Is the Old Testament dying?

And there’s some evidence that younger Catholics know more about the Old Testament today than their elders did growing up in the days prior to the Second Vatican Council when the Mass was celebrated in Latin and the Bible rarely studied among laypeople. Instead of asking whether the Bible is a dying language, Beal wondered if Strawn’s diagnosis might be better understood as a kind of requiem for the end of “printed book culture.”
Animated Bible stories such as “Veggie Tales” and biblical-themed movies with star-studded casts may be a new way to learn and interpret the Old Testament visually. Image courtesy of Baker Publishing Group
That realization, now a book by the same name, argues that many contemporary Christians have lost biblical fluency and can no longer speak the language of more than half their sacred Scripture. The patient is experiencing death throes, and churches and church leaders are largely to blame. “Even when the Old Testament is known, what’s known is a simplified version.”

Many Christians know a lot about Jesus and can cite chapter and verse of the New Testament. That said, it’s entirely possible the overall decline of religious adherence across the West has affected Bible knowledge. As more Christians and Jews abandon sanctuaries to join the swelling ranks of the unaffiliated — now about 23 percent of the U.S. A popular 2010 quiz by the Pew Forum found that Americans correctly answered 16 of 32 basic religious knowledge questions. King David is synonymous with the Book of Psalms. But though general biblical literacy may be in decline, Old Testament fluency is a very particular problem for Christians, the audience Strawn is addressing. But they view the New as having superseded the Old. His conclusion? It’s not unusual for scholars to talk about the Bible as a language, but Strawn may be the first to look at it as a dying language. But Brettler also suggested Strawn’s book may have a larger purpose:
“If the book increases biblical literacy, if it’s a good alarm bell that goes off,” he said, “that’s great.” But is the Old Testament really dying, and is there more than anecdotal evidence to prove its demise? For Jews, it’s more likely the Torah, or the first five books of the Bible. Other scholars say it’s important to point out exceptions. For Christians, that’s probably the prophets and the Psalms. Eventually, Strawn writes, a dying language may become a creole, an entirely new language formed from the contact between an older language and a new one. The New Atheists, such as Richard Dawkins, often speak this broken language, Strawn says, picking and choosing the most extreme passages to support their arguments that the Bible is immoral or contradictory without bothering to understand the whole. “The Old Testament has often had a more insecure place with the Christian tradition,” said Stephen Chapman, professor of Old Testament at Duke Divinity School. Photo courtesy of Emory University/Kay Hinton
Strawn analyzed 879 sermons published in collections called “Best Sermons,” and found that only 21 percent of those sermons were devoted to lessons from the Old Testament. Photo courtesy of Case Western/Daniel Milner
Beal, whose 2016 book examined the Bible and the arts, said the Bible has undergone many iterations. How could it be that these mostly older adults, faithful lifelong churchgoers, didn’t know that Jesus was quoting directly from Psalm 22? “If the Old Testament is (like) a language, then like any language, it can be learned and spoken, or conversely, can be forgotten and die,” he writes. “It’s always reaching an end and being reinvented in a new form.”

Timothy Beal. Indeed, Marcion’s views are hard to shake even among seminary students today. “The Old Testament Is Dying: A Diagnosis and Recommended Treatment” by Brent A. The notion that the Old Testament is about a God of wrath and the New Testament is about the God of love — a view first propounded by Marcion, a second-century Christian scholar later labeled a heretic — is commonplace among Christians. As for lectionaries, heard in many churches each Sunday morning, the Revised Common Lectionary omits seven books of the Old Testament and severely underrepresents 13 others, Strawn writes. Contemporary worship songs fare no better at inculcating scriptural knowledge. TAKE THE QUIZ: How much do you know about the Old Testament? Instead of asking if the Old Testament is dying, Brettler said it might be more interesting to ask which limbs of the body are still alive. The Emory University professor of the Old Testament was stunned. “That avoidance response has been with them throughout their years in church. “The Bible has always been dying,” said Timothy Beal, professor of religion at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. The speculative dimension, he said, reminds him of Mark Twain’s famous phrase: “Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”

“David Playing the Harp” by Jan de Bray in 1670. Jews, who prefer the term “Hebrew Bible” or the acronym “Tanakh” (since they do not recognize the New Testament), may also face similar fluency problems. The liberation from Egypt in the Book of Exodus and the capture of the Promised Land in the Book of Joshua are foundational stories to each group, respectively. Strawn. Among the findings: Only a slim majority (55 percent) knew that the Golden Rule is not one of the Ten Commandments. Professor Brent Strawn of Emory University. For Strawn, purveyors of the prosperity gospel, such as Joel Osteen, Creflo Dollar or “Prayer of Jabez” author Bruce Wilkinson, have repackaged Old Testament stories and themes to such a degree that the text is no longer recognizable; indeed, it’s an entirely new language. Now it’s ubiquitous in digital form. population — Scripture fluency may be fading. “There’s a flight response that the Old Testament elicits,” said William Brown, who teaches Old Testament to would-be pastors at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Ga. Yes, says Strawn, whose book examines sermons, hymns and weekly lectionary readings in mainline Protestant as well as Catholic churches. Strawn explains how dying languages revert to a pidgin-like form, with limited vocabulary and an even more limited sentence structure. But Marc Brettler, professor in Judaic studies at Duke University agreed there’s simply not enough solid data to prove that Bible knowledge is dying. It started out orally, then it was written on parchment, compiled in codex, printed as books. (RNS) Brent Strawn was teaching at a Methodist church in Atlanta when he asked his class to identify the origin of Jesus’ well-known cry from the cross — “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”
Silence. That’s when it dawned on him: The Old Testament is dying. Some groups, such as African-Americans and Mormons, strongly identify with Old Testament stories. Image courtesy of Creative Commons
“There seems to be some human pleasure in saying something is dying and depicting the current generation as particularly worse off than previous generations,” Brettler said. Now they’re forced to look at it.”
Still, critics say Strawn’s analysis is limited in scope, and they point out that there is no comprehensive survey that compares Old Testament fluency today with that of past generations.