A hypothetical dilemma I like to present to Christians to gauge their moral compass is to insert themselves into the Pericope Aulterae–the story of Jesus and the woman taken in adultery–and see how they would have responded to the same question over stoning the adulteress. If you were a law abiding Jew in the first century who happened to witness this incident outside the Temple between the Pharisees and a rabbi from out of town, on which side would you be? The responses I get are often very telling. Usually, the respondents seem to think that knowing whether this rabbi is the Messiah or not makes all the difference. Some will say, more or less, that a faithful Jew should have observed the Law up until Jesus shows the woman mercy, essentially a doctrine of abrogation. It’s these Christians of whom I’m most suspicious of their moral values. Particularly disturbing is when Christians argue against this passage’s disputed status in the canon on the grounds that its absence could potentially mean adulterers would still need to be stoned to death.
I’ll admit, the question is a bit of a trap, but of course, it was always intended to be one. A little background on First Century Israel reveals that under Roman rule the Jews had already been made to abandon the practice of stoning long before the time of Christ, so presenting him with that question was really no different than asking the same question to anyone else today. Christians ought not to think that the actions of Jesus in this story equate to some sort of radical fiat that governs Christianity in a way similar to how the Mosaic Law governed Judaism. Aside from the fact that this was already the direction Judaism was heading, Christians ethicists ought to be able to come to the same conclusion as Christ did even if this narrative were not authentic, or even if it were not in the Bible.
Part of the problem with Christian morality in practice today is that so many Christians hold exclusively to deontological ethics, which is basically judging the morality of an action based on its adherence to rules. They tend to do this mostly because they erroneously assume that’s the only definite moral theory available. In the post-modern era, Christians have been overly trained to reject moral relativism, but have largely overcompensated by reducing the Bible from a holy book to a rule book.
This is a problem first because the Bible doesn’t necessarily limit itself to a single moral theory; Jesus was probably closer to a virtue ethicist than anything else. Second, deontological ethics fosters moral helplessness. It would help Christians to listen to their atheistic critics when believers make audacious claims such as that there would be no morality without the Bible. When Christians act like the only thing stopping them from running amuck murdering, raping, or stealing are the commands in a text, that actually frightens non-Christians and isn’t a very impressive statement about the morality of Christians. Unfortunately, Christians are at times all too comfortable with this moral helplessness when it gives them a license for bad behavior. Like a Milgram experiment, they may be led to do things that conflict with their natural, God-given moral compass simply because they’ve been told “it’s in the Bible.” Church history is regrettably littered with such helpless defenses for killing heretics, enslaving fellow human beings, and other oppression, but fortunately virtue has been on the right side of history.
Lastly, the two testaments of scripture are not the clear-cut, absolute rulebook that Christians make it out to be. The whole Bible is a complex–sometimes contradictory–book of morality and anyone who acts like it’s a simple handbook is either ignorant of its contents or in denial. Right wing politicians may argue that the Bible should be the basis for US law, yet evangelicals in particular have never been able to fully agree on the application of said Biblical law. There obviously wouldn’t be nearly so many fragmented denominations if this weren’t the case. The New Testament doesn’t always provide a convenient abrogation point of an Old Testament law like it does for stoning adulterers, eating unclean animals, sacrifices, or specific Jewish customs. I’ve previously demonstrated that customs like gleaning which Christians often incorrectly assume were set aside with the Old Covenant were in reality discontinued much later in history by English common law. Hardliners often try to supply their own interpretive methods to determine which laws are still applicable and which are not, yet scripture itself doesn’t provide any easy to follow methodology, and even those who claim to follow such methods aren’t as knowledgable about the Torah as one would think they ought to be if they truly believed every law could still be binding. It seems their conclusions are usually just to apply the grace of the New Testament to themselves and the Old Testament for everybody else.
Perhaps the greater problem at play here is that most of the Christians who hold strictly to deontological ethics aren’t really deontological ethicists themselves. It’s similar to how so many Christians claim to be Trinitarians simply because they consider that to be an essential Christian doctrine, yet they don’t realize the beliefs they actually hold are Modalism or some other heresy. Ironically, these hardliners will condemn all non-Trinitarians to hell oblivious to the fact that their own beliefs are in fact no closer to orthodox Trinitarianism. In the same way, while some Christians are quick to condemn others on the basis of the Mosaic Law, these same Christians don’t really abide by it as strictly as such a reading would demand. A prominent example of this is when fundamentalists refer to “traditional” marriage as one man and one woman, yet most of the laymen have no idea that biblical marriage also included polygamy, concubines, levirate marriage, prisoners of war, and other customs no longer considered acceptable in today’s society. We also don’t see any Christian lobby equally concerned that wages should be paid daily according to Deuteronomy 24:15. Despite all the claims of a morality based in the written word, clearly even conservative Christians draw their moral foundation from elsewhere.
Note that I am not referring to legalism here, as is commonly misunderstood in the ethical discussion. The Pharisees are often confused as legalists by Christian readers, but the historical record reveals they were actually in the progressive, common sense wing of Judaism, in contrast to the literalist Sadducees who tried to hold to the strict letter of the Law. While it was the Pharisees who presented Jesus with the test, they were ironically the sect that most closely aligned with his conclusion. But like Jews who confused the past culture being governed in the Law for the Law itself, today’s Christians have similarly mistaken modern American evangelical culture of the last 50-or-so years as God’s eternal design for living. As loathe as they would be to admit it, they have much in common with the relativists whom they accuse of letting culture define morality.
Instead of forcing the Bible to be read as a rulebook, I recommend Christians see it as more of a document of an ongoing ethical dialogue. This was a process which was very active during the first century where talmudic wisdom appears in the Sermon on the Mount and other places in the Gospels, and where Paul uses halakhic reasoning in his epistles. Though the founders of Christianity are mostly overlooked today as a part of Jewish history, the ideas and interpretive methods they shared are nevertheless the reason why Judaism has adapted to modern life despite not acknowledging Jesus as the Messiah or Paul as an Apostle. While Christians like to think of the Jews as still under the Law, virtually every modern sect of Judaism today has descended from the Pharisees’ Rabbinic school, thus even the most orthodox Jews are not locked into archaic laws like slavery and stoning. If Christians under grace could only be so liberated, these common sense roots of morality offer a more universal ethic than one dependent entirely on divine mandate.