The Early Christian According to Cohen

In order to maintain their distinctiveness and identity, most Jews of the ancient world sought to separate themselves from their gentile neighbors. In the cities of the East, they formed their own autonomous ethnic communities, each with its own officers, institutions, and regulations. Some cities, notably Alexandria and Rome, had neighborhoods inhabited mostly by Jews. (These were not “ghettos” but “ethnic neighborhoods.”) Following the lead of Ezra, the Jews of the Second Temple period grew more and more intolerant of marriages with foreigners.

Shaye J.D. Cohen
Chapter 2: Jews and Gentiles
Social: Jews and Gentiles, pg 37
from the book
From the Maccabees to the Mishnah, 2nd Ed

I quoted this portion of Cohen’s book in a recent extra meditation and I want to continue discussing the theme of early Jewish and Christian (and Gentile) identity as we can apply it to today’s community of Jewish and Gentile believers. As I also mentioned in my previous missive, there is a group within Hebrew Roots that is invested in believing that for a time, both the Jewish disciples of the Messiah and the non-Jewish disciples brought into the faith, primarily by Paul, were completely of one accord and shared a completely uniform identity as “Messianics,” being “neither Jew nor Greek” (Galatians 3:28), but rather “one new man” (Ephesians 2:15) in Christ, with all distinctions of cultural, ethnic, national, and covenant identity as established by God, completely obliterated.

In traditional (supersessionist) Christianity, this takes on the form of Jews no longer being Jews but rather, “converting” to Christianity. Anyone who has read this blog for any length of time knows that I reject this suggestion and I do not believe it can be sustained from even a casual reading of the Bible. The chronicles of the Jewish disciples recorded in the early chapters of the book of Acts clearly shows them continuing to live lifestyles completely consistent with the other Judaisms of their day. There is nothing to say that Peter, James, or Paul ever surrendered being Jewish and while the Temple stood, ever forsake the festivals or the sacrifices.

However, the aforementioned movement within Hebrew Roots, sometimes referred to as “One Law” takes the same approach from the opposite end of the spectrum. Instead of demanding that Jews stop being Jews, they demand that Gentiles have the right and obligation to be “Jews” in all but name (sometimes referring to themselves as “Israel” or “Spiritual Judaism”). They cite a number of passages in the Bible to support their claim, primarily the “one law for the Jew and the Stranger” in various parts of the Torah (for example, see Leviticus 24:22, Numbers 15:16, and Numbers 15:29) as well as Acts 15:21 to establish the suggestion that God and the Jerusalem Council required the Gentile disciples to more or less “convert” to a form of Judaism without actually converting to Judaism. Further, assuming these suppositions are correct, they state that this practice must be carried forward and established among Gentile Christians today, using the modern synagogue worship model as the template for Gentile practice of what they refer to as “Messianic Judaism.”

In reading Cohen, I’ve become more convinced than ever that the foundation upon which One Law is built is a soggy sandcastle rather than a rock. One Law, by definition, must require the ancient Israelite to share national and tribal identity with the (non-Israelite) “ger” (stranger, alien, sometimes convert) among them and also, that the Second Temple era Jews must surrender their halakhic, ethnic, cultural, national, and covenant identity to the Gentile disciple due to their grafted in (see Romans 11) status. In both cases, the unique people group established by God must become “un-unique.” For this to be true, it must mean that God lied to the Jewish people when He established them as His splendorous treasured people (Exodus 19:5) among all the nations of the earth.

I know there’s a danger is relying on a single source of information (Cohen) for doing any sort of research, so I’ll say right now that my conclusions can’t be considered definitive. On the other hand, I think Cohen’s work does indicate that a number of historical factors related to the ancient Israelites and the Second Temple era Jews have been ignored by One Law proponents and I’d like to briefly bring some of those factors into the forefront.

Let’s take ancient Israel and the status of the “ger” first. According to One Law supporters, the various “one law for the native, etc…” passages indicate that God originally intended for Israelites and non-Israelites (who have attached themselves to the God of Abraham) to operate identically in terms of covenant and identity.

When discussing Conversation to Judaism in Chapter 2 of his book, Cohen states:

In preexilic times, conversion to Judaism did not yet exist because birth is immutable. An Ammonite or an Aramean could no more become an Israelite in preexilic times than an American can become a citizen of Liechtenstein in our own. Mere residency in the land does not confer citizenship, and a social system that defines a citizen solely as a child of a citizen has no legal mechanism by which to assimilate a foreigner.

This seems to support the general supposition of One Law, that Gentiles did not “convert” to Judaism in preexilic times (before the Babylonian exile), and if taken out of context, may be construed as meaning that Gentiles who lived in the land would be under the same law (Torah) and have the same legal status as the native of the land…even though they didn’t have citizenship. But does that make sense?

Biblical law frequently refers to the “resident alien” (ger in Hebrew) who is grouped with the widow, the orphan, and the Levite. All of these are landless and powerless, and all are the potential victims of abuse. (An American analogy to the ger is the Chicano (specifically, undocumented alien) farmworker; a European analogy is the Turkish laborer in Germany.) The Bible nowhere states how a ger might ameliorate his status and become equal to the native born, because there was no legal institution by which a foreigner could be absorbed by a tribal society living on its ancestral land. Resident aliens in the cities of pre-Hellenistic Greece fared no better.

Cohen soundly torpedoes the suggestion that “one law” gerim were equal to the native Israelites in the Land in all aspects of Torah and other covenant status. There was no legal avenue that would allow a non-member of an Israelite tribe to enter into a tribal society that was established by heredity and covenant. There was no way for the ger to become equal to the Israelite in terms of the Mosaic covenant, at least according to Cohen. Any legal requirement for the ger to become circumcised or to not eat from an animal killed by a wild creature was not an indication that the ger was in anyway equal to the native of the land in covenant status, anymore than an undocumented immigrant in the U.S. shares equal status to  U.S citizens.

After the exile of 587 BCE, the Israelite tribal structure was eliminated and the Jews who returned to Judea from Babylon were organized as clans, according to Cohen, not tribes. The ritual organization was specifically “Priest,” “Levite,” and “Israelite.” Further, it became possible to consider the idea that foreigners could somehow be “joined” to Israel and to God. Cohen continues:

But these centuries saw the creation of an institutionalized method for the admixture of gentiles. Ezra was still unfamiliar with the notion of “conversion,” but some of his contemporaries were discussing the idea. One prophet assured the “foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants” that they would not be excluded from the rebuilt temple but would be gathered to God’s people (Isa. 56:6-8). Several prophets predicted that in the end of days foreigners would join in the worship of the true God in Jerusalem, either as servants of the Israelites or as independent worshipers.”

The mechanism by which all this would occur was not spelled out as far as Cohen is concerned, but Christians believe that it is through our being brought into the New Covenant through faith in the Messiah, Jesus Christ, that we are joined to the God of Israel. Of course, that still doesn’t mean we become identical to the Jewish people in every conceivable detail, particularly if, as we’ve already seen, Gentile residents of ancient, tribal Israel were not included equally in citizenship or covenant, but rather, relegated to the status of alien residents with few, if any rights.

However, as the history of Israel progressed, the concept of conversation to Judaism for the Gentile began to become more formalized. Cohen cites three essential elements of conversion to Judaism: belief in God, circumcision, and joining the house of Israel. Again, this is a definition of a convert to Judaism, not conditions required for the Gentile to join “the Way” as disciples of Christ. Cohen even references the difference:

For Paul, circumcision represents subjugation to the demands of the Torah (Gal. 3-5).

In other words, while Paul did not see circumcision and thus full obedience to the mitzvot as a requirement for the Gentile Christians, he did see it as a necessary step for full conversion to Judaism. The natural conclusion then is that a Gentile becoming a disciple of the Jewish Messiah in the time of Paul was not the same as a Gentile converting to Judaism.

If we take the message of the Book of Galatians as a unit, then we must conclude that Paul is arguing for the sufficiency of faith in Christ for the Gentile. The non-Jew does not have to convert to Judaism in order to be justified before God.

We tend to take the concept of God-fearers as they existed in the late Second Temple era as a sort of stepping stone between Gentile paganism and Christianity, but according to Cohen, these Gentiles were just as likely to be attracted to another form of Judaism (one without the involvement of the Messiah) and perhaps to even convert to one of the many Judaisms of the day.

Even more numerous, however, were those gentiles who accepted certain aspects of Judaism but did not convert to it. In polytheistic fashion, they added the God of Israel to their pantheon and did not deny the pagan gods…In the city of Rome, many gentiles observed the Sabbath, the fasts, and the food laws; in Asia Minor, many gentiles attended synagogue on the Sabbath. Although these gentiles observed any number of Jewish practices and venerated in one form or another the God of the Jews, they did not see themselves as Jews and were not seen by others as Jews.

Cohen does not specifically state that any of these God-fearers were associated with “the Way” nor do we have any indication that the Gentile God-fearers saw themselves as obligated to the Torah or having “rights” of observance. Just as they would have observed any number of other religious practices associated with other “gods,” these God-fearers also observed a number of religious practices associated with the God of Israel. Cohen goes on:

They resemble the polytheists of the preexilic period who feared the Lord but who never changed their identity.

For One Law proponents, the good news is that there is a record of early first century C.E. gentiles observing some of the mitzvot. The bad news is that they were polytheists who did not truly “convert” to any form of Judaism (or necessarily what we now think of as “early Christianity”) nor did they forsake polytheism, which is in direct opposition to fiercely monotheistic Judaism.

Cohen does reference the New Testament (specifically sections of Acts) in further describing these God-fearers.

The book of Acts calls these people “those who fear” (phoboumenoi) or “those who venerate” (sebomenoi) the Lord (Acts 13:16, 26; 16:14; 17:4, 17; 18:7). Modern scholars call them “sympathizers” or “semi-proselytes,” but these terms lack ancient attestation…After all, how can a gentile become a “little bit Jewish?” And why would he want to?

The explanation goes back to Cohen’s description of God-fearers as polytheists who considered the God of Israel as “just another god.” But there may have been other reasons.

Rather than look upon God-fearers as gentiles interested in Judaism, perhaps we should see in the phenomenon the contribution of Judaism to the cultural mix we call Hellenistic. Greco-Roman culture provides various analogies to Jewish ideas and practices.

In other words, gentile interest in Judaism was not for Judaism’s sake per se, but for the sake of multi-culturalism within Greek society, the way that many different religious and cultural practices are integrated into modern Japanese life. My daughter lived in Japan for almost a year with a Japanese family. At one point, she attended the wedding of a Japanese couple who practiced Buddhism but who were married by a Swedish Catholic Priest. When my daughter tried to find out the reason for such an interesting mix, about the best answer she could get was, “In Japan, it’s all good.” Maybe that was also true in some corners of Greek society.

Continuing to read Cohen, I began to wonder if, from the Gentile point of view, converting to Christianity was viewed in the same light as how Gentiles were converting to other forms of Judaism.

Josephus insists that Judaism has no mysteries, no secrets that it keeps hidden from curious observers. This claim may not be entirely true (note, for example, how secretive Jesus is according to the Gospel of Mark), but it is essentially correct. Some Jews even engaged in missionary work. The Pharisees travel about land and the sea in order to make even one proselyte (the Greek word for convert to Judaism; Matt. 23:15). Josephus narrates that in the middle of the first century CE, the royal house of the kingdom of Adiabene became Jewish under the tutelage of itinerant Jewish merchants…

Some scholars have suggested that much of the Jewish literature written in Greek had as its goal the propagation of Judaism among the gentiles, since the literature often emphasizes those elements of Judaism that would make it attractive to outsiders.

Seen from this perspective, Paul and his mission to convert the Gentiles to faith in the Jewish Messiah may have well been just one Jew among many who were attempting to mine the same population of Gentiles and convert them to one of the various forms of Judaism that existed in that era. So it wouldn’t be unusual at all for “Christian” Gentiles to practice various Jewish religious and cultural behaviors in the same manner as other “converts” to Judaism, although as I previously stated, a Gentile converting to Christianity was not converting to Judaism. But at that point in history, the “Judaism” we consider “early Christianity” was considered a Judaism and it had not yet adopted a trajectory that caused it to deviate from Jewish practice and finally to not be considered a Judaism at all.

Apparently that took some time.

Many Christians, generally called “Judaizers” by modern scholarship, were drawn to Jewish practices. For some of these Christians, Judaism was attractive because of Christianity. Through Christianity they learned the Jewish scriptures and became familiar with Jewish observances. Many Christian groups, for example, insisted that Easter must coincide with the Jewish Passover and that it be celebrated with rites similar to those of the Jewish Passover.

It’s interesting that Cohen, although acknowledging a close Christian association with Judaism, continues to differentiate between the Gentile Christians and the Jewish people, presumably even those Jews who followed Jesus as Messiah. Note that early on, the concept of Easter was born and was to be treated in a similar manner to the Passover, but not as if they were the exact same festival or celebration. Nevertheless, according to Cohen, the Jewish-Christian connection endured for a number of centuries, even through the schism began most likely within the lifetime of Paul and John.

In Antioch in the late fourth century, John Chrysostom was shocked that many Christians were doing what pagan God-fearers had been doing in other parts of the empire three centuries previously: they were attending synagogues and observing the Jewish festivals.

It seems as though Christianity and Judaism maintained a “mix” for hundreds of years after the fall of Jerusalem but were never quite “in synch,” making Christianity a unique experience for the Gentile disciples, since they never adopted an actual Jewish identity the way that other proselytes did when they completed an actual conversion to one of the other Judaisms. This seems to indicate a bond between Gentile and Jewish disciples of the Master but not a fused cultural, national, or ethnic identity.

What may have driven a further wedge between Gentile Christianity and the Jewish “Messiah” movement was this:

What did change after 70 CE was that Jews, or at least the rabbis, were no longer as eager to sell their spiritual wares to the gentiles.

There is also some indication that post-Second Temple, Gentile Christianity began to gain some traction independent of the other Judaisms, possibly including the Judaism of “the Way.”

Perhaps (and this is the common explanation) the rabbis saw the growing power of Christianity and decided not to try to compete with it. Outside of rabbinic circles, perhaps some Jews still actively attempted to interest gentiles, especially Christians, in Judaism, but the evidence for this activity is minimal.

The picture Cohen paints of Gentiles in relation to the Judaism most of us call “Christianity” is incomplete, but we can draw some conclusions. First, the historical figure of the “ger” in ancient, preexilic times, is not a model for modern One Law Christians in adopting equality with Messianic (or any other sort of) Jews. The ger’s observance of Torah was for the purpose of having them obey “the law of the land” the way that even an undocumented alien worker would obey some or most of the laws in the U.S., but it didn’t make them citizens of a tribal nation nor did it confer anything even approaching equality between the gerim and the native-born Israelite. There were laws to protect the gerim in the manner of widows or orphans, but they were most definitely “second-class inhabitants” in Israel. The final blow to the “gerim” argument of One Law is that in post-exilic times, the status of the ger ceased to exist because Israel had shifted from a tribal-driven to a clan-driven society.

We see that in the time of Jesus and following, God-fearers were in evidence and they did practice synagogue worship and a number of the other mitzvot but primarily in the manner of polytheists who practiced the religions of multiple Gods. They did not forsake all other gods for the sake of the One God or become equal to the Jewish people in any covenant sense. As far as a Gentile converting to “Christianity” goes, they were not actually converts to Judaism in that they did not enjoy the full covenant benefits of converts to the other Judaisms and full obligation to Torah (which required circumcision as a covenant sign). It is acknowledged that the Gentile disciples of the Way did practice many of the Jewish religious customs including Shabbat and the festivals, even into the fourth century C.E., but the Roman authority never recognized these “Christians” as having legitimate legal rights to these observances the way that the Jews did and Cohen indicates that Gentile observance, particularly of Easter, was similar to but not identical with Passover.

And as the centuries passed, the trajectories of Christianity and Judaism continued to diverge until any “quasi-Jewish” observance by Gentile Christians simply ceased to exist.

Today, Christianity can be said to have its origins in Judaism but it has not been even remotely associated with Judaism for nearly 2,000 years.

I am not saying that there are not Christians today who maintain an attraction to Jewish practices, theology, and philosophy, but there is nothing that we can pull forward across from the time of Paul, and absolutely nothing we can draw forth from the time of Moses, that would suggest that a Gentile Christian today has any right or obligation whatsoever to observance of any aspect of the Jewish Torah mitzvot, except perhaps those that are common with kindness, compassion, and decency toward other human beings (feeding the hungry, and so forth).

While Cohen cannot be considered the final word in the history of Gentiles in the early movement of “the Way,” he certainly gives us a perspective we must pay attention to, and he helps us to realize that whatever the early Christians were in the days of Peter, Paul, and John, we are not the same as they were. They never were Jewish and neither are we.

6 thoughts on “The Early Christian According to Cohen”

  1. “whatever the early Christians were in the days of Peter, Paul, and John, we are not the same as they were. They never were Jewish and neither are we.”

    Contradicting yourself? Just shows how confused you are….Taking the term “Ger” as general and not according to the context they appear is a grave mistake that lives a multitude of holes in your “scholarly” assertion…..

  2. “except perhaps those that are common with kindness, compassion, and decency toward other human beings (feeding the hungry, and so forth).”

    Who decodes what is “common,” you? Why can’t the Shabbat be “common?’

  3. Dan, to the degree that the vast majority of Christians today do not observe the festivals or Shabbat, we’re not the same as the early Gentile Christians Cohen describes. As far as the term “ger” is concerned, I’ve limited myself to how Cohen uses it, so we don’t have a blanket “gerim were equal to native Israelites” statement from the Torah.

    As far as “common” goes, we do have a common value between modern Judaism and Christianity to feed the hungry, visit the sick, and so on. Shabbat however, is not a common value currently.

  4. “Dan, to the degree that the vast majority of Christians today do not observe the festivals or Shabbat, we’re not the same as the early Gentile Christians Cohen describes. ”

    So, what does it mean? That the Christians that Cohen described DID observe the festivals and Shabbat? Can’t have the cake…..

    “so we don’t have a blanket “gerim were equal to native Israelites” statement from the Torah.”

    This is not what OL teaches, but how would you know since all you do is trying to attach labels?

    ” Shabbat however, is not a common value currently.”

    The concept is common.

  5. So, what does it mean? That the Christians that Cohen described DID observe the festivals and Shabbat? Can’t have the cake…..

    You need to read more carefully, Dan. I did say that the early Gentile believers did observe Shabbat and the festivals, some of them into the fourth century CE, according to Cohen. I also said that we don’t see that behavior among most Christians today because of the different trajectories taken by Christianity and Judaism. I don’t see anything wrong with Christians observing Shabbat and the festivals (as best we can without a Temple, in the case of the festivals), but I don’t believe we’re commanded to do so.

    As far as the gerim issue goes, you apparently missed how after the Babylonian exile, the status or role of the ger became obsolete because it was based on Israel as a tribal nation, according to Cohen.

    The concept of Shabbat is understood by Christians and Jews, but how it is observed is quite a bit different. For most Christians, the Jewish concept of Shabbat may be known but its practice in the church is not common at all.

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