Tag Archives: Acts 15

The Yoke We Must Bear

An implement taken from the pastoral life served as a metaphor in rabbinic literature, itself the product of city life. That implement was the yoke, which in linking animals to the plow and to one another made farming possible. For the rabbis, there were two yokes. The first was the yoke of Heaven: the acceptance of the existence of God as one and unique and the proclamation that there was no other. The second was the yoke of commandments: the acceptance by a Jew that the same God had enjoined the people to follow a particular path and to live a particular kind of life. The commandments were both ceremonial and ethical; their specificity grew out of a specific concept of God. Thus the yoke of Heaven created a particular kind of yoke of commandments.

“The Yoke of Torah,” p.50
from Chapter Three: “Know Where You Came From; Know Where You Are Going”
Pirke Avot: A Modern Commentary on Jewish Ethics

After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brethren, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles would hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, testified to them giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He also did to us; and He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith. Now therefore why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?”

Acts 15:7-10 (NASB)

I have no doubt that God desires that all human beings, not just the Jewish people, acknowledge the “yoke of Heaven,” that is, accept “the existence of God as one and unique and the proclamation that there was no other.” After all, this is the very first commandment that God gave the Children of Israel at Sinai:

I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.

Exodus 20:2

Most Christians don’t realize this is a commandment because it reads more like a declarative statement, but it is a commandment. However, as I said above, God desires “all flesh” to bow before him, not just “Jewish flesh”. The question is how?

That’s not much of a question for most of us. The vast, vast majority of church-going Christians have a fairly good idea of what they think they need to do to serve God. So do the vast majority of religious Jews. But somewhere in between is a group of Jews and Gentiles who are affiliated, to one degree or another, under the banner of “Messianic Judaism.”

Of course, and I’ve written many times on this before, it becomes somewhat problematic to think about a non-Jew having involvement in a Judaism as such. This is one reason why the other branches of Judaism consider Messianic Judaism to be a form of Christianity with a thin Jewish overlay. For their part, many Christians see Messianic Judaism as “too Jewish” for their taste and this “yoke of commandments” seems rather “legalistic,” though they misunderstand the role of Torah and the mitzvot in the lives of Messianic Jews (and Gentiles).

But as indicated above, the yoke of Heaven and the yoke of the (Torah) commandments are metaphors used to describe the relationship between humanity and Deity. These yokes then, are the connection between who we are as living creations of Hashem and the Creator Himself. The first is awareness and acknowledgement of the very existence of God and our willing proclamation of that fact, and the second, which our writer from the Pirke Avot commentary calls a particular path for the Jewish people, is a living response or extension of the first yoke, but only for the Jew.

Apostle Paul preachingOf course the commentary I’m citing doesn’t take into account the role of Yeshua (Jesus) as Master, Messiah, and Mediator of the New Covenant, so it could be said, at least by some non-Jews, that in coming to Messianic faith, the Gentile takes on board both yokes, just as does the Jew.

But what yoke was Peter talking about in Acts 15:10?

Now therefore why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?

Peter certainly couldn’t have been dismissing the yoke of Heaven as a requirement of becoming a disciple of the Master, since without a basic acknowledgement of God as Creator and Sovereign, everything that follows is meaningless. But there’s only one other yoke to consider: the commandments, that is, the Torah of Moses.

Now many, most, or all Christians will consider “the disciples” to be all disciples, Jewish and Gentile, and thus reach the conclusion that Peter was advocating for doing away with the commandments (and replacing them with grace). But they miss the fact that in verse 7, Peter identifies the object of his statement as “the Gentiles,” thus he is talking about the yoke of the commandments as being too great a burden to place on them, that is, on us, the non-Jewish disciples.

All of Acts 15 is an attempt to answer the question, “What do you do with a bunch of Gentiles who are being invited to become disciples within Judaism?” Since even a brief inventory of the Tanakh (what Christians call the “Old Testament”) describes the rather difficult history of the ancient Jewish people relative to their obedience to God, I think Peter is justified in saying that the mitzvot are a yoke which neither their (Jewish) fathers nor they (the Jews present at this legal proceeding, and by extension, Jewish people in general) could bear.

This isn’t to say that God expected any Jewish person to perfectly and flawlessly perform the mitzvot. God doesn’t expect the unreasonable out of flawed human beings. Certainly King David, “a man after God’s own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14, Acts 13:22), was less than perfect, and yet even in light of his many human mistakes, he continually and passionately pursued God. James, the brother of the Master, said that “works without faith is dead” (James 2:17, 2:26), so obviously both are required in a life acknowledging the yoke of Heaven and of the mitzvot.

In reading the continuation of the Acts 15 narrative, we see James and the Council ultimately ruling in favor of Peter’s (and Paul’s) interpretation of scripture that the Gentiles should be exempt from many elements of the yoke of Torah. As I mentioned, the yoke of Heaven is a minimum requirement for anyone oriented toward God, so no one can be made exempt from this requirement.

In fact (citing Acts 15:28), it (that is, this decision) seemed “good to the Holy Spirit” that only a limited subset of mitzvot be applied to the Gentile disciples, rather than test God by laying a stumbling block in their path and causing them to repel from coming to faith.

But if God provided two yokes for the Jewish people, the yoke of Heaven and then a path to live out their faith in the yoke of the commandments, what about the rest of us? Actually, I attempted to answer that question, not by providing an exhaustive list of “do this” and “don’t do that” (which seems to be the standard expectation), but rather a higher level conceptualization of humanity’s overarching relationship with God.

Orthodox Jewish manThe Jewish people continue to bear a greater level of responsibility in their obedience to God because of their unique covenant status, but God in His graciousness and mercy, granted access for the Gentile to the Holy Spirit and the promise of the resurrection to come without requiring that we shoulder the same “burdening yoke” (though that yoke is also “perfect for restoring the soul”; see Psalm 19:7).

As I’ve mentioned many times before, I don’t think Acts 15 is the end of the story, and I believe that oral instruction must have accompanied “the letter” as it made its rounds (perhaps eventually being formalized in that document we have called the Didache).

Just in living my own life day-to-day, I find that I have my hands full simply “doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly with my God (Micah 6:8).” If we can master loving our neighbor as ourselves, as James the Just said, we “are doing well” (James 2:8). This is what James called “the royal law” and part of what the Master called “the greatest commandments” (Matthew 22:36-40). Since this “royal law” is linked to loving God, that brings us full circle back to the yoke of Heaven.

Maybe if you think you have completely mastered the yoke of Heaven, you, as a Gentile, feel you have merited also taking on the yoke of Torah. If you have mastered even that first yoke, then I envy you, for it seems that I and the believers I know have fallen short on some aspect or another in attempting to pull this “plow”.

If humility is about seeking a balance between the extremes of thinking too well of ourselves and thinking too poorly, where is that balancing point for the Gentile in Messiah? It may not be along the same path as the one God placed before the Jewish people.

One final note. As was said in the very first quote at the top of the page, a yoke not only links an animal to the plow but it links two animals to each other. If I say that the yoke of the commandments links Jewish people to God and to each other as Jews, I believe the yoke of Heaven links all of the faithful together, Jew and Gentile alike. So in this, I am not creating a barrier between Jewish and Gentile believers in Yeshua, rather, I am showing you by which yoke we are linked, for we are all yoked by Heaven.

Torah and the Christian: An “In-a-Nutshell” Explanation

A few days ago, my friend and One Law proponent Pete Rambo posted a blog titled The ‘ger’ was expected to do what??. In his write-up, he summarizes the apparent obligations of the Ger or “resident alien” (sometimes translated and “convert” or “proselyte”) who was dwelling among the ancient Israelite people as we see chronicled in the Torah (Pentateuch or the first five books of the Bible). These passages are used in part to support the belief among One Law Gentiles that all believers in Jesus are obligated to observe the same set of commandments in the Torah that were assigned to the Israelites.

This is by no means the entire rationale or set of evidence supporting this idea, but it is a critical one. Pete and I have been engaged in an ongoing online dialogue between his blog and mine arguing the pros and cons of this position, with Pete obviously taking the “pro” position.

I think it would help before proceeding to expand a little bit on the status of the “Gerim” (plural of Ger), the resident aliens among the ancient Israelites as we see them in the Torah:

In contrast with the foreigner, the ger (גֵּר), the resident alien, lived more or less permanently in his adopted community. Like the Arabic jār, he was “the protected stranger,” who was totally dependent on his patrons for his well-being. As W.R. Smith noted, his status was an extension of that of the guest, whose person was inviolable, though he could not enjoy all the privileges of the native. He, in turn, was expected to be loyal to his protectors (Gen. 21:23) and to be bound by their laws (Num. 15:15–16).

Since all of the landed property belonged to Israelites (cf. Lev. 25:23–24), the gerim were largely day laborers and artisans (Deut. 24: 14–15; cf. 29:10). Both the Book of the Covenant which classed them among those who were dependent (Ex. 23:12) and the Decalogue which referred to them as “your stranger” (gerkha; Ex. 20:10; cf. Deut. 5:14) attest their inferior position in Israelite society. While a few acquired wealth (cf. Lev. 25:47), most of them were poor and were treated as the impoverished natives. Thus, they were permitted to share in the fallen fruit in the vineyard (Lev. 19:10), the edges of the field, and the gleanings of the harvest (Lev. 23:22; see also Poor, Provisions *for). Like the other poor folk they were also granted a share in the tithe of the third year (Deut. 14:29) and the produce of the Sabbatical Year (Lev. 25:6).

With the passage of time, the gerim were assimilated culturally and religiously. Doeg the Edomite, for instance, was a worshiper of YHWH by the time of Saul (I Sam. 21:8), as was Uriah the Hittite in the reign of David (II Sam. 11:11). Hence, the ger, in contrast to the nokhri, was required in many cases to conform to the ritual practices of the native Israelite. Thus, gerim were subject to laws dealing with ritual purification (Num. 19:2–10), incest (Lev. 18:26) and some of the food taboos (Lev. 17:10–16; but cf. Deut. 14:21). They were expected to observe the Sabbath (Ex. 20:10; Deut. 5:14), participate in the religious festivals (Deut. 16:11, 14), and fast on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:29). They were permitted to offer up burnt offerings (Lev. 17:8; 22:18; Num. 15:14ff.) and, if circumcised, even to sacrifice the paschal lamb (Ex. 12:48–49; Num. 9:14). Indeed, they, no less than the Israelites, were expected to be loyal to YHWH (Lev. 20:2; cf. Ezek. 14:5–8).

However, social differences did remain, and some gerim were better received than others. While third generation offspring of Edomites and Egyptians might “be admitted into the congregation of the Lord” (Deut. 23:8–9), Ammonites and Moabites were not to be admitted “even in the tenth generation” (23:4). Furthermore, even while the Holiness Code admonished Israelites not to subject their fellows to slavery (Lev. 25:39), they were specifically permitted to do so to the children of resident aliens (25:45–46). A Hebrew slave belonging to a ger could be redeemed immediately, and if not redeemed served until the Jubilee Year (25:47ff.), but one belonging to an Israelite served until the *Jubilee (25:39ff.). Correspondingly, a Hebrew could serve as a hired or bound laborer (25:40) of an Israelite, but only as a hired laborer of an alien (25:50). Indeed, the humble position of the ger generally was emphasized by the usage of the term in the Holiness Code: e.g., “The land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me” (25:23; cf. 25:35, but see *Proselyte).

-from “Strangers and Gentiles”
Jewish Virtual Library

Sorry for the long block of quoted text, but I wanted to present a cohesive thought. Click on the link I provided above to read all of the article and get a complete picture of how the “Ger” was thought of and functioned in ancient Israelite society.

Apostle Paul preachingGetting back to Pete’s blog, after my first reading of his article, I posted an initial response to each of his points. Later that day, one of my long-time “debating partners” Zion replied to me with his own set of ideas. That started me thinking and reading and today, I responded to him. This blog post is an expansion on that response since I hopefully have crafted an “in-a-nutshell” (more or less) description of why neither the historical Ger nor the Acts 15 apostolic decree supports One Law. In fact, I believe this is a tidy explanation of how the example of the Ger and the apostolic decree create a halachic (legal) precedent stating that Gentile believers in the Jewish Messiah (Jesus Christ) were (and are) expected to observe only a subset of what we might think of as Torah commands in the present age and then only if considered to be “residing among Israel.”

The following is my actual response to Zion on Pete’s blog:

Interestingly enough, D. Thomas Lancaster in his Torah Club commentary on Acts 15 actually presents the legal decision made by James and the Council of Apostles and Elders as granting Gentiles “resident alien” status among the nation of Israel based on his understanding of Leviticus 17 and 18.

I reviewed his work about 18 months ago and based in part on Markus Bockmuehl’s book, “Jewish Law in Gentile Churches: Halakhah and the Beginning of Christian Public Ethics,” he believes that non-Jews are saved as non-Jews and, referencing the aforementioned chapters in Leviticus:

In those chapters, the Torah describes the sins of the Canaanites, warns the people of Israel against imitating their ways, and prescribes four prohibitions which both the Israelite and the stranger who dwells among the nation much keep. “These correspond to the four prohibitions of the apostolic decree, in the order in which they occur in the apostolic letter.” [Richard Bauckham, “James and the Jerusalem Church,” in “The Book of Acts In Its Palestinian Setting, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995), 459]

In his article “The Gentile Believer’s Obligation to the Torah of Moses” for FFOZ publication Messiah Journal (issue 109/Winter 2012), which I reviewed when it first came out and then again last year, Toby Janicki says about the Acts 15 decree:

At first glance it appears that the Gentiles have very few commandments to deal with, but upon closer examination each of these four prohibitions becomes, in a sense, an overarching category which contains many sub-category commandments. This may be one of the reasons the Apostle James adds the phrase about Moses being read in the Synagogue every Sabbath. The new Gentile believer would need to attend the local synagogue to learn how each of these four prohibitions plays out practically in everyday life.

Referring back to Pete’s list of those things the Ger was either required or encouraged to perform while living among the ancient Israelites (including my initial response to his list), we see this is a subset of the overall commandments issued to the Children of Israel by God through Moses. Based on this subset, we cannot reasonably infer that somehow the Gentile Gerim were obligated to the entire set of mitzvot as were the Israelites, but only those mitzvot where they are specifically mentioned.

Putting this all together, I think the best we can come up with for those of us who identify as “Messianic Gentiles” is that we have some overlap in terms of obligation with Messianic Jews but we do not possess an identical obligation to God with Israel, that is, the Jewish people. By legal precedent, both in specified portions of the Torah and in Acts 15, the Gentiles who are attached to Israel in the present (Old Covenant) age, have been given a lighter “yoke” to bear so that, in Peter’s words (Acts 15:10-11), “why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are.”

Peter wasn’t kidding when he called the Torah “a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear.” The history of Israel in the Tanakh is a litany of her failures in obedience and in straying away from God and the Torah and into idolatry. The reason for the establishment of the New Covenant (Jeremiah 31:31-40, Ezekiel 36:22-30) is to make it possible for the Jewish people to perfectly obey God’s Torah by writing it on their hearts rather than on external objects, and to give them a new Spirit so each and every Jewish person would have a perfect apprehension of God greater than the prophets of old.

AbrahamThanks to the “seed of Abraham,” that is Messiah or Christ, and God’s promise to Abraham that he would be a “father to many nations” and a “blessing to the nations,” we people of the nations, that is Gentiles, are able to share in the blessings of the New Covenant by also having our sins forgiven and there being no partiality between Gentile and Jew in access to the Holy Spirit and the promise of the resurrection and life in the Messianic Era of peace and tranquility.

But that equality is specific to those blessings, and based on what we know of the Gerim and Acts 15, we do not also share in identical obligations. Blessings yes, obligations, no. There are some duties that will always be exclusive to the Jewish people, just like serving in the Temple is a duty that is specific to the Levitical Priests.

I suppose all this is flying in the face of this morning’s Elul blog post:

Frankly, my plate is full just in keeping up with all I need to learn on my journey of spiritual growth. I don’t have a lot of time to worry about what other Christians or what Jews are or aren’t doing.

If I’m to borrow anything useful from Elul, let me adopt a discipline of repentance, increased prayer, introspection, and seeking to draw nearer to God.

On the other hand, it is a further exploration of who I am and I continually re-examine what I believe and why I study the Bible and worship God as I do. Am I going in the right direction? What can I do to be a better person? Only by asking myself some hard questions (sometimes that means asking others those questions as well) will I find the answers.

“May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year.”

Good Shabbos.

The Mystery of Romans: Apostolic Decree and the Obedience of Faith

Apostolic DecreeIt is important to note that the major tenets of the decree were practiced by the early Christian gentiles for several centuries, although this fact is not considered by most scholars to demonstrate that Paul accepted or taught it in his gentile mission. Somehow it is assumed that Paul was generally unaware of the decree, or that if he was aware of it he did not accept it. Why has Christianity so overlooked this feature of Paul’s missionary teaching?

-Mark Nanos
“Chapter 4: The Apostolic Decree and the ‘Obedience of Faith,'” pp 201-2
The Mystery of Romans: The Jewish Context of Paul’s Letters

I’m finally able to get back to my series of reviews on this landmark book of Nanos’. I’m not going to pick through the entire chapter, but the section of Chapter 4 called “The Apostolic Decree and the Message of Romans” caught my attention. I’m rather interested in the legal decision of the Council of Apostles and Elders in Jerusalem (Acts 15) that established binding halachah on the Gentile disciples of the Jewish religious stream known as “the Way.” My opinion is that Paul very much had to know about this decree and certainly, if he considered himself under the authority of the Council, an authority established by Messiah, then agree or not, Paul had to accept it and even teach it.

And how could Paul not be aware of this decree?

Some men came down from Judea and began teaching the brethren, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” And when Paul and Barnabas had great dissension and debate with them, the brethren determined that Paul and Barnabas and some others of them should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders concerning this issue.

Acts 15:1-2 (NASB)

So Paul, Barnabas, and their Jewish opponents traveled to Jerusalem together to seek out the Council’s authority on the matter in dispute (whether or not Gentiles had to convert to Judaism and take on the full yoke of Torah as an obligation in order to enter into the Messianic religious order), which would include giving testimony and being present for the final verdict. I have no idea how any New Testament scholar could miss so obvious a passage of scripture.

As I did previously, I’m going to review my notes and “brain dump” the data here with just a bit of polishing. Hopefully, this will carry the meaning of this section of the chapter and my impressions of the information presented.

In stark contrast to this consensus, however, I see the apostolic decree operating in the background of Paul’s bold “reminder” to Rome. In addition to his clear agenda to explain the new status of the gentile believing in Jesus Christ as equal, though governed by the principles of behavior outlined for the “righteous gentile” in the Council’s apostolic decree, several specific references suggest that his addressees share with Paul the knowledge of the decree in its original, though certainly fluid format. We have seen how central the issue of accommodating the dietary concerns of the “weak” were in order to win them to faith in Christ. Further, I find traces in the formal feature of the opening and closing of the letter, in the rhetorical structure, and in several key phrases and concepts that Romans is actually Paul’s exposition, by way of reminder, of the apostolic decree in view of his intended visit, and yet necessary delay.

-Nanos, pp 206-7

My commentary on Chapter 3 mentioned that the “reminder” was Paul to the Gentile believers in Rome, reasserting the form and function of the Gentile’s role in “the Way” in relation to the Jewish believers in specific and Jewish people in general. The “weak” were not the Jewish believers who felt they had to continue observing the Torah mitzvoth as opposed to accepting the grace of Christ, but rather the Jewish non-believers who were struggling with accepting faith in Yeshua as Messiah. A large part of the apostolic decree was designed to allow a basic relationship between the believing Gentiles and Jewish people. The so-called “strong” were over-emphasizing their “freedom” from Torah at the expense of the Jewish non-believers they associated with in the synagogue, damaging the reputation of Messiah and “the Way” as a Judaism.

King Priest TorahWe see from the general message in Galatians that Paul did not support Gentile conversion to Judaism as a requirement for justification before God, and that he stated point-blank that if the Gentiles were to allow themselves to be circumcised and convert, they would be obligated to the full yoke of the Torah, and the sacrifice of Messiah would become useless (Galatians 5:1-2). Applying that to Romans, Paul knew that the Gentiles were not obligated to the Torah in the manner of the Jews and also knew that the apostolic decree established an alternate set of behavioral constraints and requirements that defined the role of the Gentile disciple, not only in relation to God, but to the Jewish people as well.

He is responsible for the “obedience of the Gentiles” that results from his apostolic preaching of the gospel (15:18-19, 20ff.) and he will not be satisfied with the situation in Rome until he has arrived to fulfill this obligation (1:14-15)…

Within this context, Paul is expecting the “obedience of the Gentiles” to conform to the apostolic decree for the sake of the unbelieving Jews that they may not be further alienated from Messiah, but drawn nearer. It was within the power of the Gentiles in Rome to “thumb their noses” as it were to the Jewish people, but that would result in pushing Jews who were already doubtful that the crucified Rabbi from Nazareth was the Messiah into complete rejection.

The key statement in this part of Chapter 4 is this:

It is Paul’s hope that the Romans will receive him and his message of their obligations with respect to the decree in the same positive way as we find Luke describes (Acts 15:30-31) Paul’s earlier missionary reception. For the decree was not an unwelcome burden, but a powerful declaration of the inclusion of gentiles as equals, by faith and without becoming Jews, in the people of God. It was a sign of the fulfillment of the eschatological promise of the blessings for all the world in Israel’s Christ. And it was understood to be a minimal demonstration of appropriate purity behavior for association with the Jewish community (Israel, the historical people of God), on the part of the gentiles who maintained they had become equal coparticipants in the promised blessings. Indeed, it bore witness to their indebtedness to Israel for her present suffering on their behalf.

-Nanos, pg 211

The apostolic decree was the minimum set of standards required of the Gentiles to honor their indebtedness to the Jewish people and Israel as a whole for the realized blessings that resulted in Gentiles being equal coparticipants in salvation and reconciliation with God without having to be circumcised (convert) and be obligated to the full Torah.

My understanding is that the Gentiles could accept more than the minimum requirements up to and including the full “yoke of the Lord,” but this was entirely voluntary. In Paul’s letter to the Romans, we see the opposite happening. The Gentile believers in Paul’s readership were not even achieving the minimums set out in the apostolic decree and failing to acknowledge the Jewish people as the source of the blessings they were so comfortably operating within.

Gentile obedience to the decrees of the Council would result in the proper display of the relationship between non-Jewish believers and the general Jewish community, and disobedience sacrifices the “weak” among the Jews in the Roman synagogue to a failure of faith in Messiah.

I find an interesting parallel in Paul’s writing in how the Church approaches the Jewish people today. Christianity in the modern era also flaunts its “freedom” to the Jews and conversely denigrates the Torah, claiming that Jews are now “free from the Law” as if that would be some great relief to Jewish people. Gentile Christians would blithely eliminate the Torah from the lives of Jewish converts to Christianity, ignoring the destruction of Jewish identity and ultimately the Jewish people as a separated and called out nation before God.

Today, we “gentilize” the Jews as well as the modern incarnation of Jewish religion of “the Way” (i.e. “the Church) in the same manner as the Gentiles Paul was addressing in Rome. We in the Church are just as disobedient to the binding decrees of those whom Jesus assigned authority to as were the Roman Christians in Paul’s letter. Granted, much has changed since the apostolic era, and the body of Christ is totally separated from its “Jewish roots,” but that condition is not permanent.

The programmatic “obedience of faith” echoes the spirit of the Jerusalem Council’s intentions in setting forth the need for the Christian gentiles of Rome to obey the particulars outlined in the apostolic decree. Paul was concerned to remind them boldly of proper monotheistic behavior for “righteous gentiles” in their association with non-Christian Jews, and specifically halakhic matters of dietary and sexual conduct (12:1-15:3).

…Whatever grammatical construct one might prefer, the “obedience of faith” articulated Paul’s uncompromising commitment to the deeper intentions of the Shema, embracing both the election of Israel and the inclusion of gentiles equally — for God is One! The contours of Paul’s argument have been overlooked because interpreters have misunderstood his focus on gentile inclusion through faith alone, ostensibly dismissing Torah obedience as obsolete. However, if we recognize that Paul was addressing Christian gentiles tempted to consider themselves as having supplanted Israel and thus no longer obligated to obey “the teaching” of the apostolic decree (for why would they need to be concerned with the “acceptance” of the “stumbling” of Israel and their “opinions” of the proper purity behavior for “righteous gentiles”; if Israel had been cut off they are free to eat all things!), then we can readily follow Paul’s nuanced discussion of circumcision and Torah.

-Nanos, pp 237-8

going-to-church-sketchesGentiles who consider themselves as having supplanted the Jewish people in the blessings of God due to their faith in Messiah do not enhance Jewish desire to approach Messiah-faith, but inhibit it. By considering the apostolic authority to bind the Gentile disciples to a set of principles as obsolete, along with the Torah, these Roman Gentile Christians were sowing the first seeds of dissention that would eventually lead to complete restructuring of “the Way” from one Jewish religious stream among several in the late Second Temple period, to a completely separate Gentile religion in the first decades of the common era, totally divorced from its origins and its apostolic Jewish mentors.

And “the Church” hasn’t stopped being disobedient yet. In fact, we’ve compounded the problem by insisting that the only proper response to the Jewish Messiah for a Jew is to abandon the Torah, abandon Judaism, and abandon being a Jew, convert to being a Gentile, and to also thumb their noses at the eternal relationship between God and Israel.

The Children of Israel shall observe the Sabbath, to make the Sabbath an eternal covenant for their generations. Between Me and the Children of Israel it is a sign forever that in a six-day period Hashem made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day He rested and was refreshed.

Exodus 31:16-17 (Stone Edition Tanakh)

Thus says the Lord,
Who gives the sun for light by day
And the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night,
Who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar;
The Lord of hosts is His name:

“If this fixed order departs
From before Me,” declares the Lord,
“Then the offspring of Israel also will cease
From being a nation before Me forever.”

Thus says the Lord,

“If the heavens above can be measured
And the foundations of the earth searched out below,
Then I will also cast off all the offspring of Israel
For all that they have done,” declares the Lord

Jeremiah 31:35-37 (NASB)

No amount of exegetical “tweaking” of the Bible can delete God’s promises of an eternal relationship with Israel, the Jewish people. Reading Paul as is done traditionally in Christianity requires a great deal of “retrofitting” of the older texts to somehow make God seem to be saying the exact opposite of what we read in Exodus 31 and Jeremiah 31. Mark Nanos and other New Testament scholars like him are boldly forging ahead into territory that restores the “Judaism” back to the Jewish text of the Bible. Paul is not praising the Gentiles for their “lawlessness” and castigating the believing Jews for their continued “addiction” to the Torah. Quite the opposite.

In this chapter, we see Paul continuing to urge the Gentile believers to cleave to the “obedience of faith,” the standards established by the Council in Jerusalem, for the sake of the Jewish people, particularly those Paul was desperate to have come to faith in Messiah.

Mark NanosI can only hope that books like The Mystery of Romans and ministries such as First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ) will eventually, and by the will and grace of God, restore the balance, even as Paul was attempting to restore the balance between the Gentile believers and the Jews in Rome. Paul’s efforts ultimately failed, as I think he suspected they would, but as the time of the Messiah’s return approaches, the Spirit is helping us to get out the message of restoration and renewal as God originally planned. Much has been lost to the believers in Jesus over these last twenty centuries. I believe that the time has come for us to take it back.

I hope to continue with my review of the Nanos book soon.

The Didache in Retrospect, Part 2

SpeakThe fifth sequence might appear as puzzling since it associates grumbling as “leading to blasphemy” (3:6). The Greek term “blasphemia” derives from “blapto” + “theme” (“to injure” + “speech”) and so could be rendered as “slander.” In the Septuagint, however, this term is almost entirely used to denote injurious speech against the Lord, hence what is communal called “blasphemy.” Since the verb “gonguzein” (“to murmur”) is used repeatedly to describe the grumbling of the Israelite people in the desert (Exod. 16:2, 7(2x), 8(2x), 9, 12), some scholars believe this is the implied case history that stands behind the warning against murmuring (Ross 218).

-Aaron Milavec
“A Brief Commentary,” pp 58-9
The Didache: Text, Translation, Analysis, and Commentary

I’m picking things up pretty much where I left off in yesterday’s morning meditation. You may wonder about the above-quoted text, but while Milavec associates it with “grumbling” or blaspheming against the Lord, the phrases “to injure” and “speech” remind me of something else.

Leviticus 25:17 says, “You shall not wrong one another.” This has traditionally been interpreted as wronging a person with speech. It includes any statement that will embarrass, insult or deceive a person, or cause a person emotional pain or distress.

-from the article “Speech and Lashon Ha-Ra”
Judaism 101

I don’t question Milavec’s interpretation of this portion of the Didache, the document apparently used to train newly minted Gentile disciples in “the Way,” possibly in the late first century to late second century in the common era, but it also seems reasonable that if the novice Gentile disciples were warned against “injuring” God in speech, they would also be warned against injuring other people in speech.

This is training that many believers in the various religious streams that claim Jesus as Lord and Messiah would benefit from today.

I mentioned some things about Gentiles and food issues in my original pass through on the Didache, but Milavec speaks further on this topic on pages 61-2 of his commentary:

The absolute prohibition against eating “the food sacrificed to idols” (6:3) occurs after the conclusion of the training program and just prior to baptism.

Milavec debates whether this prohibition was placed outside the “Way of Life” instruction as an awkward addition or the injunction was developed and added to a later iteration of the oral instructions/written Didache as a necessity to cement this restriction as an absolute “no-no.” This was probably easier said than done for Gentiles just coming out of paganism and with family and friends still involved in the Roman/Greek worship framework:

Of necessity, therefore, most candidates would have been constrained to take part in family meals wherein, either regularly or periodically, some offering was made to the household gods as part of the meal or some portion of the meats served had been previously offered at a public altar.

-Milavec, pg 62

kosher eatingWhile the prohibition against eating meat sacrificed to idols was one of the absolute commandments in the Didache, reflecting a portion of the Jerusalem letter (Acts 15:28-29), Neither the text of the Didache nor Milavec’s commentary mention applying kosher food restrictions to Gentile disciples in any sense. It also doesn’t mention how Jewish and Gentile table fellowship was to be managed, but then, the perspective of Jews who would be eating with Gentiles was outside the scope of the Didache’s mission, which was as a training manual for a specifically Gentile audience.

In speaking to Baptism (pp 62-4), Milavec cautions against turning “Immerse in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (7:1) into a “baptismal formula”:

Furthermore, the Hebraic expression of acting “in the name of X” has to do with the way a disciple or servant was authorized to act because of the training or mandate received from the master.

-ibid pp 62-3

This is a reflection of how a Rabbi would teach in the name of or in the merit of his master. We find this in the apostolic scriptures:

According to the Christian Scriptures, for example, the Twelve heralded the reign of God and apprenticed disciples “in the name of “Jesus” (Acts 4:18; 5:28; 9:27, 29).

-ibid, pg 63

Milavec’s commentary continues to reveal that this document, though a set of instructions for Gentiles, has a very Jewish source.

The closing line, “This is the Way of Life!” (4:14b), probably served as a liturgical refrain and, quite possibly, following Jewish parallels, was sung (#5a).

-ibid

It is also apparent that the character of the Didache recognized no separation between the “Jewishness” of its sources and the teachings of Jesus and the apostles, declaring that Jesus and the apostles were completely representative of the normative Judaisms of that day:

The Didache declares that members should pray “as the Lord commanded” (8:2). The “Lord,” in this case, is not Jesus, for he is regarded as “the servant” who reveals “the life and understanding” of the Father (9:3). For early Christians, Jesus proclaimed “the good news of God” (Mark 1:14; Rom 1:1, 15:16; 2 Cor 2:7; 1 Thess 2:2, 9; 1 Pet 4:17) — never the good news of Jesus.

-ibid, pg 65

This is bound to make many modern Christian readers a little nervous or concerned, because the Didache is elevating God the Father higher than Jesus the Son. At the risk of offending almost everyone, it also potentially raises questions about the modern conceptualization of the trinity, since trinitarian theology considers the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit co-equals in the Godhead or the “Echad” of God. Of course, Jesus considered himself a servant in his early incarnation, but post-ascension, we cannot say that continued to be so, at least in standard Christian thought.

Part of the reason I bring this up is because I recently quoted John MacArthur on the topic of being “obsessed” with Jesus:

The charismatic movement fails this test of exalting Christ above all. MacArthur said, Show me a person obsessed with the Holy Spirit and I’ll show you a person not filled by the Spirit. Show me a person obsessed with Jesus Christ and I’ll show you a Spirit-filled person.

The Didache seems to take another viewpoint on this matter, at least relative to God the Father.

PaulOne of the values of examining ancient Christian texts such as the Didache, are that they are closer to their Jewish source and pre-date the overwhelming majority of Gentile Christian teachings. The Didache may give us a snapshot of how the Jewish and Gentile believers viewed certain concepts that we take for granted in the Church today. I don’t say this to upset anyone, but to bring into focus that what we understand about being a Christian now could be seen as entirely foreign by the very first Christians in the ekklesia communities established by Paul.

What would the apostle Paul say if he were to walk into a 21st century church and listen to what was being taught?

Milavec confirms that the Didache fully anticipated Gentile believers encountering prophets and seems to cast such occurrences in “charismatic” terms:

When the Spirit was active each inspired prophet gave thanks “as much as” he or she wished — a hint that when the prophets got rolling their combined ecstatic prayers might well run on over an hour. Lest this be considered preposterous, consider the case of the second-century “Martyrium Polycarpi,” where one discovers that Polycarp “stood up and prayed, being so full of the grace of God, that for two hours he could not hold his peace.”

-ibid, pg 70

Polycarp is considered the last disciple of John, the last apostle, and when Polycarp died, the direct line of discipleship leading back to the original apostolic tradition was destroyed. I mourn Polycarp as the last link to a body of wisdom and experience we understand only incompletely today.

I find it a little anachronistic for Milavec to insert “charismatic” concepts into ancient times, since the modern Charismatic movement is extremely young. This could represent a bias on Milavec’s part which may include his belief (I’m guessing here) that the “gifts of the Spirit” extended beyond the closure of Biblical canon. But how would the actual, lived experience of a man like Polycarp testify in relation to modern Christian doctrine?

When discussing “First Fruits Offered to the Prophets,” Milavec says something unanticipated, at least by me:

The anti-temple stance of the Didache (#10q, 14b) and the decided preference for the Spirit-led prayers of the prophets helps explain why the first fruits were to be given to “the prophets,” who were regarded as the most fitting substitutes for the priests of the Temple.

-ibid, pg 75

My interpretation of the so-called “anti-temple stance” of the Didache is different. It is likely that the Didache was an oral tradition in the last days of the Temple and for most of the “lifetime” of this document’s utility, the Temple probably no longer existed. Judaism underwent a remarkable and traumatic transition with the destruction of the Holy Temple and the exile of the majority of the Jewish people from their beloved Israel. That transition ultimately evolved into the Jewish tradition that considers prayers and good deeds (mitzvot) taking the place of the sacrifices. The tithe once offered at the Temple for a firstborn is still, in some corners of Judaism, given to one known to be a Cohen in modern Israel and in some Jewish communities in today’s diaspora.

Solomons-TempleIt is possible the sections of the Didache that address giving first fruits to prophets mirror this practice of substitution, so, in effect, the new Gentile disciples were being encouraged to follow Jewish practices mapping to Temple sacrifices that were no longer possible.

It has been said that in the future Kingdom of Israel, when Messiah reigns on the Throne of David, the sacrifices of Gentiles will once again be accepted in the Temple in Jerusalem as they were in the days of the First and Second Temples.

The Rabbis say (Hullin 13b): ‘Sacrifices are to be accepted from Gentiles as they are from Jews’ …

-from My Jewish Learning

Gentiles were welcomed to the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem, and they will participate even more at the Third Temple – especially during the festival of Sukkot (Zech. 14:16).

When the First Temple was inaugurated by King Solomon, he beseeched G-d with an eloquent prayer that included the following words (Kings I, 8:41-43)…

Torah Law holds that Gentiles are allowed to bring burnt offerings to G-d in the Temple when it is standing in Jerusalem. There is a specific commandment to let us know that an animal (sheep, goat or bullock) offered in the Temple by a Gentile must be unblemished, to the same degree as the offering of a Jew. (Leviticus 22:25)

The Prophet Isaiah foretold us about the even greater participation of Gentiles that will take place at the Third Temple (Isaiah 2:2-3):

“And it will come to pass at the end of days that the mountain of G-d’s House will be firmly established, even higher than the peaks, and all the peoples will flow toward it as a river. And many nations will go and will cry, ‘Let us go up toward the mountain of G-d’s House, to the House of the L-rd of Jacob, and we will learn from His ways and walk in His paths, for out of Zion goes forth Torah and the word of G-d from Jerusalem.’ “

-from “Will Gentiles worship at the Third Temple during Sukkot?”
AskNoah.org

With all that said, I must disagree with Milavec that the Didache is “anti-Temple,” but rather, it was encouraging Gentile disciples to offer “first fruits” in a manner acceptable within the early post-Temple era in Judaism, and perhaps with an eye on the future Kingdom of Messiah, when the sacrifices of Gentiles would be as acceptable as those of a Jewish person.

The last significant section in Milavec’s commentary on the Didache references the End Times, but I think I’ll save that for my third and final blog post in this series.

The Didache in Retrospect, Part 1

Milavec's DidacheAny community that cannot artfully and effectively pass on its cherished way of life as a program for divine wisdom and graced existence cannot long endure. Any way of life that cannot be clearly specified, exhibited, and differentiated from the alternative modes operative within the surrounding culture is doomed to growing insignificance and gradual assimilation.

-Aaron Milavec
“A Brief Commentary,” pg 39
The Didache: Text, Translation, Analysis, and Commentary

I think it’s safe to say that this comes from the “Commentary” part of the book alluded to in Milavec’s title. This is also my second and last commentary on Milavec’s rendition of the Didache. My first impressions were published a little over a week ago.

I’ve suggested that the Didache represents the codification of an oral tradition that comes from the original apostles or those close to them, perhaps even as a verbal expansion on the Acts 15 letter and instructions to the new Gentile disciples in the Jewish religion of “the Way.” This is only supposition of course, but the known history of this document and opinions of various scholars makes it worthy of investigation. After all, relative to Acts 15 the so-called “four essentials” are hardly sufficient to describe the length and breadth of education non-Jewish Messianic disciples would require to adequately approach a life of holiness.

As the above-quoted statement of Milavec attests, any culture or community must sufficiently communicate the requirements of its way of life to the next generation in order to sustain said-way of life. How many cultures have assimilated into the larger societal milieu because either the values of the culture were not sufficiently passed along or the subsequent generation chose to ignore them?

And so it is with very early Christianity, dating from the late first century to the late second century of the common era. If the Didache is the instruction guide for early Gentile believers in Jesus, then maybe we should be paying attention to it, for it represents something we don’t often consider: a Christian life outlined by those who were closest to the apostles and possibly by the apostles themselves, those who were closest to Christ.

So much has happened across Christian history in the last nearly two-thousand years. Much of it is nothing to be proud of. The Church expended considerable resources in persecuting Jews and other “infidels,” feeling self-justified that each drop of blood spilled was for the greater glory of the Lord.

There are those in the Hebrew Roots movement who reject Christian history entirely and strive to achieve the original Biblical template of worship, reasoning that the only valid template is a complete imitation of our Jewish fore bearers in Messiah. But if that desire is to be realized, then maybe the Didache can serve as a roadmap. The caveat for many Hebrew/Jewish roots people is that the roadmap doesn’t seem to lead to a place where there are no behavioral distinctions between Jewish and Gentile Jesus-worshiper.

But how reliable is this roadmap?

The sole complete manuscript of the Didache that has come down to us was discovered in 1873 by Archbishop Bryennios in the library of the Jerusalem Monastery of the Most Holy Sepulchre in Istanbul…

…Therefore, the Didache needs to be regarded as an anonymous document. As with so many books in the Christian Scriptures, one must allow for the probability that it did not originate with a single individual. Furthermore, given the manifest clues of orality within the Didache itself, one can be quite certain that it was originally composed orally and that it belonged to an extended network of persons who cherished and preserved it because it served to specify the standards of excellence guiding their Way of Life.

-Milavec, pp 41-2

Didache CodexThere’s quite a bit of zeal in Milavec’s words but the oldest copy of this document we have, was discovered a mere 140 years ago. I’d like to believe that it is a very ancient text and that it was from a time when Paul was either still alive or had not long been deceased.

I’m going to go through my notes on Milavec’s commentary in linear fashion and see what nuggets we can uncover in this treasure.

Milavec’s analysis includes a description of the division of topics in the Didache:

  1. Training program in the Way of Life (Did. 1:1-6:2).
  2. Regulations for eating, baptizing, fasting, and praying (Did. 6:3-11:2).
  3. Regulations for hospitality / testing various classes of visitors (Did. 11:3-13:2).
  4. Regulations for first fruits and for offering a pure sacrifice (Did. 13:3-15:4).
  5. Closing apocalyptic forewarnings and hope (Did. 16:1-8).

The Didache, according to Milavec, describes two “ways,” the Way of Life, and the Way of Death.

The notion that there are two well-defined paths would have been familiar to a Jewish audience (#1b, #1h). Psalm 1, for instance, contrasts “the way of righteousness” with “the way of the wicked.” The first-named are defined as those who “delight…in the law [Torah] of the Lord” (Ps. 1:2). Standing in this tradition, it is no surprise that the Jesus movement was known in some circles as “the Way” (Acts 9:2; 19:9, 23; 22:4; 24:14, 22). This was undoubtedly due to the fact that its members were trained in “the way of salvation” (Acts 16:17), “the way of the Lord” (Acts 18:25), or “the way of God” (Acts 18:26)…

-ibid, pg 45

So we see a very close association with the wording in the Didache and the underlying concepts of “Ways” and Jewish history mapping to, though not completely mirroring, the Torah. Yet there’s no completely separating the Torah from the Didache’s training of Gentile disciples, although a difference of application is evidenced in its pages.

After defining the Way of Life using the dual definitions the Didache turns its attention to “the training [required for the assimilation] of these words” (1:3). As explained above, the definitions of the Way of Life and the Way of Death served to frame the main attraction, that is the training program…of the Didache…devoted to this “training,” it is not surprising that the entire manuscript was, at some point in time, given the title “didache” …the Greek word…makes reference to the training that a master trainer (didaskalos) imports to apprentices or disciples.

-ibid, pg 47

I suppose this is stating the obvious, but consider. The Didache is known to be a training manual for the Gentile disciples in “the Way,” a Jewish religious movement organized around the knowledge of Yeshua as the Messiah and his teachings of righteousness. In the Didache’s case, this training in righteousness is specifically crafted for Gentile audiences. If the Gentiles were supposed to merely mimic Jewish Torah observance, this document would hardly be necessary. The training for a Gentile in Messiah would have been the same as for any “righteous convert” to Judaism.

ancient-rabbi-teachingAnd yet, the Didache not only was written exclusively for Gentiles who were not converting to Judaism, but who were considered Gentile co-participants (with the Jewish disciples) in the Way, and these Gentiles required a somewhat Torah-based but nevertheless separate set of training instructions from those given to Jewish disciples.

On page 48, Milavec outlines the likely format for such training, which would match one teacher or trainer with one disciple. This is atypical of ancient and modern discipleship models in Judaism, which would have one Master or Rabbi who trained multiple disciples in their teachings and methods.

However, on page 49, a very Jewish discipleship concept is presented:

Those who trained novices were not transmitting something of their own creation. Rather, such masters were “speaking to you the word of the Lord” (4:1), hence something they themselves received.

Traditionally, a disciple memorized the teachings of his Master so that when the disciple was sufficiently trained, he would become a Master, attract his own disciples, and pass on what he had previously learned. This pattern was repeated generation by generation, and so the pattern is repeated here. This also suggests that Gentiles were passing on what they had previously learned to new Gentile disciples (hence “something they themselves received”).

As one would expect, the training included heavy references to the teachings of Jesus:

In terms of an orderly progression of topics, however, the initial section dealing with praying for enemies and turning the other cheek would appear to be placed at the head of the training program…(but) when examined in detail…the “enemies” in this case were not highway robbers or Roman soldiers, but relatives and friends who had become “enemies” due to the candidates new religious convictions.

-ibid pp 49-50

For I came to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s enemies will be the members of his household.

Matthew 10:35-36 (NASB)

Milavec states (pp 51-2) that the Decalogue or the Ten Commandments was adapted for a Gentile audience. This again supports the idea that portions of the Torah were adapted for or applied differently to the Gentile disciples rather than there being a single, identical application of Torah to both Jewish and Gentile members in the body of Messiah.

The framers of the decalogue (2:2) retained the linguistic structure in which the Lord delivered the Torah to his people on Mount Sinai (Ex. 20:1-17, Deut. 5:6-21)…

Since the novice could not have known what the Lord wanted him/her to be and do before this moment, the decalogue would not have been presented to the novice as a rebuke…no Gentile can be blamed for not having been raised as a Jew…On the other hand it can be presumed that the novice asked questions relative to the scope of each of the terms of the decalogue and reflected on his/her own life in contrast to the Way of Life.

JudaismSo how did the decalogue apply to the life of the Gentile novice? It’s outlined in the Didache’s “Way of Life” which interestingly enough, according to Milavec, omits the first Five of the Ten Commandments (pg 52). However, their omission wasn’t indicative of lack of application, but a difference in application based on status. For instance, the fourth commandment, the omission of Shabbat observance, is described this way:

For gentiles, the Sabbath rest (Ex. 20:8-9) would have imposed an unworkable expectation since the Roman lunar calendar governing public life made absolutely no provision for a cessation of work on the seventh day (#4a). The “days of rest” named in the Roman calendar only occasionally coincided with the Jewish Sabbath…Since members of the Didache community depended on the work of their hands, the fourth commandment would have imposed severe economic hardships.

-ibid pp 52-3

Although Judaism was a legally recognized religion in the Roman empire and thus any Jew was entitled by law to observe the Shabbat in accordance with their faith, Gentiles who had not converted to Judaism could not observe the Jewish religious rest days or festivals. The Gentiles in the Way would not be allowed to claim a legal right to the Shabbat as non-Jews, and thus it would be a crime for them to abstain from the work required of them on the Saturday Sabbath.

This is not to say that the Shabbat was and is not a valid expression of devotion to God for Gentiles, but the status assigned to Gentiles in the Way established in Acts 15 afforded them a less stringent set of obligations to God, so that Shabbat could be observed if possible, but if not (which was in most cases), it was not treated as a violation of a commandment.

On the other hand, Milavec notes six “new” commandments applied to the Gentiles such as prohibitions against child cruelty and child sexual molestation. These were necessary since, although child mistreatment was unheard of in ancient Judaism, it was terribly common in Greek and Roman culture in the first and second centuries. So these prohibitions had to be explicitly spelled out. Other prohibitions were commandments against drug use and magic as well as abortion and infanticide. Again, these were practices common in the ancient Roman world but would not have to be articulated in Jewish legal code.

Didache 3:1 serves as a fitting opening to the five illustrations of how to avoid major infractions by keeping guard against minor infractions that might not be serious in themselves, but that form a slippery slope toward great infractions. In Jewish circles this would be recognized as erecting a “fence” (#1v).

-ibid, pg 58

fence_around_torahAgain, erecting a “fence” around the Torah by constructing more stringent restrictions than the written Biblical text records is a Rabbinic practice that is apparently reflected in the Didache, further attesting to its Jewish origins. I find this certainly interesting given how modern Christianity actually criticizes the Jewish Rabbinic system for it’s “man-made laws” and yet the very earliest Gentile Christians were taught using identical principles, perhaps even at the behest of the original apostles of Christ.

As Milavec’s commentary goes on for a bit more, I’m going to split my response in two and present the second part in tomorrow’s morning meditation.

First Impressions of the Didache

Didache CodexThe Didache represents the preserved oral tradition whereby mid-first-century house churches detailed the step-by-step transformation by which gentile converts were to be prepared for full active participation in their assemblies. As an oral tradition, the Didache encapsulated the lived practice by which non-Jews were initiated into the altered habits of perceiving, judging, and acting characteristic of one branch of the Jesus movement during the mid-first century.

-Aaron Milavec
from the Introduction, pg ix of his book
The Didache: Text, Translation, Analysis, and Commentary

“Since we have heard that some of our number to whom we gave no instruction have disturbed you with their words, unsettling your souls, it seemed good to us, having become of one mind, to select men to send to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. “Therefore we have sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will also report the same things by word of mouth. “For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these essentials: that you abstain from things sacrificed to idols and from blood and from things strangled and from fornication; if you keep yourselves free from such things, you will do well. Farewell.”

So when they were sent away, they went down to Antioch; and having gathered the congregation together, they delivered the letter. When they had read it, they rejoiced because of its encouragement.

Acts 15:24-31 (NASB)

I’ve often wondered about the instructions imparted to the non-Jewish disciples of the Master in the so-called “Jerusalem letter.” They’ve always seemed rather anemic to me. I mean, there certainly had to have been more to the training of new disciples who had no clue about the God of Israel, the Messiah, and the role of Gentile believers in a Jewish religious stream.

When I read that the Gentile response to the letter’s delivery in Antioch was that “they rejoiced because of its encouragement,” I ponder about what they found encouraging. Certainly the fact that the men and boys didn’t have to be circumcised would have been encouraging. Also, I imagine it was encouraging that they didn’t have to convert to Judaism and learn to perform the humongous list of instructions found in the Torah and accompanying commentary and halachah.

But a mere four essentials hardly seems an adequate substitute.

Of course, there is the mysterious Acts 15:21: “For Moses from ancient generations has in every city those who preach him, since he is read in the synagogues every Sabbath.” There is a minority opinion among some modern Gentile believers that it was the Council’s intention for the ancient Gentile believers to also be required to follow the Torah mitzvot in the manner of the Jews, in spite of Peter’s testimony that the Torah was “a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear.”

The issue at hand during the Acts 15 legal hearing was how to integrate the Gentiles into the Jewish religious stream of “The Way.” The supposition brought forth (Acts 15:1) was that Gentiles must convert to Judaism (be circumcised and obligated to the full yoke of Torah) in order to be justified before God. The Council’s ruling, after much testimony and due deliberation over scripture, was that Gentiles did not have to convert. It would have been silly to say they didn’t have to be circumcised and convert to Judaism, but in all other ways, they still had to act, relative to Torah, exactly like the Jewish disciples.

But if that is true and if the four essentials of the Jerusalem letter are far too sparse to constitute a functional set of behavioral requirements, where do we find more? How does the Acts 15:21 statement fit in?

I have a working theory (and it’s just a theory) that the Didache is the answer or part of the answer. My working theory is that a set of oral traditions accompanied the Jerusalem letter and perhaps even developed over time, evolving into a formal halachah for the Gentiles.

I can’t prove any of this of course, but I hope to present a compelling suggestion.

In the process of writing this blog post, I consulted my previous article on this topic, including the notes I took of First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ) teacher and author Toby Janicki’s article “The Didache: An Introduction,” published in Messiah Journal issue 113.

Most scholars generally agree that the Didache was written either in the location of Egypt, Syria, or Israel sometime between the late first to early second century. Some speculate it may have been written as early as 50 CE. This would mean that the Didache is actually older than the canonical Gospels and was written during the generation after the Master’s death.

-Janicki, pg 44

There is some speculation that the Didache was composed by the Apostles themselves or those close to the Council. The further back in time we place its origin, the more authoritative becomes its teachings to the Gentiles. Aaron Milavec, who wrote the commentary for my copy of the Didache, believes its origin to be sometime in the mid-first century. This would allow for the material to be initially orally transmitted, and then soon thereafter, codified and documented for “discipling” new Gentile adherents to “the Way.”

Milavec's DidacheMilavec’s opinion is that the Didache material was a sort of training guide used by mentors to bring up novice Gentile disciples. Milavec’s book presents the Greek and English versions of the text side-by-side. I can’t read the Greek, so I have to trust that the English translation is reasonably accurate. This is my first go-round with the Didache, so all I’ve got are first impressions.

For the most part, I experienced the Didache text (it’s rather brief) as a compilation of teachings gleaned from the Gospels and the Torah. This is interesting if the Didache were composed prior to the Gospels, especially the Gospel of Matthew upon which some say the Didache was founded, because it would mean that the oral traditions passing along the Master’s teachings were incorporated into the early formal training of Gentile believers.

Actually, I can only imagine that both Jewish and Gentile disciples in the Diaspora would benefit from training in the Master’s teachings, but of course, Torah would be known by the Jews and long-term Gentile God-fearers, but be a mystery for the Gentiles just coming out of paganism.

I also found this:

1:2 [A] On the one hand, then, the way of life is this:
[1] first: you will love the God who made you;
[2] second: [you will love] your neighbor as yourself.
[B] On the other hand [the way of life is this]:
as many [things] as you might wish not to happen to you, likewise, do not do to another.

-Milavec, pg 3

This section of the Didache leverages what we know as the Golden Rule as spoken by Jesus, but also the teachings of Hillel, a Jewish sage who lived a generation before the Master (I recently reviewed this material). So we see that older Rabbinic lessons were included to accompany the teachings of the Yeshua.

2:2: You will not murder,
you will not commit adultery,
you will not corrupt boys,
you will not have illicit sex,
you will not steal,
you will not practice magic,
you will not make potions,
you will not murder offspring by means of abortion,
(and) you will not kill [him/her] having been born,
you will not desire the things of [your] neighbor.

-ibid, pg 5

While not exactly direct quotes, this section seems very much taken from the Torah and thus links back to the instruction we find in Acts 15:21. This supports the verse that says the Gentile disciples were to learn the Law of Moses in the synagogue as it applies to them. Here, we see such application.

I’m not sure how to interpret the instruction not to kill children by abortion, since no direct reference to abortion appears in the Bible, and I’m unaware of such a practice in Biblical times (but then, I’m no history major). This is one time I wish I could consult the Greek to see what word is being translated as “abortion.”

I also don’t have any idea what “not corrupt boys” refers to, though it does come right before the instruction against illicit sex.

So, at first blush, the Didache’s instructions to the newly minted Gentile disciples provides a liberal dose of Gospel teachings and Torah teachings, with a smattering of other early Rabbinic lessons.

This is pretty much what I expected and the Didache doesn’t disappoint.

The text goes along presenting additional information from those sources along with what seem like quotes or adaptations from the Proverbs. Here’s an example:

3:5 My child, do not become false,
since falsehood is the path leading to theft;
nor a lover of money,
nor a seeker of glory,
for, from all these, thefts are begotten.

-ibid, pg 9

I’m not going to do a “copy and paste” of large blocks of the Didache into this “meditation,” but I found a few additional sections revealing.

6:2 For, on the one hand, if you are able to bear
the whole yoke of the Lord, you will be perfect;
but if, on the other hand, you are not able,
that which you are able, do this.

-ibid, pg 19

King Priest TorahThe term “yoke” tends to be a reference to Torah in Biblical language. Since we know the Didache is a training manual for Gentile disciples of Yeshua, it seems as if the author is permitting any Gentile disciple to observe the entire body of Torah mitzvot if he or she is able, but if that person is not able, it is acceptable to do anything that they can observe.

I’m sure most other Christians would disagree with how I’m interpreting “yoke,” but to me, it certainly sounds like the mid-first century to mid-second century Gentile disciples in the Jewish Yeshua movement were permitted but not required to keep all or some portion of the Torah commandments, though if they were able to keep all of it, they would be “perfect.”

Just a thought.

7:2 and 7:3 address baptism and 7:2 specifies that flowing water should be used, recalling the mikvah, with a pattern of immersing the head three times, once for the Father, once for the Son, and once for the Spirit. There seems to be a number of options available. It is preferable to immerse in flowing water and preferable to immerse in cold water, but still water as well as warm water may be substituted if the former are unavailable. It seems mandatory though that the person to be immersed should fast one or two days prior to immersion.

9:1-9:5 mentions the eucharist which involves a cup of wine and broken loaf, and that only someone who has been baptized into the community of the Lord may drink and eat of it (there doesn’t seem to be a direct connection to Passover here).

Many of the blessings the Gentiles are instructed to recite bear great similarity to Jewish blessings for various occasions.

Blessing over wine from the Didache:

We give you thanks, our Father,
for the holy vine of your servant David
which you revealed to us through your servant Jesus.
To you [is] the glory forever.

The traditional modern Jewish blessing over wine:

Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, who creates the fruit of the vine.

The Didache blessing over bread:

We give you thanks, our Father,
for the life and knowledge
which you revealed to us through your servant Jesus.
To you [is] the glory forever.

The traditional modern Jewish blessing over bread:

Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.

I just want to point out that the Gentile disciples are being taught to pray to God (the Father) in the name of God’s “servant Jesus,” not to Jesus himself. Jesus never commanded his disciples to pray to him, only to the Father in his name, so that seems consistent with scripture, though not always with modern Christian practice.

Sections 10:1-7 seem to read like an early rendition of Grace After Meals and I can only believe that common Jewish blessings utilized at various points in a person’s day, life-cycle were used or adapted for the training of Gentile disciples, and thus included in the Didache.

This also interested me:

11:3 And concerning the apostle-prophets, in accordance with the decree of the good news, act thus…

This portion of the Didache instructs the Gentile disciples to expect apostles and/or prophets and describes the manner in which the disciples should treat such people. That means, apparently, that apostles still existed when the Didache was composed, which dates it in the mid to late first century, and that there were still actual prophets in the land.

The ProphetThe flip side to this teaching is that if the Didache was composed in the second century, or even later, then we have to accept the idea that apostles, however that term would have been defined given that the original apostles were all dead by then, and prophets, actual prophets of God, continued to exist, in spite of John MacArthur and Strange Fire. Of course, this is all speculation on my part, but fascinating nonetheless.

Speaking of MacArthur and the Holy Spirit:

11:7 [A] And every prophet speaking in Spirit
you should not put on trial and not judge;
for every sin will be forgiven
but this sin will not be forgiven.

-pg 29

The section goes on to describe true and false prophets and how not everyone who speaks in Spirit is a prophet, but these early instructions to new Gentile believers certainly tells them to expect prophets and even others who speak “in Spirit.” Again, depending on the timing of the authorship of the Didache, this has interesting implications for our world of faith today.

13:3 [A] So, every first fruits of the products of the wine vat and the threshing floor, both of cattle and sheep, [1] you will give the first fruits to the prophets; for they themselves are your high priests.
13:4 [2] (But) if you should not have a prophet, give [it] to the beggars.

-pg 33

The language seems to reference the Temple service and the sacrificial system, although the specifics require the “first fruits” of the Gentile disciples to either be given to prophets, if they are available, or beggars (the poor) if they are not. Again, this is very “Jewish” in language and concept, although I suppose Gentiles who were former idol worshipers were accustomed to making offerings in pagan temples.

Here’s a few more points I thought were important.

On page 17 of Milavec’s book, 5:1 and 5:2 lists “the Way of Death,” or that which is evil and “full of accursedness.” Among these “ways” are what you’d expect from Torah: murder, adultery, lust, illicit sexual acts, theft, and so on.

On page 19, 6:3 says the following:

(And) concerning eating, [1] bear that which you are able, [2] from the food, on the other hand, sacrificed to idols, very much keep away, for it is worship of dead gods.

The only definite instruction being given to new Gentile disciples about food is to avoid food sacrificed to idols. There is no direct commentary on whether or not the Gentile is commanded to “keep kosher,” though I don’t know what “bear that which you are able” is supposed to mean.

On page 21, 8:2 is a repetition of “the Lord’s Prayer,” (Matthew 6:9-13), and 8:3 states, “Three times within the day pray thus,” suggesting that Gentiles were also to observe the fixed times of prayer.

The last part of the actual Didache text speaks of the end times, but I won’t go into any of that because Milavec offers an interesting commentary on this topic, one that doesn’t entirely match up with the modern Christian view based on Revelation, but then, if Milavec is right, the Didache as an oral tradition (but not a written document) would have been used to train Gentile disciples years or even decades before John had his vision on the island of Patmos.

I can’t tell you what to believe. At this point, I’m not sure myself what to believe about the Didache. My Pastor said it was seriously considered for canonization, that is, being made part of our Bible as the inspired Word of God, but in the end, it didn’t make the cut. However, even my Pastor quotes from it, and my understanding is that the Didache is taken seriously as an early Christian text.

Talmud StudyIf it’s early enough, it could be considered the possible basis for the oral instructions that accompanied the Jerusalem letter, or if not, then a supplement that was developed by the apostles or those in authority to augment the original Acts 15 instructions.

If my personal theory is right (and it’s just a theory), we have in our grasp something tangible from the mid-first to mid-second century of the common era that tells us the first Gentile disciples had their own “Torah” as it were, that overlapped portions of the Jewish Torah but was in fact not identical; a set of separate behavioral expectations of the Gentile disciples of Jesus that only somewhat mirrored the Torah of Moses. This may be the bridge between the Acts 15 letter and the actual, lived experience of the earliest Gentile disciples of Jesus in the original Messianic Jewish religious stream.

We also see, as I noted above, that according to the Didache (if my little theory is correct), Gentile believers were permitted to take on board as much of the yoke of the Lord (Torah) as they could handle up to and including full observance, but Gentile Torah observance was not mandatory.

Certainly something to think about and discuss. I’ll write more when I get through Milavec’s commentaries.