An (Intertesta)mental Block

Mind the Gap! by BuhSnarf

Mind the Gap! by BuhSnarf

It’s so easy to use words unthinkingly, without ever stopping to consider what they imply. I’ve been doing a bit of work on the gospels recently, and I was writing some notes the other day about the cultural context into which Jesus was speaking, and how we need to read the gospels in the light of developments during the intertestamental period.

A friend gave me a copy of Peter Leithart’s book, The Four, which I began reading eagerly. Early on (pages 22-23) he makes some comments about why the word ‘intertestamental’ may not be an appropriate term to use:

Today Christians usually refer to the period between Israel’s return from exile and the beginning of Jesus’ ministry as an “intertestamental” period. Like the phrase “Middle Ages,” it is a misleading term. The phrase “Middle Ages” was invented by writers of the Renaissance who believed that the world was in darkness between the end of Rome and the beginning of the Renaissance. They disliked the Christian civilisation that developed between 500 and 1400, and spoke of it either as a “dark age” or as an unimportant “middle age.” When we call the period between Malachi and Matthew an “intertestamental” period, we are saying that the period between Malachi and Matthew is not very important.

I nod sagely and smile smugly. Of course I don’t think the intertestamental period is unimportant, hence my studying and writing about it. But Leithart continues: 

“Intertestamental” is misleading for another reason. The word “intertestamental” means, literally, “between the testaments.” We call this period by this name because it is the period of time between the writings of the Old Testament and the books that make up New Testament. When we use the word “intertestamental,” we are assuming that the word “testament” refers to a collection of writings. But the Bible never uses the word “testament” to refer to writings. In Scripture, “testament” is another word for “covenant.” Yahweh’s covenant is the marriage relationship that He enters with human beings, especially with Israel, which includes His commitment to bless His people and the demands He places on them. “Testament” or “covenant” refers to the whole collection of rights, signs, rules, orders, and offices that make up the life of God’s people.

When we understand “testament” in the biblical sense, “intertestamental” is clearly a misleading label. It implies that there is a period between about 500 B.C. and 4 B.C. where the covenant between Yahweh and Israel lapses. If this period is “inter testamental,” then the history of God’s dealings with the world that starts with Adam suddenly ends with Malachi. The phrase implies that Yahweh is in a covenant with Israel from the time of Abraham to the time of Nehemiah, but then after Nehemiah there are 500 years of blank pages in the story.

This is not what happened.

Oops… good point! God’s covenant never lapsed or failed, and thus ‘intertestamental’ is probably not the best word to use! The period between Malachi and Matthew was not a wasteland period in which God kicked back and forgot about His promises. His covenant was still very much in force, and waiting to come to its fulfilment, and He was consistently faithful. 

So, whilst I recover from Leithart’s sharp slap in the face, I’m in the market for an alternative and am having a mental (dare I say “(intertesta)mental”?) block…

Any suggestions?