There’s an important principle of Bible study that has been ignored by nearly all Christians, and because of this, Christianity is full of unscriptural doctrines.
You see, God defined what was considered to be sinful for Israelites in the Mosaic law, and basically told them everything they needed to know about life, death, and judgement in the “Old Testament” books in general as well. If something wasn’t taught in “the law and the prophets,” it wasn’t necessary for them to know, at least until the time Jesus began His ministry.
However, even after Jesus began His ministry, as recorded in the “New Testament” books, His teachings weren’t about new prohibitions that Israelites had to follow “or else.” If there was something God definitely didn’t want Israelites to do, He told them what it was in the “Old Testament” books; and if there were consequences for breaking any of these rules, He spelled them out in the “Old Testament” books as well (there is a sort of exception to this, but it wasn’t about sins with consequences the way most people think of them today, so I’m not getting into it here). Instead, the teachings of Jesus were primarily confirmation — and sometimes helpful interpretation — of the teachings given in the “Old Testament” books. Similarly, Paul didn’t give new prohibitions in his epistles either. Anything that he taught should be considered sinful would still be based on the writings of the “Old Testament” books (even if the body of Christ isn’t under the Mosaic law, and shouldn’t even be worrying about sin anyway, the “Old Testament” books are still useful for understanding what would be considered to be sin in the first place).
With that in mind, there are doctrines that are considered to be incredibly important to most Christians today which, if you were to go back in time and try to teach them to an Israelite during basically any time prior to Christ’s ministry, would result in confusion as to where you got these ideas from.
To give some examples of what I’m talking about, please consider the following questions:
- If you wanted to convince a man that he shouldn’t fantasize sexually about a woman, or enjoy the way the shape of her body looks (or even look at her naked), which passages from the “Old Testament” books would you use?
- Similarly, if you wanted to convince a woman that she shouldn’t fantasize sexually about a man, or enjoy the way the shape of his body looks (or even look at him naked), which passages from the “Old Testament” books would you use?
- If you wanted to convince someone that women shouldn’t interact sexually with other women, which passages from the “Old Testament” books would you use?
- If you wanted to convince someone that certain dead people might actually be conscious, and might even suffer without end in a fiery place called hell, which passages from the “Old Testament” books would you use?
Now think carefully about these questions. I’m sure you can come up with passages in the “New Testament” books that you might assume are talking about these things (such as Matthew 5:28, Romans 1:26, and Luke 16:19-31, among various others), but each of these passages has to be interpreted in light of what the “Old Testament” books actually taught.
For example, there’s no passage anywhere in the “Old Testament” books that I’m aware of which says desiring a woman sexually, or looking at her body with desire, is wrong (and the passage in Matthew 5:28 is only talking about men “lusting” after certain women — it doesn’t say anything about the “lust” that a woman might have towards men — so it can’t be used to condemn women at all), which means this passage has to mean something other than what Christians have commonly assumed it does.
Next, there are a couple verses in the Mosaic law which seem to imply that men shouldn’t have anal sex with other men, but even if this is what those verses are talking about (ignoring the debate about the meaning of these passages for the moment), it’s pretty obvious that there aren’t any follow-up verses talking about women lying with other women (and these verses are surrounded by other verses which spell out prohibitions for both men and women, so one can’t just say it’s implied by the verses about men), which means that Romans 1:26 has to be something other than a condemnation of sexual or romantic relations between women.
As far as a supposed afterlife goes, the “Old Testament” books talk about people “sleeping” in the ground rather than about the dead being conscious. There is a passage in Daniel that talks about a future resurrection to “everlasting contempt” (the word “everlasting” needs to be read very figuratively here, though, as explained here), but that’s talking about people who have been resurrected from the dead, not to a never-ending conscious state of those who are still dead and are supposedly in a fiery place called “hell.” Isaiah also talked about carcases being destroyed by worms and fire while being observed by certain people, but that was talking about dead bodies being looked upon with shame by living people here on earth at some point in the future, not to ghosts being chomped on by some sort of mystical, immortal worms or being burned (yet never consumed) by magical fire in an ethereal afterlife dimension. So assertions that Jesus was threatening His audience with never-ending torment after they die makes no sense at all when one considers the fact that nobody during “Old Testament” times had ever even been warned about such a horrific outcome (the worst possible consequence for sinning in the “Old Testament” books was simply physical death), which means one has to dig deeper to find out what it is Jesus must have actually meant by these scary-sounding threats.
There are plenty of other examples I could bring up beyond just those ones, but the above should explain what I’m getting at. Basically, to interpret the “New Testament” books, it’s important to make sure that you understand what they mean in light of what the “Old Testament” books said (or didn’t say, as the case may also be).