I greatly appreciated Josh Sande’s call for Christianity to be less dogmatic in last Friday’s Weekly (“A Lutheran Love Letter to Atheism”), but I was disappointed in his contrast between “the teachings of Jesus” and the “hating, burning, stabbing, pillaging and arbitrary restrictions . . . in the Old Testament.” By accepting this common stereotype, Mr. Sande has failed to practice the critical inquiry that he otherwise endorses so effectively in his column.
The Old Testament/Hebrew Bible does not have a monopoly on culturally conditioned, ethically problematic texts. You might be surprised to learn, for instance, that the Hebrew Bible prohibits sending escaped slaves back to their masters (Deuteronomy 23:15), but Paul ignores this commandment and does just that in the New Testament (Philemon 12). Even Jesus? Words can be troubling; after all, he once referred to members of a different ethnic group as “dogs” (Mark 7:27)! At the same time, the Hebrew Bible contains many of Christianity’s most cherished ideals. “Love your neighbor as yourself” first appears in Leviticus 19:18, and prophets like Amos, Micah and Isaiah insisted that religious rituals should be accompanied by concern for the poor and oppressed long before the New Testament was written (Micah 6:8).
Sadly, Christians have sometimes used the supposed moral inferiority of the Hebrew Bible as an excuse to demean Jews. That’s obviously not what Mr. Sande had in mind at all. But in light of the often-violent history between the two faiths, we should be very careful about how we characterize the part of the Bible that Christianity shares with Judaism.