Tag Archives: Antioch

Zetterholm, Nanos, Ancient Antioch, and Some Implications

…and the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch.

Acts 11:26 (NASB)

I mentioned in my previous blog post, Zetterholm, Ancient Antioch, and “Honey, I Want a Divorce”, that I wanted to discuss the implications of the final chapter in Magnus Zetterholm’s book The Formation of Christianity in Antioch on a number of different religious communities.

Obviously, there are implications for the modern Church, but also I see how ancient and modern Judaism is significantly impacted, as are the Messianic Jewish and Hebrew Roots movements. I’ll take each one in turn.


Based on what Zetterholm concluded regarding the forced separation of Gentiles and Jews in the Jesus-believing communities which resulted in Gentiles forming their (our) own brand new religion called “Christianity,” we can see that we weren’t kicked out of Jesus-believing Judaism. We rebelled like a petulant teenager and walked out the door. Certainly if Saint Ignatius of Antioch can make a statement such as, “[i]t is monstrous to talk of Jesus Christ and to practise Judaism” (Magn. 10:3 quoted by Zetterholm on pg 203), we aren’t talking about a “no-fault divorce.” The “Church Fathers” went out of their way to “demonize” Judaism and separate any “valid” worship of Jesus Christ from anything related at all to the Jews.

We noted above that Ignatius in Phld. 6:2 connected Judaism with the activities of “the prince of this world,” and that he in Magn. 8:1 probably used popular prejudice against the Jews in describing Judaism as being based on myths and fables.

It is well known that, in the decades after the death of Ignatius, Christian literature abounds in developing anti-Semitic themes.

-Zetterholm, pg 210

It is likely, as Schoedel states, that the identification of Christ as the word from silence refers to the supposed inability of the Jews to understand their own religious tradition: the appearance of Christ from silence brings the divine hidden purpose to light. The radical “Christianization” of the prophets is one indication of how profound this inability is, and how extensive the hostility is between Judaism and Christianity.

-ibid, pg 220

I know I’ve quoted these passages from Zetterholm’s book previously, but they’re important for context. As the history of the Church attests, these attitudes weren’t isolated to the first few centuries of the Common Era, they’ve echoed down the corridors of time from Ignatius of Antioch to the modern Christian Church with predictable results on Jews and Judaism. True, we no longer torture Jewish people in order to force them to convert or exile them from our nations, but we aren’t always “safe,” either.

Sarah (not her real name) is a young Jewish woman, an academic, raised in Orthodox Jewish life, who came to believe in Yeshua in a remarkable manner some years ago. Having been greatly sheltered in her upbringing, and knowing nothing about either Protestants or Messianic Jews, she wanted to serve Yeshua in an academic setting. She therefore joined the Dominicans, a teaching order of the Roman Catholic Church. She reasoned that they would allow her to teach freely in her field. In this she was right: as an excellent teacher, she was allowed to freely teach. She also assumed, on the basis of her limited knowledge of the early Yeshua movement, that she would be allowed to live as a Jew while she served Yeshua amongst the Dominicans. In this, she was wrong. Her superiors were at first amused at her adherence to Jewish life, then annoyed, and then intolerant. She was thrown out for her unacceptable adherence to Jewish life. This is a true story, and really, nothing new. It should not have surprised Sarah, but it did. And it shouldn’t surprise the rest of us either.

-Rabbi Dr. Stuart Dauerrman
“Signals: The Interfaithfulness Newsletter”
from May 12, 2014

St. dominic
Saint Dominic

I know Evangelicals are going to point out that Dominicans (Roman Catholics) were responsible for rejecting Sarah’s Jewish observance, but imagine how a Jewish believer would be received in a Protestant church if she were to continue significant Jewish observance such as kashut and Shabbat.

You might not think it would be an issue, but consider. Should “Sarah” show up at your church for a communal meal, how would you feel if she passed up the ham and took a salad instead? What if she kept an even more strict form of kosher and wouldn’t eat unless the meal had been prepared in a kosher kitchen (which church kitchens and Christian homes would not possess)? How would you feel if “Sarah” visited your home for a Bible study on Friday afternoon but after sunset, chose to walk back to her home and even refused a ride from you because it was Shabbat? You might be amused for a while but I suspect, like the Dominicans in the tale above, amusement would give way to annoyance and finally, intolerance. We haven’t come so far from the writings and attributes of Ignatius after all.

The Church has much to repent of.

Note: For those who feel I’m being overly hard on the Christian Church, especially the modern community of Christ, please continue to read. I’ll address this matter further at the end of today’s blog post.


It is likely, as Schoedel states, that the identification of Christ as the word from silence refers to the supposed inability of the Jews to understand their own religious tradition: the appearance of Christ from silence brings the divine hidden purpose to light. The radical “Christianization” of the prophets is one indication of how profound this inability is, and how extensive the hostility is between Judaism and Christianity.

-Zetterholm, pg 220

Dovetailing on my previous statement, the modern Church still gives religious and even secular Jews reason to question their (our) motivation for any form of approach to them. My experience tells me that most often, Jews are politely cautious when a Christian enters Jewish religious or social space or conversely, invites them into our space. We speak of “interfaith relationships” or “interfaith events” but there really is no such thing as a “Judeo-Christian” shared experience. The minute those two concepts entered the world, they existed in opposition to one another.

Why should Jews trust Christians? Why shouldn’t organizations such as Jews for Judaism believe there is a (perceived) threat represented by the Christian Church, including organizations like Jews for Jesus?  I’m not saying Jews for Jesus is a bad organization and that the Church is necessarily an active threat against Jewish faith and practice, but the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. If you want to know how the Church is going to act toward Jews in the future, look at Church history.

I’m saying that Jewish people have a reason to be dubious about Christianity and that all began nearly two-thousand years ago. Sadly, Jews and Christians really do have a shared history but it’s not a positive one.

The Church has much to repent of.

Note: This doesn’t mean that Judaism in all its expressions is perfect or hasn’t made it’s mistakes, but rarely is Judaism in a position as an extreme minority in our world to “throw its weight around,” so to speak. Through the vast majority of the history of the Jewish people, they’ve been much too busy just trying to survive.

Hebrew Roots

This is an “umbrella category” designed to cover just about any Gentile Christian organization, small group, or fellowship that specifically identifies itself as seeking the “Hebrew roots” of the Christian faith and who adopt an altered theology, doctrine, and practice based on some sort of “Hebraic” perspective on the Bible.

It’s probably unfair of me to treat Hebrew Roots as a single entity given what I’ve just said, since it is comprised of so many divergent groups and attitudes, but then, that’s pretty much true of Christianity and Judaism as well.

Praying with tefillinOne of the (more or less) commonalities within Hebrew Roots is the belief that Hebrew/Jewish practices are also incumbent upon any Gentile who is a believer in Jesus. This usually includes some sort of practice based on modern synagogue worship including praying with a siddur, donning of a tallit gadol (for men, usually), wearing a kippah (again, usually for men), and other acts that superficially create the impression that these Hebrew Roots practitioners may be Jewish.

We saw in Zetterholm’s book that Gentiles participating in the ancient Jewish synagogue of “the Way,” were sometimes mistaken as Jews due to their association with Jews and likely many of their practices and lifestyle behaviors, so it’s possible to extrapolate that situation into modern Hebrew Roots. But there’s a problem. In ancient times, Gentiles adopted some Jewish practices and behaviors because they were operating within a Jewish religious and social context and were being mentored by Jewish teachers and synagogue leaders. Hebrew Roots operates in total separation from Jewish community and often is denigrating of much of Rabbinic Judaism.

Hebrew Roots tends to believe they practice a form of “Biblical Judaism” as opposed to “Rabbinic Judaism,” and as a result, they reject many of the practices and conceptualizations that are associated with modern or historic Judaism. In this, they somewhat mirror the original Church Fathers who separated their own practice from Jewish authority and community, creating a self-sustaining entity that by necessity, operated in opposition to the normative Judaisms of its day.

Like many Evangelicals, many Hebrew Roots groups have sort of “love/hate” relationship with modern Judaism, mainly because of Rabbinic Judaism’s insistence that they have the right to make internally binding rulings and the ability to govern their own communities.

Note: Hebrew Roots has a lot of different expressions, some of which are truly serving God, helping others, and teaching the good news of Messiah. I worshipped with one such group for many years and my companions were Godly and humble people. But Hebrew Roots is kind of like the “wild west,” where anything can happen and where anyone with a kippah and a theological ax to grind can dub themselves a “Messianic Rabbi” and draw a following. Be cautious.

Messianic Judaism

Like the other groups I’ve discussed above, there is no single, monolithic organization called “Messianic Judaism”. All Messianic Jewish groups have certain things in common, but the details of their theology, doctrine, and practice are variable.

One thing all Messianic Jewish groups (at least in the U.S.) have in common is the majority of their members are not Jewish. The ancient Antiochian Synagogue of the Way, while “owned and operated” by a Jewish leadership and Jewish teachers, was also inclusive of Gentiles, though there’s no way to determine the ratio of Jews to Gentiles in their midst.

Messianic Judaism, for this reason, faces some or even most of the same challenges as did the apostle Paul’s mixed Jewish/Gentile Jesus-believing communities, principally the issue of integration. As my previous blog posts on Antioch, Zetterholm, and Nanos attest, the issue of integration was of paramount importance and at the same time, hotly contested (see Galatians 2 for example).

That the Gentile Jesus-believers were included in the New Covenant blessings and part of the soteriological system of Judaism was not in question, especially to Paul, but the nature of their role and participation in a Jewish community and religious stream was still problematic. The Acts 15 ruling aside, we don’t really know how day-to-day life in the Messianic synagogue among Jewish and Gentile co-participants was negotiated.

That’s a question Messianic Judaism is trying to answer today as well.

We see from Zetterholm that, given the right social and political pressures, this could all blow up in their (our) faces (again). It’s one of the arguments in support of a concept Rabbi Mark Kinzer introduced called Bilateral Ecclesiology. Zetterholm seems to believe that James the Just, the brother of Messiah and leader of the Council of Apostles and Elders in Jerusalem supported an ancient version of Bilateral Ecclesiology, the establishment and maintenance of separate communities of Jews and Gentiles in Messiah.

Ironically, that’s exactly what happened historically, but with disastrous results.

judeo-christianBut that’s unfair and untrue. That’s not exactly what happened. Kinzer’s Bilateral Ecclesiology (and presumably James’) assumes that the separate Jewish and Gentile communities exist in a complementary fashion, sharing a common theology and doctrine (but not identical practice), maintaining a cordial but distant relationship with one another, while supporting the right of each group to maintain their own identity within an exclusive space. History has shown that the relationship between ancient Christianity and Messianic Judaism was anything but complementary and cordial, although distance was created, maintained, and expanded, usually due to animosity.

We noted above that Ignatius in Phld. 6:2 connected Judaism with the activities of “the prince of this world,” and that he in Magn. 8:1 probably used popular prejudice against the Jews in describing Judaism as being based on myths and fables.

It is well known that, in the decades after the death of Ignatius, Christian literature abounds in developing anti-Semitic themes.

-Zetterholm, pg 210

Zetterholm believes Paul opposed James’ view on separate Jewish and Gentile space in Messiah and that he believed in a shared community of Jewish and Gentile Jesus-believers. That said, shared space and social community doesn’t equal shared identity, role, and responsibility and that’s the rub. Did Paul have a clear vision of exactly how Jews and Gentiles were to exist in community with each other in all the details?

The Didache might be one possible answer to that question since one suggested origin for this teaching is with the apostles or those close to the apostles. The Didache may have started out as an oral teaching that accompanied the spread of the “Jerusalem letter” (Acts 15) among the diaspora Gentiles in community with Jesus-believing Jews.

Note: As I’ve mentioned above, Messianic Judaism includes a variety of different approaches to how a Jew may be a disciple of the Jewish Messiah and continue to be an observant Jew. In the days of Peter and Paul, this was a given. No one wondered how this was possible, it was simply understood. The problem was how to integrate Gentiles. That’s the problem today as well, and responses run the gamut from Jews-only Messianic groups to full social inclusion of Jews and Gentiles in the synagogue. I think of Messianic Judaism as a work in progress. Also, keep in mind that many Hebrew Roots groups call themselves “Messianic Judaism,” however once in, the distinction is obvious.


So here we are. The Church, if possessing any belief that it somehow has replaced the Jewish people and national Israel in the covenant promises, continues to have much to answer (to God) for. The Church has much to answer for if it continues to oppose Jews who have faith in Messiah and continue to observe the mitzvot of the Torah of Moses. Thankfully, an increasing number of churches are accepting Jesus-believing Jews who are Torah observant Jews, but we have a long way to go.

Hebrew Roots, while a noble effort to attempt to recapture what Jesus-believing Gentiles lost with the ascension of Gentile Christianity and the (ultimate) collapse of Jewish Jesus-faith, often chooses to throw the baby out with the bath water, so to speak. In trying to recapture and apprehend ancient Hebraic practices and implement them in the modern era, they many times utilize modern Rabbinic worship practices while rejecting historic and modern Rabbinic Jewish rulings and even fail to acknowledge the Jewish community’s right to self-govern and self-define. Gentile Christians seeking the Hebrew Roots of the faith might find a better model in those who have become known as Messianic Gentiles, but there are still many challenges involved when traveling that path, as I can personally attest.

Messianic Judaism continues to struggle forward toward not only its own identity, but the identity of the Gentiles in its midst and as the Apostolic record and Zetterholm’s research indicates, Messianic Judaism is characterized, in part, by the communal inclusion of the Gentiles. Perhaps they would have eventually developed a “bilateralness” in relationship with each other, but that doesn’t seem to have been what Paul was trying to create.

I offer no solutions to any of this, but if you think you have any, I invite you to comment. We may never know what would have happened if Paul’s vision of the mixed Jewish/Gentile ekklesia had been realized, but given our current situation, we’re obligated to take the next step forward, whatever that might be.

Notes on the Church

ChurchI know I’ve laid the lion share of the responsibility for the Jewish/Gentile split within the body of Jesus-believers at the feet of the then new religion called “Christianity.” Further, I continue to assign responsibility to the modern Church for its long history of abuses against Jewish people and Judaism. Am I being unfair? I suppose you could say so.

And yet, next Sunday at the church I attend, the Bible class being held after services will be teaching on Acts 21:15-26 and the class study notes pay special attention to the following verse:

You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed, and they are all zealous for the Law… (emph. mine)

Acts 21:20 (NASB)

To me, this speaks of the thousands of Jesus-believing Jews in Jerusalem who all gave glory to God and were zealous for the Torah of Moses. But my teacher quotes John MacArthur in saying:

“Nowhere in the New Testament are the Jewish believers condemned for observing them (the so-called “ceremonial” aspects of the law). Paul nowhere taught Jewish Christians to abandon their Jewish heritage. God Himself was tolerant during this period of transition, knowing how difficult it was for them to break with their past.”

It never occurs to MacArthur, or to any of the Evangelical church Pastors or their lay staff, or to the congregations of all those churches, that the reason they don’t see God being critical of Jewish Jesus-believers performing the Torah mitzvot wasn’t “tolerance.” It was because God expected Jewish Torah observance as a matter of covenant obedience. It wasn’t an aberration or some quaint set of customs that Jewish people had a tough time letting go of, it was their very lifeblood, the linkage between God and the Jewish people, more so than ever with the realization that the Messiah was the inauguration of the living fulfillment of all of God’s promises to Israel.

Even in the most Israel-friendly, Jewish people loving churches, this attitude still remains, in spite of a great deal of scholarly evidence to the contrary. This is what the Church yet has to repent of and so far, they don’t even see the problem.

More’s the pity.

If “Sarah” were to show up in my Bible class next Sunday and give her interpretation of Acts 21:20, how would she be received? I don’t know how far to push in class over the troubling interpretation of this single bit of scripture (and it’s wider implications), but how can I remain silent in the face of everything I’ve just written?

Addendum: And then there are rather disturbing current trends in Christianity, such as the one presented at the Rosh Pina Project about who is expected to speak at Bristol Baptist College.

Zetterholm, Ancient Antioch, and “Honey, I Want a Divorce”

This chapter will present a suggestion as to how the theologically motivated social division between Jesus-believing Jews and Jesus-believing Gentiles, combined with socio-political circumstances, brought about a separation between the communities. It will be argued that this process, which eventually resulted in the emanation of a new religion, was the result of a conscious strategy that can be compared to other expressions of collective action, such as tax rebellions, political uprisings, revolutions or, in short, social movements.

-Magnus Zetterholm
Chapter 5: “Politics and Persecution,” pg 178
The Formation of Christianity in Antioch: A Social-Scientific Approach to the Separation between Judaism and Christianity

This is the fourth but not quite the last installment in my investigation (see my ending comment below) of the schism between (Messianic) Judaism and Gentile Christianity based on the “Antioch Incident” (Galatians 2:11-21) and the general development of the “Synagogue of the Way,” which was characterized by a mixed Jewish/Gentile population of equal co-participants, in mid-first century CE Syrian Antioch.

See my three prior blog posts, Zetterholm, Ancient Antioch and Today’s Messianic Judaism, Zetterholm, Ancient Antioch, and the Problem of the Gentiles, and Nanos, Ancient Antioch, and the Problem with Peter for details.

The title of my (almost) final missive in this series seems whimsical and on one level, that’s intentional, but it also reflects the intensity of the relationship between Jewish and Gentile Jesus-believers in the Antiochian synagogue, both in intimate fidelity and in the excruciating agony of separation. Anyone who has experienced a “difficult” divorce or who has seen another couple go through one realizes that as much as the couple loved each other in the beginning, that is the same level of anger and even hate they experience at the end of their marriage.

But why the “divorce?”

Evangelical Christianity (and most likely all forms of the Christian faith) assume that Christianity naturally, intentionally evolved from (Messianic) Judaism. Popular Evangelical Preachers such as John MacArthur believe that Judaism as a religious practice was intended by God to be temporary and to be replaced by the Christian Church. Any indication that Paul or the other Jewish apostles and disciples continued in any of the Jewish practices is considered to represent a “transitional period,” where the last generation of Jewish Jesus-believers in Judaism gave way to the following generation of Jewish and Gentile Christians, all liberated from “the Law” and basking in the free gift of salvation by the grace of Jesus Christ.

Zetterholm approaches the issue from a completely different direction, one that takes into account socio-political motivations, more like the Boston Tea Party objecting to “taxation without representation” than a Divinely planned shift in theology that “jumps the track” from Judaism to Christianity.

Can we treat the relationship between the early Jesus-believing Jews and Gentiles as a human and social dynamic and conflict and still retain the involvement of God in human history? On the one hand, it seems almost “sacrilegious” to do so. On the other hand, none of the people in the Bible are mere pawns of God used in a game to illustrate grand principles and theologies so much as they are living human beings struggling to understand who they are in relation to each other and God. I think we can afford Paul, Peter, James and everyone else involved in Antioch the dignity of being treated as real people instead of “Bible characters.”

What we are considering is what sort of conflicts would have naturally led to such a Jewish/Gentile split in the Messianic community in Antioch and the other diaspora communities of the Way. One such conflict suggested by Zetterholm (pp 178-9) is legal. While Judaism was considered a legal religion in the Roman empire, did the empire consider Gentile involvement in Judaism, not as proselytes or even God-fearers, but as Gentile co-participants who were required to remain Gentile as a valid association?

Another issue to consider is that, as Judaism became less favorable in the eyes of the Empire and began to encounter persecution, what was the impact of Gentiles being swept along in the anti-Jewish fervor as were the Jews, or conversely, treated differently and maybe more positively than the Jews within the same Jewish space?

The war against Rome ended in catastrophe and with the fall of the temple in 70 CE it was essentially over.

The end of the war had, of course, drastic and immediate political consequences. The most important for the present analysis was the institution of the poll tax fiscus Judaicus, which was founded shortly after the end of the war by Vaspasian.

-Zetterholm, pg 185

Temple TaxIn some ways, this tax very much identified one as a Jew since it was only imposed on Jewish populations. On the other hand, can we say the tax was also imposed on those who were Gentiles in the synagogue or those who “appeared”  to be Jews due to their practices and affiliation with Jewish community, or were the Gentiles in the Jesus-believing synagogue (and Gentile God-fearers in all synagogues) spared because they were not ethnically Jewish?

Either way, and we can’t be certain which one was more likely to have occurred, we can see the potential for conflict. Should the former be true, the Gentiles might well resent it since after all, they not only aren’t Jewish but based on Paul’s letter the Galatians, they are at least highly discouraged if not absolutely forbidden to formally convert to Judaism via the proselyte rite. Why should they pay a tax if they weren’t ethnically Jewish?

On the other hand, if the Gentiles in Jewish community were not taxed because they were Gentiles (which only seems fair), would the Jews in the same synagogue resent them for their lack of solidarity with their teachers and mentors, the very people of which Jesus said “salvation comes from the Jews” (John 4:22)?

Zetterholm states (pp 188-9) that this period (and lots of subsequent historical periods) saw a general rise in anti-Semitism which likely spilled over onto the Gentiles who, by virtue of their association in the synagogue community, looked like Jews. This would have included Gentile God-fearers in the various diaspora synagogues and God-fearers, as previously stated, were thought to be polytheistic and continued to participate in the various pagan cults in Greek society for social and business (and perhaps personal) purposes. What of the recent “converts” of Gentiles from paganism to Jesus-faith? Could a surge in anti-Jewish sentiments result in them falling away or “cheating” by continuing to or reverting to pagan practices to “take the heat off” them?

M. Goodman, however, has argued that, in the period before the fiscus Judaicus was imposed, there existed a certain confusion about who was Jewish and who was Gentile, and that the fiscus Judacus promoted the development of a more stringent Jewish identity.

-ibid, pg 192


…there was every reason to assume that the Jewish community knew exactly who was Jewish and who was not.


So from an outsider’s point of view (Roman/Greek), it might be hard to tell sometimes who was Jewish and who wasn’t within the Jewish community, but of course, inside the community itself, everyone knew. The community of Messiah knew that they had a responsibility to separate itself from pagan society for the sake of God, but within that community, barriers were growing. In my previous missive on this topic, I presented the point of view of Nanos that Paul considered the Gentile Jesus-believers as equal co-participants in synagogue life, even to the level of community meals, as well as those who also received the covenant blessings of atonement and redemption in the same matter as the Jews.

And God, who knows the heart, testified to them giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He also did to us; and He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith.

Acts 15:8-9 (NASB)

However, thanks to outside pressure being brought to bear against all diaspora Jewish communities, that seems to have changed, at least potentially.

As a member of the Pauline Jewish community in Antioch, a Gentile was part of the soteriological system of Judaism to a degree never experienced before. Through Christ, Gentiles were incorporated into a covenantal system that provided salvation without prior conversion to Judaism. Non-conversion to Judaism was a necessary condition.

-ibid, pg 194

Magnus Zetterholm
Magnus Zetterholm

While that seems like terrifically good news, it comes with a cost. According to Zetterholm, the halachah regarding Gentile involvement in the Jesus-believing synagogue was likely more strict upon the Gentiles than it was on Gentile God-fearers in other synagogues. While strict Torah observance in the manner of the Jews was not imposed, the Acts 15 legal edict applied to the Jesus-believing Gentiles went above and beyond the Noahide requirements observed by God-fearing Gentiles, so Gentiles in Messiah would be forbidden to participate in any other societal religious obligation by worshiping in the pagan temples.

Gentile Jesus-believers weren’t an island. Although the requirements of the Messianic community were to separate from the pagan nations (mirroring the “chosenness” of all Jewish communities vis a vis the nations of the world), they still would have had pagan family members, friends, business partners and associates, and so forth, who would or could be making life difficult for them.

There is also the issue of Gentile status within the Jesus-believing Jewish religious stream. As previously pointed out, there may have been a strong disagreement between Paul and James regarding the equality or inequality of Gentiles in the Way, with James representing the extreme opposite position of Paul by advocating for separate religious/social communities for Jews and Gentiles. Also, Zetterholm believes it was possible that, subsequent to the Antioch incident and Peter’s pulling away from the Gentiles, the non-Jews may have been “demoted” in terms of social status (but not necessarily ultimate soteriological destiny) to that of God-fearers.

Citing Nanos (The Mystery of Romans, 289-336)…

…that Romans 13:1-7 refers to the subordination of the Jesus-believing Gentiles to the synagogue authorities and not, as usually assumed, to the civic Roman authorities. If he is correct, this was certainly motivated by theological considerations, but at the same time, Paul shows here awareness of the religious/political implications of theology that prevents Gentiles from participation in the official cult.

-ibid, pg 195


The Jesus-believing Gentiles were certainly considered to be embraced by the final salvation, through Christ, as Gentiles, but outside the covenant. This led not only to a theological distinction, but also to a social separation between Jesus-believing Jews and Jesus-believing Gentiles. The Jesus-believing Gentiles became reduced to the status of Jesus-believing God-fearers.


The actual comprehension of the status of Jesus-believing Gentiles in Jewish community and in terms of “final salvation” is contingent upon a correct understanding of how Gentiles were (and are) involved and included in the blessings of the New Covenant, and coming to a correct understanding isn’t easy to do. Those details are beyond the scope of the current discussion, (See D.T. Lancaster’s What About the New Covenant lecture series, produced by First Fruits of Zion [FFOZ]).

I don’t necessarily believe that the Gentiles were reduced to a lesser status in the Messianic synagogue in Antioch or the diaspora based on the Galatians 2 encounter. Paul vehemently opposed Peter’s action and the other Jews who sided with his hypocrisy, and since the vast majority of diaspora Jesus-believing communities were established by and (presumably) answerable to Paul, it would seem like Paul’s authority and perspective would be “calling the shots.”

Mark Nanos
Mark Nanos

That said, if Nanos is indeed correct, then Paul’s perspective supported Gentile subordination to Jewish synagogue authority. Of course any member of a synagogue, Jewish or Gentile, would be expected to submit to the authority of the synagogue leaders, but the implication is that Gentiles may have had a “one down” role in terms of their Jesus-believing Jewish counterparts. Also, Nanos believes that the Roman synagogue(s) hosting Jesus-believing Gentiles contained Jews who were Jesus-believers and those who were not, adding additional pressure and a feeling of dissonance. It’s one thing to submit to Jesus-believing Jewish authorities, but why defer to authorities who denied the Lordship of Messiah Yeshua?

Thus, while Paul supported the Gentiles as equal co-participants in synagogue social interactions as well as the final salvation based on receiving New Covenant blessings, with Gentiles not having full membership in the Old or New Covenants as made by God with “the house of Isarel and the house of Judah” (Jeremiah 31:27), he likely considered it part of their “normal” legal status (see Acts 15) to subordinate in some sense, to Jewish authority in the Jewish community and religious setting, or as George Orwell famously wrote in his novel Animal Farm, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”

Jesus-believing Jews never imagined questioning their own relationship with God through the covenants and their participation socially, religiously, and in every other way in community and final salvation was assumed. Jesus-faith was simply the logical, natural extension of everything that had come before. Of course with the death and resurrection of Messiah, the New Covenant promises were inaugurated and though not yet fully realized, this was the good news the Jewish people and the nation of Israel was waiting for.

Gentiles, on the other hand, while also assumed to be included, both due to the revelations given Paul by Messiah and by the testimony of the Prophets of old, the mechanism by which this was to be accomplished wasn’t entirely clear (see all of the incidents of Jewish opposition to Paul’s message in the New Testament) and the exact role and status of Jesus-believing Gentiles in Jewish community always seems somewhat “up in the air.”

So on the one hand, Gentile involvement in Jewish community made Gentiles vulnerable to Greek and Roman anti-Semitism which could include financial burdens as well as physical violence because they were either mistaken for Jews or were seen as “collaborators” with the Jewish “enemy.” On the other hand, Gentiles in Jewish community, if they felt at all devalued or of a lesser social or even covenant status than the Jesus-believing Jews, could have felt resentment against their Jewish mentors and even against Jews in general. Either way (or both), the Gentiles may have increasingly felt as if they were stuck in the middle with no way out, unless they apostasized and left Jesus-faith. The opposite act of fully converting to Judaism was, as I said above, strongly discouraged if not forbidden, at least by Paul.

…if one embraced a theology that made Gentile identity a necessary condition for salvation, but at the same time required a Jewish definition in order for it to be maintained…

-ibid, pg 201

Zetterholm puts all this together and draws the conclusion that the Jesus-believing Gentiles, seeking a “rational” resolution to this increasing tension, decided they would…

…have to disassociate themselves from Jesus-believing Jewish community in order to acknowledge their true Gentile identity…

-ibid, pg 202

And from this follows…

that the parting of the ways in Antioch was primarily a separation — not between “Judaism” and “Christianity” — but between Jewish and Gentile adherents to the Jesus movement.


This gives rise to the thought that in the late first century to the early second century, there were wholly separate communities of Gentiles and Jews who were both Jesus-believing, but each community possessed a very different theology and dogma relative to their belief and practice, positions that would be opposed to one another, setting each community ultimately against each other. That’s about as “bilateral” as you can get.

Ignatius of Antioch is one of the first authors within the Jesus movement who writes from a perspective clearly outside Judaism. In Ignatius’ world, the separation between Judaism and Christianity had to some extent already taken place. This is not to say that the separation process was completed, but, in the symbolic world of the bishop in Antioch, Christianity was, or at least should be, a non-Jewish movement.

-ibid, pg 202

Ignatius of AntiochIt’s generally believed that Ignatius lived from 35 CE to 107 CE (See “Ignatius” in The Westminster Dictionary of Church History, ed. Jerald Brauer [Philadelphia: Westminster, 1971]) and that he was a disciple of the Apostle John (See “The Martyrdom of Ignatius” and “Synaxarium: The Martyrdom of St. Ignatius, Patriarch of Antioch”), which is a shocking revelation. How could a disciple of Christ’s beloved John turn his back on everything he had been taught, virtually spitting in his Master’s face? It would be like Titus or Timothy betraying Paul or Peter betraying Jesus (oh, wait). How sharper than a serpent’s tooth (see Shakespeare’s “King Lear”).

A mere eighty or ninety years after the death and resurrection of Christ, we see Ignatius all but throwing stones at the empty tomb and mocking the Messiah’s devotion to Israel, the Temple, and his dear “lost sheep of Israel,” the Jews.

Zetterholm quotes Ignatius (pg 203) from Magn. 10:3 stating that:

“[i]t is monstrous to talk of Jesus Christ and to practise Judaism.”

This created quite a problem among the Jesus-believing Gentiles (pg 205) according to Zetterholm, with some (many) defecting from Jewish to Gentile Jesus-believing communities while others remaining within Jewish community. For their own protection, both from the newly minted Gentile Christians and from participation in the official pagan cult, the Gentiles in Jewish community actively pretended to be Jewish and took on behavioral roles as Jews, donning a Jewish “disguise” as it were, with…

…no intention of leaving messianic Judaism for a Gentile religion stripped of almost every Jewish influence except the idea of Messiah and the Holy Scriptures of the Jews.

ibid, pp 205-6

Zetterholm identifies two major sources of conflict at this point in history (pg 207):

  1. One in connection with separation from Jesus-believing Jewish community.
  2. The other connected to the role of being a challenger and the efforts to get back into the polity, but on equal terms with the other members of the polity.

At the heart of the conflict was:

…the Gentile adherents’ frustration at being reduced to Gentile god-fearers and being trapped in the religious/political system without any possibility of expressing their true religious identity, that is, as covenantal partners, triggered the social movement of separation.


This is where the “Honey, I want a divorce” part comes to full bloom. The Jesus-believing Gentiles not only separated from Jesus-believing Jewish community to form their (our) own communities, but they actively turned on their former hosts and benefactors, “demonizing” the Jewish people and Judaism, giving birth to the ugly “twins” of Christian supersessionism and Christian anti-Semitism that we continue to see in some churches today.

We noted above that Ignatius in Phld. 6:2 connected Judaism with the activities of “the prince of this world,” and that he in Magn. 8:1 probably used popular prejudice against the Jews in describing Judaism as being based on myths and fables.

It is well known that, in the decades after the death of Ignatius, Christian literature abounds in developing anti-Semitic themes.

-ibid, pg 210

Zetterholm provides evidence (pp 211-224) that Ignatius either used a proto-Mattean document or the actual gospel of Matthew against the Jesus-believing Jews and Jews in general, citing Matthew’s clear in group/out group” perspective (pg 212) as we find in Matthew 7:21-23 and 13:47-52, also leveraging the (apparent) disdain Jesus had with the Pharisees to magnify Gentile Christian rejection of all Jews (Jesus-believing and non-believing Jews alike).

One theme that is specially developed in much Christian Adversus Iudaeos literature is that the Jews had misunderstood their own Holy Scriptures and as a result, had lost the right to them.

-ibid 220

And if that isn’t enough to make your blood boil…

It is likely, as Schoedel states, that the identification of Christ as the word from silence refers to the supposed inability of the Jews to understand their own religious tradition: the appearance of Christ from silence brings the divine hidden purpose to light. The radical “Christianization” of the prophets is one indication of how profound this inability is, and how extensive the hostility is between Judaism and Christianity.


This is where we get the astounding departure in interpretation between normative Judaism and Christianity in our world today, based, as I’ve said, on a two-thousand year old mistake, except Zetterholm says it wasn’t a mistake and it wasn’t a misunderstanding. The schism was a calculated and deliberate set of acts designed to manufacture a new religion for the Jesus-believing Gentiles called “Christianity.” This new religion, by absolute necessity, was to be all but completely detached from its mother faith of Judaism and further, must establish itself as the “true Israel” of God, forcing an abandonment of the Jewish people, Judaism, and Israel by her own Creator in favor of the “Law-free” Gentiles.

Christian and JewishAs I said above, for a time, you would have had a world where separate Jesus-believing Christian Gentile and Jesus-believing Jewish communities would have operated in the same historical and geographical space. While Zetterholm feels some Hellenized Jews may have chosen to defect to Gentile Christianity, these would have been the Jews who, as were mentioned previously would have left ethnic and religious Judaism anyway.

There were likely Gentiles who hung on in the Jewish communities but as the decades passed, subsequent generations would have left Jewish community for either Gentile paganism or Gentile Christianity. Finally, the community of Jewish believers in Messiah would have dissolved as well if, for no other reason, than to avoid even the faintest association with the Gentile Christians who now actively disdained, despised, and “demonized” all Jews everywhere.

Since this blog post is exceptionally long, I’ll save the conclusion and implications of Zetterholm’s book on the modern Christian Church as well as the Messianic Judaism and Hebrew Roots movements for a later time.

Nanos, Ancient Antioch, and the Problem with Peter

Paul told the Galatians of a time in Antioch when he “condemned” Peter “to his face” for failing to “walk straight toward the good news.” He attributed Peter’s change of mealtime behavior to a hypocritical effort to escape pressure from “the ones for the circumcision” (Gal 2:11-21). For before “certain ones came from James,” Peter “was eating with the Gentiles” but afterwards he “drew back and separated himself.

-Mark D. Nanos
“What Was at Stake in Peter’s ‘Eating with Gentiles’ at Antioch?” pg, 282 (pages 282-318) in The Galatians Debate. Edited by Mark Nanos. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2002.

So begins Nanos’ article on a topic I’ve been exploring recently, the Messianic community of Jews and Gentiles in the “Synagogue of the Way” in first century CE Syrian Antioch, and more specifically, what is known as “the Antioch Incident” which involved the activity chronicled by the apostle Paul in Galatians 2:11-21.

While this article was included as a chapter (fifteen) in the book The Galatians Debate: Contemporary Issues in Rhetorical and Historical Interpretation, it also functions as a stand-alone paper which we can examine and from which we may be able to draw certain conclusions.

I’ve covered this material in two previous blog posts, both based on chapters from Magnus Zetterholm’s book The Formation of Christianity in Antioch: A Social-Scientific Approach to the Separation between Judaism and Christianity (See Zetterholm, Ancient Antioch and Today’s Messianic Judaism and Zetterholm, Ancient Antioch, and the Problem of the Gentiles). There is only one more chapter left in the Zetterholm book, which describes his perspective on the split between the Jewish and Gentile groups within the Messianic Antioch ekklesia (and ultimately all believing communities of that era), but someone suggested that I might want to review the Nanos paper on this topic first, since it may provide some clarification as to the actual problem between Paul and Peter as related to Gentile community and social status in this Jewish religious stream.

What Was at Stake in the Antioch Incident?

Nanos defines two “interpretive elements” that are “central for determining what was at stake” in “Peter’s eating or not eating with these Gentiles (pg 283):”

  1. What did the ones for the circumcision, whom Peter feared, find so objectionable about Peter’s eating with Gentiles?
  2. What did Paul find so objectionable about Peter’s decision to withdraw and separate from these mixed meals?

Keep in mind all this is from Paul’s point of view, so we don’t have the perspectives of Peter, the other Jewish believers (and unbelievers?) present, and particularly the Gentiles who were impacted by the incident.

According to Nanos, there are three possibilities as far as what the “ones advocating circumcision” could have found objectionable or offensive about Peter eating with the Jesus-believing Gentiles:

  1. The food served was objectionable according to Jewish dietary norms.
  2. Peter was violating halachah in even eating with Gentiles at all, even though the food was acceptable.
  3. It was the way Peter was eating with these Gentiles, rather than having a meal with them as such (and with the food being acceptable).

In trying to select an appropriate response, we also have to take Paul’s reaction into consideration. Which of these circumstances was most likely to elicit his offense and outrage and why?

Traditionally Paul has been understood to be upset because he maintained that faith in the gospel obviated continued regard for eating according to Jewish dietary regulations. But for Paul, did observing a Jewish diet compromise in principle “the truth of the gospel”? Or did he perhaps object instead to the degree of Jewish dietary rigor necessary to comply with the standards of those whom Peter feared? Or again, in a different direction, could it be that Paul understood that Peter’s withdrawal and separation undermined the identity of the Gentiles as equals while remaining Gentiles?

-Nanos, pg 284

At the church I currently attend (and I suspect at most or all Evangelical churches just about everywhere), it is assumed that the first and traditional Christian interpretation is obviously correct. Jesus canceled “the Law” including kashrut and Peter was eating ham sandwiches and shrimp scampi with his Gentile buds until other Jews who were “still under the Law” showed up and embarrassed Peter. Peter caved in to peer pressure and pulled away from eating trief with the goyim. Clearly for Evangelicals, the issue at hand was the food.

But before we get into whether this is actually supported by scripture or not, we need to identify the players. I used to think there were only two interest groups outside of Paul, Peter, Barnabas, and of course, the Gentiles present:

  1. The “certain men from James” who represented the “party of the circumcision” (Gal. 2:12 NASB).
  2. The rest of the Jews (Gal. 2:13 NASB) who “joined him (Peter) in hypocrisy.”

However, Nanos draws a distinction between the Jewish men from James and the advocates of circumcision as representing two different groups of Jews. Paul obviously knew the particulars and presumably, so did the intended audience of his epistle (Gentile believers in the Messianic synagogues in the area of Galatia), but because that understanding was assumed, this narrative doesn’t contain a lot of information to help us figure out who’s who.

Antioch Rubens“The rest of the Jews” probably isn’t a terribly significant group, according to Nanos. They could be local Jesus-believing Jews, or Jews who accompanied Peter from Jerusalem/Judea to Antioch (Peter’s personal disciples?).

More critical to grasp are the two other groups. From verse 12, the Greek describing the contingent from James is best translated, again according to Nanos, as ”certain/some ones came from James,” (pg 286) but doesn’t absolutely delineate whether James actually sent them or if they came from James but weren’t specifically his representatives.

This is important because in my previous blog posts citing Zetterholm, it was thought that Paul and James disagreed about the status of Gentiles in the Messianic Jewish community and even that James advocated for a total “bilateral” separation of Jewish and Gentile believers, while Paul supported covenant and social inclusion. It makes a difference if James sent this group to “spy out” the doings in the Antioch synagogue vs. this group was associated with James but didn’t directly represent his views.

The third group (pp 286-7), the ones Peter was actually afraid of (I guess this would mean he wasn’t afraid of the group from James), is simply identified as “circumcision” (Jews) as opposed to “foreskinned” (Gentiles). Why did Paul call this third group only “circumcision?” What did he mean? Were they believing or non-believing Jews?

It would seem odd, at least to me, for Paul to call this Jewish group “circumcision” in order to differentiate them from believing Jews (although according to one Pastor I’ve spoken with who represents the traditional Christian viewpoint, Paul was advocating against believing Jews becoming circumcised, though this should have happened when they were eight-days old, or having their male children circumcised). In Galatians 3:28, Paul wrote that Jews and Greeks are all “one in Christ” but he still differentiates Jews and Greeks, even as he differentiates men and women “in Christ.”

This would mean (and Nanos speaks of this on pg 287), that Paul and Peter self-identified as “Jews by birth” (v. 15…also see Rom. 9:3-5, 11:1; Phil. 3:3-5, and by inference, 1 Cor. 7:17-20), thus a Jew becoming a disciple of Messiah Jesus (Yeshua) did not remove the status of “Jew” from the Jewish person. In other words a Jesus-believing Jew and any other Jew are both considered Jews, with no distinction relative to their ethnic or (Sinai) covenant status. So Paul and Peter are just as Jewish as any other Jewish individual. Being called “circumcision” is only to differentiate Jews from the “foreskinned” Gentiles.

Citing Dunn (Dunn, “Echoes,” 460-61; see also, Dunn, Theology, 123, where he cites Rom 4:12; Col 4:11; Titus 1:10), Nanos states (pg 288):

…but an interest group specifically distinguished from other groups of circumcised Jews as advocates of circumcision.

And further:

Given the rhetorical context dealing with Gentile associates, the likely connotation of this particular advocacy is proselyte conversion.

The “circumcision” then are a group of Jews (believing or non-believing) who advocate for Gentiles in the Jewish religious space to gain equality with the “Jews by birth” only through the proselyte rite which includes circumcision.

This group represented the dominant viewpoint of Jewish communal norms (see Acts 15:1) relative to full Gentile inclusion in Jewish religious/communal space. Gentile God-fearers were attendees or guests in that space but were hardly considered of equal status to Jews in the synagogue and in Jewish society at large and they absolutely were not included in covenant.

fellowshipNanos presents what appears to be a new perspective (from an Evangelical Christian point of view) regarding the issue at hand. Paul considered the believing Gentiles as having equal status in the Jewish “Way,” both in terms of social status and covenant blessings, while still remaining Gentiles. In fact, Paul required that the Gentiles retain their status as Gentiles lest “Christ be of no benefit” to them (Galatians 5:2).

The problem was not food, and it was not a general ban of Jews eating with Gentiles (since in diaspora communities, the halachah for such mixed-meals would have to allow for some social intercourse), but rather non-proselyte believing Gentiles being treated as social and covenant equals within the Jewish community.

Nanos refers to v. 13 in terms of Peter and the other Jews as “masking their true conviction,” which will be seen as significant because:

Therefore, the Christ-believing Jews try to mask their convictions that these Gentiles are not regarded among their subgroups as mere “pagan” guests, but at the same time not as proselyte candidates either, by withdrawing from eating with Gentiles to distance themselves from meals symbolizing this nonconforming “truth.”

-ibid, pg 289

The “nonconforming truth” is that, through faith in Messiah, the Gentiles are considered equal co-participants in Jewish covenant and community while remaining Gentiles and with no intention of them ever participating in the proselyte rite. Something about the way Peter was eating with the Gentiles, indicated to outside Jewish observers, that Peter and the Jews with him considered the believing Gentiles as social/covenantal equals to the Jews, something that non-Jesus-believing Jews (or maybe Jesus-believing Jews from a different faction) found offensive and unsustainable.

Peter’s hypocrisy then, was pretending the Gentiles did not have equal social standing with the Jews of the Way when just previously, he had been eating with them as equals. Peter then included Barnabas and other Jews in his hypocrisy when his example resulted in their following his lead.

Nanos supports something that I’ve believed for a while now. The “offense of the cross” for non-believing Jews wasn’t Jesus himself, but rather Paul’s insistence that Jesus-believing Gentiles be included in the Jewish community as equal co-participants while remaining Gentiles.

Apostle Paul preachingA classic example of this occurred at Pisidian Antioch. In Paul’s first appearance and “sermon” there on Shabbat, the Jews and Proselytes were quite interested in Paul’s message of the good news of Messiah and wanted him to return the following Shabbat to say more (Acts 13:43). However, the following Shabbat, it was apparent that the Gentile God-fearers, present the previous week, had “spread the word” to their Gentile families and friends, most likely not God-fearers, but “straight up” pagans and idol worshipers, because “crowds” of Gentiles showed up at the synagogue (v. 45) resulting in “jealousy” among the synagogue leaders, and with them responding to Paul with “blasphemy” and evicting Paul and his companions from the synagogue and the entire district.

Getting back to the two groups, the ones from James and the advocates of circumcision for Gentiles, Nanos states that we don’t know how they are related or what the timing of the arrival of the first group has to do with the presence of the second group. It could be a coincidence, but in the Bible, I tend to think there is no such critter.

That describes a great deal about the situation but doesn’t answer the question about what was at stake in Peter eating with and withdrawing from the Gentiles at Antioch.

J.B. Lightfoot argues that before the withdrawal Peter “had no scruples about living [like a gentile],” that is, without observing Jewish dietary restrictions (“discard Jewish customs”), for the vision of Acts 10 “taught him the worthlessness of these narrow traditions.” Lightfoot assumes that this change is the logical result of the desire to “mix freely with the Gentiles and thus of necessity disregard the Jewish law of meats.”

-ibid, pg 293

This is an example of the traditional Christian interpretation of the matter, but as I’ve stated here and in many other blog articles, this just doesn’t jibe with the overall presentation of Paul relative to the Torah as well and Jewish and Gentile status, and it certainly is inconsistent with Messiah’s interpretation of his own mission in terms of continued Torah observance by believing Jews (Matthew 5:17-19).

Nanos presented examples of the opinions of other New Testament scholars who support the traditional view and then more “recent trends in interpretation.”

As E.P. Sanders makes exceptionally clear, there is no reason to believe that observant Jewish people and groups did not eat with Gentles given the right conditions.

-ibid, pg 296


There is no reason to believe that many, if not most, observant Jews, certainly those living in the Diaspora, would not and did not eat with Gentiles without compromising their Jewish dietary norms to do so.

-ibid, pg 297

However, other Jewish groups may have feared that such mixed meals between Jewish and Gentile “equals” would somehow lead to Jews ”eating of inappropriate food according to Jewish dietary norms, inclusive of the food and drink associated with idolatry.”

shared wineThere has been some support of the idea that God-fearing Gentiles remained polytheistic (M. Zetterholm, S.J.D Cohen), probably as a convenience since they had to continue to interact with individuals, groups, and businesses that were part of the diaspora pagan cult. If Jews witnessed other Jews and Gentiles eating (kosher food and wine) together as equals, they may have assumed that this represented a significant risk, based on their experience with and understanding of God-fearers. The only way they could be reasonably sure that such mixed meals weren’t “risky” was if the Gentiles involved were participants in the proselyte rite. The Jewish observers objecting to mixed meals didn’t “know,” they just assumed what was going on.

Nanos says Paul’s reference to the “truth of the gospel,” to which the circumcision advocate objected, was the way Gentiles were treated by Jews at the mixed meals, that is, the Gentiles were treated as full equals in the Jewish subgroup.

It pronounced these Gentiles full members of the people of God apart from the traditional conventions for rendering them such. Thus the pressure is specifically said to be from “advocates of circumcision.” And the reaction of Peter and the other Jews was to “withdraw” and “separate” in order to “hide” their conviction with behavior that does not exemplify “the truth of the gospel,” instead of dismissing the Gentiles as though they agreed in principle with those who brought the pressure…

ibid, pg 301

But what about this?

I said to Cephas in the presence of all, “If you, being a Jew, live like the Gentiles and not like the Jews, how is it that you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?

Galatians 2:14 (NASB)

The issue of Peter “living like a Gentile” is traditionally assumed to mean that Peter gave up a life of Jewish Torah observance, including keeping the laws of kashrut, and felt free to live life as a Gentile, eating and drinking pretty much anything with disregard of Jewish norms. Also, and this is less clear in Christian thinking, Peter was somehow compelling the Gentiles present to live like Jews.

In Peter’s withdrawal and separation from the Jesus-believing Gentiles present, he was indicating that Gentile status in the Jewish ekklesia was not equal after all and that, by appearing to side with the Jewish circumcision advocates, he was implicitly saying that for the Gentiles to be considered equal, they had to participate in the proselyte rite and become Jews (compelling the Gentiles to live like Jews). This was Peter’s hypocrisy, because he actually believed the Gentiles were already equal co-participants due to their discipleship in Christ.

Did Peter compromise his Jewish identity by eating with the Gentiles (living like a Gentile)? The issue at hand relates to identity, both Jewish and Gentile:

The question before these Gentiles, as Paul sees the matter, is one of identity, not behavior per se, although it is Peter’s change in behavior — because of his desire to maintain the privileges of identity on terms that no longer should dictate behavior of members of this coalition — that provoked the incident around which Paul constructs his case.

-Nanos, pg 311

Peter and accusersPeter wasn’t “living like a Gentile” in the sense that he had abandoned his Jewish identity and affiliation, but he was behaving in a manner that was not dependent on absolutely separating himself from equal co-participation in the ekklesia, including mixed Jewish/Gentile meals, in order to maintain and affirm his Jewish identity. Jews and Gentiles could maintain distinct identities and yet, in terms of social behavior, they could be co-equals in fellowship within the Messianic Jewish ekklesia.

Peter’s behavior, when seen by Jewish outside observers, was criticized as violating Jewish social norms and thus Jewish identity (living like a Gentile) by the circumcision party, but they were unaware or they didn’t accept the new status of the Gentiles relative to Jewish community.

Nanos adds dimension to this by re-translating the relevant scripture in this way:

If you Peter, remain Jewish yet are identified now as a righteous one (justified) in the same way as are these Gentiles (by faith in/of Christ) and not by virtue of the fact that you were born a Jew, how can you decide to behave in a way that implies that these Gentiles are not your equal unless they become Jews too?

-ibid, pg 315

The mindset required here is a shift from Jewish privilege as justified by being born Jewish, to justification through faith in/of Christ in exactly the same manner as the Gentiles.

I found the following quote revealing:

The salient difference is the claim of this subgroup to live “in Christ” as equals before God and one another, as “one,” whether Jew or Gentile. Claiming that the end of the ages has dawned, this coalition seeks to exemplify this “truth” by living together without discrimination according to certain prevailing conventions of the present age (cf. 1:3-4; 3:27-29; 6:14-16).

-ibid, pg 316

I’ve mentioned previously, citing D.T. Lancaster (see the Holy Epistle to the Hebrews sermons and What About the New Covenant lectures), that the Messianic Age or Kingdom was inaugurated with the death and resurrection of Christ but will not be brought to fullness until the return of Messiah as conquering King. In the meantime, we believers, Jewish and Gentile, have received a “downpayment,” or a “guarantee” that the Messianic promises of the New Covenant will indeed reach fruition in their appointed time.

We are to live like partisans or freedom fighters resisting the current “King” in the present age, and living as if the “once and future King” were already here.

That’s what the mixed meals between Jewish and Gentile co-participants in the ekklesia as equals represents.

I say to you that many will come from east and west, and recline at the table with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven…

Matthew 8:11 (NASB)

This is one picture of the Messianic Kingdom, when we Gentiles will indeed ”come from east and west, and recline at the table with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom.” That’s what was at stake in the Antioch incident, the recognition and acceptance of Gentiles as equal co-participants in the coming Kingdom which has yet to arrive but is already here.

When Peter pulled away from the Gentiles and caused other Jesus-believing Jews to do likewise, he was sending a clear signal (whether he intended to or not) that the Gentiles were not equal, and he was actually denying the “truth of the gospel,” the good news of the coming Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of Messiah, and the reign of Messiah over Israel and the nations of the Earth in peace and unity.

Peter, in one simple but devastating act, denied that God had to power to bring about all He promised in the New Covenant times. No wonder Paul was so furious.


What I’ve gotten from Zetterholm so far is that in mid-first century CE in Antioch, and presumably influencing the rest of the Messianic communities (the “churches” Paul had “planted”), there was a dynamic “tension” between Paul and James, with Paul advocating for Jesus-believing Gentiles being included into the Jewish ekkelsia as equal co-participants socially and in covenant blessings, while James strongly thought the Gentiles should maintain their own separate and bilateral communities apart from the Jesus-believing Jews. This tension in my reading of Zetterholm so far, was never resolved, and the result was the ultimate schism between the Gentiles and Jews in the community of believers.

The Jewish PaulNanos doesn’t paint quite so grim a picture, but he’s writing while strictly considering only Paul’s perspective in Galatians 2. The ones from James may have had something to do with the Antioch incident, but Nanos believes the ones Peter actually feared were a separate group, a group of believing or non-believing Jews who advocated Gentile inclusion in Jewish religion and fellowship only by circumcision and participation in the proselyte rite.

Paul continues as the advocate for Gentile inclusion which he sees as a sign of the emergent Messianic Kingdom symbolized by Jews and Gentiles sharing meals as equals rather than the Gentiles being subordinate in the Jewish space, either as pagan guests or God-fearers. Peter’s withdrawal punched a really big hole in the structure Paul was trying to construct, a portrait, an image of the future age coming into the world now. Peter not only rejected Gentile equality in the ekklesia, he denied the power of God to bring about unity in the Kingdom to come.

What implications can we draw for the modern Messianic Jewish (MJ) movement. The current MJ movement exists as separate or interrelated streams with different standards of Torah observance, halachot, and particularly, different viewpoints on Jewish/Gentile community interaction and participation.

Many of the questions Paul was addressing are the same issues we find in MJ today. For the most part, communal meals aren’t an issue, since in the communities in which I’ve participated, either kosher meals are available prepared and served in accordance with accepted Jewish halachah, or kosher meal requirements have been loosened (for instance, the elimination of the requirement that said meals must be prepared in a kosher kitchen) to allow for mixed Jewish/Gentile (kosher or kosher-style) meals.

However, the issue of bilateral ecclesiology very much continues to be at the forefront of the debates regarding Jews and Gentiles in the Messianic Jewish community. Should Messianic Jewish synagogues only allow Jewish membership or should Gentiles be included? If Gentiles are included as members in Jewish religious space, should they be considered equals (as Paul likely advocated) or should they have a lesser status (associate membership) with lesser privileges and responsibilities? Should non-Jewish kids participate in a Bar/Bat Mitzvah? Can Gentiles be called up for an aliyah to read the Torah on Shabbat? What about Gentiles being included or excluded from davening in a minyan?

We have no record in the Bible of these questions being answered, but we do, at least in my opinion, have strong indications, both Biblically and through historical records, that Gentiles did participate in Jewish communal life in diaspora synagogues. They did eat together as equal co-participants.

Taking all of this into account, where does the modern Messianic Jewish movement go from here and what part do we “Messianic Gentiles” play in it?

I hope to finish my final review of Zetterholm soon.

Zetterholm, Ancient Antioch, and the Problem of the Gentiles

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.

-Magnus Zetterholm
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.

-Ismar Schorsch
“Holiness is a Communal Experience,” pp 431-2 (May 17, 1997)
Commentary on Torah Portion Emor
Canon Without Closure: Torah Commentaries

[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

J.D.G Dunn
J.D.G Dunn

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.

Rabbi Mark Kinzer
Rabbi Mark Kinzer

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.

D. Thomas Lancaster
D. Thomas Lancaster

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.

Magnus Zetterholm
Magnus Zetterholm

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

Mark Nanos
Mark Nanos

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)

Zetterholm explains:

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?

DaveningIf 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.

For more on this and related topics, see my commentary on Shaye J.D. Cohen’s book From the Maccabees to the Mishnah, Second Edition.

Zetterholm, Ancient Antioch, and Today’s Messianic Judaism

It is a sad fact that our knowledge of the Judaism of the first century CE is rather limited. It is true that we know quite a lot about the ideology of different Jewish groups. The pioneering works of C.G. Montefiore, G.F. Moore, R.T. Herford, J. Parkes, and W.D. Davies, for instance, culminating in that of E.P. Sanders, have been of tremendous importance in showing that ancient Judaism was not a legalistic religion in which salvation was earned by merit, but a living religion of grace and forgiveness.

-Magnus Zetterholm
Chapter 3: “The Cultural and Religious Differentiation,” pg 53
The Formation of Christianity in Antioch: A Social-Scientific Approach to the Separation between Judaism and Christianity

I wish Pastors preached sermons based on the latest research performed by New Testament theologians and historians. What we hear from the pulpit, more often than not, is doctrine that is decades if not centuries (or longer) old, the same standard preaching that declares Judaism of ancient and modern times as a “religion of dead works.” Even in the church I attend, which has a very pro-Jewish perspective, Jewish people and national Israel are loved, but the Christians are very happy that the old Law is dead and replaced by grace. Jews are loved but Judaism is not, even the (Pharisaic) Judaism practiced by Paul and by Jesus and by all the apostles.

Zetterholm’s book seeks to understand and explain the early schism between the Judaism once called “the Way” and the emergent religious form adopted by Gentile believers known as “Christianity” from a sociological rather than a theological point of view. Of course, it’s impossible to keep theology completely at bay, but Zetterholm, who doubts the accuracy of certain sections of Luke’s Book of Acts and any part of the Bible that speaks of miracles, does his best.

That said, I find his research compelling because he doesn’t have a doctrinal ax to grind and he does establish and confirm certain things about Judaism as practiced by the believing Jews in first century CE Syrian Antioch.

It is generally accepted that the Judaism of the first century CE was not homogeneous but a complex, diversified phenomenon. At the same time these somewhat different realizations of Jewish life had something in common. E.P. Sanders has referred to what he calls “common Judaism” as “what the priest and the people agreed on.”

-ibid, pp 55-6

This isn’t the first time I’ve heard of this concept. Nearly a year ago, Rabbi Dr. Carl Kinbar had this to say in different comments on one of my blog posts:

The situation today is very different. There is no common Judaism or commitment to Torah that is shared by the streams of Judaism and, especially, by individual Jews. Second Temple Judaism varied from one form of Torah observance to another. Today’s diversity is from ultra-orthodoxy to atheism.

To avoid misunderstanding, let me put it this way: common Judaism had a core of practices that all communities of any size considered mandatory while also having a diversity of practice in other matters. Diversity does not mean that some Jews ate pork and did not daven.

That is, unless the Jerusalem leadership objected to the common Judaism of their time. If they did object, they may have engaged in the project of bringing about uniformity. Again, there’s no direct evidence one way or the other. However, there’s some indirect support that they did not teach or enforce uniformity — there is no record that they directed Paul (or anyone, for that matter) to teach or enforce uniformity of practice. There is also nothing in the apostolic letters to indicate that the Jerusalem leadership or other apostles mandated uniformity. If they practiced uniformly in Jerusalem, why would they be indifferent to the lack of uniformity elsewhere?

The Jewish people (in the Land of Israel in particular – I’m not as familiar with the rest) actually did quite well during the time of common Judaism (from late Second Temple times to at least 400 CE). (emph. mine)

In another portion of his book, Zetterholm explains that while each synagogue adhered to a core of common Judaism, they also diverged in meeting the various needs of their differing populations, as R. Kinbar described above.

Antioch was religiously a highly pluralistic milieu. Even though the “zeal for the law” also influenced the Jewish communities in the Diaspora, Judaism was but one of many religions practiced contemporaneously at Antioch.

-ibid, pg 65

The various Jewish communities in Antioch had to exist perhaps in some sort of “tension” between each other, depending of their differences, but they also had to exist in a wider environment of many other religious entities, many or most of which would have opposed monotheistic Judaism, which I can only believe was one of the core beliefs of the common Judaism these synagogues shared.

This speaks to me somewhat of the struggle of Messianic Judaism today. Messianic Judaism isn’t a single, monolithic unit that has a definition easily applied to all Messianic Jewish groups (and I define the different streams of Messianic Judaism as an overarching entity distinct from any of the expressions of Hebrew Roots, even though some [many…most] Hebrew Roots congregations define themselves as “Messianic Judaism”) and there is some variability between the different synagogues (in the U.S.) of which I am aware.

Messianic Judaism is trying to relate within it’s various groups as a Judaism as well as relating to the larger Jewish community (and the rest of the world) as a Judaism, all within a diaspora (again, I’m speaking of U.S. congregations) that is poly-religious and areligious.

Carl Kinbar
Rabbi Carl Kinbar

I say all this acknowledging Rabbi Kinbar’s statement above that the modern Judaisms of today cannot be directly compared to the Judaisms of the first century because they lack a commonly held core set of convictions related to Torah . Nevertheless, I can see connecting threads, especially between modern, western Messianic Judaism and the Judaisms in first century Antioch.

A number of critics of modern Messianic Judaism emphasizing itself as a Judaism, complain that this emphasis bumps Messiah Yeshua (Christ Jesus) to the back of the bus if not off the bus altogether. Normative Christianity stresses that Judaism was indeed (they claim) replaced by a more generalized and generic faith in Jesus without tradition or ritual, and modern Hebrew Roots proposes that modern Rabbinic Judaism is adopted by Messianic Judaism in place of “Biblical Judaism” which was (they claim) practiced by both Gentiles and Jews in the first century Messianic community.

Their sons will, furthermore, be subject to compulsive epispasm since they will be “cut by physicians to bring forward their foreskins.” In 1 Corinthians 7:18, Paul admonishes the circumcised Jesus-believing Jews against having this operation performed.

-ibid, pg 72

Zetterholm goes on in pages 76 through 79 to provide numerous examples of what we may not get from just reading the Bible…the fact that Jews in the diaspora, perhaps many, many Jews, struggled with or just plain left the Jewish community, attempted to cover up the signs of their Judaism (males), and assimilated socially and religiously into Greek culture.

Do we have that today?

How many Jews have converted to Christianity and exist and worship as “Hebrew Christians” within the Church, having abandoned any and all practices of Judaism and Jewish identity and adopted living as “Goyishe Christians?” Even the observant Jews within Messianic Judaism are considered by most other Jewish communities (i.e. not Messianic) as “Jews for Jesus,” as converts to Christianity who have abandoned their own people and left Israel. To resist this impression as well as to resist the draw from the Church that says if you believe in Jesus, even as a Jewish disciple of the Jewish Messiah, you are a Christian and are “free from the Law,” the Messianic Jew must strictly adhere to a Jewish lifestyle, including observance of the mitzvot and the traditions.

…that most Jews, in Palestine as well as in the Diaspora, worshiped daily and weekly, kept the Sabbath, circumcised their sons, observed certain purity regulations and supported the temple. Despite mixed opinions on how this obedience would be realized, we can safely assume that the majority of the Antiochean Jews intended to live their lives obeying the torah.

-ibid pg 80

The Jewish communities in the diaspora including Antioch were at risk of assimilation and absorption into the wider Greek culture and religious milieu. The barrier to stave off this threat for Jewish communities was Jewish observance and adherence to Jewish identity as distinct and unique among the myriad people groups and religions existing in the galut.

Magnus Zetterholm
Magnus Zetterholm

Zetterholm cited (pp 83-4) the practice of Jews in Antioch refusing to use Greek-produced oil, but believes that it was more an indication of Jewish identity rather than outright devotion to the Jerusalem Temple. Nevertheless, this still indicates that these diaspora Jews were highly aware of the necessity to keep separate from the surrounding culture, even to the point of being selective about which source of oil they used.

Further, Zetterholm citing Sanders says:

Antioch was thus located in an area almost regarded as part of the Land of Israel, and there is evidence of a particularly strong connection between some Antiochean Jews at least and the temple in Jerusalem.

-ibid, pg 85

Zetterholm’s opinion isn’t quite in line with Sanders’, though.

I would therefore conclude that we may cautiously assume the existence of a group more strongly committed to Jewish life than the main body of Antiochean Jews…

-ibid, pg 86

While Zetterholm doesn’t give much credence to the Book of Acts as an accurate model for Jewish/Gentile interactions of the first century Jewish history in Antioch, he nevertheless states:

…we may assume that there was no intermarriage between Jesus-believing Jews and Jesus-believing Gentiles, because the Jesus movement was a completely Jewish one with an unusual openness towards Gentiles.

-ibid, pg 89


While Antiochus had clearly left Judaism, most Jews who were interested in Hellenism and wanted to create a Hellenistic Judaism were at the same time concerned with the preservation of a Jewish identity and had no intention of ceasing to be Jewish.

-ibid, pg 90

The Jewish PaulIf, as Zetterholm says, the first century “Church” was a wholly Jewish movement, albeit with a high tolerance for Gentiles in the community, then even if this represented a Judaism that was “open,” to some degree, to Hellenistic influences (though this is very dicey material to seriously consider), the “Jesus-movement” had no interest in abandoning Judaism and Jewish practice for something foreign to them or more in line with the religious practices of the Greeks. Paul, as we saw above, was not convincing Jews to give up Judaism. Quite the opposite. Zetterholm’s research and the sources he cites do not support at all the creation of an alien Gentile religion out of the teachings of a rural Jewish Rav who was known by his Jewish followers to be Moshiach.

Zetterholm covers the diversity of Antioch’s synagogues (pp 90-91), including (as I stated above) how they served diverse Jewish populations, and it seems likely that the synagogue Paul and his companions used as their “home church” throughout Paul’s three “missionary journeys” was one of the (perhaps) thirteen synagogues in Antioch. In fact, he says of the Jewish Jesus-believers:

…it is highly unlikely that the Jesus-believing Jews in Antioch were organized in any other way than the synagogue.

-ibid, pg 93

Zetterholm cites Mark Nanos (The Mystery of Romans: The Jewish Context of Paul’s Letters, pp 289-336) as well as a wide selection of scriptures from the Book of Acts, to support this position. This includes the most likely common usage of “ekklesia” to mean “synagogue.” Additionally, Zetterholm references James 2:2 and James 5:14 as evidence that James the Just, brother of the Master, considered the “assembly” and “community” of Jesus-believers to be the synagogue:

We can thus conclude that the terminology does not speak against the view that the Jesus movement in Antioch was originally a synagogue consisting of Jesus-believing Jews, and that the Jesus-believing Gentiles related to this synagogue as any Gentiles related to any Jewish community. (emph. mine)

-ibid, pg 94

What might we conclude from all of this?

Judaism in the first century CE (and in my opinion, much of Judaism today) was not a “works-based religion” but rather a vibrant, faith-based practice of devotion to God. While there were many variations of Judaism practiced in that day, there was a core or common Judaism that served to define and identify all communities of Jews as Jewish and those who worshiped the God of Israel. This would have included the Judaism then known as “the Way.”

Jewish identity, performance of the Torah mitzvot, and devotion to the Temple services were among the common qualities of the Jewish community, both in Roman-occupied Judah and in the diaspora. Jews in the diaspora were at risk of assimilation and absorption into Greek culture, even to the point of attempting to cover the marks of circumcision. There was likely little to no intermarriage between Jewish and Gentile believers and if intermarriage occurred, Jewish identity would be staunchly adhered to by the Jewish spouse. If not, it was more likely that the Jew would undergo apostasy and assimilate into Greek religious and social culture.

Paul was very much opposed to Jews in the community of believers undergoing the medical procedure to restore their foreskin (males) and continued to encourage and support the Torah observance of the Jewish believers. There is no evidence, based on Zetterholm’s research, that the combined community of Jewish and Gentile believers left the synagogue or that they left Jewish practice and formed a new religion that was opposed to the other Judaisms and core Jewish practice. The Way remained a Judaism that was distinguished only by its unusual acceptance of large numbers of Gentiles who were identified neither as proselytes or God-fearers but had a different legal status allowing them to remain Gentiles and equal co-participants in the community (It should be noted that the Way wasn’t the only Jewish community that has ever claimed to follow the Messiah, so Messianic claims are not all that distinguishing).

Many of these conclusions can be applied to Messianic Judaism (and to a degree, larger Judaism) today. My experience with Messianic Judaism is within the confines of the United States, so I’ll restrict my opinions to that population. Messianic Judaism, existing in the diaspora amid a nation of religious plurality including a strong emphasis of no religion at all, faces some of the same risks as its ancient counterpart in Antioch. There is a strong pull, especially for Jews who are believers in Jesus as the Messiah, to apostate from a Jewish faith in Moshiach and “convert” to Christianity, effectively becoming Gentile believers with Jewish DNA.

Orthodox JewsIntermarriage, although exceptionally common within Messianic Judaism and relatively rampant within all of the other Judaisms (with the likely exception of Orthodox Judaism) presents a risk or at least a challenge to the Messianic Jewish spouse to remain Messianic and Jewish in his/her observance of Torah and overall lifestyle. If this isn’t supported by the non-Jewish spouse, it could spell trouble for the marriage and/or the Jewish identity of the Jewish spouse. How the children are to be raised and their identity as Jewish vs. Gentile is also a serious consideration.

For these reasons, I reaffirm my previous assertion that a strong Messianic Jewish community be available, both for Jewish and for intermarried families who identify as Messianic. Furthermore, the Jewish Messianics should be allowed and encouraged to maintain and embrace a Jewish identity, and to consider themselves and the Messianic synagogues as part of larger Jewry. The continued effort by Messianic Gentiles and Hebrew Roots Gentiles (and some Hebrew Roots Jews), as well as the overall normative Christian community to demean any Jew in Messiah who continues to live a halachically Jewish life, and who further demands that Messianic Jews abandon Judaism as a practice, or observe some unobservable entity as “Biblical Judaism” vs “Rabbinic Judaism” must cease. Don’t argue.

It’s not our place as Gentiles within or outside the Messianic Jewish movement to dictate terms relative to how a Jew should or shouldn’t live as a Jew. A Jew’s relationship is and always has been with God.

No, I’m not throwing Jesus off the back of the bus and in fact, he’s at the center of all of this. Who lived a perfectly Jewish, halachically correct, completely Torah observant life as evidenced by the Gospels and the rest of the Biblical narrative? Only Yeshua Ben Yosef of Nazareth. Only he was born a Jew, of observant Jewish parents, within the borders of the Land of Promise, faithfully studying the scriptures and performing the mitzvot, and yet he was without sin and totally obedient to God.

What a role model for the apostles, all of the Jewish disciples, and for Messianic Jews today. Could anybody be more Jewish and live a more Jewish life than Messiah, Son of David? Will anyone live a more Jewish life in the Messianic Kingdom than the King of the Jews upon his return?

Zetterholm’s book has certainly confirmed a few things for me and opened up other doors. When next I revisit the pages of his book on this blog, I’ll further examine the relationship between Jews and Gentiles in the Messianic community in Syrian Antioch as Zetterholm’s research reveals it to us.

This series continues in my blog post Zetterholm, Ancient Antioch, and the Problem of the Gentiles.