Kingdom of Priests

Kingdom of Priests

Billy Graham on the Hebrew Bible: What’s It Good For?

A couple of times I’ve come across the Rev. Billy Graham’s syndicated newspaper columns — yes, they are still being published — and on both occasions he was answering a letter from a reader who was perplexed upon trying to read the Hebrew Bible, or “Old Testament.”

The column that was in yesterday’s papers is headed by a plea for pastoral guidance from a Mr. (or Mrs.) D.F.H., who has undertaken as a New Year’s resolution to read the Old Testament:

I’ve become discouraged because I know I’ll never be able to keep all those laws. There must be hundreds of them. Do you have any advice?


Rev. Graham replies:

Yes, the Old Testament can be confusing (and even intimidating) if you aren’t familiar with the Bible. But God has many truths to teach us through it, including truths about himself and truths about our lives. For example, many of the detailed laws you’ve discovered in the early books of the Bible no longer apply to us today; they were only meant to govern God’s people before Christ came into the world.

Now of course he’d have to say something like that — what else could he say? — yet it strikes me as poignantly inadequate. This is the reason I’m writing this blog — because the Hebrew Bible is an uncharted sea for most Christians and Jews. Graham is correct that the “Old Testament” is “confusing” and much of it seems irrelevant.
It’s like a locked book in many ways. The key is the ancient interpretative tradition transmitted by Jewish tradition: the Oral Torah.
I’m curious to get your view, especially if you are a Christian. What is all that material doing there, taking up so much space in the Bible? Why does it have to be so long and confounding with its seemingly endless laws and rituals?
If the point were to convict us — demonstrating that we can’t “save ourselves” by legal observance (something Judaism never said, actually) — couldn’t the point be conveyed more succinctly?
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posted April 21, 2009 at 10:52 pm

As a Christian, I’d say it’s twofold.
One, the Old Testament (or Hebrew Bible, or Tanakh) gives the context for Christ and the New Testament. To someone who knew nothing about Buddhism, the claim that a certain person was the coming of Maitreya would be unintelligible. Likewise, if someone who knew nothing about Judaism or the Tanakh sat down and read the NT, there would be huge swaths that would make no sense.
Two: The complex ritual and stipulations of the Law were necessary to preserve the Jewish people as a unique, unassimilated people. Had there been fewer barriers to assimilation, the Jewish God could have become just one more in the pantheon (on the one hand), or Judaism could have become just another allegorical ethical philosophy (on the other). The Law, however, preserved the Jews as a unique people–only this uniqueness, this “apartness”, allowed them to develop the crucial idea of ethical monotheism. No other culture could have done this. This insularity allowed the Israelites to develop the sublime ethics and love of God which culminated in the universalism of the prophets. As the Jews were dispersed throughout the Greco-Roman world, the Gentiles began to pick up these ideas and to be influenced by them. All this set the stage for the coming of Christ.
With Christ, the Law was fulfilled and reached its completion. The flower gave way to the fruit. Christianity, finding the world now prepared by the Jews for its message, was able to spread to all peoples. The Law was no longer needed–however, as it played the vital role of preparing the world for Christ, it was retained as holy scripture. We needed it as the reminder of the great debt we owe the Jewish people and their preparatory role in salvation history. In a sense, the OT is the flower that God sends his beloved in anticipation of actually coming to them in Christ. We gratefully keep the flower as a reminder. The flower pressed in the book, as it were.
Now, this is my view as a Christian, and is not in any way intended to be offensive. A Jew, of course, would vigorously disagree. Likewise, Muslims see Christianity as preparing the way for Islam, the New Testament then being fulfilled and superseded. I disagree with that (else I’d be a Muslim); but I don’t begrudge the Muslim that belief, which after all is foundational to his religion. I disagree, but I take no offense.
It’s interesting in this context to note the current spike of interest in Gnosticism. The Gnostics of old posited that the God of the Old Testament could not be the same as that of the New. They thus believed that the OT god was a false god of hatred and vengeance who created the world out of spite and ignorance. The true God, the God of light, was the God of the New Testament, the God of Jesus, who came to set the world free from the tyranny of the Demiurge, the false OT god. To this end, Gnostics such as Marcion actually removed the entire Tanakh from the canon, accepting only parts of the NT. Orthodox Christians vigorously insisted that God is God in either testament, and that the Old must not be sundered from the New.
The Gnostic deletion of the Tanakh was, in essence, an anti-Semitic move–not only are you completely divorcing Christianity from Judaism, you’re implicitly accusing the Jews of worshiping and serving the oppressor of the universe–you’re making them virtual Satanists!
Granted, orthodox Christians have had a sorry record towards the Jews, may God forgive us. Nevertheless, one wonders what might have happened had the Gnostics won the day. Maybe orthodoxy was very good for the Jews!

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posted April 22, 2009 at 1:58 pm

There are two primary NT passages that really talk to the question you are asking. Luke 24:44 where Jesus says that everything in the Law of Moses, the prophets and the psalms (i.e. writings) is about him. The Scriptures are Christocentric. The other passage is Colossians 2:16-17 where Paul talks about questions of food and drink, festivals and sabbaths as shadows of things to come which find their reality in Christ.
So, what is all that “stuff” doing in there? It is pointing to the person of Christ. Christians of course see the Christ as Jesus.
Now Jesus also says he came to fulfill the law not to abolish it. That has historically been taken in just the way Mr. Graham talked. The law had the moral componant (i.e the 10 commandments) and the religious componant usually called ceremonial. Jesus in the NT reiterates and gives the maximum reading to all of the 10 commandments. The law is how God inteded us to live and it still stands as a good rule for our lives even though we cannot possibly keep it. The ceremonial laws were shadows that have been given way to the reality of the Cross and the Resurrection.
And this is probably the really offensive portion (not as if saying Jews misread their entire scriptures isn’t offensive), but it was the belief of the early church that 70 AD stands as the final repudiation of that ceremonial law system. The law of Moses was fulfilled and judgment was rendered.
The disagreement is between Jew and Christian really is not about what applies or what doesn’t, but about the key to interpretation. Is is the Oral Torah (Jew) or is it the person of Jesus (Christian)? Where you end up depends upon that starting point.

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posted April 24, 2009 at 2:04 am

Although, I profess Jesus is Lord, I think Graham is incorrect in his assertion that the Law is only in existence as a placeholder until Christ comes. That is part of Jewish tradition in the sense that ‘the law will end when the messianic kingdom begins’. This is the understanding that Jesus and the gospel he proclaims is the antithesis to the Torah. Even the messianic kingdom, which will end the reign of Torah only does so because the Torah is written upon the hearts of all people.
I prefer to take a different approach to Christ, however. My approach is to understand Christ the person, and his gopsel as the messianic interpretation of the Torah for the Gentile nations (I think his “antitheses” in the Sermon are actually more like building a fence around the Torah). Ergo, Jesus fulfils the law, rather than one who abrogates it. For the Christian, Jesus is the Oral Law. The person of Jesus is how the Christian understands the Torah, in the same way that for the Jewish people the way for understanding the Torah is through the Talmud.

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posted April 28, 2009 at 4:49 pm

Old (testiment) really means covenant,I have a Tanakh at home along with a NKJV. I think most Christians view the OT as more of a reference to the past and the New Testiment as a glance into the future. God gave Moses 613 laws, and judgements to goven humanity.
Nowhere in the NT are the 10 commandments listed but yet God still expects us to follow them. Jesus did narrow the Laws of Moses down to just two.1. To love God with all your being. 2.To love your neighbor as yourself. If man could kept just these two commandments the world me be a better place to live.

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