This is a very natural question to ask, especially since the Old and New Testaments are nearly always found, in Christian practice at least, bound together as one book. Yet it is difficult to assess to what extent Christianity is sensitive to the fact that what the Church has called the Old Testament is also the property of Judaism and Jews, and that the Church by no means has a monopoly on it. Because of a strong awareness that the Old Testament is read by Jews, many people prefer to avoid altogether the term Old Testament (which is of course not used by the Jews themselves).
At the heart of the matter is the fact that the term Old Testament was coined by Christians to distinguish these writings from the ever-growing literature of the early Church that began to be regarded as having religious authority. This appeared to put the Old Testament on an inferior footing to the New Testament and devalue it, a move that is felt to be insensitive to Jews.
A further complication arises when we learn that the twenty-four books accepted as canonical by Jews (and most Protestant Christians) are increased to twenty-seven by Catholics, including some books that were not originally written in Hebrew.
The question of what Christians should do with the texts they had inherited from the ancient Israelites was the subject of lively debate from the earliest centuries of the Church. Fuel was added to the debate in the form of one overriding factor which Christianity had then and still needs to resolve: the existence of fundamental inconsistencies between the Old Testament and the New. The classic case of rejection of the Old Testament within Christian tradition is that of Marcion, a very influential churchman of the second century. He emphasised Paul’s contrast between Old Testament law and New Testament gospel to an extreme degree, so much so that he rejected the whole of the Old Testament. He went so far as to claim that the loving Father of the New Testament was in fact a different God from the angry God of the Old Testament! This may be a rather extreme response, but the problem is one that still worries many today. Again, the factor which led Marcion to reject the Old Testament was, primarily, the problem of irreconcilable discrepancies between the two Testaments.
Marcion’s rejection of the Old Testament was deliberate. As was the rejection in the 1930s, when anti-Jewish feeling in Nazi Germany put pressure on the Church to deny the Old Testament. The form that rejection of the Old Testament often takes in modern day Christianity is very different, amounting usually to an embarrassed silence about that part of the Bible. This attitude, which might well be said to be typical of very many Christians, is rarely articulated clearly. Of particular importance here to Christians is the supposed difficulty and obscurity of so much of the Old Testament; the apparently cruel and primitive nature of large parts of it; and also the feeling that it is irrelevant to the modern world and even contradicts the scientific views of our age. The fact that the same could be said for the New Testament is conveniently overlooked by such Christians.
The alternative to rejecting or quietly ignoring the Old Testament is to affirm its importance for the Church and to attempt to integrate it with one’s understanding of the New Testament. After all, what we call the Old Testament was the Bible of Jesus and of Paul, who both felt it important and relevant to quote and read from it, as the following examples highlight:
At Luke 4:18, Jesus, whilst visiting the synagogue as a child, is quoted as reading a passage from the Book of Isaiah: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the broken-hearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised.’
Some of the words from this passage have been underlined to assist in a comparison between Luke’s New Testament rendition of this quote from Isaiah and the form which it takes in the Old Testament itself, where Isaiah 61:1 reads:
‘The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me; because the Lord hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound.’
Surprisingly, the two passages differ. The Old Testament makes no mention of ‘recovering of sight to the blind’ whereas Luke does, and he substitutes ‘heal the broken-hearted’ and ‘them that are bruised’ for the Old Testament’s ‘to bind up the broken-hearted’ and ‘them that are bound.’