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The Old Testament Is Dying

A Diagnosis and Recommended Treatment

series: Theological Explorations for the Church Catholic

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The Old Testament makes up the majority of the Christian Bible and provides much of the language of Christian faith. However, many churches tend to neglect this crucial part of Scripture, leading to the loss of the Old Testament as a resource for faith and life.

This timely book shows how the Old Testament is like a language--a language is used and learned or it falls into disuse and eventually dies. Brent Strawn details a number of ways the Old Testament is showing signs of decay, demise, and imminent death in the church and criticizes common misunderstandings of the Old Testament that contribute to its neglect. He also shows that it is possible for a language to be recovered. Drawing fresh insight from recent studies of how languages die and are revived, Strawn offers strategies for renewing the use of the Old Testament in Christian faith and practice. This clearly written book will appeal to professors and students of the Old Testament as well as pastors and church leaders.

About the Series
The Theological Explorations for the Church Catholic series is published in conjunction with Nazarene Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Missouri. Leading scholars in biblical studies and systematic theology from a variety of theological traditions offer brief, suggestive treatments of specific topics, exploring the cutting edge of their current interests and latest thinking for the benefit of the whole church.


Part 1: The Old Testament as a Dying Language
1. The Old Testament Is Dying
A (Non)Telling Vignette
The Diagnosis, in Brief, with a Caveat
The Old Testament Is (Like) a Language
Plan of the Book and Two Additional Caveats
2. Initial Testing
The U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey
The "Best"(?) Sermons
The Psalms in Mainline Hymnody
The Revised Common Lectionary (and the Psalms)
3. On Language Growth and Change, Contact and Death
Language Change and Language Contact
Pidgins and Creoles, Pidginization and Creolization
Language Death
Part 2: Signs of Morbidity
4. The New Atheism
Dawkins and the New Atheists on the Old Testament
Answering Dawkins
Pidgin versus Pidgin
5. Marcionites Old and New
The Old Marcion
Tertullian contra Marcion
Von Harnack pro Marcion, or the New Marcion(ism)
Contra von Harnack, or the Deadly Ramifications
6. New Plastic Gospels: The "Happiologists"
The Bible and Your Best Everything Right Now!
Assessing Osteen "and Company"
Conclusion to Part 2
Part 3: Path to Recovery
7. Recommended Treatment
On Saving Dying Languages
Resurrecting Hebrew
Learning First, New, and Very Old Languages
Bilingualism and Code-Switching
It Could Happen to You (Us)
8. Saving the Old Testament
Evidence of Further Decline
Deuteronomy as a Model of/for Second-Language Acquisition (SLA)
9. Ways Forward and Not
The Most Basic (and Obvious) Recommendation: Regular Use
The Need for Adequate Linguistic Training
Intentionality in Language Practice and Language Learning
On Creating Bilinguals
On "Bothness"
The Challenge of Future Change
Music, Memory, Poetry, . . . and Children (Again)
Appendix 1: Newton Series
Appendix 2: Butler Series
Appendix 3: Cox Series
Appendix 4: Size of Testaments
Appendix 5: Sermon Data from Walter Brueggemann
Appendix 6: Old Testament Texts Used by Walter Brueggemann


"Strawn has written a book of urgent practical theology based on prodigious research, grounded in keen theological sensibility, and addressed to an acute problem in the church, a problem that has immense implications for the wider culture in which the church dwells and to which it addresses itself. The language, effective use, and serious understanding of the Old Testament are 'on the brink of being lost.' Strawn shows that the danger runs from Marcion through the Revised Common Lectionary to the likes of Joel Osteen. In response, Strawn wisely urges an intentional pedagogy that includes hymnody, memorization, and sustained didacticism in order to create a 'cultural-linguistic community.' The work to be done is not for the fainthearted, but it is nonetheless work that must be done. Strawn shows himself to be a wise hermeneutist, an acute student of culture and of language, and a passionate witness in and for the life of the church. We have no other book like this; it merits wide attention."

Walter Brueggemann, Columbia Theological Seminary

"With passion, insight, and sober analysis, Strawn argues that the sharp drop in fluency in the use of the Old Testament in many North American congregations threatens the future of the church at its core. Strawn brilliantly develops the dual metaphors of a dying medical patient and a language hurtling toward linguistic extinction to illuminate the complex dynamics of how and why the Old Testament is increasingly neglected or misused in preaching, singing, and teaching. Using the book of Deuteronomy, Strawn offers helpful, practical but demanding recommendations for the recovery and resuscitation of the Old Testament in congregational life."

Dennis Olson, Charles T. Haley Professor of Old Testament Theology, Princeton Theological Seminary

"Current concerns about biblical literacy are too narrowly focused. Strawn instead underscores the need for renewed biblical fluency. Like an endangered language used by a dwindling number of native speakers, the Old Testament as it is known today is all too often a partial and misleading caricature of the real thing. The remedy? Relearning how to 'speak Scripture,' fully integrating the Old Testament--with its surprising variety and challenging complexity--into Christian preaching, worship, and hymnody. Strawn brilliantly diagnoses the sickness and prescribes a promising cure in this highly insightful and urgently needed intervention."

Stephen B. Chapman, Duke University

"Beautifully and compellingly written! The linguistic analogy that the Old Testament is like a dying language is enthralling in the hands of Professor Strawn. Here we come face to face with the consequences of our pernicious neglect of the Old Testament. Strawn also makes good use of a medical metaphor: the doctor's diagnosis is in, and the patient is dying. For some, the patient has already been laid to rest without proper burial. But resurrection is possible. The good Dr. Strawn has prescribed here an important dose of medicine if the church will merely accept this healing tonic."

Bill T. Arnold, Paul S. Amos Professor of Old Testament Interpretation, Asbury Theological Seminary

"Combining cunning wit and wisdom and informed by linguistics, Strawn offers a way forward to bring new life to the Hebrew Bible in a culture of reading that prefers the simplistic and the superficial. His prognosis marks nothing short of a revival for this 'dying' Testament. This should be required reading for all students of Scripture, pastors included."

William Brown, William Marcellus McPheeters Professor of Old Testament, Columbia Theological Seminary

"Drawing on the analogy of a dying language, Strawn brings his encyclopedic mind and seemingly limitless creativity to bear on the problem of the silence of the Old Testament in the church today. The diagnosis is daunting, but the prognosis, if followed, is hopeful. This important book promises to breathe life into the church's attempts to speak God's truth today, especially for those who still find the viva vox of the gospel in the Old Testament."

Rolf Jacobson, professor of Old Testament and Alvin N. Rogness Chair of Scripture, Theology, and Ministry, Luther Seminary

"Brent Strawn imaginatively reframes contemporary debate about the authority and use of the Old Testament. He develops a suggestive analogy between linguistic and biblical proficiency and shows how much contemporary use of the Bible, both within and outside the churches, is akin to speaking a pidgin or creole. He also indicates what can be done about it. This is a wonderfully illuminating and thought-provoking book."

Walter Moberly, Durham University

"Strawn faces the fact that we are losing literacy in the Old Testament, if not the Bible as a whole. Many believers and church goers are unfamiliar with it and often puzzled about it, and people of influence--from atheistic scientists to health-and-wealth preachers--frequently misuse it for their own purposes. Strawn shows how serious the problem is for the Christian faith, threatening it to its very roots. The treatment for this deadly disease will not be easy, but there is a way forward that holds promise for the life and vitality of the believer and the church and the betterment of the world in which we live as salt and light."

Richard E. Averbeck, professor of Old Testament and Semitic languages, director of the theological studies PhD program, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School

The Author

  1. Brent A. Strawn
    Kay Hinton

    Brent A. Strawn

    Brent A. Strawn (PhD, Princeton Theological Seminary) is D. Moody Smith Distinguished Professor of Old Testament and professor of law at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. He previously taught at Candler School of Theology, Emory University. He...

    Continue reading about Brent A. Strawn


"In this intriguing analysis, [Strawn] sounds an alarm, equating the Old Testament with a dying language the loss of which threatens devastating consequences for Christianity and humanity. . . . This engaging scholarly work deserves serious attention from today's church leaders."

Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"Strawn's grave assessment should cause great concern to any who believe, along with Paul the apostle, that all Scripture is divinely inspired and profitable for teaching (2 Tim. 3:16). But his suggested treatment should be a source of great hope. . . . [Strawn] makes a helpful call for further training in Old Testament languages, not only for teachers and preachers, but also for ordinary believers ill-served by the New Atheists, Marcionites, and Happiologist prosperity preachers. Especially encouraging, to me, was Strawn's compelling vision of Christian community where both testaments are valued, 'equally yoked, as it were.' And he provides an excellent discussion of Deuteronomy, showing not only how the book shapes the rest of the Old Testament but also how it offers a model for teaching Scripture. . . . As a fellow teacher of the Old Testament, and one who has attempted to address some of the obstacles Strawn has observed, I'm deeply sympathetic toward his project. . . . When we make a commitment to regularly read, teach, preach, and sing the Old Testament, we're doing more than nursing a dying language back to health. We're also connecting personally to a living God."

David T. Lamb,

Christianity Today

"This original, creative, and extremely well-argued book is significant for anyone interested in the Bible as Scripture, whether Christian or Jewish. . . . Strawn's approach is innovative, and his arguments are compelling if somewhat depressing. Yet his concluding suggestions for revival are not unrealistic. Both pastors and biblical scholars, especially those who teach at seminaries, will find this book useful and timely; no less, lay people can benefit from its thesis and its accessibility. . . . Strawn examines complex issues in this book, and he summarizes a fair amount of linguistic and theological scholarship. But he successfully avoids jargon, and he provides clear explanations of the few technical terms he does use. As a result, this book is accessible not only to scholars but to pastors and to serious laypeople."

Benjamin D. Sommer,

Review of Biblical Literature

"For those concerned about the dwindling influence of the Old Testament in their churches and lives, Brent Strawn provides a trenchant diagnosis and a vigorous therapy program. . . . This sobering analysis of the illness relies on several kinds of data, particularly some statistics about preaching on the Old Testament and careful study of hymnody and the presence of responsorial psalms in the Revised Common Lectionary. Although the diagnoses focus on Protestant churches, many of them also ring true for the Catholic world. . . . The 'Path to Recovery' in Part 3 proposes a vigorous program of formation (not information), which includes 'singing the OT' and other paths of regular, repeated use, none of which will be easy, but all of which are necessary to restore the Old Testament to contemporary life."

John C. Endres,


"[A] remarkably perceptive book. . . . Biblical illiteracy--the inability to speak fluently the 'language' of Scripture--impoverishes the life of the church. Strawn has helpfully diagnosed this problem and has set forth a much-needed corrective. I recommend the reading of this book as a first step in the right direction for correcting the problem."

Richard A. Taylor,

Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

"[Strawn] has authored compelling reading for all who teach Scripture. . . . Strawn provides a 'path to recovery' in Part III. He draws treatment recommendations from, fittingly, the Old Testament itself and also from linguistics, and readers who agree with Strawn's diagnosis that the Old Testament (as a language) is dying will want to read this section and, just as important, put the lessons to practice."

Paul K.-K. Cho,

Theology Today

"Although the subject Strawn treats in this book can at times appear to be rather heavy, his approach is straightforward, even somewhat conversational, peppered with his own wit as well as references to various literary classics. . . . This will be of great benefit for teachers, preachers, and those involved in music ministry."

Dianne Bergant, CSA,


"Provocative. . . . Strawn's book is well written and quite persuasive. When a language is dying, it needs to be resuscitated. That also holds true for the first thirty-nine books of the Bible."

Paul R. Raabe,

Concordia Journal

"[Strawn] takes on a perennial and widespread problem, namely, the general neglect if not outright rejection of much of the Old Testament among Christians. . . . Before we pronounce the OT finally dead, though, Strawn offers several strategies for reviving its use and appreciation in Christian faith and practice. Those who know and love the OT will find in Strawn a kindred spirit and in this book a hopeful program for recovery."

John R. Barker, OFM,

The Bible Today

"Strawn argues in his polemical yet engaging work that the basic language of the OT--its core ideas and assumptions about how life before God works--has gotten lost by modern Western Christians. . . . [This volume] advance[s] the understanding of church leaders. Strawn's call to action . . . should help the church relearn its primary language."

Mark W. Hamilton,

Restoration Quarterly

"The assertion of this book is that, like any other language, the Old Testament can die and Strawn uses a good eighty pages of faithful and traditional empirical data to prove that it is in the final stages of a fatal illness if not already dead. . . . This book comes alive with a blend of creativity and faithfulness in the final three chapters. . . . There are two things the conclusion of this book has provoked me to think more deeply about. Firstly, those fluent speakers who want to learn from scripture, not just learn it, have to find ways to deeply understand scripture as a whole, not as the Old Testament separated from the New Testament. For those of us responsible for curricula this has profound implications. Secondly, scripture offers nothing less than the power to resist the dominant culture around us, to recognize what is good in it and to re-describe the world."

Esther Elliott,

The College of Preachers

"While Strawn presents the reader with a grim a diagnosis, he also provides a realistic hope. Realistically, the revival of the Old Testament will be demanding and limited, but certainly doable. Strawn provides five ways forward that can save the language of the Old Testament. . . . Strawn says the Old Testament, if it is to survive, needs to be sung, memorized, and taught to children in serious ways. Some of the emphases here will be controversial but not new. Other ways forward are simply practical, sensible, and will be universally embraced. . . . You simply must read Strawn. If he is right, the Old Testament is in trouble but [is] certainly a language worth saving."

D. Jeffrey Mooney,

Books at a Glance

"A blockbuster book focused on the nature of the Old Testament in contemporary Christianity--a book that should both cause concern and promote change in its readers. . . . [This book] is timely and important. . . . Strawn has rightly identified a problem that deserves immediate and full attention, because once a language dies an identity soon follows. Thus, not only is the book readable and engaging, but the content of the message and the establishment of the thesis are perfectly positioned for readers to engage and act accordingly. If you are looking for a book that will likely challenge and expose some of your own frailties concerning the function of the Old Testament in your daily life, while also offering a feasible solution, then The Old Testament Is Dying: A Diagnosis and Recommended Treatment is a perfect next read. It comes highly recommended and could easily be tagged as one of the most important books of the last year!"

John Kight,

Sojo Theo blog

"Particularly poignant for church leaders, pastors, and preachers in general. [Strawn] is spot on when he notes how many people claim to preach from the whole Bible but in practice, choose mainly the New Testament texts. Even the use of the Old Testament is limited to choice verses and popular passages. Most parts of the Old Testament are never truly preached upon for various reasons. Churches that preach only one testament over the other is like walking on just one leg. Hopefully, with this book, readers can be awakened to this important matter to learn to re-activate the use of the other leg. . . . I applaud the effort and recommend this book for all. Long live the Old and New Testaments."

Conrade Yap,

Panorama of a Book Saint blog