For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one; and he will justify the circumcised on the ground of faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith. Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.
The discovery of the Shema Israel as central to Paul’s theology was a profound moment for me, and has shaped my reading of him ever since. If I was writing a theology of Paul, it would be the center around which all other topics turned. Here we see it employed clearly and in a pivotal point in his argument in Romans for why non-Jewish believers in Christ must remain non-Jews and not become proselytes, and by the implication of his logic, why Jews remain Jews after faith in Christ: “since [if indeed] God is one.” Paul’s language here, and throughout Romans and Galatians, calls to mind the central prayer of Judaism, repeated twice daily, and the last words a pious Jew hopes to pass his or her lips, which begins: “Hear [shema] Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one.”
-Mark D. Nanos
“A Torah Observant Paul?: What Difference Could it Make for Christian/Jewish Relations Today?” (pg 45)
May 9, 2005 (PDF Version Sent – Endnote Formatted)
Since I completed my final summary of the classic Mark Nanos book The Mystery of Romans: The Jewish Context of Paul’s Letters, I’ve been wondering how Nanos’ research into and perspectives on Paul have progressed. After all, the “Romans” book was published in 1996, almost two decades ago. What’s Nanos been up to since then?
The paper I’m quoting from gives a compressed answer, though it is still almost nine years old. I find the same voice and the same perspectives in the “Torah Observant Paul” paper as I do in “Romans,” with just a hint of additional development. The paper, as a whole, addresses the more “troublesome” passages in Paul’s epistles as they appear to conflict with the life of a Torah-observant Jew in the late Second Temple period. Nanos points out the overwhelming body of Christian scholarship that paints Paul as a traitor to his own people and the “inventor” of Christianity, and seeks to refactor the Biblical record by deliberately viewing Paul as a devout Jew with a life-long devotion to Hashem, the Temple, the Torah, and Judaism.
I’m not going to review the entirety of this lengthy paper right now. I’m focusing only on a small portion of it so I can extend the Nanos commentary on Paul’s letter to the Romans, gleaning additional insights and sparkling bits of wisdom as they are scattered ahead of me on my path of faith.
In the “Romans” book, Nanos also mentions the Shema as the central element required in understanding the Jewish apostle’s message to the non-Jewish believers in Rome. Built on his commentary on Romans and Galatians, Nanos, in addressing Jewish and Gentile identity in Messiah, believes Paul is not only discouraging Gentiles from converting to Judaism as a means of justification before God, he’s forbidding its as contrary to prophesy and to the “oneness” testified to by the Shema.
Likewise, somewhere halfway between Paul’s time and our own Rashi wrote, to explain the repetition of the Name (Hashem, the Name, a rabbinic circumlocution for YHWH/Lord) in the Shema:
“The Lord who is our God now, but not (yet) the God of the (other) nations, is destined to be the One Lord, as it is said, ‘For then will I give to the peoples a pure language, that they may all call upon the name of the Lord, to serve Him with one consent’ (Zeph 3:9). And (likewise) it is said, ‘And the Lord shall be king over all the earth; on that day shall the Lord be One and His name One’ (Zech 14:9).”
Paul’s argument is that the God who now righteouses (sic) Israel is the same God who now righteouses (sic) non-Israelites who turn to Israel’s God in Jesus Christ as the Lord of all the Nations too. He is the one whom both the members of Israel and of the other nations within the Christ-groups choose—like the special one that someone falls in love with like no other, thereafter the only one for themselves. For Paul, if non-Jews in-Christ become Jewish proselytes, and thereby Israelites, they do not bear witness to the arrival of the day when representatives from all of the nations turn from idols to the worship of the One God, but simply to the truth that in the present age Israel represents the righteous ones of God, members of which they become by proselyte conversion. That identity transformation for non-Jews is available apart from the confession of faith in Jesus Christ in most other Jewish groups of the time, which provide for proselyte conversion to join the family of Abraham, of God, within the present age, and await with Israel the hope of the age of reconciliation of the nations, when the wolf (such as is Rome) will lie down with the lamb (Israel), without devouring her.
Nanos, pp 46-7
For Nanos as well as for Paul, it was not a matter of Gentiles having the option to convert to Judaism within Yeshua-faith, it was strictly forbidden, for prophesy tells of both Jews and Gentiles worshiping alongside each other, Israel expressing devotion to Hashem beside all the other nations (i.e. non-Jewish people) of the Earth, acknowledging that God is One and His Name is One. Even if a Gentile converted, not for the purpose of justification (for only faith justifies) but for some other reason (the desire to take on the full beauty of the Torah, an intermarriage of a Gentile with a Jew), it contradicts God’s Word and intent for both Jewish and non-Jewish humanity.
Once again I testify to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the entire law.
Many seek to phrase the issue of proselyte conversion for non-Jewish Christ-believers from Paul’s point of view thus: Paul sought to communicate that one did not “have to” become a Jew in order to become a Christian, or if a Christian, in order to be a good one, or some such thing. Paul in Galatians, especially 5:2-6, makes it plain that a non-Jewish Christ-believer “cannot” become a proselyte.
-Nanos, pg 30
Cannot? Why not? Or have I already tipped my hand?
However that may be, let each of you lead the life that the Lord has assigned, to which God called you. This is my rule in all the churches. Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. Was anyone at the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision. Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing; but obeying the commandments of God is everything. Let each of you remain in the condition in which you were called.
–1 Corinthians 7:17-20
The point Paul drives home is that regardless of which state one was in when called, their present state requires attending to obedience to God’s commandments—even guarding the interests of these commandments rather than the interests of identity as Jew or non-Jew. The noun (in Greek) can be translated as “keep,” or “obey,” and carries the sense of “guard” or “watch over.” There is no shadow of concern with works-righteousness, but rather, with failure to behave appropriate to the state of Christ-believingness…
Paul’s language here brings up a point that corresponds to several points in the previous discussion of Gal 5:3. In Paul’s propositional arrangement, a Jew — such as he was — remained in-Christ a Jew, and thus obligated to observe Torah. However, a non-Jew in-Christ remained a non-Jew, and thus not obligated to observe Torah on the same terms as a Jew, since not a Torah-person. Nevertheless, a non-Jew was now obligated to turn from slavery to sin to slavery to righteousness, which was defined in terms that embody an essentially Torah-observant life (cf. Rom 6:14-23; 13:8-14; Gal 5:6-6:10), the lifestyle incumbent upon a so-called righteous non-Jew (something of an oxymoron).
Nanos, pp 32-3
Nanos not only emphasizes that Paul forbids a Gentile in Yeshua faith from converting to Judaism as a contradiction to the prophets, but he sees the co-participation of righteous Jews and Gentiles in Messiah expressed relative to identity issues, with Jews who came to Christ as Jews remaining Jewish with continuing Jewish obligations to Torah observance, and Gentiles who came to Christ as Gentiles not assuming a Jewish obligation to Torah but nevertheless, requiring a behavioral as well as “heart change” relative to lifestyle (probably as defined, at least in part, by the Acts 15 letter to the Gentile believers).
All this certainly reiterates my own opinion that Gentiles coming to faith within the ancient (or modern) Jewish religious stream of “the Way” (or its modern expression, Christianity, including within the such groups as Hebrew Roots and Messianic Judaism and their variations) that we (Gentiles) are not obligated to the Torah of Moses, at least not in the manner of observant Jews (Messianic or otherwise).
Many ancient prophesies cite how the nations (i.e. non-Jewish people) in Messianic days will take hold of the tzitzit of a Jewish man (Zechariah 8:23) and go up to the Mountain of the God of Jacob (Isaiah 2:3) to worship, because the House of God, the Temple, is a House of prayer for all people (Isaiah 56:7). In Nanos’ opinion, how did Paul see this, since he was living out the first fruits of those prophesies?
At issue is not that most other Jewish groups would likely disagree with Paul’s proposition that such reconciliation will occur when that day arrives, so that members of other nations do not then join Israel to join with her in worship of the One Creator God of all humankind. Some may believe that day will be accompanied by the conversion of the nations, in the sense of proselyte conversion to Israel; others might await the destruction of those of the other nations as foremost in their hopes. These expectations and others can be gleaned from the Scriptures and other writings of Paul’s time.
But even those who hope for reconciliation with the nations and expect them to remain not-Israel would not agree with Paul that this moment had arrived in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, or even just begun to arrive and be witnessed in the life of the communities of believers in that proposition—unless sharing Paul’s faith in Christ. In their groups the distinction and membership that follows from it remains between Gentiles, however welcome as friends and guests, and Jews or Israelites, a category that includes (albeit with some variety among groups) proselytes, those who have turned from idolatry to worship the One God and have completed the rite of conversion signaling that they have joined the people of that God in full membership, so that they are no longer regarded as mere guests.
-Nanos, pg 47
Nanos continues with this point:
I do not agree with the view of many interpreters of Paul—Jewish as well as Christian—that Paul taught the dissolution of differences, that there were no longer Jews and Gentiles in Christ, but a kind of new, third race, as some have phrased it. I grant that he does sometimes write that there is neither this nor that. But it cannot be so. There remain fundamental biological differences between women and men, for example, and the male penis has either been circumcised or remains in its foreskinned state. Recognition of this reality is witnessed in his arguments, including about just this matter, and in his continued employment of this distinction to address and explain the composition of the world from an Israelite-based conceptualization of reality: he does not address anyone as “Christian,” but as Jew or non-Jew, circumcised or foreskinned, and within those categories, as having faith in/of Jesus Christ (Messiah), or not.
-Nanos, pg 48
Equal co-participation in the Messiah did not include obliteration of identity. Jews remained Jews and Gentiles remained Gentiles, with one primary indicator of distinction being relationship with Torah obligation. This did not, in Nanos’ opinion, inherently create class differentiations between Jews and Gentiles. Salvation, justification, intimacy, accessibility to God were all equally within the apprehension of Jewish and non-Jewish Yeshua-believers, but none of this required Jews to abandon Judaism and become Gentiles, nor Gentiles to convert to Judaism (or conversely not convert) and take on the Jewish obligatory observance of the Torah mitzvot.
In fact doing so, in Paul’s opinion (according to Nanos) would be an affront to God and a violation of the ancient prophesies of the Tanakh (Old Testament).
Today’s commentary is a mere subset of the Nanos paper and I hope you click the link to read the full contents of what he wrote. For me, this information is an affirmation of the original intent of God for both the Jewish people and the nations of the world, that He desires all to be reconciled before Him, and that the flow of prophesy from the earliest books of the Bible through the apostolic writings, proceed in a comprehensive, consistent, and additive manner, painting a unified portrait of the people of God moving forward through history, rather than a cosmic “bait-and-switch” whereby God attracts Israel to Himself, and then in the final act of his drama, summarily abandons his bride for a more “youthful” partner, as traditional Christian doctrine demands.
Nanos applies his research to the last part of his paper, suggesting what Christians and Jews can and should take away from this information and how it facilitates modern Christian/Jewish dialogue. Perhaps I’ll address this important issue at some future time. However, I do want to mention one important point:
In a slightly different direction, Michael Wyschogrod suggests that Christians should change the church policy that holds Jews to be no longer Jews upon becoming Christians, so that after baptism they cannot observe Torah, or if they do, that it cannot be respected as an act of faith, so that the difference between Jews and non-Jews in church is erased in the direction of Gentile-only identity. This posture infers that the election of Israel is superseded by that of the church and that the covenant with the Jewish people is regarded to be over. In other words, not urging Jews in Christ to remain Jews betrays disrespect for the place of empirical Israel.
-Nanos, pg 55
Even in churches that generally support the Jewish people and Israel, in expecting the “Jewish Christians” within their own walls to not have a continued obligation to the Torah is, in and of itself, “cryptosupersessionism” (a term I attribute to Rabbi Dr. Stuart Dauermann), which is a tragic consequence of nearly twenty centuries of anti-Jewish theology in the Church.
The irony of all this is that, from Nanos’ perspective (and mine), it may well be discovered that it is the duty of the Church to encourage its Jewish members, who have abandoned Jewish practice and assimilated within Gentile Christianity, to re-engage Judaism and Torah observance as an act of “Christian” faith.