It is quite common for people to object to Islam on the basis of its teaching concerning the death penalty for apostates. In Sahih Bukhari we are told that the blood of a Muslim is to be shed if he is “the one who reverts from Islam (apostate) and leaves the Muslims.”(1) However, in a recent blog article entitled Apostasy: WWJD? (WWJD meaning “what would Jesus do?”) Muslim apologist Paul Williams has argued that both the Old Testament as well as Christ affirmed the death penalty for apostates. However, as we will see Williams’ arguments and conclusions based on certain Biblical texts contain many difficulties. This renders his overall position erroneous.
The Old Testament
It is interesting that in Williams’ attempt to prove that apostates were to be put to death in the Old Testament he discusses the punishment, not for individual apostasy, but for apostasy and enticing others to apostatize and worship other gods. Williams cites Deuteronomy 13:6-10 but this doesn’t address if an Israelite were to simply leave his religion and follow other gods. It addresses the punishment for leaving the religion and leading or enticing others to go after false gods.
"If your brother, the son of your mother, or your son or your daughter or the wife you embrace or your friend who is as your own soul entices you secretly, saying, 'Let us go and serve other gods,' which neither you nor your fathers have known, some of the gods of the peoples who are around you, whether near you or far off from you, from the one end of the earth to the other, you shall not yield to him or listen to him, nor shall your eye pity him, nor shall you spare him, nor shall you conceal him. But you shall kill him. Your hand shall be first against him to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people. You shall stone him to death with stones, because he sought to draw you away from the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Deuteronomy 13:6-10).
Therefore, citing this text is out of place when it comes to the issue of individual apostasy. The transgression in view goes far beyond that. In fact all of Deuteronomy 13 is about Israelites who not only leave their religion and follow other gods, but those who entice others to commit such acts as well. Individual apostasy is not in view in this text. A more suitable text would be Deuteronomy 17:2-5 where it is said that anyone who transgressed YHWH’s covenant by going after other gods was to be put to death. The issue in this text is individuals through apostasy transgressing YHWH’s covenant. This is important because as we will see, the penalty is different under YHWH’s New Covenant.
The Teaching of Jesus and the New Covenant
When discussing Jesus’ teaching Williams asserts that “[t]here is no reported teaching by Jesus about apostasy or its punishment in the canonical gospels.” I would argue to the contrary but according to Williams’ statement it follows that you will not find Jesus commanding his followers to put apostates to death despite the fact that under the New Covenant He founded a Church (Matthew 16:18), taught many doctrines and exercised His authority to bind and loose Old/New covenant doctrine (Acts 10:13-15). He also gave His Apostles that same binding and loosing authority (Matthew 18:18). With regard to the meaning of binding and loosing doctrine, Oscar Cullmann observes:
“What do the expressions ‘bind’ and ‘loose’ signify? According to Rabbinical usage two explanations are equally possible: ‘prohibit’ and ‘permit,’ that is, ‘establish rules’; or ‘put under the ban’ and ‘acquit.’”(2)
Therefore, we see that according to the New Covenant, which Christ inaugurated with His blood (Luke 22:20), that His Apostles and He presumed the authority to permit the people of God to do that which was previously unlawful under Old Testament Law, or not do what was previously commanded in the Old Testament Law. A good example of this can be found in the Acts 15 council where, using this binding and loosing authority from Christ, the Apostles loosed the doctrine of circumcision as far as the Gentiles were concerned. James even concluded the council by saying Gentiles were not to be troubled by the Old Testament Law (Acts 15:19), but that instead of trying to obey all the Old Testament Law they should instead avoid major sins like eating “things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood” (Acts 15:20). Earlier in the same council Peter also loosed Old Testament Law by stating that “Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will" (Acts 15:10-11). Therefore, the yoke of the Old Testament Law was removed from the neck of New Covenant believers. Likewise Jesus loosed the Mosaic dietary laws in a discussion with the Apostle Peter: “And there came a voice to him: ‘Rise, Peter; kill and eat.’ But Peter said, "By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean." And the voice came to him again a second time, ‘What God has made clean, do not call common’" (Acts 10:13-15). Moreover, in Mark 7:19 Jesus “declared all foods clean” loosing the dietary Law (Leviticus 11). Hence, it is very clear that as far as the New Testament is concerned Jesus and the Apostles enjoyed the authority to loose Old Testament Law in place of establishing New Covenant doctrine for Jew and Gentile.
The awaited New Covenant was expected to be different (Jeremiah 31:31-34; 50:4-5, Isaiah 59:20-21). The reason Jesus could rightly loose Old Testament Law and give His Apostles that same authority is because He was to fulfill every righteous ordinance the Law demands: “…it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15). The fact that Christ calls the New Covenant “new” shows that He believed the Old Covenant was to be fulfilled. By teaching that Isaiah 53:12 was a prophecy about Him (Luke 22:37), Christ affirmed that He would keep the Law, bear the sin of the world and make many to be accounted righteous through His death (an offering for guilt), apart from the Law (Isaiah 53:5, 9, 11). As John 1:17 states “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” This comports perfectly with Romans 10:4 which states: “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” This is why Christ taught that His death on the cross fully paid humanity’s sin debt for breaking God’s Law (John 19:30), and that instead of being saved by Law, those who believe are saved (Mark 1:15; 2:5; John 3:16-18). Jesus taught that those who approach the New Covenant with repentant child-like faith are justified (declared righteous), not those who try to be justified by Old Testament Law (Luke 18:9-14). That was Christ’s illustration in the parable of the Pharisee and tax collector. This is possible because Christ fulfilled the Old Testament Law and His active and passive obedience (law keeping and suffering death) are credited to the account of those who believe (Isaiah 53:9-12). No one is justified by doing Law as Luke 18:9-14 shows; but because of Christ’s law keeping (Philippians 2:8; Hebrews 4:5; 1 Peter 2:2; 1 John 3:5) and death (Matthew 26:28) people are justified by faith in Christ (John 3:36) through imputation or transferring of Christ’s righteousness to the believers account (Philippians 3:9; 2 Corinthians 5:21). This made it possible for Christ and the Apostles to loose the fulfilled Old Testament Law for the New Covenant believers.
The question then becomes, did Jesus and His Apostles loose the doctrine of putting apostates to death or did they ratify it in regard to the New Covenant? If they did loose it, as I will argue, then that means Islam is in serious error for beheading, hanging, stoning, burning and shooting apostates. Williams’ argument is that Jesus did not loose the doctrine of putting apostates to death but ratified it indirectly. In fact he argues that Jesus was sent to command his followers to keep the Mosaic Law to the exact letter, a conclusion which is refuted by the information discussed above. I will deal with his biblical arguments more in depth after making a positive case that neither Jesus nor His apostles ordered the stoning of apostates.
The clearest text on this issue which shows that Jesus no longer upheld capital punishment for apostasy, but instead loosed it, is Matthew 18:12-14 which discusses sheep who have gone astray, it states:
"12What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? 13And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. 14So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish” (Matthew 18:12-14).
There are a few points to be made about this text. When v. 12 says “one of them has gone astray”, the word for “gone astray” is planaō and it is defined as going astray, falling from truth and being a heretic.(3) Thus, there are clear apostasy connotations here. We know from the context (vv. 6, 15-17) that believers in Christ and the brethren of the Church are being discussed. Thus, this text refers to those who go astray or apostatize from following Christ (see discussion below on James 5:19-20 for more information on the word planaō). Christ’s response to this apostasy is not stoning, as it should be if Williams’ position is correct. Instead, Christ’s response to the issue of believers falling away, or apostatizing, is that they are to be sought out and restored since it is the Father’s will that no true believer in Christ should perish. Therefore, it is untenable to assert that Christ indirectly ratified capital punishment for apostates in the book of Matthew, something Williams goes on to argue below, when the same book demonstrates that this is not the case.
Second, we can know very clearly that under the New Covenant apostates were not to be put to death because when people left Christ in John 6, He did not order them to be stoned. If under the New Covenant Jesus wished to continue capital punishment for apostasy then we would not see Him disregarding it by not having apostates put to death. In John 6 many people were following Christ and they found Him in Capernaum (John 6:2, 24-25). They believed Christ to be a prophet because of His miracles (v. 14). However, after Christ taught on the sovereignty of God in salvation “many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him” (vv. 64-66). This is apostasy. Yet not only is there no mention of their death by stoning, there isn’t even a mention of Christ’s desire for their death or a statement from him indicating that he wanted them dead for apostatizing. This demonstrates that Christ hasn’t commissioned the Church to put people to death like what we find in the Old Covenant. Christ never once hints at having a desire to hand apostates over to the Sanhedrin for stoning or desiring to set up a new Christian high court which carried out capital punishment.
In fact Peter denied Christ three times and even said he didn’t know Christ when under pressure (Matthew 26:69-75). Many consider this to be a form of apostasy. For example the scholar Craig Evans notes that “Jesus responds by specifying the nature of Peter’s apostasy: he will deny Jesus three times before the morning rooster crows twice.”(4) Christ’s prediction of Peter’s denial of Him indicates that this was a sort of apostasy since Christ says that after Peter denies Him he will convert back to Christian truth: “But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren. And he said unto him, Lord, I am ready to go with thee, both into prison, and to death. And he said, I tell thee, Peter, the cock shall not crow this day, before that thou shalt thrice deny that thou knowest me” (Luke 22:32-34). In light of this why was Peter not stoned for apostasy? Why, when Peter repented and converted back to Christ, did Christ re-instate him? (cf. John 21:15-17).
Moreover, when Judas apostatized and betrayed Christ, having Him taken into custody (Luke 22:47-48), why did Jesus not order His disciples to have him stoned later? The disciples were there with Christ (Luke 22:39) and He could have indicated that Judas should be stoned or at least deserved to be stoned. But He didn’t. This again demonstrates that under the New Covenant apostates are not to be stoned. And we will show later that according to the New Testament apostates who get reprobated are to be punished and judged by God alone, not by God’s people.
Likewise, Christ’s Parable of the Sower in Luke 8:4-15 mentions major apostasy under the New Covenant and instead of exhorting His followers to stone the future apostates, Jesus simply mentions that apostasy will take place. There are numerous examples where we would expect to see stoning advocated, carried out, or believed to be incurred in the New Testament, but it isn’t.
Finally, Christ was also against killing anyone who refused to believe the Gospel since this is what he ordered his followers to do in such cases:
“Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace be to this house.’ If a man of peace is there, your peace will rest on him; but if not, it will return to you. Stay in that house, eating and drinking what they give you; for the laborer is worthy of his wages. Do not keep moving from house to house. Whatever city you enter and they receive you, eat what is set before you; and heal those in it who are sick, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ But whatever city you enter and they do not receive you, go out into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust of your city which clings to our feet we wipe off in protest against you; yet be sure of this, that the kingdom of God has come near.’ I say to you, it will be more tolerable in that day for Sodom than for that city. Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles had been performed in Tyre and Sidon which occurred in you, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. But it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the judgment than for you. And you, Capernaum, will not be exalted to heaven, will you? You will be brought down to Hades!” (Luke 10:5-15).
As the following text shows, the Apostles faithfully carried out Christ’s orders:
“And Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly, saying, ‘It was necessary that the word of God be spoken first to you. Since you thrust it aside and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we are turning to the Gentiles. For so the Lord has commanded us, saying, “I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.”’ And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed. And the word of the Lord was spreading throughout the whole region. But the Jews incited the devout women of high standing and the leading men of the city, stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and drove them out of their district. But they shook off the dust from their feet against them and went to Iconium” (Acts 13:46-51).
Neither Christ’s Apostles nor their followers ever stoned anyone, not even after Christ’s resurrection in the early church when apostasy was rampant. Are we truly to believe that this reflects the idea that they all believed Christ ratified stoning and that it was still to be practiced under the New Covenant? I would challenge Williams to document one case of someone being stoned for apostasy in the primitive/apostolic church. If he can’t then he is not justified in asserting that Christ’s New Covenant included stoning apostates. How could it be that there is not one New Testament command to stone apostates or one instance of it taking place in the primitive/apostolic church if Williams is right about Jesus ratifying the practice? You won’t find it advocated or supported in the apostolic fathers like Papias, Clement, Polycarp, or Ignatius either.
Hebrews 10:26-31 reflects the primitive Church’s understanding of Jesus’ message. In this text permanent apostasy through disregarding the sufficiency of the cross/Christ’s atoning work (Hebrews 6:4-6; 1 Corinthians 12:3) is discussed. However, as opposed to advocating that the apostate be stoned, the text says God will judge the person which will take place on the last day:
“For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has spurned the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, "Vengeance is mine; I will repay." And again, "The Lord will judge his people." It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:26-30).
Thus, apostates who abandon the sacrifice of Christ (spurn the Son of God/profane the blood of the covenant) and fall back into legalism, thereby being guilty of breaking the whole law (James 2:10) and thus not receiving the benefits of Christ’s atonement, are judged by God, not stoned by the New Covenant Church. There is even a contrast made between those dying for setting aside the Law of Moses under the Old Covenant (v. 28) and God’s wrath being the penalty under the New Covenant. This contrast serves as recognition that apostates are no longer stoned but judged by God Himself instead on the day which he has appointed when He will have Christ judge the entire world in righteousness (Acts 17:30-31).
Moreover, we see in 2 Timothy 4:10 that while Paul was in prison Demas “in love with this present world” deserted this blessed man of God. New Testament teaching says that those who fall back into the world in that way apostatize (2 Peter 2:20-22; 1 John 2:15-19). How did Paul deal with Demas’ apostasy? Instead of indicating that he deserved stoning or giving Timothy the command to organize his stoning, in the next verse Paul instead gives Timothy the command to get someone else for him, namely Mark, since he will be useful in Demas’ place: “Luke alone is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me for ministry” (2 Timothy 4:11).
This would have been the perfect place to command Timothy to orchestrate Demas’ execution for transgressing the New Covenant. However, Paul did no such thing, nor did he indicate that Demas deserved this penalty under the New Covenant. In the same way, when in 1 Timothy 1:19-20 we learn that Hymenaeus and Alexander “made shipwreck of their faith”, or abandoned the faith, Paul doesn’t call for them to be stoned or organize their execution, Paul “handed [them] over to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme” – excommunication.
In Jude 1:4-5 permanent apostasy is mentioned and instead of re-affirming the death of apostates, Jude states that their punishment will be destruction by the hand of the resurrected Christ himself. The text states:
“For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ. Now I want to remind you, although you once fully knew it, that Jesus, who saved a people out of the land of Egypt, afterward destroyed those who did not believe” (Jude 1:4-5).
Lest I be falsely accused of arguing from silence it needs to be noted that these are numerous texts where one would expect to see the death penalty for apostasy mentioned if Christian theology is for it. But, in place of the death penalty we see reference made to the future judgement of God instead (concerning permanent apostasy) and the necessity of helping the apostate to turn back to the faith before it is too late. Thus, it is not arguing from silence.
Lastly, James 5:19-20 states:
“My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins” (James 5:19-20).
Here James the brother of Jesus says that if someone wanders from the truth and is brought back by another believer, that this is something positive. The word for wander here is planaō, the same word used in Matthew 18:12-14 concerning the sheep who went astray which we previously discussed. This word again is defined as going astray, falling from truth and being a heretic.(5) There is obvious apostate connotations here. The same word is used in Matthew 24:11 of Christians being led astray by false prophets thereby apostatizing into falsehood. Instead of issuing the death penalty for such transgressors, the Lord’s brother taught that Christians are to help the lost apostate, for they were probably never truly justified yet and needed to be (1 John 2:19). This completely refutes Williams’ position that Christ and the New Testament supports stoning apostates. Why would James teach this if Jesus, his Lord of glory (James 2:1), ratified stoning apostates? Clearly Christ’s earliest and closest followers didn’t believe He included that in the New Covenant. Commenting on the meaning of wandering from the truth (planaō) the great expositor John Gill notes that it means to wander:
“[e]ither from Christ, who is the truth, by departing from him, forsaking his ways, worship, and ordinances; or from the Scriptures of truth, not speaking according to them, and embracing notions that are contrary unto them; or from the Gospel, the word of truth, from the doctrine of faith, and from uprightness of life and conversation, after having made a profession of Christianity.”(6)
Matthew 5:17-20 & James Dunn
Williams first cites Matthew 5:17-20 and states that “… there are reported sayings of Jesus that suggest, for Jesus, there was to be no change in the applicability of the Deuteronomic law in the Kingdom of God.” We already refuted that completely but it is still important to interact with Williams’ misuse of this text. It states:
"17Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18For 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. 19Therefore 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” (Matthew 5:17-19).
Although this text is distorted and misunderstood by a lot of cult groups and heretics, the actual meaning of it comports perfectly with the consistent historic message of the New Testament & New Covenant teachings. Williams appeals to James D.G. Dunn’s exegesis of this text found in his 2006 work Unity and Diversity in the New Testament (pp. 265-266) while arguing that Christ taught that His followers were to continue to strictly observe the Mosaic Law in its original form. Dunn argues that by fulfilling Jesus means “to realize or complete the law and thus to establish it, set it on a firmer basis”, and that “the law will remain inviolate, imperishable until the end of the age, or until the will of God has been fully accomplished.” He believes v. 19 clarifies this view by teaching that “the law as ‘realised’ by Jesus retains an unconditional validity for those who belong to the kingdom of heaven; and here too is a firm rebuke to other members of the kingdom…who were more liberal in their attitude to the law.” However, Dunn isn’t seeing the big picture as far as the Law and Prophets in v. 17 are concerned.
Although Dunn argues that Jesus fulfilling (plerosai) the Law is in reference to realization, completion, establishment and setting the Law on a firmer basis, this amounts to saying Jesus is bringing out the full meaning of the Law (namely His realization of it) and firmly establishing it. And Williams argues that it was to be established in its original form ("there was to be no change in the applicability of the Deuteronomic law"). This is option (b) in R. T. France’s list of possible meanings of Matthew 5:17’s use of the word plerosai (fulfill). The problem is this view doesn’t properly account for the mention of “Law/prophets” in v. 17 – a phrase which means the entire Old Testament. France rules out “bringing out the full meaning” of the Law (Dunn’s view) as being a viable option because it is,
“inadequate as a translation of plērōsai, which is normally used in Matthew (as in the LXX) of bringing into being that which was promised. This Matthaean usage, seen especially in the introductory formula-quotations, and in 26:54, 56, must surely be determinative for its use here. This is reinforced by the mention of the prophets, whose writings are ‘fulfilled’ when what they looked forward to happens. The law and the prophets is a regular Jewish name for the entire Old Testament (cf. 7:12; 22:40; Acts 24:14; 28:23; Rom. 3:21) and occurs again in 11:13, with the verb ‘prophesied’. So the whole Old Testament, the law as well as the prophets, pointed forward to what Jesus has now brought into being. His ministry brings them to full measure (cf. plēroō in 23:32), by supplying the final revelation of the will of God. In the background may be the Jewish expectation (based on, e.g. Is. 2:3; Je. 31:31ff.) that the Messiah’s role would include the definitive exposition of the law, sometimes amounting virtually to the promulgation of a new law. This complex of ideas then lies behind plērōsai: Jesus is bringing that to which the Old Testament looked forward; his teaching will transcend the Old Testament revelation, but far from abolishing it, is itself its intended culmination.”(7)
Dunn doesn’t emphasize how Jesus fulfilling the Law and the Prophets brings in what the Old Testament looked forward or pointed to, especially in respect to the Messiah’s ministry/teaching (cf. Luke 24:44). Nor does his position do justice to Jesus’ statement that he not only wasn’t intending to abolish the Law, but wasn’t planning to do that to the Prophets either.
Christ’s claims must then be viewed in light of the legalistic Jews thinking Jesus was doing away with the Old Testament and the possibility of His followers doing this in the future. Dunn and Williams view fulfillment in v. 17 strictly in a ratifying framework – the Mosaic Law continuously being obeyed (thus the Law is realised and set on a firmer basis according to Dunn), and not as the Old Testament as a whole being perfectly realized and consummated by Jesus’ ministry/teaching. This error then pollutes Dunn’s view of vv. 18-19 since if Jesus is saying that the Old Testament as a whole is still authoritative in the sense of it pointing to His ministry and teaching, then the Law which is to be obeyed in vv. 18-19 must be understood as the entire Old Testament being valid insofar as it is explained by Christ.
As D.A. Carson notes, “the Old Testament’s real and abiding authority must be understood through the person and teaching of him to whom it points and who so richly fulfills it.”(8) Otherwise put, “The law pointed forward to Jesus and his teaching; so it is properly obeyed by conforming to his word. As it points to him, so he, in fulfilling it, establishes what continuity it has.”(9)
The Law that doesn’t pass away and the commandments which are supposed to be obeyed according to Matt. 5:18-19 must then be understood as referring to Christ’s exposition and consummation of it. This understanding fits in with the fact that at the end of this discourse the crowds were astounded at His teaching, and the fact that Jesus exhorted the disciples to put His words, not Moses’, into practice (cf. Matthew 7:24-28).
Why would a crowd of Jews be astonished at His teaching if all He was saying in Matthew 5 was that the Law must be followed?
In fact, Matthew itself ends with the resurrected Christ commanding His disciples to go and teach everyone to obey HIS commands, not what Moses commanded in the Law (cf. Matt. 28:19-20).
Williams is therefore grossly mistaken as even one of the very liberal critical scholars praised by Williams, and whom Williams is consistently trying to shove down the throats of Christians, shows (1, 2). Here is what James Barr wrote concerning Matthew 5:17-18:
“But, although Jesus insists that he fulfils the law and the prophets and does not abolish them, this does not mean that they in themselves constitute the final and absolute criterion or source for his teaching. ON THE CONTRARY, Jesus proceeds to expound the ancient law in a way that makes it plain THAT HE INTENDS TO GO FAR BEYOND IT AND ITS NATURAL MEANING.
You have heard it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil … (Matt. 5:38).
“The ancient law says one thing, JESUS SAYS ANOTHER; what he says IS NOT IDENTICAL with what the ancient law had said. ‘I say to you’ IS A CLEAR ASSUMPTION BY JESUS OF AUTHORITY OVER THE LAW. HE IS NOT SIMPLY EXPLAINING THE LAW, HE IS NOT SETTING HIMSELF UNDER THE LAW AS A MERE EXEGETE, HE IS SAYING SOMETHING HE CONSIDERS TO BE NEW, TO GO BEYOND WHAT THE LAW ITSELF HAD TO SAY. It is precisely because this was his intention that he warned his hearers in advance that his purpose was not to abolish the law. The law and the prophets, though they remained the word of God, were no longer in themselves the supreme authority for Christianity. THE SUPREME AUTHORITY LAY IN CHRIST HIMSELF. For Christianity, though the Old Testament remained entirely the valid word of God, it was no longer in itself the communicator of salvation: salvation came through the new acts of God in Jesus Christ, his life, teaching, crucifixion and resurrection. The Old Testament, it as understood, had prefigured and foreseen these acts, it confirmed them and validated them, it provided a basis through which they could be rightly identified, understood and discussed; but it did not in itself constitute that new revelation. The new revelation was not a mere interpretation of the old: it was a new substance, which had not been there before.
“With Jesus, then, there came something new, something that burst the limits of what the Old Testament knew about; and for the expression of that something new it was both necessary and right that Jesus’ teaching should go far beyond what the then existing scripture authorized and should also be, whether openly or implicitly, critical in its attitude to scripture. To depict Jesus as if he was merely a submissive follower of scripture IS TO DAMAGE THE CREATIVITY AND ORIGINALITY OF THE INCARNATION. The people of the time, as the Gospels depict them, recognized the difference:
The crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes (Matt. 7:28-29).
“The scribes had the authority of scripture, as well as of tradition, behind them: what they did not have was authority of their own.” (10)
Hence, James Barr proves that both Williams and Dunn are simply wrong and have misread Jesus’ point in Matthew 5:17-19.
To reiterate Jesus’ point in context, Christ didn’t come to abolish the Old Testament but He came to fulfill its prophetic promises about Him, i.e. He brought in what the Old Testament pointed forward to. Until heaven and earth (the physical universe) pass away not one iota or dot of the Old Testament will pass away until all is accomplished. This is when written Scripture will pass away even though Christ’s words – which bring out the true sense of the Old Testament – never will (Matthew 24:35). No one is to relax Jesus’ specific teachings lest they be called least in the kingdom since they bring out the proper sense of the Old Testament. Those who fully obey Christ’s teachings and exhort others to do the same will be called great in the kingdom.
In light of the forgoing, when Williams asserts that “Jesus taught that the law in Deuteronomy 13:6-10 is still binding on the disciples of Jesus and apostasy is punishable by death”, he is severely mistaken. And since Islam is set on disregarding what Jesus actually taught by continuing the practice of stoning apostates, Islam is severely mistaken. I would exhort Paul Williams to convert back to the truth of Christ since his misunderstandings have been corrected.
Williams feels that this text also affirms his view that Christ ratified the Old Testament Law in its original form and thus apostates are still to be stoned. It states:
“Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, "The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat, so practice and observe whatever they tell you--but not what they do. For they preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger” (Matthew 23:1-4).
By saying that the scribes and Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, Jesus was metaphorically acknowledging their general correctness in exposition as long as one is accurately keeping to the Law of Moses.(11) By this time Jesus had already taught the true sense of the Old Testament and loosed certain laws in the previous 22 chapters. So as long as what the scribes and Pharisees taught was in line with the true sense of the Old Testament, and as long as their teaching didn’t contradict what He had already taught and preached, then there would be no problem with His followers observing what they teach. This was Christ’s point. We need to give Christ the benefit of the doubt and realize that He knew what He taught and what they would teach was going to be different on certain levels as far as the Old Testament is concerned. Therefore, the meaning is to obey them when they do operate in a way consistent with Moses’ seat (correctness in exposition of the Law), which they did for the most part. How can one assert that this text affirms that Christ ratified stoning apostates as well as all Old Testament Law as taught by the Pharisees and scribes when just five chapters earlier he loosed stoning apostates (Matthew 18:12-14), and just eight chapters earlier He declared all foods clean loosing the dietary Law (Matthew 15:17), and just four chapters earlier he refuted their false understanding of the Old Testament’s teaching on divorce (Matthew 19:4-9), and just nineteen verses later He said the scribes and Pharisees “have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness” etc? Williams’ broad view of this text makes little sense and doesn’t give Christ the benefit of the doubt. Therefore, it is to be rejected.
Moreover, the New Covenant which universally loosed strict observance of the Old Testament for Christians wasn’t officially instituted or inaugurated until Christ’s death (cf. Luke 22:20; Hebrews 9:16-17). Now, if one were to take the view that Christ was indeed telling the people to observe every single thing the scribes and Pharisees taught without exception, as Williams does, then that wouldn’t mean strict observance of the Law in its original form was to be followed even after the New Covenant was inaugurated. That doesn’t work. Things would obviously change after Christ’s death and resurrection since the New Covenant would be fully in place, and since with the New Covenant came the ceasing of the Old Covenant. The history of the post-resurrection apostolic church demonstrates that when the New Covenant was in place, Old Testament Law was loosed. Therefore, Matthew 23:1-4 does not support stoning apostates or observing everything the Pharisees and scribes taught when the New Covenant was to come into place.
The final text Williams cites in trying to demonstrate that under the New Covenant Christ ratified the Mosaic Law in its original form is Matthew 15:1-9. It states:
"1Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, 2"Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat." 3He answered them, "And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? 4For God commanded, 'Honor your father and your mother,' and, 'Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.' 5But you say, 'If anyone tells his father or his mother, "What you would have gained from me is given to God," 6he need not honor his father.' So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God. 7You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: 8"'This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; 9in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men'" (Matthew 15:1-9).
Williams’ argument concerning this text is as follows:
“Jesus cites a law found in Exodus 21:17 and Leviticus 20:9: ‘Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death’. He chastises those who ignore this teaching (‘the word of God’) for man-made teaching (‘your tradition’). Incidentally, miscreants were to be stoned to death for this crime.”
However, the obvious answer to this argument is that Jesus wasn’t so much chastising them for not carrying out capital punishment, since three chapters later in Matthew 18:12-14 Christ showed that under the New Covenant apostates are not to be stoned, as He was showing their inconsistency and hypocrisy, since, while they professed to faithfully hold to the Mosaic Law in its original form which prescribed stoning for those disobedient to parents, they themselves were guilty hypocrites. Instead of helping their parents financially they were saying that their wealth was dedicated to God and therefore they could keep it and not honor their parents by giving it to them (vv. 5-6). Christ was attacking them on the basis of their profession to hold fast to the Mosaic Law, not on the basis of what He himself wanted the New Covenant people to affirm after His death.
Christ’s message was that people can’t obey the Mosaic Law as prescribed and so they need His atoning work in order to be reconciled to God. In Luke 18 a man walked up to Christ and asked Him how he could attain eternal life (v. 18). Christ answered by saying he must keep the Mosaic commands (v. 20). The man claimed he kept all those from his youth (v. 21). Christ said he still had to sell all he had and give it to the poor in order to follow Jesus if he wished to be perfect (v. 22). The man was sorrowful and walked away because he was rich and decided not to obey (v. 23). Then Christ said “How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God” (vv. 24-25). The disciples understood how difficult properly obeying the Law was and said “who then can be saved?” (v. 26). Here is the answer:
“What is impossible with men is possible with God” (v. 27).
Apart from what God might do men have not the ability to do the impossible task of adhering to the Mosaic Law to God’s satisfaction in order merit eternal life. God’s mercy and grace is needed. Christ then goes on to explain how God will help humanity out of this dilemma so that they can attain eternal life:
“See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished. For he will be delivered over to the Gentiles and will be mocked and shamefully treated and spit upon. And after flogging him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise” (vv. 31-33).
This is the mode God selected for making salvation possible to man. A salvation which would otherwise be impossible if based on Law, human effort and/or merit. Although the meaning of Christ’s death and resurrection in connection with the impossibility of salvation by Law was not understood by the Apostles but hidden from them at that time (v. 34), it is my prayer that Williams will understand this chapter and see that Christ did not set out to merely ratify the Mosaic Law in its original form.
In order to try to show that Christianity supports capital punishment for apostasy Williams quotes the Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas on the issue of handing impenitent heretics over to the secular courts to be killed if they didn’t take heed after two warnings. Williams quotes Aquinas’ work Summa Theologica:
“But the church seeks with mercy to turn back those who go astray, and condemns them not immediately but only after a first or second warning. If, however, a heretic remains stubborn, the church, despairing of his conversion, takes care of the salvation of others, separates the heretic from the church with a sentence of excommunication and delivers him to the secular courts to be removed from the world by death.”
However, Aquinas was functioning under the belief that the Roman magisterium, not Scripture was his ultimate authority. Although his 13th century Romish system supported this idea, the real Christian’s final authority (Scripture) doesn’t. According to 2 Timothy 3:16-17 God-breathed Scripture makes the man of God complete and thoroughly equipped for his doctrine. Therefore, since the clear reading of the totality of Scripture does not support killing apostates or heretics under the New Covenant, as I have shown, one is not required to a.) yield to Aquinas’ Romish opinions or b.) presume that they reflect historic/proper Christian thought.
Witness the fact that the influential church father John Chrysostom (A.D. 347-407) understood Jesus’ parable on the wheat and the tares to mean that tares among the Christians should not be killed or “rooted out”(12). Even the strict 6th century Codex Justinianus issued by the Christian Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, which was part of the Eastern Roman Empire’s body of civil law, does not support executing apostates. This document cites and ratifies older Roman law demonstrating that the documented historic Christian position on this issue contradicts Williams’ thesis. Codex Justinianus cites Emperor Constantine’s statements to Thallasius from A.D. 357 saying that with regard to a Christian who apostatizes into Judaism “his property shall be turned over to the fisc (public treasury).” It cites Emperors Gratian, Valentianian and Theodosius’ statements to Hypatius from A.D. 383 saying that with respect to those who desert the Christian faith and join the temples of the pagans or Jews “he was disqualified from making a testament, he must commence his action, and receive a trial of that kind, within the continuous period of five years, which period is fixed for actions against unjust testaments.” It cites the Emperors Valentinian, Theodosius and Arcadius’ statements to Flavianus from A.D. 391 saying that with respect to those who betray the Christian faith and profane the rite of baptism, they “shall be unable to give testimony… [and] shall inherit from no one, nor be named by anyone as heir”, and that they should be “expelled and removed far away.” And finally, it cites the Emperors Valentinian and Marcian’s statements to Palladius from A.D. 455 saying that with respect to monks of the Christian faith who abandon Christianity following heresy, they “shall be subjected to all the punishments which were provided in the former laws against heretics and they shall also be expelled from the very soul of he Roman empire, just as the foregoing laws have provided concerning the Manichaeans.”(13) This Justinianus Codex reaffirmed these past laws. These historical strict “Christian” set of laws do not support stoning or executing apostates. Hence it is erroneous to argue that Christianity has historically taught that stoning apostates is valid. The only time the death penalty is incurred in this context is not for apostasy, but when one “has seduced anyone, free or slave, by force or punishable persuasion, from the worship of the Christian religion to a nefarious heresy or cult.”(14)
With respect to the Protestant reformer John Calvin, Williams brings up the Michael Servetus affair and he claims Calvin had Servetus executed in Geneva for publically rejecting the doctrine of the Trinity. This is historically inaccurate. As Matthew Gross explains:
“…[it]is important to note that Calvin never held any formal power outside the Church during his time in Geneva. The government of the church in Geneva was Presbyterian – it had a pastor and a consistory, or board of ruling elders. Contrary to popular portrayal, the government of the church was not the government of the city. The government of the city was called “the Council”. The consistory handled moral matters, and the maximum penalty it could impose was excommunication. However, for many years they could not even excommunicate someone without the prior approval of the Council. The maximum penalty that the Council could impose was death, however, even the Council’s decisions could be appealed to another body called “The Council of Two Hundred”, so named because it consisted of two hundred citizens of Geneva. Calvin himself was not a citizen of Geneva during the upheaval in Geneva, and thus was disqualified from voting, holding public office, or even serving on the Council of Two Hundred until very late in his life, and at least four years after he achieved “the height of his power” to which so many Calvin detractors refer…Calvin held no formal secular power…any power he did have was subject to the review of two different citizen’s councils…”(15)
Therefore, it is inaccurate to say Servetus was executed by John Calvin. Calvin wasn’t even a citizen at that time and did not have the authority to execute anyone. Commenting on the development of the negative and fictitious portrayal of John Calvin that Williams has bought into, Michael Horton notes:
“Dr. McGrath points out ‘how deeply the myth of “the great dictator of Geneva” is embedded in popular religious and historical writings,’ and points to the work of Balzac and Huxley as examples of writers who made assertions without any historical facts supporting them, but who nevertheless seem to have had more influence in the shaping of the modern view of Calvin than the facts of history. The Genevan reformer was ‘denied access to the city's decision-making machinery. He could not vote; he could not stand for office.’ In fact, he still had little power over his own church affairs!”(16)
Williams quotes a letter written by the Lutheran reformation leader Philipp Melanchthon in which he agreed with Geneva’s magistrates (not Calvin) punishing Servetus. However, again Melanchthon is not the final authority of Christians. Melanchthon was not representing Scripture accurately with his position on this issue. And Melanchthon was not representing historic Christian thought. Therefore, this material does little to prove that Christianity or Scripture supports stoning apostates or executing apostates.
Although Williams ends his blog article by quoting the Muslim Philosopher Shabbir Akhtar who implies that capital punishment is no longer practiced because “All intellectually sophisticated Jews and Christians are secularised”, the fact of the matter is that we have shown that 1.) Jesus didn’t teach that stoning apostates was part of the New Covenant, He taught the opposite; and 2.) The primitive and apostolic Church didn’t teach stoning apostates either, they taught the opposite. The reason why Jews don’t stone apostates anymore is because there is no Sanhedrin to carry that out. The Sanhedrin served as the high court responsible for carrying out capital punishment. It is not because of secularization. This stopped long before secularization. The reason Christians don’t stone apostates is because that Old Testament law was loosed by Christ and the Apostles under the New Covenant. It is my hope that this material will help people see why stoning apostates is no longer to be practiced, and that Williams is incorrect for asserting that Christ ratified this teaching. Islam is in error and Muslims need to embrace the New Covenant.
Christ has risen, He is Lord.
1.) Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 9, Book 83, Number 17
2.) Oscar Cullmann, Peter: Disciple, Apostle, Martyr, trans. Floyd V. Filson, [Westminster, 1953], pp. 204-205
3.) Joseph Henry Thayer, A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament, [Harper, 1887], p. 514
4.) Craig Evans, The Bible Knowledge Background Commentary: Matthew-Luke, [David C Cook, 2003], p. 479
5.) Joseph Henry Thayer, A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament, [Harper, 1887], p. 514
6.) John Gill, Exposition of the Entire Bible, James 5:19
7.) R. T. France, The Gospel According to Matthew: an Introduction and Commentary, [Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1985], p. 114
8.) D.A. Carson, Matthew, [Zondervan, 1995], p. 144
9.) Ibid., 146
10.) James Barr, Beyond Fundamentalism, [The Westminster Press, 1984], pp. 8-9.
11.) H. L. Ellison, Matthew, ed. F. F. Bruce, New International Bible Commentary, [Zondervan, 1979], p. 1144
12.) Joseph Bringham, The Antiquities of the Christian Church, , p. 422 citing Chrys. Hom. Xlvii, in Matt.
13.) Codex Justinianus, De Apostatis, 1.7.1; 1.7.2; 1.7.3; 1.7.6
14.) Codex Justinianus, De Apostatis, 1.7.5
15.) Matthew Gross, Calvin and Servetus
16.) Michael Horton, Was Geneva a Theocracy, 1992