Christian Deceptions: Inconsistent Authorities


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    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:

    Dr. Laura,

    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 they die?
    • 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 (Lev. 20:14)?

    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. Matthew 5:17-18

    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 applicable?

    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:

    Adultery This 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.

    Churching of a Woman in Poughkeepsie, 1953.jpg title=Blood 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 twentieth century.

    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.

    Circumcision 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.

    Shaving Problems 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 shaving. Tertullian 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 forbids tattoos

    Bastardy Another 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.

    Death Penalties 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. 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

    Cursing Jesus 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 solution has been to redefine "usury" so that for Roman Catholics it now means not "lending money at interest" but "lending money at high interest" - a very different thing and one which can be condemned without appearing out-of-touch. This redefinition helps to conceal the fact that that the Church has performed another U-turn on its "timeless" doctrine.

    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 Christians.

    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 commandment.

    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 than Sunday.

    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.

    His Catholic Majesty Philip II of Spain declared William (the Silent) of Orange an outlaw and offered a reward of 25,000 crowns for his assassination. An ardent Catholic Balthasar Gérard agreed that William had betrayed His Catholic Majesty along with the Catholic religion. Gérard assassinated William in Delft in 1584. The pious Philip II gave Gérard's parents, instead of the reward of 25,000 crowns, three country estates in Lievremont, Hostal, and Dampmartin in the Franche-Comté, and the family was raised to the peerage. Clearly, the injunction Thou Shalt Not Kill, did not apply to anyone who wanted to murder enemies of Catholic Kings.

    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 you. *

    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.


    The 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 them.


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    §. Different versions of Jesus" list of commandments are given at Matthew 19:18, Mark 10:19 and Luke 18:20.

    §. Matthew 5:38-9, referring to Exodus 21:24, Leviticus 24: 20 and Deuteronomy 19:21.

    §. The relevant Jewish law may be found in chapter 12 of the book of Leviticus. It is clear from the text that the purification was required because of the blood involved. An interval of ritual uncleanness followed menstruation for similar reasons, although these intervals were necessarily rather shorter.

    §. Uta Ranke-Heinemann, Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven, pp 16-17.

    §. The Epistle of Barnabas 10.

    §. The Epistle of Barnabas 9 , making reference apparently to Jeremiah 6:10.

    §. God gave judgement through lots on numerous occasions, e.g. condemning Jonah (Jonah 1:7) and Jonathan (1 Samuel 14:41-42).

    §. Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic, p 142.

    §. A man with injured genitals in Israel is, for example, barred from marrying a legitimate born Jewess (though he may marry bastards and converts to Judaism).

    §. Matthew 15:4, citing Exodus 21:17 and Leviticus 20:9.

    §. For examples of pre-Renaissance cardinals holding a “discrezione” — ie an interest bearing bank account — see Strathern, The Medici, p 40

    §. For examples of the horror in which early Church leaders held Christian images, see John Hick (ed.), The Myth of God Incarnate, p 138.

    §. Don Cupitt notes the rage of Church leaders when Church art first appeared. See John Hick (ed.), The Myth of God Incarnate, p 138. For an account of later developments see pp 138-145. See also Chadwick, The Early Church, pp 277-284.

    §. The same transition may be observed today in Muslim countries. Islamic art traditionally relied heavily upon calligraphy and abstract patterns, because of this commandment, but more and more living things are being portrayed. Muslim rulers" heads now appear on coins, paper currency and stamps. In some Muslim countries pictures of Mohammed himself are now freely available, where a few years ago they would be considered blasphemous. At the time of writing Muslims still do not permit representations of God. The Jews are following the same path.

    §. B. Whitehead, Church Law, "Images", pp 165-6.

    §. The English Puritan Theophilus Brabourne, for example, was imprisoned for 18 months for publishing a pamphlet in 1631 which pointed out that the Sabbath should fall on Saturday, not Sunday.

    §. Eusebius, The History of the Church, 9:11.

    §. English translation of an extract from Martin Luther, Against the Murderous and Thieving Hordes of Peasants, 1525. Translation by E.G. Rupp and Benjamin Drewery, Martin Luther, Documents of Modern History (London: Edward Arnold, 1970), 121-6

    §. Strathern, The Medici, Chapter 13. The murder plot (the "Pazzi Conspiracy") was hatched by Francesco de" Pazzi and Francesco Salviati, Archbishop of Pisa, and supported by Pope Sixtus IV. In the event Giuliano de" Medici was murdered but his brother Lorenzo escaped. The attempt took place on Sunday 26 th April 1478.

    §. Convocation called for an end to capital punishment for the first time in 1961 (Lower House) and 1962 (Upper House).

    §. Potter, Hanging in Judgement, especially pp 187, 193, 198-9, 202, similarly for other Anglicans p 254 note 6.

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