Saturday, May 11, 2013

The Illusory “Intertestamental Period”

While writing Part Three of “An Approach to the Fall Story in Genesis,” I quickly became sidetracked into a discussion about why we should stop using the term “intertestamental period.” Normally, I'd simply refer readers to Wikipedia for an overview, but that article is so poorly done as to make it unusable. It has already been nominated for deletion twice, and the talk page for the piece indicates the article's continued existence is still controversial. Nor could I find a decent article discussing the terminology on the Web. Rather than needlessly digressing from my main topic, I decided to write a post I could then refer readers to.

The notion of an “intertestamental period” is a peculiarly Protestant concept. It derives partly from the order of the Christian Old Testament and partly from the fact Protestants deny the canonicity of the Apocrypha. Especially when using a Protestant Bible that does not contain the Apocrypha, the reader can be left with the impression that there is a gap between the Old and New Testaments. The general idea is that after Malachi, no one wrote inspired Scripture until the beginning of the New Testament period.

There are big differences in book order between the Jewish Tanakh and the Christian Old Testament. See the chart created by Felix Just. The variant order of books also has implications for its meaning. Michael Fridman wrote a concise, if somewhat sarcastic, note about the meaning of the different book orders. I'm going to concentrate on the implications of making Malachi the last book of the Old Testament. As Fridman and others have noted, ending the Old Testament with Malachi makes for a perfect segue into Matthew. To some extent, it also has the implication of being God's final word until the new era begins.

However, that implication by itself is not enough to create a gap called the “intertestamental period.” Jews, of course, have no “intertestamental period.” Most Christian traditions include other material, like various books of the Maccabees and Sirach in their Old Testament. For another handy chart, see “What'sin Your Bible?” This material, considered apocryphal in the Protestant Bible, considerably closes the gap between Malachi and Matthew. By relegating this material to the Apocrypha, Protestants effectively created the “intertestamental period.”

The effect isn't so bad when a Protestant Bible contains the Apocrypha. Since the Apocrypha is generally printed between the Old and New Testaments, the reader is aware that something is going on. A Protestant Bible without the Apocrypha leaves a black hole between the testaments. The difference is so stark that I now consider the failure to translate the Apocrypha in a Protestant English version to be prima facie evidence the whole translation will be sectarian.1

Even left with the confines of the Protestant Old Testament, the idea that there was complete silence between Malachi and Matthew is simply wrong. Daniel was almost certainly written around 165 BCE, and Esther was most likely written after Malachi as well. Other books that might have been written after Malachi include: 1 Chronicles, 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, Joel, and Jonah.2 Even without the Apocrypha, the “intertestamental period” has become very small indeed.

A quick look at Just's chart will reveal that most of these books fall in the Khetuvim / Writings section of the Jewish canon. This fact is actually very revealing. The order of books in the Tanakh has more to it than, as Fridman stated, providing “a complete testimony of Israel’s glory, exile and redemption.” The divisions of Law, Prophets, and Writings also accord well with the eras the books were written and/or canonized. Scattering the Writings throughout the Christian Old Testament obscures this point.

What then, is left of the “intertestamental period?” Even viewing the Protestant canon, the gap is at most around two hundred years. For most other Christian groups, there is no gap between the Old and New Testaments. For Jews, Tanakh is already complete in itself. In light of these facts, it is probably better to do away with the “intertestamental period” altogether.

1 “Failure to translate” is to be distinguished from failure to print. For example, one can obtain a printing of the New Revised Standard Version with or without the Apocrypha. One does not have that option with the New International Version. I had long considered the 1984 edition of the NIV a thoroughly sectarian piece of work before coming to my conclusion about the Apocrypha. The 2011 edition may be different, but the fact Biblica's Committee on Bible Translation still hasn't done a translation of the Apocrypha doesn't give me much hope.
2 See the introductions for these books in Michael D. Coogan, ed., The New Oxford Annotated Bible, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001). Some scholars would add Ruth to this list.

No comments:

Post a Comment