In spite of this disheartening picture of the relations between Jews and Gentiles in Antioch there is, rather surprisingly, evidence of Gentiles who felt drawn to Judaism.
More relevant for the present discussion is whether there was a group of Gentiles with a clear interest in Judaism who may even have adopted several Jewish customs and who participated in the activities in the synagogue without having converted to Judaism.
Chapter 4: “Evidence of Interaction,” pp 121-2
The Formation of Christianity in Antioch: A Social-Scientific Approach to the Separation between Judaism and Christianity
This is both what Judaism has to offer and teach our confused and self-indulgent age. In the words of the psalmist, “Blessed are they who dwell in Your house.” (Psalm 145:1) The circuitous path away from the constricted focus on the self through the expansive world of the other. When we find renewal in the synagogue, we will have gained access to Judaism’s greatest boon: this-worldly salvation.
[This is a long “meditation.” Pour yourself a cup of coffee and give yourself the time to take it all in.]
This is something of a counterpoint to my previous blog post Zetterholm, Ancient Antioch, and Today’s Messianic Judaism. The prior write up was a look at the Judaisms operating in Antioch, including the “synagogue of the Way,” as they existed in the first century CE, through the lens of Zetterholm’s book and research. Today, we use the same lens to see how Gentiles were brought into this wholly Jewish religious stream, what the Jewish disciples understood about the social role of Gentiles, and how unconverted (to Judaism) Gentiles could participate in the New Covenant blessings.
It seems (and I’ve said this before) it wasn’t all that clear how to bring Gentile disciples into fellowship, and even among the Jews in the Way, opinions differed.
I’m going to focus on only part of this chapter, which is Zetterholm addressing “the Antioch incident” (Galatians 2:11-21) because the thirty some odd pages this author spends interpreting the conflict between Paul and Peter contains a great deal of commentary on the struggle to understand how Gentiles could be co-participants socially and benefit from Jewish covenant blessings without undergoing the proselyte rite and without being considered mere God-fearers (though God-fearers could not apprehend the covenant blessings).
Citing New Testament scholar J.D.G Dunn in his article The Incident at Antioch (Gal. 2:11-18), Zetterholm wrote:
Having evaluate[d] different exegetical alternatives, Dunn suggested that table-fellowship in Antioch involved observance of at least the basic dietary laws, since the Jesus-believing Gentiles were originally god-fearers. The men from James, shocked at what they regarded as too casual an attitude, demanded a higher degree of observance, especially with regard to ritual purity and tithing. According to Dunn, they referred to the earlier agreement made in Jerusalem (Gal. 2:1-10), where Paul’s mission to the Gentiles was agreed upon but where the specific issue of table-fellowship was never considered.
Zetterholm, pp 130-1
You’ll notice here that Dunn (apparently) believes in a “common Judaism” (see my previous article on Zetterholm) shared by all Jewish factions but variability in how to observe the mitzvot or at least to what degree to observe ritual purity customs within different synagogues of the Way. Zetterholm referencing Dunn states that it is likely the Jerusalem contingent, the home of James the Just, brother of the Master, and the core group of apostles and elders, held to a more strict observance of ritual purity than the Jews of the Way in Antioch.
Peter, as one of the original apostles of Jesus (Yeshua), may have originally held to the Jerusalem point of view, but his experiences with the household of Cornelius (Acts 10:28-29) modified that opinion. However, confronted with the more strictly observant emissaries from James, Peter gave in to peer pressure.
Notice, this doesn’t mean that Jews were eating non-kosher food, so the issue was about the competing halachot of the two Jewish communities relative to eating with Gentiles:
Dunn argued that this agreement in no way changed the obligation to torah observance for the Jesus-believing Jew.
According to Dunn, the reason why Peter suddenly withdrew from the table-fellowship was that “[h]e could not deny the logic of Jerusalem’s demand, that a Jew live like a Jew.” Continued table-fellowship could therefore lead to a severe loss of authority in relation to Jewish-Christian communities of Palestine.
-ibid, pg 131
I don’t know if I completely agree with Dunn’s and Zetterholm’s conclusion here regarding the compromise of authority, and it seems that Paul certainly didn’t think his halachah of table-fellowship with Gentiles was a problem based on his criticism of Peter. I do think this brings into sharp relief the potential differences between Paul and James, especially prior to the Acts 15 halachic ruling regarding the legal status of Gentiles in (Messianic) Judaism.
Of course Dunn isn’t the only New Testament (NT) scholar to have an opinion on this “incident.” P.F. Esler, according to Zetterholm, didn’t think it was a matter of the degree of observance but an outright halachic ban across the board on Jews eating with Gentiles, with perhaps only a few exceptions. From Esler’s perspective, this was a matter of the preservation of Jewish identity, which could only be maintained by a strict separation of Gentile and Jew with no table-fellowship between the two groups, period.
E.P. Sanders didn’t agree with either Dunn or Esler, and Zetterholm tends to favor Sanders’ viewpoint most of the time. Sanders didn’t think the issue had anything to do with ritual impurity, since most Jews are in a state of impurity (which has nothing to do with sin) most of the time, and must only be pure when participating in a Temple ritual. He also didn’t think it had much to do with social interactions, particularly in Antioch which, like other diaspora communities, required fairly free transactions between Jewish and Gentile inhabitants.
Sanders really did think it was the food, not that the Gentiles were insisting on eating ham, but the Gentile origin of the food itself was an issue. How could the Jews be sure that at least some of the meat hadn’t been sacrificed to idols?
I tend to think Dunn may have the most accurate perspective on the matter, especially given B. Holmberg’s opinion:
Holmberg suggested that James demanded a higher degree of observance not on the part of the Jesus-believing Gentiles but on that of the Jesus-believing Jews, and furthermore, a virtual separation of the Christian community into two commensary groups.
-ibid, pg 134
According to Holmberg, both Paul and James believed that the Gentiles benefited from the covenant blessings that issued from being grafted into the Jewish root, but their perspectives were different. While Paul advocated for Jewish and Gentile interaction and fellowship within the community of Messiah, James advocated for separate communities of Gentiles and Jews operating side-by-side rather than intermingled. This was to preserve the integrity of Jewish identity. Paul (according to Holmberg) disagreed.
To James and Peter, the Jerusalem agreement made no difference in how the Jesus-believing Jews related to torah, while Paul requested that the demands of a Jewish identity should cede to those necessary for maintaining a common Christian identity.
This isn’t to say that Paul was advocating for a Torah-free practice for the Jewish believers, but rather for a more lenient halchah relative to Jewish/Gentile fellowship and co-participation in worship and social interactions.
It’s interesting that Holmberg’s perspective on James, Peter, and the Jerusalem community maps at least somewhat to that of modern Messianic Jewish author and scholar, Rabbi Dr. Mark Kinzer who wrote the rather controversial book Postmissionary Messianic Judaism: Redefining Christian Engagement with the Jewish People. R. Kinzer advocates for a position called “bilateral ecclesiology,” which essentially establishes two communities within the body of Messiah, one for Jews and the other for Gentiles.
While many in the Church and in Gentile Hebrew Roots feel R. Kinzer’s position is a recent development, we see now that at least one NT scholar, Holmberg, suggests that it (or something very much like it) existed within the early Jerusalem Messianic ekklesia at the highest levels of leadership. What would this have said for Yeshua’s perspective on the matter?
We can’t know the answer to that one with any certainty, but it’s a compelling question. Yeshua rarely had dealings with Gentiles and stressed that he came “for the lost sheep of Israel” (Matthew 15:24). He only issued the directive to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28-19-20) after the resurrection and (shortly) before the ascension.
Just to summarize, the explanation behind the “Antioch incident” was the degree of ritual observance for Dunn, food for Sanders, social intercourse for Esler, and Jewish vs. Gentile identity (related to observance issues) for Holmberg. Depending on your theological preferences, you can choose the scholar that fits your perspective. I think we all tend to do that and I’m just as guilty of the practice as the next person. Hopefully, I can cut through some of that and present a reasonable case for my conclusions, such as they are.
Zetterholm said that the problem is…
…that the text contains several gaps that must be filled in through an act of interpretation. The fact that scholars put forward different and sometimes even contradicting suggestions to solve a given historical problem often emanates from the character of the text: what we want to know is simply not in the text but must be supplemented from outside the text world.
Not a very comforting thought, especially if you are a proponent of Biblical sufficiency.
I presented, in my previous blog post on Zetterholm, the nature of Jewish communities in Antioch and their implications for modern Judaism including Messianic Judaism. Now, I’m trying to solve the puzzle of how or if Gentiles could have been reasonably integrated into a Jewish community without compromising the Jewish nature and identity of that community. I think it’s clear Paul was convinced this was possible, but as history shows, it didn’t work out so well. I can only believe all this has profound implications for modern Messianic Judaism and the role of Messianic Gentiles within that Jewish context.
The issue for Paul in his letter to the Galatians was the Gentiles and encouraging them to maintain a Gentile identity within the Jewish Messianic movement, which did not require them to undergo the proselyte rite, become circumcised (males), and take on the full yoke of Torah observance. This is the same issue (Gentile role and status) within the Antioch synagogue (Acts 15:1), which most Christians would call “Paul’s home church.”
The challenge though, wasn’t just how to smooth over the wrinkles added by including Gentiles in a Jewish religious and social space, but how to understand the covenantal relationship (if any) Gentiles apprehended when they became disciples of the Master. I know in my own studies of the covenants, it is very clear how Jewish people and Judaism are in covenant with God, but Genesis 9 and Noah aside, when a Gentile comes into relationship with God through Messiah, just how does it work? There’s no clear and easy path in the text explaining it.
I came to my own peace with Gentile inclusion in the New Covenant about a year ago and more recently, in my multi-part review of D. Thomas Lancaster’s What About the New Covenant lecture series, I affirmed some of my convictions and discovered new information.
But what did this look like to the various groups inside of the Jewish Messianic movement in first century Antioch, or for that matter, from the perspective of James and the Council of Apostles and Elders in Jerusalem?
Based on various scriptures in the Tanakh (Old Testament) you could conclude that either Gentiles were cursed and would ultimately be wiped from the face of the Earth (for instance, Micah 5:9-15, Zephaniah 2:4-15), or that Gentiles had an eschatological future wherein at least some members of the nations and perhaps all nations would come into relationship with God and worship Him and Him alone (Isaiah 19, Isaiah 56:7, Zechariah 14:16).
From my point of view, I reconcile the opposing viewpoints in these texts by believing any nation (or any Gentile individual or group) which goes against Israel will ultimately be defeated by God and be cursed for cursing Israel, and any nation (or any Gentile individual or group) that joins with Israel in supporting her and her precious, chosen people, the Jewish people, will one day be called up to Jerusalem along with the returning Jewish exiles to worship God and to pay homage to the Jewish King.
You’ve probably heard the phrase “on the wrong side of history” in the news or social media recently, but applied to the Gentile nations and their relationship with Israel (for or against), those words take on a whole new meaning.
Believe it or not, I’m still talking about the Antioch incident, since how the Jews in the Way saw the Gentiles in relationship to the Jews, including socially and in the nature of their eschatology, was at the heart of the conflict.
If, however, we assume that he (Jesus) confirmed that Gentiles were to be embraced by the final salvation, it is not strange that within the early Jesus movement different concepts developed of how to relate to Gentiles and of how the actions of the god of Israel, through Christ, would also relate to the nations of the world.
-ibid, pg 140
Zetterholm, citing Sanders, said that the Jewish believers had no issue with Israel’s relationship with God since the Torah provides the means of atonement and…
…everyone living within the boundaries of the covenant and remaining in the covenant through obedience and atonement will be saved.
The soteriological system was, of course, for Jews only. Exactly how the Gentiles would be saved is less clear.
The Church today takes its status of being saved rather for granted, although I doubt most Christians have ever seriously studied the New Covenant and encountered the challenge of finding themselves anywhere in the text. If they did, they might have some small idea of what the Jewish believers were facing when trying to insert Gentiles into the Jewish community, short of formal conversion to Judaism.
Zetterholm is convinced, citing T.L Donaldson and others, that what was not required ultimately, was the need to circumcise Gentiles and have them brought under the Torah in the manner of the Jews. But since circumcision was tied directly into the covenant relationship, it remained a mystery (apparently) to the first Jesus-believing Jews, exactly what status and role uncircumcised Gentiles played in Judaism and in covenant (if any). Salvation comes from the Jews, but how?
The Acts 15 decision was designed to settle all of this and render “halakhic clarification”, since, as Zetterholm says (pg 144) it was believed that the end of the present age was at hand and Gentile status had to be settled quickly before the Messianic Era arrived.
Zetterholm puts Luke’s Acts and Paul’s epistles in tension with each other, believing that Luke may have represented Paul differently than Paul actually saw himself. Zetterholm believes that Paul’s epistles are a more valid representation of Paul and how he saw Gentiles in covenant with God, but that view, given the complexity of Paul’s letters, isn’t all that clear.
We do know that Paul did support the continuation of Torah observance for Jesus-believing Jews as a given while at the same time, did not impose said-Torah observance along with circumcision upon the Jesus-believing Gentiles.
It is clear that under no circumstances would Paul accept that the torah be imposed on the Jesus-believing Gentiles.
If Paul accepted the apostolic decree (Acts 15) was applicable to Jesus-believing Gentiles, this would not mean that he imposed torah on them, since, strictly speaking, the halakhah for righteous Gentiles or god-fearers was not the torah but something to be observed by Gentiles not having been blessed with the gift of the torah.
-ibid, pg 148
This doesn’t answer the question of how Gentiles are included in the covenant blessings, but makes clear that Paul, as Zetterholm understands him and agreeing with Mark Nanos, believed the Sinai covenant and its conditions outlined in the Torah, was not the covenant operating that provides salvation for the Gentiles and brings them into relationship with God.
I do want to say that Zetterholm seems to more strongly relate the Noahide Covenant (which Zetterholm says was fully documented in the Tannaitic period [10-220 CE]) with the status of Jesus-believing Gentiles than I would. The Noahide covenant defines a very basic relationship between God and all humanity (all flesh, really) but if that were it, then Gentiles wouldn’t need an additional covenantal connection to God that required faith in the Messiah. The New Covenant, though made only with Israel and Judah, I believe is also apprehended by Gentiles who are Jesus-believers (see Lancaster’s New Covenant lecture series for details).
Finally, through his very long and winding narrative, Zetterholm came to the same place where I have also arrived.
The inclusion of the Gentiles meant for Paul the inclusion in the covenant, since it was the covenant that provided the ultimate means of salvation. By connecting the inclusion of the Gentiles with the promise given to Abraham in Galatians 3:7-29, Paul interprets the salvation of the Gentiles in covenantal terms, since the promise given to Abraham is a covenantaly promise as stated in Genesis 15:18: “[o]n that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram.”
-ibid, pg 157
This allowed Gentiles to remain Gentiles, remain uncircumcised, and to be accountable to a different set of conditions of covenant than the Torah (or conditions with some overlap), and yet be able to enjoy the blessings of a covenantal relationship with God. It was and is that Abrahamic faith in Messiah that opens the door to our drawing near to God in a way denied to the ancient God-fearers and the modern Noahides.
Zetterholm concludes that both James and Paul agreed the Gentiles enjoyed covenant blessings, but James…
…demanded a separation of the community into two commensality groups, one for Jews and the other for Gentiles, since too close social intercourse would have confused the boundaries between Jews and Gentiles.
-ibid, pg 166
Paul, on the other hand, declared:
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
–Galatians 3:28 (NASB)
Paul, however, stressed that, “in Christ,” all distinctions between men become, on one level, superfluous. But here comes the paradox: this unity “in Christ” is arrived at only when the social distinction between Jew and Gentile is maintained. It is as “Jew” and “Gentile” that mankind becomes “one in Christ,” since the god of Israel is the god not only of the Jews, but of all humanity.
-ibid, pg 164
How does this speak to the relationship between Messianic Jews and Messianic Gentiles in community today?
If it seems like there’s been a lot of bickering, confusion, and debate over the status of non-Jews in the Jewish religious space called Messianic Judaism, but this is actually revisiting very old territory. It is, in some sense, a replay of what Paul went through in advocating for a Gentile presence as co-participants in Jewish community and fellowship, and in the covenant blessings of God. That the Gentiles are included in the New Covenant blessings, as difficult as that can be to trace down in the scriptures, isn’t the big problem, though.
The big problem is how to integrate Jews and Gentiles in Messiah in a religious, social, and halachic context. What role does the Messianic Gentile play in Messianic Jewish space? What are our obligations relative to Jewish obligations (which are far more clearly spelled out)? What does table-fellowship look like? Was James right in demanding social segregation between Jews and Gentiles, or is it more likely Paul, as Messiah’s special emissary to the nations, was correct in stating halachah should be constructed to allow closer social interaction and intermingling while still maintaining identity distinctions between the two groups?
Answering the ancient questions, if such a thing is possible, would also help answer our modern questions.
But while Paul was convinced within himself as to the intentions of God toward the nations in relationship with both God and Israel, others in the Way may not have been convinced. Zetterholm’s view of the Paul – James conflict is an educated opinion. At the level of the Christian sitting in a pew on Sunday morning, we all want to believe that the apostles were in complete unity with one another and that early “Christianity” presented a complete and undifferentiated whole within itself, only opposing the other Judaisms and pagan idol worship.
But what if Paul, Peter, James, and the rest were human after all? What if they disagreed, especially on such an emotionally hot-button topic as Gentiles within Judaism?
If all that is true, it means we can look to the New Testament to help us understand what the problems are that we’re experiencing today, but no final solutions may be coming our way this side of the Messiah.
But as my quotes of Zetterholm and Schorsch at the very beginning of this missive testify, there is something about being in community that transcends all of the petty bickering. As a Gentile, I’m envious (I guiltily confess this) of Jews in a minyan, the reciting of the morning prayers, the special connectedness of synagogue life. Maybe it’s because I never quite feel integrated in the church. Maybe, like my first quotes above attest, I am one of those Gentiles who sees holiness in Jewish community, since that’s where we come from and I believe that’s where we’ll be returning to in the Messianic Kingdom.