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Who needs the Old Testament? by Katharine Dell

19 May 2017

Anthony Phillips on the Hebrew scriptures’ cultured despisers

Who needs the Old Testament? Its enduring appeal and why the New Atheists don’t get it

Katharine Dell

SPCK £9.99 (978-0-281-06504-2)

Church Times Bookshop £9


AS THE title indicates, Katherine Dell has two purposes. First, she rejects the mischaracterisations and misrepresentations of the New Atheists as in a very literal way they trivialise the Old Testament, having no understanding of the contexts in which the material is set or any knowledge of current biblical critic­ism. Challenging both Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens head on by examining the texts on which they rely, she rightly argues that the texts must be considered from a literary, historical, and theo­logical standpoint.

Setting each text in its appropri­ate context, Dell recognises that many exhibit attitudes quite foreign to our current ideas of morality; and she makes no attempt to condone what today is morally unacceptable, but to understand the narrative in its own cultural context and the author’s purpose in relating it.

Be­­cause the New Atheists fail to take account of the circumstances in which this material takes shape, they raise issues that would have been entirely meaningless to its authors, though Dell notes that the scriptures themselves indicate the develop­ment of thought about God across centuries of composition. Conse­quently, we must expect per­ception of truth to change over time — even after canonisation.

Second, Dell argues for the im­­portance of the Old Testament. She examines in turn texts from the Writings, Prophets, and the Penta­teuch, and subsequent histories, and admits that, like the New Atheists, she is “choosing” her material, though there is no attempt to gloss over difficulties.

Commenting on the Writings, Dell notes their origin in universal human experience, though that does not stop an individual challenging common perceptions, as in Job. Not surprisingly the prophets provide an important source for morality in their emphasis on justice and right­eousness, and their bias to the poor. Here she notes that the emergence of monotheism inevitability led to universalism.

Returning to the Pentateuch and subsequent histories, Dell is not afraid to admit issues that appear morally questionable, and eschews simple answers, but relishes the power of Hebrew storytelling. In­­deed, in my view, it cannot be em­­phasised enough — particularly from pulpits — that in both Testa­ments the Hebrews (unlike the Greeks) did their theology by story, and it is what that story signifies which matters.

Next, Dell considers how the Old Testament is addressed in academic circles today, and notes how extens­ively the reliability of the biblical text has been undermined by con­temporary scholars. Rightly, she re­­jects the minimalist argument that the bulk of the Old Testament was composed no earlier than the Per­sian period, or perhaps as late as the Hellenistic period. “If one was in­­venting something, would it really be so disordered and chaotic, so varied in genre and mixed in view­point?”

Finally, Dell, concluding that, while the New Testament cannot be understood apart from the Old, and must be taken seriously, none the less makes a strong plea for the Old Testament to be read in its own right, and as a witness to its own times. Indeed, some themes in the Old Testament are not discussed in the New. Despite the acknowledged difficulties posed by modern scholarship, the Church cannot afford to neglect the Old Testament; for, while it is “a complicated set of texts, varied, contradictory”, it is “above all realistically reflecting life in all its messiness”. For me, it is that earthiness that Christians ig­­nore at their peril.


Canon Anthony Phillips is a former headmaster of The King’s School, Canterbury.

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