In his letters to the Thessalonians, Paul frequently referred back to the teaching he passed on to them. For example, he wrote, “Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Yeshua the Messiah, that you keep away from every brother who leads an unruly life and not according to the traditions (paradosis) which you received from us.” (2 Thessalonians 3:6). In the New Testament, the Greek word “paradosis” refers to Jewish oral tradition. The gospels of Matthew and Mark use the same word to describe Jewish traditions such as washing hands before eating bread and so forth. Paul also used the word in the context of Pharisaic traditions.
Nevertheless, the “paradosis” Paul and Silas imparted to the Thessalonians did not consist of the type of halachic teachings that characterize the legal wrangling of Mishnaic law. Paul and Silas delivered to the community specific commandments in the name of the Master:
We request and exhort you in the Master Yeshua, that as you received from us instruction as to how you ought to walk and please God (just as you actually do walk), that you excel still more. For you know what commandments we gave you by the authority of the Master Yeshua.
–1 Thessalonians 4:1-2
What commandments did they transmit in the name and authority of the Master Yeshua?
I’ve been spending a lot of time this week (and previously) discussing the important role halachah plays in Jewish religious observance, including in the practice of Messianic Judaism. I thought it only fair to give some time to the other side of the coin. What was halachah like for the non-Jewish believers in the Jewish Messiah?
In my Return to Jerusalem series, I spent some time going over Lancaster’s Torah Club commentary on Acts 15 and particularly on the halachah James and the Council of Apostles issued on behalf of the new Gentile disciples. James started with the “four prohibitions” (Acts 15:19-20) and added what some consider a rather cryptic comment that “from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues” (v.21), likely indicating that the details or foundations of what the Gentile disciples needed to know would be learned in a more lengthy manner by hearing and studying the Torah as it applied to them (and applies to us today).
Just as a refresher, let’s recall the moment when Jesus gave the apostles the authority to issue binding legal rulings on earth for the community of Jewish and non-Jewish believers:
Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven.
–Matthew 18:18-19 (ESV)
Thus, just as other Rabbis did for their disciples, allowing them to issue and adapt halachah in order to “operationalize” Torah observance, Jesus issued such authority to his apostles, the difference being that the Messiah’s authority extends infinitely beyond any earthly teacher.
But then we are left with the question about just exactly what was the halachah for the Gentile disciples relative to obedience to God? Often, the “four prohibitions” are criticized for being rather anemic about details and obviously lacking in addressing the “obvious” commandments, such as those involving murder, theft, coveting, and so on. Some Christians have suggested that, because of the lack of detail, the intent was for the Gentile disciples to observe the Torah and halachah in an identical manner to the Jewish disciples. On the other hand, we see in the words of Paul to the Thessalonians and in Lancaster’s take on them, that Paul (and presumably the other apostles who were ministering to the non-Jewish disciples) where issuing instructions to the Gentiles both in terms of general teachings and as particular situations came up.
I borrowed a quickie explanation of the role of halachah that should help us from someone on Facebook:
In every branch of Judaism you have set guidelines that those who are under that group agree to, at least on the face, but how and where they are applied varies. As to the rabbis giving rulings here are a few things to remember; 1) halakah is always being reviewed as times change to see the best way to apply the basics, 2) those who establish the halakah are usually well versed in the issues so they can make wise decisions. Think of it this way. Its like a Jewish supreme court. The principles remain the same. The rulings affect the community at large, and just like any court system, there will be times when we need to ‘ go back to the books” In this case Torah and rabbinic writings. For example; the basic halakah for observing Shabbat is to do no normal work that day. However, if your job is being a firefighter, policeman, etc. then what? The answer is that since saving a life outweighs all else working is not only ok but actually a mitzva.
So halachah isn’t necessarily supposed to be “timeless truth” that is immutable across all of history. It’s supposed to be a method of living out the commandments of Torah that are specific to a time, place, culture, and so on. Halachah can’t contradict the words of Torah but it can shape the nature of how to apply a commandment given some specific detail (should one drive their car to Shabbat services, for instance).
As Lancaster points out in his commentary, the Gospels hadn’t yet been written, so the teachings of the Master as we have them today did not exist in a documented form. If some missionaries were “planting a church” in a foreign land today and they were about to depart, the missionaries could leave copies of the Bible behind, including the Gospels, but that wasn’t possible in the days of Paul and Silas. Thus, from Paul’s perspective, the teachings of Jesus were considered paradosis, the operationalization of how to obey God and applied to a local community’s situation or circumstances.
In 1 Thessalonians 4:3-12, Paul mentioned the prohibition on sexual immorality, and he contrasted the standards of “the Gentiles who do not know God” against the sexual purity he expected from believers. He cited prohibitions on defrauding a brother and warned against moral impurity. He reminded the disciples about the commandment to love one’s neighbor as oneself.
Paul boasted, “You also became imitators of us and of the Master” (1 Thessalonians 1:6). In his second epistle to Thessalonica, he encouraged the disciples to “stand firm and hold to the paradosis which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us” (2 Thessalonians 2:15).
-Lancaster, pg 497
So according to Lancaster, we can reasonably believe that Paul was issuing rulings of halachah to the newly minted Gentile disciples (both those who had been former God-fearers and those who had only recently been worshiping in pagan temples) based on the teachings of Jesus and adapted to the local communities he was addressing. I say “adapted” not to say that the teachings were changed, just “contextualized” for those receiving his message. For instance, Paul might take a specific teaching such as the prohibition against looking at a woman with lust (Matthew 5:27-28) and applied it to a community where a problem with extramarital affairs was apparent, citing circumstances that were specific to that community. That “halachah” may not necessarily apply in the same way to other communities or even to the same community in the future, assuming circumstances change.
It’s kind of a difficult thing to get your brain around if you are not used to thinking in these terms, but Paul had quite a job to do in educating the various non-Jewish “churches” on ethical monotheism, the teachings of the Master, their basis in Torah, and the Apostolic decree from Jerusalem.
And in looking back across history at all of this, we have a problem.
While reading the narrative in the Acts of the Apostles or the content of Paul’s epistles to his congregations, readers should keep in mind that we are without the vast body of the paradosis that Paul passed on to his communities. In general, his writings express concern only with issues which had arisen as problems within the communities or his perspectives that contradicted those other teachers. That narrow expression sometimes creates the false impression that Paul was at odds with Judaism in general and with the rest of the apostles specifically. The reader should remember that the larger body of unrecorded paradosis taught by Paul was consistent with the teaching of Yeshua, the twelve, the rest of the apostles, and the Jewish community.
If someone could have pinned Paul down and had him write a book compiling all of the paradosis he taught and then we inserted that book into our Bibles, we might have a far different impression of what it is to be a Christian than we do today, and history between the Jewish and non-Jewish disciples might have charted a different course (well, probably not, but I can dream). But it didn’t happen that way, so it looks like we must exist with gaps in our knowledge, and experience an uncomfortable tension between who we are today in the church and how the first Gentile Christians in Paul’s communities understood who they were.
Originally, the Jewish Council of Apostles and their emissaries, which included Paul, were charged with guiding the Gentile disciples in the teachings of the Messiah including issuing halachah that had general scope across the entire body of believers, and sometimes a more specific scope within a particular community. But only Acts and Paul’s letters stand as witnesses to what that was and what it all meant. But if we have faith not only in God but in the Word that He left for us, then we must believe that the Bible is sufficient for our needs. I’ve heard some people weave this sort of “conspiracy theory” or that about how the Bible’s canon was manipulated to drive Gentile Christianity away from its “Hebrew roots,” but we can’t rewrite nearly 2,000 years of history.
We can however, chart a course into the future. I continue to maintain that relationships between believing Jews and believing Gentiles are slowly improving. Part of what contributes to that effort is the struggle to understand where we came from and what that means for us today. Christianity must look beyond its traditional doctrine and dogma and try to see the looming shadow of the Jewish Messiah King as he dons his sword, readies his steed, and prepares to return to the world we all live in. If we ever hope to truly understand the Messiah and King we call “Savior” and “Lord,” then we must try to understand not only the “Jewish Jesus,” but the apostles and emissaries he left to guide the first Gentile disciples into “Christianity.”
I’m not writing all this to answer questions but to pose possibilities. If there is halachot that applies to Jewish practice today, then there is something corresponding that applies to the church as well. We can’t fully recover everything Paul taught but we can acknowledge that the traditions regarding how the Jewish disciples understood the process of teaching and applying commandments aren’t so different after all, from what was taught to the non-Jewish disciples. I don’t intend to delete distinctions between Jewish and Gentile disciples, either historically or as they exist today. I only want to say that we may also have a few things in common. We share the same God. We share the same Messiah. And back in the day, we shared the same teachers who all taught application of commandments in terms of paradosis, according to the traditions.