This a second post about how Christians should deal with the objections to Christianity based on Old Testament verses. Often opponents of Christianity will try to tell Christians about the parts of the bible that were not “cherry picked” by their Church or Sunday school teachers. They will often talk about how they read “the whole bible.” And then start spewing out all these obscure bits and pieces of the Old Testament – and then accusingly ask “do you believe that!?” If you try to interpret the scripture in a way that complies with the basic gist of your faith, (as opposed to their hyper-literalist reading) they will say you are just making up that interpretation. If you simply say, well I don’t know what to make of that scripture they will say aha! You don’t even know your own scripture. If this is troubling you then this blog is for you – and hopefully those opponents of Christianity who engage in this line of argument.
I think the best response to this is to test out how much they actually know about the bible. Simply ask them: What did Jesus say about the old testament scriptures? The Gospels are full of Jesus being tested on interpretations of the old testament! We will get to these in a bit.
Don’t be surprised if the only thing the Christian opponent will remember is the “one jot” passage from Matthew that I blogged about here. I get that as a response so often that I chose to just blog about it first. When you get this passage (and you inevitably will if you do this apologetics schtick long enough) Ask them if they know when Jesus said that and how he elaborated on what he meant. The above blog deals with that quote and the context much more extensively, but in sum, the quote was part of his famous the Sermon on the Mount. He clearly elaborates what he means and likely contradicts the anti-theist’s approach to the old testament – which are usually literalistic and amazingly similar to the Pharisees of Jesus time that often wanted to “test” him.
Ask them if Jesus ever summarizes the old testament. Does he give us guidance as to how we should understand the old testament as a whole so that we live the lives he calls us to? People who have actually read the Gospels will know he does, repeatedly. The Gospels record numerous situations where Jesus repeatedly teaches by his actions and words how we should understand the Old Testament. It would be good to see if the remember any. I have gathered up several passages where Jesus himself addresses the Old Testament Scriptures.
But before I begin why just quote Jesus? Why not Popes or other Scripture? I certainly could, but, Jesus is the lens through which we should read all Christian writings, not the other way around. When we interpret scripture we of course should make sure we are interpreting it in a way that God directly tells us we should! Jesus himself informs us that scripture is not just the word of God – it has dual authorship. See e.g., Mark 10:1-12.
Regardless of how one might understand scripture the vast majority of Christians will agree that when Jesus says something it is God speaking very directly. Jesus is the head of the church (Colossians 1:18) not the pope, not the bible, but Jesus. Christians can disagree with each other about scripture. Martin Luther even said James contradicted Paul. But if Jesus himself is telling us how to interpret the old testament, a Christian should listen up. ( Even scripture says we should take special notice if we are getting this directly from Jesus as opposed to Paul e.g., “And unto the married I command, yet not I, but the Lord, Let not the wife depart from her husband” 1 Corinthians 7:10)
What did Jesus say? The most important point is that Jesus repeatedly summed up the old testament. He did not dive in and give us rules for each and every verse of all forty-six books of the old testament. That would be a continuation of the rules model that he superseded. Instead he repeatedly tells us we should understand a general bottom line from the old testament and repeatedly rejects precisely the literalist interpretations offered today by certain anti-theists. (Although, it was religious leaders taking the literalistic view of the old testament in Jesus’s day.) So what is the bottom line God explicitly tells us we should take from those 46 books? Let us quote God directly from the Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John:
“So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” Matthew 7:12
This is then repeated:
“Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
Jesus replied: “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.””
One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”
“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.[e] Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’[f] The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[g] There is no commandment greater than these.” Mark 12:28-31
“ On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”
He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’[a]; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[b]”
“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
[Jesus responds with the Parable of the Good Samaritan]
“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. This is my command: Love each other.”
It isn’t a pope who is saying these things. It isn’t a protestant reformer or a Sunday School teacher. It is God himself telling us what the bottom line is. If you are interpreting any of the old testament in a way that goes against this then are you going against God’s interpretation. I am not interpreting God, I am quoting him. Accordingly, churches are not “cherry picking” passages but rather being mindful of what God explicitly told them they should take away from the scripture. Sure they will focus on the passages that they feel deliver the message God told us we should get from the Old Testament and not dwell on passages where it is hard to see the connection. But that is not cherry picking that is being obedient to God.
Scripture is God revealing himself to us at very different times and environments. But God is infinite and our understanding is finite. It should not be surprising that God will use different tools that work better for some times and places than they do for others. And it should not be surprising that scripture will never entirely reveal everything about God so we can completely understand God as a whole. So the fact that we look at some verses of the 73 books and have to shrug our shoulders should not be surprising! An infinite being revealing himself is not the same as telling the story of Harry Potter. Does God give us enough direction to live a moral life. I think any honest reader of the gospels would agree he does.
God took the time to give us a summary of the old testament. I do think Christians should at least understand this often repeated summary. Love God and love each other. So if we read a passage and we don’t see how it yields what God told us it should, then it is fine to say we are not sure what we should make of that passage. Perhaps the story is conveying a message to people based on understandings we have lost. Perhaps what seemed loving and forgiving to the ancients no longer seems so. Jews and Christians have made quite a bit of moral progress over the last several centuries. An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth may seem extreme to us but it may have been a very moderate statement if the culture typically asked for the heads a culprit’s whole family in exchange for a tooth. As we might expect God’s guidance has helped us make moral progress!
Jesus said as much himself. At times scripture was written as a practical tool to guide people in the state they were in at the time. See e.g., Matthew 19:1-9 and Mark 10:1-12. Where Jesus says although the old testament allowed divorce that was not really how we should live. (I would note Paul points out Jesus said this and that would be very hard to square with the view that Paul did not think Jesus was alive on earth as some Mythicists would claim. “And unto the married I command, yet not I, but the Lord, Let not the wife depart from her husband” 1 Corinthians 7:10.)
Let’s look at how Jesus himself applies his bottom line summary in response to the Pharisees who often would raise almost the identical issues that Christian opponents raise today.
John 8:2-11 is an obvious and direct answer from Jesus on how we should deal with old testament laws:
“At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.
But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.
At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
“No one, sir,” she said.
“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”
These ancient codes like Lev. 20:10; Deut 22:22 have been so often quoted by Christian opponents you would think Jesus never addressed any of them, let alone addressed them directly and explicitly.
Many atheists will talk about how this passage from John does not appear in existing early texts. But that is a red herring. All Christian Churches I am aware of include this passage in their scripture. Whether it was in early transcripts and taken out of some – or was a story about Jesus that was passed on and later included into John is unimportant. It is part of our scripture and it tells us what God said.
In any case this is just one of many examples where Jesus’s bottom line that old testament laws must be understood in terms of treating others as you would like to be treated. That would of course include judging others as we would like to be judged. See e.g., Matthew 7:1-5, Luke 6:37-42 and Luke 6:31-36. Where Jesus tells us to focus on our own shortcomings instead of trying to judge others for theirs. These teaching not to judge others guts the penal aspects of the old testament across the board. But let’s move to some other specific examples.
Healing on the sabbath, another rule broken!
“Another time Jesus went into the synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Some of them were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal him on the Sabbath. Jesus said to the man with the shriveled hand, “Stand up in front of everyone.”
Then Jesus asked them, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” But they remained silent.
He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored. Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus.”
Mark 3:1-6. See also Matthew 12:10-13, Luke 13:10-17
Harvesting Grain on the Sabbath was explicitly forbidden in Exodus 16:23–29 even gathering sticks was not permitted Numbers 15:32–36. So we should not be surprised by the Pharisees who are so similar to many of today’s literalist rule obsessed Christian opponents.
“At that time Jesus went through the grain fields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry and began to pick some heads of grain and eat them. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him, “Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.”
He answered, “Haven’t you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God, and he and his companions ate the consecrated bread—which was not lawful for them to do, but only for the priests. Or haven’t you read in the Law that the priests on Sabbath duty in the temple desecrate the Sabbath and yet are innocent? I tell you that something greater than the temple is here. If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent. For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”
“Unclean” woman and Jesus.
Leviticus 15 talks about how women who are menstruating are unclean. It is not just that an unclean person should not touch be touched by anyone, but you become unclean even if you touch things they touch! They are not supposed to touch anyone, and they are supposed to yell they are unclean so that others won’t contact them. Yet she touches Jesus and Jesus does not condemn her for violating the Rules. Indeed, he even praises her for her faith and heals her! Matthew 9:18-23 Luke 8:43-48 and Mark 5:21-34.
According to Leviticus 13:45-46 and Numbers 5:2 lepers are also unclean. So people are not supposed to touch them. But what does Jesus do? Yep he “reached out his hand…. but quickly pulled back saying ‘the rules say I can’t touch a leper, sorry dude!’ and walked on by” Anti-theist bible page 752:42.
For those interested in Christianity here is what the Christian Gospels actually say:
“When Jesus came down from the mountainside, large crowds followed him. A man with leprosy came and knelt before him and said, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.”
Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” Immediately he was cleansed of his leprosy. Then Jesus said to him, “See that you don’t tell anyone. But go, show yourself to the priest and offer the gift Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.”
See also Luke 5:13 “Then He put out His hand and touched him…”
Rules says we are not supposed to touch corpses Numbers 19:11-22 and number 5:2. But he seems to do just that when he takes a dead girl’s hand in Matthew 9:23-25. Now Jesus said she was just “sleeping” but I do think the author intends us to think she had died in the sense we would mean by it.
Jesus also cuts against the teachings that one might read in the OT that misfortunes are the results of our sin or those of our ancestors. Exodus 20:5 Deuteronomy 5:9 and Second Samuel 3:29. No doubt passages like these lead the disciples to ask whether a man blind from birth was suffering due to his own sins or those of his parents. Jesus said “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” John 9:3. See also Luke 13:4-5
“Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
In my last blog I talked about the rule based systems Jesus is here repeatedly and emphatically moving away from and rather pointing us in a moral direction. That direction can best be expressed by loving God and treating others as you would want to be treated. That is the basic rule Jesus applied above and it can serve us to address all these “tests”.
Imagine this from the perspective of the woman caught in adultery and the rule Jesus is asked to address. Imagine being a person suffering from paralysis or blindness and believing Jesus can heal you, but unfortunately the time Jesus comes near just happens to be the Sabbath so he follows the rule and says he will not work that day so you are out of luck. What if you were the woman who suffered from hemorrhaging for years (thus preventing you from going to temple and forcing you to be considered unclean causing you to be outcast from society) knowing that if only you touched him you would be cured. But when you did touch him instead of healing you he reprimanded you for breaking the rule! Lepers obviously suffered. They also had to announce to others they were unclean. Jesus could heal you with a touch but sadly touching was against a rule so he walked by. Putting ourselves in the shoes of others is the key that now makes all these “tests” seem easy. If you were a Pharisee listening to the Gospels at Jesus time I am not sure you would always anticipate how he answers these tests. Jesus directly and radically changed the rule based system. That is one of many reasons why the Gospels are so amazing.
Am I saying that God Changed what is Moral?
People often misunderstand what relativism is or at least when it is objectionable to the moral realist. The moral realist does not say that a certain action – say killing someone is always immoral. Rather they say that it is not dependent on the mind of the person judging. So there may not be anything wrong with someone making an “eeeeee” sound. But if you know that action is aggravating/effecting those around you then it may be immoral. The moral realist is fine with that view. The moral realist agrees the surrounding facts can effect the morality of a specific action. However the objective moral realists says the rightness or wrongness of a given set of facts is not relative to the mind of the person doing the judging. So if Jesus not stoning the adulteress (assuming all the facts and circumstances of her case) then it is not evil then it doesn’t matter if some Pharisee thought it was evil. The relativist would say his not stoning her could be morally good for Jesus but not morally good for the Pharisee. I address this common misconception of relativism here.
The passage from Mark 3:1-6 is especially illuminating on this point. Jesus states “ Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil….” Of course, if it were objectively evil to break a rule (do any work on the sabbath) his statement would not make sense. But they know what Jesus did was good and not evil despite the rule! And Jesus knew he did not need to explain. How did he know? Because God is a loving relational being and he made us in his image. Yet we are so attached to rules that even today people will still ask is ok to work (in a hospital healing people no less) on the sabbath? Following Jesus does not require a high IQ and an understanding of a complicated rule system. That is not why it is hard to follow him and do good.
Hopefully anyone can see one of the main messages that Jesus repeatedly taught was that specific rules are often twisted so that they work against their intended goal. He repeatedly tells us what the moral goal is (love) and shows us how to apply that goal to our thinking. This is why I am somewhat baffled by people asking why didn’t Jesus just simply announce another rules against [insert whatever specific rule you want]. “’Are you still so dull?’ Jesus asked them.” Matthew 15:16
It is likely just that people haven’t read the Gospels, or if they did, they read them with a motivation other than trying to understand what Jesus was trying to communicate. The anti-theists of today are so much like the Pharisees thinking they could teach morality better than Jesus by using the rule based system. It is almost miraculously prophetic how Jesus addresses this same issue so directly and repeatedly. It is also interesting that just as in Jesus day those who want to harden their hearts to his message will succeed and not understand even the basics of what he repeatedly taught.
So when Christian opponents say we are “cherry picking” passages or reading the passages in ways that allow us to be loving, we should admit it is true. That is what God told us to do. Don’t let their ignorance of even the basic, repeated, and explicit teachings of Jesus lead us off the path God told us to take.