Matthew R. Perry

Tremper Longman’s “Making Sense of the Old Testament: Three Crucial Questions”: A Book Review

In Book Review on February 5, 2007 at 4:00 am

b520.gifTremper Longman, III, serves as the Robert H. Gundry Professor of Biblical Studies and the chair of the religious studies department at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California. He is the author of numerous books and commentaries, including Introduction to the Old Testament.

This volume is part of the 3 Crucial Questions series edited by Grant R. Osbourne and Richard J. Jones. Longman states, “It is vitally important for us to work at our appreciation and understanding to the Old Testament” (11). His hope is that this work will “help revive in the reader a sense of the importance of the Old Testament for Christian faith and practice” (12). Longman desires to help the interpreter of the Old Testament confront the obstacles before him.


Longman’s volume contains three chapters. Chapter One gives various keys to understanding the Old Testament. He provides an overview of the study of the Old Testament and outlines the attractions and obstacles found therein. Longman outlines how God communicates his revelation to us: God — human author — biblical text — first readers — present-day readers. With this paradigm in place, Longman recommends some principles for successful interpretation. The first principle is to discover the author’s intended meaning. The second principle is to “read Scripture in its context” (32) — which he calls the “most basic of all principles in reading literature” (32). Longman notes, “God chose to communicate his revelation to us in literary forms that we recognize from other written works” (32). The third principle is to “identify the genre of the book and passage” (39). Principle four is to “consider the historical and cultural background of the Bible” (47) while principle five urges the interpreter to “consider the grammar and structure within the passage” (48). Principle six tells the interpreter to “interpret experience in the light of Scripture, not Scripture in the light of experience” (50). Longman’s seventh interpretive principle is to “always seek the full counsel of Scripture” (51). He notes here that “the most important ideas in the Bible are stated hundreds of times,” and that we must “determine the meaning of the unclear verse by examining the clear teaching of Scripture” (51). Principle eight states, “Discover how the Scripture passage presents Jesus Christ” (51) and principle nine concludes this section by advising the interpreter to “be open-minded and tolerant of other interpretations” (53).

Longman’s aim in chapter 2 (“Is the God of the Old Testament also the God of the New Testament?”) is to answer the false Old Testament stereotypes plaguing Christians by showing the intricate unity of the Testaments. These stereotypes consist of how they perceive the different portrayals of God in each of the Testaments. Longman shows how God is the center of both the Old and New Testaments, the “obvious answer” (59) to what the Bible is about. Longman notes that “God is presented in the concreteness of vivid similes and metaphors [that] arise out of everyday experience” (59) and occur in “distinct phases” (86). The relationships that God possesses with his people as their covenant king of the Old Testament with Jesus Christ fulfilling that covenant. He also serves as our divine warrior, which shows “strong continuity as we move from the holy wars of Yahweh to the spiritual warfare of Jesus and then finally to the climactic battles associated with the second coming of Christ and the fuller judgment” (71).

Chapter Three deals with the practical issues of the Old Testament on the Christian life. He cites two different realms of thinking on this matter: that of dispensationalism and theonomy. Dispensationalism is defined as when God worked in the Old Testament through the law and the New Testament through grace. Theonomy argues that “the Old Testament laws and penalties are still in effect today” (105). Longman spends a considerable amount of time discussing the law in the Old Testament. The reasons are twofold. First, “the law provides the most obvious answers to the question under consideration” (123). Secondly, he notes that “it is not immediately clear … exactly how the Christian relates to the law today” (123). Longman systematically addresses each genre of the Old Testament and takes the interpreter step-by-step through extracting principles to apply to the Christian life.

Critical Analysis

Longman expertly exposes the commonalities of the Old Testament and New Testament while dealing honestly and directly with the main obstacles and issues arising from critics who see no connection. His prayer was that his words “will give help to those who struggle with the proper interpretation of the oldest portions of God’s written revelation to his human creatures” (12). Even though Longman gives a lot of ground in his dialogue with these various critics, he does succeed in presenting some good principles for solid interpretation.

The reader will appreciate how Longman addresses not only ways to overcome the obstacles, but he presents the various obstacles in an objective and forthright manner. This type of understanding from a scholar with Longman’s credentials will connect with any reader regardless of their biblical or theological training. For instance, in Chapter 1 he mentions four different obstacles Christians must overcome when interpreting Old Testament literature: “(1) its length, (2) its antiquity, (3) its foreignness, and (4) its place in the history of God’s redemption (18).” In Chapter 2, he deals with “false stereotypes” projected on God’s character on how God exacts justice and the immediacy of his judgments on Gentiles and Jews. “The judgment, exclusion, and harshness of the Old Testament are contrasted with the salvation, inclusion, and compassion of the New” (56). Since Longman presents these critical and skeptical views with such candor, directness, and honesty, he certainly invites those same critics and skeptics to understand his case as he seems to understand theirs.

Longman also provides a rather chapter that is pastoral in nature in Chapter 3 on “How is the Christian to Apply the Old Testament to Life?” Longman is not content merely to stay within the realms of history, exegesis, and hermeneutics. He now deals with the average layperson in the average church who sits under weekly preaching waiting to hear a word from God. He deals squarely with whether the Old Testament is relevant, identifying two extreme schools of thought that plague our churches (theonomy and dispensationalism). While the layperson may not be able to define, he certainly understands the concept. He makes a valiant attempt to forego trite answers in order to honestly and directly deal with their questions.

Longman rightly notes that an obstacle for Christians in reading the Old Testament is the translation they read. His conclusions however present problems for the expository preacher. He laments:

The literal, stilted, and sometimes archaic language which is used in the majority of English translations does not reflect the literary power of the original Hebrew stories and poems. The false notion that literal is more accurate, or that religious language must sound like Shakespearean English, has led to the production of English Bibles that are tedious to read (19).

He seems to assess blame toward literal translations for hindering “sustained reading of large portions of Scripture” (19). What is puzzling is when he notes the first principle for successful interpretation is to “discover the author’s intended meaning” (23), how does he expect a layman to discover this when he disparages literal translations’? He falsely (and possibly unintentionally) equates accuracy with language that is Shakespearean and ‘high’ in nature — an unnecessary connection. If Longman truly desires for the preacher and interpreter to know the intended meaning of the author, then he should remain consistent in this mindset by advocating, not disparaging, literal translations.

How Longman concludes Chapter 1 presents another weakness. In his ninth principle of interpretation, he exhorts the interpreter to “be open-minded and tolerant of other interpretations” (53). While in this postmodern age where truth and meaning are deemed relative to the individual, he then asks a bevy of rhetorical questions which, within the context of this section, he seems to categorize as teachings with “fuzzy edges [on] what the Bible leaves unclear” (54). These rhetorical questions address the creation account, the historicity of Jonah, the conditions of divorce, glossolalia, ordination of women into the ministry — among others. He notes that while we must study them and adopt positions, “we must acknowledge that God in his wisdom has not made the answers clear in his Word [as well as] embrace those with whom we disagree and carry on our discussions with them in the rich love of Christian fellowship” (54). Longman draws a rather disturbing line, for some who question the historicity of Jonah, given that Christ testified of his historical presence would have trouble fellowshipping with someone who denied the clear Word of God in general and Jesus’ account specifically. The same could be said of ordination of women into the ministry. Longman would have made his case quite well had he not included those rhetorical questions. Expositional preachers would and should take issue with anyone who questions the veracity of Scripture.


While this book brings a helpful contribution to the study of literary forms and excels in confronting faulty notions concerning biblical interpretation, as a pastor I would hesitate giving this book to a novice studying Old Testament literary forms. Longman gives too much ground and validity to his critics. This would result many beginning students in our churches to stumble in their understanding and trust of Old Testament Scripture. While the pastor and seminarian would be discerning enough to spot these problems, Longman misses the mark with his aim to the average Christian.


Longman, III, Tremper. Making Sense of the Old Testament: Three Crucial Questions. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998. 154 pp. $16.99.

  1. Your section on “literal” translations is misguided. Literal translations present the reader with a word-for-word translation of the text (NKJV, ESV), but others (NIV, NLT) present the thought/meaning of the text. Literal doesn’t equal better if, when reading the literal OT text, we still don’t know what the author meant. For example, reading a literal translation of a Norwegian sentence won’t always make sense. Even as I learn Norwegian, I must be told what a sentence ‘means’ because the literal equivalent doesn’t work.

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