Old & New Testament - Contrasting Beliefs
In one of my more recent hubs I discussed the doctrines of Heaven and Hell and the Christian conception of the afterlife and how in actuality the developments made in the New Testament actually make Christianity less merciful, in some sense, than the harsh pronouncements of the Mosaic Law. The idea that God wasn't just going to punish you in the here and now but that he would take you and throw you – both body and soul – into an eternal Hell was a new concept that didn't exist in Judaism prior to Christianity.
In this hub I want to further contrast the Old Testament view of punishment, reward and obedience to God to the beliefs that arose out of Christianity which are contained in the New Testament and various interpretations of it. I will also touch upon some other fundamental differences between Judaism and Christianity that are often overlooked by modern Christians who see the Bible as a single coherent book with a consistent message and view of God.
Elijah's Chariot of Fire
Sheol - The Grave
The first key point to understand is that in the Old Testament there is no Heavenly reward for the average mortal and no horrific hellfire awaiting the wicked. Rather the general belief at the time was that the dead went to a shadowy place called Sheol. It wasn't just the wicked that went to this underworld of sorts – everyone ended up there regardless of their deeds in life. Only a few chosen righteous men had ever ascended to Heaven.
When Apocalypticism became popular in Judaism a belief came about that those waiting Sheol would later be resurrected and judged, so a global resurrection of the dead did eventually enter into Judaism. Prior to that however the prevailing belief was that most mortals ended up in Sheol. Only certain mortals could be exalted and taken to Heaven as exampled in figures such as Moses, Enoch and most famously Elijah who was taken up to Heaven in a whirlwind.
Oblivion - No Afterlife At All!
Among some of the Jews however there was no belief in an afterlife of any kind. The Book of Ecclesiastes, a very interesting and different book commonly attributed to King Solomon himself suggests that there is no afterlife. Ecclesiastes Chapter 9 in particular makes it abundantly clear that while God may reward and accept your works in this life that you will surely die, so eat, drink and be merry!
"For to him that is joined to all the living there is hope: for a living dog is better than a dead lion.
For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not any thing, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten.
Also their love, and their hatred, and their envy, is now perished; neither have they any more a portion for ever in any thing that is done under the sun.
Go thy way, eat thy bread with joy, and drink thy wine with a merry heart; for God now accepteth thy works."
- Ecclesiastes 9:4-7 KJV
Heaven and Hell
Christianity introduced the idea that ordinary mortals might have a place in Heaven. Prior to this only the righteous and chosen could be exalted up to Heaven by God, such as Elijah was in the Old Testament. The idea that everyone might have a place in a Heavenly Kingdom was a new one. Jesus claimed that he would go and prepare a place for the faithful in his Father's Kingdom, a Kingdom with an upside down hierarchy where the downtrodden and outcast of our world would be first and the rich and powerful would be last (if they could get in at all).
Jesus also introduced Hell as a place where the damned might be sent, referencing Gehenna, an ever-burning trash heap outside of Jerusalem to get the point across. It's interesting to note that our earliest Christian author, the Apostle Paul, doesn't mention Hell ONCE. Paul was writing very early on in the history of Christianity and while he does mention wrath, condemnation and even damnation as concepts he never actually mentions Hell. Paul, a Jew who was persecuting Christians, seems to have a more immediate view of wrath, in the here and now, not in some pit of hellfire at the end of all time.
Mark, our earliest Gospel, mentions Hell only three times in it's entire length. Of course as our writings get later the concept of Hell develops farther. The Book of Revelation, which has proved difficult to date but was likely written sometime around the year 80, gives us a different sort of Hell, known as the Lake of Fire, which is different from Gehenna, the Hell Jesus tells us about in the Gospels.
The Christian concept of Hell as a place where the damned would go for all eternity seems to have evolved and changed and is not present in Paul's writings which are the earliest record of Christian beliefs available to us. The idea that the Bible is one consistent document with one message unified by the guiding hand of God is absurd when you actually delve into the details of the texts we're dealing with.
Of course Revelation also tells us what the Heavenly city looks like in great detail despite the Gospels telling us that we cannot even imagine the good things God will reward the faithful with in Heaven. This is all in stark contrast with the Old Testament where you were rewarded for your righteousness with healthy crops, peaceful times and other Earthly prosperity. Christianity wanted you to store up treasure in God's coming Kingdom which was now accessible to all – even non-Jews.
So the author of Ecclesiastes and the Apostle Paul are both clearly espousing a view quite different from what modern Christians see as the Biblically agreed upon view of the Afterlife. Indeed the way that a lot of things work in the Old Testament are completely different from the way things work under the so-called “New Covenant” and many Christians are unaware of these differences within the Bible itself.
In the Old Testament Yahweh was the one true God of the whole Earth and the character of Satan worked for him. Satan, which means adversary or accuser, was not exactly friendly toward humans even in his Old Testament role but he was far from God's enemy. In fact it was Satan's job to argue the sins of mankind with God in order to push God toward judgment. This isn't portrayed as some personal vendetta Satan has against God or God's creation rather this is simply the function Satan was assigned by God himself.
To modern Christians reading, for example, the book of Job, it seems confusing to see the character of Satan standing in Heaven with God talking about Job's status as a righteous man. It is Satan who goads God into allowing him to torment Job and take away all the gifts that Job's righteousness had afforded him. So Satan was not God's arch-nemesis as Christianity would later suggest nor was there this dreaded character of “the Devil” nor were there 'rulers and principalities' discussed in the Old Testament as they are in the New.
"In whom the god of this world hath blinded the minds of them which believe not, lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine unto them."
- 2 Corinthians 4:4 Many translations identify Satan as this lowercase 'god' who has blinded non-believers. The forces of evil were given control of Earth for a time but God was going to take it back.
In the New Testament the corruption of the world is made to seem that much worse when rather than God being the God of this world, Satan, who is recast as God's arch enemy, is seen as the God of this world. This change reflects one of the fundamental differences between the Old and New Testament teachings related to God's interactions with man.
The Immediacy of Punishment/Reward
In the Old Testament there was no concept of hellfire to threaten the Jews into submission to God's command. Hell hadn't even been introduced yet! Rather God's punishment or wrath was seen as much more immediate, not always in the sense of time but ALWAYS in the sense of how visceral his wrath was. God wasn't going to punish Israelites who were already dead, he was going to punish the wicked until they were dead.
What do I mean? Well there are a lot of examples I could give but here is just one of them. In Numbers Chapter 14 the Hebrews are still wandering in the wilderness and grumbling about wanting to get to the Promised Land. God is tired of their rebellion, again (this is not the first time he's gotten sick of their bullshit) and tells Moses that he wants to go down and smite them with a pestilence and disown them. IMAGINE THAT! The God of Abraham wants to forsake the Covenant he made because he has grown impatient with the Hebrew people! And not only that but their disobedience makes him want to bring down a plague.
Numbers 14:11-19 KJV (emphasis mine):
"And the Lord said unto Moses, How long will this people provoke me? and how long will it be ere they believe me, for all the signs which I have shewed among them?
I will smite them with the pestilence, and disinherit them, and will make of thee a greater nation and mightier than they.
And Moses said unto the Lord, Then the Egyptians shall hear it, (for thou broughtest up this people in thy might from among them;)
And they will tell it to the inhabitants of this land: for they have heard that thou Lord art among this people, that thou Lord art seen face to face, and that thy cloud standeth over them, and that thou goest before them, by day time in a pillar of a cloud, and in a pillar of fire by night.
Now if thou shalt kill all this people as one man, then the nations which have heard the fame of thee will speak, saying,
Because the Lord was not able to bring this people into the land which he sware unto them, therefore he hath slain them in the wilderness.
And now, I beseech thee, let the power of my lord be great, according as thou hast spoken, saying,
The Lord is longsuffering, and of great mercy, forgiving iniquity and transgression, and by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation.
Pardon, I beseech thee, the iniquity of this people according unto the greatness of thy mercy, and as thou hast forgiven this people, from Egypt even until now."
Moses actually reminds God of the promises God had made to them and asks that God honor his word! Moses stands as the arbiter between the Hebrew people and their God. At one point later on in the story Moses and Aaron desperately beg forgiveness as the plague descends, the Bible says Aaron stood "between the living and the dead" and managed to stop the plague, though in the end the plague did kill 14,700 people.
If you read the so-called Books of Moses there are numerous instances where the great Patriarchs attempt to talk down God from a murderous rage. The first such instance is in Genesis where Abraham pleads with God not to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. He starts out by asking that if God finds forty righteous people there he will spare the city, God agrees and slowly Abraham talks God down until God agrees that if he can find even one righteous person in those cities he will spare them!
This is how wrath and punishment work in the Old Testament. God threatens horrible destruction, plague, famine, invasion by foreign enemies unless his people will turn around and follow the law. There is no threat of Hell and no promise of Heaven, there is the threat of real visceral suffering in the real world for disobedience and the promise of peace and prosperity only for those who obey God's law.
Abraham tries to reason God out of Genocide
The Importance of Belief vs. Law
Probably the biggest change that Christianity made to it's Judaic roots is in shifting the focus away from ritual, law and atonement and toward beliefs and affirmations. That's not to say that early Christians didn't drastically alter their behavior to reflect their new found beliefs in the teachings of Jesus but that unlike the Mosaic Law which is about obedience and rituals for atonement, cleanliness, etc early Christianity involved accepting Christ as your savior, your Messiah, the ultimate sacrifice. As such the New Testament addresses whether Christians must adhere to the Law of Moses including the issue of whether Gentiles (non-circumcised non-Jewish folks) could become Christians.
While the Apostle Paul is clear that Christians are meant to follow the general spirit of the Law, due to the fact that they are following in Christ's footsteps, they are no longer considered to be 'under' the Jewish law. So God was no longer interested, in their minds, with bringing down wrathful plagues or woeful suffering on those who disobeyed the law. Rather those who were Christians accepted Christ as the final sacrifice and knew that their reward wasn't going to come on Earth but in Heaven where they were storing up treasure.
Obedience to Christ, then, wasn't under any threat of immediate punishment or even punishment while you were still alive, rather the focus was on an Apocalyptic view that at the end of all things God would judge the living and the dead. Part of what pushed this shift was that Apocalyptic viewpoint, something which the Jesus of the Gospels was quite clear about was that the end was coming soon and this belief seems essentially Universal throughout the New Testament.
So there was no need for an outpouring of wrath in the immediate – the end was coming and with it the final judgment and the final punishment and reward – no wonder early Christians felt so compelled to proselytize, they believed they would see Christ return in glory within their lifetimes!
It was faith in Jesus that was important and there were no works, in Christianity, that could make you righteous. In fact human righteousness is like filthy rags and rather than build yourself up Christianity proposed that you humble yourself. Belief, faith, had replaced ritual and while good works still had a place in early Christian belief they were not enough to earn salvation, only Christ could help you with that.
And while you were not under the Jewish law any longer you were meant to be reborn "dead to sin" as Paul explains in Romans 6:1-7
"What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound?
God forbid. How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein?
Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death?
Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.
For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection:
Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin.
For he that is dead is freed from sin."
These sorts of departures from Jewish orthodoxy, as well as the allowance of non-circumcised non-Jews and the spread to the Greek speaking world likely helped Christianity immensely in it's early years. By the time Constantine made it the official religion of the Roman Empire Christianity had evolved from a small Apocalyptic Jewish sect to something that left it's concept of "salvation" accessible to anyone on Earth.
What is my point?
So what, then, is my main point in bringing this up. My main point is to draw distinctions between the Jewish beliefs that form the backbone of the Old Testament and the drastically different Christian beliefs that are represented in the New Testament. There is a common belief among many Evangelical Christians that the Bible is a unified whole that does not disagree with itself or offer contradictory perspectives. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
Even within the Old Testament there are different views about suffering and wrath. From Job, who suffers because God is testing him. To the story in Numbers where God is fed up with the rebellion and discontent of his people wandering in the desert. To the tower of Babel where our ability to cooperate and achieve anything we set our minds to is deemed too dangerous to be allowed and God differentiates our languages to keep us divided from one another.
In the New Testament suffering is not the will of God or a punishment of God, it is the result of the fact that Satan and the powers of the air have been given authority over the Earth. Satan is re-purposed not as an agent of God as he was in the Old Testament but as an adversary of both God and man. But never fear because the end is already at hand and God's Kingdom will be here – soon.
My point is that Judaism and Christianity are fundamentally very different despite sharing a common starting point.
The Messiah and Apocalypse
The last such difference I want to touch upon is the issue of the Messiah. This one should be obvious because most modern Jews do not accept Christ as the Messiah. In general the thinking about the Messiah is that he would be a Jewish King who would return the nation of Israel to prominence and set up the Kingdom of God on Earth. That is to say that he would decimate the enemies of Israel and bring the world under his rule.
In the book of Zechariah we are given a glimpse of this future in one of the early Apocalyptic texts of Jewish Apocalypticism. God establishes his Kingdom on Earth and all nations must pay tribute to him and to Israel. Essentially Israel and it's God will rule over the entire Earth and all those nations that wrong them will suffer a horrible plague. The plague that is mentioned would one day inspire melting Nazis in Raiders of the Lost Ark as it describes people's faces rotting off right where they stand.
This Generation Will Not Pass Away
Of course modern Christians sometimes like to try to force Daniel, Zechariah and the book of Revelations together with the things Jesus said would come to pass in the Gospels to form a sort of Uber Apocalypse and reconcile the very different accounts. In Jewish thought it was believed that the Messiah was the powerful figure who would usher in the Kingdom of God on Earth which Israel would be the center of. When Jesus was crucified however it left his followers clearly confused. How was Jesus the Messiah if he had been crucified by the Romans rather than establishing God's Kingdom on Earth. Was the Messiah always meant to be crucified? It's clear that the Christians came to think so but many other Jews did not.
The followers of Jesus came to believe that Jesus had to die to atone for the sins of Israel so that God could move forward in establishing his Kingdom. This, they believed, would happen within the lifetime of some of Jesus' closest followers as Jesus himself said in the Gospels.
"Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass away, till all be fulfilled." Luke 21:32
So the Messiah was never meant to establish the Kingdom immediately, the Christians had to believe, he was meant to return to Heaven to prepare the Kingdom and return one day in glory. Of course this crucified Messiah did not catch on with most Jews, they rejected the idea of Jesus as the Messiah and rejected the claim that he was resurrected and are still awaiting the Messiah of Jewish prophecy to this day. The teachings of Christianity did, however, spread and eventually began to catch on among non-Jews. While it was split into many different sects with their own beliefs it began to be codified under a single view when Constantine converted in the fourth century and named Christianity Rome's new State religion.
Many of the prophecies claimed in the Gospel accounts themselves, which are meant to show Jesus as the Messiah, are actually not prophecies at all. For example Isaiah 7:14 is referenced in Matthew as a fulfilled Messianic prophecy but it uses a mistranslation of the Hebrew word for young woman re-translating it as virgin. To further complicate things the passage is actually delivered to Ahaz, the King of Judah, and that is the actual context of the verses in question. God is going to remove the Kings of Assyria and Egypt as seen in verse 16:
"For before the child shall know to refuse the evil, and choose the good, the land that thou abhorrest shall be forsaken of both her kings."
Most modern Christians believe Jesus ALWAYS knew to refuse evil and choose good - this prophecy obviously has NOTHING to do with Jesus.
In Matthew the author misreads a prophecy and gets it hilariously wrong having Jesus sit on the backs of two animals as he rides in Jerusalem.
The birth narratives in Luke and Matthew contradict one another on numerous levels and are vastly different. For one thing Luke has Jesus' parents taking him straight to Nazareth after taking him to the temple and having a prophetess predict his future and performing a sacrifice. In Matthew, of course, there is the famed flight to Egypt to avoid Herod's brief period of baby-killing. Matthew also makes up a prophecy. After their two years in hiding in Egypt Matthew says they go to Nazareth to fulfill a Messianic prophecy that the Messiah would be called a Nazarene – no such prophecy exists in the Old Testament scriptures!
Of course I could go on and on, these are just a few examples, but I think you get the point. Jews rejecting the story of Jesus were not doing anything out of the ordinary. They had no reason to think this Jesus guy had really risen from the dead and with how poorly contrived some of the Messianic prophecies in the Gospels are its no surprise that so many Jews didn't accept Jesus as the Messiah. Of course many of these claimed prophecies likely didn't appear until the Gospels were written down, forty to seventy years after Jesus' supposed death.
Not only are there large discrepancies between the Gospels themselves but there are clear differences between Jewish scripture's thoughts on the end times and the Messiah and what the Christians later developed. And of course Christianity split into sects. There were those who saw the Kingdom as a heavenly idea, not an Earthly one.
There were those who thought Christ was an angel, a pre-existent being that became incarnate as a man (The Apostle Paul appears to have this view). There were those who thought Christ was a righteous man and prophet adopted as God's son and made the Messiah at the Resurrection, or the Baptism. And eventually there were those who believed Jesus, himself, was God, an aspect of the Almighty (although what it means to say Jesus is God is a subject for another hub entirely).
Early Christianity was a sect of Judaism but as it grew and evolved and split into it's own factions and each of these had different beliefs on who Jesus was and what it meant to say that Jesus was the Messiah. Christianity also introduced new concepts about the afterlife which had not existed within Judaic thought previously. One of these was the introduction of Gehenna, or Hell, a place of fire and darkness that Jesus introduces in the Gospels.
The fact is that each book of the Bible contains different beliefs about how God interacted with his people. From the books of Moses where God has to be talked down out of his murderous rages by Moses and Aaron to Job where he appears to Job in a whirlwind of grandeur to lay down the law about Job's status as a mere mortal. To the Apocalyptic view of Zechariah that ends with Israel and it's God ruling the whole of the Earth and those who do not submit having their faces melted off.
The Bible is far more nuanced and fascinating when looked at this way, instead of the narrow way that fundamentalists tend to view it. When Christians refuse to research and acknowledge the truth about their own scripture it leaves them ignorant to what their Bibles really contain and how different the God and Savior they currently believe in is from what they started out with in Genesis 1:1.
Thanks for Reading!
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