Q. Why is the Old Testament so Hard to Understand?

Basically I think there are five reasons why it appears that the Old Testament is more difficult to understand than the New Testament.

  1. The Old Testament is — Older…Much Older
  2. We hold Greco-Roman Ideas
  3. The New Testament is About a Person
  4. We Overestimate How Well We Understand the New Testament
  5. We Don’t Read It as It was Meant to be Read

1. The Old Testament is simply more distant in time than the New Testament. The oldest book in the New Testament was probably written around A.D. 48-51 . The youngest of the Old Testament was written approximately four centuries before that. Many of the books in the Old Testament are much older than that. Some believe that the book of Job was written 2,000 years before Christ. The story of Abraham dates from around that time, but was probably not written until around 1450 BC. So these books are far distant from us in time, and, as we shall see, sometimes even farther than that in terms of mindset and worldview. In simple terms, the pyramids were relatively new at that time.

2. At some times in the past, the passage of four centuries would not be that significant. But the four centuries between the Testaments marked the rise of Greece and Rome, what we call “Greco-Roman” civilization. The Greek mindset, especially the influence of the philosopher Plato, changed the intellectual worldview of the Western world forever. We are products of that change. We tend to look at the world much more from the Greek perspective than that of earlier centuries. Plato, especially, with his view of the Ideal Plane (the analytical approach which broke things down into their constituent elements) produced a radical break from earlier centuries. So our understanding of the Old Testament suffers because we are looking at a pre-analytical world and asking analytical questions.

It is from this Greek approach that we get the idea of “laws of nature.” For instance, the word “atom” is a Greek word which literally means “uncuttable.” Early Greek philosophers appear to be the first ones who begin to theorize that the natural world operated by predictable principles rather than being the direct action of a god or gods. Latin poets, such as Virgil and Ovid, living under the influence of Roman law began to use the term “law of nature” as a metaphor. Essentially the entire Old Testament was written before these ideas became widespread in the ancient world. The saying “you can’t unring a bell” points out one of the significant difficulties we have when it comes to understanding the Old Testament: we have “heard the bell” of scientific thinking, but the writers and readers of the Old Testament had not.

3. The New Testament introduces us to a vividly described Person. The Gospels are strikingly different than other contemporary biographies. As C. S. Lewis said of the Gospel of John, “Either this is reportage, or else some unknown writer in the second century, without known predecessors or successors, suddenly anticipated the whole technique of modern, novelistic, realistic, narrative.” We can relate to the Gospels because, despite their obvious age, they are written in a style we are familiar with.

The rest of the New Testament, in one way or another, discusses this Person. It is much easier to relate to a person of a type we can recognize than to an invisible God who only speaks through prophets with a worldview, and in circumstances, that we do not share. In simple terms, the New Testament is about Jesus, who says he came to reveal the Father, and he did a perfect job of that.

4. Another reason why it may appear that the Old Testament is more difficult to understand than the new is because we overestimate how well we understand the New Testament. The four Gospels, and their portrayal of the life of Jesus Christ are so familiar in many of the details that we often overestimate how much we understand the New Testament. For example, without looking it up, do you know which of the Gospels do not tell about the birth of Jesus? And how does Galatians differ from 1 Corinthians? What was nailed to the cross in Galatians? Why do the epistles vary so widely?

5. This describes something I only discovered recently in my own Bible study experience. I was simply reading the Old Testament in the wrong way. I was reading the text theologically, as an instructional text.  Most the Old Testament is written as narrative, as story, and only when I began to read it primarily as a story did I really begin to understand it.