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Friday, October 14, 2011

Why are we not bound by all the laws in the Old Testament? Doesn't it seem arbitrary that some of the things in there we follow (i.e. "Thou shalt not kill"--Exodus 20:13) but not the other things ("Do not clip your hair at the temples, nor spoil the edges of your beard."--Lev. 19:27)

“Love the Lord with all your heart, and with all your soul,
                                                  and with all your MIND”--Matt 22:37

So this question arose out of a discussion one of my daughters was having with a neighbor's daughter, who are evangelical Christians, regarding tattoos.  The neighbor's daughter said, "The Bible says that tattoos are wrong." 

And indeed the Bible does say this regarding tattoos: 
"Do not lacerate your bodies for the dead, and do not tattoo yourselves.  I am the LORD."--Leviticus 19:28.

Yet the Catholic Church does not forbid tattoos. 

Is this a case of:

a)the Church teaching something contrary to the Scriptures?


b) the Old Testament admonitions needing to be understood in light of the New Testament?

Of course, as the Church cannot teach anything contrary to Scripture, the answer is B.

The precepts given in Leviticus (regarding tattoos as well as the example of not clipping "your hair at the temples" given in the original question) are part of the Mosaic Law**.  We are not bound by the Mosaic Law.  The Mosaic Law was given in order to separate the Israelites from their pagan neighbors.  They were required to eat a certain way, look a certain way, worship a certain way in order to say, "We are NOT like the others!".  It was a way of making the Israelites culturally distinct from the Canaanites and other pagan tribes.  There were ceremonial laws, dietary laws, sacrificial laws and moral laws, all designed to separate and elevate God's Chosen People from the rest of the world.

Those laws in the Old Testament which transcend culture and time--that is, the moral laws--are the ones to which we are bound.  Thus, the OT injunction to "Keep holy the Sabbath day" is binding to all Christians, even if it would have been mentioned only in the OT and not the NT.  The OT law "Thou shalt not kill" is binding on Christians as it is a moral law, not a ceremonial or dietary prohibition. 

So how do we discern which prohibitions/law are still binding on us and which are part of the Mosaic Law which have been fulfilled (not eliminated) in Christ?  Firstly, I think some common sense would apply.  Thus, the injunction in Deuteronomy 22:8 that states, "
When you build a new house, put a parapet around the roof, so that you do not bring bloodguilt upon your house if someone falls off" can reasonably be determined to be a cultural prohibition that is not applicable to us today.  However, "Keep Holy the Sabbath day", is indeed binding on all Christians.  It proclaims "the moral obligation to set aside adequate time for the purpose of divine worship. This could never be abrogated, as it is rooted in the natural law." source

In the end, if we are unsure whether a verse in the Old Testament is binding or not, all we have to do is seek counsel in the Church, the pillar and foundation of truth (1 Tim 3:15).  It's nice that when we don't really know, we can indeed be assured that someone (that is, no less than  a successor to the Apostles--the bishops of the Catholic Church) has made the correct decision and pronounced it authoritatively for us.

So, for example, in this Sunday's responsorial psalm we proclaim from Psalm 96 in the Old Testament:  Worship the LORD, in holy attire; tremble before him, all the earth.  There may be a Christian who reads this verse and decides that it's a command from God for men to dress in suit/ties and women in long-sleeved dresses when worshiping. He feels so strongly that the Holy Spirit is commanding him to start a new church, "one that actually follows the Bible", that he leaves his current congregation and becomes pastor of a his own church.  According to the Protestant paradigm, he's certainly right to do this.  He is simply following his own interpretation of the Bible.  According to the Catholic paradigm, he is separating himself from the One Flock, creating disunity and splintering among the Body of Christ.  For there is only "one Lord, one faith, one baptism" (Ephesians 4:5).

**Mosaic Law:  The Mosaic law begins with the Ten Commandments and includes the many rules of religious observance given in the first five books of the Old Testament. In Judaism, these books are called the Torah, or “the Law.” source

For more in-depth study visit these websites:
Why We Are Not Bound by Everything in the Old Law
"Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect" - 1 Peter 3:15


  1. this helped a lot! thank you!!!

  2. Hi! I just wanted to tell you that your post helped me a lot. (I've heard about Leviticus esp when the discussion gets into homosexuality) and I'm really curious, what books do you recommend that answer common Catholic questions and misconceptions? Even to Catholics themselves? I have A Minute in the Church II by Gus Lloyd.

    1. Here are some great resources:

    2. Also, if you like little "bursts" of apologetics, I suggest you go to the Catholic Answers website:

      Also, the Catholic Answers Forums are a great place to pose a question and start a discussion: