One of the perennial problems Christian readers of the Bible have is figuring out the relationship of the OT to the NT, or the old covenant to the new covenant, and in particular the relationship of the Mosaic covenant to the new covenant. Too often what happens in conservative Protestant circles is that the Bible is read in a flat way, such that it is assumed that anything said in the OT is just as revealing of God’s good and perfect will or highest and best for humankind as anything said in the NT.

Sometimes this is even linked to an assumption that such a hermeneutic is required if you are going to have ‘a high view of Scripture’. And sometimes this whole line of thinking is held at arms length by discussions about ‘progressive revelation’. As much as I agree that we must indeed see the earlier revelation in light of the later and fuller revelation in Christ, this is not the whole story.

In his discussion of the issue of marriage in Mark 10 and Matthew 19 Jesus interjects a remark as to ‘why’ exactly Moses gave the teaching he did, allowing divorce. He calls it ‘sklerokardia’ the spiritual hardening of the arteries, or as we more conventionally call it— ‘because of hardness of heart’. Now the importance of this is not just that God is aware of our spiritual condition, but that God gave his instructions with this condition in mind.

And Jesus is now saying that now that the Kingdom is breaking into human situation those rules don’t apply any more. He is suggesting that there was an original creation order intention of God, when it comes to marriage. But apparently Jesus thinks that the coming of the Kingdom involves all kinds of other new arrangements as well— for example arrangements in which disciples foreswear violence all together, and
promise to love enemies and pray for those who persecute them and turn the other cheek.

And this leads to the following point. If God, in his graciousness condescends to teach us in ways and at the level which we can receive it, and if there is a major difference between what is the case once Jesus and the Spirit have come compared to what was the case before those two things happened when it comes to human ability to receive, believe, and live by God’s always intended highest and best for his people, then this changes entirely how we should view ever so many things in the OT.

Take for example the famous ‘lex talionis’— an eye for an eye, a hand for a hand…a life for a life’. This was God’s attempt to limit, not license revenge taking. God knew we would be doing it anyway, and so what he is saying is—- ‘only an eye for an eye, only a hand for a hand…’ and so on. In other words, there are all sorts of teachings in the OT that take into account not only the lack of the indwelling Spirit which changes the human heart, but the presence of hardness of heart in God’s people. Now once this basic principle—announced by Jesus, and then implemented by Paul and James and Peter, is understood, it really will revolutionize the way one reads so many things in the OT.

Take for example Levitical Law, including laws about stoning children etc.
We should never take such statements as a clear revelation of either God’s divine character or his highest and best will for his people. We should take them as God’s attempt to limit the harm and sin and mis-steps his people were already taking. And this is all the more the case when we are dealing with the harem or holy war stuff in Joshua and Judges. This is hardly God’s preferred course of action for his people to take. Think about it for a minute. Do we really believe that God couldn’t have just gotten all of the strangers out of the land by various means other than through the harem or human warfare? Of course he could have done so. But his people were determined to fight like other nations, demand a king like other nations, play politics like other nations…. and so on.

What we see throughout much of the early part of the OT is God’s attempt to deal with his fallen and sinful people who behave very much like other ANE peoples, sometimes quite barbarically. The point is that God is trying to limit their vengeance, limit their propensity to divorce, limit their bad behavior in general— hence the Mosaic laws of various sorts.

But when Messiah comes, and the Kingdom with him, new occasions teach new duties. This is not to say that there is not a recapitulation of some essential OT teaching by Jesus and the early Christians, which we find in the NT. There is. It is the positive teaching God gave that was not merely an attempt to restrain ancient sin. Teaching like ‘love the Lord your God with all your heart, and neighbor as self….’ And so on.

I could say a good deal more on this subject, but here will simply draw three conclusions: 1) the only safe and appropriate way for Christians to read the OT and draw conclusions about God’s will and character is to read it in the way that Jesus and his followers did— with the eyes of Christ, and in light of the coming of the Kingdom and the Spirit; 2) only those teachings in the OT that are reiterated and reaffirmed in the NT or are a legitimate extension of something said in the new covenant are binding on Christians; 3) one should never mistake God’s attempts to deal with God’s people where they are in their spiritual progress in the OT as the clearest revelation of the character and will of God for any of his peoples since Jesus and the Spirit have come. A Christian reading of the OT must be normed and guided by the sort of principles we find in the NT on the lips of Jesus and others.

Uncommon Sense— Part One
Finding Jesus— Reboot
Finding Jesus– Review of Part One
Forward Thinking about “Reading Backwards’ Conclusions
  • Chris

    Ben, thanks for this. I have a tendency to be a flat reader. Anyway, I still struggle with God’s commands in the OT for the Israelites to kill and plunder when I’m trying to reconcile His choosing of sinful Israel over His choosing of sinful (whatever nation). I can’t wrap my head around how this plundering would “limit” the destruction the people would have taken on their own either. Please help. Thanks for your helpful work.


  • patricklmitchell

    Dr. Witherington, thank you for this essay–which is timely for me. I am about to embark on the road towards on OT PhD and have no desire to specialize in the vocalization of shewa or more traditional ANE studies. Rather, I have a strong desire to help guide the church into an understanding of the OT as it relates to Jesus and the NT. Perhaps ‘biblical theology’ is a more appropriate term for what I am interested in.

    What advice do you give students pursuing advanced study in OT? I ask because I see many students get caught up in the ANE world, which is certainly fascinating, but their work has little significance to the mission of God in and through the church. Advice? Thoughts?

  • Scott


    I’m still turning all this over in my head, and I apologize in advance if I can’t express my thoughts well.

    How far exactly do we take the ‘accommodation’ angle ? If we say that Jesus’ preaching & His Kingdom, in essence, made “Kingdom ethics” MORE strict (because OT believers weren’t as capable of living up to them, lacking the indwelling/empowering presence of the Holy Spirit as they did), what about things like homosexuality ? Couldn’t God have ‘accommodated’ the OT believers by simply making some rule like, “Well, some people are going to practice homosexuality anyway, so I’ll make a rule that they must be in a monogamous, live-long relationship” ? Then with Jesus’ coming He could have changed things back to the creation order of one man-one woman. The fact that He didn’t do so with that and many other behaviors that Israel’s neighbors were allowing shows that God was certainly capable of calling a spade a spade and telling His people in no uncertain terms what was right and what was wrong.

    IOW, if something is wrong (like homosexuality) then it was SO wrong God had no problem condemning its practice in *both* testaments, even though some OT believers may have had a problem living up to that ideal. But why would it have been so hard for God to issue other commands (“no polygamy,” “no slaughtering of innocent people during hand-to-hand warfare,” “no stoning children,” etc.) ? Why should the OT believers be expected to be able to live up to laws against homosexuality, child sacrifice, adultery, etc. but not be able to refrain from certain other acts ? I would think: the stricter the ‘law,’ the more the people would realize their sinfulness and would need to depend on God’s gracious forgiveness. It’s almost like saying the behaviors God restrained (but did not outright forbid) were wrong but not *really* wrong. What an odd message to send — esp. to the very people (Israel) who were to learn about the very (moral) nature of their God !

    Any thoughts appreciated. :-)

  • Mark

    Thank you for your article. This idea of idea of a progressive revelation would seem the only rational way in which to understand scripture. It reflects the way that people actually learn and grow. Democracy, for example, didn’t emerge fully formed, but evolved over time; in fact, our conception of democracy is constantly being adapted as society changes and knowledge increases. The Bible understood this way, mirrors the world as it really is.

    Our approach to Biblical infallibility is very similar to the way that many 1st century Jews understood the Law, as perfect and complete, creating Law worship instead of God worship. Or in the case of the Bible—Bible worship. Both premises can lead to legalism—God understood through ritual or doctrine instead of relationship. This idea is mirrored in the Book of Hebrews when the writer says that the faith of Abraham was superior to the Law of Moses. Moses carves the Law in stone as a symbol of its permanence. Jesus says that it must be written on the heart, not external to man, but internal.

    Christian apologists have been jumping through theological hoops for two thousand years trying to harmonize the O.T. and the N.T., as in “kill every living thing” with “those who live by the sword will die by it”! None of this should be hard to digest—the Patriarchs as shadows of what was to come—with Jesus as the revelation fulfilled. A shadow suggests an image projected on a wall, a vague shape without detail. Jesus is the image of God in glorious and living color. Likewise, his teaching replaces the old, with the new. New wine requires new wine skins.


  • DuWayne Lee

    Dr. Ben
    You write that in that in Mark 10 and Matt. 19 Jesus used the Greek word slerokardia. You do not believe that Jesus spoke Greek
    in that discorse do you ?


  • Guest

    Sorry to ping off a post you made on Tony’s blog, but I was wondering what your take on the whole resurgence of so called conservative “Reformed” theology would be. Maybe a post is forthcoming…..

  • Benw333

    Patrick it sounds to me like you need to be in a PhD program that is not OT specific. In other words, you need to be in a program that gives a doctoral degree in Biblical Studies. Like say….. at Asbury :)

  • Benw333

    Thanks for the comments thus far on this post. I do think Jesus knew some Greek, and more to the point I trust that Mark or the First Evangelist accurately rendered Jesus’ Aramaic (which may have used lev and cepha) as hard heartedness.

    As for the substantive issue, when you compare the harem to the way war was normally practiced in the ANE with endless reciprocity rounds of blood-letting you can see very well how this might be seen as God trying to limit, not license the war-like tendencies of his people. You will notice for example that he does not authorize repeated harems. If it is true what James says about God in James 2, namely that what really reveals God’s character is how mercy trumps or overcomes judgment, you will begin to see why I say what I do in this post.

  • Benw333

    P.S. Read Peter Craigie’s little book on War in the OT.

  • patricklmitchell

    Subtle! Only question…does Asbury have good funding and good placement? I’ve checked out the program–looks great.

  • Benw333

    The doctoral grants are good, but I am not sure what you mean by placement. We just had our very first graduate of the program this spring. It’ s only been in operation four years.

  • patricklmitchell

    I see. Placement in terms of grads obtaining appointments. But hey, every program started somewhere! I will certainly look into ATS. One of my undergrad profs introduced me to your work, and it has been a tremendous blessing in preaching. Best, Patrick

  • Patrick

    I think the point here is valid, but, overdone.

    The Torah of course Yahweh was dealing with flawed folks who largely did not receive the spirit and as such, Yahweh was flexible with them as this marriage/divorce discussion shows.

    The herem deal is not THAT. The herem was always at Yahweh’s insistence, not at His tolerance. He punished Saul for failing to carry it out for example.

    There is a very good reason for the herem and it is disturbing to me to know the Church almost entirely doesn’t have any idea WHY Yahweh had the Jews purposefully killing off entire people groups including their animals.

    In my 57 years, I have read or heard exactly 1 teacher demonstrate why Yahweh did this and it’s right there in the text to see, we just can’t stand to see it obviously.

  • Mark2

    Well, let’s hear it then!

  • Patrick


    Gen 6:1-4 coupled with finding these nephilim(there were also groups know as Anakim, Raphaim as synonyms in the text for nephilim, which = giants) everywhere the Jews were ordered to put the “herem/ban” on specific groups.

    Note, they were not always ordered to do so, many groups they contended with did not have nephilim and as such, Yahweh did not want the Jews to destroy them at all anymore than He would want us to destroy say the Russians in 1950.

    The early Church and ancient Jews fully got this.

    The Jews dropped the idea after Christ because “sons of God”(bene elohim) in Gen 6 sounds too much like “Son of God” and the Church dropped it because of fear of polytheism.

    It’s a euphemism for fallen angels in that context and Peter and Jude both discuss them later in the NT, yet the Church is determined to ignore the excellent reason/logic for the herem/ban in Joshua.

    They were hybrid divine/human creatures at full/irreversible opposition to Yahweh’s will and plan and as such must be utterly defeated/killed off or Yahweh would have seen His plan fail to provide for humanity Messiah through Abraham because the Jews would have been wiped out by them first.

    Simple as that and it worries me the Church is willfully ignorant of it. Even if you’re among those who sees the OT as all metaphor, Joshua cannot be understood as a metaphor for anything BUT a murderous holocaust like the Nazis IF you don’t see this unalterable/ to the death spiritual warfare in the text between the intrinsic good of Yahweh and the intrinsic evil of “the seed of the serpent” from Gen 3:15.

    Professor Michael S. Heiser currently has a draft work on the subject titled, “The Myth that is True”.

    I have a handful of email attachments making the case the silly “orthodox views” of this passage are just that, nonsense.

    BTW, the ancient Jews wrote of this stuff outside the Bible as well, 1/3 of I Enoch is all about this series of events AND the ancient near eastern pagans documented these things as well(Greeks majored on them).

    The difference was the pagans revered the nephilim and worshipped some of them(Gilgamesh in the Levant), whereas the Jews saw them as Yahweh’s full time revolutionary/totally evil opposition.

    I can send you attachments about this if interested:


  • Justin

    I disagree with conclusion “2) only those teachings in the OT that are reiterated and reaffirmed in the NT or are a legitimate extension of something said in the new covenant are binding on Christians”
    That is dispensationalism

  • Davetheduck

    I too would like a post about the new Reformed movement as well. Scary stuff….ala Mars Hill in Seattle. Why are the youth, in particular, so drawn to? Is it because we humans have a tendency to want others to think for us instead of thinking through issues brought before us?