Christians and the Old Testament Laws


Evaluating Ways to Interpret the OT Law

Hays starts his article with a very strong set of opinions and questions. This author wonders if it is safe to say that the average Christian doesn’t give much thought to the OT Law, apart from the Ten Commandments that is. The questions Hays addresses are valid, and should be brought up in our discussion. Hays asks, “Why do Christians adhere to some laws and ignore others? Which ones are valid and which are not?” Not only are these excellent questions that should be asked, he also provides some feed back as to why it seems to be happening. “Many Christians today make this decision based merely on whether a law seems to be relevant.” I must admit that there have been times in my Christian life that I viewed the OT laws in this manner, and still struggle with a proper hermeneutic for them.

In his article Hays argues against what is known in theological circles as the Traditional Approach to the OT law. Throughout the article there are valid points made against the weaknesses of the Traditional Approach. One of the first things he rails against is the fact that so called moral laws are considered to be “universal and timeless.” One of the best points he makes early on before really getting to the meat of the argument is, “The distinctions between the moral, civil and ceremonial laws are arbitrary, imposed on the text from outside the text.”

As one reads the book of Leviticus it would be easy to assume that most of the laws are ceremonial, especially those dealing with separation. However that is not the case, “In fact all of the Levitical laws regarding separation seem to relate to the overarching principle of God’s holiness and the separation required because of that holiness. How then can this law not be moral?” We often see the Law as a separate entity that needs to be analyzed apart from its surrounding context, which is the wrong way to do things. As interrupters we should view it in context to the surrounding verses, and/or narrative. Hays suggests, “The method for interpreting Old Testament Law should be similar to the method used in interpreting Old Testament narrative, for the Law is contextually part of the narrative.”

Hays makes a strong argument when he brings Jesus into the picture, pointing out the way Jesus handled the Law and spoke about it. When dealing with Christians we have to get them to really grab a hold to the fact “Jesus was not advocating the continuation of the traditional Jewish approach of adherence to the Law. Nor was he advocating that the Law be dismissed all together. He was proclaiming that the meaning of the Law must be interpreted in light of His coming and in light of the profound changes introduced by the New Covenant.”

In his alternative approach known as principlism, Hays makes some good suggestions on how we should handle verses of the OT Law. There are five key components to how we should deal with the text, starting with identifying the historical and literary context of the specific law; then determine the difference between the original audience and today; develop universal principles from the text; correlate the principle with NT teaching; and apply the modified principle to life today. All of those lay a strong foundation as to how we can better grasp the OT Law and make 2 Tim 3:16 more of a reality, instead of trying to pick and choose which OT laws we are comfortable with and which ones we are not.

Leviticus 19:9-10 an example of the principlism method

9 “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest.
10 And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 19:9-10, ESV)

What do we need to understand about these verses is that in their original context they were meant to be of a major help to those less fortunate. The Israelite society was primarily an agrarian one, meaning that there was some type of farming going on. These verses were intended for those who had land to not be greedy and take all that they had yielded but to leave some for those in need, no matter what the crop may have been.
“During the harvest of the field or vineyard Israelites were to leave grain or fruit for the poor.” There is a huge difference between that culture and our own, we are no longer primarily a farming society, and we do not live under the OT Law. So we may struggle to understand the principal of not using the entire field or leaving what feel on the ground for others to come along and take. But what we do have under the New Covenant is offerings, where we cannot spend all of our money we earn on ourselves but set some of it aside for those who are less fortunate than we may be. One-way we can understand this law is to “Love your neighbor as yourself.” which is repeated in the Gospel of Matthew (22:39) as well as in Romans 13:9. Bearing this in mind we see how Christ took this law and made it a new, in a slightly different manner. Or we could say that it is like the Golden Rule, we would want another to do the same for us, so we should be doing for others.


Hays, J Daniel. “Applying the Old Testament law today.” Bibliotheca Sacra 158, no. 629 (January 1, 2001): 21-35. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed May 23, 2015).

Smith James E, The Pentateuch, 2nd ed., Old Testament Survey Series (Joplin, MO: College Press Pub. Co., 1993), Le 19:1–37.

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