The Two Testaments in the Christian Bible

The choice between superiority versus uniqueness

From the first of The Twelve Points - or Calls/Challenges - of Berlin:

'By presenting the two Testaments in the Christian Bible as complementary and mutually affirming rather than antagonistic or inferior/superior[ ...]'

Our developmental tendency seems to bring us to maintain and enhance our sense of worth - both as individuals and as members of communities, nations, religious traditions - by seeing ourselves as superior. I am better than the professor down the hall - or my religious tradition is better than yours. 

Because Jews and Christians share many of the same books in their respective canons of scripture (the Tanakh for Jews, the Old Testament for Christians), they have argued about their proper interpretation for centuries. Each thought their readings were superior and those of the other tradition held little value. 

Today, however, it is possible for Jews and Christians to understand that each community reads the scriptures from ancient Israel through two distinctive sets of "lenses": for Jews, it is through the traditions of rabbinic discourse; for Christians, it is through their traditions centered on Christ.  As the Vatican document "On the Jewish People and Their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible" put it in 2001, in parallel and analogous fashion, Jews and Christians "re-read" the scriptures retrospectively, but through two different traditions of interpretation. Both can learn from each other's readings because there can be multiple worthy interpretations of a biblical text. 

"After centuries of antagonism, we now see it as our task to bring these two ways of rereading the biblical texts - the Christian way and the Jewish way - into dialogue with one another, if we are to understand God's will and his word aright."

Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, Part Two, Holy Week: from the entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection (2011), p. 35.

Here's how a Jewish statement and then a Christian statement make these points:

Jews and Christians seek authority from the same book - the Bible (what Jews call "Tanakh" and Christians call the "Old Testament"). Turning to it for religious orientation, spiritual enrichment, and communal education, we each take away similar lessons: God created and sustains the universe; God established a covenant with the people Israel, God's revealed word guides Israel to a life of righteousness; and God will ultimately redeem Israel and the whole world. Yet, Jews and Christians interpret the Bible differently on many points. Such differences must always be respected.

"Dabru Emet: A Jewish Statement on Christians and Christianity" (2000) by the National (USA) Jewish Scholars Project. See:

The Bible both connects and separates Jews and Christians.

Some Jews and Christians today, in the process of studying the Bible together, are discovering new ways of reading that provide a deeper appreciation of both traditions. While the two communities draw from the same biblical texts of ancient Israel, they have developed different traditions of interpretation. Christians view these texts through the lens of the New Testament, while Jews understand these scriptures through the traditions of rabbinic commentary.

"A Sacred Obligation: Rethinking Christian Faith in Relation to Judaism and the Jewish People" (2001) by the Christian Scholars Group on Christian-Jewish Relations. See:

A useful exercise may be to compare the role that the Psalms play in Christian and Jewish liturgies. Select a favorite psalm.

  • When are they recited?
  • Which ones on which occasions?
  • Are they read, intoned, chanted?
  • Compare translations of some of the Psalms.

Another exercise that is made much easier for us through the proliferation of music on the Internet would be to compare and contrast not only liturgical texts but also liturgical music. It is not always clear what elements - in this case - both of liturgical music and liturgical text - can be identified as 'Christian' and which as 'Jewish'. And if you find this at times to be so, how might we understand why this can be?