Beginning in January 2018, the curriculum of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' adult Sunday School classes, worldwide, will turn to the Hebrew Bible or, as Christians typically call it, the Old Testament.
Why? Why bother? Isn’t it sometimes difficult to understand? Isn’t it full of violence? And aren’t the detailed rules and regulations of the Old Testament mostly irrelevant to Christian life today?
Although even a little bit of preparation can overcome many obstacles, such objections have some merit. But the Old Testament is richly worth reading, nonetheless. For one thing, it is foundational to much of the culture of the west — to its art, music, literature, politics and philosophy. Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” Michelangelo’s “David” and his Sistine Ceiling, Mendelssohn’s “Elijah,” the writings of the Puritans, and hundreds of other vital artifacts of western civilization are incomprehensible apart from some knowledge of the Hebrew Bible. The famous Ten Commandments, given to Moses on Mount Sinai (Exodus 20:1-17), are of fundamental significance to western law and morality.
Moreover, the Old Testament is scripture, and not only for Jews. It’s true that Christian appreciation of the Hebrew Bible has varied widely over time.
The important second-century heretic Marcion, for instance, represents an extreme position; he rejected both the Old Testament and the God of the Old Testament, insisting that the father of Jesus was a different deity than that of the Hebrew prophets. Marcion was eventually excommunicated, but many Christians in later centuries have come dangerously close to espousing a kind of folk-Marcionism, carrying Bibles about with them that consisted only of the New Testament and the Psalms and effectively — and sometimes rather explicitly — overlooking the Jewishness of Jesus.
This is not an option available to the Latter-day Saints, whose keynote scripture, the Book of Mormon, bridges the era of the Old Testament and that of the New, effectively linking them, and whose church features not only apostles, teachings about Jesus Christ’s Atonement and the sacrament of the Lord’s supper but patriarchs, temples, tabernacles and priesthoods of Aaron and Melchizedek. The covenant of Abraham (Genesis 17; 22:15-18; Doctrine and Covenants 132:29-50; Galatians 3; Abraham 2) remains essential to Mormon life and doctrine.
Early members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were saturated with the whole Bible, not merely the New Testament, which is why Utah is studded with place names like Zion, Moab, Enoch, Eden, Ephraim, Salem and Mount Nebo. Early Mormon history cannot be fully understood apart from the Old Testament — nor even, specifically, apart from the book of Isaiah, which is cited throughout the Doctrine and Covenants.
Nor can the Book of Mormon be understood without the Hebrew Bible. When Lehi sent his sons to fetch the brass plates of Laban, putting their lives at risk in doing so, he was essentially in quest of a text of the Old Testament (see 1 Nephi 3-5). This was the only scripture known to the first Nephites. Isaiah is the prophet whom they quote the most in their own writings.
The Hebrew Bible was the only scripture of the first Old World Christians, too. The Psalms were their first hymnal. The New Testament cites Isaiah many times, and Matthew’s gospel repeatedly seeks to show how Jesus — a descendent of David — fulfills the predictions of Israel’s prophets. When Jesus comments of his critics that they study the scriptures diligently because, in them, they think they have eternal life (John 5:39), he is plainly referring to the Old Testament. The scriptures he says, “are they which testify of me.”
Likewise, when Paul reminds Timothy that “from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works” (2 Timothy 3:15, 17), he can only be referring to the Hebrew Bible (though probably in its Greek Septuagint translation) since the New Testament didn’t yet exist — and certainly hadn’t been available when Timothy was a child. (Some critics of Mormonism have used this passage to argue that, since the scriptures young Timothy had known were sufficient by themselves for salvation, the Book of Mormon is unnecessary —apparently without noticing that their argument would also render the New Testament itself superfluous.)
A good resolution for the Latter-day Saints in the new year of 2018 would be to deepen our knowledge of the Old Testament, to understand it better. It is, literally, the foundation of all of our scriptures.