A New Look at the Old Testament
TWO TESTAMENTS, ONE WORD
How new is the New Testament? There were miraculous raisings of the dead before the time of Christ, and God changed the names of His elect long before “Simon” became “Peter.” A divinely ordained high priesthood existed prior to the papacy, and ever since Solomon seated his mother, Bathsheba, on a throne next to his, the Jewish people honored a “queen mother” who, like Mary, acted as an intercessor.
That said, no religious leader before Jesus had ever commissioned his followers to forgive other men their sins. No man had ever claimed to be God or laid down his life to atone for sin. Jesus alone forbade divorce and remarriage, even as He gave the world its first picture of Hell, warning that most souls are headed in that direction (cf. Mt. 7:14). Who but the Nazarene ever insisted that his followers “eat” his flesh and “drink” his blood — to the point of parting company with many who failed to believe (cf. Jn. 6:67)?
These and other New Testament departures are rightly viewed by Christians as gifts from God. Yet theologians have been known to make too much of their novelty. A popular movement to do away with Hebrew Scripture began with Gnostic heretics at the dawn of Christian history. They regarded what they called “the god of the Old Testament” as evil because He created matter, which, to them, was evil. Marcion (c. A.D. 85-160), the father of this oldest of all heresies leading to schism, attracted many followers.
Marcionism was eventually beaten back by the champions of orthodoxy, but it never really died. Elements of it reappeared in Manicheanism and, a thousand years later, in the faith of the Cathari and Albigensians. Even today, one hears talk, on occasion, of a “God of the Old Testament” — as if there were a brace of deities.
A major misconception at the root of Marcionism is the idea that the Old Testament is lighter on mercy and heavier on judgment than the New Testament. The thesis is hard to defend because there is no counterpart to the tongue-lashing Jesus gave to the leaders of Jewish society. No Old Testament punishment for failure to believe compares with the fate of those who refused belief in Christ. The Israelites knew what it was like to suffer military defeat and lose their independence. But 40 years after Christ’s crucifixion, they perished by the hundreds of thousands, and those who escaped the sword were scattered abroad, with their Temple in ruins and their priesthood abolished — all as prophesied by a Savior who wept over His people’s stubbornness (cf. Lk. 19:41). Yes, there is abundant evidence of God’s mercy in the New Testament, but no more than one finds in the Old. Time after time, Abraham’s descendants fall from grace. They suffer. They repent. They beg forgiveness. And, without exception, they are pardoned.
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