicules them.
    5 Then He will speak to them in His wrath
    and terrify them in His burning anger…

    Psalm 53
    1 The fool has said in his heart,
    “There is no God.”
    They are corrupt, and have done abhorrent injustice;
    there is none who does good.

    Acts 17:30 God overlooked the times of ignorance, but now He commands all men everywhere to repent.

    Genesis 6:3 The Lord said, “My Spirit will not always strive with man,

    Isaiah 55:6 Seek the Lord while He may be found,
    call you upon Him while He is near.
    7 Let the wicked forsake his way,
    and the unrighteous man his thoughts;
    and let him return to the Lord, and He will have mercy upon him,
    and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon.

    Romans 3: 23 For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God,

    Romans 6:23 For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

    Luke 13:3 I tell you…unless you repent, you will…perish.

    John 8:24 Therefore I [Jesus] said to you that you will die in your sins. For unless you believe that I am He, you will die in your sins.”

    Galatians 6:7 Be not deceived. God is not mocked. For whatever a man sows, that will he also reap. 8 For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life.

  58. God’s word has refuted you. You read carefully because you life depends on it.

  59. I have already provided you with all you need to know to believe on Christ. It now remains up to you to tear down your false idols you have erected, repent and believe on Christ.
    Praying for you.

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