Moreover, Paul does not seem to be confronting an inflated view of the Torah in Rome among the Christian gentiles (“judaizing”) as is often assumed. Instead, he confronts the failure of the Christian gentiles in Rome to respect the role of Torah in the life of Israel as God’s special gift; in fact, he emphatically elevates the status of the Torah. Note, for example, the great advantage of the Jewish people is “that they were entrusted with the oracles of God” (3:2), and elsewhere in the litany of Jewish privileges he includes “the giving of the Law” (9:4); that the “Law is spiritual” (7:14) and again, “the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good” (7:12); and further that “the gifts [which clearly included as central the Law; cf. 9:4] and the calling [Israel’s election] of God are irrevocable” (11:29). Paul refers to the “Law of faith (3:27) and asserts that he is not teaching that faith nullifies the Law: “Christ is the end [goal] of the Law” (10:4). In fact, he even regards the “love” he is calling for among his Christian gentile readers “the fulfillment of the law” (13:8-10; cf. 8:4), not a demonstration of its failure but the embodiment of its true aims.
-Mark D. Nanos
“Chapter 1: To the Jew First and Also to the Greek,” pg 22
The Mystery of Romans: The Jewish Context of Paul’s Letter
No, I haven’t given up on my serial review of the articles in First Fruits of Zion’s (FFOZ) periodical Messiah Journal issue 114, but I’m also reading the Nanos “Romans” book (his book on Galatians is waiting in the wings) and I want to discuss my impressions so far (just gotten through Chapter 1 at this point).
As I read, I usually keep some post-it notes and a pen handy to take notes and stick on the appropriate pages for later reference (beats marking up the inside of the book with my poor handwriting). All I’m going to do here is review my notes and do a “data dump” into this blog post, along with a few of my thoughts on the matters brought up. To start off, I can certainly see why Nanos is considered “Messianic Judaism-friendly”.
For instance, in footnote 5 on page 23:
I don’t mean to suggest the doing of the Law was an “entrance requirement” for salvation, but rather the application of the Law and Jewish customs to the lifestyle of those believing in Jesus as the Christ; for the Jew believing in Christ Jesus would continue to be a Jew and thus obey the Law, and the gentile believing in Christ Jesus would continue to be a gentile and thus not under the Law, however, the gentile would now through Christ Jesus have a new relationship with Israel that made it necessary to respect the “rules of behavior” that had been developed in Judaism to define the minimal requirements of Law and custom for the “God-fearing” gentile wishing to associate with God and his people. Thus the phrase “Law-respectful gospel” is offered here to contrast with the “Law-free gospel” usually assumed to represent Paul and Pauline Christianity, incorrectly in my opinion.
A lot is packed into that one short paragraph regarding Nanos and his opinions on the relationship Jews and Gentiles in Messiah have with Torah, the Gospel, and each other. He is definite that the “Messianic Jew” remains a Jew and thus fully bound to the Torah of Moses, while the Gentile is bound, not to Torah as such, but to the essentials of the Acts 15 legal ruling that authoritatively established the halachah for Gentile admission into “the Way.”
Nanos, in my opinion, is also correct in saying that much of Christianity believes that Paul established a “law-free gospel” for both Gentiles and Jews in Christ and that the Church’s viewpoint has largely ignored what Paul was really saying. The quote from page 22 of the Nanos book above shows multiple examples of how Paul had a high view of Torah for the Jewish people in Messiah (and all of Israel). We also see from the “footnote 5” quote that Gentiles were admitted into the community of Messiah but with a different legal status than the Jews, one that did not make them “Israel” but that affirmed the Jewish people as “Israel” and “God’s people”. Gentiles are “associating” with God and Israel within the Messianic body.
That’s disturbing language for some Christians and Hebrew Roots adherents as it appears to develop “classes” within the body of Messiah, with the Jews in the ascendant position and the Gentiles being subordinate to them. My Pastor is an example of a Christian who believes Jews and Gentiles are totally uniform in identity and status based on the absence of the Law, while many in Hebrew Roots believe in the same uniformity, but based on an identical binding of Jew and Gentile to Torah.
Nanos also associates “Law-respecting lifestyle” for the Gentile with the concept of halachah, which literally means “walking” and denotes rules of behavior, usually as legally defined within a Rabbinic Jewish court system. As Nanos says, “it denotes rules of behavior…and is a frequent idiom in the Bible as well for discussing proper behavior” (pg 22, footnote 6). This again harkens back to the Acts 15 decision for Gentile disciples, which Paul appears to be upholding in his letter to the Romans (chapters 5-16, according to Nanos, and particularly chapter 14).
Upon his arrival he would execute his customary two-step pattern to ensure the restoration of the dispersed of Israel in the synagogues of Rome first, thereafter bringing the good news to the gentiles also, which was, surprisingly, a necessary part of the process of Israel’s restoration, a “mystery” in which those addressed shared an extremely significant role.
-Nanos, pg 26
I’ve been writing about the “extremely significant role” of gentile Christians as “a necessary part of the process of Israel’s restoration” ever since I attended my first FFOZ Shavuot conference in May of 2012. I often include a link to my blog post Provoking Zealousness as an illustration of this principle. I originally wondered where Boaz Michael came up with such a concept, and I can see now that in part, it must have come from the research and writing of Mark Nanos.
In May 2012, this whole idea of the Gentiles exalted role in relation to Israel was as clear as “Mississippi mud” to me, but I chose to struggle with it rather than discarding it out of hand. I’m glad I did. Things are much clearer for me now.
Paul’s concerns are those of a Jewish missionary, and his message and framework of thinking are those of one who considers himself working within the historical expectations of Israel — the Savior of Israel has come to Zion to rebuild the tabernacle of David and to bring light to all the nations — for the One God of Israel is the One God of the whole world.
-ibid, pp 26-7
I don’t know if Boaz Michael was thinking of Nanos when he conceived of and authored his book Tent of David: Healing the Vision of the Messianic Gentile, but the connection seems very apparent, and dovetails well with Boaz’s message to the “Messianic Gentile” audience of the book in how we have a critical role in restoring Israel that must be communicated to our traditionally Christian brothers and sisters in the Church.
Notwithstanding the many historical concerns associated with harmonizing the Paul of Romans with the Paul of Luke-Acts (note the conclusion of Beker, “Luke’s Paul as the Legacy of Paul,” p. 511: “The history of research has made it abundantly clear that the attempt to harmonize the historical Paul with the Paul of Luke-Acts has come to a radical end”), features of Luke’s presentation of Paul’s view of Law-respectful behavior and his two-step missionary pattern are to be noted in the Paul we meet in the text of Romans (see particularly chapters 4 and 5 herein). Note the challenge of Jervell, “Retrospect and Prospect in Luke-Acts Interpretation,” on p. 403: “What made the Lucan Paul possible? We have at least three different Pauls: The Paul of the Pauline letters, the Paul of Acts, and the Paul of the deuteropauline letters and Pastorals…”
-ibid, pg 28, footnote 13
I include this note here to illustrate that the confusing image I get of Paul in different parts of the New Testament isn’t some failing on my part. New Testament scholars experience Paul this way too, and struggle to make sense of how one man can present himself or be presented in such contradictory ways. Just who the heck is Paul, anyway? If we are to accept that the New Testament is the inspired Word of God and therefore “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness,” (2 Timothy 3:16) then we must believe that all that we read of Paul and about Paul is correct and consistent with a single man, who himself was consistent in regard to his faith in Messiah and his approach to the Jewish people, the Torah, and God.
So if the fault in understanding Paul isn’t to be found in an inconsistent and flawed New Testament record, it must be found in ourselves and how we are reading that inspired record. Where is the Holy Spirit when we need Him the most?
These observations challenge the prevailing views of Paul’s purpose for writing to Rome and, necessarily, the hermeneutical assumptions that lie behind the interpretation of Romans. Was Paul opposed to the practice of the Law and Jewish customs in the church in Rome? Did he believe that the church needed to sever ties with Judaic notions of righteous behavior? Was legalism his central concern, that is, faith versus works or grace versus the law? Was the church a completely separate institution from the synagogue that must seek to assert a Law-free interpretation of salvation and Christian behavior over against Judaism?
-ibid, pp 28-9
My Pastor would probably say “yes” to answer all those questions and then move on as if nothing were wrong, but I can’t do that. Nanos can’t either.
This reading of Romans suggests that the traditional answers to these questions are inadequate and that the historical situation addressed in Romans should be approached in a vastly different light than it has been in the past. For example, the message derived from Paul’s letter to Galatia should not be allowed, as it has so often in the past, to dictate the probable interpretation of Paul’s intentions toward Rome. The implied audience and the circumstances are quite different, including the important fact that Paul had an instrumental role in the development of the community he wrote to in Galatia while he had never been to Rome. Galatians was written to confront Christian gentiles attempting to “judaize,” and thus, in the opinion of Paul, to compromise the universal application of the promised salvation to all people equally through faith in Jesus Christ, whether Jew or gentile, for Paul emphatically argued that the One God of Israel was also the One God of the nations equally accessible to gentiles through faith in Jesus Christ.
ibid, pg 29
Traditional answers are inadequate and we cannot apply the situation and circumstances that inspired Galatians to what we see in Romans. We cannot ignore the context of each letter, the period of time in which each one was written (in all likelihood, Galatians was written before the Acts 15 decision and Romans afterward), Paul’s intent, his state of mind, the identity of his audience, and how they likely would receive and comprehend Paul’s words within their historic, cultural, linguistic, educational, and national context…a context which we either largely lack or ignore in favor of our historical, cultural, and traditional interpretation of Paul within the Christian Protestant church.
Nanos goes on to give a smart summary of why Paul wrote Galatians and how his motivation was different in writing Romans based on different circumstances. The Gentiles in the Galatian churches were somehow led to believe that only by converting to Judaism and observing all of the Torah mitzvot in the manner of the Jews could they be justified before God. This may have been driven by Jewish ethnocentrism or the belief that the Jews and only the Jews had the inside track with God, the Messianic Gospel notwithstanding.
In Romans, the problem seemed to be the opposite among the Gentiles. They believed that the grace of Jesus Christ diminished if not extinguished the binding of the Jewish believers and non-believers to Torah and even watered down any Gentile sensibilities required for Gentile/Jewish fellowship within the synagogue. There seems to have been a dynamic play between the Gentile position and the Jewish “pushback”, with each population asserting that they had the upper hand, the Gentiles because of grace and the Jews because of the Law. Paul was trying to “balance both sides of the equation,” so to speak. No easy task as anyone from the modern Messianic Jewish movement has discovered in speaking with our more traditional Christian brothers in the Church.
These traces have survived in the texts of Romans and the Apostolic Fathers in spite of Roman Christianity’s later disregard for these Jewish roots as it developed into the thoroughly gentile organization (the “gentilization” of the church).
-ibid, pp 32-3
It wasn’t that long ago that I had my own gentilization experience in my Sunday school class, and I can tell you it was disturbing. According to Nanos, we see the first, encroaching shadows of this behavior among the Gentile disciples in the synagogue in Rome, and it has been “snowballing” ever since.
Nanos repeatedly declares in this chapter of his book that Paul’s letter to the Romans was a reminder to the church in Rome, a large group of Gentiles associating with Jews under the authority of the synagogue, “of the importance of their ‘obedience of faith’…to clarify just how important the halakhah that had been developed in the synagogues of the Diaspora to define the behavior incumbant upon righteous gentiles really was now for redefining the Christian gentiles…” (ibid, pg 34).
In modern Judaism, there is also the concept of righteous Gentiles usually associated with those non-Jews who served some role in rescuing Jewish victims of the Nazi Holocaust, but a Gentile can be considered righteous as a Noahide as well. I find it rather illuminating to classify the status of the early Gentile believers in Jesus the Messiah as “righteous Gentiles” seeing that no one, Jewish or Gentile, has any righteous standing before God apart from faith in Messiah.
On page 37, Nanos states that the Gentile believers were “equal coparticipants in the blessings of God through faith without the need to become Jews.” He goes on to say that the Gentile “coparticipants” possessed an “explicit obligation…to serve non-Christian Jews in love by subordinating themselves to the authority of the synagogue…” inserting the idea that the problem with the Jewish/Gentile relationship in the synagogue did not only involve believing Jews. Was this the first recorded occasion of (Gentile) Christians playing the “grace” and “salvation” card in a game with the Jewish people, asserting superiority over the ancient people of God? Many Christians have historically played that card and many Churches today continue to do so, much to their shame.
However, Romans includes the unmistakable caveat that while Israel’s historical place is preeminent it is not exclusive, and while Christian gentiles must practice the intentions of the apostolic decree they must not misunderstand this and assume, as some were being tempted to assume in Galatia, that they are thereby in need of placing themselves fully under the Law…in order to be equal coparticipants in the blessings God promised to Abraham and revealed in Jesus Christ for all who believe in Him.
-ibid, pp 38-9
I know I continue to repeat myself, but how like the current difficulties we experience in the Messianic movement were the struggles of Paul and the “church” in Rome. Paul could see clearly their dilemma and ours, but in the final chapter of his life, he was helpless to stop the rift between Gentiles and Jews from forming and ultimately dividing them and us. The question is, can we succeed where Paul (apparently) failed? Paul knew the answers we struggle so hard to acquire and yet he still couldn’t stop destiny’s cruel hand. On the last page of this chapter (40), Nanos reiterates what he said before about the true role of the Gentile in the Jewish community of “the Way”:
…Paul’s intended trip to Rome to bring about in Rome the beginning of the “fulness of the Gentiles.” This procedure would mark, paradoxically, the end of the suffering of the part of Israel presently hardened as it triggered the saving jealousy of “some of them,” resulting in the eschatological restoration of “all” of Israel — for of at least one mystery Paul was certain: “all Israel will be saved.”
The only hope Christianity and the Messianic Jewish movement has of coming to terms and then to unity is in the realization of Paul’s goal for the Romans, the proper orientation of the Gentile believers, not only to Messianic Jews, but to Israel as a whole, and that by provoking Jewish “zealousness” to repentance and Torah, we will not only help in sealing that ancient and bleeding wound, but summon the coming of Messiah, Son of David, may he come soon and in our day.
If this is what only one chapter of the Nanos “Romans” book holds, I’m looking forward to reading (and reviewing) the rest of it.