A new (to me) view of the bible

The following is distilled by me from conversations I had with my sister during my last visit. I may have gotten some details wrong but I believe this is the gist.

Notes: I am an atheist, my sister is born-again Christian. We agree to talk to each other about these issues without trying to convert each other. She does most of the talking, because that’s the way she is, and because atheism is pretty simple and doesn’t have any doctrine or book that requires explaining. She says she got this doctrine from someone she listens to on the radio (I don’t remember the name) and that her pastor agrees with it, but that others in her congregation are (at least mostly) not aware of it. Here it is.

The old testament is mainly about the relationship between God and the Jews, specifically, the laws that the Jews were supposed to follow, the many times that God spoke to the Jews to improve their behavior and their relationship to God, and the prophesies, mostly of the coming Messiah. Nothing very surprising so far.

The first four books of the new testament (the “gospel”) were also addressed to Jews, to encourage them to accept Jesus as the prophesied Messiah, and to release them from following the old laws if they would follow Jesus’ teachings and accept his authenticity. This idea is new to me.

Most of the rest of the new testament, especially Paul’s teachings, were addressed to Gentiles. This is where my memory breaks down, because I don’t remember everything about what she said the difference between the Gentiles’ beliefs should be and converted Jews’ beliefs should be, except that most of what we think of as Christian doctrine is directed at Gentiles rather than at converted Jews. This is also new to me.

It seems to me, and I think my sister agreed, that this means that the old testament laws are no longer relevant to either converted Jews or Christian Gentiles, because one thing that Jesus came to do was to make a new covenant to replace the old one (or in the case of Gentiles, to replace whatever other beliefs they had). So, for example, no Christian should be interested in quoting Leviticus about how it is sinful to have same-sex relationships, because that was all under the old law. Of course implications would be much wider than that. It also seems that there should be a separate Christian sect for converted Jews, but that didn’t seem to happen. It’s a question that only occurred to me just now, not one that I asked at the time.

For those of my fellow atheists who wonder why I am interested in parsing out the irrationalities of various religions, call it curiosity. There is no denying the cultural impact of these issues. Anyway, I am interested in finding out what the Christians on this board think of this general view of the different parts of the bible. Surprising and new, old hat, heresy, or what?

Well, there is this and the next few verses.

I assume this means that the 10 commandments are no longer in force, either.

It’s been a few decades since I read the first dozen chapters of the New Testament, but one thing that stuck out for me was when they asked Jesus “Hey, we’ve got this Torah we’ve been following for a few thousand years. How much of this is still valid?” and Jesus said “Yikes, me, well, how about the Ten Commandments? Can we make that work? Good. Okay, moving on…” and he never mentioned the Old Testament again.

If the Gospels were directed at Jews, it makes sense to throw in a little reassurance. “Things won’t change that much!”

You’re asking the opinion of Christians, and I’m an atheist; but I was raised by a fundamentalist Christian family, and I can tell you that some aspects of this are familiar. If anyone raised objections about god’s nasty shenanigans in the OT, it was dismissed as a morality “appropriate to that era in history”, or something like that.

This kind of rationalization, ridiculous as it may seem to an atheist, is certainly desirable from a social perspective. It’s a mechanism through which Christianity can reform, it can “save face” while updating its moral code to conform with modern civilized values. It basically provides a framework to ignore the distasteful parts of the holy book for people who can’t bring themselves to move on from religion altogether.

It’s something that Islam, at this stage in history, sorely needs. Most Muslims will say that they believe the entire Koran is the perfect word of god. That’s not to say that in practice the vast majority of Muslims actually believe or follow the nasty stuff, of they ignore it just as most Christians ignore the nasty stuff in the bible. But it gives cover to extremists, because they can justifiably claim to be more devout Muslims if the moderates have no theological framework to be able to say “dude, there’s some evil stuff in there - we should just be ignoring that nasty bit of the Koran and acting like civilized people in the modern world”.

Pretty old news to this Catholic, as in “I’m not sure when exactly did I learn the different bits”. At the very, very latest and despite having growing up in the “Jesus loves you” years, the part about the Letters to the Jews and those to Gentile communities adressing different issues because people with those backgrounds had different issues was analyzed in my 6th and 10th grade Religion lessons. These took place in school, but directed more towards an understanding of Catholicism than towards making us good little Catholics; other years were comparative religion and comparative christianity. I’m sure it had been mentioned in sermons before that, but more piecemeal.

Another related view: the Bible is also and in chunks a parallel of what’s expected to be a Christian’s development of the relationship with God. God goes from an easily-displeased incomprehensible almighty to someone whose rules are pretty clear to a friend; some people never get to this third stage, some are practically born there, but for many it’s an evolution. Note that this also parallels the growth of a child: adults go from all-capable large people whose moods appear to have little relationship to what you do or to your intent in doing it, to sources of knowledge and of rules, to your peers.

Nothing surprising to me in the OP either (I was brought up somewhere between the CofE and the Congregationalists). A major takeaway about the New Testament is the reference to the “whited sepulchres”: formal observance of the old prescribed ways, to the letter rather than the spirit of the law, is not enough. What matters is the simplicity of “love thy neighbour” and the Sermon on the Mount, not formal adherence to rituals. That, of course, would obviously be an emphasis in the Reformation tradition.

St Paul I’m a bit more hazy about, not least because his “zeal of the convert” seems to make him more proscriptive than prescriptive.

Since the OP is asking for opinions on religious issues, moved to Great Debates.

General Questions Moderator

When your entire basis of faith is centered on a compilation of books and nothing else, of course novel ideas will come up all the time. Who gets to interpret the books? Why is Pastor X’s view better than Pastor Y’s?

What kind of God gives humanity a bunch of books, written by dozens of different authors, in multiple languages, and across multiple centuries, and then says, “figure it out!”?

Total nonsense.

Having a brother who resettled in the US only to become the most devout Christian I know, I understand this ‘curiosity’.

I regard the phenomenon you mention as a manifestation of the process known as deus otiosus, when a primordial god is perceived as distant and uninvolved - people come up with various narrative mechanisms and interpretations to justify a shift in the dogma without causing the believers to feel that they have abandoned their old faith.

Presumably the same one that is all about love and caring and tolerance and then sits around and watches his followers commit atrocity after atrocity in his name.

Hah! You’ll follow all 613 directives and like it! That’s where all the guilt is.:eek:

Now, back to your regularly scheduled thread content.

Sort of. The variant of Christianity that the OP describes tends to regard the commandments and the law as being summed up by the Great Commandment

Whilst there’s nothing there that explicitly say the old commandments are actually deprecated, it’s fairly easy to see how, for example, stoning someone to death for adultery (even if it was prescribed by the law) is inconsistent with the instruction ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ - and so if that latter instruction is accepted to be the overriding principle, then in that sense, parts of the law have been overridden.,

Ummm… basically yes. This is not a particularly ‘new’ doctrine. It’s called ‘Supersessionism.’ It’s the basic idea that the Old Covenant of the Jews was superseded by the New Covenant through Christ. This is a very old doctrine and basically the one that most Christians live under (although there are lots of related theologies too that embrace varying degrees of Supersessionism.) That’s why Christians eat pork and don’t get circumcised (unless you’re an American, but you can blame science for that, not religion.) Even the 10 Commandments are thought of more as guidelines in Christian thought. Supersessionism is at least as old as the 2nd century and probably the first. You can even see this idea at the Council of Jerusalem which is about as early as you can get theologically in Christianity as distinct from Judaism.

Christian theology almost always hinges on something called ‘grace.’ Grace is defined in a ton of ways theologically, but it generally comes down to ‘unmerited love.’ This causes a whole host of theological problems in Christianity and it’s a big reason why Christianity is so diverse. You can think of Christian denominations as a scale between ‘law’ and ‘grace’ where ‘law’ means that you get to heaven almost exclusively because of what you do. ‘Grace’ churches mean you get to heaven almost exclusively because God loves you. No one falls completely on one end of the scale or the other, but denominations lean one way or the other. Evangelicals tend to fall closer to the law side. They have a strict moral code and while they acknowledge God’s grace, they feel that there’s a part that we have to play (Sometimes their theologies deny this, but their actions certainly don’t.) So they have heavier emphasis on ‘sin’ and ‘removing sin.’ There are strong doctrines about ‘living correctly’ and a heavy dose of judging exactly what ‘correctly’ means (“Boys best not be kissing other boys. God’s gonna be throwing down.”) Mainline Protestants fall closer to the ‘grace’ side of things where the emphasis is more on God forgiving everything and while they wouldn’t say we should go around being murderers, they would probably say, “If you’re a murderer, God gets that we make bad decisions, so try to do better.” (“Why can’t boys kiss other boys? God loves us regardless of who we are and who we want to kiss.”) Catholics are kind of in the middle of the spectrum.

So, to get back to the main discussion. Only really weird Christian sects and Mormons think that the Old Testament laws are in effect. Most Evangelicals are dispensationalists which is a term that means that human history has been divided up into ‘dispensations’ which is just a word meaning ‘eras’ and that each of these eras has its own way for God to relate to it, so the current era God relates to us via Christ and prior to that there were other eras that God interacted with humanity in different ways and in coming eras (usually defined as when Christ returns) there will be yet other ways that God interacts with humanity. Regardless though, they would say “How he related to us in the Old Testament isn’t in effect when I want to eat pork, unless there’s something there that helps us prove our point and then God is unchanging like when boys want to kiss boys.” Although more seriously, very few serious Christian scholars would use say Levitical law to justify Christian law, even on the Evangelical side of things. Typically, the arguments about say gay marriage are more about Paul’s letters than about the Levitical passages which most (not all) Christians who actually get paid to think about such things agree are not relevant now.

ISTM to be pretty much standard teaching. (I am Christian).

Close. The Gospels are not all, or entirely aimed at Jews. The Gospel of Matthew appears particularly to be so, but the others, less so. Most of them reflect the fact that Jesus was a Jew, and preached, especially at the beginning of His ministry, to other Jews. The Gospel of Luke is part of a two-part document, traditionally ascribed to a Gentile doctor and written for “Theophilus”, thought to be Luke’s foster father. Theophilus means “one who loves God”, so it might be symbolic.

There is a lot in all the Gospels about “the scribes and the Pharisees”, meaning mostly the Jewish establishment, and blaming Jesus’ innocent death on their machinations and talking about their opposition to Him. That part wouldn’t appeal to Jews specifically. A large part of the earliest audience of the Gospel was Gentiles who were semi-converts to Judaism. They admired the monotheistic God and the moral part of the Jewish law, but didn’t keep kosher. The centurion whose servant Jesus healed is thought to be one of those. It’s even mentioned that the centurion donated to the building of a synagogue.

It is fair to say that the Gospels were aimed mostly at a general audience, but they are about Jews.

Yes, that’s pretty much it.

The Jewish law is divided up into three parts.
[ul][li]The civic law. This is stuff about the government and the kings and things like that. That part was ending anyway, since Rome had conquered Israel, and it pretty much ended altogether with the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70.[/ul][/li][ul][li]The ceremonial law. This is sacrifices and Temple taxes and keeping kosher and things like that. Sacrifices also ended with the destruction of the Temple, and also from Christian teaching that animal sacrifice was no longer necessary because of Jesus’ sacrifice of atonement. So that teaching came along just in time to coincide with the practical impossibility of making sacrifices in a Temple that no longer existed. [/ul][/li][ul][li]The moral law. This is most of the Ten Commandments (with the possible exception of the one about keeping the Sabbath).[/ul][/li]A lot of Jesus’ teaching was to distinguish between the ceremonial law and the moral law, and to emphasize the priority of the moral over the ceremony. That is much of the point of the parables about Samaritans and tax collectors and “ceremonially sinful” people who acted morally nonetheless, and therefore came in for God’s approval, while the Pharisees who kept the ceremonial law scrupulously (“tithing mint and dill and cumin” - i.e. giving 10% even of the garden herbs), but neglecting to act with justice and mercy.

Jesus taught that the moral law is absolute and unchanging, and that the moral law can be summed up in the Great Commandment mentioned above. The key passage is Mark 12:28-34 -

The most important thing is not sacrifices or ceremony. It is to love God, to recognize His oneness and supremacy, and to love your neighbor as yourself.

Jesus said “I came not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it.” None of the moral proscriptions go away. Gentiles don’t need to keep the ceremonial law, and the civic law is kind of a done deal. But the moral law remains.


PS - whether or not the prohibition against same-sex relationships is moral, or ceremonial, isn’t clear - you can argue either way, that it is like not wearing clothes made from two kinds of fiber, or like not worshipping other gods.

It’s new to you because it is wrong.

Mark was written for a gentile audience: “… (that they were gentiles is shown by the author’s need to explain Jewish traditions and translate Aramaic terms) of Greek-speaking Christians.”

Luke displays a downright anti-Jewish, pro-gentile view.

John (the last one written) starts off rather pointedly in describing how the Jews rejected Jesus.

By the time of John, the split between Jews and Christians had been well underway for decades.

Jew here. Yes, this is the argument that is often made to me as part of the attempt to convert me: “But you don’t understand–when Jesus came, all of your religious laws were superseded!” This only works if a) Jesus is the Messiah; b) there is a god, which there is not, IMHO.

It doesn’t even work then, since the I don’t know anywhere where it says the Messiah was going to toss away religious laws. David certainly didn’t.

And of course Jesus did not meet the Messianic prophecies despite Christian selective quoting, making stuff up, and mistranslation.

Catholic here – your sister’s ideas (filtered through you, of course) seem pretty crude and simplistic compared to the current Biblical scholarship endorsed and supported by the Roman Catholic Church. Christians do believe that Jesus created a new covenant available to anyone, not just Jews. That’s core theology to Christianity. But as others have more educatedly written above, the Gospels and Epistles were each written for a specific audience and all of them were written long after Jesus’ death.