How does the Gospel differ from the Scriptures?

Father John A. Kiley

Providence College presents an annual interfaith dialogue among representatives of the Catholic community, and most often the Jewish community. A Catholic religious sister who spoke this year reflected that the common division of the Bible into the Old Testament and New Testament could seem to slight present day Jewish society by implying that their relationship with God was antiquated so God need no longer be true to his promises.

On the contrary, the Jewish nation is still a people chosen by God for his special purposes and, in a mysterious way, God will bring his promises to fulfillment. The phrase “Old Testament” does not do justice to God’s continuing concern for his Chosen people. The religious sister further observed that the somewhat fashionable division of the Bible into the “Hebrew Scriptures” and the “Christian Scriptures” was not entirely satisfactory either. The phrase “Hebrew Scriptures” could give the impression that the first 45 books of the Bible were intended primarily or even exclusively for Jewish believers having only a secondary interest for the Christian Church.

Jesus Christ himself might offer a happy solution to the best terminology to be employed when referencing various segments of the Bible. In the tender tale of the two dejected disciples on their way to Emmaus, St. Luke records, “Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them what is referred to him in all the Scriptures.” And St. Luke further details the response of the two disciples, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he spoke to us on the way and opened the Scriptures to us?” For Jesus and his disciples and, in fact, for the first few generations of Christians, the first 45 books of the Bible were simply, “the Scriptures.” Jesus and the Apostles did not know an Old and a New Testament. The first generation of Christians did not know the “Hebrew Scriptures” or the “Christian Scriptures.” Until well along into the first decades of Christianity, “the Scriptures” simply meant what later generations have come to call the Old Testament. It was at least 200 years before the 27 books of the now-called New Testament were added to the Bible. Historically and accurately, “the Scriptures” should always and only apply to what the first believers knew as the Law and the Prophets — the Jewish writings. Remember that Jesus well explained himself orally to the two mournful disciples relying only on the Law and the Prophets: “Were our hearts not burning within us…?” There is nothing old or passé about the Old Testament. When read with Christian eyes, it speaks eloquently about the Messiah and his mission.

Well then, if the 45 books of the Bible are still to be called “the Scriptures,” with no modifying adjective, then what label is appropriate for the remaining 27 books of the Bible, commonly called the “New Testament?” Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI offers a very happy replacement for the phrase “New Testament” or “Christian Scriptures.” The Bible’s latter 27 books should simply be called “the Gospel.” The Gospel does not replace the Scriptures. The Gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ, interprets the Scriptures, reveals the Scriptures and makes sense of the Scriptures. The Gospel takes all the parts and makes them whole. The Scriptures, the so-called Old Testament, should remain the veritable source of authentic truth that it was for Jesus and for his disciples. In no way should it be accorded an inferior status. The Gospel, the Good News of Christ’s passion, death and resurrection, should introduce hearers to that uniquely Christ-like frame of mind that will enable them to appreciate the original Scriptures as Jesus did, that post-Resurrection frame of mind that will open their hearts to the deepest meaning of the Law and the Prophets. Jesus did not have the writings of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John or Paul to assist him in explaining himself to his disciples. But he did have the “Gospel,” the Good News of his life and resurrection, the font of authentic Christianity that would eventually find its way into 27 new sacred books and into the church’s authentic tradition and structure.

By reserving “the Scriptures” for the writings of the ancient Jews and according “the Gospel” to the writings of the first Christians, believers can maintain the prophetic dignity of the faith community’s older writings and even more fully appreciate the Messianic vision of the newer writings.