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Interview: Katharine Dell, author of Who Needs the Old Testament?

17 August 2018

‘You can’t really understand the New Testament without the Old’

I am asked this often, even by clergy. Obviously, in a Christian context the Old Testament does tend to take a back seat; but one of my missions in life is to point out its richness and diversity, and emphasise its value in and of itself.

Marcion downgraded the Old Testament God so much that he thought it revealed a lesser God to that of the New Testament. Critics among the New Atheists that I take on in my book — notably Dawkins and Hitchens — highlight the more unsavoury aspects of the portrayal of God in certain texts. Questions are raised about the morality of Israel’s God, especially when he fights wars on behalf of his people and seems to favour certain chosen heroes, such as King David, over others who are less chosen.

Dawkins focuses on some of the more difficult stories of Joshua and Judges as immoral texts; so it’s important to engage with these. There’s a certain ignorance of these texts, too, often springing from selective reading through church lectionaries.

I try and contextualise the violence, but, actually, we see atrocities like this round the world now. And just because it’s in the Bible, that doesn’t mean God condones it. The Bible shows the whole of human life: the dark and light.

We must try to sift out the more helpful things, and that’s why Bible-study groups are so helpful, and why it’s important to preach from the Old Testament.

I teach in Cambridge’s Divinity Faculty. I lecture for the various Old Testament papers that we offer, and I preach sometimes in college chapels and elsewhere, and give talks to Readers and clergy in various dioceses; so questions about the Old Testament come up all the time.

You don’t need a good knowledge of Hebrew to appreciate these texts. Original languages enrich our understanding, but there are excellent translations, and it’s perfectly fine to read the scriptures in translation.

I first seriously came across the Old Testament when I was a student in Oxford, although I recently discovered in my loft a project that I’d written on the Old Testament when I was about ten. I was particularly influenced by Ernest Nicholson, a great OT scholar, who gave one a real sense of the importance of the scholarly tradition of interpretation of these texts, beginning in Germany in the 19th century; also by John Barton, my D.Phil. supervisor. His aim to make the Bible truly accessible to all, within and outside the academy, was a real inspiration.

I worked on Job for my Ph.D., which is very relevant to modern life with all its suffering. Wisdom literature appeals to me most because it’s very accessible, rich in proverbial material and discussion, and about everyday life, death, big questions, suffering, relationship with God.

I want people to read it on its own terms first, and to understand the context in which it was written. Then we are in a better position to read it through a Christian lens for its enriching insights.

Yes, Christians can properly appropriate the Old Testament. The New Testament itself is constantly aligning texts from the Old to show that the New is a fulfilment of past prophecy, and this continues in the Christian understanding today. That’s why the prophets have been of more interest to Christians than other parts of the canon. In Jewish circles, the Torah (the first five books) has had a much greater impact, plus some of the Writings used at key festivals, such as Ruth, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs.

You can’t really understand the New without the Old, since the understanding of God progressed over time from a tribal God to a more universal, monotheistic God.

There was a divide between Jewish and Christian approaches, but that gap’s closing, and there’s regular interchange between scholars at conferences and in print. I’m doing a commentary on Ecclesiastes with a female professor from Israel.

I grew up believing in God, and that belief has never left me. My father was a clergyman, and so we went to church on Sundays as a matter of course. When I was a teenager, I had a slightly more Evangelical phase, but I have always been able to cope with diversity of tradition: as long as we are worshipping God, I don’t really mind how we do it. When I taught at Ripon College, Cuddesdon, I got used to a liberal Catholic context of worship, and that preference has stayed with me. But even there we used to experiment with different modes of worship, and I enjoyed the diversity.

I had a happy, stable childhood, with wonderful parents and brother. I hope I create a similar atmosphere in my home life now, with my husband and son.

I sing in a semi-professional choir in London. I love to travel, and it is great that both academic life and singing in choirs offer good opportunities for foreign trips.

Laziness and ignorance make me angry. Cruelty to animals. And being late for things all the time.

Life’s rich tapestry makes me happy. The simple pleasures of life, like being with family and friends, singing wonderful music, travelling to interesting places, or a good novel.

I think being brave in the face of adversity has demanded the most courage from me; and, most of all, the death of our second child as a baby from a rare genetic condition that was a one-in-30-million chance.

I have further books and articles in the pipeline, some of them largely in my mind rather than on paper. I’ve been working on my solo singing, and was recently awarded a diploma; so I might pursue that further. I’d also like to write a bestselling novel.

Seeing the younger generation growing up and flourishing gives me hope — seeing students get fired up by the Old Testament, and my graduate students emerge as part of the new generation of biblical scholars.

I pray most for wisdom, patience, and discernment . . . and good relationships with others.

I’d choose to be locked in a church with my cat, Samson, named after that important Old Testament judge. He got lost in a church, but he was found after four days in top condition. We suspect that he drank the holy water. I like to think about God’s care for all God’s creatures.

Dr Katharine Dell was talking to Terence Handley MacMath. 

Who Needs The Old Testament? (Books, 19 May) is published by SPCK at £9.99 (Church Times Bookshop £9).

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