I always was curious about the way people argue clear cut concepts away. The example that came to mind recently involves the law of the Old Testament–I was reading through James McGrath’s recent blog post and saw the reference to Deuteronomy there, where the law commands that 10% of everything be given to the poor every third year. But many Christians might say, “Well that is the Old Testament and we don’t need to follow that.” This argument however fails to take into account Jesus’ own words (as portrayed by the evangelists).
“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 say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” (Matt. 5.17-18)
Some might say, well that passage (or some variant from another Gospel, e.g. ) was fulfilled with Jesus’ death and resurrection, but that doesn’t quite add up. I recognize that this might be the standard apologetic argument. But consider a few things first:
(1) The Gospel authors are not writing as witnesses (certainly not as independent witnesses) to a historical Jesus. They were writing some decades later, having gone through a war with the Romans, seeing the Temple looted and destroyed, watching their people die. The evangelists were probably not writing through a mindset that the Old Law had been fulfilled. As apocalypticists, the writers of the Gospels saw the end as coming–in the future–which is why they predict Jesus will return.
(2) If Jesus existed, these are probably not Jesus’ real words. As authors removed by some distance (both time and location) from the 30’s CE, they are portraying events which they understood through a tradition contemporary to their own time (at least that is the hope, since this is the best case scenario). So why would the evangelists portray Jesus as saying this? It seems out of place; if Jesus fulfilled these things at his resurrection, why does he not mention it then? Why in the middle of the narrative after a conversation about the law? And why does the abolishing happen at the world’s end? Again, a very apocalyptic statement–the world ends (along with the destruction of the old covenant) and a new one (with the new law established by the return of Jesus) takes it place. But until that happens, the old laws remain in place.
(3) It is worth mentioning also that Jesus did not fulfill the law. He did not complete the role of messiah. There were things he needed to accomplish that he had not yet done–one of which, perhaps the most important, was to bring about the end of the world with his subsequent return. Clearly the end had not happened yet, though it seemed like it was due to both the Gospel writers who, when they wrote this line, also wrote that he would return within the lifetimes of those who were reading their good news, and to Paul who believed Jesus would come quickly. So the function of this passage in Matthew, and subsequent passages like it, is to reenforce the political and theological position that despite all the tragedy, nothing would change–not yet–until Jesus returned.
(4) The concept behind the denouncement of the old laws really stems from Paul, not Jesus.
But for the modern man, removed by 2000 years, I can understand why there is an aversion to the old laws. After all, we don’t really want people going about stoning disobedient children (proving once more that even in antiquity, people had trouble tolerating crying babies at the theater, at markets, other public venues) or killing someone for working on the Sabbath, right? At least most of us don’t want that. And so it has become, for fundamentalists most of all, a bit of a hard decision. Do they manipulate Jesus’ words and his actions in order to ignore the command to obey the old laws or do they follow them and lose face with the public?
And this is the moral dilemma. For many people, they believe Jesus will be coming back, so does that mean they should start looking to the Old Testament and the 613 mitzvot for answers? But I don’t believe we can simply accept this verse in Matthew as something that can be dismissed or ignored. It is there. It means what it means. But that is partly why I believe that we need to look at the Bible for what it is (that is to say, not a book about laws relevant for our current age) rather what we want it to be (a book of laws relevant for our current age). In other words, we can continue to appreciate the Bible, but recognize that it stands at a place and time different than our own. The Bible cannot help us sort through our modern day problems–at least not in the way many evangelicals or fundamentalists would like us to believe. We may look to it, as well as other ancient texts, for some engagement of the morality–not all of it is bunk (though what is left has been said better by others throughout the history of writing, both prior to and after the canonization of the texts). But we must look inside ourselves, at our problems now, with a clear eye towards the future.