Men too often study the scriptures,
not so much for the discovery of truth, as to find support
for the prejudices which have already gained possession
of their minds.
Thomas Wrightson, On the Punishment
of Death, 1833
Some Christians, like some Jews, believe that the books of
the Old Testament are the literal word of God, and that as such
they should be followed to the letter. This is a difficult position
to sustain, as Laura Schlessinger, a Canadian radio personality,
discovered in 2000. She had made some comments about homosexuals,
based on a literal reading of the Jewish scriptures. The following
is an open letter to her that was posted on the internet soon
afterwards by a listener in the US:
Thank you for doing so much to educate people regarding
God's Law. I have learned a great deal from your show,
and I try to share that knowledge with as many people
as I can. When someone tries to defend the homosexual
lifestyle, for example, I simply remind him that Leviticus
18:22 clearly states it to be an abomination. End of
debate. I do need some advice from you, however, regarding
some of the specific laws and how to best follow them.
- When I burn a bull on the altar as a sacrifice,
I know it creates a pleasing odor for the Lord (Lev.
1:9). The problem is my neighbours. They claim the
odor is not pleasing to them. Should I smite them?
- I would like to sell my daughter into slavery,
as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. In this day and age,
what do you think would be a fair price for her?
- I know that I am allowed no contact with a woman
while she is in her period of menstrual uncleanliness
(Lev. 15:19-24). The problem is, how do I tell? I
have tried asking, but most women take offence.
- Lev. 25:44 states that I may indeed possess slaves,
both male and female, provided they are purchased
from neighbouring nations. A friend of mine claims
that this applies to Mexicans, but not Canadians.
Can you clarify? Why can"t I own Canadians?
- I have a neighbour who insists on working on the
Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly states he should be put
to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself?
- A friend of mine feels that even though eating
shellfish is an abomination (Lev. 11:10), it is a
lesser abomination than homosexuality. I don"t
agree. Can you settle this?
- Lev. 21:20 states that I may not approach the altar
of God if I have a defect in my sight. I have to admit
that I wear reading glasses. Does my vision have to
be 20/20, or is there some wiggle room here?
- Most of my male friends get their hair trimmed,
including the hair around their temples, even though
this is expressly forbidden by Lev.19:27. How should
- I know from Lev. 11:6-8 that touching the skin
of a dead pig makes me unclean, but may I still play
football if I wear gloves?
- My uncle has a farm. He violates Lev. 19:19 by
planting two different crops in the same field, as
does his wife by wearing garments made of two different
kinds of thread (cotton/polyester blend). He also
tends to curse and blaspheme a lot. Is it really necessary
that we go to all the trouble of getting the whole
town together to stone them (Lev. 24:10-16)? Couldn"t
we just stone them to death at a private family affair
like we do with people who sleep with their in-laws
I know you have studied these things extensively,
so I am confident you can help. Thank you again for
reminding us that God's word is eternal and unchanging.
Your devoted disciple and adoring fan, Franc Mosbaugh
Mr Mosbaugh was presenting Laura Schlessinger with some of
the modern problems that arise if the Jewish scriptures are
interpreted literally and regarded as unchanging. Similar problems
have arisen for centuries, even before the birth of Christ.
But we are interested here only in the ones that have affected
Christianity. For Christians, the question boils down to one
of whether or not the faithful are bound by the regulations
and prohibitions of the Old Testament. The authority of these
regulations and prohibitions has been a constant problem for
Christians. The position of the Church of England illustrates
the difficulty in trying to define its authority:
...Although the Law given from God by Moses, as touching
Ceremonies and Rites, do not bind Christian men, nor the civil
precepts thereof ought of necessity to be received in any
commonwealth, yet not withstanding, no Christian man whatsoever
is free from the obedience of the Commandments which are called
Moral. Article 7 of the 39 Articles of the Anglican Church
On the one hand the Old Testament was held to be divinely inspired.
Much Christian teaching was founded on it, and Jesus was recorded
as having made numerous references to it. Indeed, he was keen
to emphasise that it was no part of his mission to overthrow
the ancient laws contained in the Old Testament. The author
of the Matthew gospel quotes him as saying:
Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets:
I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill. For verily I say
unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle
shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.
Moreover, there were many things in the Old Testament that
the Church wanted to retain. The New Testament did not explicitly
sanction popular Christian practices such as killing witches,
extorting tithes, slavery or genocide, all of which Christians
justified by reference to the Old Testament. Again, Jesus had
failed to cite all Ten Commandments in the New Testament*,
so the full list had to be quoted from the Old. On the other
hand the Old Testament said many things that conflicted with
the New Testament. For example, Jesus discarded the old law
about taking an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth*.
In such cases Christians have regarded Jesus as having repealed
the old law and given them a new dispensation. Consistently
applied there should be little difficulty here. If Jesus did
not override the existing law then it should stand. If he did,
then his statements should supersede it. One might think that
the position would be clear enough, but there are still a number
of problems, for example:
There were cases where Jesus over-rode Old Testament laws implicitly
but not explicitly. Did this mean that the laws were no longer
There were cases where people other than Jesus purported to
overturn the ancient laws. Paul for example felt himself qualified
to abrogate eternal laws. Such laws did not apparently apply
to people like St Paul, who enjoyed direct communications with
the deity. As he said "But if ye be led of the Spirit,
ye are not under the law" (Galatians 5:18). Were such people
to be believed?
There were cases where the New Testament (though not Jesus
himself) implicitly accepted Old Testament laws. Did this mean
that the laws should stand even if they seemed undesirable?
The simple rule that existing laws stood unless overturned
by Jesus produced unacceptable results, endorsing unpopular
practices and failing to endorse popular ones. In some cases
Jesus implicitly accepted Old Testament laws that seemed undesirable.
What was to be done in these circumstances?
To complicate matters the New Testament contradicted itself
on some important questions, such as divorce.
We shall now look at examples of these various problem areas,
to see how consistent the answers have been in practice:
is an example where Jesus implicitly over-rode Old Testament
laws. If we accept the authenticity of John 8:1-11 then it is
clear that Jesus taught by example that we should not punish
adulterers. The adulteress brought before Jesus was simply forgiven,
yet Christians have frequently preferred the traditional Old
Testament view. When the Church had control over such matters,
adultery remained a serious offence, sometimes a capital offence
as it had been in the Old Testament.
Taboos This is an example where New Testament characters
implicitly accepted Old Testament laws. According to the Old
Testament women remained unclean for 40 days after the delivery
of a baby boy and for 80 after the delivery of a girl*.
God required animal sacrifices as burnt offerings and sin offerings
to purge the uncleanness of women after childbirth (Leviticus
12:6-8). Such a sacrifice was made by Jesus" mother after
his birth (Luke 2:24). But blood sacrifice was already going
out of fashion in Jesus" time and soon it died out altogether
amongst Jews and Christians. The purging sacrifice was converted
into a Christian ceremony now known as the Churching of Women.
After giving birth, a woman was regarded as being in a state
of sin and had to be reconciled to the Church through this ceremony.
In the Roman Catholic Church such a woman had to behave like
a public penitent if not she could be refused Communion,
barred from the baptism of her own child, and refused a Christian
burial when she died. All this was justified by the Old Testament
purification rights. In some places un-Churched women were being
barred from their own children's baptisms up to the 1960s*.
The Anglican Church has for centuries been keen to play down
the original purpose of Churching. The Book of Common Prayer
for example refers to the Anglican ceremony as "the thanksgiving
of women after childbirth commonly called the churching of women".
Still, the elements of ritual impurity were obvious enough.
The ceremony was regarded as obligatory. Echoes of the ritual
uncleanness persisted for many centuries. New mothers were expected
to wear a veil as though ashamed of some sin, and were often
required to sit in a special seat.
There were other blood taboos. The Old Testament God regarded
menstrual blood as unclean, requiring sacrifices to purge the
uncleanness (Leviticus 15:19-33). Menstrual blood was not quite
as bad as blood shed during childbirth, but in the Eastern Church
it was sufficient to bar women from Communion. Some clergymen
in the Western Church shared this view. Such ideas of impurity
also helped exclude women from Holy Orders. It was at least
partially for this reason that women and post pubescent girls
were excluded from the vicinity of the altar for so long, but
this too became politically incorrect towards the end of the
Other blood taboos were abandoned early on by the mainstream
Churches, if they were sufficiently unpopular, even when explicitly
confirmed. The New Testament confirms clearly that the consumption
of blood is prohibited (Acts 15:28-29), yet it is extremely
rare to find Christian activists attempting to ban the sale
of blood-containing foods such as black puddings. On the other
hand members of some Christian sects refuse to take part in
medical treatments such as blood transfusions, citing both Old
and New Testaments (Leviticus 17:10-12 and Acts 15:28-29) though
both refer to eating the blood of slaughtered animals.
Dietary Laws The 12 apostles, who like Jesus
were all Jews, obeyed the Jewish dietary regulations set out
in Leviticus 11. Gentiles were not at all keen on such restrictions
and were reluctant to convert to a religion that required such
behaviour. Happily Paul and Peter received divine intelligence
informing them that the ancient restrictions were no longer
to be enforced. The dietary laws were thus rescinded in the
gentile sections of the Church. It now became necessary to explain
away the extensive prohibitions on eating various animals laid
out in the scriptures. Here is a short extract from an early
Christian authority explaining what the old dietary laws laid
down by Moses really mean.
Among other things, he also says, "you are not to eat
of the hare" by which he means you are not to debauch
young boys, or become like those who do; because the hare
grows a fresh orifice in its backside every year, and has
as many of these holes as the years of its life. And "You
are not to eat the hyena" signifies that you are to be
no lecher or libertine, or copy their ways; for that creature
changes its sex annually and is a male at one time and a female
at another. The weasel, too, he speaks of with abhorrence,
and not without good reason; his implication being that you
are not to imitate those who, we are told, are filthy enough
to use their mouths for the practice of vice, nor to frequent
the abandoned women who do the same since it is through
the mouth that this animal is impregnated*.
This interpretation is apparently no
longer regarded as orthodox, though it is not clear exactly
when it ceased to be so.
and Sacrifice Circumcision was abandoned, apparently
for reasons similar to those for dietary restrictions: potential
male converts were put off by it. This time the old requirement
could be explained as a requirement to circumcise not the penis,
but the ears, in some figurative sort of way*.
Almost any requirement could be rationalised away in this manner.
Thus, the animal sacrifices required by the God of the Old Testament
were commuted into the Mass, a ceremony represented as a sort
of reformed blood sacrifice. Many Christians have since wondered
why Jesus obeyed Jewish dietary laws, and never suggested that
his followers should do otherwise, and why he was himself circumcised
like any other Jew, yet never troubled to point out that genital
surgery was after all unnecessary.
Judgement Christians encouraged God to judge
cases by oracle. A popular method was the casting of lots, which
had been used extensively in the Old Testament*
and confirmed by Proverbs 16:33. This method was also used by
the apostles after Judas's death: the remaining 11 used it to
select Matthias (Acts 1:23-26) to make their number back up
to 12. The Church used lotteries for many purposes, the apportioning
of patronage by cathedral chapters, allocating church pews,
deciding which Church benefices to augment. Between 1665 and
1676 juries in Britain were allowed to cast lots when they could
not reach a unanimous decision. After mutinies and similar offences
it was common to execute a proportion of the offenders (generally
one in ten), chosen by lot only those selecting lottery
tickets marked with words such as "life given by God"
escaped execution. After John Wesley died in 1791 a Methodist
conference tackled the question of whether Methodist preachers
had the spiritual authority to administer Communion. The matter
was determined by prayer, followed by the drawing of lots*.
Although such practices continued for a long time, all mainstream
Churches abandoned the technique of drawing lots. Instead, they
regarded lotteries as inherently sinful, or at least they did
for most of the twentieth century. Churches campaigned against
the introduction of a national lottery in Britain until
they recognised the opportunity to benefit themselves. Since
receiving lottery funding they have stopped campaigning and
have gone very quiet about their doctrinal objections, so perhaps
are returning to the biblical approach.
frequently arise when no-one in the New Testament gainsays the
Old Testament, especially when the Church Fathers are known
to have accepted Old Testament views. For example God's views
on shaving may be found in Leviticus 19:27:
Ye shall not round the corners of your heads, neither shalt
thou mar the corners of thy beard.
In other words you must not shave your hair from side to side,
neither must you shave the edge of your beard. It is because
of this regulation that Orthodox Jewish men wear distinctive
side-locks. The early Church had similarly strong views about
held that it was an insult to God, and even today Orthodox priests
are never found without beards. In early times all priests wore
beards, but after several centuries they had become unacceptable
for clerics in the Western Church, while to Western Christians
the beards of Eastern priests were taken as evidence of their
Church's degeneracy. Fashions changed from time to time and
from place to place: some clerics within the Western Church
grew beards in the sixteenth century, and clerical pilgrims
to the Holy Land were often expected to grow one. Missionaries
were generally excused for growing them, as were, for no obvious
reason, French priests. The matter became one of fashion, and
the Old Testament injunction quietly forgotten.
Tattoos Leviticus 19:28 prohibits the
practice of tattooing. Until recent years this passage
was often cited against sailors and other travellers who
had their bodies tattooed, but now most mainstream Churches
seem to have abandoned God's teaching on this matter.
Shoes In Exodus 3:5 God states that
shoes must be taken off at holy places, and this is confirmed
in Joshua 5:15. Most Christians, and Jews, simply ignore
this injunction, although Muslims still obey it.
Genital Injuries The Old Testament states
that men with genital injuries are not permitted to enter
into the congregation of the Lord (Deuteronomy 23:1).
For centuries such men were thus barred from entering
a church. Then some popes took a liking to castrati and
installed them in the choir of the Sistine Chapel. Christendom
was shocked, but in time everyone seems to have forgotten
what the Bible had to say on the matter. In theory, men
wounded in the testicles or having undergone, say, surgical
removal of the penis or a testicle, should still be debarred
from the congregation of the Lord. Once again, this regulation
is ignored by most Christians, although some denominations
still obey it, as do the Jews*.
The mainstream Churches now content themselves with excluding
such men from the priesthood and from sainthood.
The perfect example of Old Testament
selectivity. The Christian shown below sports a
tattoo on his arm citing Leviticus 18.22 which forbids
homosexuality, but ignores Leviticus 19.28 which
regulation affects nearly everyone:
A bastard shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord;
even to his tenth generation shall he not enter into the congregation
of the Lord. Deuteronomy 23:2
This should mean that anyone who is illegitimate, or has any
ancestor within ten generations who was illegitimate, may not
be a member of the Church. Human nature being what it is (and
given that everyone has around 2000 ancestors, going back to
the tenth generation), this would statistically rule out almost
everyone now alive. It would be interesting to know how many
bishops, priests and moral reformers are able to show that they
satisfy this condition and are thus entitled to be members of
God's Holy Church: quite possibly none at all. In practice mainstream
Churches have contented themselves with denying Church offices
to those born out of wedlock, which is rather less than what
the Bible requires.
Until the Middle Ages, Christians were still executing criminals
for witchcraft, blasphemy and a range of sexual activities.
In each case the justification was to be found in the Old Testament.
Even with agreement that a crime was deserving of death there
were further problems. For example, Christians often executed
people for blasphemy, citing Leviticus 24:16, but they generally
failed to use the method of execution specified, which was stoning.
Some particularly devout English judges and magistrates pointed
out exactly this discrepancy, and advocated a change to English
law to bring it into line with God's law, but Parliament never
got around to legislating on the matter. Other Old Testament
capital laws were applied throughout Christendom.
If an ox gore a man or a woman, that they die: then the ox
shall be surely stoned, and his flesh shall not be eaten;
but the owner of the ox shall be quit. Exodus 21:28
Ecclesiastical law not only accepted this principle but also
extended it to other animals. During the Middle Ages many animals
were solemnly tried and executed for murder. As soon as such
attitudes became unacceptable because of growing rationalism,
they were simply dropped. What had long been regarded as a divine
duty suddenly wasn"t a divine duty at all.
Polygamy is acceptable throughout the Old Testament (see
for example Exodus 21:10) and by implication also in the
New (except for bishops who are permitted only one wife:
1 Timothy 3:2 and Titus 1:6).
The usual excuse here is that polygamy was merely tolerated
in the Old Testament, but this is simply not true. It
was regarded as perfectly acceptable. God has no problems
at all with polygamy. Many of the patriarchs had numerous
wives. Solomon, praised by God for his wisdom, had 700
of them (1 Kings 11:3). Polygamy was still practised,
on a smaller scale, in Jesus" time , yet he never
troubled to criticise the practice. Some sects have taken
this as implicit confirmation of the acceptability of
polygamy. Most have ignored the Bible and sought to justify
their beliefs by other means.
This spot was reserved for a Christian
painting of King Solomon's 700 wives, but for some reason
no such painting seems to exist among the countless thousands
works of art representing scenes from the Old Testament.
When conditions suited, the Church was always prepared to turn
a blind eye to polygamous marriages. For example when it was
politically convenient for the Church for the Grand Duke of
Kiev to marry the Byzantine Emperor's daughter in 987, the bishops
diplomatically ignored the fact that he already had four wives
and numerous concubines. More usually, the Church has tried
to disguise the fact that the biblical God had approved of polygamy.
One explicit reason for not allowing Native Americans to learn
Latin and refusing vernacular translations was that if they
could read the Bible, they would realise that polygamy was not
prohibited, and would return to traditional polygamous practices.
For almost 2,000 years the mainstream Churches have been trying
to stop polygamy wherever they encountered it, frequently among
sects that took the Bible literally. Adherents of the Latter-day
Saint (Mormon) movement, for example, practised polygamy legally
in Utah until the federal government of the USA put pressure
on them to stop it. The largest group within the movement, the
Mormon Church (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints)
officially renounced polygamy in 1890 , though it is still practised
by some schismatic sects. Outside the US , the Catholic Church
is still understanding when it needs to be. President Mwai Kibaki
of Kenya, a devout practicing Catholic, like many of his peers,
is well known to be in a polygamous union, but no one in his
Church seems to consider it worth mentioning, let alone criticising.
Concubinage and Slavery God approves
of concubinage: Solomon had 300 concubines as well as
his 700 wives according to 1 Kings 11:3. Furthermore,
God expects maidservants to satisfy their masters"
sexual requirements. Abraham, for example, fulfilled God's
covenant by getting his maidservant, Hagar, pregnant (Genesis
16:4). Jacob was married to two sisters Leah and Rachel,
both of whom gave their maidservants to him so that he
could father children on them (Genesis 29:15-30:13). Again,
slavery was perfectly acceptable in the Old Testament.
Jesus mentioned the practice but failed to criticise it.
His silence provided supporters of slavery with a strong
enough case to keep the practice popular among upright
Christians well into the nineteenth century. As they repeatedly
pointed out, if Jesus had regarded slavery as wrong he
would undoubtedly have said so.
This spot was reserved for a Christian
painting of King Solomon's 300 concubines, but for some
reason no such painting seems to exist among the countless
thousands of Old Testament works of art.
The Leverite Law
On one occasion Jesus was asked about the Leverite law by which,
according to the Old Testament, a man was obliged to marry his
sister-in-law if his married brother died childless. Jesus failed
to criticise the practice or to indicate that the ancient law
had been abrogated. Christians nevertheless chose to abandon
the practice, regarding it as incestuous, although the case
was still arguable in the sixteenth century.
Marriage by non-Virgins. The Old Testament (Deuteronomy
22:13-21) is very clear that brides must be virgins - and that
they must be able to prove it (by showing blood-stained bedding).
Blood stained sheets were hung out to public view the morning
after a wedding in southern Italy well within living memory.
But this whole idea is now very unfashionable, especially since
a bride who cannot produce the required proof if challenged
must be stoned to death at the door of her father's house. In
fact the idea is so unfashionable that it is used to taunt Bible-quoting
Christians with their inconsistency.
The words on this placard are not a quotation
- but they are a fair summary of Deuteronomy 22:13-21
himself quoted the legal requirement that anyone who curses
his father or mother must be put to death, apparently criticising
the scribes and Pharisees for not enforcing it*,
but this requirement has not been popular for a while, and has
also been quietly abandoned.
Usury A classic
example of how views have changed is the law about usury. The
Old Testament explicitly discourages lending, or at least making
a profit from it (Exodus 22:25, Leviticus 25:36-37 and Deuteronomy
23:19-20). Jews, Christians and Muslims alike were therefore
debarred from conventional banking. Devout Muslims still abide
by this rule, and so did the Christian Church in the Middle
Ages. Commercial banking between Christians was contrary to
the word of God. To deny this was sinful and heretical, and
likely to excite the interest of the Inquisition. (Though exceptions
were made for those close to the Pope*).
Calvin found an easy way out, claiming that the biblical provisions
applied only to Jews. His followers were soon claiming that
charging interest was not only permitted, it was actually necessary
for salvation. But Roman Catholics and Lutherans continued to
attack the lending of money at interest well into the seventeenth
century. Lutherans abandoned this particular word of God when
it became obvious that it was restricting commercial expansion,
but the Roman Church held fast. Up to the nineteenth century,
popes consistently condemned the taking of interest on loans
in any circumstances. The Church has still not withdrawn its
condemnation, although by the twentieth century this position
had become untenable, following the establishment of the Vatican's
own bank, which charges interest on loans like any other bank.
The Second Commandment Representational art
is unconditionally prohibited by the second of the Ten Commandments:
Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness
of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth
beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: Exodus 20:4
This is clear enough: all artificial representations are prohibited.
In earlier times Jews, Christians and Muslims all accepted and
obeyed this commandment. This is why Muslim art traditionally
avoids any naturalistic images and depends heavily upon abstract
patterns and calligraphy. The early Christian Church was also
strict. Icons, whether pictures or statues, were absolutely
proscribed. So it is that few early pictures of Jesus exist,
and those that do were generally produced by Gnostics. Eusebius
summed up the position that held until the fourth century when
he said that Christian art does not exist and cannot exist*.
As it happened many Christians in the Hellenic world rather
liked icons, so in the course of time, and to the fury of traditionalists,
the rule about them was abandoned*.
Typically such transitions take place gradually, as this one
did. First, naturalistic representations of inanimate objects
were permitted, then of plants and animals, then of historical
characters, then of living people, then of supernatural beings,
then parts of God (such as a hand), then God in his full glory*.
In Western Christendom this was not too controversial. In the
East it was. The controversy culminated when the Byzantine Emperor
Constantine V called a council in 753 that denounced the use
of all icons. Offenders were to be punished as heretics. This
was not universally popular and for the next 100 years or so
iconodule (icon-worshipping) and iconoclast (icon-destroying)
Christians felt obliged to kill each other to emphasise the
justice of their causes.
Eventually a compromise was achieved: pictures were allowed,
but statues were not. This is roughly still the position in
the Greek Orthodox Church. Strictly, God himself could not be
portrayed until the sixteenth century, when images of him appeared
in Moscow under Western influence. Coincidentally around the
same time in western Europe, the Puritans became keen supporters
of the second commandment. They did their best to destroy Christian
art that had accumulated in the West. As they pointed out, their
views were exactly in line with those of the Bible and the earliest
The purpose of the original biblical injunction had been to
rule out the possibility of superstitious worship of icons.
As the injunction was relaxed, certain practices arose that
looked to many to amount to exactly this. By the time of the
Reformation the charge that Christians were worshipping images
was widespread. Article 22 of the 39 Articles of the Anglican
Church describes the "Romish Doctrine concerning .... Worshipping
and Adoration .... of Images" as a "fond thing, vainly
invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather
repugnant to the Word of God". The "Homily Against
Peril of Idolatry" (a standard sermon dating from the Reformation)
declares that "by God's word, and the sentences of the
ancient Doctors, and judgement of the Primitive Church, that
all images, as well ours, as the idols of the Gentiles, be forbidden
and unlawful, namely in Churches and Temples". Images of
saints were ordered to be removed from all churches in 1548.
The mere presence of religious images in English churches was
forbidden by statute law, although a number of legal cases have
since relaxed the effects of this provision*.
Even the Roman Church has hesitated to support images of God
absolutely. The Council of Trent, for example, defended images
of saints and Christ (Session XXV, 3 rd and 4 th December 1563
) but remained silent on images of God the Father.
Beyond question, the current practices of all mainstream Churches
would have been unanimously regarded as blasphemous and heretical
by the ancient Church, on the grounds that they breach the second
The Fourth Commandment
The fourth commandment states quite clearly that the Sabbath
day is to be kept holy. God himself stated explicitly that keeping
the Sabbath is an eternal covenant (Exodus 31:16). Without question
the commandment refers to the Jewish Sabbath, sunset on Friday
to sunset on Saturday. No one suggests that it ever referred
to Sundays. Yet most Christians ignore this commandment and
behave as though God had really been talking about Sundays.
In England, anyone who suggested that the Sabbath should be
observed on Saturdays rather than Sundays was liable to punishment
as late as the seventeenth century*.
Seventh Day Adventists and a few other sects are exceptions
to the general pattern, recognising the Jewish Sabbath rather
The Sixth Commandment.
The sixth commandment Thou Shalt Not Kill (Exodus 20:13)
is absolute and unconditional. The Cathars obeyed this commandment,
refusing to kill people or animals, but this was a minority
position. Most Christians "knew" that the commandment
applied only to people. Sometimes the text is translated as
Thou shalt not do murder, to make the question more
straightforward. Christians could not kill fellow human beings.
But was a slave a human being? Was a foetus a human being? Was
a Moslem a human being? Was a rebel a human being? Were non-Europeans
human beings? Was a disabled child a human being? In each of
these cases, the Churches gave different answers at different
times. Also, was the injunction absolute? Could Christians kill
in self-defence? Could they fight in wars? Could they inflict
capital punishment? Could they kill outlaws and excommunicated
people who were, by definition, outside human and divine law?
There have always been arguments about killing in self-defence.
As we shall see later, the mainstream Christian position on
killing in war has gone through 270°. In early times Christians
were not allowed to enlist in armies at all. Later Christians
were not merely allowed but obliged to enlist. Conscientious
objectors were regarded as heretics. Now many Churches are half
way back to their original position priests and bishops,
for example, no longer take an active part in warfare.
The main Western Churches and particularly the Jesuits advocated
the murder of their enemies, especially rich and influential
enemies. Protestant leaders could therefore be assassinated
with impunity. This was seen as merely an extension of the idea
of killing in war, which by this time all Christians had concluded
was perfectly acceptable. The Churches also needed to rid themselves
of other enemies. They thus accepted another exception to the
commandment. It became acceptable to kill people after due process
of law. And of course the law could be moulded so that it was
possible to kill anyone who offended the Church. As soon as
Christians achieved political power in the Roman Empire, they
started executing their political enemies*.
It became quite acceptable to kill people because they did not
fully accept the current line of Christian belief: millions
of Jews, Muslims, followers of other religions, dissenters and
apostates were killed. Few of them would now be regarded as
warranting even a small fine in modern ecclesiastical courts.
Senior Churchmen, including popes, also conspired to murder
political enemies, the most famous example being the attempted
murder of two Medici brothers in a Cathedral Church as the celebrant
raised the Host during a Sunday Mass. The would-be murders were
priests acting under orders of an Archbishop and with papal
knowledge. Jacques Clément a Dominican friar, was another
religious murder. During the French Wars of Religion, he became
fanatically religious and an ardent partisan of the Catholic
League. Viewing Protestantism as heresy, he dreamed of exterminating
Huguenots and formed a plan to kill the French king. He murdered
Henry III in 1589 by stabbing him, and was immediately killed
himself by the king's guards. He was hailed by Catholics as
a martyr, and was praised by Pope Sixtus V, who appears for
a while to have considered Clément's canonization.
Martin Luther was a proponent of murder, at least for peasants
who violently disagreed with him:
... any man against whom it can be proved that he is a maker
of sedition is outside the law of God and Empire, so that
the first who can slay him is doing right and well. For if
a man is an open rebel every man is his judge and executioner,
just as when a fire starts, the first to put it out is the
best man. For rebellion is not simple murder, but is like
a great fire, which attacks and lays waste a whole land. Thus
rebellion brings with it a land full of murder and bloodshed,
makes widows and orphans, and turns everything upside down,
like the greatest disaster. Therefore let everyone who can,
smite, slay and stab, secretly or openly, remembering that
nothing can be more poisonous, hurtful or devilish than a
rebel. It is just as when one must kill a mad dog; if you
do not strike him, he will strike you, and a whole land with
Long after the Churches, Protestant and Catholic alike, had
ceased to execute people for offending it, they still supported
the right of the State to impose the death penalty. Judicial
killing was acceptable to all major denominations. The papacy
carried out its own secret executions into the nineteenth century,
and the Church of England validated capital punishment in Britain
right up to its abolition in the twentieth century*.
As for so many traditional beliefs, the Church justified its
position by reference to scripture: for example the justification
for executing murderers was derived from biblical passages such
as "Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood
be shed" (Genesis 9:6) and "the land cannot be cleansed
of the blood that is shed therein, but by the blood of him that
shed it" (Numbers 35:33). Such biblical prooftexts were
frequently cited by churchmen and Christian judges to justify
capital punishment. Judgement of death, they repeated, was decreed
by God. The Old Testament sanctioned the death penalty, and
since there was no criticism of the practice in the New Testament,
it was clearly acceptable. Time and time again proponents cited
the silence of the gospels as endorsing the practice. Clergymen
claimed that it would be sinful to go against God's wishes by
failing to inflict capital punishment when it was so explicitly
required by God in the Old Testament. Jesus" words in Luke
19:27 "But those mine enemies, which would not that I should
reign over them, bring hither, and slay them before me"
could also be used to prove that he was perfectly happy with
the concept of capital punishment even without a trial.
When public opinion changed, the Churches followed. From overwhelming
support of capital punishment in 1955, the Church of England
had moved to overwhelming opposition by 1965*.
With the customary delay, the Roman Church followed some time
later. It was only in early 1999 that a pope stated for the
first time that the death penalty was wrong in principle
directly contradicting earlier papal statements on the subject.
In the strongly Christian USA opinion is slowly shifting too.
At the time of writing both Christian advocates of capital punishment
and Christian opponents of capital punishment bolster their
loud public arguments by citing the sixth commandment.
fact is that the status of the Old Testament is ill-defined
in all mainstream churches. Some Christians cite it as justification
for banning homosexuality, adultery, blasphemy, and so on, while
others cheerfully dismiss it as obsolete. This ambivalence permits
Christians to pick and choose the parts that appeal to them
and ignore the others. When the occasion suits, the Old Testament
can be cited to justify various practices and doctrine, and
when it does not, then it can be disregarded. Different sects
select different passages to formulate doctrine according to
taste. Even the mainstream Churches change their views about
it with remarkable ease. When it was politically expedient to
condemn Joan of Arc, she could be charged with transvestism,
which was prohibited in the Old Testament. When it was politically
expedient to rehabilitate her, this particular crime could be
ignored on the grounds that Old Testament restrictions had been
abrogated. To many the Old Testament looks like a sort of religious
supermarket, where customers are free to select the items they
like the look of, and leave the items that do not appeal to
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