How do Christians interpret the Old Testament?

Sr. Louise Zdunich


September 22, 2014

QuestionI know we Catholics use the Old Testament in many ways, including as Mass readings, but how do Christians interpret the Old Testament? Is it used mainly as it relates to the New Testament and Christianity?


AnswerThe Old Testament has much value in itself. I will try to situate the Old Testament in the Bible and discuss its significance in itself and for us.

We get the word "Bible" from the Greek neuter plural form of biblion, which simply means book or scroll as is evident from the text in 2 Maccabees 8.23 when Eleazar was appointed to read from the holy book.

This and other texts show it is in a class by itself and that it needs no other title. There was no need to specify which book. The Bible is the "Book," the "Good Book" or the "Book of Books" to which no other book compares.

The Bible is the sacred story of God's people and God's dealings with them. In 70 AD, Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed. To save the scrolls and parchments containing the Bible from destruction, they were hidden in caves. They remained there until they were discovered beginning in 1947 at Qumran in the Judean desert.

Referred to as the Dead Sea Scrolls, these ancient manuscripts contained portions of almost all of the Old Testament books. They are older versions than any biblical manuscripts we previously had. Although remnants, they have been used in newer translations.

It is interesting to note that the word "Bible" comes from the plural form of the word in Greek. This tells us that rather than being a single book, the Bible is really a library of books composed by many different authors.

Jews divide these books into three categories: the Law, the Prophets and the Writings. These categories are useful as they describe the contents of the books. Books listed separately in Christian Bibles are sometimes joined together in the Hebrew Bible.

We may sometimes think the God of the Old Testament is a cruel and vengeful God but that is far from the truth. The Hebrews experienced many trials and tribulations but God was always there to lead them by the hand. Constant reference is made to God's goodness and loving care.

The Old Testament describes a God who is faithful, although there is not always a faithful response from the people of God. Throughout the Old Testament, we see the emphasis on God's glory: "The glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle" (Exodus 40.34); "God has shown us his glory and greatness" (Deuteronomy 5.24).


The Hebrew Scriptures are taken as sacred and authoritative by Christians, and they are considered an integral part of the Bible.

However, Christians often do interpret the Old Testament in its relation to Christianity. Christians believe that many aspects of the Old Testament prefigure the New and that the New Testament is the fulfillment of the Old.

Is every word of the Bible to be taken at face value? Translations create problems since the words used by the original writers are quite different in grammar and word meaning from our modern English. In addition, many words used in the original language have ambiguous meanings and are difficult to translate.

Therefore, each translator must decide which is the best word to use. This is evident in the many translations where the words used can convey different meanings. One Hebrew word can have several meanings.

For example, the Hebrew ruwatch can mean wind, breath or spirit. Modern translators are divided over this so they choose the one they believe is the best.


An interesting learning experience occurs when, in group Bible study, different translations are used. Differences may be noted and discussed.

One such difference was seen in the poetic form in the King James Bible compared with the Revised Standard Version, which is considered to be more accurate as its translation was made from the oldest manuscripts.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, "The reader must be attentive to what the human authors truly wanted to affirm and to what God wanted to reveal to us by their words" (109).

The catechism continues: "In order to discover the sacred authors' intention, the reader must take into account the conditions of their times and culture, the literary genres in use at that time and the modes of feeling, speaking and narrating then current" (110).

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