Old Testament ‘Bad,’ New Testament ‘Good’: A Dangerous (and Mistaken) Assumption

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Religion Dispatches History/Theology

Old Testament ‘Bad,’ New Testament ‘Good’: A Dangerous (and Mistaken) Assumption

Peter Laarman

Oops, we just threw the Jewish tradition under the bus again. So sorry. We didn't mean it. Really.

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The criminal justice reform project I work with in Los Angeles—a multi-faith project—has a big stake in showing the utmost respect for every faith tradition. Thus it was unsettling to see an article, republished from the Washington Post, appear in a recent newsletter that reflected unwitting disrespect for Judaism.

Written by a youthful think-tanker, the piece was no doubt developed with the best of intentions. The writer wanted to demonstrate how the Trump/Sessions “tough on crime” stance mirrors one major and recurrent pole of American religious thinking on crime and punishment. Outlining the two poles, she writes:

These two competing theories formed the yin and the yang of the American criminal justice system, and both were molded around Christian religious principles. Both Old Testament and New Testament fundamentals—the former focused on retribution and punishment and the latter on rehabilitation and redemption—were present.

So what’s the problem? Few would quarrel with the notion that American Christianity does indeed exhibit the “yin and the yang” the writer references, with retribution/punishment representing the yin and rehabilitation/redemption the yang. Nor would many dispute the assertion that religious ideation has played an absolutely central role, both historically and now, in the way Americans think about criminal justice.

The problem arises when the yin/yang are said to flow from the conflicting “Old Testament and New Testament” beliefs held by Christians, with the “Old Testament” view assumed to be focused on retribution in sharp contrast to a “New Testament” perspective centered on rehabilitation and redemption.

Oops, we just threw the Jewish tradition under the bus again. So sorry. We didn’t mean it. Really.

Disparagement of “OT” justice as a rough and revenge-fueled affair remains so endemic in popular culture that it’s not at all surprising to see it creep into high-end journalism as well.

A quick Google search turns up a few random examples:

  • “…this austere allegory of failed Christian charity and Old Testament payback is von Trier’s strongest movie—a masterpiece, in fact,” from a film review in The Village Voice.
  • “We’ve seen Mount Mike spew Old Testament anger that could blister paint,” from a newspaper profile of football coach Mike Holmgren.
  • “I don’t need religion to appreciate the idea of Old Testament revenge,” from TV’s Hannibal.

Where does this routine division between “Old Testament” harshness and “New Testament” sweetness come from? In my view, it comes from the widespread but mistaken idea held by Christians (including cultural Christians), that it’s okay to follow St. Paul in drawing a sharp line between the old and oppressive Jewish insistence on “law” and the new Christian era of “grace.” (It goes without saying that the perception of a sharp dividing line is strongly reinforced by the very language of “Old Testament” and “New Testament”—but just try rooting those terms out of everyday discourse and replacing them with “Hebrew Scripture” and “Christian Scripture.”)

In following the St. Paul explanation, it’s important to note that Jesus himself draws no such line. Indeed for him it’s quite the opposite: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets…whoever 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 does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”

This is hardly the only instance of Jesus affirming Torah tradition. Many of JC’s most famous “original” utterances (e.g., you shall love your neighbor as you love yourself) are, in fact, lifted directly or obliquely from the Hebrew Scriptures. He quotes these texts 79 times, 27 times from the Pentateuch alone. The important point is that, for him, the essence of the tradition—and the part he wants to underscore—is God’s merciful heart, though he would hardly claim this as an original insight. To him this would have been blazingly obvious from his deep study of Torah.

How, then, did we end up with the peculiar idea that the Christian “law of love” is dramatically different from—and better than—the tradition Jesus inherited? One factor, clearly, is the baleful influence of the aforementioned Paul, originator of the “law” vs. “grace” dichotomy that has cast such a long shadow. Another is that Jesus himself, in his most famous utterance of all—the collection of teachings known as the Sermon on the Mount—employs a “you have heard it said…but I say unto you” rhetorical device that can be read (and is read by many) as an attack on Jewish teaching. It should, however, be read as an intensification of that teaching and an attack on both imperfect practice and outright violation of Torah precepts.

But the main driver of the misperception is undoubtedly the Big Breakup that forms the backdrop to all four gospel texts: the bitter rift between first century Jesus followers, Jews and Gentiles alike, who claimed messiah status and actual divinity for Jesus, and the great majority of Jews who said thanks-but-no-thanks to that idea.

Thus we find, most notoriously in the Fourth Gospel, a number of set pieces aiming to show dramatic direct conflict between Jesus and “the Jews.” This Big Breakup point, occurring 60-90 years after Jesus’ death, is where Christian anti-Judaism and Christian supersessionism starts, and there has been no end to it ever since. I need not elaborate on the appalling consequences.

Because all of these issues are so fraught, and because I do not wish to be misunderstood, let me say clearly that there are, as we might expect, significant distinctions between Jewish and Christian conceptions of mercy and forgiveness. These can and should be surfaced and appreciated.

But the “Old Testament bad, New Testament good” thing has got to go. I hope to live long enough to see this simplistic division vanish from the face of the earth.