But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.
Paul states that the Messiah abolished the “enmity” between Jew and Gentile. This is not the same as saying he abolished the Torah. Instead, the Messiah abolishes the requirement for Gentile believers to undertake circumcision and the covenant signs of Israel (the Law of commandments contained in ordinances) before they may be regarded as one body with the Jewish people.
I’m sure most Christians will find Lancaster’s interpretation of Ephesians 2 to be very creative but not very convincing. The traditional Christian interpretation is that Jesus took down the wall by abolishing the Torah. Jews and Gentiles are identical in Christ and there are no distinctions based on Jewish observance of the Torah of Moses.
I’ve looked into Ephesians 2 before, but at the behest of someone who had the exact opposite opinion of this scripture. He said:
Ephesians 2 establishes gentiles as now part of the covenants, which I wonder how you deal with such, as I have never seen you address Ephesians.
This interpretation is probably just as startling to most Christians as Lancaster’s, since it declares that all believers, Jewish and Gentile alike, are obligated to the full observance of the Torah. In discussing the Hebrew Roots interpretation of Acts 15, Lancaster has this to say:
Hebrew Roots teachers often claim that the apostles only gave the four essentials to Gentile believers as a starting point. After that, the Gentiles were expected to learn the rest of the Torah in the synagogue every week. Eventually, they would be responsible for keeping all the laws of the Torah in the same manner as their Jewish brothers and sisters.
Acts 21:25 indicates that the apostles understood their ruling differently…Instead, the apostles viewed the four essentials as a standard for the God-fearing Gentile believers. They did not require a gradual process by which the Gentiles adopted the rest of the commandments.
-Lancaster, pg 686
I covered Acts 15 and its implications in much more detail in my multi-part Return to Jerusalem series so I’m not going to revisit that material here. I just wanted to briefly provide the different interpretations that could be applied to Ephesians 2 and where Lancaster stands on the matter of Jews vs. Gentiles and Torah observance.
But what about this “dividing wall of hostility” Paul mentions? I’m about to suggest something a little radical.
In the course of his massive remodeling of the Jerusalem Temple, Herod the Great extended the Temple Mount platform significantly by constructing a retaining wall and adding fill. A balustrade made of stone lattice work (soreg) marked off the original holy precinct. The balustrade functioned as a perimeter fence that kept Gentiles from straying into the sanctified area. The Mishnah reports the lattice work wall stood ten handbreadths (three feet) high. Josephus recalled it as slightly taller at three cubits (five feet) height. The people referred to the courtyard outside of the barrier as the Court of the Gentiles because Gentiles were allowed to congregate and worship in that courtyard, but they could not draw nearer than the balustrade. The Levitical guard posted plaques on the balustrade forbidding Gentiles from trespassing beyond that point.
-Lancaster, pg 688
To the best of my knowledge, there is nothing in the written Torah that mandates such a wall or a “Court of the Gentiles” on the Temple grounds, however especially during the days of Jesus and afterward, until the destruction of the Temple, there was much existing halachah that kept Jews and Gentiles apart. We see evidence of such in the vision Peter had in Acts 10 when Jesus makes clear to Peter that the halachah requiring that a Jew never enter a Gentile’s home was incorrect. God did not make the Gentiles an “unclean” people.
But the voice answered a second time from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, do not call common.’ This happened three times, and all was drawn up again into heaven. And behold, at that very moment three men arrived at the house in which we were, sent to me from Caesarea. And the Spirit told me to go with them, making no distinction.
Could Paul be using the idea of the soreg metaphorically in Ephesians 2?
I told you it was a radical idea. I’m not saying that this is even a valid interpretation of the text, but it is an interesting idea. In order for Paul’s mission to the Gentiles to be successful, one of the things that had to be broken down was Jewish hostility toward Gentiles. In the diaspora, by necessity, Jews had to interact, at least to a degree, with Gentiles, but in Israel and especially in Jerusalem, this was not the case (with the exception of forcibly having to “interact” with the Roman military occupation).
We see recorded in Acts 21:37-22:21, Paul apparently successfully defending himself against his Jewish accusers after the near riot he endured at the Temple when he was falsely accused of speaking against the Jewish people, the Torah, the Temple, and bringing a non-Jew past the Court of the Gentiles and into the Temple (Acts 21:28-29). It’s only when he mentioned the Gentiles, did his Jewish listeners go quite berserk:
And he said to me, ‘Go, for I will send you far away to the Gentiles.’” Up to this word they listened to him. Then they raised their voices and said, “Away with such a fellow from the earth! For he should not be allowed to live.” And as they were shouting and throwing off their cloaks and flinging dust into the air, the tribune ordered him to be brought into the barracks, saying that he should be examined by flogging, to find out why they were shouting against him like this.
I’d certainly call that a “wall of hostility.”
So one interpretation of having “broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances” is doing away with all Jewish Torah observance, which was apparently what was causing the separation and bad feelings between Jewish and Gentile believers. Except the Torah doesn’t say that. First century Jewish halachah said that and the lesson Peter learned was that such separation was incorrect halachah.
Another interpretation is that the wall being broken down was the wall that kept Gentiles out of membership in national Israel, and once broken down by their being “grafted in” (Romans 11:11-24), Gentiles gained full covenant relationship with God and Israel by essentially becoming Israel and thus, required to observe all of the Torah mitzvot. The only thing they didn’t have to do was convert to Judaism, but otherwise, they certainly looked like converts. That makes even less sense if the wall was broken down by “abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances.” Nothing is abolished, the Gentiles are just added into the “law of commandments expressed in ordinances.”
Lancaster suggests that what Jesus broke down in his flesh when he was executed was how Gentiles were prevented from covenant relationship with God and the Jewish people without converting to Judaism. The legal requirement for conversion was the law that was abolished. This makes a bit more sense because it is through Messiah that we among the nations can become disciples and we are not required to convert to Judaism. But then, where does all the hostility come from that was preventing Gentiles from entering into covenant?
If what went away was a faulty interpretation and application of Torah that promoted an extreme hostility of Jews against Gentiles (which is not too hard to understand given that the Jewish nation was at that time being occupied by a harsh and cruel Gentile imperial army), Ephesians 2, especially when compared to Acts 10, begins to make more sense.
I’m sure my amateur interpretation can be criticized on a number of levels and again, I’m not saying that my little theory has much, if any, weight of evidence to support it, but I want you to think about it. I want you to consider the possibilities, especially in light of how Jewish audiences took less exception to the message of Jesus as the Messiah, and much more exception to the idea that such a message required doing away with the Torah, the Temple, and including unconverted Gentiles as equal covenant members.
Paul was fighting an uphill battle and he was never entirely successful during his lifetime. In fact, after his death, the hostility between Jews and Gentiles continued to grow until Christianity was no longer a branch of religious Judaism, but instead, represented an entirely new theological discipline…one that was actually opposed to Judaism.
To the degree that Judaism and Christianity are still separate religions, with neither one wanting to have anything to do with the other for the most part (there are noteworthy exceptions), that wall of hostility still exists today. Part of why I write this blog is to offer avenues at, if not deconstructing the wall, punching a few holes in the “soreg” so we can see each other more clearly and even have a bit of a conversation.
When the Messiah returns, I believe he will finish what Paul started. I believe he will finish removing the wall we continually rebuild. I believe he will show us how to live with each other in peace. And Jews will remain a distinct people and nation as Jews. And Gentile believers will remain distinct from the rest of the world as non-Jewish disciples of the Master. And the different parts will truly act as one within a single body.