Shammai, Peter, and Cornelius

hillel_shammaiShammai’s school of thought became known as the House of Shammai (Hebrew: Beth Shammai‎), as Hillel’s was known as the House of Hillel (Beit Hillel). After Menahem the Essene had resigned the office of Av Beit Din (or vice-president) of the Sanhedrin, Shammai was elected to it, Hillel being at the time president. After Hillel died, circa 20 CE, Shammai took his place as president but no vice-president from the minority was elected so that the school of Shammai attained complete ascendancy, during which Shammai passed “18 ordinances” in conformity with his ideas. The Talmud states that when he passed one of the ordinances, contrary to the opinion of Hillel, the day “was as grievous to Israel as the day when the [golden] calf was made” (Shabbat, 17a). The exact content of the ordinances is not known, but they seem to have been designed to strengthen Jewish identity by insisting on stringent separation between Jews and gentiles, an approach that was regarded as divisive and misanthropic by Shammai’s opponents.

Wikipedia

And he said to them, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation, but God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean.”

Acts 10:28 (ESV)

I suppose I could have called this blog post, “Things I Learned in Church Today,” but then, I’d have a lot of blog posts with the same title. I recently came across a “statistic” on a blog (it’s not based on any real data) that said the vast majority of Christianity, something like “99.99999999999%” is “anti-Judaic.” I’ll agree that the church has a rather poor track record relative to Jews, Judaism, and Israel, but that’s changing. I know because the church I attend is very pro Jews, Judaism, and Israel. It’s not just the Pastoral staff but the regular members, too. In my Sunday school class, the teacher, who by trade is an electrical contractor, opined on how much we Christians owe the Jewish people at the very start of class.

But what did I learn in church about Jews, Judaism, and Acts 10? I learned about something called the “18 measures.” Apparently, this was something debated between Hillel and Shammai and while the specifics of these “measures” crafted by Shammai are no longer known, two of them were said to be “anti-Gentile.” Pastor Randy came to speak with me right before services began and shared what he had found out during his research. He said that one of the measures of Shammai stated that it was “unlawful” for a Jew to enter a Gentile’s home because it would be possible for a corpse to be present without the Jew’s knowledge (resulting in ritual defilement: see Num. 19:11-16). This could include a dead person buried under the house, since it seems it was the custom in some households to bury the family patriarch under the structure.

Or was Shammai looking for excuses to keep Jews and Gentiles apart? After all, Israel was occupied by Gentile forces and the Romans never went out of their way to be friendly or courteous to the Jewish population. Quite the opposite in fact. The Jews had good reason to want to avoid Gentiles and particularly Roman soldiers.

Was this part of what Peter was thinking of when he was confronted by God with the news that he was to visit the household of a Roman Centurion? In the above-quoted passage from Acts 10, the greek word translated as “unlawful” as in “how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate…” isn’t the word for “Law,” but the word for “tradition.” Basically, Peter was telling Cornelius that it was against halakhah for a Jew to enter the home of a Gentile because the Jew might well become ritualistically “unclean.” God showed Peter the contradiction (in this case) between the prevailing halakhah of his day and the teachings of God that no human being is “unclean.”

I don’t know if Peter was specifically thinking of Shammai during this whole transaction, but it’s certainly within the realm of possibility.

But am I being too hard on Shammai?

Shammai is a much misunderstood character and you malign him with your words…. according to the Mishnah in Treatise Avot, one of Shammai’s favourite sayings was “Always receive all men with a cheerful expression on your face!” (Avot, chapter 1, para. 15)

-ProfBenTziyyon, 18 Jan 09
http://messiahtruth.yuku.com

I’m not trying to be hard on Shammai or for that matter, on Peter. I did think this was an interesting detail that works to “flesh out” the humanity and the lived context for Peter as he was faced with doing a very hard thing. About fifteen years earlier, Jesus gave his Jewish disciples the “commission” to make disciples out of the Gentiles, but as far as we know, that command received no attention until the Master spurred Peter into action using a vision (Acts 10:9-16).

In this case however, if Peter has responded to halakhah rather than God, the good news of Christ would never have come to Cornelius and his household and arguably the rest of us would have suffered the same fate. Or God would have chosen a different messenger, but He chose Peter. It was Peter who had to grow beyond his prejudices and perhaps only a Jewish apostle could deliver the Gospel to the Gentiles. I mean, the angel (Acts 10:3-6) could have told Cornelius everything he needed to know, but it was more than just information that needed to be delivered, it was the forging of new connections and relationships. While Cornelius, a Roman Centurion, was a “God-fearing man, who is well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation,” God had a far better destiny for him as one of first Gentiles to ever receive the Holy Spirit and be reconciled to God. Peter, for his part, and his Jewish companions needed to be witnesses and to see for themselves that “God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” They needed to see that even the Gentiles could receive the Spirit and be saved, even as the Jews had done.

This, as much as anything else in the Bible, was an incredible miracle, because God so loved the world.

What biases and prejudices prevent you and me from doing the will of God?

8 thoughts on “Shammai, Peter, and Cornelius”

  1. I’m not saying that I disagree with you, Pastor Randy. There was clearly halachah in Peter’s day that said it was ‘inappropriate” for a Jew to enter into a Gentile’s home and God made it clear to Peter that people don’t make you “unclean,” especially when you need to give them the news of the Gospel as Peter did with Cornelius and his household.

    I was unfamiliar with the 18 measures of Shammai until you brought it up with me this morning. It certainly helps in understanding Peter’s thinking to be able to view the context of his world.

  2. So it seems that you are enjoying your sojourn among the 0,00000000001% (I think I counted those zeroes aright)! While this so-called statistic may not be accurate about Christians and their clergy being antagonistic toward “Jews, Judaism, and Israel”, there is a subtle difference about the phrase “anti-Judaic”, for which the statistic might be more applicable because of a concern about “Judaizing” among Christians (notwithstanding misunderstandings that abound regarding this term).

  3. I included that piece of information to address the sad state of “church bashing” among some Christians who believe that the solution to nearly 2,000 years of supersessionism is just to invent a “new religion” (or a uniquely new variant based on a fusion of modern Christianity and Judaism) rather than to work to educate the church and be part of moving it into a post-supersessionist era.

  4. As for inventing a new religion, one might suggest that Christians have already been there and done that (and even the souvenir T-shirts have worn thin). What do you think the result might be after “educating the church” to eliminate the supercessionistic errors that began between 15 and 18 centuries ago? If Christianity had not deliberately divested iteself of all prior Jewish traces and sympathies, would it not appear like what you are describing for modern eyes as a “uniquely new variant based on a fusion of modern Christianity and Judaism”? You’ve previously observed how the praxis of non-Jews in the first century probably appeared much more like that of Jews. And if Christianity had avoided the absorbtion of numerous idolatrous pagan practices and symbols, would it even remotely resemble modern Christianity? So wouldn’t this re-education process produce a rather different religion from the modern variants of Christianity we currently see?

    Those non-Jews who began in 1960s America to seek the roots of the faith that trusts Rav Yeshua for the redemption of mankind were attracted to the budding MJ movement precisely because it seemed to be seeking the same thing. I sometimes suspect that the resulting fusion between Evangelicalism and MJ has produced the kind of Christian-Jewish religious result they were seeking, though it is currently mislabelled as MJ (while the real essence of MJ has been inhibited because it must pursue more authentic halakhic Jewish praxis that is not suited to non-Jews and is not always appreciated by assimilated American Jews who have lost touch with comprehensive genuine Jewis praxis and perspective). If we could effect the necessary separation that sets MJ free to become itself (i.e., a truly and thoroughly Jewish messianism), while the Jewish Roots of Christianity folks satisfy themselves with the semi-Jewish style of religious praxis developed together with MJs so far, perhaps we would end with a pair of related religions resembling the first-century vision. And if we do it now, maybe we’ll be better prepared for the physical establishment of the messianic kingdom in Jerusalem ‘ere long.

  5. …would it even remotely resemble modern Christianity? So wouldn’t this re-education process produce a rather different religion from the modern variants of Christianity we currently see?

    That’s an interesting thought. I like “What if” scenarios, but in a created universe, how much does God leave up to chance? Free will aside, it’s possible that the schism between Judaism and Gentile Christianity was in some way necessary (see Romans 11:25). I don’t think things will become completely straightened out until the Messiah returns, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to wipe a little of the dirt off of Paul’s dark mirror.

    If we could effect the necessary separation that sets MJ free to become itself (i.e., a truly and thoroughly Jewish messianism), while the Jewish Roots of Christianity folks satisfy themselves with the semi-Jewish style of religious praxis developed together with MJs so far, perhaps we would end with a pair of related religions resembling the first-century vision. And if we do it now, maybe we’ll be better prepared for the physical establishment of the messianic kingdom in Jerusalem ‘ere long.

    Two religions sharing the same God and the same Messiah. I wonder if that’s how Paul saw it in relation to the various “mixed” Jewish/Gentile congregations of the Messiah?

    1. If both groups of Kinzer’s “bilateral ecclesia” had similar praxis, they could coexist in mixed assemblies. But I suspect that tended to occur primarily in the “outlands” where Jews were already few in number. Clearly in the Jerusalem area, where tens of thousands were zealous for Torah, the difference in requirements codified in Acts 15 would inhibit mixture (in order to avoid placing undue pressure on non-Jewish praxis). There was, apparently, already more than enough friction between Judeans and Hellenists (all Jews) that specially-appointed community managers (“deacons”) were needed to maintain peaceful charitable distributions. And that was before the non-Jewish complexity was added.

      As to the need for HaShem to induce Jewish shortsightedness (i.e., “partial blindness” or hardening) in order for non-Jews to have the opportunity to develop spiritually and provoke jealousy among Jews, one would have to say that influence beyond free will must have been applied. Nonetheless, while such influence was perhaps sufficient to effect a separation that could have enabled such a result, human freely-willed orneriness seems fairly quickly to have replaced the idea of setting a better example than Jewish history had provided (i.e., provoking Jewish jealousy) with the idea of creating provocations against Jewish well-being or even against Jewish survival. I don’t think of HaShem as leaving anything to chance, but clearly it was left in the hands of humans who made evil decisions whose purpose may have been to demonstrate to non-Jews that they were even more capable of messing things up than Jews had ever done. So Rav Shaul suggested to the Roman assemblies a hopeful purpose for Jewish shortsightedness, and a beneficial goal for non-Jews to pursue. I’m observing that it didn’t work out according to such optimistic projections. At this point in time, both Jews and non-Jews have each had just about 2 millennia in a controlling position in which to do badly by ignoring HaShem’s instructions (and Jews have had to hang on for dear life while non-Jews had their turn). Now that we’ve all had opportunity to see that and evaluate the results, perhaps we’ve learned some lessons (wiping off that dark mirror) and can begin to do better.

  6. Now that we’ve all had opportunity to see that and evaluate the results, perhaps we’ve learned some lessons (wiping off that dark mirror) and can begin to do better.

    I hope so.

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