Conflicting Covenants

One thing I’ve heard a fair amount for Christians that doesn’t seem to really hold up is that Jesus’ sacrifice and resurrection freed believers from the Jewish law. And yet the same people will quote verses from Leviticus to condemn stuff they don’t like. So which part of the law still applies, and which doesn’t? Christianity still holds to the notion of sin, and what is sin if not disobedience of ritual law? I don’t even know that there’s much indication that Jesus himself supported this notion. Certainly, in the Gospel of Matthew, he’s a big supporter of the Law. The version of the Sermon on the Mount given in Matthew 5 has him say, “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled” Of course, there’s some wiggle room with what fulfilling the law means. The general interpretation seems to be that the fulfillment occurred with Jesus’ death and resurrection. But he goes on to say that his followers have to be more righteous than the scribes and Pharisees, and has much stricter views on marriage and adultery than the Torah does. There were cases where he reinterpreted laws, as he did with the Sabbath, but this appears to have been common in that era. In Matthew 7:12, he’s quoted as saying, “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.” That is, obviously, the Golden Rule, which is found in the Torah, specifically in Leviticus 19:18: “Thou shalt not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself: I am the LORD.” It’s certainly a nice idea, and one that other Jewish philosophers held up as the most important part of the Law.

But really, how can you say stoning people for various minor infractions is loving thy neighbor as thyself? It doesn’t even apply to all New Testament rules. How is telling people they’ll go to Hell if they don’t share your beliefs doing unto others as you would have them do unto you? It kind of seems like the idea that the Jewish law, or at least many of the more controversial parts, was part of Paul’s attempt to recruit gentiles. His pitch was more or less, “Sure, it’s technically a Jewish movement, but you don’t have to cut off your foreskins, and you can eat whatever you want!” His rationale was that adherence to the Law wasn’t all that important, since the world was ending anyway. The fact that he was obviously wrong about this doesn’t seem to deter most people.

I think one problem inherent here is that, while I’m an atheist, I’m still mostly familiar with Christian viewpoints on this topic. I’ve been to church and Sunday school, and heard about how Jesus was the whole point of the scriptures (presumably even the parts about slaughtering Amalekites and such), and that Jews believe that the Messiah hasn’t arrived yet. I suppose the latter is technically true, but I don’t think it’s generally the focus of modern Judaism. It was huge during the Roman occupation, however, which is the climate in which Jesus and his earliest followers lived. The Gospels, especially Matthew, do a lot of fudging to make Jesus fulfill prophecies from the Tanakh, some of which don’t even appear to have BEEN prophecies in the first place. From what I’ve read, it wasn’t until AFTER Jesus died that dying and being reborn had anything to do with the Messiah. For that matter, even the Jews who DID accept Jesus as Messiah didn’t necessarily think that absolved them from the Law. I mean, that was “a covenant forever,” not “a covenant until my son shows up and gets screwed over.” For that matter, is freedom from the Law necessarily a good thing? Yes, parts of it (perhaps most of it, by modern standards) are really harsh, but laws are part of creating a functioning society. And while early Christians held up the idea that Jesus’ sacrifice atoned for everyone’s sins, but sin offerings were only one sort of sacrifice practiced in Judaism when the Temple existed. But then, since the Temple was destroyed around when Christianity was becoming popular, Judaism had to change to adjust to that, and Christianity became more firmly established as its own thing. I guess my point is that it’s strange how Christianity grew out of Judaism, specifically first-century Judaism, but very quickly came out against some of the basic tenets of its parent religion. And now they insist the Old Testament was really meant for them in the first place. I guess this kind of thing happens all the time, though. It was probably the reaction the other Iron Age Semitic peoples had towards early Judaism.

“So you worship Yahweh, but not his wife? What the Sheol?”

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4 Responses to Conflicting Covenants

  1. Melody Keller says:

    Jesus told his followers to love one another, that love was the fulfillment of the Law. In other words, do good to others because one is motivated by love, not be someone who is grudgingly obeying a set of rules.
    “Love does not do evil to one’s neighbor, therefore love is the law’s fulfillment.”

  2. A lot of the points you raise are discussed at length by the Apostle Paul in his letters, particularly those written to the Hebrews and Galatians, where he describes what the New Covenant means, how and why it differs from the Old Covenant–which had been broken by Israel–and the ways in which it was always meant to be temporary anyway, as Abraham (who was not bound to Torah Law since he preceded it) was made the promise that by means of his offspring the nations would be blessed. The idea isn’t that the Law doesn’t matter, but that the Law was a tutor (or guide) to keep the nation on track and lead them to Christ, so that once he came, the tutor was no longer needed (Gal 3:24).

    Incidentally, while Christ is the focal point of scripture, the idea that ALL of scripture is about him is a naive perspective that I’ve seen some Christians make. Scripture is considerably broader than that, serving to demonstrate, amongst other things, the ways in which God is different from other gods, how He’s trustworthy, why He’s crucial to attaining true long-term happiness, how life operates both outside of Him and within Him, how things spiraled downwards to the point where they are, but also how they’re going to get much better.

    Christ’s necessity in the larger picture is gradually developed over the course of the OT to show how the Law ultimately could not be kept because of mankind’s inherent brokenness. Christ doesn’t abolish Law, as he notes, but in fulfilling it, he reapplies it for a new creation who will have it written on their hearts, and who will no longer have need of a physical temple, a human king, and the various purity laws because the sacrifice Christ accomplished all of that in a way that never need be repeated. The other aspects of the Law (“Do not kill,” “Do not steal,” etc., ) are demonstrated to exist in two commandments, which sum them up: Love God above all; Law your neighbor as yourself. The apostles make it clear that so long as a person is following these, they are keeping the law. This is a form of freedom from the 613 regulations instituted by Moses in the Old Covenant, but also a greater responsibility because it involves one’s heart-condition, and this where the rest of the NT is so important to understanding how to bear that responsibility.

    Judaism was both rule-based and compassion-based, but oftentimes, the former was performed, while the latter ignored, for which reason God held the nation (especially the priests and kings) accountible. He often cites the lack of justice for the marginalized in society, the mistreatment of widows and orphans, and the various forms of corruption done by those with power and wealth, who were otherwise putting on a good show of practicing their religion.

    In Christianity, compassion is put at the forefront and legalism is abolished altogether. Interestingly, you’ll see some churches try to reinstate legalism, which reveals a desire to return to a system that’s easier to follow than love is. But the NT is clear that there is no salvation in rules and regulations. There never was, but now there’s not even the pretense to which individuals can point and say “I’m following the law,” because Christ makes it abundantly clear that love is the ONLY law that God’s concerned with. This is why you see some fools use the Old Testament to condemn people, which is wrong on so many levels.

    Thus, when so-called “Christians” tell people they’re going to Hell, or badger them with angry words of hate and venom, they’re behaving NOT as Christians, but as the Pharisees, who stand condemned before God (Matt 7:15-23). Another reason the NT is important is to show exactly what living as a Christian looks like, so that we have a pattern to follow in both Christ and in his earliest disciples, and can more readily discern the difference between a true and false Christian.

    You mentioned how quickly it seemed that Christianity grew out of Judaism, and that’s because some Jews understood that the arrival of the Messiah would mean a sea-change in the way things were done, in much the same way that the arrival of Moses meant a sea-change in the way things were done. The rejection by some had much to do with the dominance of the Pharisees and Sadducees, and their interpretation of the Law, which Jesus exposed as erroneous, hypocritical, and twisted by them to oppress the poor and marginalized. This ultimately led to the second destruction of the Temple, just as the refusal of the religious and political leaders of ancient Israel to heed God’s warnings led to the destruction of the first. This is why the OT continues to be important even for Christians for whom the Old Covenant is no longer bindings. It demonstrates the patterns of man’s repeated rebellion against God, God’s forbearance with them, and then finally His display of justice, even as he yet provides hope and restitution for a remnant who will listen.

    • Nathan says:

      Judaism was both rule-based and compassion-based, but oftentimes, the former was performed, while the latter ignored, for which reason God held the nation (especially the priests and kings) accountible. He often cites the lack of justice for the marginalized in society, the mistreatment of widows and orphans, and the various forms of corruption done by those with power and wealth, who were otherwise putting on a good show of practicing their religion.

      But weren’t they ALSO breaking the Law, which required them to provide for the less fortunate?

      • Exactly, and that’s because the Law also contained moral commandments. This is how we know that Moses didn’t “borrow the Mosaic Law from the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi,” as those who’ve read neither often claim.

        While there are certainly commonalities involving laws dealing with murder, theft, adultery, and kidnapping that you’ll find in nearly any legislative system, focused as it was on criminal and civil laws, the Babylonian Code did not have laws regarding the moral behavior that was the root of these problems, let alone any provision for forgiveness. The Torah is replete with directives to show love, kindness, and charity. The Code of Hammurabi is not only absent of these, but showed partiality to the wealthy class over other classes; nobility and land-owners were protected and favored in Babylon. In sharp contrast the Torah protected and favored widows, orphans, and strangers.

        The political and religious leaders of ancient Israel would have done better in Babylon because that was the kind of legal system they practiced, one in which they served special interests, while putting on a pretense of caring about the poor and disenfranchised, much like politicians do today. Given that they were behaving like Babylonian elites, there’s poetic justice in the fact that God used Babylon to punish them. In much the same way, the Pharisees and Sadducees were following in their pattern and behaving as oppressively as the Romans were. This is why Jesus warned his followers not to become hypocrites like them, but to do good for others, and where possible to do it behind closed doors, where only God would see it.

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