What is the relationship between the Mosaic covenant and the new covenant?

Q. Your most recent post comparing the God of the OT and NT made me think of a question. What do you see as the relationship between the Mosaic covenants and the new covenant? As far as I can tell from Jeremiah, the new covenant has the same information, it is just that all the previous terms of the Biblical covenants were written on stone and scrolls, where in the new covenant, they will be written on one’s heart. Therefore the new covenant will be better, as we will want to do the stipulations in it.

I think this is basically right.  The covenant with Moses had some things that I believe were identity markers for God’s people at the time, such as keeping kosher, observing certain days, etc.  The New Testament makes clear that these are no longer obligations for followers of Jesus.

But certainly the ethical imperatives of the covenant, summed up by Jesus as “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and your neighbor as yourself,” remain.  As you say, under the new covenant, we now want to fulfill them, as we are given new hearts.  Our identity markers as covenant people are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control—the fruit of the Spirit.

As I believe you’re saying, when seen from the perspective of the character and actions that God wanted to produce all along in His people, there is more continuity than discontinuity between the Mosaic covenant and the new covenant.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

12 thoughts on “What is the relationship between the Mosaic covenant and the new covenant?”

  1. I see even more continuity between the OT and the NT. As far as I can tell, Paul tells Jews to remain Jews and gentiles to remain gentiles (in 1 Cor). It is true that gentiles have no command to keep the so-called Jewish identity marker type commandments, but Jews continue to do in the new covenant and Jews in the NT did keep them, as far as I can tell. In other words, one of the concerns in the NT was did a gentile need to become a Jew to be saved? This was answered in the negative in Acts. But this decision in Jerusalem says nothing about the idea of whether a Jew should become a gentile and there are indications in the NT that this is not the case either.

    1. I agree with you that while the New Testament does not require Gentiles to become Jews in order to be saved, it also does not require Jews to become Gentiles. Both Mark and Matthew record the saying of Jesus that “nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them. What comes out of a person is what defiles them.” Mark’s understanding, which he shares for the benefit of his likely Gentile readers, is that “in saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.” In other words, it is not necessary to keep kosher in order to be a follower of Jesus. But Matthew’s takeaway, for his almost certainly Jewish audience, is that “eating with unwashed hands does not defile a person.” That is, it’s not necessary to keep “the tradition of the elders.” But Matthew takes it for granted that he and his fellow Jews will continue to keep kosher, and that this will form part of their way of following Jesus.

      1. A gentile is not required to keep kosher, but when eating in table fellowship with Jews, they should be willing to defer to eating kosher for the sake of table fellowship.

        One thing that causes some confusion is that there are many possible meanings for the word Jew. When I use it in a religious context, I mean a practicing Jew.

        On “Jesus declared all foods clean” I used to understand it as you do, but I read an alternative way that I think is more compelling and more true to the text. In my new understanding, I call what I did as “doing a magic trick on myself” because I was both the (unintentional) magician and the observer, and by being both, the magic trick was very effective in tricking me.

        The teaching unit in Mark is discussing the Pharisees’ hand washing ceremony. This was a human tradition of the Pharisees that is still done today by Rabbinic Orthodox Jews and can be found in the Mishnah. They claimed one needed to do a specific hand washing ritual and unless one did this, then the food became unclean and as we know a Jew is not to eat unclean food. One insight is that this discussion is among Jews and in that context, the word “food” means what we call “kosher food”. The magic trick is when a gentile like me reads it as “gentile food” which is not what it means in context.

      2. While the discussion between Jesus and the Pharisees, and later between Jesus and his disciples, is indeed between Jews, the discussion between Mark and his readers is not between Jews. Mark is clearly writing for an audience that is not familiar with Jewish customs, that’s why he explains them, even in this pericope: “The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.” Toward the end of his gospel Mark also has to explain that “Preparation Day” is “the day before the Sabbath.” It’s most likely that Mark is writing for a Roman audience, perhaps even in Rome itself, because he uses Latin equivalents for terms that appear in Greek in the other synoptic gospels. For example, the centurion who witnesses Jesus’ death and declares Him the Son of God or a “righteous man” is called a hekatontarkēs in Matthew and Luke, but a kenturiōn in Mark. Mark explains to his audience that the “two lepta” the widow put in the treasury are equivalent to a quadrans, and that the “palace” that Jesus was led into after being sentenced by Pilate was “the Praetorium.” Maybe the clearest evidence that Mark is a Jew writing for non-Jewish readers is the way he includes Aramaic phrases but translates them. This shows that he understands the language, but knows that his readers do not. So I would continue to argue that in Mark’s understanding, Jesus didn’t just declare all Jewish foods clean, even if one ate them with unwashed hands. This is Matthew’s conclusion, for his Jewish audience. Rather, Mark wants his non-Jewish audience to know that on the authority of Jesus himself, they can become followers of Jesus without having to keep kosher.

      3. I agree Mark was probably written for believers including gentiles, I think in Rome and perhaps Alexandria, but they also included Jews in mixed gentile-Jewish congregations. An ECF wrote that Mark wrote down things from the teachings of Peter, which makes sense to me.

        A gentile never needed to do the hand washing ceremony of the Pharisees. There are at least 2 ways to read the claim “thus he declared all foods clean”: (1) A gentile would not change anything about their GENTILE understanding of food and (2) a Jew would not change anything about their JEWISH understanding of food. It is only when one reads it as a gentile and thinking that that gentile meaning of food applies to Jews that one does a magic trick on oneself, that is my claim.

        Another way to see this is that God specified that there were unclean animals and clean animals in Torah. To undo that teaching, one would expect there to be a reversal of that law, for example, to declare that pigs are now clean animals. But this is exactly what we do not find.

      4. Actually, we do find something in the New Testament that appears to be a reversal of the clean-unclean laws in the Torah. In the book of Acts, just as the messengers from Cornelius were nearing Peter’s home, “Peter went up on the roof to pray. He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance. He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles and birds. Then a voice told him, ‘Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.’ ‘Surely not, Lord!’ Peter replied. ‘I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.’ The voice spoke to him a second time, ‘Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.'” Now this is, admittedly, a qal wahomer argument of the type you discuss in your comment on another post of mine. An argument from the lesser to the greater. The point is not about food, but about people. However, for the point to be valid (“if food God has made clean is not impure, how much more are people whom God has made clean not impure!”), the food has to be clean. So this does seem to be a reversal of kosher restrictions.

        As for Mark’s conclusion that Jesus had declared all foods clean, the most radical interpretation for a Jew would be that they could now eat non-kosher foods. The less radical interpretation, advanced by Matthew, is that they could eat food without doing a ceremonial washing. Either one would be a change in understanding. For Gentiles, the conclusion would be that they didn’t need to start keeping kosher to serve the God of Israel faithfully. (Think of “God-fearers” who were attending the synagogue, but who hadn’t yet converted to Judaism.) This wouldn’t be a change in their understanding of Gentile food, but it would be a change in their understanding of the food they could or could not eat if they became followers of Jesus as the Jewish Messiah.

    2. Peter’s vision of the sheet has a meaning and the meaning is explained as Gentile inclusion. It is never explained to be a change in the Jewish food laws. So we KNOW the right answer and we KNOW the story, the challenge is figuring out how to get from the story to the right answer. I can explain how I understand this, but it takes some discussion, but there are a few things to notice. First, Peter never ate anything in his vision and he refused 3 times (doing something 3 times shows it is deliberate in Hebrew thinking). Second, Peter was perplexed about the meaning of the vision, that is, it was not obvious to him that he could now eat pork. Third, Peter disobeyed the command from heaven (God), at the least we should see that something unusual is going on.

      On the meaning of “Jesus declared all foods clean.” it is important to see that the Pharisees claimed that failing to do their handwashing ritual made the food unclean. Anything that a Jew would call food is made from clean animals and vegetables (which are always clean). That is, pork is NOT a food to a Jew. Jesus declaring all FOODS clean does not change that, as pork is not food to a Jew, what Mark is saying Jesus is saying is that food by definition already is clean (either Jewish food or gentile food) and does not become unclean because of failure to do some ritual, any ritual, including the handwashing ritual.

      FWIIW, one of my principles of Bible interpretation is that Jesus was a sinless Jew and this has implications. I think Jesus did not teach anything against Torah, as that would be a sin, per Torah itself. So it is not just that Jesus did not teach that Jews could now eat pork, he could not have taught that and actually be the sinless Jewish Messiah.

      1. I think we’ve now gotten to the essential point of discussion. We could go back and forth about the meaning of various details (for example, I think the vision occurs three times not to constitute a definitive refusal by Peter, but to show him that he’s supposed to go see Cornelius: “While Peter was still thinking about the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Simon, three men are looking for you. So get up and go downstairs. Do not hesitate to go with them, for I have sent them.”). But I think you’ve now stated the essential principle of interpretation we should be focusing on: “Jesus was a sinless Jew and this has implications. I think Jesus did not teach anything against Torah, as that would be a sin, per Torah itself. So it is not just that Jesus did not teach that Jews could now eat pork, he could not have taught that and actually be the sinless Jewish Messiah.”

        According to this principle, at least as I see it, the religion is greater than Jesus. He needs to operate within it in order to be “the sinless Jewish Messiah.” But I think otherwise. I think Jesus is greater than the religion. He’s one of those figures in the Bible who brings about a transformation in the covenant by which God administers his relationship with people, so that things are different afterwards.

        Another such figure is Noah. Before God’s covenant with creation through Noah, people had been given “every green plant for food.” But now God says to Noah, “Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything.” People can eat meat, which they couldn’t do before. (They still need to avoid eating blood, however.)

        When there are changes in the covenant, sometimes people are required to do things that weren’t required before, just as they’re sometimes permitted to do things that weren’t permitted before. After the covenant with Abraham, males need to be circumcised in order to be part of the covenant community. But this changes in the New Covenant: “In Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. . . . Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation.” People may still be circumcised, but the practice no longer has the value it formerly had as a distinguishing covenant sign.

        Similarly, before the covenant with Moses, people like Abraham worshiped at altars they built in various places. But with the Mosaic covenant, this kind of worship is restricted to a single sanctuary: “Be careful not to sacrifice your burnt offerings anywhere you please. Offer them only at the place the Lord will choose” (meaning ultimately Jerusalem). This, too, seems to change under the New Covenant. The Samaritan woman asks Jesus whether she needs to worship in Jerusalem, or whether she can legitimately worship on the mountain in Samaria. He replies, “A time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.” So there is an affirmation that the covenant line runs through Judaism (“salvation is from the Jews”), but Jesus is not limited to working within that religion. “A time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.”

        I could mention other things that change under the New Covenant. Deuteronomy commands, “No Ammonite or Moabite or any of their descendants may enter the assembly of the Lord, not even in the tenth generation.” But Isaiah, looking forward to the New Covenant, says, “Let no foreigner who is bound to the Lord say, ‘The Lord will surely exclude me from his people.’ . . . Foreigners who bind themselves to the Lord to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it and who hold fast to my covenant—these I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar;
        for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.”

        But the main point is that I see Jesus as one of the figures in the Bible (along with Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David) through whom God works to transform the covenant relationship, so that things are different afterwards. From this perspective, I have no difficulty imagining Jesus saying something (“nothing that goes into a person makes them unclean, but what comes out of a person”) whose implications were understood to be that it was no longer necessary for the people of God on earth to observe kosher restrictions. The principle for a community that would now consist of both observant Jews and non-observant Gentiles would be, “The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them. . . . Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind.”

        So I think this is the essential issue here. Is Jesus greater than the religion? Or is the religion greater than Jesus?

  2. Rather than religion, I put it in terms of covenant, as you do, but come to different conclusions. I see a covenant at being instituted at a specific time in a specific culture. As times progresses, the circumstances can change and when they do, the covenant stipulations can change; for example, the Levites carried the tabernacle, but with the temple, there was nothing to carry. And when another covenant it instituted is another time when things can change.

    Jesus was a sinless Jew and I think this means he was sinless in terms of the stipulations of the Mosaic covenants that applied to him. Jesus points out in Mathew that “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”

    The words “abolish” and “fulfill” are found many times in the Mishnah and mean “incorrectly interpret so it will be broken” and “correctly interpret so it can be accomplished” and I think they mean the same think here.

    1. I think we have identified a difference in interpretive presuppositions, so I’m not sure how much farther we can take the discussion, but let me at least observe a couple of further distinctions.

      I agree that Jesus was sinless, and that he was a Jew, but I wouldn’t necessarily say that the stipulations of the Mosaic covenants applied to him, not if God sent him to inaugurate a new covenant that would replace the Mosaic one. The prophets had already said that God was going to make a new kind of covenant, not like the one He made when he brought the people out of Egypt. So we should expect things to change, we should expect God to send someone to change things, and we should expect that that person wouldn’t necessarily be limited to operating within the stipulations he was sent to change.

      Additionally, I would want to understand the word “fulfill” in any passage in Matthew, primarily in the sense in which Matthew uses it throughout his gospel, that is, to bring out a fuller and a deeper meaning in light of later redemptive-historical developments. (See my discussion in this post: https://goodquestionblog.com/2015/04/27/what-does-it-mean-for-a-scripture-to-be-fulfilled/.) But I recognize that this is also an interpretive presupposition, and that you are free to prefer the understanding in the Mishnah.

      1. On the new covenant, this is first mentioned and defined in Jeremiah (31). Jeremiah was written to Israelites as the original audience and so the “new” part is the place where the rules/stipulations are written, and not necessarily the rules/stipulations themselves. By being written on one’s heart (one’s insides, internal), one is enabled to want to do them, as contrasted with rules written on stone or scrolls which are external.

        On fulfill, I agree that when fulfill is used for a prophecy, then there can be multiple fulfillments of a prophecy and the meaning can enlarge with each fulfillment. But in the Matt (5) case, “fulfill the Law/Torah” and “abolish the Law/Torah” both exactly match idiomatic phrases found in the Mishnah.

        On Jesus being a sinless Jew but not needing to obey the rules in the Mosaic covenants that applied to him, I have no idea what that could mean. I see God’s covenants as a cascade, for example, Moses needed to be circumcised (in Ex 4) in order to be in Abraham’s third covenant (Gen 17) so he then could be used by God to inaugurate the Sinai covenant (Ex 19ff-Num).

        On foods being declared clean, I will make one last attempt. I am a gentile, but I do not consider rats to be food (Jews also agree). When Mark says that Jesus declares all FOODS clean, I would never think he was referring to rats as I do not consider rats to be food, I even expect to throw up if told after the fact that I had just eaten rat. If Jesus wanted me to eat rat for some reason, I would hope for a more explicit and detailed statement. But I agree there is no Magisterium and you are free to disagree.

      2. This may be a strange note on which to (perhaps) end a long and detailed thread, but I have eaten rat. I should specify that it was grain-fed, free-range rat in rural China, where it’s a delicacy, not dirty urban rat that had been who knows where. It’s interesting what different groups of people do and don’t consider food. I stayed at a hotel in Korea that told me I just had to try the restaurant up the street that specialized in horse meat. I could also have had dog for dinner. I’m not talking about a hot dog here. Anyway, as you say, in the absence of a Magisterium, we will “agree to disagree”!

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