Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Jeremiah 31: A "New" Testament?

As many of you know--but some of you may not--I'm a college Bible professor in New York City. And February brings with it, along with a mild freeze that local media outlets hyperbolically describe as either ear-splitting or downright fatal, a new university semester and a new crew of Bible students.

That semester began last night, and I always open my courses with a couple of terminological caveats. First, I explain that I will not be using the traditional abbreviations B.C. (Before Christ) and A.D. (Anno Domini, or "the year of our Lord") for dating historical events. First, they're Christocentric, and one need not be Christian to study the Bible--or to remember dates, for that matter. Second, they're imprecise; according to most modern calculations, Jesus was probably born between four and six years before Christ ... though as Sarah Silverman reminds us, Jesus is magic, and he could be born before he was born if he wanted to be.

Second--and perhaps a bit more controversially--I tell my students that I will only infrequently refer to the two "halves" of the Bible as the "Old Testament" and the "New Testament." I will instead opt for "Hebrew Bible"--or "Tanakh"--and "Christian scripture." (Some of my Christian students are actually surprised to hear that the Old Testament is the Hebrew Bible are the same thing.)

Why? Well, for Jews, there is nothing "old" about the Tanakh. The Hebrew Bible is an intact, living corpus, made vibrant and "new" with each reader. According to Christians, the New Testament fulfills or completes the Hebrew Bible, but for Jews, there is no need. Hence, I emphasize that Christian scripture is a fascinating reinterpretation of Jewish scripture--but not a necessary one.

That being said, early Christians were not just being assholes when they started referring to the Tanakh as "old." They did have Biblical precedent, provided for them by the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah, who forecasts the need for a new testament in the thirty-first chapter of the book that shares his name.

For both Jews and Christians, testament is roughly synonymous with "covenant," the name the Bible gives to the pseudo-contractual relationship developed between the Jewish people and their God. The covenant begins with Abram/Abraham in Genesis; in exchange for loyalty and worship, God will give Abraham many descendants and a land in which to put them.

God reaffirms the covenant--this time with Moses and all the Israelites--in Exodus and seals it with the promulgation of the Torah law. According to this expanded covenant, Yahweh will bless the Israelites if they keep and follow the Torah and worship Him as the one true God. This covenantal relationship gets off to a rocky start in the wilderness outside Egypt, but it persists nonetheless and eventually flourishes in the monarchy of David, sometime around the tenth century, B.C.E.

However, after David, it's all downhill. David's son Solomon takes hundreds of wives and concubines, and finds time in what must have been an exhausting sexual schedule to start worshiping lots of other gods. His apostasy causes the kingdom of Israel to split in two, beginning a dissolution that will end with the defeat of the Northern Kingdom by the Assyrians and the destruction of the Southern Kingdom by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E.--right around the time Jeremiah was writing his prophetic texts.

Jeremiah, then, looks out on the sad state of affairs in Israel and assumes that the Jewish/Hebrew people have so thoroughly fouled up the covenant that it is dead and defunct. Unwilling to despair, however, Jeremiah pleads to God for a new covenant:

"The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of Egypt--a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people" (Jeremiah 31: 31-33).

For Jeremiah, this passage describes a significant re-evaluation of the old covenant, but one that maintains continuity with most of the old covenant's features: a focus on the people Israel, who will have an exclusive relationship with Yahweh confirmed by an internalized but still important Law.

For early Christians, however, this passage opened the door for a much more radical re-evaluation of the notion of covenant. Indeed, Christians understand the Jesus movement as a necessary but thoroughly innovative re-envisioning of the relationship between God and humanity--so innovative that it requires a brand new set of books to describe it ... the New Testament, or, alternately, the New Covenant.

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