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The hidden unity of the Bible: why we need to know the Old Testament as well as the New

Wednesday, January 29, 2020, 23:55 (IST)

While the Bible is a collection of 66 books, there is a common thread running through all of them. But Pieter Lalleman, Tutor in Biblical Studies at Spurgeon's College, fears that too many Christians are missing some of the deeper meaning in the Scriptures because they do not have a firm grasp of the Old Testament.

He talks to Christian Today about his new book "The Hidden Unity of the Bible" (Faithbuildings, £12.99) and why it's so important that Christians are as well-versed in the Old Testament as they are in the New.

CT: Do you feel that a lot of Christians tend to skip the Old Testament and go straight to the New Testament?

Pieter: Yes, that is one of my main fears, that Christians don't like the Old Testament so much and therefore don't know it so well, they stop reading it, and you get these caricatures that the Old Testament is full of violence and that the God of the Old Testament may even be a different God, and that's simply not accurate.

There are difficult passages in the Old Testament but that's by no means the only stuff and there is so much in the Old Testament that is valuable; the New Testament simply can't be understood without the Old.

It's not just that you might lose the Old Testament, but you're also going to misunderstand the New Testament and not get the depth of all that it is saying if you don't understand where it's coming from.

CT: Most Christians will be able to spot the passages that are directly quoting or referencing the Old Testament, but some of the more subtle references may be missed.

Pieter: Yes, the New Testament regularly quotes from the Old Testament and that is a clear signal that you can thumb back through the Old Testament to see where it comes from. But often people don't refer directly to the Old Testament. They might allude to it and presume that the listener or reader will pick it up. These allusions or echoes are not so easy to detect because we just don't know the Old Testament by heart, and so we need to be pointed to these things.

Some explaining does happen in the footnotes of modern translations but they are not always complete and people don't always see what the connection is, especially if people are skim reading.

CT: We're speaking about seeing the Old Testament within the New Testament scriptures but Jesus is also visible in the Old Testament.

Pieter: Again, some of that is very explicit and some we can only see when we read between the lines. That's why we need to know the text a bit more and get some help to see the extra layers.

For example, some Old Testament prophets speak of the Saviour who will come. Clear enough. But in other passages, we read of things that we know with the gift of hindsight that Jesus has fulfilled. We can see where He has stepped into these Old Testament footsteps, without the Old Testament passages explicitly announcing or predicting that.
An example of this is in Genesis 22, when Isaac is being sacrificed by his father Abraham. Later on, Jesus is willing to be the lamb of God when He goes to the cross. And so Isaac is a prototype of Jesus.

But the same is true of Joseph in all that he suffers, eventually going on to save a great nation. In all these things, the New Testament hardly mentions the connection, but still it is there and you can see it on closer examination.

Again, in the Old Testament you get the image of the Good Shepherd who will look after the sheep well. This is seen not only in Psalm 23 but also in Ezekiel, where it is almost a political statement suggesting that the current shepherds are not looking after the people of God very well. Then when Jesus says "I am the Good Shepherd", he is implicitly saying that he is fulfilling these promises and the expectations of Ezekiel.

CT: The early Christians weren't really talking about the "Old Testament"; they were just talking about "the Scriptures". Do we, as modern readers, miss something of their original understanding?

Pieter: At that time there was only one collection of Scriptures – the Hebrew Bible, or Jewish scriptures. And then in the time of Jesus, his early followers started writing their own books. I do think that some of them were aware that what they were writing would acquire a special status.

When people like Luke or Paul, and especially when John writes Revelation, they were probably thinking there might be another collection of books and that their books might be added to the collection of books that Israel already had. And then at some point the Church decided to gather these new books that were written after the coming of Jesus and called these the "New Testament".

It meant that ultimately the other book came to be called the "Old Testament", but the "First Testament" would be a much better name for it as calling it "Old" is not necessarily helpful.

CT: Some Jews are frustrated that Christians don't 'remember the rock from which they were hewn'. It seems like the early Christians were much more aware, given their references to the Old Testament.

Pieter: Yes, all these first generation Christians were Jews. Over time, Gentiles started to join the new faith and it was forgotten that the whole thing was basically Jewish. We should regain the awareness that the Church consists of Jews and Gentiles. It's their books that we inherited and their books that we want to study - and need to study - in order to understand Jesus and to understand the Church.

People often think that all the prophecy was about Jesus, but especially Paul and Peter apply lots of the scripture to themselves and to the Church, so it's not only about Jesus. Paul calls himself a light to the nations and he brings out many passages describing the Church as the new people of God.

CT: The Bible is a collection of 66 books. What do you mean by the "Hidden Unity"?

Pieter: There is a unity across all of these books that is visible in certain places where people quote openly from the scriptures. But there is much more unity than that. The New Testament authors alluded to the Old Testament scriptures and echoed words and meanings from these scriptures. Some of that is hidden from our immediate view. You need some help to see this. My book is aimed at people in the pews precisely because I want everyone to make sense of this unity.

CT: So just taking a little bit of time out of our daily life, we can penetrate deeper into the Bible we think we know so well?

Pieter: Yes, the surface meaning is clear enough to be saved, but there's more to be discovered. And that does not take too much effort. Discoveries about the unity of the Bible vindicate the first part, the Old Testament, as an essential part of it. It's not something dispensable. It's not a case of 'we only need the second part'. We need both parts.