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The “But That’s Just the Old Testament!” Cop-Out

This article is part 8 of LoonWatch’s Understanding Jihad Series. Please read my “disclaimer”, which explains my intentions behind writing this article: The Understanding Jihad Series: Is Islam More Likely Than Other Religions to Encourage Violence?

We showcased violence in the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament) in parts 1234, and 6 of this Series.  Even though this list of Biblical verses was hardly exhaustive, it was more than enough to refute the claim–made by Islamophobes like Robert Spencer (and unfortunately accepted as fact by the majority of Americans)–that the Quran is more violent than the Bible.

In response, many Christians rely on a “fall back” argument: they claim that this “doesn’t count” since “it’s just the Old Testament!” and supposedly Jesus Christ rejected the violent legacy of the OT.  It is of course of paramount importance to the anti-Muslim Christians–as well as to “culturally Christian” atheists and your run-of-the-mill Islamophobes who need to prove the “uniquely” violent nature of Islam’s holy book–to neutralize the Old Testament.  After all, if the Old Testament “counts”, then it would be a case of Mutually Assured Destruction (M.A.D.) to attack the Quran for its alleged violence: the Old Testament is by far the more violent book.

There are numerous reasons the “But It’s Just the Old Testament!” Defense doesn’t do the trick:

1) There is no explicit  or categorical textual proof from the New Testament that supports the idea that the Old Testament (or the Law) “doesn’t count”.  For every verse cited to prove such a claim, there is another that can be cited for the opposite view.  In fact, it seems that the textual proof for the opposite view is greater, even overwhelming.  For example, Jesus says in the Gospels:

Matthew 5:17 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.

5:18 I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.

5:19 Anyone who 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 practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

And Jesus also said:

Luke 16:17 But it is easier for heaven and earth to disappear than for one dot of the Law to become void.

There are other verses that similarly seem to affirm the importance of keeping the Law.  On the other hand, the evidences used to counter this view are less explicit and less direct.

2)  Both the Old and New Testament are considered by all mainstream branches of Christianity to be “just as inspired as the New Testament.” The New Testament itself affirms the accuracy of the Old Testament:

2 Timothy 3:16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness,

3:17 so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

“All Scripture – This properly refers to the Old Testament…it includes the whole of the Old Testament, and is the solemn testimony of Paul that it was all inspired.” More importantly, as says (emphasis is ours): “Scripture — all of Scripture — is inspired by God (2 Tim. 3:16). This means that the Old Testament is just as inspired as the New Testament and thus an expression of the will of Christ.”

[Update I: A reader pointed out the following: Christians see Jesus as God. That means that he was also the God of the Old Testament. The same God who commanded all those killings and the author of all those violent and disgusting commands as listed in your previous articles. So the violence Jesus supports and predicts is not only evident in the New Testament, but he is supposedly also the author of said violent commands in the Old testament as well. Not only then is the Old Testament “an expression of the will of Christ”–it is Christ.]

Protestant Christianity, as seen on this popular Evangelical site, also agrees with this assessment:

Jesus is always in perfect agreement with the Father (John 10:30), so we cannot argue that war was only God’s will in the Old Testament. God does not change (Malachi 3:6James 1:17).

3)  On this note, Jesus Christ himself is depicted in the New Testament as being very violent during his Second Coming (see part 5).  Even if we completely sweep the Biblical prophets and the Old Testament under the rug (which is exactly what anti-Muslim Christians do in debates with Muslims), it doesn’t change the fact that Jesus in the New Testament is very violent: he promises to kill or subjugate all of his enemies, which includes those whose only crime is to refuse to believe in him.  So, even if we completely disregard the OT, this wouldn’t solve the “problem”.

More importantly, the fact that Jesus promised to kill his enemies (a promise he made during his First Coming)–even if he is yet to fulfill this promise–shows that Jesus did not reject the violent ways of the earlier Biblical prophets.  He simply was not in a position of authority or power to carry out these acts of unbridled violence.  He wouldn’t have promised violence if he truly rejected the OT’s violence.

When we published an article about the violent Second Coming of Christ, many critics cried “you can’t compare Jesus’ supposed violence in the future with what Muhammad actually already did!”  (How quickly anti-Muslim Christians can turn something they believe in with all their might and which they believe is central to their faith–the Second Coming of Christ–into a “supposed” event makes us wonder if this is not Christian taqiyya?)  Yet, it was during his First Coming that Jesus made the promise to kill all those who did not believe in him; the action–a violent threat to ruthlessly slaughter infidels (i.e. Luke 19:27)–has already been made.

4)  Christians not only routinely cite the Old Testament, but they specifically cite it with regard to Jesus.  Various prophecies in the OT are attributed to Jesus: these prophecies depict the Messiah as a violent conquering king who brutally vanquishes his enemies.  (Please read the section entitled “Christians Affirm Militant Old Testament Prophecies” in part 5 of the Understanding Jihad Series.)  This reinforces point #3 above: Jesus is seen as fulfilling, not rejecting, the violence of the Old Testament.  After all, the violence of the OT was “an expression of the will of Christ.”

5)  The official views of the Church itself do not endorse the idea of “tossing the Old Testament aside”: even when it comes to formulating a doctrine in regards to war, the OT must be taken into consideration.  It is argued that there is concordance, not dissonance, between the Old and New Testaments.  As the esteemed theologian Prof. Samuele R. Bacchiocchi concluded:

An attentive study shows that the NT complements, rather than contradicts the teachings of the OT regarding warfare…A balanced reading of the NT texts suggests that there is a basic agreement between the Old and New Testaments on their teaching on warfare.

The violent wars in the OT are reconciled by arguing that Biblical Israel was justified in its declarations of war and was only acting in self-defense: “At various times in the Old Testament, God commanded the Israelites to defend their nation by force of arms.” Of course, this is not supported by the facts: the Israelites were clearly the aggressors, annihilating and/or running off the indigenous populations of a land that they believed was divinely given to them.  They were only “defending themselves” insofar as any aggressive occupier will “resist” those they occupy.

6) The fact of the matter is that all mainstream Christian groups affirm both the Old and New Testament as canon.  The Church fought off any attempts to “throw away the Old Testament”.  In the second century of Christianity, Marcion of Sinope rejected the Old Testament because of the violence, war atrocities, and genocide contained therein.  He was denounced by the Church, and his views towards the Old Testament were officially damned as heresy.  Tertullian, the Father of Western Christianity, issued a rebuttal against Marcion.

We read:

Marcionism. Marcionism owed its existence to Marcion, an individual who gained popularity in Rome in 140-144. His theology was influenced heavily by the Gnostics, and he denied the power of the God of the Old Testament. He promulgated the use of a limited form of the New Testament, including Luke’s Gospel and Acts, and many of the Pauline epistles, the former since Luke was a Gentile and the latter since he was sent to preach to the Gentiles. He found the God of the Old Testament contradictory and inhumane. The “orthodox” Christianity of the time rejected his argumentation, upheld the value of the Old Testament, and dutifully began the work of canonization of the Old and New Testaments. The specter of Marcion loomed large enough so as to merit refutation by Tertullian at the end of the second century; nevertheless, Marcion’s movement mostly died out or assimilated into other Gnostic groups.

Marcionism died out, thanks to the Church and its insistence of the Old Testament’s validity.  The Catholic Encyclopedia calls the Marcionist sect “perhaps the most dangerous foe Christianity has ever known.”  Today, there are some modern-day believers, called New Testament Only Christians, who reject the Old Testament due to its inherent violence, war atrocities, and genocide.  This group is a very small minority, a “heretical” group that is at odds with the main body of Christianity.

So, unless you happen to be a New Testament Only Christian, the “But That’s Just the Old Testament!” Defense simply doesn’t apply to you.  The existence of the New Testament Only Christians, however, is actually indicative of just how violent the Bible is: it couldn’t be reconciled, so more than half of it had to be jettisoned.

* * * *

None of this is to say that Christians must interpret the Bible in a violent manner.  But what we are saying is that a softer reading of the Bible requires textual acrobatics, convoluted argumentation, and theological mind-bending.  The reasons given why the Old Testament Law are no longer in effect are far more complex to grasp then the simple, straight-forward understanding one gets from reading Jesus’ seemingly simple, straight-forward statements, such as:

Matthew 5:17 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.

5:18 I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.

5:19 Anyone who 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 practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

This reinforces a point made in an earlier part of this Series:

Why is it that these anti-Muslim ideologues allow theological and textual acrobatics when it comes to the Bible, but meanwhile they forbid the contextualization of Quranic verses?  Certainly it is much easier to “constrain” the violent verses of the Quran than it is for the Bible, since the Quran itself almost always cushions these verses in between mitigating verses.  This contrasts quite considerably with the Bible, which has violent verses wrapped in violent passages.

Anti-Muslim Christians point to various verses of the Quran that they claim are intrinsically violent.  When it is pointed out to them that their own holy book is replete with violent passages, they respond by explaining why and how they interpret these Biblical passages in a peaceful manner.  In the same breath, however, they forbid Muslims from doing the same to the Quran.

Rejecting the Old Testament is a perfectly fine way for a Christian believer to theologically constrain the violence of the Bible, one that we wholeheartedly support.  But such a believer should know that his holy book requires such theological mechanisms to constrain its violence, and this should logically endow upon him some religious modesty when it comes to the holy books of others.

* * * *

7)  Perhaps the most important reason why the “But That’s Just the Old Testament!” Defense doesn’t work is that it doesn’t do a damned thing for Jewish followers of the Hebrew Bible.  Jews don’t believe in the New Testament or Jesus.  In fact, their most holiest of books is the Torah, which is the first five books of the Old Testament (known as the Tanakh or Hebrew Bible to Jews).  These include Exodus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy–some of the most violent books of the entire Bible, replete with holy war and divinely ordained genocide.  To Jews, the Torah and the Hebrew Bible are 100% active and applicable, with no New Testament to overrule or abrogate them.

When we published articles showcasing the violence of the Bible–especially after our article about “the Bible’s prescriptive, open-ended, and universal commandments to wage holy war and enslave infidels”–pro-Christian elements were quick to throw the Old Testament (and their Jewish comrades) under the bus: The God of the Old Testament was a god of war, whereas the New Testament is a god of love.

In order to prove their claim against Islam, the anti-Muslim ideologues must prove the “uniqueness” of the Quran’s violence.  Certainly, this is Robert Spencer’s clear-as-daylight argument on p.19 of his book The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades):

The Qur’an is unique among the sacred writings of the world in counseling its adherents to make war against unbelievers.

Short of proving the uniqueness of the Quran’s violence, Spencer et al. have failed in what they set out to do.  If it can only be proved that the Quran is only as violent as the Tanakh (or the Torah)–or that Islam is just as violent as Judaism–then what big deal is this?  If Spencer wants to fear-monger about Islam, and if–using the same standards–it can be proven that Judaism is just as violent as Islam (nay, more violent)–then will Spencer also fear-monger about Judaism?  Can we expect a website coming soon?

In fact, such a site already exists, and it looks like JihadWatch, just against Jews instead of Muslims.  Indeed, if the same conclusions about Islam were applied to Judaism, then all this would be exposed for what it really is: wholesale bigotry.  But it is much easier to get away with bigotry against Muslims than it is against Jews.

How can Robert Spencer hide behind the “But That’s Just the Old Testament!” Defense when his comrade-in-arms is Jewish?  Pamela Geller of the Atlas Shrugs blog is a partner in crime with Spencer and company.  Clearly, the anti-Muslim Christian right is linked at the hip with Zionist Jews in their shared hatred of Muslims.  Why is one side of this unholy alliance willing to throw the other under the bus, and why is the other side ominously quiet when they hear arguments such as “But That’s Just the Old Testament”?

Our argument has never been that the Quran has no violence in it.  Rather, our argument is: all holy books, including the Quran but also the Bible, have violence in them; in fact, the Bible is far more violent than the Quran. This is in response to the question that most Americans answered incorrectly: is Islam more likely than other religions to encourage violence? Most importantly, this argument of ours is a response to a claim made by Robert Spencer.

This argument of ours is also based in our deeply held conviction that religions and religious scriptures are just what their readers make of them, as stated in the introduction of this Series:

The reader should not think that I believe that a certain religion or another is violent.  Rather, there exist peaceful and violent interpretations of religion.  I reject the view held by religious orthodoxy that the human mind is simply an empty receptacle that unthinkingly “obeys” the divine plan.  Hundreds of years after their prophets have died, believers (of all faiths) are forced (by virtue of not having a divine interlocutor) to exert their own minds and ethics to give life to texts, to render 3D realities from 2D texts.  Such an elastic idea–that a religion is whatever its believers make it into–is certainly anathema to orthodox adherents who simply desire a step-by-step instruction manual to produce human automatons.  But the truth is that even these orthodox adherents necessarily inject into the religious texts their own backgrounds, beliefs, and biases.

One can see why I do not think that simply showing a Biblical verse here or there would prove that Judaism or Christianity are violent faiths. There is a long journey from what is on the page to what is understood and put into practice.  And once this reality is comprehended, it is hoped that Jews and Christians will gain a larger perspective when they approach Muslims and their religion.

Opponents have claimed that this Series so far has just been a case of tu quoque fallacy: yet, this is fundamentally misunderstanding the purpose of this Series, which is certainly not designed to convert the readers to Islam, but rather to refute the commonly held notion that Islam is somehow more violent than other faiths, a view that the majoritarian group can easily hold (and demagogues like Robert Spencer can reinforce) unless dissenters like ourselves challenge it.

Update I:

See page II of this article for our follow-up piece.

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