The language of the Old Testament

I’ve been flicking through the pages of Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus, looking to see whether I should include it on a booklist as an introduction to textual criticism. I probably will, despite the mood indicated in its somewhat mischievous title. Ehrman is more balanced in practice than he is in rhetoric.

He is, however, occasionally careless. I was stopped in my tracks by his early reference to “Hebrew (the language of the Christian Old Testament)” (p5). Is that historically misleading?

It is true the books which Jews and Christians both own as Scripture were largely written in Hebrew, although a couple of portions were written in Aramaic. But until the time of the Reformation, no major Christian group seems to have treated that collection as the Old Testament.

For most Christians up to that point, and still for many today (a majority – depending on how you count), the phrase  “Old Testament” did not indicate the same collection of books as “Hebrew Bible”. Books like Wisdom, written in Greek, were also typically included. And the editions of the books were different. Jeremiah was shorter in Greek, Daniel was longer. Hebrew Esther famously doesn’t mention God, the Greek “second edition” corrects this theological anomaly.

From St Paul onwards, it was typically the Greek versions of Jewish books that were quoted as Scripture. It was the Greek books that made up the Christian “Old Testament”.  Even Protestants who rejected some of those books, kept the Greek (and Latin) order in which the books were gathered – the shelving classification of the scriptural library. The Protestant Old Testament was a new hybrid: Hebrew Bible books in Greek Bible order.

But it raises the question: can we really call Hebrew the language of the Christian Old Testament? Or is Bart Ehrman revealing that despite being agnostic about God, when it comes to the Bible, he is – unreflectively – a Protestant agnostic?