The topic has tangentially been raised in the comments between Roy and myself on this post (Review of Routledge’s OT Theology) on the distinction between Hebrew Bible and Old Testament, more applicably, which is the basis for ‘OT’ theology (the name itself perhaps being a dead giveaway, but I don’t know that it is so clear).
Old Testament is obviously the Christian designation for the first collection of books in the canon. It is a (purely?) confessional designation that speaks of a particular ordering of books (ending with Malachi) that bears a relationship, of some sort depending upon who you are reading, to the NT.
Hebrew Bible is the attempt to be more neutral, the idea being that “Old” in “Old Testament” belies some level of antiquated ethics, thoughts, morals, and texts that have been replaced and/or fulfilled in Jesus, and are thus of little, or less, relevance for informing Christian faith and thought. The label “Hebrew Bible” also seeks to be more appreciative not only of the obvious Jewish roots of Christianity but of the contemporary Jewish community, to whom these Scriptures still serve as the foundation for Jewish faith and identity. It is, in a way, an attempt to move beyond supersessionism/triumphalism.
Personally, I will more often than not employ “Hebrew Bible” for many of the reasons offered above. But, I also see myself using Hebrew Bible because I am reading the Hebrew canon of books, which ends with 2 Chronicles and not with Malachi, and which belongs to the Hebrew people. Of course, most scholarship reads the Hebrew text but assumes the Christian canonical order. This is fine, but a bit untruthful to the reality of what one is reading. Regardless, the canonical ordering often has little bearing on my scholarship to this point . . . . I am not a canonical interpreter. I also find it amusing that when I do say “Old Testament,” some of my colleagues will immediately say “Ha!” and point out my apparent faux pas in uttering such a phrase. I still don’t really know what they’re getting at there, beyond the simple idea of affirming for themselves that someone who knows the text better than they can still say “Old Testament,” affirming their own a priori methods of reading (I know that sounds terribly arrogant, but I do wonder if it is part of the issue).
“Hebrew Bible” has its problems. Among the main arguments (and a silly one, if you ask me) is that it also includes Aramaic. Ok, that’s fine, but the Aramaic also contains various loan words from other languages . . . . so should we call it the Semitic Bible? Ridiculous. And the Greek New Testament contains Aramaic (for instance, Jesus’ words talitha cum or eli eli lema . . . . , albeit in Greek characters). This is a silly argument to me. As an attempt to remedy this issue, some have proffered “Jewish Scriptures” or “First Testament.” For reasons that should be obvious, these titles are also not without their difficulties.
In the end, does such a difference truly matter? What difference does it make? The first footnote to Walter Brueggemann’s Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy discusses this issue in a responsible way. This brings up the attendant question of what is OT theology? In the comments to the post cited above, I note that there is a dearth of Hebrew Bible theology, and much Old Testament theologyends up being almost entirely Christian. Is this a problem? Is there such a thing as Hebrew Bible theology? Should there be? Can there be? And if so, is it–like OT theology–a purely confessional discipline that only Jews can do successfully?
A closing thought: in my Ph.D. admissions interview at Baylor, I was asked whether it was possible for a Christian to read the Hebrew Bible, or whether they are always reading the Old Testament. This question bears significantly on the present discussion. At bottom, my answer was a resounding yes . . . . as an empathetic, sympathetic, and intimate part of Israel (see Rom 9-11, as well as Boccacini, Segal, and Boyarin on the origins of early [Jewish]-Christianity), it was possible for Christians to read the Hebrew Bible. I firmly believe this–indeed, I am trying to do it!
What are your thoughts? Which do you use/prefer, and why: Hebrew Bible or Old Testament? How do you understand the difference? And how might the decision bear on a theology of the TANAK (see how I evaded the issue there?!).