Saul understood the disciples of Yeshua as a dangerous sect of Judaism that needed to be silenced before it spread any further. In Saul’s day Judaism contained a variety of sectarian movements. The word “sect” translates the Greek word “hairesis.” It is the same word for “choice,” or “opinion.” Over time, as Christianity battled against the deviant hairesis of Gnosticism, the meaning of the word evolved into the new concept of “heresy.” In the days of the apostles, however, the word primarily referred to a faction of thought and practice within a larger group. For example, the book of Acts refers to the “sect of the Sadducees” (Acts 5:17) and the “sect of the Pharisees” (Acts 15:5), which was “the strictest sect of [the Jews’] religion” (Acts 26:5 NASB). It also refers to the disciples of Yeshua as the “sect of the Nazarenes” (Acts 24:5).
The first-century Jewish historian Josephus used the word hairesis to describe “schools of thought” within the Jewish people: Pharisees, Sadducees, Zealots, and Essenes. In Josephus’ writings the word hairesis only means a faction within the broader religion of Judaism. It does not imply heresy.
-D. Thomas Lancaster
from “Damascus Road Encounter,” pp.15-16
Messiah Magazine issue 8, Winter 2015/5775
I find I can’t read Luke’s “Acts of the Apostles” anymore without thinking about the church I used to attend and the reasons I left. The head Pastor during the two years I attended, was working his way through the Book of Acts in his sermon series, preaching on it verse by verse.
During the first year I was at this church, I was studying Lancaster’s Torah Club Volume 6: “Chronicles of the Apostles,” which is a detailed analysis of Acts from a Messianic Jewish point of view (based on the theology and doctrine espoused by First Fruits of Zion). Between Pastor’s weekly sermons and my Torah Club studies, I became very familiar with Acts, perhaps more so than any other single book in the Bible. So now, when I read Acts, I think both of Pastor’s sermons and of Lancaster’s teachings.
FFOZ’s Messiah Magazine is a less “scholarly” publication compared to Messiah Journal and is written, in my opinion, for people with a more traditional Christian mindset who are interested in what I call “Messianic Judaism 101.”
That’s not a bad thing. When encountering Messianic Judaism for the first time, it’s helpful to have an elementary point of entry that speaks to someone not familiar with that perspective. I guess I’ve been studying too long to be challenged by entry-level material.
But I found myself wishing this (Sunday) morning that I could share Lancaster’s article with the folks at the Sunday School class I used to attend. It’s a vain hope. For two years, I tried to make a positive impression on the class regarding Messianic Jewish thought and perspective on the Bible, and while some people found some of what I said compelling, ultimately, for two years, I was spinning my wheels. Paradigms are not easily shifted, and sometimes they are so cemented into place, that it becomes all but impossible (at least for human beings) to shift them perceptibly. Any doctrine outside of what is taught by the local church is considered heresy.
Which brings me to the quote from Lancaster’s article.
We experience now, as did the Jewish people in the days of Saul/Paul, a number of different “sects,” both within Christianity and Judaism. If we take all this within the context of the original meaning of the word “hairesis,” then we can consider the different denominations of Christianity and the different branches of Judaism as different factions, or schools of thought and practice, within their broader respective religions.
But where does that leave modern Messianic Judaism and her (somewhat) parallel sister movement Hebrew Roots? Can we consider them two different “sects,” and valid “schools of thought and practice” within a larger religious context?
I’ve been following a number of different blogs over the past week or so and monitoring a series of “differences of opinion” (to put it mildly in some cases) that would seem to belie that thought.
For instance, on Derek Leman’s Messianic Jewish Musings, there is a lively debate between Messianic Jews (and Gentiles) and an Orthodox Jewish person about the validity of Christianity as a religion, including Messianic Judaism, which this fellow (Hi, Gene) believes to be a subset of Christianity rather than a “school of thought” within Judaism.
Pete Rambo issued a rather provocative challenge on his blog by “offering a $10,000 reward to the person who can prove unequivocally, from Scripture alone, that God changed the Sabbath day from Saturday, the seventh day, to Sunday the first day.” Naturally, a “spirited debate” ensued, although there only seems to be one person attempting to “collect the reward.”
And then, on Peter Vest’s blog, he proposes the interesting idea that the later Rabbis of the Talmud rejected what Peter believes was the “One Law” teachings of the Second Temple era Rabbis. There’s no particular argument going on in the comments section of that blog (yet), but it nevertheless presents another variant opinion on what the Bible teaches us about Jewish and Gentile interactions in the first-century Jewish “stream of thought” of “the Way.”
I must say that adherents to these various “sects,” in these blog discussions, can express quite a bit of “passion” in defending their particular opinions, but sometimes it (seemingly) goes beyond that.
I haven’t watched the YouTube video yet (and I probably never will), but according to Peter on his blog, a couple of gentlemen in some sort of One Law radio talk show outright said that Peter was a “liar” relative to his statements about Judaism and the validity of the Oral Torah.
Now I can’t state strongly enough that I haven’t watched the video and so I don’t directly know what was or wasn’t said. I do know that it’s not unheard of to misinterpret someone’s opinion of you, especially if that opinion is at all critical. I don’t know what the people Peter mentions said or didn’t say, so what I’m writing here isn’t a matter of taking sides or calling anyone out.
However, if we, for the moment, accept Peter’s allegations at face value, then we have encountered a problem. All of us in our various “sects” of Christianity, Judaism, or whatever, actually have the same core goal: drawing nearer to God. However, each of us within our own specific “streams of thought” imagine the details of just how to accomplish that task rather differently. And yet, in spite of the fact that we know there have been multiple differing “streams of thought and practice” about the Bible and God for well over two-thousand years, significantly predating the existence of anything called “Christianity,” we still insist that whatever religious stream in which we find ourselves is the only one with “the truth.”
Everyone else is wrong and we have a duty and obligation to go online and, by golly, prove it.
It is one thing to disagree with someone else, to believe their particular interpretation of the Bible is in error, that the person is (Heaven forbid) wrong, mislead, or even deluded. It’s another thing entirely to believe another person’s difference of opinion indicates that the individual is a willful liar. I hope that’s not what’s going on here, because it would be a sad commentary on two people who are professed disciples of Yeshua (Jesus), but as I said, I don’t really know.
And that brings us back to Lancaster’s article and “Saul, the Heresy Hunter” (I say that somewhat tongue-in-cheek).
Christian teaching emphasizes the story of the conversion of Saul the Jew, a persecutor of the early church, into Paul the Christian, as a pattern for Jewish believers to follow. Just as Saul renounced Judaism and even changed his name to Paul, so too, Jewish believers should renounce their old allegiances and embrace their new identity in Christ. A careful reading of the story of Saul’s Damascus road encounter, however, does not indicate a conversion from Judaism to Christianity, nor does it indicate a change in name from Saul to Paul.
You’ll have to read Lancaster’s full article (only four pages long) to see how he defends his opinion (successfully from my point of view), but it indicates a couple of things. First, that Saul was wrong about his persecution of the Jewish members of “the Way,” and that he was rather dramatically forced to face his mistakes by an encounter with the Master of that movement, Yeshua (Jesus) of Nazareth. Second, we discover that (in my opinion and Lancaster’s) Christian interpretive tradition is wrong about what happened to Saul, what sort of “conversion” he underwent, and why he had two names.
Saul did undergo a radical transformation of the heart, soul, and mind. One might say that he experienced a spiritual conversion — something the Master called being “born again.” His life would never be the same. Compared with the “surpassing value of knowing Messiah Yeshua,” Saul counted all his prestigious heritage and achievements in Judaism as mere rubbish (Philippians 3:8 NASB). Yet that change in priority did not indicate a change in religious affiliation. Saul encountered the Messiah on the way to Damascus, but he did not abandon his Jewish identity or his loyalty to the Torah, the Jewish people, or Jewish practice.
If I said something like that in at least some churches, I would likely encounter strong and passionate counter arguments that anything “Jewish” did not survive in Paul after his Acts 9 encounter with Jesus. Nevertheless, that’s how I (and Lancaster, and many others) read the life of Paul in the Apostolic Scriptures.
So as we’ve seen, there have been multiple sects of Judaism that predated the earthly ministry of Jesus by quite a bit, and there have been multiple sects of Christianity from pretty much the point when the term was first used.
What do we do about that, especially in the volatile environment of the religious blogosphere?
View people you are likely to quarrel with as your partners in personal growth. They are likely to make you more aware of your vulnerabilities, limitations, and mistakes. Don’t let this get you down. Rather, let it serve as your coach. You now have more awareness of what you need to strengthen, fix, and keep on developing.
(from Rabbi Zelig Pliskin’s book: Harmony with Others, p.36, http://www.artscroll.com)
-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
from Daily Lift #236: “My Partner in Personal Growth”
If you’re religious in any sense of the word (I know that some Christians say their faith is a “relationship, not a religion” but go with me on this one) then other people are going to disagree with you. Get used to it. If you are going to discuss your religious beliefs on a blog and allow others to comment on your blog, people will comment and some will disagree with you. Others will write their own blog posts disagreeing with you, sometimes in the most caustic and “unChristian” like manner.
If we are to believe what Rabbi Pliskin says, all of our opponents are our partners in personal growth. Without them, we might never discover weaknesses, vulnerabilities, and limitations in our own character as well as our knowledge. They force us to constantly stretch ourselves so that we will be more aware of our strengths and deficits tomorrow than we are today. As one motivational statement I’ve seen at my gym says, “If it doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t change you.”
Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.
–James 1:2-4 (NASB)
It seems that Rav Shaul (otherwise known as Paul the Apostle) and Rabbi Pliskin agree on something.