You believe in Jesus. You want to believe the Bible but there are things that make it difficult. Strange and repellent things in the Old Testament that you just can’t believe were from God.
But it feels disloyal. The Bible is where you learn about Jesus. Questioning it is like questioning God. So you are torn.
If that is you, then you may need to know there is a different way to look at all this. A way that fits the evidence and is faithful to Jesus.
Read on the find out more.
The New Testament makes sense
You don’t really have a problem here. The historians say the gospels are more or less historical. Jesus was a Jewish rabbi, a prophet and a healer. It make sense. His teachings make real sense.
So you can believe he was the son of God, saviour, king. Following him is one of the best choices you ever made.
You just can’t believe the Old Testament any more
Did God really order his people to commit genocide and wipe out the inhabitants of Canaan, every man woman and child (Deuteronomy 20:16, 7:2)?
Did he really flood the entire world, but have every animal on earth saved on Noah’s ark?
Did God really try to kill Moses just after giving him a mission to save his people (Exodus 4:19-26)?
If you have come to the point where you can’t believe those things any more, what do you do?
Some people throw the whole thing out. They treat it as a single book and so if they can’t believe those things, they can’t believe any of it.
But you can’t do that because you believe in Jesus. And these were his scriptures.
However you can’t ignore these difficulties any more, or pretend they aren’t there.
Let me share what I have found makes sense of all this.
Two ways to see the Old Testament
Christians have generally been taught that the whole Bible stands together. It was written by God, it is God’s very word. It cannot be questioned, but rather we must just submit to it.
That sounds right, except that christians interpret it so many different ways, and it leaves us with problems we can’t solve.
And in the end, that view is just an assumption. Or a theological conclusion. It isn’t actually taught in the Bible.
Another way to look at it
What if, instead, the Old Testament is a record of how God revealed truth to a pagan people? The record of an unfolding revelation.
And the ugly commands were the expressions of a people in the early stages of learning about the true God. A learning that wouldn’t reach a correct understanding until Jesus came among them.
Let’s examine that thought and see if it adds up.
What does the Old Testament look like?
The Old Testament is made up of many different writings by different authors. Different genres with different perspectives, sometimes telling different stories.
Some parts look like myths (or legends, or folk tales) – if we came across them elsewhere, that’s how we’d see them.
Some parts tell different stories to other parts. Notable here are the differences between the first half of Joshua, and the second half plus Judges. But there are many other examples.
Some parts appear to be contradicted by known history and archaeology. Again Joshua is a good example.
And of course some teachings seem to present a God quite different to the God we believe was revealed in Jesus.
All this is enough to suggest that the alternative view of the Old Testament is closer to the truth than the “traditional” view.
God’s character vs the Old Testament
This is the clincher for me. The New Testament teaches us that Jesus is the most complete revelation of God’s character we can have (John 14:9, Colossians 2:9, Hebrews 1:3). So it is reasonable to ask the question:
Can we imagine Jesus giving those commands to annihilate every man, woman and child in a city?
I cannot. I think it is a blasphemy to think that he could have. If so, then it must equally be wrong to say that God could have commanded that. God is a God of love, not of such terrifying destructiveness.
The New Testament supports this conclusion. When Jesus quotes from Isaiah in Luke 4:18-19, he omits a phrase that talks of God’s vengeance. In Romans 3:10-18, 12:19-21 & 15:9-10 Paul quotes from Old Testament passages that talk of God’s punishment and vengeance, and each time he turns them into a reference to God’s love, mercy and forgiveness.
So if there is anything in the Old Testament that contradicts what we know about Jesus, then I think we must allow Jesus to re-interpret it.
I would rather affirm God’s unsurpassing goodness even if that means taking a “lower” view of the Old Testament. Better that than holding a “higher” view of the Old Testament and so saying unacceptable things about God’s character.
Why I believe the alternative view
There are three more reasons.
It takes the pressure off
I don’t have to try to defend the indefensible, to somehow say that a God of love could command such inhumane and unjust actions. I don’t have to try to find ways to fit the findings of archaeology into Biblical history.
It follows the evidence
Internal consistency and external (archaeological and historical) evidence suggests that the Old Testament isn’t a literal and factual history, presenting timeless truths about God. It is something different.
It isn’t a matter of the Bible vs secular scholarship, but the Bible + secular scholarship vs a theological view of the Bible.
None of this changes my belief in Jesus, which is based firmly on the historical evidence. Believing in Jesus and allowing him to interpret how I see the Old Testament leaves me free to put my effort into following him.
How do I know this is true?
I don’t. But I came to this view after much prayer for the Spirit’s guidance, and after a fair amount of reading (I’ve listed some references at the end). I don’t think there is any reason to be alarmed.
I now see the Old Testament through new eyes, and it is much more understandable and much more believable. These conclusions enhance rather than reduce my understanding of God and Jesus.
I encourage you to pray for understanding too, and to do your own reading. The other pages in this “Bible” section look at some of these topics in more detail.
Read more on the Old Testament
On this website:
- What scholars tell us about the New Testament – a summary of what secular scholars have concluded.
- What scholars tell us about the Old Testament – a brief outline of what secular scholars have concluded.
- In what way is the Bible a special book? – christians all believe it is special, but is it inspired, without error, the word of God, authoritative, etc?
- How to interpret the Bible? – finding God’s way and avoiding the problems.
- The Canaanite genocide – a historical perspective – what really happened and what did God command?.
Books and websites:
- Peter Enns. Inspiration and Incarnation. Pete’s website.
- Christopher Hays & Christopher Ansberry, Evangelical Faith and the Challenge of Historical Criticism.
- Dennis Lamoureux, I Love Jesus and I Accept Evolution.
- William Dever, Beyond the Texts and Has archaeology buried the Bible?
- Richard Elliott Friedman. The Exodus.
- American Society for Oriental Research website.
Read more on the New testament
- Richard Bauckham. Jesus: a very short introduction.
- John Dickson: A Spectators Guide to Jesus, Life of Jesus and The Christ Files
- Maurice Casey: Jesus of Nazareth: An Independent Historian’s Account of his Life and Teaching.
- NT Wright: Simply Jesus.