QUESTION: Someone told me recently that the Catholic Church does not prefer the term “Old” Testament. I wonder if that is true and, if so, why?
ANSWER: The Catholic Church has not banned the use of the term “Old” Testament. The term is utilized in many official documents of the church, and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops uses it in its enumeration of biblical books as well as in other places.
This question has arisen among some because the terms “old” and “new” convey differences in time, significance and value. Thus, speaking of the “Old” Testament indicates to some that one is speaking of something that has been supplanted or something that is no longer of any value.
Several substitutes have been considered for the term Old Testament. Some have suggested the term often employed among Jewish people to describe the Old Testament. That term is “Tanakh” (derived from vocalizing the words for Pentateuch [Torah], prophets [Nebi’im] and writings [Ketubin]). That term, however, seems unsuitable because it is so unfamiliar to non-Jews.
Others have argued for use of the term “Hebrew Scriptures.” When this term is utilized, it is important for precision to note that some of the scriptural books included in the Old Testament cannot be shown to have been written originally in Hebrew. The use of the term “Hebrew,” therefore, has to be understood as describing not the language but the community from which emerged these inspired writings.
What the Catholic Church has done since the Second Vatican Council is to encourage a sensitivity to those of other faith traditions. This is true in a special way to those of Jewish faith. However, the use of the term Old Testament is so much a part of Christian biblical studies that it would be difficult to change and would be confusing to many Christians.
Theologically, the Catholic Church holds that the New Testament fulfilled the Old. In doing so, we see tremendous value in the Old Testament because it enables us to understand the New Testament and, even more importantly, because we believe that the same God is speaking through both testaments.
It also seems that our culture has shifted to a new understanding of the old. “Antiques Roadshow” and ancestry tools have given many people a new appreciation of old things. Many people today are fascinated with their roots and their heritage. They have come to a new appreciation of the generations that came before them. They find in their ancestors the qualities of virtue, resilience and courage. They are inspired by the faith of their ancestors and how it united them and provided them with the foundation upon which they built.
It seems that most Christians now apply these insights and feelings to the Old Testament. Without the Old Testament we cannot truly understand our origins or the fullness of our destiny. There is within the Catholic Church a profound respect for the Old Testament and a renewed interest in all that it has to teach us about our God and our destiny.
Father Bober is pastor of St. Kilian Parish in Adams and Cranberry townships.