The Torah laws consisted of a great deal more than just the 10 Commandments and ceremonial laws. The Law of Moses can be loosely divided into several sections that overlap somewhat, but this will help to clarify the discussion.
- Ceremonial system - includes all the regulations around sacrifices, temples services, annual holy days, circumcision, the priesthood, etc, etc.
- Jurisprudence and civil law - includes regulations around how court cases were to be conducted, how wars should be fought, how foreigners were treated, property laws, tort laws, criminal treatment, etc.
- Health and Hygiene laws - includes things such as quarantine laws, some dietary laws, purification laws, etc.
- Moral Laws including the Ten Commandments and some others (eg, Lev 19:18 and Deut 6:5).
- A range of personal ethical laws such as generosity to the poor, attitude to foreigners, respect for authority, the rule of law, safety rules, oaths, tithe, offerings, treatment of animals, treatment of slaves, etc. Some writers include these laws with the Moral Laws listed above.
Until at least the 19th century, most mainstream churches taught that the Ceremonial system in the Law of Moses had been fulfilled by Jesus and that the only law incumbent upon Christians was the Moral Law (10 commandments and a few others). Indeed, the Church of England 1662 liturgy for Holy Communion required the minister to read each of the 10 commandments and the congregation would respond, “Lord, have mercy upon us, and incline our hearts to keep this law.”
King Alfred the Great of England based his original civil code of law on section (2) above - Jewish jurisprudence. That is, while not adopting the Jewish laws directly, he used them to inform his civil code.
In the history of the Church, there have been several official theological positions regarding the ceremonial laws in the Pentateuch. Here is a short list (I will ignore such refinements as Adamic Law and Noahide Law as extra-Biblical ideas):
Position #1: The entire Mosaic Law should be kept.
Position #2: The Ceremonial System should be kept, including sacrifices and holy days, but not the priesthood and temple parts. The Ten Commandments should also be kept.
Position #3: Only the Holy days should be observed, and the Ten Commandments kept.
Position #4: Only the Moral Law should be kept and possibly the personal ethical rules as well
Position #5: No law should be kept because we "under a covenant of grace".
Position #1 is not possible because the temple does not exist and neither does the priesthood. If this position had been intended by God, then God would have preserved both the priesthood and the temple.
Position #2 is similarly inconsistent - the Ceremonial System cannot be implemented without the temple and priesthood - the Pentateuch makes this very clear. Even the Jews understand this. Many Jews want to re-start the whole ceremonial system but realise that without the temple and priesthood they cannot. Therefore, they do not do it.
Position #3 is equally inconsistent as Position #2. The ONLY way to keep the annual holy days is as per the extensive regulations in the Leviticus, including its sacrifices; but all these requirements need the temple and priesthood, and thus cannot be implemented.
Position #4 as stated above, used to be that of most churches. (Now many are not clear.) The usual justification for keeping the Ten Commandments as opposed to the ceremonial laws was based on several observations:
- The stated purpose of the Jewish ceremonial system was as a teaching device to inculcate the plan of salvation (Heb 9:8, 9, 11-14, 10:1) and had no salvific function (Heb 9:9, 10:4, Ps 51:16, 17, 1 Sam 15:22). That is, it used symbols to teach about the coming Messiah. When Messiah arrived and offered sacrifice for sin and the example of the exemplary life, the ceremonial system’s usefulness ceased to exist.
- Even in Old Testament times, the ceremonial system had been misunderstood and abused and did not provide propitiation but only symbolised the sacrifice of Jesus (yet to come), eg, Isa 1:10-17, Ps 40:6-8, 51:16, 17, 1 Sam 15:22, Hos 6:6, Prov 15:8, 21:3, Jer 6:20, Micah 6:6-8, etc. Therefore, in New Testament times, after the reality of Jesus had come, its value was gone.
- When Jesus died on the cross, the ceremonial system was finished and the temple curtain diving the Holy from the Most Holy Place was torn in two from top to bottom (Matt 27:51, Mark 15:38, Luke 23:45, see also 2 Cor 3:13-16) to symbolise this.
- No sacrifices were ever offered by the Apostles and no Jewish feasts were celebrated by them .
- The council at Jerusalem excused Christians from the ceremonial law requirements except for the prohibition about eating blood (a health regulation!) See Acts 15:29.
- The famous passage in Col 2:14-17 discusses the “handwriting of ordinances” – a clear reference to Moses’ hand-written law (ceremonial regulations + the annual Sabbaths) on a scroll placed outside the Ark of the Covenant (Deut 31:25, 26), while the 10 commandments were written by the finger of God on stone and placed inside the Ark (Ex 40:20).
- Jesus encouraged people to keep the moral law (Matt 5:17-19, John 15:10, etc), for example when approached by the rich young ruler (Matt 19:18, 19, Mark 10:19). However, the 10 commandments are not the only binding requirements that remain as shown by Jesus in Matt 22:36-40 as He listed at least two more. Therefore, even position #4 is incomplete.
Position #5 is untenable as encouraging lawlessness (1 John 3:4) and anarchy, and is unbiblical. Paul specifically tackles this problem by saying a number of times that by grace we should uphold the [moral] law (Rom 6:15, 7:7-12, 14, etc).
Thus, there is much debate (still) about what laws are still relevant today. Some of the plagues of medieval Europe that devastated much of the population were often stopped (at least on some regions) by implementing the hygiene and quarantine health laws in the Torah. Every church group has a different position that are often historically based rather than really Biblically based.