Old Testament

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The Old Testament (sometimes abbreviated as OT) is the first section of the two-part Christian Biblical canon.

Most scholars agree that the Old Testament was composed and compiled between the 12th and the 2nd century BC. The books of the Old Testament were therefore completed before Jesus' birth. Jesus and his disciples based their teachings on them, referring to them as "the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms ... the scriptures". (The accounts of Jesus and his disciples are recorded in the Christian New Testament.)

Books of the Old Testament

The exact canon of the Old Testament differs between the various branches of Christianity. All include the books of the Hebrew Bible, while most traditions also recognise several deuterocanonical books. The Protestant Old Testament is, for the most part, identical with the Hebrew Bible; the differences are minor, dealing only with the arrangement and number of the books. For example, while the Hebrew Bible considers Kings to be a unified text, and Ezra and Nehemiah as a single book, the Protestant Old Testament divides each of these into two books.

The differences between the Hebrew Bible and other versions of the Old Testament such as the Samaritan Pentateuch, the Syriac, Latin, Greek and other canons, are greater. Many of these canons include whole books and additional sections of books that the others do not. The translations of various words from the original Hebrew may also give rise to significant differences of interpretation.

Christian view of the Law

Traditional Christianity affirms that the Mosaic Law of the Old Testament (known as Torah in Judaism) is fully inspired by God. However, much of Christian tradition has historically denied that all of the laws of the Pentateuch apply directly to Christians. There are several different explanations within Christianity that endeavor to explain if and how the laws given by God through Moses apply to Christians.

The New Testament indicates that Jesus Christ established a new covenant relationship between God and his people ( Jeremiah 31:31–31:34; Luke 22:20; 2Cor 2-3; Heb 8-9). Christianity, almost without exception, understands this new covenant to be the instrument through which God offers mercy and atonement to mankind. However, the various views of the Old Testament Law in Christianity result from very different interpretations of what exactly this new covenant is and how it affects the validity of the Mosaic Law. These differences mainly result from attempts to harmonize Biblical statements that say that the Law is eternal with New Testament statements that suggest that it does not now apply at all, or at least does not fully apply. Most Biblical scholars admit the issue of the Law can be confusing and the topic of Paul and the Law is still frequently debated among New Testament scholars (for example, see New Perspective on Paul, Pauline Christianity); hence the various views.

Some conclude that none is applicable, some conclude that only parts are applicable, and some conclude that all is still applicable to believers in Jesus.

The Roman Catholic view

Roman Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas explained that there is a threefold division in the Law: moral, ceremonial, and judicial. God’s commands were “ordained for a double purpose; the worship of God, and the foreshadowing of Christ.” Upon the advent of Christ, the purpose of all the ceremonial and judicial commands, which was to pre-figure Christ, was fulfilled, causing them to be “annulled” and “dead.” The moral commands remain for the worship of God, summed up in the Ten Commandments. The Catechism of the Catholic Church: Part 3, Life in Christ: Section 2, The Ten Commandments: "Teacher, what must I do ...?" states:

"2068 The Council of Trent teaches that the Ten Commandments are obligatory for Christians and that the justified man is still bound to keep them; the Second Vatican Council confirms: 'The bishops, successors of the apostles, receive from the Lord ... the mission of teaching all peoples, and of preaching the Gospel to every creature, so that all men may attain salvation through faith, Baptism and the observance of the Commandments.'"
"2076 By his life and by his preaching Jesus attested to the permanent validity of the Decalogue."

While upholding the Ten Commandments, the Roman Catholic Church teaches that the Apostles, instituted the observance of Sunday instead of the Saturday, and applies the Third Commandment to Sunday as the day to be kept holy as the Lord's Day. It also numbers the commandments according to the numbering preferred by St. Augustine, which is different from the traditional Protestant numbering, derived from Origen. The Commandments are often abbreviated for easy catechetical use.

According to Aquinas, not only do the ceremonial portions of the Law not apply now, but it is actually a “mortal sin” to keep these observances after the events of Christ’s Passion. Ceremonial laws, in this view, include the regulations pertaining to ceremonial cleanliness, festivals, diet, and the Levitical priesthood.

The Lutheran view

The 1577 Lutheran Formula of Concord in Article V states: "We believe, teach, and confess that the distinction between the Law and the Gospel is to be maintained in the Church with great diligence..." Martin Luther wrote: "Hence, whoever knows well this art of distinguishing between Law and Gospel, him place at the head and call him a doctor of Holy Scripture." Throughout the Lutheran Age of Orthodoxy (1580-1713) this hermeneutical discipline was considered foundational and important by Lutheran theologians. Carl Ferdinand Wilhelm Walther (1811-1887), who was the first (and third) president of the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod, renewed interest in and attention to this theological skill in his evening lectures at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis 1884-85.

The Reformed/Covenant Theology view

The Reformed, or Covenant Theology view is similar to the Roman Catholic view. It holds that under the new covenant, the Mosaic Law fundamentally continues, but that parts of it have "expired" and are no longer applicable. The Westminster Confession of Faith (1646) divides the Mosaic laws into three categories: moral, civil, and ceremonial. In the view of the Westminster divines, only the moral laws of the Mosaic Law, which include the Ten Commandments and the commands repeated in the New Testament, directly apply to Christians today. Ceremonial laws, in this view, include the regulations pertaining to ceremonial cleanliness, festivals, diet, and the Levitical priesthood.

While the view affirms the Sabbath like the Roman Catholic view, some advocates hold that the Commandment concerning the Sabbath was redefined by Jesus ( Matthew 12:1–13, Luke 13:10–17).

Christians believe that Jesus is the mediator of the New Covenant. Depicted is his famous Sermon on the Mount in which he commented on the Law.
Christians believe that Jesus is the mediator of the New Covenant. Depicted is his famous Sermon on the Mount in which he commented on the Law.

In a revival of ideas established in the Puritan period, starting in the 1970s and 1980s, a branch of Reformed theology known as Christian Reconstructionism argued that the civil laws as well as the moral laws should be applied in today's society (a position called Theonomy) as part of establishing a modern theonomic state.

Advocates of this Reformed view hold that, while not always easy to do and overlap between categories does occur, the divisions they make are possible and supported based on information contained in the commands themselves; specifically to whom they are addressed, whom or what they speak about, and their content. For example, a ceremonial law might be addressed to the Levites, speak of purification or holiness and have content which could be considered as a foreshadowing of some aspect of Christ's life or ministry. In keeping with this, most advocates also hold that when the Law is spoken of as everlasting, it is in reference to certain divisions of the Law. Some advocates, usually Theonomists, go further and embrace that idea that the whole Law continues to function, contending that the way in which Christians observe some commands has changed but not the content or meaning of the commands. (For example, they would say that the commands regarding Passover were looking forward to Christ's sacrificial death and the Communion mandate is looking back on it, the former is given to the Levitical priesthood and the latter is given to the priesthood of all believers, but both have the same content and meaning.)

Those in disagreement with this view claim that nowhere is a division of the Law mentioned in the Bible, but rather there is evidence that it is indivisible, and it would be practically impossible to sort commands by these types. Others in disagreement claim that the Law is described in various places as "everlasting" and none of it can terminate or expire.

The Dispensational view

The Dispensational view holds that under the new covenant, the Mosaic Law has fundamentally been terminated, or abolished, because, in this view, Scripture never describes the Law as divisible — it is one unit (James 2:10–11). Therefore, because portions of New Testament Scripture (such as Heb. 8:13) are understood in this view to annul at least parts of the Law, then the whole Law must be terminated.

Furthermore, this view holds that the Mosaic laws and the penalties attached to the laws were limited to the particular historical and theological setting of the Old Testament, described in this view as a different “dispensation;” a stage of time in which God dealt with humanity in a fundamentally different way than he does now. We are now living in the “dispensation” of the church/grace, which is a “parenthesis” or “intercalation” in history that is outside of God’s over-arching plan for Israel, and thus the Law given to Israel doesn’t now apply.

Replacing the Mosaic Law is the “Law of Christ” ( 1 Cor 9:21), which holds definite similarities with the Mosaic Law in moral concerns, but is new and different, replacing the first Law. Despite this difference, Dispensationalists may seek to find moral and religious principles applicable for today in all parts of the Mosaic Law.

Those in disagreement with the Dispensational view point out that nowhere does the Bible define a series of “dispensations” that this theology propones, and point out that God said that he does not change. Furthermore, opponents point out that the Mosaic Law is described in various places as “everlasting” and must fundamentally continue in some form. Others hold that, for this same reason, none at all can terminate or expire.

The New Covenant Theology view

New Covenant Theology refers to a Christian theological view of redemptive history primarily found in Baptist circles and contrasted with Covenant Theology and Dispensationalism.

New Covenant Theology believes that God has maintained one eternal purpose in Christ which has been expressed through a multiplicity of distinct historical covenants; that prominent among these are those designated the Old Covenant (also known as the Mosaic or First Covenant) and the New Covenant; that the former, confined to the people of Israel alone, was established while that nation was assembled before Mt. Sinai and was later made obsolete through its fulfillment by the life and death of Jesus the Messiah; that it was comprised largely of shadows pointing ultimately to Jesus and His body, the Church; and that, therefore, the age in which it remained operative was at all times a period of immaturity as compared to the age of fulfillment which was inaugurated with Christ's first advent.

The Old Covenant, containing a single, unified law code, was a legal, conditional covenant requiring perfect and complete obedience of all those under it; that, on the one hand, it promised life to all who obeyed it, and, on the other hand, it pronounced a curse upon all its transgressors; that it, therefore, inescapably brought death to all who sought to be justified by it-- not because of a deficiency in the law (itself "holy, just, and good"), but because of the sinful inability of those under its charge; and that, for this reason, it is variously described as a "killing letter," a "ministry of death,” and a "ministry of condemnation" -- its distinct purpose being to illumine sin so as to make manifest the Israelites' and, by implication, all men's need for a redeemer.

In contrast to the Old Covenant, the New Covenant (by virtue of Christ's perfect obedience to the law, as well as His bearing of its curse) promises only blessing to all those who belong to it; and that this second covenant, the "everlasting covenant" enacted upon better promises, has thus brought to realization all that was anticipated in the covenants made with Abraham, Moses, and David.

Under the New Covenant, God's people, having entered the age of fulfillment, now stand as mature sons; that having been set free from the tutelage and bondage of the law code written upon tablets of stone, they have subsequently been placed under the Spirit's management -- having the new and greater Lawgiver's own law now written upon their hearts.

As a result, though many of the individual commandments given in the decalogue and the eternal principles upon which the Mosaic Covenant was founded still apply to those under the New Covenant, God's people are now totally free from the Old Covenant as a covenant; that the usefulness of the Mosaic commands is not therefore to be denied, only that these are now understood to come to us through Christ, the mediator of the New Covenant; and that, in particular, with the obsolescence of the Old Covenant, the fourth commandment, the seventh day Sabbath observance, is no longer obligatory --- its relevance now pointing to that rest enjoyed by all those in Christ.

The Torah-submissive view

The Torah-submissive view, (a view held and proposed by both Jews and non-Jews), holds that the entire Torah is an indivisible whole and fundamentally continues to apply to all followers of God under the new covenant. Proponents emphasize the Biblical passages in both Old and New Testaments describing God's entire Law as both “everlasting” and “good”. In addition, this view holds that, rather than negating the Torah, part of the new covenant is to have this same Torah written upon the hearts of believers by the Holy Spirit. In this view, Jesus, as the sinless son of God and Messiah, could not possibly have transgressed or taught anyone to transgress this God-given Law, but rather Jesus and the New Testament writers reaffirmed all the commands of the Law as a whole (interpreting Matthew 5:17–20, Matthew 23:1–3, Matthew 23:23, etc. to support this stance). In light of these contexts and other Biblical evidence such as prophecy, this view holds different interpretations of the New Testament passages that have traditionally been understood to invalidate parts of the Law. These interpretations are also considered to be based on literary and historical context and examination of the original languages.

Because of the belief that the Torah is applicable, commands such as dietary laws (not necessarily " kashrut" standards), seventh day Sabbath, and Biblical festival days such as Passover are honored in some way within such segments of Christianity. Not only are they seen as valid commands, but also as valuable teaching tools about Jesus himself and God’s prophetic plan. As with Orthodox Judaism, capital punishment and sacrifice are not practiced because there are strict Biblical conditions on how these are to be properly practiced that are not in place today (although they are supported in principle).

This view affirms that spiritual salvation is by grace through faith in Jesus. It does not hold that any works are a way to achieve justification and hence salvation, but are rather a way of more fully obeying and imitating God as He intended; the same reason for obeying other, traditionally accepted, commands.

Those in disagreement with this view point out the various New Testament scripture passages that seem to negate some or all of the Mosaic Law, suggesting that its “everlasting” nature is subject to modification in some way under the new covenant and that portions of the Mosaic Law were only applicable in a given time and place, for a specific people, or for a limited purpose.

Other views

As far as the Ten Commandments, some believe Jesus rejected four of the Ten Commandments and endorsed only Six , citing Mark 10:17–22 and the parallels Matthew 19:16–22 and Luke 18:18–23. (cf. Cafeteria Christianity)

While some Christians from time to time have deduced from statements about the law in the writings of the Apostle Paul that Christians are under grace to the exclusion of all law (see antinomianism, hyperdispensationalism, Christian anarchism), this is not the usual viewpoint of Christians.

Law-related passages with disputed interpretation

The Acts of the Apostles in the New Testament describes a conflict among the first Christians as to the necessity of following all the laws of the Torah to the letter, see Council of Jerusalem.

Some have interpreted Mark's statement: "Thus he declared all foods clean" ( Mark 7:19 NRSV) to mean that Jesus taught that the pentateuchal food laws were no longer applicable to his followers, see also Antinomianism in the New Testament. However, the statement is not found in the Matthean parallel Matthew 15:15–20 and is also a disputed translation: the Scholars Version has: "This is how everything we eat is purified", Gaus' Unvarnished New Testament has: "purging all that is eaten." See also Strong's G2511.

The Ten Commandments on a monument on the grounds of the Texas State Capitol
The Ten Commandments on a monument on the grounds of the Texas State Capitol

Others note that Peter had never eaten anything that was not kosher many years after Acts 2 ( Pentecost). To the heavenly vision he announced: "Not so, Lord; for I have never eaten any thing that is common or unclean." ( Acts 10:14) Therefore, Peter was unaware that Jesus had changed the Mosaic food laws. In Mark 7, Jesus may have been just referring to a tradition of the Pharisees about eating with unwashed hands. For example, the insertion found in many translations concerning his declaration that all foods were clean is not found in the King James Version: Mark 7:19. The expression "purging all meats" may have meant the digestion and elimination of food from the body rather than the declaration that all foods were kosher. The confusion primarily centers around the participle used in the original Greek for "purging". Some scholars believe it agrees with the word for Jesus, which is nearly 40 words away from the participle. If this is the case, then it would mean that Jesus himself is the one doing the purifying. In New Testament Greek, however, the participle is rarely that far away from the noun it modifies, and many scholars agree that it is far more likely that the participle is modifying the digestive process (literally: the latrine), which is only two words away. The writer of Hebrews indicates that the sacrifices and the Levitical priesthood foreshadowed Jesus Christ's offering of himself as the sacrifice for sin on the Cross, and many have interpreted this to mean that once the reality of Christ has come, the shadows of the ritual laws cease to be obligatory (Heb 8:5; 9:23–26; 10:1). On the other hand, the New Testament repeats and applies to Christians a number of Old Testament laws, including "Love your neighbour as yourself" ( Lev 19:18; cf. Golden Rule, Mark 12:31), "Love the LORD your God with all your heart, soul and strength" ( Deut 6:4–5, the Shema, Mark 12:29–30).

Still others believe a partial list of the commandments was merely an abbreviation that stood for all the commandments because Jesus prefaced his statement to the rich young ruler with the statement: "If you want to enter life, obey the commandments". Some people claim that since Jesus did not qualify his pronouncement, that he meant all the commandments. The rich young ruler asked "which" commandments. Jesus gave him a partial list from the second table. The first set of commandments deal with a relationship to God. The second set of commandments deal with a relationship to men. No doubt Jesus considered the relationship to God important, but Jesus may have considered that the young man was perhaps lacking in this second set, which made him obligated to men. (This is inferred by his statement that to be perfect he should sell his goods, give them to the poor and come and follow Jesus — thereby opening to him a place in the coming Kingdom.)

Several times Paul mentioned adhering to "the Law", such as Romans 2:12–16, 3:31, 7:12, 8:7–8, Gal 5:3, Acts 24:14, 25:8 and preached about Ten Commandment topics such as idolatry ( 1 Cor 5:11, 6:9–10, 10:7, 10:14, Gal 5:19–21, Eph 5:5, Col 3:5, Acts 17:16–21, 19:23–41). Many Christians believe that the Sermon on the Mount is a form of commentary on the Ten Commandments. In the Expounding of the Law, Jesus said that he did not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it; while in Marcion's version of Luke 23:2 we find the extension: "We found this fellow perverting the nation and destroying the law and the prophets". See also Adherence to the Law and Antithesis of the Law.

Historicity of the Old Testament narratives

Current debate concerning the historicity of the various Old Testament narratives can be divided into several camps.

  • One group has been labeled "biblical minimalists" by its critics. Minimalists (e.g., Philip Davies, Thomas L. Thompson, John Van Seters) see very little reliable history in any of the Old Testament.
  • Conservative Old Testament scholars, "biblical maximalists," generally accept the historicity of most Old Testament narratives (save the accounts in Gen 1–11) on confessional grounds, and some Egyptologists (e.g., Kenneth Kitchen) admit that such a belief is not incompatible with the external evidence.
  • Other scholars (e.g., William Dever) are somewhere in between: they see clear signs of evidence for the monarchy and much of Israel's later history, though they doubt the Exodus and Conquest.

The vast majority of scholars at American universities are somewhere between biblical minimalism and maximalism; Notably, both Kitchen and archaeologist Israel Finkelstein of Tel Aviv University are not the only scholars from the maximalist and minimalist camps who are sufficiently trained to address these questions with the necessary sophistication but both are experts in their fields — and both come to different conclusions.

Some contemporary Israeli archaeologists have now rejected much of the Deuteronomistic history of the Old Testament. Notably, Finkelstein and Neal Asher Silberman have written popular books detailing their view that many of the best-known Biblical stories are incompatible with the archaeology of the region. Conversely, in 2003 Kenneth A. Kitchen published the 662 page book On the Reliability of the Old Testament, which defended the Bible's reliability throughout. Although some archaeologists have argued that many Biblical accounts should be rejected due to a lack of corroborating archaeological evidence, opponents point out that this is a return to the 19th century idea that anything not confirmed by current archaeology should be dismissed, a methodology that had once led some to question the existence of major empires such as Assyria.

Because the composition of the Pentateuch according to Wellhausen was so much later than the events it described, some who accept Wellhausen's documentary hypothesis tend to regard the narratives of the Pentateuch as largely fictional, while others argue that Wellhausen's method is not valid given that so many of our surviving copies of historical documents date from a much later time period: e.g., the earliest extant copies of Julius Caesar's famous "Commentaries on the Gallic War" are medieval copies dating from the 9th century, nearly a thousand years after Caesar wrote the original.

The most important issue would seem to be the length of the period between the actual events and the setting of them down in writing. Internal evidence in the books themselves suggests that events of the Hebrew monarchies period were set down by royal scribes soon after they happened, and the writer(s) of the Book of Kings had direct access to these writings and quoted extensively from them — whereas earlier events, such as the Exodus and the Conquest, might have spent centuries as oral traditions before a written account of them was set down, which might make the written account considerably different from any actual events that gave the original basis to the tradition.

Umberto Cassuto wrote The Documentary Hypothesis, challenging Wellhausen's theory.

For various archaeological finds dating from the relevant era which purportedly confirm the accuracy of Biblical accounts, see Cyrus Cylinder and Nebo-Sarsekim Tablet.

See also Dead Sea scrolls in which a copy of the book of Isaiah has been radiocarbon dated by the University of Arizona Department of Physics to between 335 BCE and 122 BCE.

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