This may sound like a really stupid question (Are there still Jews and Greeks in Christ?), but I cannot tell you how many people over the years have cited to me one particular text from the only surviving correspondence of the first century Pharisee, Saul Paul. This text relates to the believers in Galatia, who thought that, since they now followed the Jewish Christ, it stood to reason that they should not simply be a part of the Jewish coalition (sojourners with Israel), but they should also adopt all the ancestral customs of the Jews (This is what was meant to convert to Judaism back then). It is to them, in this nuanced and commonly misunderstood letter that the beloved Apostle wrote: “There is neither Jew nor Greek… in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:28)
-Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg
“Are there still Jews and Greeks in Jesus Christ?”
Jewish Studies Blog
I found a link to this article on a closed Facebook page a few days ago and have just gotten around to reading it. It’s short, easily consumable by most folks, and has a very interesting and, to me, relevant perspective.
According to Dr. Lizorkin-Eyzenberg (who I hear of from time to time, but don’t know a lot about), what we think of as converting to another religion, such as Judaism, today, wasn’t how it worked back when the Apostle Paul (Rav Shaul) was actively proclaiming the good news of Rav Yeshua (Jesus Christ) among the Goyim (Gentiles).
Conversions were widely attested in the ancient times. However conversions as they were practiced then, have little in common with conversions as we understand them today. Unlike in ancient times, “religion” today is seen as a category of its own – so someone can be Irish and Jewish, American and Jewish, Russian and Jewish, and so on. Ancient people, however, did not speak of conversion in terms of simply accepting another religion, while staying culturally the same. To them conversion to Judaism meant joining the people of Israel (especially its southern branch, “Judeans”, and hence “Judaism”) and adopting a set of ancestral customs which permeated every area of life. In other words, conversion to Judaism was a ‘package deal’. If one converted, he or she was expected to cut ties with their previous culture in every respect – not just accept a new divinity, but the entire package (God and people).
So in the minds of the Gentile Galatians, to follow the teachings of Rav Yeshua and to worship the God of Israel meant to not only become part if Israel in name, but to totally adopt all of the practices of born-Jews, being observant in every conceivable way. They would stop being citizens of their respective nations, and become Israelites.
This has significant relevance to my previous blog post, The Non-Covenant Relationship with God, and particularly the discussion which (as I write this) is still going on in the comments section beneath. If we non-Jews are not Israel, who are we in terms of our faith and national citizenship, especially to Hashem?
As it turns out, Paul’s letter to the Galatians was intended to correct their mistaken belief that in order to be disciples of Rav Yeshua and devoted servants to the God of Israel, they had to become part of Israel and become Torah observant in exactly the same manner as the Jews.
However, this was only one paradigm of legitimate Gentile dedication to Israel’s God. There was another – I call this the “Naaman” paradigm, to distinguish it from the “Ruth” paradigm.
Notably, he did not say or do as Ruth did. He returned to his country and his own people and continued to worship Israel’s God there. In contrast to Ruth the Moabite, Naaman’s approach was more along the lines of: “Your God will be my God, but my people will still be my people”. Interestingly, in the end he receives from the prophet of God the greatest blessing of all – the blessing of Shalom (2 Kings 5:18-19).
You’re going to have to click the link I provided above to read all of Dr. Lizorkin-Eyzenberg’s article, but he poses the question of whether or not we non-Jewish disciples of Rav Yeshua (and all Christians) are more like Ruth or Naaman. Ruth underwent what we would think of as conversation, not only adopting the ‘religion’ of Judaism, but citizenship in Israel. Remember, in ancient times, one’s religion wasn’t a separate entity from one’s national affiliation or any other aspect of your life.
However, Ruth’s choice wasn’t Naaman’s choice. He acknowledged that only the God of Israel was God, and devoted the rest of his life to honoring Hashem, but he went back to his Land and he did not change his citizenship nor his cultural identity.
From Dr. Lizorkin-Eyzenberg’s point of view, the First Century apostles and elders of the Jerusalem Council saw the Gentile disciples of Rav Yeshua joining their ranks as Naaman, not Ruth. There was never an expectation that they would obliterate their own nationality and cultural affiliation to become Israel, nor that they would take on a Jew’s obligation of Torah. That’s the whole point of the Jerusalem letter.
…so the apostles decided not to lay upon them any further burden. It seems from Acts 15:21, that it was assumed that Gentile believers would be attending synagogues wherever they lived, and hearing Moses read and presumably also hearing what Judaism taught about living a generally righteous life. In practical terms, observing these 4 laws would potentially enable Gentile believers to fellowship with Jews without offending them and being ostracized by them.
Acts 16:4-5 tells us that Apostle Saul Paul fully endorsed the decision of the “Jerusalem Council” and proclaimed its message with great joy as he traveled from congregation to congregation. Full Torah observance (proselyte conversion to Judaism) was unnecessary for any Gentile who joined the Jewish coalition by following the Jewish Christ. They too (as the Nations) were now first class-citizens in the Kingdom of God.
Look at that. “…now first class-citizens in the Kingdom of God.” First class, not second class.
What Apostle Saul Paul meant by the phrase “there is neither Jew nor Greek” had to do, not with cessation of difference, but with cessation of discrimination. There is no discrimination with regard to race, culture, rank, or gender, for all are one in the Jewish Christ. Gentiles will no longer be discriminated against in the Kingdom of Israel’s God. They now will play an equally important rule in God’s redemptive plan. Their faith in the Jewish Christ alone qualifies and justifies them (just as it does the Jews) in every way to be first-class citizens in God’s Kingdom, without relinquishing their important identity as the “Nations of the World”.
We don’t need to worry that because our people have no direct covenant relationship with Hashem, we or our nations are illegitimate. We are also important in God’s redemptive plan for the world just as people of our respective nations. Our closeness and “oneness” with Israel is a matter of reconciliation between Israel and the nations, not a fusing of national and covenant identities. As Dr. Lizorkin-Eyzenberg points out in Acts 16:4-5, the Gentile disciples received this news with great joy, not confusion or jealousy. Becoming a disciple of Rav Yeshua, worship of the God of Israel, and citizenship in the Kingdom of Heaven were and are available to everyone, making this branch of Judaism the most inclusive of all without the requirement to convert, adopt Israeli citizenship, and full obligation to the Torah of Moses.
Something has become terribly twisted that today we cannot experience that same joy, but must either declare ourselves as replacing the Jews in God’s promises and love, or claiming the Torah for our very own, complaining and fretting when others disagree with these very non-Biblical viewpoints.
I don’t know what else Dr. Lizorkin-Eyzenberg has written or what he teaches in general, but I have to agree with his conclusion that we Gentiles in Messiah are Naaman, not Ruth.