The Old and the New
27 April 2010
When facing the accusations that the Qur'an is a very violent book, those who speak up to defend Islam often point out that the Old Testament in the Bible is just as violent. For example, take this passage from the Bible:
When you march up to attack a city, make its people an offer of peace. If they accept and open their gates, all the people in it shall be subject to forced labor and shall work for you. If they refuse to make peace and they engage you in battle, lay siege to that city. When Yahweh your God delivers it into your hand, put to the sword all the men in it. As for the women, the children, the livestock and everything else in the city, you may take these as plunder for yourselves. And you may use the plunder Yahweh your God gives you from your enemies. This is how you are to treat all the cities that are at a distance from you and do not belong to the nations nearby. However, in the cities of the nearby nations Yahweh your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. Completely destroy them — the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites — as Yahweh your God has commanded you. (Deuteronomy 20:10-17)
This passage is not only violent, but to our modern sensibilities is seems shockingly cruel and pitiless: the Jews are to kill all the men, women, children and animals in the land they are to conquer for their own. If you didn't know otherwise, this passage could easily have come straight out of the Qur'an.
Therefore, the Muslim argument goes, the Jews and the Christians have no right to accuse the Muslims of having a violent holy book, when the holy book of the Jews and Christians is just as violent.
While the Old Testament (the Tanakh as the Jews call it) is the primary holy book of Judaism, it would not be accurate at all to call it the primary holy book of Christians. Without doubt, the primary holy book of Christianity is the New Testament.
Because I am not Jewish, and because I am not knowledgeable regarding how Judaism would defend the violence in the Old Testament, I will not attempt to present a defense of their position. But this confusion between the Old and New Testaments which Muslims, and even many Christians, have is such an important issue that we will now take some time to consider it in depth.
NOTE: In this article, as in the other articles on this Web site, I am using the Hebrew form of Jesus, Yeshua, rather than the usual Greek form, Jesus. He IS Jewish after all, isn't He?!
Biblical passages like the one above from Deuteronomy seem so completely different than the teachings of Yeshua in the New Testament that some Christians have become very confused, causing them to believe the misconception that the God of the Old Testament is a different God than that of the New Testament. But that is definitely not a belief that can be supported by the teachings of the New Testament, nor by Yeshua Himself.
Referring to His relation with the Old Testament (sometimes referred to by the Jews as "the Law and the Prophets"), Yeshua said,
"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. I tell you the truth, 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. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same 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)
After Yeshua had been crucified and had risen from the dead, He was walking along the road with some of His followers who did not recognize Him. They were very sad because they had hoped that Yeshua would be the one to redeem Israel, but now He was dead. Here is His reply to them:
"How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken!" And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning Himself. (Luke 24:25,27)
From the words of Yeshua Himself, we can clearly see that the Old Testament is not about a different God than the New Testament. On the contrary, the major theme of the Old Testament IS Yeshua. There is a definite unity and continuity between the Old and New Testaments which cannot be denied or broken.
However, there truly ARE major differences between the Old Testament (or Covenant, which is what Testament means), and the New Testament (Covenant). In the New Testament book of Hebrews, it says:
If the first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no need for a second covenant to replace it. But ... God found fault with the people. When God speaks of a "new" covenant, it means He has made the first one obsolete. (Hebrews 8:7,8a,13a)
Then the writer of Hebrews goes on to quote from the Old Testament book of Jeremiah:
"The time is coming," declares Yahweh, "when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them," declares Yahweh. "This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time," declares Yahweh. "I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be My people." (Jeremiah 31:31-33)
Much of the Old Testament deals specifically with the calling and establishment of the Jewish people, the covenant God made with them, and their earthly kingdom in the land of Israel. That's why so much of the Old Testament deals with the land, wars against the surrounding enemies, and rules and laws for everyday living and civil government. The Old Testament often recounts stories about the survival of the Jewish people in the midst of other peoples who would like to completely destroy them. Hence the violent references in those writings.
The Old Testament is generally about the old covenant between God and the Jewish people, with hints and foreshadowings sprinkled throughout regarding the new covenant which was to come. When Yeshua arrived on the scene, He established that new covenant — not between God and the Jews only, but between God and all humans. And it was more of a spiritual covenant dealing with heart issues, unlike the old covenant which dealt mostly with more physical issues (although it obviously dealt with heart issues too).
When Yeshua came to live on this earth, the Jewish nation was subjugated under the authority of the Romans. The Jews were longing for a deliverer who would throw off the Roman yoke and make Israel once again an independent kingdom. This is what it's talking about in the Gospel of John:
After the people saw the miraculous sign that Yeshua did, they began to say, "Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world." Yeshua, knowing that they intended to come and make Him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by Himself. (John 6:14-15)
Even Yeshua's inner circle of disciples were confused about this. When Yeshua was about to ascend back to Heaven, they kept asking Him, "Lord, has the time come for you to free Israel and restore our kingdom?" (Acts 1:6)
After spending three intimate years with Yeshua, hearing Him teach continually about the Kingdom of God; after Yeshua being crucified and raised from the dead — the followers of Yeshua STILL didn't get it! Yeshua spelled it out quite clearly when He was standing before the Roman governor Pilate:
"My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, My servants would fight to prevent My arrest by the Jews. But now My kingdom is from another place.... You are right in saying I am a king. In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world..." (John 18:36-37a)
And when Yeshua was betrayed in the garden of Gethsemane,
Men stepped forward, seized Yeshua and arrested him. With that, one of Yeshua's disciples reached for his sword, drew it out and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear. "Put your sword back in its place," Yeshua said to him, "for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. Do you think I cannot call on My Father, and He will at once put at My disposal more than twelve legions [about 60,000!] of angels? But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?" (Matthew 26:50b-54)
The New Testament — and therefore Christianity — is not about violently establishing a physical kingdom on this earth, as the Jews did in the Old Testament, and as the Muslims have striven for 1,400 years to do, and continue to strive for, and will ultimately achieve (see my previous article Why Islam Will Win). No, Christianity is based upon a more complete understanding of God's purposes, as revealed in the New Testament (Covenant), in which God's people are charged with the task of establishing a SPIRITUAL Kingdom in the hearts of people — not by force, but by persuasion and example.
Even though the old covenant has been superseded by the new covenant, the writings of the Old Testament itself still have much value for Christians. Referring to what was written in the Old Testament, the only Scripture that existed when the Apostle Paul was writing much of what was to become the New Testament, Paul wrote:
These things happened to them [the Jews] as examples for us. They were written down to warn us who live at the end of the age. (1 Corinthians 10:11)
All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness. (2 Timothy 3:16)
Because the New Testament is a newer and more complete revelation of God than the Old Testament, one of the foundational principles for correctly understanding the Bible is "the New Testament interprets the Old Testament". Yeshua Himself set the precedent early in His ministry as recorded in His famous "Sermon on the Mount":
  • "You have heard that our ancestors were told, 'You must not murder. If you commit murder, you are subject to judgment.' But I say, if you are even angry with someone, you are subject to judgment! If you call someone an idiot, you are in danger of being brought before the court. And if you curse someone, you are in danger of the fires of hell." (Matthew 5:21-22)
  • "You have heard the commandment that says, 'You must not commit adultery.' But I say, anyone who even looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart." (Matthew 5:27-28)
  • "You have heard the law that says, 'A man can divorce his wife by merely giving her a written notice of divorce.' But I say that a man who divorces his wife, unless she has been unfaithful, causes her to commit adultery. And anyone who marries a divorced woman also commits adultery." (Matthew 5:31-32)
  • "You have also heard that our ancestors were told, 'You must not break your vows; you must carry out the vows you make to Yahweh.' But I say, do not make any vows! Just say a simple, 'Yes, I will,' or 'No, I won't.' Anything beyond this is from the evil one." (Matthew 5:33,34a,37)
  • "You have heard the law that says the punishment must match the injury: 'An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say, do not resist an evil person! If someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer the other cheek also. If you are sued in court and your shirt is taken from you, give your coat, too. If a soldier demands that you carry his gear for a mile, carry it two miles. Give to those who ask, and don't turn away from those who want to borrow." (Matthew 5:38-42)
  • "You have heard the law that says, 'Love your neighbor' and hate your enemy. But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you!"
Throughout the New Testament, we see followers of Yeshua reinterpreting and clarifying the meaning of the Old Testament, in light of the newer revelations God was giving. For example, in Act 2 when the Holy Spirit was poured out on the disciples at Pentecost, Peter explains how a prophecy in Joel 2 was being fulfilled then and there.
One time Yeshua was teaching that what goes into a person's stomach does not defile him, but rather a person is defiled by the evil things that come from his heart. In his Gospel account, Mark adds the comment In saying this, Jesus declared all foods "clean" (Mark 7:14-23). So here we have Yeshua basically nullifying the Kosher food regulations of the Old Testament.
Regarding the Old Testament rules of keeping special holy days, Paul writes: One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind (Romans 14:5). In another passage, Paul mentions the Old Testament law about not muzzling an ox while it is treading out the grain. Then he goes on to clarify the meaning: Is it about oxen that God is concerned? Surely He says this for us, doesn't He? Yes, this was written for us... Yahweh has commanded that those who preach the Gospel should receive their living from the Gospel. (1 Corinthians 9:9,10a,14)
Then there is the passage in Acts 15 where the early Church was debating whether non-Jews needed to follow all of the Jewish laws in the Old Testament. One of the apostles, James, quoted from Amos 9 and then reinterpreted those verses as applying to their current situation regarding the non-Jews. Then the whole assembly agreed to write letters to the non-Jewish followers of Yeshua stating: "It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things."
I could go on and on giving you examples — the New Testament is full of them! The entire book of Hebrews is a reinterpretation and clarification of Old Testament passages and themes. And the last book in the New Testament, Revelation, is filled from beginning to end with references to Old Testament verses, and their application in the End Times.
Because the Bible has one author — God — and such a unity of thought and purpose, the more you read the New Testament, the more the Old Testament will come alive. And the more you read the Old Testament, the more you will understand it in light of the New Testament. In fact, the Old Testament is quoted some 695 times in the New Testament. For more details about this see this excellent article The Old Testament in the New Testament.
So, to wrap things up let's restate the original issue. It is totally inaccurate to say that the Old Testament is the primary holy book of Christianity. Rather, the New Testament contains the new revelations which God sent to mankind through His Son Yeshua, and the early followers of Yeshua. These teachings reinterpret and clarify the partial revelations which God gave in the Old Testament. Although the Qur'an is full of violence, there is nothing in the New Testament that condones or encourages violence. But then, that's a topic for a future article! Until then ....