Jesus and the Old Testament

Thinking about the BibleWhen I was an undergraduate I remember a rather unprofitable discussion with a fellow student about what Jesus knew or did not know. The student, being linked to conservative Christian circles, took the line that Jesus, being God, knew everything, even if he did not choose to talk about it. So I asked whether Jesus knew all about nuclear weapons. ‘Of course’ was the reply. It was important for the belief system of this young man that Jesus knew everything. That knowledge would of course include insight into information about the Old Testament and Jesus’ opinions were held to be decisive. When Jesus declared Moses to be the originator of the laws on divorce, for example, that was a clear indication that the whole Law was penned by his hand. The conversation stuttered to a halt as I realised that, although there was something profoundly wrong with this line of argument, I did not know how to respond or take it any further.

Recently I came across a similar argument in a book discussing the so-called Chicago Statement about biblical authority published in 1978. One of the authors of the Statement, Norman Geisler, claims that Jesus confirms the ‘divine authority of Old Testament Scripture .. on numerous occasions’. Having brought forward passages like Matthew 5.17-18 and Luke 24.44, Geisler is able to say ‘the authority of Christ and Scripture are one.’ The claim is that the authority of Christ can be appealed to and it confirms the claims made by conservative Christians for the inerrancy of Scripture. As James Barr put it: ‘This endlessly repeated argument seeks to use the personal loyalty of Christians towards Jesus as a lever to force them into fundamentalist positions on historical and literary matters’. In short the argument of Geisler appears to carry weight behind it at least as far as generations of conservative Christians are concerned.

The assumptions of Geisler do however need to be challenged and for this we need to examine the passage from Matthew 5 more closely. The text declares that ‘not one letter or stroke will disappear from the Law’. For this passage to have authority, one has to presuppose first that these words were actually spoken by Jesus and secondly we know the context in which it was spoken. Any student of the New Testament is aware of the dispute within the pages of Acts and Paul’s letters over whether Christian converts should be subject to the dictates of the Jewish law or not. Paul himself represented one side of the argument and the author of Matthew the other. The expression ‘until heaven and earth disappear’ is an idiom in Hebrew that basically means ‘until forever’. So Matthew has Jesus come down firmly on the need for Christian converts to keep the Jewish law after conversion. Luke on the other hand sides with Paul when he inserts this saying of Jesus in chapter 16.16. He has almost the same words as Matthew but the passage immediately before it allows Luke to understand these words in a quite different way from Matthew. In the previous verse Luke writes that ‘until John (the Baptist), it was the Law and the prophets: since then, there is the good news of the kingdom of God, and everyone forces their way in.’ In short Luke is claiming the total opposite to Matthew, that the Law has been set aside to let the Gentiles enter the kingdom. The same saying of Jesus has for these Gospel writers a quite different meaning, reflecting their distinctive theological backgrounds.

The second observation to be made about Matthew’s saying about the Law is that conservative Protestant theology does not agree with it. The classic Protestant position is that is that the laws of Moses were nullified after Christ’s death on the cross. In other words, Matthew’s Jesus is teaching something now universally rejected by most Christians. A final observation to be made is that even if the statement in Matthew 5. 17-18 was true to what Jesus said and thought, it is not an argument for the inerrancy of the whole Old Testament. The Law and the Prophets refers to only two sections of the Old Testament, while leaving out the third section, the Writings (Psalms, history books and the wisdom literature).

We could of course, go on to look at other ‘proof texts’ for Jesus apparently giving his support for conservative position on the Bible, but there is a deeper question to be asked about the nature of Jesus’ humanity and whether we should even expect his understanding of the Jewish scriptures to be decisive for the way we think about them and study them today. One writer puts it succinctly when he says ‘Jesus Christ came into the world to be its Saviour, not an authority on biblical criticism.’ While Jesus may have assumed that David wrote Psalm 110, Daniel the book of Daniel and took for granted the historicity of Jonah, these were notions that he shared with his contemporaries. The Chicago statement on inerrancy will not allow the possibility that there was any ‘natural limitation of His humanity’ . He is not allowed to adopt the understandings of scripture and the traditions into which he was born unless these are perfectly correct. This position, like that of my fellow student at the beginning, does not allow Jesus to be properly human and experience the limitations of his humanity, including a lack of complete historical understanding. Are we to suppose that Jesus grew up without having to learn anything, the gift of speech, the ability to read etc? If Jesus thought the world was flat, does that neutralise his whole ministry because he was mistaken in this? If we do believe that Jesus was omniscient, at what point did this happen? There are clearly many impossible problems to be solved, if we follow the conservative line that Jesus in some way ‘proves’ the modern ideas concerning biblical inerrancy. The Christian tradition wrestled with all these problems in the early years of the Church’s life. One part of the Church wanted to over-emphasise the divine nature, so that Jesus could not be said to be fully human. The final verdict on this debate was delivered at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD and stated categorically that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine. This has become Christian orthodoxy to this day. The notion of full humanity would appear to directly contradict Chicago statement about the omniscience of Jesus. To be fully human means that, whatever else we want to say about Jesus, he was at one with the limitations of his age over scientific and historical understanding. No one has ever suggested that limitations in these areas have been able to limit Jesus’ apprehension and knowledge of the mind and will of God. The belief that Jesus ‘incarnates’ the full reality of God in a human life is a paradox and mystery which we struggle to understand and always will. But whatever it means it does not necessitate his being able to offer an infallible opinion on the questions about the authorship of the book of Daniel and the Psalms.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

5 thoughts on “Jesus and the Old Testament

  1. Lovely article, Stephen. Thanks. Personally, I take the Matthew 5 statement as a caution – “don’t you be too quick to dismiss Leviticus and Numbers!” Recently I noticed that whatever we think of Leviticus 18 and 20, for example, chapter 19 sandwiched between them contains a number of principles crucial to the world of today. So tread carefully in handling the Mosaic law.

  2. If Jesus is not God, then the atonement becomes God demanding the death of the one human being who did not deserve it. If he is not human, then what happened to him, ie the resurrection, has no relevance to us. How that works is simply not known. I’m ok with that!

  3. As I look at the evening of my years, this question becomes more important.
    God must have taken on reality in all its terrible hopelessness.
    To me, that means limiting understanding to the time Jesus lived in.

    Even in my present state of doubt, the gospels have, (As J B Phillips would say), ‘The ring of truth,’ because of their completely human unpretentiousness.

    Peace, Chris

  4. Thanks EnglishAthena.
    My experience of the theatre/ fellowships has left me in a permanent state of agnostic, becalmed stagnation. People from my past need to know there is hope. I pray that before we pass on we my know it to be true. Until then we are dancing with a crippled giant and shadow boxing.

    Peace, Chris

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