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Adam and Eve, Noah’s Ark, Moses and the Ten Commandments, the parting of the Red Sea. These are a few of the stories from the Old Testament. And then there’s the New Testament, with its account of the life of Jesus, the Good Samaritan, the raising of Lazarus and the feeding of the five thousand. Whatever our creed or background, these stories are embedded in our consciousness. They inform our everyday speech and much of our art, music and literature – from Cranach’s depiction of Adam and Eve to C.S. Lewis’s Narnia stories and Stormzy’s ‘Blinded By Your Grace’.
Together the Old Testament and the New Testament make up the Holy Bible. The Old Testament contains the sacred scriptures of the Jewish faith, while Christianity draws on both Old and New Testaments, interpreting the New Testament as the fulfilment of the prophecies of the Old.
But which of these books is the greater? Novelist Howard Jacobson, making the case for the Old Testament in this debate, is in no doubt. ‘The God of the Old Testament,’ he says, ‘is wrathful, jealous, touchy, quick to judge, slow to forgive and stylistically forthright – favouring plain speaking over parables. The God of the New Testament, as incarnated in Jesus Christ, is altogether a different kettle of fish. More our friend than our parent. Those whose parents have been their friends know where that leads….” And for writer Anne Atkins, who argued alongside him, there is no contest. Although she is a Christian, for her the Old Testament wins hands down, with its vast sweeps of history, tales of epic survival after exile and exodus, its poetry, prophesy and, as she puts it, ‘the most exquisitely erotic lyrics ever’.
The pathos and poetry of the Old Testament are all very well, theologian Robert Beckford argued on the other side of this debate. But, for him, it is the New Testament’s revolutionary inclusivity with regard to race, class, gender and sexuality that makes it a more useful text for achieving human fulfilment and creating a better world. And for the Rev. Richard Coles, the Radio 4 presenter who went from pop star to priest, the New Testament is a kind of miracle in itself. Not only does it fulfil the law of God in its depiction of the life of Christ, but thanks to its being written in Greek, the lingua franca of the ancient Near East, the early Christians were able to carry the message of Jesus out beyond the Jewish world to make an inexpressibly huge impact on our history and civilisation.
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