Saturday, November 22, 2014
Every Jot and Tittle: Nobody Obeys Everything in the Bible, and that's a Good Thing
Folks who claim not to pick and choose often quote the King James translation of Jesus in Matthew 5:18: "For verily I say unto you, till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled." Now, I find the words "jot" and "tittle" rather pleasing, and I wouldn't mind seeing them brought back into use. But I would hate to see people really follow every jot and tittle, and I'm glad they don't, whether they say they do or not.
First, very few Christians really follow all the dietary and ritual laws in Leviticus, Deuteronomy, etc. (very few Jews do either, except the ultra-orthodox.) Most Christians I know happily eat shrimp and pork, trim the hair on the sides of their heads, wear mixed fabrics, and generally violate Torah in a hundred different ways. That's fine--I don't expect Christians to start living like Orthodox Jews. But I do expect them not to say they follow rules when they clearly don't. Is that really too much to ask?
Of course, not all Christians claim to follow every rule in the Bible, and there's a long history of debate within Christianity about the extent to which Christians should follow Old Testament Jewish law. This goes all the way back to the beginning, to arguments between Paul and the more orthodox former associates of Jesus. It even goes back to the words of Jesus himself. While Jesus did say that not one jot or tittle would be changed, he also cast doubt on whether dietary laws should be followed, when he said in Matthew 15.11, "What goes into someone's mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them." The tension between this verse and the "jot and tittle" verse has, understandably, led to a lot of tension within Christianity over the centuries.
It seems that many conservative Christians today still haven't decided for sure where they stand on the issue. Whenever I hear someone quoting Leviticus to denounce homosexuality, I ask them why the hair on the side of their head is trimmed, and whether they eat shrimp. Then, generally, they'll say that's part of the Old Covenant, and Christians follow the New Covenant. To which I reply, "Fine, but stop quoting Leviticus if you no longer follow it. And stop saying you don't pick and choose what parts of the Bible to follow. Because you do."
Another episode in the New Testament that suggests Jesus was more a "spirit of the law" than "letter of the law" kind of guy is the beautiful story of the woman caught in adultery (though the story isn't actually in the oldest manuscripts, and may have been written long after Jesus' death). The Mosaic law in this case was clear--she was to be put to death (actually, so was the guy she slept with, but for some reason, he doesn't appear.) The Jewish authorities tried to trap Jesus by asking him what should be done, but he outsmarted them. He didn't contradict the law, as they hoped. He just said that whoever is without sin should cast the first stone. After a while, the crowd dispersed and the woman lived.
You don't have to be a Christian to be appreciate the wisdom and mercy shown here (wherever the story really comes from). Thankfully, the story helped form a basis for Christians to move away from the brutality of the Old Testament laws (Jews also moved away from the harsher laws, of course). But here again, the fact is that Christians have stopped doing some of the things the Bible clearly prescribes. Even Jesus, if the story in John really happened, was picking and choosing--choosing not to see the law carried out. He was choosing mercy over the law.
Anybody today who really did stone adulterers* and disobedient children, kill homosexuals, burn promiscuous preacher's daughters, or slay entire villages of unbelievers--men, women, children, and livestock--would justly be regarded as a psychopathic barbarian and locked up. Sadly, there are people in the world who do put similarly harsh and archaic laws into practice; people like ISIS and the Taliban. They really do beat people to death with rocks for suspected adultery and for not believing what they believe. And they are rightly denounced around the world as atavistic barbarians.
So, if today's Christians really did follow every jot and tittle of the Old Testament law, they would eat and dress like Orthodox Jews, but carry out violent death sentences reminiscent of ISIS. They don't. In the case of the violent punishments, that's a very good thing. In either case, it's simply false to claim they follow everything in the Bible without picking and choosing. They DO pick and choose, and that is ALSO a good thing, because lots of what's in the Bible was written by people who lived in a violent, superstitious time; a time when people thought the sky was a solid dome and demons caused disease. Let's finally go ahead and face it--some of what the Bible prescribes (especially the Old Testament) is simply archaic barbarism. It's not a matter of how it should be interpreted; it's just wrong, plain and simple. Modern, decent Christians do pick and choose, and they choose not to follow the old, violent laws. That's a wonderful thing, and it shows that this rough old world actually has grown a little more humane, at least in some places.
* Actually, the verse in Deuteronomy classifies female rape victims in the city as adulterers. Also barbaric.