Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables. Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them. Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand.
Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds. Those who observe the day, observe it in honor of the Lord. Also those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God.
We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.
Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. For it is written,
“As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me,
and every tongue shall give praise to God.”
So then, each of us will be accountable to God.
–Romans 14:1-12 (NASB)
I’ve just finished reading the third chapter in the Mark D. Nanos book The Mystery of Romans: The Jewish Context of Paul’s Letters. Yes, it did take me a long time and for two reasons. Nanos is quite erudite in his writing, packing each page densely with information. I have to take copious notes on all points of interest while I’m reading. Thus reading and writing while I’m reading makes for slow going.
But I’ve gotten through the eighty pages of “Chapter 3: Who Were the ‘Weak’ and the ‘Strong’ in Rome?” Hint: they aren’t who you think they are, at least according to Nanos.
But first things first.
There is almost universal agreement (it appears to be an almost unquestioned fact) that the “weak” were Christian Jews who still practiced the Law and Jewish customs (with most maintaining that this group would have included “God-fearing” gentiles as well), and that the “strong” were Christian gentiles (as well as Christian Jews like Paul who have supposedly abandoned Jewish practices).
-Nanos, Chapter 3, pg 87
In my previous review of Chapter 1 of this book, I noted that Nanos takes a high view of Jewish Torah observance and a Gentile “Torah-respecting” lifestyle, meaning that, from a Pauline perspective (according to Nanos), Gentiles in the ancient Messianic Jewish communities were expected to support and uphold Jewish Torah observance while at the same time, conforming to the application of Torah to the Gentile believers as defined by the halakhic decision made by James and the Elders and Apostles in Acts 15 (which was probably supported and expanded by an oral teaching that accompanied the “Jerusalem letter,” the Didache being one possibility).
I mention this, because it must be taken into account in the current conversation, for this position is the template for everything that follows in Nanos’ analysis of Paul’s famous letter to the Romans.
Let’s cut to the chase:
Paul was not concerned with distinguishing between Christian Jews/gentiles who practiced (“weak”) or did not practice (“strong”) the Law and customs, with the hope that all would eventually abandon the Law and customers as they grew stronger in their faith in Christ. His concern was rather that all the non-Christian Jews (“stumbling” in faith toward Christ) in Rome would recognize that Jesus was the Christ of Israel, their Savior, and that they would thus believe in Christ and become Christians (“able” to have faith toward Christ) — Christian Jews. As Christian Jews they would indeed continue to be Jews in that they continue to practice the Law and Jewish customs in faith, not in order to justify themselves, but because they are Jews justified by the Jewish Savior/Messiah/Christ, thus joining with gentiles who are Christians in giving glory with “one accord” and thus “one voice” to the One Lord: “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (15:6).
-Nanos, pp 154-5
In order to make that explanation work, the believing Gentiles and believing Jews must share a common synagogue or synagogues in Rome with the non-believing Jews. This isn’t as incredible as you might think. Most people assume that whenever Jews and Gentile God-fearers came to faith in Messiah, they left the synagogue and formed their own house churches. Sometimes that was true, but not always. Nanos and the resources he cites (you’ll have to see the book for the entire bibliography) support the idea that the believing body of Jews and Gentiles in Rome remained in their synagogue communities once they came to faith.
For the Jewish believers, this probably seemed like a no-brainer at the time, since coming to faith in Yeshua as Messiah in the mid-first century was not particularly strange, and it certainly didn’t mean that the believing Jew was converting to a different religion as it would mean today if a Jew came to faith in Jesus and started going to Church (and for Messianic Jews today, they remain within Judaism as did Paul and the other Jewish believers in the apostolic era).
Also, Gentile God-fearers were commonly found in diaspora synagogues and although they had no covenant status reconciling them with God (unless some pre-Rabbinic status of “Noahide” were conferred upon them), nevertheless, they had come to believe that the God of Israel was the God over all. Once these Gentiles came to faith in Messiah, their was no requirement that their worship practices should change for after all, they were disciples of the Jewish Messiah King. Where else should they be but among Messiah’s people Israel? In fact, James and the Apostles in Jerusalem made this very point:
Therefore I have reached the decision that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God, but we should write to them to abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood. For in every city, for generations past, Moses has had those who proclaim him, for he has been read aloud every sabbath in the synagogues.”
–Acts 15:19-21 (NASB)
Once coming to faith in Messiah, in order to fully comprehend and practice his teachings, it was necessary to continue accessing his “source material,” which, according to the ruling of the Council, were to be found in the Torah and the Prophets.
Those Jews and Gentiles in the local Roman synagogues who came to faith while davening and worshiping within those communities would still be attached to those communities, to their friends, to the Rabbis. And since Yeshua-worship wasn’t inherently “non-Jewish,” Nanos suggests the believing Gentiles and Jews would have remained in their original synagogues.
Why should we care about this?
Because we have several populations co-mingling within a single religious and community setting: non-believing Jews, believing Jews, and believing Gentiles.
Now this next point is important. As Gentile God-fearers, the non-Jews who regularly attended synagogue would have been observing a set of behaviors that would allow them to co-participate in the community without violating the requirements of Torah observant Jews. They would eat the same foods, probably pray the same prayers or prayers modified for non-Jewish people, and otherwise not interfere with the Jewish “ascendency” in their own synagogue.
In other words, they wouldn’t make waves.
But once the God-fearers became believers and realized, through Paul as well as through the halakhic ruling of the Apostles, that they were not obligated to convert to Judaism and take on the full yoke of Torah but they were still fully equal co-participants in salvation and justification before God, they got a little cocky.
In Paul’s letter to the Galatians, the primary problem population (say that three times real fast) were “judaizers,” Jews or Jewish converts who were attempting to convince the Gentile population in the Galatian faith-communities that they had to convert to Judaism to be saved (and probably to re-enforce the idea among the Jewish population that being ethnically Jewish and Torah observant was what justified them before God, not faith in Messiah). The target population of Paul’s letter to Rome had the opposite problem: “gentilizers.”
The believing Jews wouldn’t bat an eye about continued Torah observance. For them, it would be a given, and of course, for the non-believing Jews in the synagogue, why should they change the observance given to them by their forefathers? But for the believing Gentiles, who didn’t have the same set of standards (although they definitely had standard of obedience as disciples), they started to “bug” the non-believing Jews about how now the believing Gentiles were “equal” without having to conform to the full body of Torah mitzvot.
And Paul was taking these Gentiles, the so-called “strong,” to task for disrespecting the “weak” who he felt in time, would also come to faith in Messiah. By their behavior, the Gentile believers were actually in danger of inhibiting Jews from coming to faith in their own Messiah (the parallels between this situation and the modern Christian Church are undeniable).
Let us therefore no longer pass judgment on one another, but resolve instead never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of another. I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. If your brother or sister is being injured by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. Do not let what you eat cause the ruin of one for whom Christ died. So do not let your good be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. The one who thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and has human approval. Let us then pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding. Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for you to make others fall by what you eat; it is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that makes your brother or sister stumble. The faith that you have, have as your own conviction before God. Blessed are those who have no reason to condemn themselves because of what they approve. But those who have doubts are condemned if they eat, because they do not act from faith; for whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.
–Romans 14:13-23 (NASB)
Nanos asks his readers to look at this passage in sort of the opposite direction than the way we’ve been taught. Also keep in mind that, just like the situation we see in Galatians 2, the issue is table fellowship and offensive treatment, not food. If your brother or sister (here, Paul has to be relating believing Gentiles to non-believing Jews as “brothers and sisters,” perhaps because they attend the same synagogue community) stumbles (in their faith) because you, as a Gentile, are not obligated to keep the kosher laws, you are no longer walking in love.
While the Gentiles were “mere” God-fearers, they were in a “one-down” position in the synagogue because of legal status and let’s face it, it is a Jewish synagogue. Once they became co-participants in salvation because of Abrahamic faith, the Gentile believers became a tad bit obnoxious to the non-believing Jews and stopped “walking in love.”
There’s a lot Nanos says about the halachah of “walking in love” and the two greatest commandments of Jesus (Matthew 22:36-40) that applies here. You can’t really love God if you are taunting your neighbor who is “weak” in faith and has not yet become reconciled to Messiah.
I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh.
–Romans 9:2-3 (NASB)
Paul was desperate to share the “good news” to every Jew and he desired, above all else, that his own people should come to faith and redemption. So much so, that he was willing to surrender his own salvation if it would save some of his non-believing Jewish brothers and sisters. Clearly, Paul didn’t see himself, as a believing Jew, in any way disconnected from the larger community of non-believing Jews in Israel or the diaspora or national Israel as a whole. In other words, to reference Rabbi Dr. Stuart Dauermann, all Jewish people for Paul were Us, not Them.
I had a tough time with this chapter. I knew that Nanos was going to reframe the “weak vs. strong” argument in Romans 14, 15, but his build up to even stating his point took a long time. I finally had to jump back to the last pages of the chapter so I’d have some idea of what Nanos was getting at. Once I did, I found it easier to make it through the intervening pages.
According to Nanos, the “strong,” the believing Gentiles in the synagogue, should have known better than to try to “gentilize” the non-believing Jews and thus damaging relationships not only with them, but with the believing Jews who were also continuing to observe Torah and the Jewish customs. The Gentiles were cheapening their own “freedom” in Yeshua-faith by suggesting that the Torah devotion of non-believing Jews was a “weakness” on their part. However, Paul was actually saying that where they were weak was not in their faith in God and observance of the mitzvot, but their faith in Yeshua as Messiah. The Gentile “strong” were greater in that faith but ironically, they weren’t that strong either, for they became arrogant in their new status and in lacking love, I suspect they were also “weak” themselves.
Nanos makes such a complex argument, I don’t know that I can completely apprehend all of the nuances in just one reading, but I don’t really have the time to pour weeks more of study into a single chapter. The Mystery of Romans is such a compact container for such a large amount of data that I have no doubt I’ll have to read it a second time (or more) to tease out additional understanding and meaning. For now, I’m willing to entertain the idea that the “weak” and the “strong” can conform to an alternate meaning and in fact, they must if Paul is to remain consistent as a personality and in his theology throughout his letters and as depicted by Luke in Acts.
Addendum: Having just finished Chapter 4, a number of the points Nanos made about “weak” and “strong” are clearer, especially in relation to Gentile behavioral responsibilities toward Jewish people in general (both believing and non-believing). My next “meditation” on the Nanos book should be a great deal more coherent.