It is surprising that any Christian can ever show a preference for the Old Testament over the new: surprising because the Old Testament was seen by the early Christians as being important primarily because it had prepared the way for Jesus’ appearance. This is clearly stated in Galatians 3:23-25 where we are told that the law was a schoolmaster to bring us to Christ, but since we can now be justified by faith we are no longer under the schoolmaster. And in 2 Corinthians 3:6-9 we are told that the new covenant is not of the letter but of the spirit, for “the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.” And we are assured that “if the ministry that brought death, which was engraved in letters on stone, came with glory . . . will not the ministry of the Spirit be even more glorious? If the ministry that condemns men is glorious, how much more glorious is the ministry that brings righteousness!”
The nature of this ministry of death, this ministry of condemnation, is typified by Leviticus. In Leviticus 20 we are told to put to death anyone who curses his father or mother, or who commits adultery. The usual way of executing those who had broken the Hebraic law was to stone them to death—a slow and painful death. This is as far from the Biblical account of Jesus’ teaching as can be. According to John 8:3-7, when the Pharisees brought a woman who had been taken in adultery before him Jesus said, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” They left, abashed, and to the woman he said, “Then neither do I condemn you. Go now and leave your life of sin.”
In Matthew 5:17-19 we are enjoined to obey the Ten Commandments but the point that is made is rather different from that of the Old Testament references. We should obey them because we should be pure. People who disobey them are said to be in danger of hell-fire (and Matthew loves to talk about hell-fire!), but there isn’t the slightest suggestion that we should do anything to such people but exhibit charity. In fact, the Christian message is best exemplified by the “Sermon on the Mount,” and by the parables of “The Prodigal Son” and “The Good Samaritan.” This is the message that made Thomas Jefferson—who was a Deist—value Jesus for having created what he regarded as the greatest moral system in the world.
But though the message of much of the New Testament is love and acceptance, much of the Old Testament supports narrowness and intolerance. Many people with authoritarian personalities want to live by rules that are cast in iron, and they find the Old Testament reassuring, and they want everyone else to behave in the same way that they do. This is apparent almost every time someone tells you why women should not have the same privileges as men, why gays should be discriminated against, or why members of different races should not marry.
From this point of view, what should we call those who quote the Old Testament to reinforce their prejudices? One thing is clear—they aren’t true Christians. If we were to put this in modern political terms, we might even say that a great many conservatives belong to the party of Jehovah and liberals, generally, belong to the party of Jesus.
Note Unfortunately, the story of the woman taken in adultery, which seems so clearly to represent true Christian values, appears to be a late addition to the Bible and not a part of “John” as he wrote it.