I would like to give some basic thoughts on how to respond to an oft posed atheistic objection: Do I eat shellfish? Absolutely. Do I wear clothes of mixed cloth? Yes. This again is another very common mistake that many lay skeptics make. Ironically this was not a big complaint from atheists in generations past because they were familiar with the Christian theology of the New Covenant. Basic theology and hermeneutics was commonly part of basic education. However, many modern atheists just do not take the time to actually familiarize themselves with Christian theology and the history of interpretation before they begin blindly flailing with their objections.
The reason why Christians do not adhere to these kinds of OT law has literally nothing to do with some kind of textual cherry picking. This again is a long-standing theological distinction made based on the New Testament and Covenant Theology. Again, you do not have to believe that the Bible is TRUE on this, but you can at least attempt to understand what it says and means. Christians do not have just the Old Testament. We also have the NT and read the entire book as being a continuous whole (diverse as it may be). Anyone who has read Romans, Galatians, Ephesians, and Hebrews will know immediately that the answer to why we do not follow OT Levitical law in detail is theological. I’ll try to keep this as brief as I can but such atheists are basically asking a question that involves the relationship between the Mosaic Covenant with the Nation of Israel and the New Covenant with a redeemed people (not a geopolitical nation). I’m going to do this in simple list format to make it more brief and easy to respond to specific points.
1. Christians have, since the earliest writers (we see it in the 4 NT books I listed above as well as other places like Acts 15), seen a distinction between 3 different KINDS of OT Laws: Civil/magisterial (taxation, penal, kingship, etc.), ceremonial/priestly (sacrifices, clean/unclean, holiness codes, worship, etc.), and moral/ethical (decalogue/10 commandments, etc.). Again, this distinction did not arise as a response to the challenge of “cherry picking,” but has been a long-standing theological distinction since Paul and even Jesus. We will see in the next few points why this distinction is important to keep in mind.
2. In addition to the distinction of the KINDS of laws in the OT, the Bible also has a strong emphasis on the spirit of the law, that is, that even behind the civil and ceremonial law there is an ethical principle operating. So for example, in Deut 22:8 we find this law:
“When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, so that you will not bring blood-guilt on your house if anyone falls from it.”
Now, is the intent of this law that it is moral good in and of itself just to have a parapet (a small fence) around one’s roof? No. The ethic behind this is clearly that we are responsible to make sure that our properties are safe and that if we do not adequately build or maintain our properties then we are liable when someone gets hurt on our property due to our neglect. It is basically an early version of building safety codes.
3. The next concept is that many of these laws are used as something like “life illustrations.” This is a hard concept for modern hearers to grasp because we do not really have laws like this anymore. These laws are meant to be kept to remind the Jews of their need to be holy and not give in to other religions or immoral practices. So when they only wore unmixed clothing they were to be reminded of their need to not mix their lifestyles with the lifestyles of the Canaanites for example. So some laws are in place as life illustrations and reminders to the Jews of their history and their standing as a distinct and hopefully holy people.
4. The Bible is structured around the ANE legal practice of covenants: Adamic Covenant, Noahic Covenant, Abrahamic Covenant, Mosaic Covenant, Davidic Covenant and the New Covenant. Now what is a covenant? It is like a treaty, or an agreement between two or more people. In the ancient world it was often structured around the following format (or some close variation thereof):
1. Preamble – the initiating party involved says who they are and what they have done.
2. What the agreement is – the obligations of each party.
3. The blessings and consequences for keeping/breaking the covenant.
Now covenants can be either conditional or unconditional. A conditional covenant basically says that the covenant is only valid so long as the parties are faithful to their respective obligations. If they are faithful then the blessings from C are received. If they break it then the consequences of C are received and the covenant ends.
An unconditional covenant is long-standing regardless of the faithfulness of the 2nd party. It is a unilateral promise of the initiating party to the receptive party. This means that regardless of the faithfulness of the receptive party the initiating party would continue to give the blessing. Again we will see why this concept is important to keep in mind.
Now to tie those four points together we can begin by looking at a common formulation of Jesus: “You have heard X, but I tell you Y.” This is a common formulation in the sermons of Jesus. Jesus seems to be drawing on the fact that there are moral and ethical underpinnings of each law and that our moral obligations are to THOSE ethical underpinnings (which are often HARDER to keep than the original law even if they are less “culturally” derived.)
We also see that the civil and ceremonial laws were given as part of the conditional covenant of the Mosaic covenant specifically for the regulation of the theocratic state of the nation of Israel. When Israel fails to uphold its faithfulness to the covenant, they undergo the consequences stated at the end of the covenant (found in Deuteronomy) and we then find the New Covenant beginning to form in Jeremiah 31 (though we see hints of it as early as Genesis 3) which is an unconditional covenant meant to overcome the faithlessness of Israel. Yet in order to make this New Covenant unconditional, God does away with the obligation of the civil and ceremonial obligations of geopolitical Israel by extending the blessings to all people. No longer does a person have to become a national Jew in order to be a citizen of God’s kingdom, but they still must become “clean” to enter. Yet since we cannot do it on our own (since sin is the violation of the moral law – of which we are all guilty) we must still be redeemed by an act of grace. This is what Jesus does – he is the culmination of the law – the perfect prophet, priest and king. The one who wraps up all the loose ends and fulfills obligations and yet takes the Mosaic curses due to us on himself.
But what does this mean for non-Jews and Jewish Christians? We see this very discussion happening in Acts 15 with the so-called Jerusalem counsel. We see in Acts 15 that the early church got together to discuss whether or not a Gentile must first become a Jew before they became a Christian – i.e. must they follow all the OT law to become a Christian? This was the conclusion that they came to:
28 It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: 29 You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things.
Notice that it was based on theological reasons of what the gospel is, not some desire to avoid the accusation of cherry picking, that they came to the conclusion that Gentiles were not required to keep the laws of geopolitical Israel. We even see Paul say this in Galatians 2:
14 When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in front of them all, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?
Paul here condemns Peter (Cephas) for forcing Gentiles to adhere to the OT ceremonial laws – he says that it is actually contrary to the gospel to force Christians to live by the OT civil and ceremonial laws.
Now, I know this has been somewhat long, but the point is that when an atheist wants to say that Christians are just “cherry picking” when they do not live according to OT law it shows that they are just not familiar with NT theology and the long history of covenantal theology.
I’m also not saying that one cannot read the Bible for themselves. I am simply saying that in order to understand what an ANE author MEANS takes some study precisely because it is so foreign to us. I like to use the example of Dante. If you read Dante without a critical edition with all the footnotes it is almost impossible to appreciate the meaning of most of the text. Sure you might be able to come up with the overall theme and narrative flow of the book, but almost every stanza is chock full of allusions and historically derived images and themes.
So for example, in Canto I Dante writes:
“of that sad Italy for which Nisus died
And Turnus, and Euryalus, and the maid Camilla
He shall hunt her through every nation of sick pride.
One would NEVER be able to say that they have understood what that stanza meant if you do not study the history of it. So why do we think that the Bible which is written in a completely different time, on a different continent, in a different culture in every possible way, in a dead language, from a different worldview would not require study to even understand what the author meant?
So again, all of this does not mean one cannot read it on their own, but it does mean that in order to interpret what the text MEANS, it will often take quite a bit of study into the backgrounds and contexts of the texts we are dealing with.