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By James Crossley

Donald Trump’s recent Bible pose did not escape the attention of the British media. The Bible in American politics is, as we might expect, a little different to this country and we can certainly expect incredulity among political pundits and historians of religion. While it is difficult to deny that American politics and media produces the wilder data when it comes to the Bible, there is also a history of the Bible in British and English politics and media which is not as widely acknowledged.

Donald Trump’s recent Bible pose did not escape the attention of the British media. The Bible in American politics is, as we might expect, a little different to this country and we can certainly expect incredulity among political pundits and historians of religion. While it is difficult to deny that American politics and media produces the wilder data when it comes to the Bible, there is also a history of the Bible in British and English politics and media which is not as widely acknowledged.

A good example of this was the popular LBC radio host, James O’Brien, who saw Trump’s Bible pose as “fairly conclusive proof that Donald Trump has never read the Bible”. An exasperated O’Brien played a clip of a reporter asking Trump about the Bible and what his favourite Bible verses were. Trump responded that he did not want to get into “specifics” because it was “very personal” but added that the “Bible means a lot to me”. Trump was further asked if he was “an Old Testament guy or a New Testament guy” and responded à la Partridge. “Probably equal”, Trump claimed, adding that the Bible is “incredible” and “very special”.

O’Brien thought there was a need to play the clip again for the benefit of people who had not had “religious education lessons at school like I did”, explaining that,

The New Testament is essentially a corrective to the Old Testament. So the Old Testament is full of eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, it’s an abomination to wear cotton and leather at the same time, a man shouldn’t lie with a man. And then the New Testament is actually the antidote to a lot of the fundamentalism in the Old Testament…Christ’s message was “turn the other cheek”, that’s a correction, that’s an antidote to it, alright? It was “love thy neighbour as thy self” which is an antidote to the notion of God favouring one people over another. It is clear that you are not committing an abomination if you wear cotton and leather. You can go through Leviticus in particular and find pretty much a justification for every bigotry and prejudice on the planet if you want to. You know how easy it is when someone starts citing the Old Testament in defence of their homophobia to point out that they should also be swearing off shellfish for all eternity. So the Old Testament and the New Testament sit in contrast to each other, deliberate and conscious contrast, something that even a child who has had two RE lessons could understand and articulate, alright? 

What can we do with this sort of thinking? Plenty of Christians today—liberal or illiberal—might respond that they don’t see the two collections in contrast. New Testament writers themselves did not obviously see the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible as a contrast. They saw the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible books as a source of authority and used them to justify the validity of the claims they were making about Jesus. Believers then or now might further point out that “love thy neighbour as thyself” comes from the dreaded Leviticus (Leviticus 19.18). 

 A historian of the ancient world might argue (and plenty have) that Jesus assumed the validity of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, including its laws. Some historians have argued that in the case of the eye for an eye saying (Exodus 21.24) as interpreted in Matthew 5.38-39 with reference to turn the other cheek was a relatively uncontroversial Jewish interpretation of the Exodus passage as a counter to other, more violent interpretations. Even in the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible itself there are differing interpretations of retribution, ranging from a more literal and violent understandings (e.g., Genesis 9.6; Deuteronomy 25.11-12) to ideas of compensation, as in the case of the explanation of the eye for an eye passage itself (Exodus 21.26-27). And the New Testament does not avoid violent retribution in the future—Matthew’s Gospel itself has much to say on violent judgment in the afterlife. And as for allegations of “fundamentalism”, we might wonder what people will make of the New Testament case of the man who lets his thoughts wander (Matthew 5.27-30).

The passages concerning homosexuality may be more culturally different in many ways to our understandings of same-sex relationships, but these remain debates for those who study the New Testament too (e.g., Romans 1.26-27; 1 Corinthians 6.9). There is an argument that Jesus may simply have accepted the rulings of Leviticus 18.22 and 20.13 as he did with the other commandments outlined in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. We don’t have to accept that line of thinking, of course, but historians rightly warn against romanticising ancient people as contemporary progressives millennia before the development of modern progressive thought.

I appreciate that there is a lot of debate over the interpretation of these verses and ancient ideas of sexuality. But that is half the point: this is not a straightforward case of “Old Testament illiberal and bad, New Testament liberal and good”. Nor is it a case of saying that the two testaments are necessarily identical in their beliefs across collections of books. There is a complex relationship between the laws of Leviticus and the movement of those who we now know as Christians who were negotiating their Jewish heritage among Jews and non-Jews, which meant, in some contexts at least, parts of Jewish law were not being observed.

In another sense, the historical realities are a different discussion, but some awareness of historical and cultural distance is obviously important in understanding how the Bible gets used, categorised and subdivided. Once ideas about the Bible are removed from the complexities of ancient history, it becomes easier to see the basic ideological agendas. And this brings us to the question of what is happening with O’Brien’s New Testament versus the Old Testament.

This contrast between the two has a long history, arguably going back to the ancient world itself, and long tied in with claims about Christian superiority over Judaism. It is a part of a broader narrative about the enlightened New Testament and the backward, irrational Old Testament. This tradition unsurprisingly has a darker history which has repeatedly involved attempts at delegitimising Jews and Judaism represented by the “Old Testament”. It reached its nadir in Germany, particularly in the Nazi era, where the “Old Testament” could sometimes be considered too Jewish to even be included alongside, or quoted in, the Christian New Testament. Overlooked for decades, this is a topic on which there is now plenty of research, including Susannah Heschel’s classic The Aryan Jesus: Christian Theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany (2008).

This tradition found its way into contemporary liberal rhetoric with ease, sometimes with the New Testament used as the ultimate source of authority in British or English political discourse. Today, the idea of the enlightened New Testament versus the backward Old Testament is extremely common, without too much awareness of its history and without too much awareness of how problematic it is for the ancient historian.

Obviously, it is less likely that a liberal, progressive person like O’Brien would ever knowingly entertain antisemitic sentiments. Indeed, O’Brien himself has openly opposed antisemitism, as we might expect. He was famously critical of Jeremy Corbyn providing a foreword to John Atkinson’s once standard and influential book, Imperialism: A Study (1902), a book which included stereotypes about Jews. For O’Brien this meant that now “today is the day you choose between the evidence of your own eyes and ears or between blind cultish devotion.” But by giving his full endorsement to the Old Testament versus New Testament claim, has O’Brien not acted in an approximately similar manner? Given his religious education, he presumably knows that what he knows as “Old Testament” is the foundational collection for Judaism, expounded and interpreted in the Mishnah and Talmuds. Yet has O’Brien not shown how easy it is to unintentionally perpetuate ideas about Jews and Judaism? If we were to take O’Brien’s approach and apply it to his own devotees, should they not choose between the evidence of their own eyes and ears and blind cultish devotion?

I don’t think the situation is as simple as that. As an analogy, we might note that here are plenty of liberal-minded New Testament scholars today who still promote works of scholarship that are full of negative stereotypes about Jews and Judaism. I doubt very much that they want to perpetuate antisemitism, but it remains an uncomfortable history that is still implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) present. This takes us into another complex area: contemporary allegations of anti-Judaism and antisemitism. O’Brien and plenty of politicians and political commentators have been happy to use antisemitism to attack and delegitimise different political agendas. Some of these did so whilst doing similar things themselves, such as stereotypes and assumptions of “good Jews” and “bad Jews”—or indeed, stereotypes about the “illiberal Old Testament” and the “liberal New Testament”.

Nothing Corbyn did—not his record of protesting against antisemites nor his record of antiracism—was to be taken into serious consideration. And there simply has been no analogous scrutiny (despite plenty of evidence) of other political figures and parties. And let’s be quite clear about this: had Corbyn or a prominent Corbyn supporter said what O’Brien said in such a public venue, then this would have been used as evidence of alleged antisemitism. Antisemitism exists in the UK and people make comments they should not, often without thinking. If we are serious about tackling antisemitism, no matter how low key, then obviously political parties should address it internally. Beyond individual parties, it should be addressed as the lingering societal and party-political problem that it is and not just something to be used against a politician some people don’t like.

Versions of this polemical tradition of New Testament versus Old Testament are long embedded in religious education and even among church audiences too, as well as in political and media discourses. The power of higher education to combat racism and intolerance is usually overstated but in a case like this a critical understanding of the Bible and its reception isn’t without its uses. 

 James Crossley