When I was in grade five, along with the rest of my grade five classmates, I received a New Testament (with Psalms) from the Gideons. Apparently the Gideons had an agreement with the schools that they might distribute the New Testament free of charge to all grade five school children, in much the same way as they famously placed the entire Bible free of charge in every hotel room. It is easy now to smile at the evangelical optimism of the Gideons, but my wife credits her youthful spiritual awakening to reading that grade five New Testament. (Significantly, her conversion to Christ was not complete until she spoke to her friend who took her to her Baptist Church. From my present perspective, I would say that this illustrates the Orthodox assertion that the Scriptures only bear fruit fully when read and experienced from within the Church.) I have always wondered why the Gideons distributed only the New Testament in schools, and not the entire Bible. I imagine that it had something to do with cost, since the printing and distributing of the entire Bible would cost rather more than printing and distributing the slimmer volume of the New Testament. Doubtless they felt that, given their desire to convert people to Christ through the reading the Scriptures, concentrating on the New Testament gave them more bang for their limited buck. Whatever their reasoning for offering the New Testament only, they are surely to be commended for their zeal and desire to convert children to the One who said that the Kingdom of Heaven belonged to such as them.
Having said that, we still need to read the entire Bible, both the New Testament and “the other Testament”, especially since this “other Testament” is something of a closed book to many Christians. My guess is that many Christians begin to read with good intentions, beginning on page one, like they do with any other book, plow through Genesis well enough (lots of good stories, such as the exciting tale of Joseph and his brothers), enjoy reading about Israel’s deliverance from Egypt in the early chapters of Exodus (thanks perhaps largely to Charlton Heston), and then bog down considerably in the wilderness (which is where Israel also bogged down). Chapter after chapter about building the Tabernacle and its furnishings, with no pictures. Then comes Leviticus, with long descriptions about how to sacrifice animals and which parts of their guts to burn on the altar and where to put the blood, and by then it’s pretty much game over. Forget about Numbers and Deuteronomy. They may remember stories about Joshua And The Battle Of Jericho, when the walls came a-tumbling down, but it is unlikely they will get far enough into the text to read about it. The Old Testament, which for our Lord and the apostles and their Church was simply “the Scriptures”, is now “the other Testament”. The bookmark remains, to all intents and purposes, left somewhere in Exodus.
This is a shame, for it means that we Orthodox are missing a large and profound part of our heritage. Indeed, much of our church hymnody presupposes familiarity with the Old Testament, such as the hymn extolling the Mother of God as the Jar, the Candle-stick and the Table. The writer of this hymn (which is sung as the bishop enters and vests in the church) clearly presupposed that those who heard the hymn knew the material of the Book of Exodus. He presupposed that all were acquainted with the story of how Moses took some of the heavenly manna and preserved it in a jar which was kept in the Ark (see Ex. 16:33-34), and he further expected his hearers to make the typological connection which saw the Mother of God as the earthly jar which contained Jesus, the Bread of heaven. It was a brilliant typology and a brilliant hymn, and if we have no familiarity with the Book of Exodus we will miss the whole thing. Clearly, we need to soak ourselves more in the "other testament".
The title of this post mentioned an ad, and here it is. I have written a book to help gain familiarity with the Old Testament, and to understand it. It looks at the major divisions of the Hebrew Scriptures, looking at several passages in detail, helping us to read the text with Christian eyes. The aim of the book is to impart an understanding of the Old Testament as a whole, and thereby to kindle a love for it. My hope and prayer is that one will take up the Old Testament and read it. One can take up my book by turning to the Conciliar Press site here.