This is the sixth and final part of the Return to Jerusalem series where I’ve been examining the Torah Club, Vol. 6 commentary on Acts 15. I trust you’ve been following along since Part 1, but if not, please go back and read the previous submissions including Part 5 before continuing here.
Last time I asked, so what are the four prohibitions for Gentiles in the apostolic decree and what are their implications for the Christians in ancient times and today? To try to render a complete and detailed answer would invite simply copying and pasting everything in Lancaster’s lesson into this blog which, as I’ve said before, I’m not prepared to do. However, and this is particularly interesting to me, Lancaster borrows the status of the “resident alien” (“Ger” in Hebrew) from various portions of the Torah and applies it to the “resident alien” Gentile disciples worshiping the Messiah and the God of Israel in the midst of the Jewish community.
If indeed it is the case that in Christ these Gentiles have a portion in [Israel’s covenant membership and national eschatology], i.e. that they are saved as Gentiles, then it suffices to apply to them the same ethical principles that would in any case apply to righteous Gentiles living with the people of Israel, i.e. resident aliens.
“Jewish Law in Gentile Churches:
Halakhah and the Beginning of Christian Public Ethics”
(Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2000), 165
But in citing Bockmuehl, Lancaster reintroduces a problem that flies in the face of his and FFOZ‘s official theological stance on Gentiles and the Torah. While the gerim in the days of Moses were not Israelites as such and did not obtain full membership status in the nation due to lack of tribal affiliation, they did observe a large number (majority? nearly-full obligation?) of the Torah mitzvot in the days of Moses and beyond. The argument of some branches of the Hebrew Roots movement is that the gerim status can be wholly transferred to the Gentile disciples of Jesus and be used to justify Gentile Christian obligation to the full yoke of Torah. Lancaster has spent considerable effort in his commentary to illustrate how James and the Council exempted the Gentiles from the full yoke of Torah because they were not born Jews or converts. Now, he apparently brings in an element in explaining the four prohibitions that could reverse his argument.
It doesn’t help that he explains the four prohibitions, which go well beyond the confines of the Noahide laws, as derived from Leviticus 17-18.
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]
How was this all supposed to be lived out by the Gentile disciples of that day and what are the implications for modern Christians? As I’ve said in previous parts of this series, you’ll have to access the Torah Club (Vol. 6) studies relevant to Acts 15 for the full details, but it seems as if the four prohibitions were a significant subset of the Torah that was to be applied to Gentile believers above and beyond the Noahide laws of their day. That said, there is another source besides Lancaster who also discusses the same material and provides further illumination.
Toby Janicki wrote an article called The Gentile Believer’s Obligation to the Torah of Moses for issue 109 of Messiah Journal (Winter 2012), pp 45-62, and it provides a great amount of detail on the application of the four prohibitions.
I reviewed Toby’s article over a year ago and at the time, I recall being quite surprised when he suggested that our (i.e. Christians) obligation to the Torah of Moses went much further than I imagined, based on his analysis of the aforementioned prohibitions of the apostolic decree.
Toby’s article is still available in full in either print or PDF versions of Messiah Journal, 109 and I consider it required reading when attempting to delve into an understanding of the message of the Council to the Gentiles among the disciples of Messiah, both in the days of the Council and now.
As I’ve said, this message and how it was arrived at, remains very controversial in Christian/Hebrew Roots circles, but before attempting any sort of conclusion to today’s “meditation” and to this series, I want to remind you of how the Gentiles of that day received the “Jerusalem Letter” (Acts 15:22-29).
So when they were sent off, they went down to Antioch, and having gathered the congregation together, they delivered the letter. And when they had read it, they rejoiced because of its encouragement. And Judas and Silas, who were themselves prophets, encouraged and strengthened the brothers with many words.
–Acts 15:30-32 (ESV)
In other words, it was really good news from the point of view of the Gentile God-fearing disciples. After what some of the Gentile believers may have experienced as “mixed messages” from different factions within “the Way” and/or between “the Way” and other sects of Judaism, it must have been a relief to have a final, definitive decision rendered by the Apostolic authority. Further, assuming we can accept Lancaster’s interpretation, it must also have been a relief to the Gentiles that they were not automatically required to convert to Judaism (some may have done so but many or most obviously did not) and thus come under the full weight of Jewish Torah observance and halachah. James had established a halachah for the Gentiles that “raised the bar” as far as behavioral expectations and observances of the Gentile believers, and was well above what was expected of the God-fearers who were not disciples of Messiah or members of universal humanity, but that bar was still not as high as the one God had set for the Jews that, according to Peter’s testimony, “neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear.”
One of the functions of the four prohibitions acted to allow Jewish/Gentile fellowship and interaction within the Messianic community of believers “by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances.” (Ephesians 2:15) Jewish believer Gene Shlomovich puts it this way:
“Where in the written Torah does it prohibit Jews from eating with Gentiles?”
Nowhere! However, many of the Torah laws, including kashrut, were designed, in part, to make Israelites “kadosh”, “separated” or “set aside” from the nations. Since nations all around them ate “treif” or idol-sacrificed food, no devout Israelite would sit down with idol worshippers at the same table, if only because of the appearance of sin. Not only that, eating with idolaters implied fellowship with them, and perhaps taking on their customs and even religions.
However, with the coming of Messiah, G-d reached out to the Gentiles without requiring them to take on the full Yoke of Torah and live in the manner of Jews. Jews, for their part, had to overcome their Torah and culture ingrained aversion to sharing (no doubt still kosher) food with former idolaters-turned followers of the Jewish Messiah. It is said that the leader of the Jerusalem community and brother of Jesus, Yaakov (James) never drank wine or ate meat, but only ate vegetables. This may be because he wanted to fellowship with Gentile disciples of Jesus around their tables without violating the laws of kashrut, to which Gentiles were not obligated nor were expected to be versed in.
I can’t say that Gene has “solved” the conundrum of Ephesians 2 and how the Messiah created “one new man” out of two (without obliterating the Torah and Jewish identity), but it is a nice summary that seems to lead in an interesting direction. We are “one in Christ,” just as men and women, and just as slaves and freemen are “one in Christ,” though obviously still possessing many differences.
If Jesus did reconcile the Jewish and Gentile believers “to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility,” (Ephesians 2:16) then the apostolic decree of James delivered to the body of faithful disciples of Messiah from among the Gentiles by letter and by emissaries, may have been the means to bring down “the dividing wall.”
The net result of my study of Acts 15 using the Torah Club, Vol 6 materials seems to be that we Gentile Christians owe a great debt to our Jewish “forefathers” and share a great heritage with our believing Jewish brothers and sisters. The most exciting part though, is that we are walking side-by-side together toward a future where we are united by a resurrected and returned Messiah King who will finish what we have been commanded to start: rebuilding the fallen tent of David, and restoring the glory of God on earth among both the Jews and the nations.
How do we resolve the matter of the ancient Ger as applied to the late Second Temple Gentile God-fearing disciple? Lancaster doesn’t make that clear, but based on my own reading, particularly of Cohen, the full role of a Ger as it existed in the days of Moses was to allow a non-Israelite to live among the people of God as permanent resident aliens without being able to formally become national citizens due to lack of tribal affiliation. After the Babylonian exile, a tribal basis for Israelite society was lost and affiliation by clan was emphasized. By the time of Jesus, this clan affiliation basis was too lost, and thus the rationale for the status of Ger as it was originally applied no longer was valid. A Gentile in the days of Jesus or later, who wanted to join the community of Israel, in most cases, would convert to Judaism, since becoming a Ger was not an option.
I can only conclude that James (and this is speculation), in establishing halachah for Gentile entry into the Way as Gentiles and equals to the Jewish disciples, was taking some aspect of the Ger status as the best method available to forge an identity of “alien” Gentile disciples living and worshiping among the Jews in their religious sect. I realize your opinion (and for all I know, Lancaster’s) may vary.
The Jewish role in serving God as we see it in the Bible seems all too clear, but we in the church must always remember that our blessings only come by fulfilling our own unique role as “Gentiles called by His Name.” We are not Jews and we are not expected to “act Jewish,” at least to the degree that we appear to be what we’re not. In fact, we rob ourselves of the path God has laid before us by adopting an identity that is not our own. Acts 15 was the starting point on that path and the beginning of that journey for the early Gentile disciples. It is also where we begin today to understand who we are as Christians and what we must do if we are to be considered faithful disciples of our Master and worthy sons and daughters of God.
I know this series has been challenging for some, largely because going against established doctrine (regardless of the doctrine to which you’re adhered) suggests change and nobody likes change. Maybe none of this will result in anyone thinking any differently, but I hope I at least got some people to think about what they believe and consider that there may yet be something new we can discover about ourselves in the Bible.
“If you want to make enemies, try to change something.”
-Woodrow Wilson, 28th U.S. president
So concludes the series Return to Jerusalem. I hope you enjoyed it. Please feel free to (politely) tell me what you think.