Out With The Old, in With The New? Analysing the Apparent “New Covenant”

Anyone who knows anything about Judaism and Christianity will know that perhaps other than the notion of whether Jesus is the Messiah, arguably one of the most divisive differences between these two religions is the whether Christians are bound by what they call the “Old Covenant.” If you ask most Christians, they will be very quick to point out that the so-called Old Covenant was abolished and has been superseded by the apparently New Covenant and that’s the end of that! So Christians don’t have to follow the 613 laws (but apparently love 10 of them) found in the Jewish Bible. So when atheists point out that Christians do many things which are prohibited in the Bible like mixing fabrics (Lev 19:19) or eating shellfish (Lev 11:10–12) and pork (Lev 11:7–8), Christians often turn around and say “you’re an idiot, that was the Old Covenant and this has been replaced by the New Covenant.” Such a line of reasoning is most associated and explicitly state here:  

“But the ministry Jesus has received is as superior to theirs as the covenant of which he is mediator is superior to the old one, and it is founded on better promises. For if there had been nothing wrong with that first covenant, no place would have been sought for another. But God found fault with the people and said: ‘The time is coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they did not remain faithful to My covenant, and I turned away from them, declares the Lord. This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time, declares the Lord. I will put My laws in their minds and write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be My people. No longer will a man teach his neighbour, or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest. For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.’ By calling this covenant ‘new’, He has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and ageing will soon disappear.”

(Hebrews 8:6-13)

One can also turn to a number of other passages:

 Likewise also the cup after supper, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you (Luke 22:20)

 Who also hath made us able ministers of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life (2 Corinthians 3:6)

This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, saith the Lord, I will put my laws into their hearts, and in their minds will I write them (Hebrews 10:16)
Forasmuch as ye are manifestly declared to be the epistle of Christ ministered by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart (2 Corinthians 3:3)

But as touching brotherly love ye need not that I write unto you: for ye yourselves are taught of God to love one another (1 Thessalonians 4:9)
It is written in the prophets, And they shall be all taught of God. Every man therefore that hath heard, and hath learned of the Father, cometh unto me (John 6:45)

For this is my covenant unto them, when I shall take away their sins (Romans 11:27)

And their sins and iniquities will I remember no more (Hebrews 10:17)

I have also mentioned this as it relates to Paul’s theology of the purpose of the law here. To summarise, as James Dunn correctly points out:

the Pauline commentator can hardly avoid noting the regularly negative attitude Paul displays towards the law… “Christ is the end (telos) of the law as a means to righteousness for all who believe” (Rom. 10.4). Again, in 2 Cor. 3.6-9 Paul refers to “the old covenant” of Moses (3.14-15) as a “ministry of death” and a “ministry of condemnation.” In Gal. 2.19 he gives his assessment of his own conversion: “Through the law I died to the law, in order that I might live to God.” In 3.10-13 he speaks of Christ’s redemption from “the curse of the law.”

Theology of Paul the Apostle (p. 129-130)

Therefore, Paul is advocating that the Torah had now been replaced and superseded by the new Torah of Christ. In other words, the author proclaims that the covenant God made with Israel at Mount Sinai has now expired and so the Jewish people need no longer keep the commandments of the Torah – the “Old Covenant” – since salvation now comes with the belief in Jesus as the Christ. As James Tabor summarises:

What Paul proposed as a replacement of the Torah of Moses he called the Torah of Christ. It was not a legal code, written in stone or on parchment, but a manifestation of the Christ-Spirit in those who had been united with Jesus through baptism, both Jews and non-Jews.

Paul and Jesus: How the Apostle Transformed Christianity (p. 17)

Yet this is incredibly strange because there is a constant message in the Bible that the covenant God made with the Jewish people at Sinai is eternal and will never be replaced. For instance, let’s just take a few of the most clear examples of this:

He remembers his covenant forever, the promise he made, for a thousand generations, the covenant he made with Abraham, the oath he swore to Isaac. He confirmed it to Jacob as a decree, to Israel as an everlasting covenant (Psalm 105:8-10)

For so said the Lord God: I have done with you as you did, that you despised an oath to violate a covenant. But I shall remember My covenant with you in the days of your youth, and I shall establish for you an everlasting covenant” (Ezekiel 16:59-60)

I will not break my covenant with you forever (Judges 2:1)

 “This is an eternal law for all generations” (Exodus 12:14)

So what’s going on here? Well Christians often turn to the writings of Paul and the Epistle to the Hebrews which seem to paint quite a different picture, as the quotes above have illustrated. However, to answer the question of whether Christians are bound to the laws of the Jewish Bible, let’s make a few things clear.

To begin, I want to point out something which some people seemed to have missed. It is important to remember that the words “Covenant” and “Testament” are actually the same in Greek. So when you open up a Bible and see the Old and New Testament, this is actually the same word in Greek which is διαθήκηThis often therefore leads many to believe there are merely two covenants found in the Bible. However, although the conflict is often depicted as the Old vs. New Covenant but there are in fact several covenants mentioned in the Jewish Bible. For instance:

Edenic covenant

This was a covenant made with Adam (see Gen 2:16-17) that if Adam obeyed, he would have eternal life and if he disobeyed this would cause him to die.

Noahic covenant

Made with Noah (Genesis 9:9-17) promised that He will never again destroy the whole earth with a flood.

Abrahamic covenant

Made with Abraham (Genesis 12:1-3, 6-7; 13:14-17; 15; 17:1-14; 22:15-18) gave him and his descendants the land of Israel and was renewed with Isaac (Genesis 26:3-5, 24) and Jacob (Genesis 28:13-15, 46:2-4). What’s more, leadership roles were assigned to the descendants of Joseph and his son Ephraim (Genesis 48 and 50; Deut 33:17; 1 Chron 5:1-2; Psalm 80:2; Isaiah 11:13; Jer 31:6, 9; Ezek 37:15-19; Zech 10:6-12). The sign of this covenant was that every male of his seed was to be circumcised and this would be a known as the brit milah (Gen 17:9–14).

Priestly covenant

Also known as the brith ha-kehuna made with with Aaron and his descendants to be the priests (Exodus 40:12-15, Number 25:12,13, Nehemiah 13:29).

Davidic covenant

That his linage would always be ruled over by a descendant of David (2 Samuel 7:8-16, 23:5, 2 Chronicles 13:5

What all of this means, is that to understand the difference between the apparent “Old” and “New” Covenants, we first need to understand what a covenant actually is.

Covenant ≠ the Torah

To understand this issue, we need to understand that a covenant is an agreement made between two parties. This is important because many people completely misunderstand what the covenant actually refers to. Given a covenant is a agreement made between two parties, this is the agreement made by the Israelites to accept and obey the Torah in return for the promises made by God. In other words, the covenant is not the same thing as the Torah itself. As this passage makes clear:

And Moses came and told the people all the words of the Lord and all the ordinances, and all the people answered in unison and said, “All the words that the Lord has spoken we will do.” And Moses wrote all the words of the Lord, and he arose early in the morning and built an altar at the foot of the mountain and twelve monuments for the twelve tribes of Israel… And he [Moses] took the Book of the Covenant [ריתִבּ ְה ַפרֶס) ֵSEfer ha’bRIT)] and read it for the people to hear, and they said, “All that the Lord spoke we will do and we will hear.” (Exodus 24:3-4,7)

What is “The Covenant?”

The next issue to stress, is if anyone has read the Bible, God made a number of different covenants throughout the Jewish Bible. To highlight this, the shedding of blood was often accompanied by these covenants:

Noah sacrificed animals before God made the Covenant (Gen 8:20)

Abraham sacrificed animals before God made the Covenant (Gen 15)

When God made the Covenant at Sinai, Moses sprinkled the Blood of the Covenant
(Exo 24:8, Heb 9:19,20)

So when we are talking about the difference between the apparent “Old” and “New” Covenants, we are specifically talking about the Mosaic Covenant made with Moses and the Israelite people at Mount Sinai in Exodus 19–24. But you might be thinking, why am I focusing on this covenant above all others?

Well, the Mosaic Covenant was written with the finger of God (Deut 4:13, Exo 31:18, 32:16) and contains the foundations of the Torah and would bless the person who obeyed (Deut 11:26-28) and curse the person who disobeyed (Deut 11:26-28) and it is this covenant is called an everlasting covenant and God says that he will not break it (as mentioned above see Judg 2:1, Lev 26:44, Psa 89:34, 105:8-10, 111:7-9, 1Chr 16:15-17, Deu 5:29, 12:28). Despite this, the notion of a “new” covenant is actually a part of the Jewish Bible… Kind of! One of the most famous prophecies which Christians often turn to, is Jeremiah 31:31-34 which says:

31 “The days are coming,” declares the Lord,
“when I will make a new covenant
with the people of Israel
and with the people of Judah.
32 It will not be like the covenant
I made with their ancestors
when I took them by the hand
to lead them out of Egypt,
because they broke my covenant,
though I was a husband to them,”
declares the Lord.
33 “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel
after that time,” declares the Lord.
“I will put my law in their minds
and write it on their hearts.
I will be their God,
and they will be my people.
34 No longer will they teach their neighbor,
or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’
because they will all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest,”
declares the Lord.
“For I will forgive their wickedness
and will remember their sins no more.”

As I have already mentioned, the Christian reading of this prophecy which forms a core of Paul’s theology and elsewhere in the Christian New Testament is that, as it says in Hebrews 8:13 which states: “he says, a new covenant, he has made the first obsolete.” Therefore, not only here, but throughout Paul’s letters, there is the theme that to become a follower of Jesus (it would be anachronistic to call these “Christians”) one must reject the commandments found in the Torah and replace these with faith in the Messiah. The obvious problem with this, is that if the “Old” Covenant was taken away, there would no longer be any commandments, including the 10 which Christians constantly bang on about and so given that the 10 Commandments are part and parcel of the Mosaic Covenant and we cannot have one without the other. While I could rant about this all day, I just want to point out something important about Jeremiah’s apparent “New Covenant”. Once you read this in context, it soon becomes clear that this is not a replacement of the existing covenant, but merely referring to a “renewal” of the existing covenant.

While many Christians read the prophecy in Jeremiah as a new covenant, this ignores a fundamental issue and why Judaism does not accept the teachings of the New Testament. For instance, as I have mentioned before, Paul puts forward the case that it is faith and not works of the law which puts a man right with God. To explain this, he draws upon the example of Abraham. In Galatians 3, Paul is arguing that he was blessed by God, but this was not because he acted in accordance with the law, because the law did not exist yet and thus, he was blessed taking God at his word in a great act of faith (see Genesis 12:3). Building upon this, he argues that:

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us. For it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.” (Galatians 3:13)

This forms a key part of Paul’s overall theology, that:

All who depend on the deeds which the law lays down are under a curse, for it stands written, “Cursed is everyone who does not consistently obey and perform all the things written in the book of the law.” It is clear that no one ever gets into a right relationship with God by means of this legalism, because, as the Bible says, “It is the man who is right with God through faith who will live.” But the law is not based on faith. And yet the scripture says.. “The man who does these things will have to live by them.” Christ ransomed us from the curse of the law by becoming accursed for us–for it stands written, “Cursed is every man who is hanged on a tree.” And this all happened so that in Christ Abraham’s blessing should come to the Gentiles, and so that we might receive the promised Spirit by means of faith. He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:10-14).

This is Paul’s writings on the apparent curse of the law. In this, he means that that Jesus made the ultimate sacrifice on the cross when he bore God’s curse (see Romans 3:25–26 where Paul spells this out) and that this was necessary because Deuteronomy 27:26 says that the man who does not keep the whole law is under a curse. This means, according to Paul, God requires nothing less than perfection. What was needed in order to be “saved” was absolute, total conformity with the law.

The trouble with this is that the Jewish Bible does not say that it is too difficult to observe the commandments. While Paul tries to make the case in Romans 10 in which he argues that:

Moses writes this about the righteousness that is by the law: “The person who does these things will live by them.” But the righteousness that is by faith says: “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down) “or ‘Who will descend into the deep?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). 8 But what does it say? “The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart,”[d] that is, the message concerning faith that we proclaim: If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved.

(Romans 10:5-10)

Paul has deliberately eliminated the last line of Deuteronomy 30:14. Here it is in full content:

You will again obey the Lord and follow all his commands I am giving you today. 9 Then the Lord your God will make you most prosperous in all the work of your hands and in the fruit of your womb, the young of your livestock and the crops of your land. The Lord will again delight in you and make you prosperous, just as he delighted in your ancestors, 10 if you obey the Lord your God and keep his commands and decrees that are written in this Book of the Law and turn to the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul. Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, “Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, “Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it.

(Deuteronomy 30:8-14)

What’s more, if you continue reading Deuteronomy 30, this further says:

See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. For I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you are not obedient, and if you are drawn away to bow down to other gods and worship them, I declare to you this day that you will certainly be destroyed. You will not live long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the Lord is your life, and he will give you many years in the land he swore to give to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

(Deut. 30:15-20)

So how does all of this relate to Jeremiah 31? Well, if you read this in context, this soon becomes clear that Jeremiah’s apparent “new covenant” is not a replacement of the existing covenant, but merely a figure of speech referring to a “renewal” of the existing covenant. As it says:

For this is the covenant that I will form with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I have put my Torah among them, and I will inscribe it upon their hearts, and I will be their God and they shall be My people.

(Jeremiah 31:33)

In other words, the only difference will be that instead of it being written in tablets, it will be written on their hearts. To build upon this, I also need to stress that this prophecy begins by addressing both the House of Israel and the House of Judah. As it states:

Behold, days are coming,” says the Lord, “when I will form with the House of Israel and with the House of Judah a new covenant.

This therefore means that he is speaking to an in-gathered, but not yet united, Jewish people. The importance of this, is that the House of Israel has not existed as a people from the time Assyria had exiled the Northern Kingdom of Israel during the reign of Ahaz, King of Judah, well over 700 years before the first century CE when the Assyrians conquered the territory and ended the reign of Hoshea ben Elah, its last king, in 722 BCE. This is significant because the time which Jeremiah is talking about has not happened yet. Given what is reported elsewhere in the Jewish Bible, this is speaking of a time in the future when both the House of Judah and House of Israel will be restored and reunited. This is described here:

But, as the Lord lives, Who brought the people of Israel from the land of the north, and from all the lands where He had driven them; and I will bring them back to their land that I gave to their forefathers (Jeremiah 16:15)

And He shall carry a banner for the nations, and He shall collect the lost of Israel, and the dispersed one of Judah He shall gather from the four corners of the earth (Isaiah 11:12)

And say to them, Thus says the Lord God: “Behold, I will take the Children of Israel from among the nations where they have gone, and I will gather them on every side, and I will bring them into their land; And I will make them into one nation in the land upon the mountains of Israel, and one king shall be king to them all; and they shall no longer be two nations, and neither shall they be divided into two kingdoms any more (Ezekiel 37:21-22)

And I will strengthen the House of Judah, and the House of Joseph I will save, and I will get them settled for I have mercy on them, and they shall be as though I had not neglected them; for I am the Lord their God, and will respond to them (Zechariah 10:6)

This therefore means, when Jeremiah mentions “… days are coming …” where both the House of Israel and the House of Judah are mentioned and an era “… after those days …”, i.e., the days after the scattered Jewish people are repatriated to the Land of Israel and then reunited under one kingdom called Israel, this has clearly not happened yet. This is perfectly consistent with Jewish Theology as a whole given that during the Messianic Age (the Olam Ha-Ba) the whole world will recognise the Jewish God as the one true God and the Jewish religion as the only true religion (e.g. Isaiah 2:3; 11:10; Micah 4:2-3; Zechariah 14:9) and that commandments will continue to be observed during this time (e.g. Deuteronomy 30:2,8,10, Ezekiel 11:19,20, 36:26-27, 37:24). These are significant when we consider that Jeremiah 31:34 talks about a time when:

“And no longer shall they teach, a man his neighbor, and a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord’, for they shall all know Me, from their smallest to their greatest,” says the Lord, “for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will no longer remember.”

This is therefore speaking about a time (which again has not happened) in which the world will have knowledge of God among the nations. This is echoed elsewhere when it says:

Thus said the Lord of Hosts: In those days, ten men of all the languages of the nations shall grasp and hold on to the corner of the garment of a Jewish man, saying, “Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.” (Zechariah 8:23)

They shall neither harm nor destroy on My entire Holy Mountain; for the earth shall be full of knowledge of the Lord, as the waters of the sea cover up [the sea floor]. (Isaiah 11:9)

Therefore, this means that this is clearly talking about a time which has not yet happened when the two Houses are united and there is universal knowledge of God. So to tie this all back to the start of this post, given the Jewish Bible provides a clear and consistent description of what the world will look like when the Messiah comes and this has clearly not yet transpired, Jesus is not the Messiah. Furthermore, if one reads Jeremiah 31 in context and compare it with statements from the New Testament such as Rom 10, there is an obvious contradiction. So which should Christians listen to, God… or Paul? Hmmm…

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