Selective use of Old Testament law

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For more information, see the Atheist Debates video on But that's the Old Testament!.
For more information, see the Wikipedia article:

The Bible's main division of chapters is the Old Testament and the New Testament. The Old Testament contains many extreme, cruel and absurd laws that are not followed by Christians. This seems strange if they believe the Old Testament contains a moral code dictated by God.

"If [Christians] are recognizing problems and drawing a line, and trying to argue that [the Old Testament] is no longer relevant or should be dismissed, the first question that comes to mind is 'why should there be any problem at all?' If the view is that this is something that God has revealed to humanity, that the Old Testament contains important messages that were important to people for thousands of years, what is it that changed? What is new and relevant? And why does it supersede or alter what came before? Did God's character change between the two Testaments? [...] And quite often, there is no explanation. It seems to be more a matter of cherry-picking.[1]"

Matthew 5:17-18 Bible-icon.png states:

"Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. Amen, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest part or the smallest part of a letter will pass from the law, until all things have taken place."

See also Deuteronomy 12:32 Bible-icon.png and other verses listed below. The selection of Old Testament law is usually justified by either:

However, it is arguable that some Christians are cherry picking since some Old Testament laws are retained without a principled basis.

"So its not that these texts have maintained their integrity over time (they haven't); it is just that they have been effectively edited by our neglect of certain of their passages. Most of what remains-the "good parts"-has been spared the same winnowing because we do not yet have a truly modern understanding of our ethical intuitions and our capacity for spiritual experience."

Sam Harris, The End of Faith

Examples of absurd or questionable Old Testament law[edit]

"You shall not wear a garment of different sorts, such as wool and linen mixed together."

Deuteronomy 22:11 Bible-icon.png

"And all that have not fins and scales in the seas, and in the rivers, of all that move in the waters, and of any living thing which is in the waters, they shall be an abomination unto you: They shall be even an abomination unto you; ye shall not eat of their flesh, but ye shall have their carcases in abomination. "

Leviticus 11:10-11 Bible-icon.png

"If two men are fighting and the wife of one of them comes to rescue her husband from his assailant, and she reaches out and seizes him by his private parts, you shall cut off her hand. Show her no pity."

Deuteronomy 25:11-12 Bible-icon.png

"If a man find a damsel that is a virgin, which is not betrothed, and lay hold on her, and lie with her, and they be found; Then the man that lay with her shall give unto the damsel's father fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife; because he hath humbled her, he may not put her away all his days."

Deuteronomy 22:28-29 Bible-icon.png

The Old Testament contains questionable sections on:

The following is also mandated:

  • Passover
  • Various activities that may not be done on the Sabbath, being Friday sunset to Saturday sunset.

Also, graven images are prohibited.

Retained laws[edit]

Ten Commandments
Protestant numbering
1st 6th
2nd 7th
3rd 8th
4th 9th
5th 10th
Catholic numbering
1st a b 6th
2nd 7th
3rd 8th
4th 9th
5th 10th

The New Testament condones the following, so these types of laws are arguably still in effect:

Ignored good stuff[edit]

There are occasional good teachings in the Old Testament. [6] Some of these teachings are routinely ignored by believers.


Covenant theology[edit]

"The Mosaic Law of the Old Testament was written for the chosen people of Israel. [...] It is not an agreement God made with anyone else.[7]"

One problem with covenant theology is that morality is simply whatever arbitrary thing God decides to command (divine command theory). It is hard to see why arbitrary commands can be assumed to be an absolute moral code. Also, what is right and wrong varies significantly between covenants e.g. slavery was moral at one time, which seems absurd.

How do we know that we are at the final covenant? God might reveal some other moral code at any time.

The moral code seems to reflect cultural norms of the time, rather than being a ground breaking advance in morality (which would be expected if God is perfectly good). A good explanation is the moral systems in the Bible were written by humans.

Covenant theology considers laws from earlier covenants still apply unless explicitly changed or abolished. This leaves many absurd laws still in force. Many ad-hoc reasonings are given why certain laws no longer apply:

"[Jesus's] sacrifice replaced all the sacrifices given in the Old Testament.[8]"

Some Christians argue that the New Covenant did away with the "ceremonial law":

"The problem with these explanations is that in no way did God differentiate between moral, civil, and ceremonial when He gave the Law to Moses.[8]"
"A common explanation, but it’s hard to see slave ownership, forcible marriage, public stonings and the like as ceremonial issues. Once again, there appears to be no objective basis for this distinction, just a desire to explain away awkward facts.[9]"

Dispensational theology[edit]

"Dispensational theology teaches that there are two distinct peoples of God: Israel and the church. Dispensationalists believe that salvation has always been by faith—in God in the Old Testament and specifically in God the Son in the New Testament. Dispensationalists hold that the church has not replaced Israel in God’s program and that the Old Testament promises to Israel have not been transferred to the church.[10]"
"[...] dispensationalism sees God as structuring His relationship with mankind through several stages of revelation which mark off different dispensations, or stewardship arrangements. Each dispensation is a “test” of mankind to be faithful to the particular revelation given at the time.[11]"

Dispensationalism implies that God has incompetently created humans without the capability to understand him at a very fundamental level. Also, why should God be pandering to human weakness when explaining morality? Ancient peoples would have understood a commandment to not own slaves, so why pretend they could not? (The question of ancient peoples obeying the commandment is probably a separate issue.)

How do we know God won't reveal additional instructions as our understanding changes?

The moral code seems to reflect cultural norms of the time, rather than being a ground breaking advance in morality (which would be expected if God is perfectly good). A good explanation is the moral systems in the Bible were written by humans.

Old Testament law is thought not apply unless it is reiterated in the New Testament.

Jesus was exaggerating[edit]

The "smallest part or the smallest part of a letter" (also translated "jot or tittle") Matthew 5:18 Bible-icon.png, is metaphoric hyperbole. Given that it is discussing the literal word-for-word structure of Old Testament texts, this makes one wonder how in the world poor Jesus can ever make his words taken seriously. Even when he says "Be a literalist about the Law", he's taken non-literally.

The world has already "ended"[edit]

"All things", in fact, "have taken place". The world has, metaphorically, already ended with the crucifixion of Jesus, and we are in a new age. This view is called Preterism. It is not the mainstream view regarding Jesus's (and/or other Biblical speakers') discussion of the End Times.

Jesus abolished some laws[edit]

Jesus defied various Old Testament laws such as performing work on the Sabbath (Luke 13:14 Bible-icon.png) and not being concerned with "unclean" food laws (Mark 7:1-5, 14-19 Bible-icon.png). While Christians claim he was updating morality, it could also be interpreted as a contradiction in the Bible.

Despite those parts, nothing in the New Testament explicitly nullifies the old laws as a whole; there is nothing to suggest, for example, that the forbidding of wearing mixed clothing is no longer in effect.

Do Acts and the epistles take precedence over the Gospels?[edit]

Main Article: Differences between the Gospels and the epistles

The justification for ignoring Old Testament laws is often based on Acts and the epistles. The practices of the early church describe behaviours that seem at odds with the gospels. It perhaps illustrates the humans are very quick to re-interpret laws that are inconvenient. It is unclear why the gospels don't bother to mention details later "revealed" in Acts and the epistles. (The gospels were written the epistles after but set before.) Some of the "innovations" in Acts and the epistles:

Cultural practices[edit]

"The institution of slavery was so deeply rooted in ancient culture that it could not be dismantled overnight.[12]"

That might be true, but that is not a reason for God not to command it's abolition. We still don't have a divine update to the Bible which addresses this, which is the logical expectation based on this argument.


It is impossible to follow all the rules in the Bible because it contains contradictions. A Christian necessarily must cherry pick which laws to follow.

"Even if you take the extreme approach and live it all (not that anyone does), you still have problems where it contradicts itself. The best you can do is to pick out the bits you like (some of them are quite good in isolation) and find an excuse for ignoring the rest. But the selectivity of this approach guarantees that whatever you end up with, it isn’t objective.[9]"


The select use of Old Testament laws is flawed in several respects. Believers quote other Old Testament laws and ignore ones they do wish to follow. There is no principled rule followed and theological reasoning is ignored when inconvenient.

The gospels state the law is unchanged[edit]

According to the New Testament (Matthew 5:19 Bible-icon.png) Jesus is quoted as saying:

"Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven."

Jesus quoted an Old Testament law in light that it is still of God that Christians wouldn't normally follow,

"And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die,’ (Mark 7:9-10 Bible-icon.png)."

Finally, decapitate their argument by quoting Jesus with:

"Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. Amen, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest part or the smallest part of a letter will pass from the law, until all things have taken place. (Matthew 5:17-18 Bible-icon.png)"

Epistles says all scripture is God breathed[edit]

"All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness"

2 Timothy 3:16 Bible-icon.png

This only could have been referring to the Old Testament, as the New Testament did not exist at the time of writing. However, this passage is probably a forgery by a follower of Paul the Apostle.

The New Testament still retains violent and capricious God[edit]

An illustration of this Trinitarian point: [13]

"We are told explicitly that Jesus Christ IS THE GOD OF THE OLD TESTAMENT! You probably already accept this. But, by logical extension, you must also accept therefore that it was Jesus Christ who ordered the Israelites to slaughter millions of defenseless men, women and children in the conquest of Canaan; it was Jesus Christ who killed every firstborn child in Egypt; it was Jesus Christ who ordered king Saul to butcher thousands of children and babies in the genocide of the Amalakites; it was Jesus Christ who ordered the Israelites to capture and mass-rape 32,000 young girls of the Midianite tribe after killing their families; it was Jesus Christ who struck dead 50,000 innocent people at Beshemish for merely looking into the ark of the covenant; it was Jesus Christ who caused the painful asphyxiation of every man, woman, child and animal on the face of the earth during the flood of Noah (with the exception of 8); and it was Jesus Christ who condemned every person ever born to a state of eternal suffering, all because 6000 years ago a curious and naive woman ate a piece of fruit."

The New Testament, despite being much smaller and covering a much shorter period of time in its story, nonetheless manages room for some "Old Jealous God"-style condemnations. Gospel of Matthew, 10:11-15 Bible-icon.png:

"Whatever town or village you enter, search for some worthy person there and stay at his house until you leave. As you enter the home, give it your greeting. If the home is deserving, let your peace rest on it; if it is not, let your peace return to you. If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake the dust off your feet when you leave that home or town. I tell you the truth, it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town."

Are the people of said town merely to feel so ashamed that their experience is worse than burning alive? Or is this a literal threat against entire communities of people? Plenty of modern Christians — though not the true kind, of course — are perfectly okay with the latter interpretation, and, following from both Scripture and the doctrine of omnipotence, see the hand of God in plenty of natural disasters, as just punishment for said towns having at least one unbeliever.

Regarding Hell, Christopher Hitchens makes the following point:

"The god of Moses would brusquely call for other tribes, including his favorite one, to suffer massacre and plague and even extirpation, but when the grave closed over his victims he was essentially finished with them unless he remembered to curse their succeeding progeny. Not until the advent of the Prince of Peace do we hear of the ghastly idea of further punishing and torturing the dead."

Jesus only has to mention the doctrine of Me-or-Hell once to automatically condemn billions more than the Old Testament ever does. And Jesus references Hell a lot.

In every major mainstream branch of Christianity, Jesus is considered to fully possess the nature of God. The largely-extinct Christian branch of Gnosticism treats as two separate deities. If a Christian wishes to contrast the "jealous Old God" with the "merciful New God", he is committing the Gnostic heresy by semantics, and should be very glad he does not live in a time and place where this could be punished with torture and/or death.

Which morality?[edit]

There are a number of schools of theology that attempt to justify what of the Old Testament still applies. However, there is no agreement between the schools and no clear way to determine which is correct. This leaves morality ambiguously defined.

"They have no justification for keeping the parts they want to keep and getting rid of the parts they don't. There is no agreed upon standard for how to pick and choose. And that is why you get some groups who are giving authority to the church, and others that are giving it to the holy spirit, and non of them agree on what the correct answer is, which is why you get hundreds of denominations that all identify as Christian.[1]"

It is almost as if Christians disagree over everything.

The laws were incorrectly written down[edit]

The laws in the Old Testament could have been wrongly recorded or corrupted. However, if the New Testament was an attempt to correct these laws, this too is subject to corruption. If God was having difficulty communicating the Old Testament, how do we know that does not apply to the New Testament?

Moral relativism[edit]

Saying that different eras or covenants had a different morality is a form of moral relativism, which contradicts other popular apologetics.

"Because Christianity has God’s teachings in the Big Old Book of Middle Eastern Tribal Behaviour, which opens a window directly onto the only true, objective basis for morality. That’s why we stone adulterers, keep slaves, sell our children… hang on! The Bible doesn’t just permit certain things we find abhorrent, or look the other way – these are apparently direct commands from God, the ultimate arbiter and source of the objective morality that’s so very important. [...Ignoring Old Testament commandments] all looks rather – dare I say – relativist[9]"

Any cherry picking of Old or New Testament law, which is practiced by the vast majority of Christians, is also a form of relativism.


See also[edit]

External links[edit]