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The Mystery of Romans: Apostolic Decree and the Obedience of Faith

Apostolic DecreeIt is important to note that the major tenets of the decree were practiced by the early Christian gentiles for several centuries, although this fact is not considered by most scholars to demonstrate that Paul accepted or taught it in his gentile mission. Somehow it is assumed that Paul was generally unaware of the decree, or that if he was aware of it he did not accept it. Why has Christianity so overlooked this feature of Paul’s missionary teaching?

-Mark Nanos
“Chapter 4: The Apostolic Decree and the ‘Obedience of Faith,'” pp 201-2
The Mystery of Romans: The Jewish Context of Paul’s Letters

I’m finally able to get back to my series of reviews on this landmark book of Nanos’. I’m not going to pick through the entire chapter, but the section of Chapter 4 called “The Apostolic Decree and the Message of Romans” caught my attention. I’m rather interested in the legal decision of the Council of Apostles and Elders in Jerusalem (Acts 15) that established binding halachah on the Gentile disciples of the Jewish religious stream known as “the Way.” My opinion is that Paul very much had to know about this decree and certainly, if he considered himself under the authority of the Council, an authority established by Messiah, then agree or not, Paul had to accept it and even teach it.

And how could Paul not be aware of this decree?

Some men came down from Judea and began teaching the brethren, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” And when Paul and Barnabas had great dissension and debate with them, the brethren determined that Paul and Barnabas and some others of them should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders concerning this issue.

Acts 15:1-2 (NASB)

So Paul, Barnabas, and their Jewish opponents traveled to Jerusalem together to seek out the Council’s authority on the matter in dispute (whether or not Gentiles had to convert to Judaism and take on the full yoke of Torah as an obligation in order to enter into the Messianic religious order), which would include giving testimony and being present for the final verdict. I have no idea how any New Testament scholar could miss so obvious a passage of scripture.

As I did previously, I’m going to review my notes and “brain dump” the data here with just a bit of polishing. Hopefully, this will carry the meaning of this section of the chapter and my impressions of the information presented.

In stark contrast to this consensus, however, I see the apostolic decree operating in the background of Paul’s bold “reminder” to Rome. In addition to his clear agenda to explain the new status of the gentile believing in Jesus Christ as equal, though governed by the principles of behavior outlined for the “righteous gentile” in the Council’s apostolic decree, several specific references suggest that his addressees share with Paul the knowledge of the decree in its original, though certainly fluid format. We have seen how central the issue of accommodating the dietary concerns of the “weak” were in order to win them to faith in Christ. Further, I find traces in the formal feature of the opening and closing of the letter, in the rhetorical structure, and in several key phrases and concepts that Romans is actually Paul’s exposition, by way of reminder, of the apostolic decree in view of his intended visit, and yet necessary delay.

-Nanos, pp 206-7

My commentary on Chapter 3 mentioned that the “reminder” was Paul to the Gentile believers in Rome, reasserting the form and function of the Gentile’s role in “the Way” in relation to the Jewish believers in specific and Jewish people in general. The “weak” were not the Jewish believers who felt they had to continue observing the Torah mitzvoth as opposed to accepting the grace of Christ, but rather the Jewish non-believers who were struggling with accepting faith in Yeshua as Messiah. A large part of the apostolic decree was designed to allow a basic relationship between the believing Gentiles and Jewish people. The so-called “strong” were over-emphasizing their “freedom” from Torah at the expense of the Jewish non-believers they associated with in the synagogue, damaging the reputation of Messiah and “the Way” as a Judaism.

King Priest TorahWe see from the general message in Galatians that Paul did not support Gentile conversion to Judaism as a requirement for justification before God, and that he stated point-blank that if the Gentiles were to allow themselves to be circumcised and convert, they would be obligated to the full yoke of the Torah, and the sacrifice of Messiah would become useless (Galatians 5:1-2). Applying that to Romans, Paul knew that the Gentiles were not obligated to the Torah in the manner of the Jews and also knew that the apostolic decree established an alternate set of behavioral constraints and requirements that defined the role of the Gentile disciple, not only in relation to God, but to the Jewish people as well.

He is responsible for the “obedience of the Gentiles” that results from his apostolic preaching of the gospel (15:18-19, 20ff.) and he will not be satisfied with the situation in Rome until he has arrived to fulfill this obligation (1:14-15)…

Within this context, Paul is expecting the “obedience of the Gentiles” to conform to the apostolic decree for the sake of the unbelieving Jews that they may not be further alienated from Messiah, but drawn nearer. It was within the power of the Gentiles in Rome to “thumb their noses” as it were to the Jewish people, but that would result in pushing Jews who were already doubtful that the crucified Rabbi from Nazareth was the Messiah into complete rejection.

The key statement in this part of Chapter 4 is this:

It is Paul’s hope that the Romans will receive him and his message of their obligations with respect to the decree in the same positive way as we find Luke describes (Acts 15:30-31) Paul’s earlier missionary reception. For the decree was not an unwelcome burden, but a powerful declaration of the inclusion of gentiles as equals, by faith and without becoming Jews, in the people of God. It was a sign of the fulfillment of the eschatological promise of the blessings for all the world in Israel’s Christ. And it was understood to be a minimal demonstration of appropriate purity behavior for association with the Jewish community (Israel, the historical people of God), on the part of the gentiles who maintained they had become equal coparticipants in the promised blessings. Indeed, it bore witness to their indebtedness to Israel for her present suffering on their behalf.

-Nanos, pg 211

The apostolic decree was the minimum set of standards required of the Gentiles to honor their indebtedness to the Jewish people and Israel as a whole for the realized blessings that resulted in Gentiles being equal coparticipants in salvation and reconciliation with God without having to be circumcised (convert) and be obligated to the full Torah.

My understanding is that the Gentiles could accept more than the minimum requirements up to and including the full “yoke of the Lord,” but this was entirely voluntary. In Paul’s letter to the Romans, we see the opposite happening. The Gentile believers in Paul’s readership were not even achieving the minimums set out in the apostolic decree and failing to acknowledge the Jewish people as the source of the blessings they were so comfortably operating within.

Gentile obedience to the decrees of the Council would result in the proper display of the relationship between non-Jewish believers and the general Jewish community, and disobedience sacrifices the “weak” among the Jews in the Roman synagogue to a failure of faith in Messiah.

I find an interesting parallel in Paul’s writing in how the Church approaches the Jewish people today. Christianity in the modern era also flaunts its “freedom” to the Jews and conversely denigrates the Torah, claiming that Jews are now “free from the Law” as if that would be some great relief to Jewish people. Gentile Christians would blithely eliminate the Torah from the lives of Jewish converts to Christianity, ignoring the destruction of Jewish identity and ultimately the Jewish people as a separated and called out nation before God.

Today, we “gentilize” the Jews as well as the modern incarnation of Jewish religion of “the Way” (i.e. “the Church) in the same manner as the Gentiles Paul was addressing in Rome. We in the Church are just as disobedient to the binding decrees of those whom Jesus assigned authority to as were the Roman Christians in Paul’s letter. Granted, much has changed since the apostolic era, and the body of Christ is totally separated from its “Jewish roots,” but that condition is not permanent.

The programmatic “obedience of faith” echoes the spirit of the Jerusalem Council’s intentions in setting forth the need for the Christian gentiles of Rome to obey the particulars outlined in the apostolic decree. Paul was concerned to remind them boldly of proper monotheistic behavior for “righteous gentiles” in their association with non-Christian Jews, and specifically halakhic matters of dietary and sexual conduct (12:1-15:3).

…Whatever grammatical construct one might prefer, the “obedience of faith” articulated Paul’s uncompromising commitment to the deeper intentions of the Shema, embracing both the election of Israel and the inclusion of gentiles equally — for God is One! The contours of Paul’s argument have been overlooked because interpreters have misunderstood his focus on gentile inclusion through faith alone, ostensibly dismissing Torah obedience as obsolete. However, if we recognize that Paul was addressing Christian gentiles tempted to consider themselves as having supplanted Israel and thus no longer obligated to obey “the teaching” of the apostolic decree (for why would they need to be concerned with the “acceptance” of the “stumbling” of Israel and their “opinions” of the proper purity behavior for “righteous gentiles”; if Israel had been cut off they are free to eat all things!), then we can readily follow Paul’s nuanced discussion of circumcision and Torah.

-Nanos, pp 237-8

going-to-church-sketchesGentiles who consider themselves as having supplanted the Jewish people in the blessings of God due to their faith in Messiah do not enhance Jewish desire to approach Messiah-faith, but inhibit it. By considering the apostolic authority to bind the Gentile disciples to a set of principles as obsolete, along with the Torah, these Roman Gentile Christians were sowing the first seeds of dissention that would eventually lead to complete restructuring of “the Way” from one Jewish religious stream among several in the late Second Temple period, to a completely separate Gentile religion in the first decades of the common era, totally divorced from its origins and its apostolic Jewish mentors.

And “the Church” hasn’t stopped being disobedient yet. In fact, we’ve compounded the problem by insisting that the only proper response to the Jewish Messiah for a Jew is to abandon the Torah, abandon Judaism, and abandon being a Jew, convert to being a Gentile, and to also thumb their noses at the eternal relationship between God and Israel.

The Children of Israel shall observe the Sabbath, to make the Sabbath an eternal covenant for their generations. Between Me and the Children of Israel it is a sign forever that in a six-day period Hashem made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day He rested and was refreshed.

Exodus 31:16-17 (Stone Edition Tanakh)

Thus says the Lord,
Who gives the sun for light by day
And the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night,
Who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar;
The Lord of hosts is His name:

“If this fixed order departs
From before Me,” declares the Lord,
“Then the offspring of Israel also will cease
From being a nation before Me forever.”

Thus says the Lord,

“If the heavens above can be measured
And the foundations of the earth searched out below,
Then I will also cast off all the offspring of Israel
For all that they have done,” declares the Lord

Jeremiah 31:35-37 (NASB)

No amount of exegetical “tweaking” of the Bible can delete God’s promises of an eternal relationship with Israel, the Jewish people. Reading Paul as is done traditionally in Christianity requires a great deal of “retrofitting” of the older texts to somehow make God seem to be saying the exact opposite of what we read in Exodus 31 and Jeremiah 31. Mark Nanos and other New Testament scholars like him are boldly forging ahead into territory that restores the “Judaism” back to the Jewish text of the Bible. Paul is not praising the Gentiles for their “lawlessness” and castigating the believing Jews for their continued “addiction” to the Torah. Quite the opposite.

In this chapter, we see Paul continuing to urge the Gentile believers to cleave to the “obedience of faith,” the standards established by the Council in Jerusalem, for the sake of the Jewish people, particularly those Paul was desperate to have come to faith in Messiah.

Mark NanosI can only hope that books like The Mystery of Romans and ministries such as First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ) will eventually, and by the will and grace of God, restore the balance, even as Paul was attempting to restore the balance between the Gentile believers and the Jews in Rome. Paul’s efforts ultimately failed, as I think he suspected they would, but as the time of the Messiah’s return approaches, the Spirit is helping us to get out the message of restoration and renewal as God originally planned. Much has been lost to the believers in Jesus over these last twenty centuries. I believe that the time has come for us to take it back.

I hope to continue with my review of the Nanos book soon.

Schreiner and Acts 15

Apostle-Paul-PreachesThe so-called apostolic decree is described by Luke in Acts 15. The leaders of the churches from Jerusalem and Antioch met in Jerusalem to determine whether circumcision would be mandatory for Gentiles who believed Jesus was the Messiah. As we saw…they decided that circumcision was not necessary. But James recommended that the Gentiles follow four other prescriptions, and these laws often are called the apostolic decree.

Why are these requirements added after the church has agreed that Gentiles are free from the requirement of circumcision? Does the law come in the back door after it has been shut out the front door? And what do these requirements mean?

-Thomas Schreiner
“Question 31: What Is the Apostolic Decree of Acts 15 and What Does It Contribute to Luke’s Theology of Law?” pg 181
40 Questions About Christians and Biblical Law

I hadn’t intended to write anymore about my impressions of this book. I didn’t think Schreiner had anything more to say to me that I hadn’t read in earlier parts of his work. He is just restating the same point of view and applying it to different parts of the Bible. In reading Schreiner, he seems almost like the poster child for Biblical eisegesis, reading his theology into the text rather than, by exegesis, developing his belief systems from out of the text.

But Acts 15 is near and dear to my heart, so I thought I’d present my impressions of Schreiner and how he perceives the four apostolic decrees.

Even in the above-quoted opening passages, we see that Schreiner continues to link circumcision and any behavioral expectations for Gentile believers as a direct requirement for non-Jewish disciples to respond to “the law.” But he misses that “circumcision” is shorthand for “conversion to Judaism,” so what we see is that James and the Apostolic Council did not require that Gentiles convert to Judaism and take on board the full yoke of Torah in order to have a covenant connection to God and join the community of the Way.

In Acts 15:1, the question was, “Do Gentiles need to convert to Judaism and observe Torah in order to be saved?” However, salvation, from a Jewish perspective, while it can be individual, is understood as corporate. The expectation of the Messiah is that he would “save” Israel nationally and corporately, by returning the exiled Jews to their Land, establishing peace and security for national Israel, including removing all military threats (which at that time meant removing Roman occupation from Israel), and placing Israel at the head of all nations, with Messiah as King.

In order to be “saved,” would Gentile disciples have to join Israel nationally by converting to Judaism? This, of course, would be in addition to being saved from their sins and meriting a place in the world to come.

The Council’s decision was “no,” which should please Schreiner, since they are saying that one does not have to be obligated to Torah obedience in order to have personal salvation. Corporate salvation is another story, but I’d interpret that as Messiah establishing peace for all countries on Earth, hence, we are “saved” by the provision of peace among the nations as well as in Israel.

But Schreiner still doesn’t get why Gentile believers should have any behavioral requirements at all. That just seems too much like “the law” and any “law” should only be applied to the circumcised. Really?

Schreiner goes on to say:

…but this should not be interpreted as if there are not moral requirements for believers. Gentiles would misinterpret freedom from the law if they thought they were free to worship idols, murder their neighbors, commit sexual sin, and mistreat others.

D.T. LancasterOK, so we do have behavioral expectations and they don’t have to function like “the law” as such. But if Schreiner objects to the four decrees of the apostles, then where are these “moral requirements” supposed to come from? Schreiner doesn’t answer the question in this chapter, but based on other portions of his book, I gather that in our communion with the Holy Spirit, we would be guided in all things, including righteous behavior as Christians. The “law” is written on our hearts. So, why the decrees, then? Schreiner examines different perspectives including one of which I’m familiar:

Richard Bauckham proposes an even more specific interpretation, finding the key in the phrase “in your/their midst” in Leviticus 17:8, 10, 12, 13, and 18:26. According to Bauckham, these commands, which are based on Leviticus 17-18, were required of Gentiles who lived in the midst of Israel. The commands, then, do not represent a pragmatic compromise to facilitate fellowship between Jews and Gentiles according to Bauckham. On the contrary, these commands were required of Gentiles who lived in the midst of Israel

-Schreiner, pp 182-3

I wrote a commentary of this viewpoint as it was presented by D. Thomas Lancaster in Torah Club, Volume 6, Chronicles of the Apostles. Schreiner, of course, disagrees with Bauckham and thus Lancaster, but then goes on to say something I consider rather amazing.

One of the problems with Bauckham’s solution relates to Paul. According to Acts, Paul was at the apostolic council and accepted the apostolic decree. Bauckham thinks that Paul later changed his mind and ended up rejecting the council’s decrees.

-ibid, pg 183

What? When did Paul do this? It’s not in Acts 15 and it would have been illogical for Paul to accept the limitations of the decree upon himself as a Jew. The decree was issued as a solution to how Gentiles could be allowed to enter a Jewish religious space as equal members and with a covenant connection to God. The Council decided that Gentiles would not be required to convert to Judaism and take upon themselves the full yoke of Torah (my Return to Jerusalem series goes into all of the details). The Council’s decision was incumbent upon only the Gentiles in the Way.

Paul was Jewish, so the Council’s decision had nothing to do with him personally, nor any other Jewish disciple of the Jewish Messiah. I have no idea how Bauckham (or Schreiner) could think otherwise. It doesn’t make sense.

fracturedSchreiner’s final conclusion is that the apostolic decree was put in place to smooth over the relationship between Gentiles and Jews and that obedience to the decrees was not a Gentile requirement for salvation. Schreiner reads Acts 15:21 not as an indication that Gentiles should “learn Torah” in order to better understand the teachings of Jesus (which are all based on a close understanding of Torah) but in order to learn “Jewish sensibilities” and to become “acquainted with customs that bothered Jews.”

I agree that obeying the apostolic decree or for that matter, any or all of the Torah mitzvot does not provide personal salvation apart from faith in God through Moshiach, but not only does Schreiner completely misunderstand the purpose of the decree (which can be unpacked and understood as a much more in-depth compilation of behavioral requirements), but he clearly doesn’t comprehend that the decree was not designed to impact Jewish obedience to God.

Schreiner’s understanding of Acts 15 is firmly rooted in his dismissal of all of the covenant connections of the Jewish people and Israel with God and his replacement of the Torah as the God-given method of Jewish obedience to God with the law-free Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Return to Jerusalem, Part 6

strangers-in-israelThis is the sixth and final part of the Return to Jerusalem series where I’ve been examining the Torah Club, Vol. 6 commentary on Acts 15. I trust you’ve been following along since Part 1, but if not, please go back and read the previous submissions including Part 5 before continuing here.

Last time I asked, so what are the four prohibitions for Gentiles in the apostolic decree and what are their implications for the Christians in ancient times and today? To try to render a complete and detailed answer would invite simply copying and pasting everything in Lancaster’s lesson into this blog which, as I’ve said before, I’m not prepared to do. However, and this is particularly interesting to me, Lancaster borrows the status of the “resident alien” (“Ger” in Hebrew) from various portions of the Torah and applies it to the “resident alien” Gentile disciples worshiping the Messiah and the God of Israel in the midst of the Jewish community.

If indeed it is the case that in Christ these Gentiles have a portion in [Israel’s covenant membership and national eschatology], i.e. that they are saved as Gentiles, then it suffices to apply to them the same ethical principles that would in any case apply to righteous Gentiles living with the people of Israel, i.e. resident aliens.

-Markus Bockmuehl
“Jewish Law in Gentile Churches:
Halakhah and the Beginning of Christian Public Ethics”
(Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2000), 165

But in citing Bockmuehl, Lancaster reintroduces a problem that flies in the face of his and FFOZ‘s official theological stance on Gentiles and the Torah. While the gerim in the days of Moses were not Israelites as such and did not obtain full membership status in the nation due to lack of tribal affiliation, they did observe a large number (majority? nearly-full obligation?) of the Torah mitzvot in the days of Moses and beyond. The argument of some branches of the Hebrew Roots movement is that the gerim status can be wholly transferred to the Gentile disciples of Jesus and be used to justify Gentile Christian obligation to the full yoke of Torah. Lancaster has spent considerable effort in his commentary to illustrate how James and the Council exempted the Gentiles from the full yoke of Torah because they were not born Jews or converts. Now, he apparently brings in an element in explaining the four prohibitions that could reverse his argument.

It doesn’t help that he explains the four prohibitions, which go well beyond the confines of the Noahide laws, as derived from Leviticus 17-18.

In those chapters, the Torah describes the sins of the Canaanites, warns the people of Israel against imitating their ways, and prescribes four prohibitions which both the Israelite and the stranger who dwells among the nation much keep. “These correspond to the four prohibitions of the apostolic decree, in the order in which they occur in the apostolic letter.” [Richard Bauckham, “James and the Jerusalem Church,” in “The Book of Acts In Its Palestinian Setting, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995), 459]

-D. Thomas Lancaster
Torah Club, Volume 6: Chronicles of the Apostles
from First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ)
Torah Portion Mishpatim (“Judgments”) (pg 461)
Commentary on Acts 15:20-31

How was this all supposed to be lived out by the Gentile disciples of that day and what are the implications for modern Christians? As I’ve said in previous parts of this series, you’ll have to access the Torah Club (Vol. 6) studies relevant to Acts 15 for the full details, but it seems as if the four prohibitions were a significant subset of the Torah that was to be applied to Gentile believers above and beyond the Noahide laws of their day. That said, there is another source besides Lancaster who also discusses the same material and provides further illumination.

Toby Janicki wrote an article called The Gentile Believer’s Obligation to the Torah of Moses for issue 109 of Messiah Journal (Winter 2012), pp 45-62, and it provides a great amount of detail on the application of the four prohibitions.

I reviewed Toby’s article over a year ago and at the time, I recall being quite surprised when he suggested that our (i.e. Christians) obligation to the Torah of Moses went much further than I imagined, based on his analysis of the aforementioned prohibitions of the apostolic decree.

Toby’s article is still available in full in either print or PDF versions of Messiah Journal, 109 and I consider it required reading when attempting to delve into an understanding of the message of the Council to the Gentiles among the disciples of Messiah, both in the days of the Council and now.

As I’ve said, this message and how it was arrived at, remains very controversial in Christian/Hebrew Roots circles, but before attempting any sort of conclusion to today’s “meditation” and to this series, I want to remind you of how the Gentiles of that day received the “Jerusalem Letter” (Acts 15:22-29).

So when they were sent off, they went down to Antioch, and having gathered the congregation together, they delivered the letter. And when they had read it, they rejoiced because of its encouragement. And Judas and Silas, who were themselves prophets, encouraged and strengthened the brothers with many words.

Acts 15:30-32 (ESV)

the-joy-of-torahIn other words, it was really good news from the point of view of the Gentile God-fearing disciples. After what some of the Gentile believers may have experienced as “mixed messages” from different factions within “the Way” and/or between “the Way” and other sects of Judaism, it must have been a relief to have a final, definitive decision rendered by the Apostolic authority. Further, assuming we can accept Lancaster’s interpretation, it must also have been a relief to the Gentiles that they were not automatically required to convert to Judaism (some may have done so but many or most obviously did not) and thus come under the full weight of Jewish Torah observance and halachah. James had established a halachah for the Gentiles that “raised the bar” as far as behavioral expectations and observances of the Gentile believers, and was well above what was expected of the God-fearers who were not disciples of Messiah or members of universal humanity, but that bar was still not as high as the one God had set for the Jews that, according to Peter’s testimony, “neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear.”

One of the functions of the four prohibitions acted to allow Jewish/Gentile fellowship and interaction within the Messianic community of believers “by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances.” (Ephesians 2:15) Jewish believer Gene Shlomovich puts it this way:

“Where in the written Torah does it prohibit Jews from eating with Gentiles?”

Nowhere! However, many of the Torah laws, including kashrut, were designed, in part, to make Israelites “kadosh”, “separated” or “set aside” from the nations. Since nations all around them ate “treif” or idol-sacrificed food, no devout Israelite would sit down with idol worshippers at the same table, if only because of the appearance of sin. Not only that, eating with idolaters implied fellowship with them, and perhaps taking on their customs and even religions.

However, with the coming of Messiah, G-d reached out to the Gentiles without requiring them to take on the full Yoke of Torah and live in the manner of Jews. Jews, for their part, had to overcome their Torah and culture ingrained aversion to sharing (no doubt still kosher) food with former idolaters-turned followers of the Jewish Messiah. It is said that the leader of the Jerusalem community and brother of Jesus, Yaakov (James) never drank wine or ate meat, but only ate vegetables. This may be because he wanted to fellowship with Gentile disciples of Jesus around their tables without violating the laws of kashrut, to which Gentiles were not obligated nor were expected to be versed in.

I can’t say that Gene has “solved” the conundrum of Ephesians 2 and how the Messiah created “one new man” out of two (without obliterating the Torah and Jewish identity), but it is a nice summary that seems to lead in an interesting direction. We are “one in Christ,” just as men and women, and just as slaves and freemen are “one in Christ,” though obviously still possessing many differences.

If Jesus did reconcile the Jewish and Gentile believers “to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility,” (Ephesians 2:16) then the apostolic decree of James delivered to the body of faithful disciples of Messiah from among the Gentiles by letter and by emissaries, may have been the means to bring down “the dividing wall.”

The net result of my study of Acts 15 using the Torah Club, Vol 6 materials seems to be that we Gentile Christians owe a great debt to our Jewish “forefathers” and share a great heritage with our believing Jewish brothers and sisters. The most exciting part though, is that we are walking side-by-side together toward a future where we are united by a resurrected and returned Messiah King who will finish what we have been commanded to start: rebuilding the fallen tent of David, and restoring the glory of God on earth among both the Jews and the nations.

white-pigeon-kotelHow do we resolve the matter of the ancient Ger as applied to the late Second Temple Gentile God-fearing disciple? Lancaster doesn’t make that clear, but based on my own reading, particularly of Cohen, the full role of a Ger as it existed in the days of Moses was to allow a non-Israelite to live among the people of God as permanent resident aliens without being able to formally become national citizens due to lack of tribal affiliation. After the Babylonian exile, a tribal basis for Israelite society was lost and affiliation by clan was emphasized. By the time of Jesus, this clan affiliation basis was too lost, and thus the rationale for the status of Ger as it was originally applied no longer was valid. A Gentile in the days of Jesus or later, who wanted to join the community of Israel, in most cases, would convert to Judaism, since becoming a Ger was not an option.

I can only conclude that James (and this is speculation), in establishing halachah for Gentile entry into the Way as Gentiles and equals to the Jewish disciples, was taking some aspect of the Ger status as the best method available to forge an identity of “alien” Gentile disciples living and worshiping among the Jews in their religious sect. I realize your opinion (and for all I know, Lancaster’s) may vary.

The Jewish role in serving God as we see it in the Bible seems all too clear, but we in the church must always remember that our blessings only come by fulfilling our own unique role as “Gentiles called by His Name.” We are not Jews and we are not expected to “act Jewish,” at least to the degree that we appear to be what we’re not. In fact, we rob ourselves of the path God has laid before us by adopting an identity that is not our own. Acts 15 was the starting point on that path and the beginning of that journey for the early Gentile disciples. It is also where we begin today to understand who we are as Christians and what we must do if we are to be considered faithful disciples of our Master and worthy sons and daughters of God.

I know this series has been challenging for some, largely because going against established doctrine (regardless of the doctrine to which you’re adhered) suggests change and nobody likes change. Maybe none of this will result in anyone thinking any differently, but I hope I at least got some people to think about what they believe and consider that there may yet be something new we can discover about ourselves in the Bible.

“If you want to make enemies, try to change something.”

-Woodrow Wilson, 28th U.S. president

So concludes the series Return to Jerusalem. I hope you enjoyed it. Please feel free to (politely) tell me what you think.


Return to Jerusalem, Part 5

apostles_james_acts15The majority of Jewish believers in 49 CE did not accept Paul’s gospel of Gentile inclusion. They challenged the Pauline message by telling the God-fearing Gentile believers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1). They contended, “It is necessary to circumcise [the Gentile believers] and to direct them to observe the Torah of Moses” (Acts 15:5).

The Jewish believers calling for circumcision and conversion did not object to God-fearing Gentiles who wanted to learn about Judaism and Yeshua of Nazareth. God-fearers could be found in any Jewish community – not just among believers. Paul’s opponents objected to elevating the status of God-fearing disciples of Yeshua to that of co-heirs with Isarel and fraternity with the Jewish people. Rabbi [Yechiel Tzvi] Lichtenstein [Commentary on the New Testament: The Acts of the Apostles (Unpublished, Marshfield, MO: Vine of David, 2010), on Acts 15:7; originally published in Hebrew: Beiur LeSiphrei Brit HaChadashah (Leipzig: Professor G. Hahlman, 1897)] explains, “Paul and Barnabas said that the brothers among the Gentiles did not need to be circumcised and keep the [whole] Torah of Moses, but they were still full brothers in Israel and shared in their inheritance.”

-D. Thomas Lancaster
Torah Club, Volume 6: Chronicles of the Apostles
from First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ)
Torah Portion Mishpatim (“Judgments”) (pg 457)
Commentary on Acts 15:20-31

Continued from Part 4 of this series. Make sure you’ve read the previous parts  before proceeding here.

It’s hard to believe that any Christian, regardless of denomination or variant sect, could possibly object to such a bright promise as the one Lancaster interprets from the text of Acts 15, but as we’ve seen from some of the comments folks have made in previous parts of this series, such a promise is hotly contested. Traditional Christians tend to balk at the suggestion that the Jewish disciples of Christ never intended to “cancel” the Torah for Jews, and certain branches of the Hebrew Roots movement are dead set against the idea that all Christians everywhere aren’t fully obligated to the Torah mitzvot. It seems that full co-heir status with Israel in the Kingdom of Heaven and in all of the Messianic promises just isn’t enough.

But if Lancaster is correct and James and the Apostles never intended full Torah obligation on the Gentiles (unless some of them chose to convert to Judaism), then what does this mean?

Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood. For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues.”

Acts 15:19-21 (ESV)

The four prohibitions (v 20) aren’t always easy to pick out in inline text, so here they are in list form:

  1. abstain from the things polluted by idols
  2. from sexual immorality
  3. from what has been strangled
  4. from blood

But of all the prohibitions James could have applied to the Gentile God-fearing believers, why these four? What was so special about them? Was he imposing some version of the Seven Noahide Laws on the non-Jewish disciples?

These seven laws, developed centuries after the lifetime of James, Peter, and Paul, are based on what we find here:

And God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. The fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth and upon every bird of the heavens, upon everything that creeps on the ground and all the fish of the sea. Into your hand they are delivered. Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. And as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. But you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. And for your lifeblood I will require a reckoning: from every beast I will require it and from man. From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man. “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image. And you,[plural in Hebrew] be fruitful and multiply, increase greatly on the earth and multiply in it.”

God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.”

Genesis 9:1-7, 17 (ESV)

While there may be some superficial similarities, it doesn’t seem reasonable to say that James’s four essential prohibitions were directly lifted from the covenant God made with all of humanity through Noah. Also, and this is important, if some version of the Noahide laws were already understood within late Second Temple Judaism, wouldn’t the Jews have already considered all Gentiles bound by these laws? Why would James bother to simply re-state them and how would it have made any sort of distinction between the Gentile disciples of Jesus and the rest of mankind?

Are these four laws of the apostolic decree the only commandments of the Torah enjoined upon the Gentile believers? No. Judaism already taught a minimum standard to which the Torah held all God-fearing Gentiles. The sages taught that certain commandments of the Torah apply universally to all human beings. If not, how could God have punished the Gentiles in the story of Noah? For what did He punish the people of Sodom and Gomorrah? Why did He drive out the Amorites and Canaanites in the days of Joshua? – As Paul says, “Sin is not imputed when there is no Torah” (Romans 5:13).

Based on this line of reasoning, the rabbis derived a list of seven universal commandments. The earliest version of the list appears in the Tosefta (see t.Avodah Zarah 8:4-6).

-Lancaster, pg 459

D.T. LancasterI know what you’re thinking. I (and Lancaster) am being anachronistic. How can the Noahide laws, which I’ve already said were codified many centuries after James, have been applied to humanity and understood as such by James and the Jerusalem Apostles?

Some critics argue that, since the rabbis formulated the list of seven laws subsequent to the days of the apostles, those laws are not relevant to the context of Acts 15. On the contrary, the apocryphal “Book of Jubilees” (c. 150 BCE) demonstrates that the theological concept behind the laws of Noah already existed well before the days of the apostles:

Noah began to command his grandsons with ordinances and commandments and all the judgments which he knew. And he bore witness to his sons that they might do justice and cover the shame of their flesh the one who created them and honor father and mother, each one love his neighbor and preserve themselves from fornication and pollution and all injustice … [And he said], “No man who eats blood or sheds the blood of man will remain upon the earth … You shall not be like one who eats [meat] with blood, but beware lest they should eat blood before you. Cover the blood … You shall not eat living flesh …” (Jubilees 7:20-32)

That is not to say that the apostles considered observance of the laws of Noah or the four laws of the apostolic decree as sufficient for attaining salvation. The laws of Noah offered Gentiles a baseline for ethical, moral conduct, but salvation came to the God-fearing Gentile believers “through the grace of the Master Yeshua.”

-Lancaster, pp 459-60

I know. Jubilees isn’t canonized Bible, but the plain history of the document tells us that the Jewish people were aware of an application of the laws of Noah over a century and a half before James made his pronouncement that Luke recorded in Acts 15. There was already a Jewish consciousness that God held humanity to a certain set of universally applied standards. And the apostolic decree thus was not a simple restatement of the universal laws of Noah. As we see, Lancaster doesn’t believe that obeying any combination of laws actually “saves” anyone, and the message of James confirms that for Jews and Gentiles, salvation is from the Jews through Jesus Christ.

In today’s “meditation,” I’ve defined the four prohibitions by what they aren’t (the Noahide laws) rather than what they are. So what are the four prohibitions for Gentiles in the apostolic decree and what are their implications for the Christians in ancient times and today? For the answer to that question and more, you’ll have to read the sixth and final part of this series. I had intended to write only five parts rather than six, but when I tried to include all of my material in a single blog post, it was well over 3,000 words long. I’d rather write shorter missives that are easier to read and digest.

See the conclusion of Return to Jerusalem in Part 6.