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Old Testament vs New Testament: Passion, Poetry and the World’s Greatest Stories

Which of these two texts is the greater, in terms of message, literature and legacy?

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Adam and Eve, Noah’s Ark, Moses and the Ten Commandments, the parting of the Red Sea. These are a few of the stories from the Old Testament. And then there’s the New Testament, with its account of the life of Jesus, the Good Samaritan, the raising of Lazarus and the feeding of the five thousand. Whatever our creed or background, these stories are embedded in our consciousness. They inform our everyday speech and much of our art, music and literature – from Cranach’s depiction of Adam and Eve to C.S. Lewis’s Narnia stories and Stormzy’s ‘Blinded By Your Grace’.

Together the Old Testament and the New Testament make up the Holy Bible. The Old Testament contains the sacred scriptures of the Jewish faith, while Christianity draws on both Old and New Testaments, interpreting the New Testament as the fulfilment of the prophecies of the Old.

But which of these books is the greater? Novelist Howard Jacobson, making the case for the Old Testament in this debate, is in no doubt. ‘The God of the Old Testament,’ he says, ‘is wrathful, jealous, touchy, quick to judge, slow to forgive and stylistically forthright – favouring plain speaking over parables. The God of the New Testament, as incarnated in Jesus Christ, is altogether a different kettle of fish. More our friend than our parent. Those whose parents have been their friends know where that leads….” And for writer Anne Atkins, who argued alongside him, there is no contest. Although she is a Christian, for her the Old Testament wins hands down, with its vast sweeps of history, tales of epic survival after exile and exodus, its poetry, prophesy and, as she puts it, ‘the most exquisitely erotic lyrics ever’.

The pathos and poetry of the Old Testament are all very well, theologian Robert Beckford argued on the other side of this debate. But, for him, it is the New Testament’s revolutionary inclusivity with regard to race, class, gender and sexuality that makes it a more useful text for achieving human fulfilment and creating a better world. And for the Rev. Richard Coles, the Radio 4 presenter who went from pop star to priest, the New Testament is a kind of miracle in itself. Not only does it fulfil the law of God in its depiction of the life of Christ, but thanks to its being written in Greek, the lingua franca of the ancient Near East, the early Christians were able to carry the message of Jesus out beyond the Jewish world to make an inexpressibly huge impact on our history and civilisation.


Speakers for the Old Testament

Anne Atkins

Novelist and broadcaster

Anne Atkins has written four novels, her latest being An Elegant Solution. Her first play, Lady K, had been due to open at a prestigious theatre before the onset of the first lockdown. She has written several books of non-fiction and contributed chapters and introductions to many more. She has contributed to all the major national newspapers and written regular columns in The Daily Telegraph and Daily Express. Her first song, Anthem for Mary and David, co-written with musician son Ben in lieu of her father's funeral, can be found on youtube; her second has just been accepted for publication. She is also working on a First Folio edition of A Midsummer Night's Dream for children. She regularly contributes to Thought for the Day on Radio 4’s Today Programme.

Howard Jacobson

Booker Prize-winning novelist and journalist

Novelist and journalist, who has been described as the British Philip Roth, although he prefers to think of himself as ‘a Jewish Jane Austen’. He has written 16 novels and five works of nonfiction. He won the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Award in 2000 for The Mighty Walzer and then again in 2013 for Zoo Time. In 2010 he won the Man Booker Prize for The Finkler Question, and was also shortlisted for the prize in 2014 for J. He is also a columnist for The Independent and has written and presented several television programmes, including the critically-acclaimed Channel 4 series, The Bible: A History
Speakers for the New Testament

Robert Beckford

Professor of Theology and Culture in the African Diaspora

Professor of Theology and Culture in the African Diaspora at Canterbury Christ Church University. He has presented over twenty television documentaries on Channel 4, BBC Two and BBC Four, and won numerous awards including a BAFTA.

Rev. Richard Coles

Anglican priest and presenter of the Radio 4 show Saturday Live

Presenter of the Radio 4 show Saturday Live. He is a parish priest and, as a former member of the Communards, is the only vicar in the UK to have had a number one hit. He was one of the inspirations for the BBC hit comedy Rev, and is the author of Fathomless Riches: Or How I Went From Pop to Pulpit.