Jesus and the Old Testament

I find it interesting that Conservative Christians seem to prefer the harsh and judgmental teachings of the Old Testament to Jesus’ more ecumenical teachings from the New Testament. This has long made me wonder (and was part of the reason I wrote Heaven and Earth): what did Jesus have to say about the Old Testament? I also wonder how Christ’s teachings about the Old Testament influenced the way modern Christians view Jesus, and view the Old Testament.

Jesus makes only a handful of specific mentions of Old Testament teachings, which I discuss below. But it is clear that he didn’t strictly teach or observe Old Testament teachings. Why then do those who claim to be Christ’s followers want to strictly apply a few provisions from the Old Testament? I deal with that issue in a separate essay, but for now, let’s go through the Gospels and look at how Jesus approached the Old Testament.

First, however, let me note that at the time of Jesus there wasn’t an “Old Testament.” The Jews had the Torah, which was a collection of religious writings and teachings. At the time there was no definitive or canonical “Torah” made up of specific teachings beyond the Pentateuch, or the first five books of the Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy). Many of the books that are now considered part of the Old Testament were also part of the Torah, but the specific list varied from place to place, and more importantly not all Synagogues had a complete set of these “books.” That raises a second point. The “books” were actually scrolls, as the modern bound books that we are familiar with today did not exist at the time. And so there was no set order to books, beyond the Pentateuch. So when I speak of the “Old Testament,” keep in mind that Jesus and his followers didn’t have a copy of the King James Version of the Bible for easy reference.

If you read the Gospels in order, the first time you hear Jesus specifically discuss the teachings of the Old Testament is in the Sermon on the Mount. And he seems to suggest strong adherence to its teachings. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:17-19)

This seems like a pretty definitive endorsement of the Old Testament. Jesus says that he will not change a letter, or even the stroke of a letter of the law. The King James Version uses the wonderful term “jot or a tittle.” A jot is the jot, or stroke of a pen, and a tittle is the accent mark used on some letters.

I should note that to many evangelical Christians, Jesus is saying that he has “fulfilled” the law. Since He has “fulfilled” the law, he is somehow beyond it, and can therefor alter it. So many of the following examples, where Jesus alters or contradicts the Law of Moses, or other Old Testament teachings, are OK, because He has “fulfilled” the law. This, of course, creates a separate problem. If Jesus has “fulfilled” the law, why then do some conservative Christians want to rigidly apply certain provisions of the Old Testament? And in particular why do they want to enforce provisions that Jesus never even mentioned? (I address that question in a separate essay called Cherry Picking the Bible.) (I should also briefly note that a number of Paul’s letters are addressed to church congregations where the followers of Christ thought that because he had “fulfilled” the law, they didn’t have to obey it. That issue is beyond the scope of this essay.)

There is a section of Luke, often referred to as the Sermon on the Plain, where Jesus addresses some of the same issues as the Sermon on the Mount. In the version in Luke, Jesus says that the “law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John.” (Luke 16:16) But then Jesus says “It is easier for heaven and earth to disappear than for the least stroke of a pen to drop out of the Law.” (Luke 16:17) So in Luke it is John the Baptist who has fulfilled the Law, but in Matthew it is Jesus.

Not long after saying the law will remain unchanged in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.” (Matt. 5:21-22). Jesus says “it was said to the people long ago” as if it was some obscure legend, little more than an old wife’s tale. But it was more important than that. It is actually one of the Ten Commandments. (You shall not kill. Exodus 20:13.) Of course Jesus isn’t specifically contradicting the Commandment, but enhancing it, and creating an even harsher rule. That’s fine, but it does change the Law, which means that he is not applying the rule literally.

A bit later in the Sermon on the Mount he takes exception to the teachings on adultery, and again creates a harsher rule. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matt. 5:27-28) He has similar rules regarding divorce: “It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” (Matt 31-31) Jesus also tweaks the rules on oaths “Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’ But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all…” (Matt. 5:33-34. See also Matt 19:2-12) In each of these cases his rule is harsher than the rule from the Old Testament. But if, as he said, he was not going to change a word of the teachings of the Old Testament and the Law of Moses, shouldn’t his rule be precisely the same as the rules from the Old Testament? Even making the rule harsher is technically a change.

Jesus goes on, and this time he does contradict the Old Testament more directly. “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.” (Matt. 5:38-39) The punishment of an eye for an eye is directly from the Law of Moses as set forth in Exodus 21:24; Lev. 24:20; and Deut. 19:21. Leviticus 24:20 says that “if a man causes disfigurement of his neighbor, as he has done, so shall it be done to him – fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth.” Here Jesus is directly and explicitly contradicting the teaching of the Old Testament. So much for not changing a “jot” or “tittle.”

In the next paragraph Jesus actually misquotes the Old Testament. He says: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matt. 5:43-44) The Old Testament, in Leviticus says “love your neighbor as yourself,” (Lev. 19:18) but it doesn’t specifically and directly say to “hate your enemy.” Of course other parts of the Old Testament certainly allude to hating one’s enemies.

There is a story, told in slightly different versions in Matthew (12:1-11), Mark (2:27) and Luke (6:1-4), where Jesus and his disciples are walking through a wheat field on the Sabbath. Someone observes the disciples plucking the head of the grain to eat them, and they confront Jesus, saying “Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.” (Matt. 12:2) This violates the Fourth Commandment, which is to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. “On it you shall not do any work.” (Ex. 20:8). So the accuser in this situation is referring to a clear rule from the Ten Commandments. And how does Jesus, who promised not to change a jot or tittle of the Law, respond? In Matthew and Luke he notes that Priests work on the Sabbath, but in Mark he says “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” Mark2:27. This certainly sounds like an almost direct repudiation of one of the Ten Commandments. (In the Gospels of Matthew, Luke, and John, Jesus also heals a man on the Sabbath, and is admonished. (Matt. 12:9-10, Luke 6:6-11, Luke 13:10-17, Luke 14:1-6, John 5:8-17.)) In each case Jesus has an excuse, but also in each case he has violated the Fourth Commandment.

In Matthew there is a story where Jesus is questioned by a group of Pharisees about the habits of his disciples. They note that his disciples don’t wash their hands before they eat. (Matt. 15:1-2) Jesus responds by accusing the Pharisees of creating rules that contradict the commandment to honor your father and mother (that’s the Fifth Commandment, Ex. 20:12). Jesus then says, “What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.” Matt. 15:11. (There is a parallel story in Mark 7:15.) This is one of my favorite statements by Jesus. It is a variation of the old saying, “by your words you shall be known.” But this statement clearly contradicts a whole range of dietary laws from the Old Testament. See in particular Leviticus 11:1- 46.

Let me digress briefly here to discuss Christians and dietary laws of the Old Testament. In Acts there is a lengthy discussion of dietary laws and whether the newly converted Gentile Christians had to follow them. This was at the “Council at Jerusalem,” where the apostles discuss the important teachings of the Old Testament, and how the Old Testament should apply to the new followers of Christ. The elders, which included Paul, Peter and James, the brother of Jesus, agreed on a letter to be sent to the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia. The letter said, in part, that ”You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality.” (Acts 15:29) So it sounds as if they endorsed at least some of the Kosher rules. This is interesting since modern Christians ignore this admonition, but it is also interesting since it seems to puts them at odds with Jesus.

And then, in the Gospel of John, at the last Supper, Jesus tells his disciples to eat his flesh and drink his blood. (John 6:53) Catholics hear this passage at every mass, and it can certainly be read in conjunction with the idea that Christ has “fulfilled” the Law. But it clearly violates the prohibitions against blood, which is from Genesis Gen. 9:4) as well as the letter cited above (Acts 15:29). But obviously if you see Christ as the fulfillment of the Old Testament then he can violate the Old Testament laws at will. But doesn’t that also mean that Christ’s teachings on the Old Testament should supersede Old Testament rules, as well as Paul’s interpretation of those rules? (So why follow Paul’s condemnations of sexual immorality while ignoring Christ’s much more tolerant approach?)

Towards the end of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is asked a couple of direct questions about the Old Testament teachings, and his answer are quite revealing. In the first story a man comes up to Jesus and asks, “What good thing must I do to get eternal life?” Jesus says “keep the commandments.” The man replies “Which ones?” (Matt. 19:16-18. Similar story in Mark 10:18.) Now if you believe that the Bible is literally true, and you believe, as many Christian’s profess, that you should “keep the commandments,” and you believe that Jesus has not changed a jot or tittle of the Law, then Jesus’ answer should obviously be, ‘why all of them, of course.’ But that, in fact, is not what Jesus says. He says “You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, honor your father and mother,’ and ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’” This is actually only five of the ten, and “love your neighbor” may be a wonderful rule, but it’s not in the Ten Commandments. (See, Exodus 20:1-17.)

In Exodus, God gives Moses the following 10 commandments: “(1) You shall have no other gods before me. (2) You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. … (3) You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name. (4) Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. … (5) Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you. (6) You shall not murder. (7) You shall not commit adultery. (8) You shall not steal. (9) You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor. (10) You shall not covet your neighbor’s house … wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” (Exodus 20:1-17. Reference numbers added.)

When Jesus instructs the man he misses the first four, and sort of twists the tenth commandment. But his version of the Ten Commandments actually comes from a different book of the Pentateuch, from Leviticus. Leviticus 19 includes the provision that you should not “seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself.” (Lev. 19:18) That is a truly wonderful idea, but it is not in the Ten Commandments that God gives Moses on Mount Sinai as set forth in Exodus.

A bit later Jesus is confronted by a group of Pharisees and Sadducees (these were Jewish sects of the time), who question him. 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.” (Matt. 22:35-40. There is a similar story in Mark 12:29-31.) Again it is noteworthy that the Ten Commandments that God givers Moses on Mount Sinai does not mention a commandment to Love God, or love your neighbor. That’s in a different version of the Commandments, set out in Deuteronomy Chapter 6. This is a section known as the Shema, which is a Jewish blessing, that begins “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts.” (Deut. 6:4-6) It is interesting that Jesus quotes from this most Jewish of the versions of the commandments. It is also interesting to note that this provision to “Love God” is not contained in the version of the Ten Commandments from Exodus. And neither is the admonition to “love your neighbor.” Certainly the Ten Commandments tell you not to covet or steal from your neighbor, but that is very different from loving your neighbor. So Jesus is quoting the Shema and not the Ten Commandments of Moses.

There are similar stories, told in the Gospels of Mark and Luke, where Jesus’ mother and brothers comes to see him, but he ignores them. He says, motioning to the crowd gathered around him that “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3:31-35, Luke 8:19-21) That’s great, but doesn’t the Fifth Commandment specifically say “Honor your father and mother”? And so hasn’t Jesus directly violated the Fifth Commandment?

In Luke, Jesus is eating with a group of Pharisees and a woman comes and washes his feet. The woman is described as having lived a “sinful life” and one of the Pharisees asks Jesus if he knows what kind of woman she is. Jesus responded by saying that she has shown what kind of woman she is by the love she has shown him by washing his feet, and because of this “her many sins have been forgiven.” (Luke 7:44-48). A second similar story from the Gospel of John is one of the most famous in the Bible. Jesus is teaching at the Temple in Jerusalem and a group of Pharisees come to him with a women “caught in adultery.” They say that “the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” (Adultery violates one of the Ten commandments, Exodus 20:14, and the punishment for adultery is death, Lev. 20:10.) Many Biblical scholars contend that it was a trick to get Jesus to explicitly contradict the teachings of the Law of Moses. But Jesus doesn’t explicitly contradict the Law, he makes an end run: “Let any one of you who is without sin,” he says, “be the first to throw a stone at her.” (John 8:3-11) No one does, and he forgives the woman and tells her to leave her life of sin.

This second story raises an obvious question: why would the Pharisees think that they could get Jesus to contradict the teachings of the Law of Moses if he had a reputation for scrupulously following the Law? It seems clear that he must have been known for contradicting the teachings of the Law, or perhaps for altering or expanding on those teachings. And so they confronted him.

In both situations Jesus noted that these women have sinned, but then he ignored Old Testament rules on sexual morality and implicitly ridiculed those being judgmental and applying a strict interpretation of Biblical teaching. Is he changing a jot, a tittle, or quite a bit more?

Finally near the end of the Gospel of John Jesus tells his disciples that he will not be with them much longer. (John 13:33) And so he leaves them with a parting message. He says “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35) He reiterates this commandment twice more. In the next chapter he says “If you love me, keep my commands.” (John 14:15) Note that he does not say keep the commandments, but “my” commands. And then, as he sends his disciples out to preach he says again: “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.” (Matt. 15:9-12) Now, this is the version of Jesus that I believe in, and this is the commandment that I believe is the sum and substance of Christ’s message. But there is absolutely no denying that this particular “commandment” is not found in the original Ten Commandments, or even in the Old Testament. Certainly the Christ who has fulfilled the Law can proclaim a new Commandment. But just as certainly this New Commandment changes far more than a jot or tittle of the Law of Moses.

Reading the Gospels and looking at Jesus’ relationship with, and teaching of, the “Old Testament” or the Law of Moses, it is clear that Jesus doesn’t scrupulously adhere to those teachings. This raises a couple of issues. First, if Jesus didn’t strictly adhere to the “Old Testament” what does that say about Biblical literalism? How can it all be literally true if the main character in the second episode disagrees with things in the first episode? Second, if Jesus takes issue with Old Testament teachings why should contemporary society be forced to abide by those rules. Specifically, if Christ never mentioned homosexuality, and in many other situations disagreed with harsh and judgmental teachings from the Law of Moses, why do modern “Christians” want to foist that one law onto society?