Morality: Introduction

How do we use the Bible as a foundation for Christian morality? Answering this question is tough, because the world has changed a lot since Bible times, and even the New and Old Testaments are clearly different. So how can we decide which rules were for them and which ones still apply to us?

To take the Bible seriously requires hard work. We have to root around in the background to discover which issues the writers are addressing. In my own life, I’ve always been interested in the Bible, but I wandered down a very varied career path – social work, science technician, salesman, software engineer, etc. – before I gave in to a call to the ministry. After some years as a pastor, my denomination recommended me to the academic world to build on the work of my PhD in the Jewish background of the New Testament.

I now work at Tyndale House in Cambridge, UK, a biblical studies institute where scholars and pastors from every corner of the world meet, study, and exchange ideas and expertise. I am a senior research fellow, which means my job is to dig into whatever corners of the Bible and its ancient context interest me – a dream job in a dream setting!

Context is the key to understanding the Bible. Without it, we are reading the equivalent of ancient replies to lost letters, so we don’t know what news or views they are responding to. We don’t know whether the law of Moses is unusually strict or unexpectedly merciful if we don’t know what was normal in the surrounding nations. We don’t know whether Paul is telling people to fit in with Roman sensitivities or to take a stand against Roman vices if we don’t know how Romans actually lived.

In my research I spend a lot of time in the company of ancient rabbis, who are known as Pharisees in the Gospels. Their determination to obey every nuance of the Old Testament law led them into some strange byways and debates as they strove to regulate daily life in order to guard against accidentally breaking God’s law. The records of these debates give a fascinating insight into how Jews thought at the time of Jesus, and we can understand some of his teaching a lot better with this background knowledge.

I often quote these rabbis, and I’ve set up a website where you can read their legal discussions for yourself at Their earliest works, called the Mishnah and Tosefta, are the most important, because the early sections of these are the “traditions of [the] fathers” that Paul refers to (Gal 1:14). The Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds are later commentaries on them, though they often contain earlier material, and dating them is an academic interest of mine.

I also refer to other contemporary Jewish writers such as the sect at Qumran that wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls, preachers such as Philo, and historians such as Josephus, as well as Roman and ancient Near Eastern sources. These writings from the world of Bible times tell us about the lives of believers and their neighbors in the ancient world and about the moral dilemmas that they faced as they tried to honor God, follow Jesus, and witness to their neighbors. In a lot of ways they were rather like us, but the problems they faced were often different. Unless we understand them and the way they thought, we won’t understand the Bible. It was written first for them – in their language, dealing with their problems – and second for all of us who lived later.

My working presupposition about the Bible is that it is God’s personal message to humanity that has been remarkably preserved within the limits of scribal accuracy. I also presuppose that it was written by inspired humans and not by dictation from God. This means it is written in human language about human experiences, and it was understandable to the people of that time. Scholars are still debating exactly who wrote what, so as shorthand I will refer to authors such as Moses, Matthew, John, and Paul, since the message is just as powerful regardless of whoever was holding the pen.

The Bible is a translated book, so I always check the original Hebrew and Greek, though I only mention it when it matters. I’m on the NIV translation committee, so I know how difficult it is to bring out every nuance of the original in a single word or phrase.1 Word-by-word translation is often misleading, especially when you have phrases like one found in Exodus 4:14, which could be translated as “The nose of the LORD grew hot against Moses.” Translators know that in ancient Near Eastern culture this means that God was angry, so no Bibles mention God’s nose in this verse! Sometimes, as our knowledge of culture deepens through archaeology and new texts, we discover new insights into the text. This can lead us to revise our interpretation as our understanding draws closer to that of the original writers, hearers, and readers. Although this is exciting, I’m naturally cautious about new discoveries until they become well established.

In this book, I’m looking at lots of practical issues with an emphasis on how to find answers in the Bible. In the first section I set out the ways in which we can find answers for today’s questions in a book that is thousands of years old. The other sections deal with examples – specific moral questions that we all face. My answers aren’t final – you may come to a different conclusion when you know how to look for the information. But amazingly, I’ve found that the Bible has lots of insights into today’s issues, because when you take the ancient context into account, it often throws light onto our own society.

1^ I’ve helped create a website that enables anyone to follow the original text without knowing Greek or Hebrew – have a look at

This was previously published in a similar form in Christianity magazine

1^ See chapter 21, “Is Gluttony a Sin?”
2^ See chapter 26, “Ending Slavery.”
3^ Financial compensation was specifically allowed for the most serious offense (v. 30), so it was assumed to apply to all others (Mekilta de Rabbi Ishmael, tractate Nezikin 8, []). Note that this book shortens internet links using to make them easier to type into the address bar of your browser.
4^ Jesus restricts marriage to only two people (Matt 19:4; see also Gen 2:24).
5^ See chapter 11, “Jesus Outlawed Polygamy.”
6^ See chapter 14, “Wifely Submission.”

This was previously published in a similar form in Christianity magazine

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