“Ask a Priest: Why Does the Church Keep the Old Testament?”

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Q: I am not Catholic, yet I have an interest in religion. My question is, why does the Catholic Church use the Old Testament as an example of how to act for God, if it believes that the New Testament is the teachings of Jesus, who died for our sins? Isn’t the Old Testament basically the Torah for Jews? Isn’t believing in Christ’s sacrifice and his place as Messiah, what (mostly) separates Christianity from Judaism? If this is a disrespectful question, I apologize. – C.G.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: Your question isn’t disrespectful. In fact, it is a question that has been asked over the centuries.

Your instincts are right in the sense that what Jesus revealed in the New Testament is the fullness of what God wanted to teach us. But a few clarifications are in order.

First, it could be a bit misleading to say that the Church uses the Old Testament as an example for our moral conduct. Certainly, there is a lot in it that is applicable in every age; for instance, the primacy of God and the great debt of worship and gratitude we owe him.

But it is the New Testament where God reveals his highest word: his own Son. What Jesus teaches is what we hold to be our standard and model. For this reason, the Church uses the New Testament as the standard for its morality, not the Old.

Second, the Old Testament in the Catholic Bible differs from the Hebrew Scriptures. We accept the seven deuterocanonical books, whereas the Jewish Bible doesn’t. There are other variances, too; the Jewish version of the Book of Jeremiah, for instance, is longer and arranges material differently.

Also, “Torah” is often used to signify only the first five books of the Jewish Bible.

Among the reasons the Catholic Church keeps the Old Testament are: Jesus himself quoted from the Hebrew Scriptures; Jesus said that he came, not to abolish, but to fulfill the (Mosaic) law; and the Old Testament sheds light on the New, and vice versa. “As an old saying put it, the New Testament lies hidden in the Old and the Old Testament is unveiled in the New” (Catechism, 129).

This dynamic undergirds the idea that the story of salvation is one story, starting from Creation (Book of Genesis) and ending with the second coming of Jesus (Book of Revelation). The OT events were preparing for the coming of Jesus, and the NT tells the story of the unfolding of the new grace.

The things Jesus did and taught can be understood better against the background of the OT. Jesus, being true man, was born and raised in a specific culture with its own language and history and literature. And the OT helps us understand his cultural background.

Not everything in the Old Testament is valid today. We don’t need to observe the dietary rules in the Book of Leviticus, for instance. But the psalms certainly have a lasting value (we pray them in the Liturgy of the Hours, the official prayer of the Church).

The OT, in effect, helps us understand the close link between Christianity and Judaism, including the sacraments instituted by Christ. Two books that nicely point up the link are Scott Hahn’s A Father Who Keeps His Promises and Brant Pitre’s Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist.

Other helpful reading could be the Pontifical Biblical Commission’s document “The Jewish People and Their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible,” as well as postings at Catholic Answers on the Old Testament and the Law.

I hope some of this helps.

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