No, Jesus Did Not Refute Old Testament Laws

Earlier last week, Greg Boyd, on his ReKnew website, posted an article entitled, “Jesus Refuted Old Testament Laws.”  There are numerous problems with this brief article, and I decided to write a rebuttal post, in particular for the sake of the students in my Motifs in Biblical Theology class, to demonstrate the importance of approaching claims like the ones which Boyd makes in his article, from the perspective of biblical theology, a perspective which is egregiously missing in Boyd’s article.

(1) The first thing to note is that Boyd’s language is simply way over the top.  He states that Jesus “refuted” Old Testament laws.  He argues that Jesus directly “challenged” aspects of Old Testament law.  He talks about how Jesus was “repudiating” Old Testament sabbath laws.  The use of this kind of language is highly problematic.  Now, there are places where Boyd uses saner language, like “relativize” or “relax” to describe what Jesus did.  With certain qualifications, this language might be acceptable.  But to speak of Jesus “refuting,” “repudiating,” or “challenging” Old Testament laws is unjustifiable.  It leaves no room for the much more likely understanding that Jesus, the Lord and giver of these Old Testament laws, is now declaring that certain portions of the Old Testament are “no longer” valid, or that they are in some way relativized, in light of the new era in the history of redemption that Jesus is ushering in.  He does not “refute,” “repudiate,” or “challenge” them, as if they had never been valid; rather, he adapts them to the new situation that is coming about on account of the establishment of a new covenant and a new era of redemptive history.

Now, it is important to note that, evidently, this way of explaining things is not available for Boyd, because, despite his claim that he has a “high view of biblical inspiration,” he actually has a view that falls far short of a high, or an evangelical, or a Trinitarian doctrine of the inspiration of Scripture.  Boyd believes that the Old Testament authors wrote things that were not up to the standard of the definitive revelation that God gave through the life and death of his Son on the cross.  Incomprehensibly, Boyd still believes that the inspiration process allowed for the Old Testament authors to write things that were not up to the New Testament standard, and which indeed communicated incorrect things about God (here).  But if the purpose of inspired Scripture is that God might reveal himself to us, then God, in his inspiration of the Old Testament authors has failed horribly.  If it is only in the New Testament and in the cross that God has spoken definitively and accurately, then that would allow for the possibility of Jesus “refuting,” “repudiating,” or “challenging” parts of the Old Testament.  But this then falls far short of a truly Trinitarian understanding of the inspiration of the Old Testament, one which recognizes that it was Father, Son, and Holy Spirit which “breathed out” the Old Testament writings.  To argue that Jesus was “refuting,” repudiating,” or “challenging,” Old Testament laws, is to argue that Jesus was “refuting,” repudiating,” or “challenging” himself.  This is a heterodox view of inspiration.  And it hinders Boyd from being able to provide a truly biblical-theological, redemptive-historical view of what Jesus is doing in regard to Old Testament law.

(2) The first example which Boyd gives to support his claim is that of how Jesus dealt with the Sabbath.  Boyd refers in particular to the incident when Jesus his disciples were going through a grain field one Sabbath, and how the disciples began to pick some of the heads of grain and eat them, drawing the wrath of some observing Pharisees who accused the disciples of violating the Sabbath.  Boyd refers to how some scholars believe the disciples were only violating Pharisaical traditions about how to keep the Sabbath, and that no actual Old Testament law was being violated.  These scholars then note that Jesus’ defense of what the disciples did was for the purpose of bringing out the true meaning of the Sabbath, and for establishing the principle that Christ himself is Lord of the Sabbath.  Boyd grants “that this was certainly part of Jesus’ intent,” but does not believe that this explanation “absolves his disciples from the charge of Sabbath-breaking.”  He then notes that, after all, picking up sticks on the Sabbath was considered to be a violation, as well as gathering manna on the Sabbath.

However, neither of these examples substantiates Boyd’s claim.  First, it is important to note that in the account of the one gathering sticks on the Sabbath (Numbers 15:32-36), there is an intentionality that is not present in the actions of Jesus’ disciples.  The person gathering sticks is not simply picking up sticks as he walks along; rather, he has gone out for the very purpose of picking up sticks.  And previously in the Torah, there had been given a specific prohibition against building a fire in one’s dwelling on the Sabbath (Exodus 35:2-3).  The man was not simply “picking up sticks”; he was doing so for the very purpose of building a fire, something specifically prohibited by previous Scripture as a lawful Sabbath activity.  As for the manna example, it is important to note that while Moses did tell the Israelites not to go out to gather manna on the Sabbath, there was actually no possibility of their violating this command as it relates to the Sabbath.  There was no manna on the Sabbath!  The Israelites could not have broken this command if they tried.  They did prove unfaithful to the specific command not to go out to gather; but they didn’t gather.  But even if there had been manna to gather, this gathering would have had an intentionality to it that was not present in the situation with Jesus’ disciples.  The way the gospel narrators tell the story, they go to pains to emphasize that the disciples are not going through the fields in order to pick heads of grain, and perhaps eat later in a prepared meal.  Rather, they simply pick a few heads of grain to consume while they make their way through the fields.  There is no violation from which to be absolved.

Boyd makes a better case when he refers to places where he believes Jesus’ disciples “relativized” the Sabbath command in a passage like Colossians 2:16.  Rather than deal with his particular example in isolation, I will include it in the discussion of the next point.

(3) Boyd’s second example has to do with circumcision and the dietary laws.  But again, his language is too strong (“rejecting,” “reject”), and again fails to take any account of biblical-theological perspectives.  Boyd argues that the disciples rejected “OT commands for God’s covenant people,” and were willing to “reject parts” of the Old Testament law “when they felt the Spirit led them to do so” (referencing Acts 15:28).

Again, the language of “rejection” is too strong, as if the disciples were in some way suggesting that these particular laws had not been given by God and had never been valid for God’s covenant people.  Too much is being claimed with this language.

Additionally, it is important to note that Boyd fails to deal with some of the complexities and nuances of the text.  Over the past number of years, various Old and New Testament scholars have paid a great deal of attention to the narrative in Acts 15, and have given greater consideration to the fact that the apostles still expected the Gentile Christians to keep various dietary laws.  In fact, the restrictions that are placed on the Gentiles seem to be drawn from Leviticus 17-18, two chapters which specifically refer to the “foreigner residing among you.”  Furthermore, the apostles believe that is reasonable to ask the Gentile Christians to keep these laws, precisely because “the law of Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath” (Acts 15:21).  The Gentiles can be expected to keep these laws because they are, in fact, well acquainted with these laws!

Nevertheless, I am certainly willing to recognize that there is a relaxation that has taken place.  But I also want to emphasize that the relaxation is not because these laws are, as Boyd argues, too “meticulous” or “too harsh.”  Rather, the laws regarding the Sabbath and observance of special days, the law regarding circumcision, the dietary laws, and the sacrificial laws, have been either abrogated or relaxed for reasons that are better understood to be biblical-theological, redemptive-historical, having to do with the establishment a new covenant.  The sacrificial laws have been abrogated on account of Jesus’ “full and final sacrifice.”  The other laws have been relativized on account of, and in order to signify, a change in the make-up of the covenant people of God.  The changes and “relativizing” are consonant with a change from a covenant people which is more ethnic in nature, to a covenant people which is not ethnically determined, but includes,  on a vast scale, potentially all the scattered and diverse peoples of the earth.  Therefore the older covenantal signs and distinctions (Sabbath, circumcision, dietary laws) are relativized to make way for new signs and symbols more in line with the make-up of the new covenant people.  And, again, I stress that there is no negative judgment being passed on these older covenant laws, regulations, and symbols.  But they have now been replaced by newer symbols which both preserve continuities between the covenants, but also recognize proper discontinuities as well.  A biblical-theological approach does away with the need to use terms like “refute,” “repudiate.” “challenge,” or “reject.”

(4) Boyd’s last example has to do with the account of the woman taken in adultery (John 8:1-11).  Again, Boyd talks of how Jesus “functionally repudiated” an Old Testament law regarding capital punishment.  He refers to how Jesus “ingeniously” prevented the woman from being executed by pointing out that only “people without sin are in position to execute a sinner.”  And then, Boyd, ingeniously himself, goes on to argue that since only sinless accusers can put sinful people to death, this actually does away with capital punishment!  Of course, this is not really an ingenious argument, but one which employs quite a leap in logic.

Several things in reply.  First Boyd does not let the reader know that this passage has a very suspect text-critical history.  Our best manuscripts of the Gospel of John do not contain the story, and there is debate as to the story’s authenticity.  Nevertheless, for the sake of argument, I’ll grant the story’s authenticity.

Second, while Boyd even makes reference to two Old Testament passages which prescribe capital punishment for adultery, he fails to note that the two passages also specify that both the female and male parties in the adulterous act are to be executed.  And the failure to note this results in robbing the reader of one possible reason as to what Jesus meant when he said that the one without sin was to cast the first stone.  It is entirely possible that what Jesus is pointing to here is the failure of the teachers of the law and the Pharisees to apply the law even-handedly and justly.  Why did they bring only the woman, and not the man (or men)?  In fact, this relates very well to Jesus’ problem with the scribes and Pharisees.  His concern with them was not their fastidiousness in keeping Old Testament law.  Rather, his problem with them was exactly the opposite.  They were not fastidious in their keeping the law; to the contrary, they were hypocritical.  They were not fastidious, but selective in which laws they kept.  So, contrary to our modern conception, the Pharisees were not over-righteous.  Rather their righteousness was capable of being exceeded by sincere and non-hypocritical followers of Jesus and Old Testament law (Matt 5:20).  So, far from being a statement from which could be extrapolated the idea that Jesus is doing away with capital punishment, Jesus’ words here should be taken as a condemnation of hypocrisy.  Boyd’s specious reasoning does not work.

(5) Finally, I want to note that Boyd, when he closes his article, makes a relevant, though overstated point. He says,

Jesus’ teachings, his death, and his resurrection radically and permanently altered the way that the early church interpreted the Old Testament. As Graeme Goldsworthy has argued, Jesus is “the goal and the fulfillment of the whole Old Testament” and is “the key to the Bible.” Therefore, everything about these laws is reinterpreted because Jesus is the center of God’s revelation, the one in whom the law is fulfilled (Matt 5:17-18).

Boyd is correct that has there has been an alteration, but he again goes too far in referring to a “radically” altered interpretation, or that “everything about these laws is reinterpreted.”  That just isn’t the case.

But beyond this, it seems to me, quite ironic and inappropriate for Boyd to quote from Graeme Goldsworthy, the only other figure he does cite, as if in some way Goldsworthy would have agreed with the points Boyd is making in this article.  The quotations from Goldsworthy are to be found in his book, Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture: The Application of Biblical Theology to Expository Preaching, a book which in the past I have assigned as required reading for my Motifs in Biblical Theology course.  Note, however, the following citations from Goldsworthy with regard to Old Testament law.  And note the words I have highlighted:

There is no doubt that the case can be made that the New Testament assumes continuity of the ethical law of Israel and nowhere repudiates it but rather sharpens the application of it.

Jesus did not come to destroy or abolish the law but to fulfill it (Matt. 5:17).  He is the end, the telos, of the law.  He is the ultimate reference point, revealing with unprecedented clarity what Sinai was all about.  He applies it with uncompromising rigidity: “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:20).

While the relationship between law and gospel remains an area of discussion and dispute, there are some salient points that can be made with confidence.  The gospel event is not a repudiation of the law; it is its most perfect expression.

Additionally, Goldsworthy handles the whole question of the relationship between Old Testament law and the Christian from a biblical-theological perspective, rather than from a proof-texting perspective.

This rebuttal article is probably about fives times as long as Boyd’s original article, and perhaps if Boyd had written something longer, he would have taken more care to provide better arguments, discuss things in a more nuanced way, and deal with possible objections and alternative ways of reading the passages he cites.  Nevertheless, to use a very brief article to argue for, what I would consider to be the heterodox idea that Jesus “refuted,” “repudiated,” “challenged” or “radically reinterpreted” “everything about these laws” is, to my mind, irresponsibly misleading for the reader.  This entire issue is one that must be approached from a biblical-theological, redemptive-historical perspective, and with a more robust understanding of inspiration.  And that cannot be done in brief.

I close by providing two more citations from Graeme Goldsworthy, quotations which more responsibly outline the way we should frame the discussion with regard to issues like the one discussed in this article.

Jesus did not see himself as coming to eradicate the old and to establish something totally new.  The gospel event is not de novo but is seen as the completion and fulfillment of all God’s saving acts and promises in the Old Testament.

Jesus was a biblical theologian who recognized the salvation-historical structure of revelation and his definitive role in salvation theology. . . .  He thus established biblical theology as the key to understanding the Scriptures, for he is the salvation-historical event that gives significance to all the others.  (Graeme Goldsworthy)

Jerry Shepherd
January 30, 2017