Paul’s “Jewish Assemblies” rather than “Paul’s Gentile Churches”? “Paul’s Jewish non-Jews” instead of “Paul’s Christian Gentiles?”? Paul bringing Non-Jews into “Judaism” rather than into “Christianity”? Am I really going to argue that these are more accurate labels for discussing the non-Jews who Paul brought to faith in Jesus Christ and the gatherings of them with Jews sharing that conviction, as well as the communal ways of life into which Paul sought to enculturate them? “Yes” — and “No.”
–Dr. Mark D. Nanos
‘Paul’s Non-Jews Do Not Become “Jews,” But Do They Become “Jewish”?: Reading Romans 2:25-29 Within Judaism, Alongside Josephus,’ p.1
forthcoming in The Journal of the Jesus Movement in its Jewish Setting (2014)
and presented as a paper at the SBL Annual Meeting in 2013, Baltimore, MD.
Since this cites a portion of Romans 2, it would be prudent to review that part of scripture before proceeding:
For indeed circumcision is of value if you practice the Law; but if you are a transgressor of the Law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision. So if the uncircumcised man keeps the requirements of the Law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? And he who is physically uncircumcised, if he keeps the Law, will he not judge you who though having the letter of the Law and circumcision are a transgressor of the Law? For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh. But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God.
–Romans 2:25-29 (NASB)
How did the Apostle Paul see the distinction between Jesus-believing Jews and Gentiles in Jewish worship and community space? I’ve written on this topic numerous times, often utilizing the research and publications of both Mark Nanos and Magnus Zetterholm in such “meditations” as Nanos, Paul, and the Consequences of Jewish Identity in Messiah, Nanos, Ancient Antioch, and the Problem with Peter, and Zetterholm, Nanos, Ancient Antioch, and Some Implications. In this more recent paper by Nanos, one that should be published later this year, we see an interesting development in how Nanos presents Paul relative to Romans. Did Paul see the non-Jewish disciples of the Jewish Messiah as practicing Judaism or behaving “jewishly” without converting to Judaism or taking on identical obligations and roles with the Jews?
Being identified as a Jew and behaving like a Jew are readily recognized to represent two related yet not identical matters (p.2).
This behavior can be referred to by the adverb “jewishly,” and as the expression “jewishness.” In colloquial terms, one who practices a Jewish way of life according to the ancestral customs of the Jews, which is also referred to as practicing “Judaism”… (p.3).
Nanos distinguishes between being born ethnically Jewish and (as a male) being circumcised on the eighth day and acting “jewishly” (the lower-case “j” is used deliberately by Nanos), as having significant overlap, but not precisely being same. Even a Jewish person born of two Jewish parents and circumcised may choose not to observe any of the mitzvot and nevertheless will be considered Jewish, albeit apostate.
A Gentile who chooses to observe some or even all of the Jewish behaviors associated with the mitzvot can be said to be acting “jewishly” or practicing “Judaism,” but that does not mean the person is actually considered Jewish.
But where is the dividing line? How far could a Gentile Jesus-believer go in Paul’s time, and how far can a Gentile Jesus-believer go in our time in “acting Jewishly” without actually being Jewish? Can we use Paul to establish any rules or guidelines for Gentile Christians today who are attracted to Jewish practices or learning and yet do not desire to convert to Judaism because of their Christian faith?
Because ethnic identity (Jew/s) and ethnic thinking and behavior (Jewish / jewishly / jewishness / Judaism) are clearly related, but not synonymous, interchangeable terms, an interesting phenomenon arises when seeking to describe groups as Jewish. Although “Jewish” can be and is most often used to refer to Jews specifically, and thus gatherings of Jews: they are Jewish, the Jewish people, a Jewish service, and so on, as we will see, “Jewish” can also refer to groups or activities that include non-Jews: that group is Jewish, although it includes non-Jews who appear to think and behave like Jews (p. 6).
Nanos could easily be describing almost any synagogue I’ve ever been in. I’m a Christian married to a Jew. It’s very common to find a mixed Jewish/Gentile group in our local Reform/Conservative synagogue and of course at the Chabad, a number of intermarried couples attend, and yet both venues are undeniably Jewish. The same may be said for some Messianic Jewish synagogues that have at least a core population and leadership of Jews but that also houses a large number of Gentiles who are involved in Jewish practices, such as listening to the Torah readings, davening from a siddur, praying in Hebrew, and so forth.
In all of the contexts listed in the above paragraph, the participating Gentiles can be considered as acting “jewishly” within a Jewish community while remaining fully Gentile. But as I said before, how far can we take the concept of “Gentile jewishness” and consider it a valid method of “practicing Judaism?”
Almost two years ago, I stopped searching for an identity and declared myself a Gentile who studies Messianic Judaism. While my practice isn’t all too “Jewish” (or “jewish”), my thought processes, study materials, and some of my study methods borrow heavily from traditional Judaism.
Of course, I can be a Gentile studying Judaism in the same sense as a 21st century American studying 16th century Greek cuisine. I don’t have to be the thing that I’m studying. Learning the typical dishes of Greece of the 1700s doesn’t require that I be Greek.
But it’s a little different in the world of religion and religious lifestyle. I could study Torah as an abstract collection of knowledge the way some people study the Bible as literature or as history, but the Bible is unique and the Torah is designed to change lives. To be a Gentile student of Messianic Judaism involves not only specific study methods and materials but the required context in which to live it all out.
To continue from Nanos:
What if a group mostly made up of non-Jews with some Jews in leadership behaves jewishly? What if it is made up exclusively of non-Jews yet founded or advised by Jews? What if it consists of only non-Jews and functions independent of any Jews and yet bases its thinking and behavior on Jewish Scriptures, traditions and ways of life? (pp. 6-7)
As I read these passages from the Nanos paper, I can’t help but see a progression from Messianic Judaism (MJ) into Hebrew Roots (HR). The closer the Gentile is to the MJ side of the scale, in a mixed group of Jews and Gentiles to a group of Gentiles with a core leadership of Jews or even arguably, a group of only Gentiles that is advised and guided by Jewish mentors, that group is or could be considered “Jewish” or at least perceived correctly as acting “jewishly”.
However, once to you approach the opposite side of the scale, which would be defined by a group made up exclusively of Gentiles with only Gentiles in leadership, even if they are using Jewish educational materials and religious artifacts (siddurs, kippahs, Tallits, the Chumash, and so on), that group may still appear to be acting “jewishly,” but they are not a Jewish group. They can study Judaism, but they aren’t a Judaism, thus a group made up exclusively of Gentiles with no ties to Jewish oversight cannot, in this paradigm, call itself “Messianic Judaism” and is better defined as “Hebrew Roots” or by some other label.
This directly reflects back to the communities Paul established or in which he was involved such as the “synagogue of the Way” in Syrian Antioch (see Zetterholm’s The Formation of Christianity in Antioch as well as Nanos’ The Mystery of Romans).
The level of “jewishness” practiced by Gentile disciples of the Master may have been in direct proportion to the involvement and influence of Jesus-believing Jews operating in the same religious and social community. The less influence exerted by Jewish mentors on the Gentiles, the less “jewish” were the behaviors and lifestyles of the Gentiles.
We see something of this in Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. Historically, we know that for a time, Jews were banned from Rome. Prior to that event, there were both Gentiles and Jews who co-mingled as disciples of Jesus. Once the Jews were banned and (presumably) Rome was without a Jewish population, the Gentiles became solely in charge of their own social and religious dynamic, including how “jewishly” they chose to behave. When the Jews were allowed to return and attempted to resume their prior relationship with the Gentiles in Messiah, they discovered the Gentiles were riding on their “high horses,” so to speak, pushing back against Jewish synagogue authority and even criticizing the Jews for lack of strict adherence to Jewish Torah practice.
The chapter (Romans 2) within which this text appears begins with a challenge to anyone judging others, based on the argument that the very act of knowing there is a standard to which the other is held logically involves knowing that one has also failed to achieve it. Realizing that God is the judge who is fully aware of both one’s own intentions and actions as well as that of one’s neighbors, the message Paul drives home is to focus on one’s own responsibilities to do what is required of one, to judge oneself and leave the judging of others to the Judge… (p.19)
And again, Nanos states:
Paul’s argument is constructed to encourage non-Jews to avoid making the same mistake they are quick to recognize in this diatribal caricature. Paul calls them to concentrate on being faithful to what they are responsible to do in service instead of judgment toward the other, including the one who may be judging them… (p. 31)
Nanos is specifically referencing Romans 2:25-29 which I quoted at the top of this blog post, and is saying that those Gentiles who were choosing to judge their Jewish counterparts for any errors or lapses in Torah observance would be better advised to pay attention to their own responsibilities and let the Righteous Judge of Israel judge Israel.
Which, given the current conversation, begs the question of what behaviors of theirs should the Gentiles in Rome have been attending to? Put another way, should the Roman Gentile disciples have been paying attention to the proper execution of their “jewish” behaviors? What does it mean to “concentrate on being faithful to what they are responsible to do?”
Paul argued that these uncircumcised non-Jews were full and equal members of the family of God alongside of the Jewish members, indeed, equally children of Abraham and co-heirs of the promises made to him and his seed, not simply welcome guests (p. 7).
That sounds good but it doesn’t complete the picture.
In the next argument, vv. 12-16, Paul makes it plain that God judges according to the faithful behavior, which is not expected to represent precisely the same standards for Jews and non-Jews; indeed, each is held to the standard of what they know to be proper behavior (p. 19). (emph. mine)
Several chapters in Romans seem to toggle back and forth between the responsibilities of Jews and Gentiles relative to God and the potential for hypocrisy among the Jews who claim the advantages of being Jewish but who, while teaching the Gentiles what is proper for God (for Gentiles), fail themselves to perform what is proper before God (for Jews). It should have been fairly clear to the Jewish people involved what their roles and responsibilities were, but were the Gentiles just supposed to “wing it,” hoping to know what is right and wrong?
We know that Paul had certain expectations of the Gentiles. Although he opposed Gentiles in Christ from undergoing the proselyte rite, he also discouraged them from continuing any idolatrous practices (Rom 3:29–4:25; 6; 1 Cor 7:17-22; Gal 4:8-10; 1 Thess 1:9-10).
Of the Gentiles taught by Paul, Nanos says:
Paul was exhorting non-Jews turning to God in Christ to seek to discover within themselves the noble values of jewishness, what being a Jew ideally signifies. They should learn to internalize jewishness as the highest value for themselves, albeit remaining non-Jews… (p. 32). (emph. mine)
But here’s a strong caveat:
His letters consist precisely of instruction in the Jewish way of life for non-Jews who turn to Israel’s God as the One God of all the nations; he enculturates them into God’s Guidance (Torah) without bringing them under Torah technically, since they do not become Jews/Israel. They are non-Jews who are learning, by way of Paul’s instructions, to practice Judaism! (p. 33) (emph. mine)
I can see where you might think all this is as clear as mud.
How can Gentiles learn to draw their values from Judaism and even practice Judaism to the degree that outside observers would say the Gentiles are acting “jewishly” and yet still operate under an overlapping but distinct set of standards from the Jews, not be considered under the Torah, and not be considered either Jews or Israel?
From the Didache (6:2), it is said:
For, on the one hand, if you are able to bear
the whole yoke of the Lord, you will be perfect;
but if, on the other hand, you are not able,
that which you are able, do this.
quoted from The Didache: Text, Translation, Analysis, and Commentary, pg 19
by Aaron Milavec
The Didache is considered a set of formalized instructions for Gentile initiates who were seeking to become disciples of Jesus. The document is traced to the second century C.E. and probably represents an earlier form of oral instructions and traditions, possibly originating with the Apostles or their immediate disciples. These standards would have been the basis Jewish mentors used to train the Gentile initiates in preparing them to become baptized and enter into their role as disciples.
From here we see that it is likely the Gentiles were encouraged to bear “the whole yoke of the Lord” Torah, in order to be “perfect,” but if they were not able, it was allowable that they should perform whatever was within their capacity. Again, please keep in mind, that a Gentile acting “jewishly” was both voluntary and was designed to occur within a Jewish communal context.
Given space limitations and the patience of those of you reading this, I’m going to stop here and pick it up in a subsequent blog post. There’s still much to explore about a Gentile acting “jewishly” in ancient times and what happens when he or she is outside a Jewish space. Also, what are the implications for those of us today who are Gentiles who study Messianic Judaism, both inside a Jewish context and outside?
Addendum: I’ve published the second part of this two-part series including a correction to some mistakes I’ve made in part one. I want to thank Dr. Mark Nanos for bringing what I’ve misunderstood about his paper to my attention and allowing me the opportunity to fix my mistakes.