Forgive me for skipping gleefully from topic to topic with no apparent method in the madness; preachers and apologists do it all the time, so… “sorry not sorry”!
Since the election of Donald Trump, I’ve realised that the only way to get more views, likes, follows and comments is to come up with a click-bait headline.
(Natasha: “So you’re following Trump’s example? Please at the very least don’t get his hairstyle.”)
The below is a trail of thought and an invitation to question, challenge and discuss, rather than a dogmatic conclusion. Part of my “mission” on this blog is to paint a “3-dimensional Jesus”, and part of that is recognising that the ‘soft cuddly Jesus’ figure we desire to claim for our own is cherry-picking the Gospels in a way any American “fundagelical” mega-church leader would be proud of! As far as is presented by the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus of Nazareth appeared to be in favour of retaining the punishments associated with the ‘Law of Moses’ (Torah).
1. ‘Whoever Speaks Evil of Father or Mother Must Surely Die’, Right? (Mark 7:10)
In Chapter 7 of Mark’s Gospel,1 we are told that ‘the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around [Jesus]’ and ‘noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them.’ (v1-2) When the Pharisees quizzed Jesus about this (v5), he responds as follows (v9-13):
‘You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! 10 For Moses said, “Honour your father and your mother”; and, “Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.” 11 But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, “Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban” (that is, an offering to God)— 12 then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, 13 thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this.’
Whatever Jesus’s opinion on and interpretation of the Law (Torah),2 I think the unsettling potential inferences here are evident. In the narrative, Jesus is re-elevating the ‘Law of Moses’ above traditions about the Law which the Pharisees have layered on top of it. He quotes Leviticus 20:9 approvingly,3 which prescribes the death penalty for ‘all who curse father or mother’, and implies that one ought not to create any tradition which would supplant this commandment by equating the two commands in the same breath. On a rather curious tangent, a New English Translation (NET) footnote reads:4
tn Heb “makes light of his father and his mother.” Almost all English versions render this as some variation of “curses his father or mother.”
So the original Hebrew text (as much sense to speak of such a thing) could well mean mocking one’s parents! (I’m done for…) Fortunately, I have covered Leviticus 20 in a previous post, where I argued that the context most likely concerns cultic rituals for Moloch. Given the bizarre context of incest, mediums and wizards, perhaps it is reasonable to conclude that what is being referred to here is some kind of symbolic cursing or hexing of one’s parents? Having said that, one has to admit that it is impossible to determine with exact certainty.
However, a virtually identical injunction with the same Hebrew word (קלל; qalal) appears in Exodus (21:17) in the context of prohibiting violence; verse 15 forbids striking one’s parents.5 According to Deuteronomy (27:11-26), someone who ‘dishonours father or mother’ is placed on a par with someone who: ‘misleads a blind person on the road’, ‘lies with any animal’ (which deserved death), or ‘takes a bribe to shed innocent blood’. Prior to this (21:18-21), it is decreed that ‘all the men of the town shall stone [a rebellious son] to death’; at least the reference to the hypothetical son being ‘a drunkard’ strongly implies ‘an adult son’. Phew!
Children (i.e. minors) are not necessarily off the hook. To my knowledge, nowhere in the Torah is it clear that children are exempt from legal penalties, at variance with modern expectations. In fact, in Numbers 16, three disobedient men were buried alive with ‘their wives, their children, their little ones’ (v27). A similar incident occurs in Joshua 7, where a man called Achan steals war booty, in the form of precious metals, from the Fall of Jericho and hides it in his tent. Consequently, ‘all Israel’ went and ‘burned them with fire, cast stones on them, and raised over him a great heap of stones’ (v25-26), where ‘them’ refers to ‘his sons and daughters, with his oxen, donkeys, and sheep, and his tent and all that he had’ (v24).6
Thus, the most objective and cold reading of this text would worryingly imply that Jesus expected his followers to stone to death ‘all who curse father or mother’. Something worth bearing in mind here is that The Woman Caught in Adultery (John 7:53-8:11) is almost definitely not part of the original Gospel of John. The first appearance of this text in manuscript traditions is Codex Bezae in the 5th century CE.7 Thus, despite this passage being one of my favourite passages, we cannot be sure that Jesus ever said, ‘Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’8
Thus put, we lack relevant evidence to support the claim Jesus rejected the penalties laid down in the Torah.9 Sure, Matthew (5:39) and Luke (6:29) have Jesus suggest that ‘if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also’, but this is in the context of ‘an evildoer’, ‘your enemies’ and ‘those who persecute you’; these verses cannot be read as a universal prohibition of violence to his followers, especially in judicial matters.
I’d be genuinely intrigued to see what evidence people would propose to claim that Jesus was in favour of abolishing the penalties connected with the Torah, as we have done in the “Western” world at least. (Please comment below; I may well have overlooked a number of things! I’ll update the post if anything new comes up.)
If one believes that Jesus is ‘the exact imprint of God’s very being’ (Hebrews 1:3), then perhaps it is also worth examining the Hebrew Bible (i.e. Old Testament) texts for clues?
2. Is God into ‘Punishing Children for the Iniquity of Parents’? (Exodus 20:5)
In my very first post, I made the point that biblical authors disagree with one another on various topics. I believe one of the strongest pieces of evidence to back this claim up is to consider a raft of verses relating to ‘patrilineal guilt’. Take Exodus 20:5, for instance.
5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, 6 but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.
Contrary to contemporary evangelicalism’s focus on individual guilt and salvation, the author of this passage believed that God punished children for the sins of their parents.10 Moreover, Exodus 20:5 isn’t an isolated case; Exodus 34:6-7 and Deuteronomy 5:9 also directly endorse the idea.
9 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and fourth generation of those who reject me.
Other verses can be easily seen to lend pretty strong indirect support. The concept of ‘national guilt’ is another uncomfortable biblical concept which occurs with far greater frequency than ‘patrilineal guilt’, but both are examples of ‘collective guilt’ which fly in the face of individual guilt and salvation.11 For instance, why does God punish the nation Judah – via conquering by Nebuchadnezzar II – for the sins of its king Manasseh c. 42 ½ years after he died (2 Kings 24)? Why did God command King Saul through his Prophet Samuel to commit genocide against the Amalekites for the sins their ancestors committed hundreds of years ago? (1 Samuel 15:1-3)
1 Samuel said to Saul, ‘The Lord sent me to anoint you king over his people Israel; now therefore listen to the words of the Lord. 2 Thus says the Lord of hosts, “I will punish the Amalekites for what they did in opposing the Israelites when they came up out of Egypt. 3 Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.”’
On the other hand, some verses indicate that God considers sin, guilt and punishment on an individual level, such as Deuteronomy 24:16, which is another piece of evidence to suggest that Deuteronomy is a multi-author book.12
16 Parents shall not be put to death for their children, nor shall children be put to death for their parents; only for their own crimes may persons be put to death.
Sure, the conflict with Deuteronomy 5:9 is not technically a contradiction; the earlier verse (5:9) is a statement about God’s direct punishment, whereas the later verse below (24:16) is about God’s indirect (i.e. commanded) punishment via human justice systems. Put another way, it is possible that the two verses can be read in harmony, but it is not probable that they were intended to be interpreted as logically compatible.
When read in numerical terms, the verses upholding collective guilt certainly outnumber those against the concept. This is a serious problem for any modern reader, and it does not do anyone any favours to ignore it.
3. Not Recognising the Problem Won’t Help You
Since leaving the University of Warwick’s Christian Union (CU), many people have asked me for my reasons for (a) first stepping down as a ‘5:20’ small group leader and (b) second moving away from the CU altogether. I had numerous rationales,13 but people in my ‘5:20’ group not properly recognising that verses such as the above pose serious challenges to Christian theology – or ignoring them entirely – was one of the strongest. It indicated a totally alien mindset to me and a disturbing lack of willingness to continually question oneself and one’s ideas about the world.
The above comments reflect a thought trail, not a specific end point or dogmatic conclusion; if anything, it is an invitation both for people to challenge my thoughts and engage in conversation. I love learning from people and changing my mind. If you think I’ve overlooked something or you have a really cool resource for me to read, say so in the comments and I’ll thank you!
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- This incident is repeated in Matthew 15:1-20. ↩
- Jesus’s attitude towards the Torah is an extremely complex topic; an Amazon.com search for ‘Jesus and the Torah’ reveals 248 results in ‘Books’. (29/12/16) An easy-going resource I can recommend is a one-hour lecture by Prof. Bart Ehrman (Oct 2016), which can be watched for free on YouTube. [Link] ↩
- See also Exodus 21:17, discussed above. ↩
- Leviticus 20:9 (NET), fn. 18. Emphasis mine. [Link] Strong’s Hebrew Lexicon gives the following readings of the word translated ‘curse’ (קלל) here: a primitive root; to be (causatively, make) light, literally (swift, small, sharp, etc.) or figuratively (easy, trifling, vile, etc.):—abate, make bright, bring into contempt, (ac-) curse, despise, (be) ease(-y, -ier), (be a, make, make somewhat, move, seem a, set) light(-en, -er, -ly, -ly afflict, -ly esteem, thing), × slight(-ly), be swift(-er), (be, be more, make, re-) vile, whet. [Link] ↩
- See above. ↩
- Daniel 6 has also been used to illustrate this point, though rather unfairly. The text tells us that ‘those who had accused Daniel were brought and thrown into the den of lions—they, their children, and their wives’, but only because King Darius the Mede ‘gave a command’ (v24). Sure, Yahweh could have intervened and saved ‘their children, and their wives’, but it is not exactly the same as being directly responsible for the deaths (by act or command), as in Joshua 7 and Numbers 16. ↩
- See ‘Pericope Adulterae’, in Cross, F. L. (2005). ed. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. New York: Oxford University Press. Even the great conservative evangelical textual critic Professor Daniel B. Wallace (and his Master’s student Kyle R. Hughes) agrees here: ‘The first manuscript of John to include this story is Codex Bezae (D), which dates to the fifth century, and on internal grounds these verses interrupt the narrative of John’s Gospel and feature non-Johannine vocabulary and grammar.’ ↩
- John 8:7. ↩
- Even if we considered the ‘Pericope Adulterae’ admissible as evidence here, we have an incident referenced only by the fourth final Gospel which lies in apparent contradiction to the earlier Gospels of Mark, Luke, and especially Matthew, who has Jesus say: ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law’; ‘not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law’; and ‘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’ (5:17-20). Also, it could be noted that Jesus says that one’s righteousness should exceed that of the Pharisees in verse 20. ↩
- In the classic Wellhausen exposition of the Documentary Hypothesis, first published in 1878, Exodus 20 was composed by the earliest Pentateuchal author, the Jahwist (J) source, in the middle of the 10th century BCE. Modern dates proposed by scholars range from the 14th century BCE all the way down to the 6th century BCE. ↩
- I use ‘collective guilt’ to mean ‘undeserved guilt’ – i.e. the ‘little ones’ in Numbers 16:27. It is clearly possible to argue that some ‘collective guilt’ is justified, as in ‘guilt by association’; those who could be charged for being ‘complicit’ in the crime. ↩
- See also Ezekiel 18:20, which rejects the concept of patrilineal guilt. ↩
- I’ll definitely cover these at some point in the future. ↩