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Reviewing the Divine Code: Fundamentals of the Faith

divine code
Cover for the Divine Code found at Amazon.com

Part I of Rabbi Moshe Weiner’s book The Divine Code, Parts I-IV is called “Fundamentals of the Faith”. It includes:

  • An introduction by Rabbi J. Immanuel Schochet
  • Chapter 1: Awareness of God
  • Chapter 2: Proselytizers and False Prophets
  • Chapter 3: The Prohibition Against Making a New Religion or Adding a Commandment
  • Chapter 4: Liability to Divine and Earthly Punishments
  • Chapter 5: Torah Study for Gentiles
  • Chapter 6: Serving God; Prayer and Grace After Meals
  • Chapter 7: Sacrificial Offerings
  • Chapter 8: Obligatory Moral Conduct
  • Chapter 9: Repentance

I’m sure that even the casual reader can detect which of the above chapter titles are a criticism of or prohibition against Christianity. However, there are a lot of other pieces of information that some of you might find interesting.

In Rabbi Schochet’s introduction, he states that a Gentile who observes the Noahide Laws only because they make sense cannot be considered a Ger Toshav or “Gentile Resident.” Only one who accepts upon themselves these commandments due to the Holiness of God may consider themselves the “pious of the nations of the world.” Otherwise, we’d just be considered “wise people.”

In other words, it’s a matter of intent. According to R. Schochet as well as R. Weiner, it is imperative we recognize that God gave the seven Noahide Laws along with the rest of the Torah (oral and written), at Mount Sinai to Moses.

In chapter 1, the first step for all of us is to develop an awareness of God. This compares to the following (though the book didn’t make this point):

I am the Lord your God Who took you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.

Exodus 20:2

Just like a Jew, we are commanded to first have an awareness of the existence of God, which then is followed by the prohibition against idolatry. This is both to be an intellectual and emotional ascension.

I found it interesting that the chapter mentioned a truly pious Gentile who is careful to observe the seven laws may settle in Israel, but one who observes them only out of intellectual conviction is forbidden to do so. I wonder if there is a provision made by the Israeli government for Noahides settling in the Land? I would have to guess “no” given my current understanding.

Chapter 2 addresses proselytizers as those who attempt to persuade another to serve an idol. Given other conversations I’ve had on this blog, I can well imagine this includes a Christian attempting to convince a Gentile to believe in Jesus.

From the book’s point of view, anyone who says God sent them to add, remove, or change a commandment from those given to Moses must be considered a false prophet, whether the person is a Jew or Gentile. That one might be aimed even at Jesus or the Apostle Paul as well as everyone who has followed them in the faith.

The same sentiment can be read into chapter 3 which discusses the Prohibition Against Making a New Religion. Of course, it could include any of the other world’s religions, but given the history of Christianity and Islam relative to Israel, and particularly Christianity’s “great commission,” I can well imagine the intent of the author.

This also involves adapting Jewish practice in creating new religious obligations such as creating a sabbath for yourself, regardless of the day of the week (Sunday comes to mind). However, Gentiles are also forbidden from celebrating Jewish holidays, with the exception of having been invited by a Jew to do so, such as a Gentile attending a Passover seder or being offered a meal in a Sukkah by a Jewish host.

Interestingly enough, although Gentile males are not obligated to be circumcised, they may voluntarily do so as a “gift to God.”

We are forbidden, according to the book, to perform any mitzvah that requires the “holiness of a Jew” such as writing a scroll of the Torah or affixing a mezuzah to our doorways. This suggests that Jews have a greater or higher level of holiness than Noahide Gentiles, but I think I’ve read something about that previously.

TorahThat said, a Gentile may perform any of the mitzvot between man and man or man and God “which has a reason and logical benefit for a person or society.” However, without an obvious logical benefit, such observance is forbidden.

This has to do with “logical morality” such as giving to charity and respecting your parents. They aren’t specific to the Noahide Code, but they make moral sense, so it’s not enough to know the seven laws, we must also study and understand basic morality from a Jewish point of view.

As an example, we must honor our parents because it is a general moral principle, but we are forbidden to do so because it’s a commandment from God (since it’s not included in the seven laws).

Confused yet?

Chapter 4 has to do with divine and earthly punishments for violating the seven laws and all their implications.

I found it interesting that the age of accountability is the same for Gentiles as it is for Jews, age thirteen for males and twelve for females. This assumes either a Noahide community to guide these children or parents who are doing so.

There’s a mention of a Noahide’s obligation to develop a court system, but this is obviously a societal obligation rather than an individual one. Also, I don’t know of any court system in any nation that specifically judges violations of the seven Noahide laws.

If there were Noahide communities, and I’ve written about such communities before, perhaps under Rabbinic supervision, they could construct such a “court” for their congregations.

It’s important to note that the book considers it an obligation for Noahide parents to properly educate their children in the seven laws and how to perform them.

Chapter 5, Torah Study for Gentiles was interesting.

The upshot is that Gentiles are obligated to study the portions of the Torah which contain the seven laws with the same level of “delving into the Torah” that a Jew performs when studying Torah and Talmud. A Gentile may also study those portions of the Torah and Talmud which will help them understand how to perform logical moral acts, such as honoring one’s parents.

In fact, it is permissible for a Gentile to read the entire Tanakh, but not with the same level of depth as a Jew, since those commandments are not intended for us. We may also read other Jewish texts such as the Mishneh Torah by Rambam which “presents Torah-law decisions, but not their inner reasons or the details of how the derived rulings were decided…” We may even read on Kabbalah but with the same prohibitions as reading portions of Talmud.

Chapter 6 is particularly intriguing and may even be practical in that it provides suggested blessings and prayers for Gentiles.

There’s always something of a problem with Gentiles using a Jewish siddur in individual prayer or community worship because the language is written for Jews. We are not “Israel,” so how to use a standard siddur has always been a difficulty for Gentile Messianics.

Although, as the book says, prayer, blessings, and praise to God are not specifically required of Gentiles, they are encouraged. Personally, I don’t see how one can obey the commandment to have an awareness of God and not pray to, bless, and praise God.

That said, we are not to use the prayers or methods of worship of idol worshippers, which is probably shorthand for “don’t pray the Lord’s Prayer” or any other Christian-based worship behavior.

We are, however, permitted to praise God using phrases from the Hebrew Bible. The book cites Abraham and Joseph who both lived among non-Hebrews and yet taught them to worship God, so there is a precedent.

As I mentioned above, there are many suggested prayers and blessings adapted for Gentiles, including Grace After Meals, and this is one of the first practical pieces of information in this book that Messianic Gentiles might adapt to their own praxis.

TempleI was a little surprised at Chapter 7, which discusses sacrificial offerings, since the Temple in Jerusalem does not currently exist. However, the book says that while it is permitted for a Noahide to build himself an altar and to sacrifice kosher animals, it’s not encouraged, both because making such an offering means the Gentile would have to be worthy to more closely approach God, and because we would need expert advice from a qualified Rabbi, which in this day and age, might be difficult.

However, we are permitted to study the precepts of making sacrifices on a theoretical level.

Obligatory moral conduct is covered in Chapter 8, which addresses logical moral behavior not specifically addressed in the seven laws. One of the arguments against the Acts 15 “Jerusalem letter” being a guide as to what the Gentile devotee of Yeshua must observe is that the precepts don’t include things like not stealing or not committing murder. It seems, if you take the book’s perspective, we aren’t expected to “check our brains at the door” so to speak.

Acts 15:21 suggests that Gentiles will hear the Torah read in synagogues every Shabbat, so even if we’re not obligated to the same set of commandments as the Jew, the moral principles taught are still useful in guiding us.

The final chapter in Part I is on repentance, and yes, God will accept our sincere efforts in repenting of our sins and forgive us. The Prophet Jonah and the Gentile city of Ninevah are mentioned as an obvious example.

This part of the book seems to act as a summary for everything else that follows, so in a way, I probably only have to read thus far to get a good idea of what else will be taught.

So what do I think? There are a few sections that seem helpful, such as the blessings and prayers presented, but overall, it’s an Orthodox Jew’s view of what makes up a righteous Gentile. Is it practical for Messianic Gentiles? As a whole, probably not, because it assumes that Rav Yeshua is not the true Messiah and it discounts what is written in the Apostolic Scriptures.

Also, although it’s not presented as such, what we’re really talking about is a “Judaically-oriented” Gentile’s relationship within Jewish community, so if you are not part of a (Messianic) Jewish community, it’s doubtful most of what’s presented in this book is going to be useful (unless you really do want to forsake Yeshua and become a Noahide).

While we can make an argument for Noahides based on the “God fearers” we read about in Acts or some of Paul’s letters, we also have read these God fearers were very joyful when they heard the good news of Rav Yeshua, which imparts a greater ability to draw close to the Almighty than afforded a Noahide (in my opinion).

I’m going to read the rest of the book, but it’s pretty much going where I expected it to go.

If I were part of an actual Jewish community in Messiah, and if there were no pre-established model for my role in said-community, I would probably have a discussion with the congregational leadership about a Gentile’s relationship to Jews based on some synthesis of God fearers, the Acts 15 directives, and perhaps portions of Rabbi Weiner’s book.

However, the only Jews I interact with on a daily basis are my wife and children, so it’s not incumbent upon me to adapt my personal praxis for the sake of peace in a congregation.

For those Gentiles in Messiah who are in community with Jews, it’s a lot more complicated.

Insights from the Author’s Introduction to The Divine Code

divine code
Cover for the Divine Code found at Amazon.com

Included in the Torah, God also repeated and gave to Moses the Seven Commandments for the Children of Noah, along with their explanations and their details.

All the Gentiles of the world were henceforth eternally commanded to accept upon themselves and to fulfill these seven Divine precepts, because the Holy One, blessed be He, commanded them in the Torah, and He made known through Moses our teacher that the descendants of Noah had previously been commanded to do them.

-Rabbi Moshe Weiner
from the Author’s Introduction to
The Divine Code, Parts I-IV (Kindle Edition).

Just yesterday I mentioned buying this eBook online. Although I’ve only begun to read it, I found some interesting details I wanted to share.

According to Rabbi Weiner, who periodically references the Rambam, midrash states that on the first day of Adam’s creation, God gave him six of the seven Noahide Laws (although a number of them wouldn’t have made sense to the first man, because, for example, the prohibition against theft requires someone to steal from).

God again gave these laws, this time including the prohibition against eating a limb from a live animal, to Noah (see Genesis 9). However, both of these revelations were private ones, given by God to individuals. In other words, there were no witnesses.

R. Weiner explains that Gentiles were still obligated to obey the seven precepts, but that they yielded limited benefits.

However, when God gave the Torah to Moshe (Moses) at Mount Sinai (and I find it interesting that I’m writing this just days before the Festival of Shavuot), He gave, again according to midrash, both the written and oral Torahs to Moses with the entire nation of Israel standing as witnesses.

The seven Noahide laws were given as part of the Torah, and as part of the Torah, they can never be annulled, deleted, added to, or subtracted from:

“Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”

Matthew 5:17-19 (NASB)

Rav Yeshua (Jesus) affirmed this by his own words (although mainstream Christianity doesn’t necessarily see it that way), which lends some credence to the Jewish idea that we non-Jews are obligated to observe and receive a heightened spiritual benefit from the seven Noahide laws and their detailed explanations as found in the oral Torah. But that assumes Moses really did receive an “oral Torah” at Sinai along with the full contents of the written Torah, and all of that information was passed down in an unbroken line to the present day.

Moses received the Torah from Sinai and gave it over to Joshua. Joshua gave it over to the Elders, the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets gave it over to the Men of the Great Assembly. They [the Men of the Great Assembly] would always say these three things: Be cautious in judgement. Establish many pupils. And make a safety fence around the Torah.

-Ethics of the Fathers 1:1

Of course if you’re not an Orthodox Jew, you might have a different opinion about all that, but let’s roll with it for the time being.

In his Author’s Introduction, R. Weiner goes on to say:

Jewish Sages and faithful Rabbinical authorities in every generation are commanded to explain the Torah to the rest of the Jewish people. They are also commanded to explain the Noahide commandments to the Gentiles, and to teach them how these seven mitzvot should be fulfilled.

The Rabbi continues his explanation stating that only “accepted Jewish Torah scholars” are authorized to explain the Noahide laws to the Gentiles and no other teachers or authorities should be considered valid.

That would tend to leave out any Christian Pastors or teachers, as well as Jewish teachers who are not accepted as authorities, such as some of those within the Messianic Jewish movement.

The non-profit organization Ask Noah International (ANI) has taken up the mantle of educating the Gentiles, but it’s not something universally embraced by Orthodox Judaism in general (or any other Judaism). I’ve even heard it said once (though I don’t recall the source), that Jews within Messianic Judaism are not obligated to teach the Gentile the ways of righteousness, and that their movement is primarily or exclusively for Jews who have come to faith in Rav Yeshua.

Yet from R. Weiner’s perspective, authorized Jewish Rabbis and scholars are obligated to teach the Gentiles the seven mitzvot and the exact meaning of each one, which is the point of the book I’m reading. From the time of Adam to the giving of the Torah, Gentile observance of the seven laws had some merit attached, but when these laws were given to Moses as part of the Torah along with the explanation for them in the oral Torah, an enhanced spirituality was given to the Gentile by their observance.

When the revelation went from private to public, Gentile obligation and the rewards for doing so, became permanent and eternal.

Of course, exactly how the Gentiles are to observe the mitzvot can only be learned from Jewish scholars who are fluent in the portions of the oral Torah which pertain to those mitzvot. Earlier in this book, it was explained that many or even most Rabbis lack that knowledge and experience, and one of the missions of ANI is to be a resource to them.

R. Weiner quotes Rambam from Laws of Kings 8:11 which states that any Gentile who is pious and carefully observes the seven mitzvot will merit a place in the world to come. He goes on to write:

This is so provided that one accepts them and observes them because the Holy One, blessed be He, commanded them in the Torah and informed us through Moses our teacher…

In a sense, this makes Moses a teacher to the Gentiles as well as the Jews.

Remember though, this is only from the author’s brief introduction to the book. I haven’t even started the first chapter yet.

There’s one thing to consider as we go forward. If the seven mitzvot incumbant upon the Gentiles are eternal because they were given to Moses at Sinai and the Torah is eternal, then can we somehow fold them into the Acts 15 ruling of James the Just and the (Messianic) Jerusalem Counsel which gave all Gentiles who are devoted to Rav Yeshua the legal status of “resident aliens” among Israel?

Book Review of Paul Within Judaism, The Question of Identity: Gentiles as Gentiles–but also Not–in Pauline Communities

I have long puzzled over how to understand the gentiles in Paul, both from his perspective and their own perspective. I operate under the assumption that he is writing primarily to them and his goal is to articulate and manage just how they are connected to Israel through Christ. In the process, as I have discussed elsewhere, both he and they undergo various transformations in identity, changes that, I maintain, never separate him from Judaism and that affiliate gentiles with Israel but not as full members. They are not Jews and, in my view, they are not Christians…

-Caroline Johnson Hodge
Mark D. Nanos and Magnus Zetterholm, Editors
“The Question of Identity: Gentiles as Gentiles–but also Not–in Pauline Communities”
Paul within Judaism: Restoring the First-Century Context to the Apostle (Kindle Edition)

More than the previous essays I’ve reviewed from this volume, this one speaks in detail not only to the identity issues involved in being a “Gentile in Christ” in the time of the Apostle Paul, but also to those of us who call ourselves “Messianic Gentiles” today.

For the vast majority of mainstream Christians in churches, this identity conundrum does not exist. Being “Christians” is self-defining and self-explanatory and perhaps anachronistically, they believe they have direct one-to-one connectedness of identity with Paul’s own Gentiles. According to Hodge, nothing could be further from the truth, or at least further from the facts.

Many scholars use the term “Christian” for these gentile believers, even though there is fairly widespread agreement that it is anachronistic. There are good reasons not to use it: Paul does not use it himself…

At the scholarly level, it may well be agreed that Paul did not consider the Gentile disciples “Christians” nor that there is much, if any, comparison between the ancient ekklesia and the modern Church. Nevertheless, at the level of the local church and the local Pastor, I have heard it preached, specifically to Acts 20, that there are close comparisons that can be made between ancient believers and today’s Christian in the pew.

This is another case of the lag between academic discourse and what most Christians hear preached from the pulpit. It’s not so much because these Pastors are unaware of new research, but that such information does not make a good fit, either with the Pastors’ theology and doctrine or what would be accepted by their parishioners.

According to Hodge, Paul calls his Gentile disciples “beloved, holy ones, faithful ones, brothers and sisters, and a new creation,” but if they weren’t “Christians,” who were they?

She argues that defining their identity remains somewhat elusive and that these “gentiles occupy an in-between space, hovering around the borders of identities that they are not quite.”

ChurchThat’s not particularly satisfying but I know exactly how that “hovering” feels in my personal and congregational experience in various Messianic communities, or at least those few I’ve had the opportunity to visit.

Hodge’s line of pursuit in attempting to examine this “identity problem” is to trace how Paul “draws upon Jewish conceptions of gentiles, especially where they approach the boundaries of Jewish identity.”

Is it possible that there’s more than one kind of Gentile? According to Hodge, in the late Second Temple period when Paul was operating, there were two broad categories.

There’s the Jewish concept of the “generic” Gentile, that is, anyone who isn’t Jewish is a Gentile, regardless of how differentiated people from one culture or nation may be from another.

Then there are Gentiles in Christ, the disciples made by Paul and others.

And in Paul’s usage, this term has a doubleness to it in that there are two kinds of gentiles. First, there are the audiences of his letters, whom he addresses explicitly as gentiles in a number of places (Rom. 1:5-6, 13; 11:13; 15:6). Second, there are all the other gentiles who are not in Christ, the sort of gentiles that believers used to be.

That narrows things down but only a little. This believing group of Gentiles used to be, but no longer are, like the generic not-in-Christ Gentiles that populate the world. They used to be them but now they’re something else, occupying “a kind of liminal space between being those kinds of gentiles and now these kind of gentiles.”

Some of the characteristics of “these kinds of gentiles” in Christ include rejecting “idolatry and sexual immorality and [to] practice self mastery in holiness and honor.'”

Further:

Elsewhere Paul describes this as the life of the spirit, which they receive at baptism, so that, Paul says, “the just requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us” (Rom. 8:4). But he is adamant that they not keep Jewish Law, especially with respect to circumcision for male gentiles. Indeed, gentiles-in-Christ are not quite gentiles and not quite Jews.

This level of ambiguity may have ultimately been unsustainable and resulted in the eventual schism between the Christ-believing Gentiles and the Messiah-believing Jews, although Hodge doesn’t address this point in her essay.

Who am IShe does say that while remaining gentiles, these non-Jewish believers did participate in Jewish community and Jewish practices, behaving “Jewishly” but not being Jewish, as Mark Nanos has previously stated.

In fact, there may have been “a sliding scale of gentile participation in Judaism” such that there was no one fixed standard for the behavior of non-Jews in Jewish community and worship space.

I hope I’m not being anachronistic in applying this to those modern “Messianic Gentiles” who operate within Jewish spaces such as Beth Immanuel (although arguably, Beth Immanuel could be recognized as a Gentile space that behaves very “Jewishly”) and Tikvat Israel. From personal observation, I’ve seen a wide degree of variability in just how “Jewish” many non-Jews behave within these communities and elsewhere.

Perhaps this isn’t a matter of a lack of accepted standards for Gentiles, but a reflection of the necessity of process for non-Jews in community with Jews.

Hodge approaches her investigation from two avenues: one that uses the logic of lineage and the other one that uses the logic of purity.

Seed of Abraham

Hodge cites Ezra, particularly Ezra 9, and Jubilees chapter 30 to illustrate how purity of lineage was used to create a strong distinction between the Jewish people and the rest of the world, effectively excluding Gentiles from community with Israel. Not just the priests, but each individual Jew was defined as “holy unto the Lord,” set apart, unique, special, particularly from the goyim.

Furthermore, Jubilees uses the holy seed idea to distinguish between gentiles and Jews. Although gentiles number among Abraham’s seed…

…they are not part of the holy seed that belongs with God…

And that holy seed that belongs with God” began with the progeny of Abraham’s son Isaac. It is of this holy lineage which Jubilees refers to as a “kingdom of priests.”

Paul uses the same argument, only leveraging it for Gentile inclusion rather than exclusion. His rather unique interpretation states that in the promise that Abraham will be the father to many nations, and that this promise was made before the giving of the Torah, the Gentiles-in-Christ inherit the role of “Abraham’s seed” due to the faithfulness of Messiah.

As I have discussed at length elsewhere, baptism in Paul is a ritual adoption, creating a kinship relationship between gentiles and Abraham (Gal. 3; Rom. 4)…

Indeed, one of these promises, foretold by Scripture to Abraham long ago, is that, “All the gentiles (ethnê) will be blessed in you” (Gal. 3:8; Gen. 12:3; 18:18).

Paul’s own creative interpretation of Scripture allows him to claim that these ethnê mentioned in Genesis are those gentiles who have been baptized into Christ. We should not be surprised at their inclusion in God’s plan; they were present in Abraham’s body at the time of the blessing.

puritySo, according to how I’m reading Hodge, Paul was employing not so much a literal interpretation of scripture, but using widely sweeping metaphors, his own personal midrash, to make linkages between Abraham and the Christ-believing Gentiles. Once having undergone baptism as a symbolic rite of adoption, a new kinship was formed between the faithful Gentiles and the Jews in Messiah.

However, the term “adoption” should not be assumed to be the same as the legal process in modern American courts whereby a child who is not biologically produced by two married people becomes legally indistinguishable from any children born to the marital couple.

Although the “Messianic Gentiles” who are “adopted” through the rite of baptism are equally “in Christ” with their Jewish counterparts, equally apprehending the blessings of the New Covenant, such as the Holy Spirit and promise of the resurrection, Hodge emphasized repeatedly that this “adoption” did not make the gentiles Jewish nor did it in any sense obligate them to observe the Torah mitzvot in the manner of the Jews.

Paul’s rather complex metaphorical language in his epistles was necessary to articulate a concept that even today is not well understood. Just how are Gentiles included in any of the blessings of a covenant God made exclusively with Israel? The “Abraham connection” is the key, but even then, as we continue to discover through Hodge’s article, exactly who and what we Gentiles are in Christ remains a puzzle, at least in the details.

Holy Bodies

The second tact Hodges employes is the sense of the Gentiles being set apart in Christ, being holy and in need of protection.

Paul does not develop a concept of a holy seed, but he does develop the idea of holy bodies for gentile believers. In 1 Corinthians 6, Paul offers a “before and after” assessment of the Corinthians…

Earlier in this review, I mentioned two types of gentiles in Paul’s day, believing vs. non-believing gentiles:

Here Paul seems to refer to their baptism with the term “washed,” implying that he understands it as a purifying rite that brings the gentiles into right relationship with God. In this passage and in others that similarly mark the baptized gentiles as now holy…

And…

As priestly bodies are “holy to the Lord,” Corinthian bodies “belong to the Lord” and not to porneia (1 Cor. 6:13, 19-20).

…so Corinthians are “members of Christ” (6:15) and must protect this holy body.

fragmented-bodyFrom Hodge’s perspective, the believing Gentiles in Corinth underwent “a material transformation that makes them into the Jewish body of Israel’s messiah.” Citing Benny Liew, she further states, “…on this multiethnic mixture, ‘Paul is engineering here nothing less than an inter-racial/ethnic bodily substitution….The Corinthian body…is, in other words, built on and through a racial/ethic other…'”

That’s a little difficult for me to get my brain around and it doesn’t seem to clear up who we “Messianic Gentiles” are supposed to be except that we are neither fish nor fowl, so to speak. The bottom line of this section of Hodge’s essay is that Gentiles in Messiah have a “holy, mixed identity.”

Gentiles as a Part of Israel’s Story

According to Hodge, the “seed of Abraham” argument and the “purity” discourse serve two separate rhetorical purposes. The Galatians “seed” commentary was focused primarily on explaining why Gentiles are not required to observe the Torah mitzvot as do the Jews. This is because their/our identity as “gentiles-in-Christ” and how we become part of Israel’s story is through Abraham and before Moses and the Sinai event. We are recipients of the promise to be Abraham’s children from the nations who can only fulfill that promise by remaining Gentiles.

While the Jews have a very specific set of responsibilities defining their identity, it’s not so clear what the obligations of the believing Gentiles are except:

In 1 Corinthians, Paul responds to competing ideas about how to live this new life in Christ. Throughout his letter he tries to control gentile bodies, urging harmony, cooperation, and self control. These persuasive aims are responsible at least in part for the ways Paul portrays gentile identity in each.

That’s bound to be a little disappointing to modern Messianic Gentiles who are hoping for something a little more codified. Nevertheless, we do have the general guidepost of separating ourselves from other, non-believing Gentiles and from our former lives, in order to live a life in Messiah that is pure, decent, and sanctified, being inhabited by the “pneuma” of Christ. We are called to worship the God of Israel as Gentiles and not as Israel. This was non-negotiable for Paul.

…when Christ returns to establish God’s kingdom, it is necessary for Israel and the gentiles to worship God not as one people, but as separate peoples–now worshipping together, as expected in the awaited age. Paul is clear in Romans 9-11, where he lays out this larger plan, that Jews and gentiles remain separate.

Rethinking the Question

maskSo, what is the real question?

If my analysis has shown that Paul’s portrayal of gentiles as mixed or ambiguous makes some sense in Jewish context of eschatological expectation, it simultaneously raises some important cautions about the concepts of identity. My initial question–who are the gentiles?–itself assumes that there is an answer…

But what if there isn’t an answer? What does that mean for Yeshua-believing Gentiles in Jewish communities today?

Hodge raises two problems. The first is that any assumption about the answer presumes an identity that is overly simplistic. While a nice, neatly wrapped gift of well-defined Gentile identity might be satisfying, it could also sell who we are in Messiah short, denying the complexity of our role and function in the Messianic ekklesia.

The other problem is that such an assumption confuses the strategies of the speaker, that is Paul, with a description of reality.

Remember, I called Paul’s letters an exercise in metaphorical or midrashic writing. Such commentaries are not meant to be taken in an overly literal manner, and yet much of Christian exegetical tradition does just that. If we’re attempting to build a literal model out of metaphorical material, no wonder we have chronically misunderstood Paul in the Church.

Hodge states:

…his [Paul’s] rhetoric is prescriptive, not descriptive, and his goal is to coax the gentiles to think and behave in certain ways.

Citing Brubaker, Hodge writes:

…that ethnic identity should be viewed as a process, a perspective on the world, rather than a thing that exists independent of human arguments.

I read that as Messianic Gentiles not having a fixed, static identity in Jewish space but rather, we are in the process of becoming, not just being. Also, that identity likely flexes depending on our specific circumstances and our relationship to Jewish community.

In the ancient world, there were “myriad social formations” that contributed to identity and I don’t think anything has changed relative to Gentile identity in Jewish space. While Galatians 3:28 defines both Jew and Gentile as “one in Christ,” that “oneness” does not imply identical identity in any manner. It does define a place where Jew and Gentile meet and whereby we take on a shift in identity from who we Gentiles were without God to who we are now with God.

But God is a God of Israel as well as the world and when a Jew comes to faith in Messiah, he/she changes less than does the Gentile.

The Jewish PaulThe Jew already has an identity with God as defined through the covenants. Faith in Messiah is the next step in the revelation of God to Israel, a continuation along the same, straight line. For the Gentile, the change in identity is radical to the extreme. Everything we were before as individuals and as people groups undergoes transformation. In ancient days, a lot of that transformation borrowed from Jewish praxis simply because no other model was available.

But now, as it existed then, Gentiles in Jewish community remain Gentiles and behave “Jewishly” on a sliding scale of behavior depending on role and circumstances, but still only vaguely defined. Being a Messianic Gentile is a continual journey of discovery, not a destination where we can hope to arrive, at least anytime soon.

I’ve found Hodge’s article thoroughly enjoyable and hopefully you will find it equally illuminating. Being Gentiles-in-Messiah isn’t about who we are but who we are becoming. Each day is new and we are new with the coming dawn.

Judaism is not all or nothing; it is a journey where every step counts, to be pursued according to one’s own pace and interest.

-from the Ask the Rabbi column
Aish.com

Book Review of Paul within Judaism, “The Question of Conceptualization: Qualifying Paul’s Position on Circumcision in Dialogue with Josephus’s Advisors to King Izates”

Jews practicing Judaism in the first century observed the rite of circumcision, so it may seem natural enough to conclude that Paul’s arguments depreciating, when not opposing, circumcision undermine the very idea that Paul should be interpreted as a representative of Judaism. But Paul’s position is much more nuanced than the readings on which the interpretive tradition’s conclusions depend; so too is the practice of the right within Judaism.

-Mark D. Nanos
from the beginning of his essay:
“The Question of Conceptualization: Qualifying Paul’s Position on Circumcision in Dialogue with Josephus’s Advisors to King Izates”
Paul within Judaism: Restoring the First-Century Context to the Apostle (Kindle Edition)

So begins this rather lengthy article of Dr. Nanos’ on why, contrary to what is typically believed within Christianity today, Paul actually was a very good representative of the Judaism of his day, and why, again contrary to Christian tradition, Paul did support ritual circumcision of Jewish boys on the eighth day of life, though this was not required of non-Jewish boys, even among those families who were devoted disciples of Yeshua (Jesus).

Even if I were just to quote those passages in Nanos’ paper I highlighted as significant, this blog post might become almost as long as the original article. I will try to be brief and also to capture the essential points being made in this fourth submission to the “Paul Within Judaism” book (and yes, I realize it’s been quite some time since I’ve offered a review of this material).

Paul within JudaismIn real estate, the predominant credo is “location, location, location.” In Biblical exegesis, it’s “context, context, context”. Our traditional view of Paul relative to Judaism and circumcision (and most other things) tends to disregard that context, that is, the first century Jewish context in which the Apostle wrote, taught, and lived.

According to Nanos, viewed and read within that context, alongside “similarly qualified statements made by other Jews,” Paul always remained properly observant to the Torah of Moses and upheld circumcision of Jewish males as a continued sign of the Abrahamic covenant between the Jewish people and God.

If Paul opposed circumcision, it was specifically regarding the proselyte ritual to convert a non-Jew to Judaism, as was the tradition of his day (and ours).

I should make clear that, as Nanos writes, Paul did not object to non-Jewish practicing Judaism alongside ethnic Jews and converts, or at least he didn’t object to them behaving “Jewishly” within a Jewish social and community context. This did not require these Gentile disciples to become obligated to the Torah mitzvot in the manner of the Jewish people. Rather, for the sake of social discourse with their Jewish mentors as well as elevating the non-Jews’ spirituality and moral/ethical behavior to the level Hashem expects of those who were created in His Image, they behaved, as I have just said, “Jewishly,” or in a way that an outside observer might believe is “Jewish”.

Nanos slowly builds his arguments (which are too long to cite in detail here) regarding how we can read Paul and how the Apostle uses the term “circumcision,” “circumcised” (for a Jew), and “foreskinned” (for Gentiles including Gentile Yeshua disciples) to show that Paul supported (male) Jewish disciples being circumcised but not so the Gentile believers. Paul only was against circumcising Gentile Yeshua-disciples and fully supported the circumcision only of Jewish Yeshua disciples along with all other Jewish males.

The gospel’s chronometrical claim creates the basis for Paul’s resistance to circumcision of Christ-following non-Jews. He believes that now they must represent those from the other nations turning to the One God of Israel, and thus, that they must not become Israelites…

Nanos turns to a story related by Josephus, the narrative about the circumcision of the non-Jew Izates, King of Adiabene. Rather than attempt to familiarize you with that story from Nanos’s full rendition, you can find a summary of the life and significant experiences of Izates, specifically his familiarity with and eventual conversion to Judaism, at Wikipedia (not the best of sources, but it will get you started…feel free to Google Izates for more).

In short, Izates, who was a contemporary of Paul, encountered a Jewish advisor named Ananias, who familiarized the young King with Judaism, so much so, that even without converting, Izates took on a number of “Jewish” behaviors and, to a casual observer, could have been mistaken for acting “Jewishly” if not being “Jewish”.

Ancient Rabbi teachingAnother advisor, Eleazar, told Izates that it was improper for him to study Torah without converting. Izates greatly desired to convert, but Ananias believed the King’s subjects would not accept the rule of a Jewish King (how ironic, since one day, the whole world will be ruled by a Jewish King, King Messiah).

Even uncircumcised, that is, as a Gentile, Izates (as well as his mother) were practicing a form of Judaism without being Jewish. And while the advice of Eleazar won out and the King did indeed convert, Nanos makes the point that both Paul and Ananias held quite similar points of view, that it was unnecessary for a non-Jew to convert in order to worship “[sebein; literally , ‘honor,’ ‘respect,’ or ‘fear’] God without circumcision…”

Here’s an important point Nanos made:

…Izates had not yet given up his desire to become circumcised: thus Eleazar “urged him [Izates] to accomplish ‘the work’ [or ‘the rite,’ ton ergon].” Eleazar is a Jew from the Galilee, and likely a Pharisee…

Terms such as “the act,” “deed,” or “work” as we find in Paul’s writings on “the works of the law” (see Galatians 3:2 for example) specifically refer to the Apostle’s disapproval of Gentiles undergoing ritual circumcision for the purpose of conversion in order to be justified before God. Again, Paul’s “works of the law” had nothing to do with forbidding Jewish Yeshua-disciples from being circumcised nor was Paul preaching against Torah observance for the Jewish followers of Messiah.

Nanos quotes Josephus (quoting Eleazar) as outright stating that one must be a Jew in order to be obligated to the commandments of the Torah of Moses. In Eleazar’s case, the only way to resolve the conflict of a non-Jew even voluntarily observing some of the mitzvot was for him to “complete the act,” “rite,” “work” of conversion through circumcision.

Ananias, on the other hand, like Paul, saw devotion to God and observing a life of moral and ethical excellence as a Gentile was Izates’ proper response “apart from becoming a Jew, and thus, apart from becoming under Torah on the same terms as a Jew (a distinction that people of his [Itazes] kingdom are represented as grasping…).”

Nanos dovetails off of Josephus to re-engage Paul, stating:

Moreover, this raises interesting comparisons with Paul’s insistence that faith(fullness) for Christ-following non-Jews requires abstaining from becoming Jews through circumcision, while at the same time insisting that they turn away from cults associated with familial and civic gods, which would be expected to apply to themselves in most Jewish groups…

synagogueSo Paul expected that Gentiles as Gentiles behave “Jewishly” but not become Jewish. However behaving “Jewishly” does not mean they became Jews without a bris and were in any manner obligated to the 613 commandments as were/are the Jewish people, either born or converted.

Further:

Such unorthodox behavior creates for them [Yeshua-believing Gentiles] an anomalous identity leading to sociopolitical marginalization, both from Jews, who do not share their chronometrical gospel claim to be neither guests nor proselytes but full members alongside of Jews, and, for different reasons, from their non-Jewish families and neighbors. If even those who become proselytes may be regarded with suspicion as atheists and traitors, then likely all the more threatening would be those who remained non-Jews if they simultaneously claimed the right to abstain from honoring their fellow non-Jewish people’s gods and lords.

I suppose a brief explanation of the term “chronometrical gospel” is in order. As I understand it, the term refers to a time-based event in the overarching salvational plan of God for Israel and the nations, whereby with the first advent of Messiah ben Joseph, Gentiles were granted, for the first time in human history, the opportunity to be equal partakers in the blessings of the New Covenant (Jer. 31, Ezek. 36) without becoming Gerim as was required in the time of Moses, and having the third generation of their offspring being accepted as an Israelites (thus partaking in the Sinai covenant), or in first century (and later) times by undergoing the rite of the proselyte and converting to Judaism.

From the life, death, resurrection, and ascension onward, non-Jews were provided a new and better path by which we can swear fealty to God through the faithfulness of the Jewish Messiah King.

We also see from the above-quoted passage, that Yeshua-believing Gentiles were accepted as social equals and sharers of the New Covenant blessings of the Holy Spirit and the promise of the resurrection, not only without being required to first convert, but without the identical obligation to perform the Torah mitzvot, an obligation that remains exclusive to born-Jews and proselytes.

Nanos brings up something especially relevant to the role of the “Messianic Gentile” today, the matter of identity ambiguity. Just like our first century counterparts, we modern Gentiles in Messiah, when within (Messianic) Jewish communal space, are not Jews but are also not allied with our former identities as non-believers. We are expected to take the moral high road, so to speak, and particularly in Jewish space, we say Jewish prayers (although our prayers are sometimes adapted due to us not being Israel), attend prayer services with Jews, attend the Torah service with Jews, eat kosher food when we dine with Jews, cover our heads when davening with Jews, and committing many other acts that look pretty “Jewish,” even though we are not Jews.

identityIn many ways, we are neither fish nor fowl, and the question of just what Messianic Gentile behavior actually is supposed to look like is often a matter of spirited debate.

Changing the discourse about Paul by adding a contextual tag to virtually every statement made about his standing on Jewish matters, such as the circumcision of non-Jews, is a good place to begin for those who are attempting to conceptualize Paul within Judaism…

It would be nice if our Bibles contained such “tags” to make Paul appear more within his own context to those of us reading him thousands of years later in a religious, cultural, and conceptual environment definitely outside of his original context.

Sadly, no such Bible exists (to the best of my knowledge), but Nanos does attempt to give us examples:

In the shortest sense, this could consist of no more than adding the phrase “…for Christ-following non-Jews” to statements made about them in order to avoid universalizing the matter under discussion.

And…

…such as, “for non-Christ-following Jews”

And again…

…by adding “for Christ-following non-Jews who are participating in Jewish communal life”

Or even…

“…who practice Judaism according to the teachings of Paul”

Or even better…

policy changes toward these non-Jews, hence… “for Christ-following non-Jews who practice Judaism according to the chronometrical claim of the gospel proclaimed by Paul and the other apostolic leaders of this Judaism.”

messianic judaism for the nationsYou get the idea. What would have been understood as a matter of course by the original readers of Paul’s epistles almost completely eludes lay-person, clergy, and Christian scholar (or most of them) twenty centuries later in our American churches, seminaries, and universities.

Getting back to the role of the ancient Messianic Gentile who was not expected to observe many/most of the mitzvot in the manner of the Jews, what God did (and does) expect of them (us)…?

…and Paul regarding what signifies faith(fulness) alone for non-Jews is striking…

Or in more detail:

This reasoning parallels Paul’s argument about Abraham’s becoming circumcised as a “sign” of his faithfulness (based upon Gen. 17:11); yet Abraham for Paul illustrates why faith(fulness) for Christ-following non-Jews is shown [specifically] by their [our] not becoming circumcised (Rom. 3:27-4:25; Gal. 3:1-4:7; passim). Paul insists that these non-Jews represent the children promised to Abraham from the other nations before he was circumcised…

…they [we] must remain non-Jews, that is, must not become members of Israel.

That, in a nutshell, so to speak, is the particular path of the ancient and modern Messianic Gentile. The evidence of our faith is to deliberately not become circumcised, that is, to avoid converting to Judaism, within the Messianic community or otherwise, and to fulfill our destiny as the children from the nations called by His Name, thus fulfilling the promise God made to Abraham about his gaining (faithful) children from the nations…that is, us.

By either converting, or unjustly claiming full obligation to the Torah as if we were converts without a bris, we are making a mockery of God’s promise to Abraham, and denying our own role as non-Jews in Messiah, further throwing God’s prophetic word back in His Face (as it were).

In contrast, Paul argues for faith(fulness) alone exclusive of circumcision as the decisive action for the Christ-following non-Jews he addressed, even though it came at the price of marginalization.

In other words, if you’re a Messianic Gentile and you at least sometimes feel marginalized, both in the Messianic Jewish world and in the Church among more traditional Christians (and I know what that feels like), that’s normal.

The Jewish PaulBut Nanos believes Paul was not seeking to bifurcate faith for the Gentile vs. actions/deeds for the Jews. Both Jews and Gentiles are saved by faith(fulness), but what is required by the faithfulness of the Gentiles does not include an identity transformation by becoming Jews and/or Israel. That identity is reserved and the faithful Jews are assigned obligations and duties not incumbent upon the Gentiles in Messiah.

Or as Nanos puts it…

Paul appeals to principle, not expedience. He defines the principle as faith(fulness) according to what is appropriate for them as non-Jews, which can be different in specific ways from that faith(fulness) might consist of for those who are Jews.

Bingo.

Hopefully, I’ve captured the essence of Nanos’ arguments. He tends to approach his core points from numerous different directions, and adding a great deal of detail that sometimes defies my ability to succinctly review him. Nevertheless, there are two major takeaways from this essay as I see it:

  1. Any statements made by Paul that appear to devalue or require the elimination of Torah observance and circumcision by all Yeshua-believers, when read within Paul’s original first century Jewish context, only apply to his non-Jewish audience, the Yeshua-believing non-Jews in the Messianic ekkelsia.
  2. Any statements made by Paul that appear to require full observance of the Torah commandments and circumcision by all Yeshua-believers, when read within Paul’s original first century Jewish context, only apply to his Jewish audience, the Yeshua believing Jews in the Messianic ekkelsia (although they would also apply to Jews who were not Yeshua-believers since all Jews have Jewish identity, being Israel, and obligation to the Torah of Moses at the core of their being Jews).

I’ll continue with my reviews as time allows.

Note: Edited at Portland International Airport using PDX’s free wifi and free electrical power in their business courtesy room.

Book Review of Paul Within Judaism, “The Question of Assumptions: Torah Observance in the First Century”

Much of the debate about whether Paul was a representative of first-century Judaism has centered on the question of his relationship to Jewish “law,” that is, Torah. Although a majority of proponents of the traditional view presume that following his “conversion” Paul no longer attributed an intrinsic value to Jewish identity and no longer considered Torah to be binding, adherents of the Paul within Judaism perspective generally maintain that Paul remained a Torah observant Jew throughout his life.

Karin Hedner Zetterholm
from the beginning of her essay
“The Question of Assumptions: Torah Observance in the First Century”
Paul within Judaism: Restoring the First-Century Context to the Apostle (Kindle Edition)

For me, it’s a foregone conclusion that Paul followed a Pharisaic lifestyle all of his life and that the revelation of Messiah was not a “conversion” from Judaism to Christianity (and I remind you that in the First Century, there was no such thing as Christianity), but the next step (quantum leap actually) into the understanding and lived experience of God’s redemptive plan for Israel and the Jewish people.

Nothing in the revelation of Messiah or becoming his disciple and the emissary to the Gentiles required Paul to change anything about his observance. Well, OK, he most likely developed a more liberal halachah regarding associating with Gentiles, but in terms of his obligation to Hashem, God of his fathers, to the Torah mitzvot, to davening at the set times of prayer, to returning (if at all possible) to Jerusalem for the moadim, to continuing to eat kosher and observe the rest of the commandments, he need change nothing at all.

In fact, if he did, he would be diminishing his relationship with God by not being faithful to the Sinai covenant, even as the Master, Yeshua (Jesus) was faithful to the covenant.

But that’s hardly the traditional Christian understanding of Paul. The Church believes Paul converted to Christianity, replaced the law with grace, and taught both Jews and Gentiles that the law was done away with and need not be followed any longer.

Not that the Gentiles were the least bit concerned about the law since they/we have never been subject to the Sinai covenant, but the accusation that Paul had turned away from the Torah, the Temple, and was teaching other Jews to do the same would have been devastating. In fact, it was:

“You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed, and they are all zealous for the Law; and they have been told about you, that you are teaching all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children nor to walk according to the customs. What, then, is to be done? They will certainly hear that you have come.

Acts 21:20-22 (NASB)

And…

When the seven days were almost over, the Jews from Asia, upon seeing him in the temple, began to stir up all the crowd and laid hands on him, crying out, “Men of Israel, come to our aid! This is the man who preaches to all men everywhere against our people and the Law and this place; and besides he has even brought Greeks into the temple and has defiled this holy place.”

Acts 21:27-28

Paul in chainsEven though Paul vigorously denied these allegations under oath during a number of legal proceedings, both Jewish and Roman, most Christians believe that Paul really did the things he was accused of, and it’s OK with the Church because they believe Jesus wanted Paul to do all of these things.

But then, was Paul lying all those times he denied teaching against the Torah of Moses? If he was, why should we trust anything he wrote that’s recorded in the Apostolic Scriptures? Frankly, if we can’t trust Paul, most common Christian theology disintegrates since, oddly enough, most of what we understand about Christian faith in the Church comes from Paul, not Jesus.

Zetterholm in her article, proposes to show us that Paul remained a Torah observant Jew throughout his lifetime. Let’s have a look.

The first point she lands on is that Torah observance is not a distinct set of well-defined behaviors and that it “means different things to different groups and people, and, accordingly, different people define violation of Torah observance differently.”

She then cited different examples from the various branches of modern Judaism, comparing in one case, her Israeli friend who defines himself as “liberal Orthodox” to another friend who is a Conservative Jew. In referring to the latter friend:

In his view, he was not “breaking the law,” but interpreting it, or rather, applying the interpretation of the denomination to which he belongs.

Zetterholm further states:

Since Jewish law is the result of an ongoing collective interpretation and extension of injunctions and principles laid out in the Hebrew Bible, disagreements over their correct understanding are bound to develop.

Actually the matter of how Torah is understood and halachah applied between the different Judaisms of our day is enormously complex, and Zetterholm’s essay wouldn’t even begin to do this discussion justice if, for no other reason, than the fact that it’s simply not long enough. This is a book-length conversation at least.

I found myself disagreeing with her somewhat, since I know that an Orthodox Jew would not consider a Reform Jew, for example, to be Torah observant at all. The Orthodox aren’t terribly approving of Conservative observance, either. From an Orthodox Jew’s point of view, only they are observing Torah correctly. It gets even more complicated when you consider the different Chasidic Jewish movements exist, all of which are generally considered Orthodox.

However…

The Qumran literature and the New Testament provide ample evidence that there was no consensus on this issue or in other areas of Jewish law in the first century. The Qumran community disagreed with the Pharisees on which activities were prohibited on the Sabbath…

Don't ArgueCertainly both the differing streams of ancient and modern Judaism debate, disagree, and outright argue regarding how Torah is applied, and yet they must also agree that Torah is being applied and the mitzvot are being observed, even as they may disagree in the halachah of how the mitzvot should be observed. We see examples of Yeshua (Jesus) doing this on a number of occasions in the Gospels, particularly on proper observance of the Shabbat:

At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath, and His disciples became hungry and began to pick the heads of grain and eat. But when the Pharisees saw this, they said to Him, “Look, Your disciples do what is not lawful to do on a Sabbath.” But He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he became hungry, he and his companions, how he entered the house of God, and they ate the consecrated bread, which was not lawful for him to eat nor for those with him, but for the priests alone? Or have you not read in the Law, that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple break the Sabbath and are innocent? But I say to you that something greater than the temple is here. But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire compassion, and not a sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.

Matthew 12:1-7

This isn’t the Master informing this group of Pharisees that he canceled the Sabbath or any of the mitzvot related to observing Shabbat. This is a passionate discussion between two poskim debating proper halachah for Shabbos.

That said, I think it goes too far to say all Judaisms may be equally valid in their interpretation of Torah and leaving it at that, but perhaps for the sake of time and word count, as I mentioned above, Zetterholm couldn’t drill down into the details. As I said, the topic is highly complex and nuanced and, not being an expert in Torah, Talmud, and halachah, I’m not particularly qualified to explain beyond a certain elementary point.

But what does any of this have to do with whether or not Paul was Torah observant?

So far, Zetterholm is laying the groundwork for her readers, and she has to assume that some, many, or most of them do not have a firm understanding of Torah observance among differing Jewish groups. I get that. She takes a number of pages to solidify her argument before moving on to what Torah observance may have looked like in Paul’s time.

In addition to the general factors pertaining to Torah observance outlined above, a discussion of Paul’s relation to the Torah is further complicated by the fact that we know very little about halakic observance in the first century.

We do know that the Pharisees, Sadducees, the Qumran community, and other Jewish streams differed in their halachic systems, but there’s more we don’t know about those details than we do.

Hillel and ShammaiHowever, we do, for example, know about the famous schools of Hillel and Shammai as they existed a generation before Yeshua. A number of their arguments are well documented. And yet, Zetterholm states that “both seem to have been associated with the Pharisaic movement…” It’s likely for Rabbis within the same stream of Judaism but from differing schools, to debate halachah while still considering each other as “observant.”

Our knowledge of how Torah observance was considered among the first century Judaisms is incomplete, but we don’t have to know all of the details to understand if Paul was observant or not. We have his own testimony about it:

If anyone else has a mind to put confidence in the flesh, I far more: circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless.

Philippians 3:4-6 (emph. mine)

I don’t know what the Greek text says, but the English translation as the NASB presents it indicates Paul speaking of himself in the present tense (apart from his being a persecutor of the church at that time). These are things he considered himself as he was writing this letter, not things he was before he “converted to Christianity.”

The next question then is did Paul teach anyone to not observe the mitzvot, Jew or Gentile?

To answer this query, Zetterholm uses 1 Corinthians 10:23-30 as the foundation for her response. I won’t go into all of her arguments, but here’s what she said in part:

For instance, is Paul’s permission in 1 Corinthians 10:25 to eat food purchased at the market in Corinth and to eat whatever is served when invited to dine with “an unbeliever” (10:27) really evidence that he no longer considered Jewish law binding, as scholars commonly claim, or is it better understood as an expression of first-century Jewish Diaspora halakah for Jesus-oriented gentiles, as others have suggested?

In her discussion of 1 Corinthians 8-10, she answers that question, but in brief, she concludes that Paul was specifically developing halachah as it applied to Jesus-oriented Gentiles. This was not Paul abandoning the Torah or abrogating the commandments for himself or for other Jews, but adapting halachah for the needs of Gentiles, in this case, in the city of Corinth.

Ancient Rabbi teachingActually, Zetterholm wasn’t saying that Paul felt it was proper for Gentile disciples of Yeshua to eat meat sanctified to the pagan gods as such. If the Gentiles in question realized that these “gods” were wholly fictional and not “gods” at all, then whether or not foods were sacrificed to them would be meaningless and no harm is done in eating it.

Only if these Gentiles were in the presence of other non-Jews, either pagans, or Gentile believers who may have been “newly minted” or otherwise weak in their faith, should they abstain from such meat, lest they give the impression that they were approving of pagan worship.

Expressed another way:

Paul’s argument here bears a resemblance to the rabbinic idea of mar’it ‘ain, the principle according to which one must refrain from acts that are permitted but inappropriate because they may lead a less knowledgeable Jew to draw false conclusions and cause him or her to do something that is not permitted.

One example of this she gives is a Jew who puts a piece of cheese on a vegetarian “hamburger”. Although this is not mixing meat and dairy, another Jew who casually observed the event might get the wrong idea.

Zetterholm goes into the “nuts and bolts” of her argument using the 1 Corinthians 8-10 example in much more detail than I have room for here. For the complete answer, you’ll have to get a copy of the book and read what she’s written.

The bottom line is:

Far from declaring Jewish law null and void, Paul is engaged either in establishing a halakah concerning idol food for Jesus-oriented gentiles, or teaching them an existing local Corinthian Jewish halakah.

In either case, Paul is clearly not abrogating Torah observance for Jews, he’s adapting or creating halakah specifically for his non-Jewish students because such halakah wasn’t necessary before there were Gentile disciples of the Jewish Messiah operating in community with other Gentiles and with Jews in a Jewish religious movement.

She also said:

Far from “breaking the law,” Paul seems to be engaged in the process of applying it….establishing a rule of law for Jesus-oriented gentile, Paul was engaged in the balancing act involved in establishing halakah…

This also addresses (again) the matter of how Gentiles were to relate to the Torah in general, and Pharisaic halachah in particular. In this example, Paul was not teaching the Gentiles to observe the Torah and perform the mitzvot in a manner identical to the Jewish believers. He was adapting or inventing halachah that was specific to Gentiles but not necessarily applicable to Jews.

The Jewish PaulThis is probably why, referring back to Acts 21, some of the Jews in Jerusalem had the idea Paul was teaching against the Torah. He was teaching Gentiles that their obligations were different and certainly not as stringent as those of the Jews. Somehow the information was twisted, deliberately or not, to be interpreted that Paul was teaching Jews that they were not obligated to the mitzvot and did not have to circumcise their infant sons on the eighth day.

In her conclusion, Zetterholm wrote:

We have no means of knowing whether other Jews regarded Paul as lenient or strict, but in light of the complex nature of Torah observance in general and rabbinic legislation on idolatry in particular, nothing in his reasoning seems to indicate that he had abandoned Jewish law.

Derek Leman had written the first part of a two-part article for the now defunct AncientBible.net site called “Paul Was Too Jewish for the Synagogue.” I reviewed it here on my blog about sixteen months ago. It was Derek’s opinion that Paul may have been too strict in his observance for many diaspora synagogues, indicating the Apostle’s devotion to the Torah of Moses was rather high.

In addition to Leman, I think Zetterholm makes a compelling case for concluding that Paul was indeed a Torah observant Jew throughout his life, even as he was also an emissary to the Gentiles at the command of the Master.

I’ll post the next part of my review of the Nanos/Zetterholm volume soon.

Book Review of Paul Within Judaism, “The Question of Terminology: The Architecture of Contemporary Discussions on Paul”

Over the last decade or so, more and more scholars of the New Testament have pointed to the need to re-think the terminology we use in our analyses as well as our teaching. Several terms have been asked to retire, as Paula Fredriksen has phrased it, and leave room for new words and expressions that may help us to better grasp what was going on in the first-century Mediterranean world, a time and culture very distant from our own.

Anders Runesson
from the beginning of his essay
“The Question of Terminology: The Architecture of Contemporary Discussions on Paul”
Paul within Judaism: Restoring the First-Century Context to the Apostle (Kindle Edition)

George Orwell’s famous novel 1984 demonstrates very well that when you control a people’s language, you control how they think. If a population has no word for “riot” or for “liberty,” they will be unlikely to be able to conceive of, let alone operationalize those ideas.

So the words we use in understanding Paul affect how we think of Paul, his writing, his teaching, and how we conceptualize our Christian faith. Even the term “Christian faith” summons particular thoughts and ideas that Paul may not have (and probably didn’t have) in his possession at any time in his life.

It is said that interpretation begins at translation, the words in English (or whatever other language) we use to translate Biblical Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. How we translate the Bible and what terms we use to express “Christian” ideas are part of what Runesson calls the “politics of translation.” This suggests that any attempt to disturb the status quo of how the Bible is translated now and what terms and phrases are included will encounter resistance. If you change the term “Paul the convert to Christianity” to “Paul the Jewish emissary to the Gentiles,” the accompanying image of Paul immediately and dramatically changes.

In his article, Runesson focuses on two terms in English used in Biblical translations: “Christians” (including “Christianity”) and “church.”

He further states:

It will be argued that “Christians,” “Christianity,” and “church” are politically powerful terms that are inadequate, anachronistic, and misleading when we read Paul…

These terms serve the needs of the 21st century church but in doing so, wholly misrepresent Paul the Apostle and everything he ever wrote or taught. Both modern Christianity and modern Judaism receive the same image of the Apostle from this mistaken illustration of Paul, and while the Church hails the story of a Jewish Pharisee who converted to Christianity and taught new disciples to replace the Law with Grace, Judaism reviles him for the same reasons.

In discussing “translating history,” Runesson asks if we are “colonizing the past or liberating the dead?” America is a colonial nation and as we know from our own history, and that of other such empires, one colonizes a “new world” and an indigenous people by subjugating what was there before and reforming it to resemble the colonizing nation and the colonizing people.

If we (Gentile Christianity) have done so with the past, with Paul, with the Bible, then we aren’t interpreting Paul in any accurate manner. Rather than employing exegesis, or taking our meaning of the Biblical text from the original context of that text, we are performing eisegesis or overwriting the text by inserting our own meaning anachronistically and erroneously.

Luther
Martin Luther

I mentioned in my previous review some of the historical events surrounding men like Augustine and Luther in terms of their probable motives for rewriting Paul’s history and they aren’t all pretty. In that review, you will recall, I quoted Magnus Zetterholm as saying that it is the Christian Church that must change, that must adjust how it chooses to understand Paul, to be more historically accurate and Biblically sustainable.

Runesson states:

New insights are thus dependent on our willingness to de-familiarize ourselves with the phenomena we seek to understand…

We think we know Paul. We think we know Jesus (Yeshua). We think we are intimately familiar with the late Second Temple period in Roman occupied Judea, not because we read the Bible, but because we listen to the prevailing Christian doctrine about the Bible as preached from the pulpit and taught in Sunday school class.

We don’t truly comprehend how alien that ancient world really was, how few historical facts have survived from that time and place. We want to believe that if Paul miraculously appeared in one of our Evangelical churches today, he would immediately feel at home and provide us with a sermon of unparalleled insight (assuming he spoke a language we understood). In fact, even if he understood our language, he would have absolutely no idea what was going on and probably wouldn’t even understand that we are the descendants of the Gentile disciples he taught.

We need to learn to experience Paul as someone we’ve never met. We need to learn about him from that view. We need to stop creating Paul in our own image and cease colonizing the ancient near east of the Apostolic Scriptures.

As Runesson puts it:

Reconstructing and translating history inevitably begins and ends with language. When we defamiliarize ourselves with texts and other artifacts, we engage in a process of decolonizing the past, liberating the dead from the bondage of our contemporary political identities.

This he calls the “reconstruction of silenced voices.”

So how are we going to change the “architecture of the conversation?”

Terminological edifices are built slowly over time and are not easily torn down. Now-unsustainable scholarly ideas from previous eras influence current discourses…

It might be easier for you to pick up your car with your bare hands and lift it over your head than it would be to change a Christian’s time-honored and “sacred” traditions about the words they/we use to describe Paul.

We need, therefore, to reconsider and discuss not only the conclusions we draw, but also the “architecture” within which we formulate them.

Terminology is pregnant with meaning that often goes unnoticed in the analytical process, which it nevertheless controls from within.

The minute we use a term or set of terms to describe an idea, we have shaped the meaning of that idea, even unknowingly, into something that might be completely foreign to the person who originated that concept.

When we talk about New Testament scholarship in general and Paul in particular, it has been the convention to say that one is studying (earliest) “Christianity” and/or (the early) “Christians.” Already at this point we have framed the shape and thus the likely outcome of the discussion…

new testamentEven the term “New Testament” as contrasted with another term, “Old Testament” creates a dichotomy that doesn’t necessarily exist. I’ve known intelligent, learned, well-read Christian clergy who actually believe the New Covenant (which we find in Jer. 31 and Ezek. 36) is actually synonymous with New Testament. I choose to think of the Bible as being divided into four basic parts: Torah, Prophets, Writings, and Apostolic Scriptures. None of those classifications is designed to divorce one part of the Bible from the other as the terms “Old Testament” and “New Testament” do. They simply classify different areas of emphasis for different sections of our Holy text. If we must “carve up” the Bible, let’s do it without setting one part in direct opposition to another.

Runesson asks if the earliest followers of Messiah would have recognized the “umbrella term” we’ve assigned to them: “Christianity” and their own identity as “Christians” as we comprehend the term today? Would they have understood that when they gathered to fellowship and to worship, they were going to “church?”

Christianity is a religion. But up until a couple of centuries ago or so, “religion” wasn’t a distinct entity that could be wholly separated from other societal functions. So to call the “religion” of Paul “Christianity” or even “Judaism,” as such, is to impose a modern concept on an ancient people. Although there was not one uniform practice of Judaism in the first century world (although according to Rabbi Carl Kinbar, there was a core Judaism that all branches of Judaism agreed upon and variations were then applied), if one was a Jew, one’s lifestyle included the mitzvot in devotion to God (apart from the periodic heretic or two).

Calling Paul a Christian and saying he practiced Christianity is totally anachronistic and forces modern Church concepts on an ancient Jewish Pharisee who saw himself quite differently.

Even acknowledging the existence of the Greek word “christianos” (translated into English as “Christian”) does not mean that how “christianos” was thought of and lived out nearly two-thousand years ago has very much or even anything to do with how Christians think of and live out their faith today. What would a modern Evangelical think if he took a trip in Mr. Peabody’s “Wayback Machine” and found himself in Paul’s “church” in Antioch? How would that Christian navigate through what would (in my mind) undoubtedly be a Jewish synagogue prayer service on Shabbat rather than a Sunday church fellowship?

The most natural point of departure for renewed terminological reflection around who Paul was and how he self-identified would be to speak not of “Paul the Christian” but of “Paul the Jew”; of Paul as someone who practiced “Judaism,” not “Christianity.”

Simply put, “Christianity” didn’t exist while Paul lived in the world. Paul taught about and wrote about and lived out a Judaism called “the Way,” and he applied it to his Gentile disciples as it was relevant to them as Gentiles. He himself was a Jew, a Pharisee, a devout Hebrew, dedicated to the mitzvot, the Temple, the Torah, and Hashem, God of his fathers.

If anyone else has a mind to put confidence in the flesh, I far more: circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless.

Philippians 3:4-6 (NASB)

And as Runesson says:

…that speaking of Paul as a Jew practicing a form of Judaism is a more historically plausible point of departure for interpreting his letters…

And given all that, how do we read and interpret Paul’s letters if we employ this drastically changed paradigm?

Actually, it’s harder than that.

This does not mean, of course, that we should understand “Jewish” in essentialist terms as ahistorically referring to specific characteristics completely untouched by time and culture.

And…

…the observer needs to focus on how “a society understands and represents Jews at any given time and place…”

synagogueSo dropping Paul in a modern Orthodox Jewish synagogue on Shabbat might not be a particularly familiar experience for him either, though he’d have something more in common with the other Jews present than he would a Christian congregation.

We have to answer the question of what kind of Judaism Paul practiced. Only then can we gain a better understanding of what he was writing about in his letters. If we could only view them through his own interpretive lens or through the eyes of his immediate audience, what revelations would we see?

Runesson said that he and Mark Nanos have coined the term “Apostolic Judaism” to refer to the sort of Judaism Paul practiced and taught. How that Apostolic Judaism was lived out by Jews and by Gentiles is our mission of discovery.

Moving on to his discourse on the term “church,” Runesson brings up a point that I’ve written about on more than one occasion. The Old English word which eventually became “church” and originated in earlier Germanic languages wouldn’t be coined for many, many centuries after Paul penned letters mentioning the “Ekklesia” of Messiah. Translating the word “Ekklesia” as “Church” in our English Bibles is not only anachronistic, it is misleading and probably even dishonest.

Ekklesia, at least in Paul’s mind, was probably more closely associated to the Hebrew word “Kahal” than “Church”. It would be better, if we need to use an English word, to translate “Ekklesia” as “Assembly,” which more accurately maps to the first century Greek meaning of the term. Paul didn’t invent “Church,” either the word or the attendant concept. Later Christian Gentiles did that.

Paul never uses the word synagoge, but since ekklesia as a term was applied also to Jewish synagogue institutions at this time, it is instructive to compare how translators work with synagoge in relation to ekklesia.

In modern Bible translations and modern Christian thought, we have created a separate and opposing relationship between church and synagogue. Christians think of synagogue as the polar opposite and negative reflection of church. But this “anachronistic dividing line” is a manufactured artifact of later Church history and has nothing to do with Paul. Paul would have more closely associated Ekklesia and Synagoge in his thoughts than this thing called “church” which had no existence in his era.

Nevertheless…

Ekklesia occurs 114 times in the New Testament. The NRSV translates all but five of these with “church”…

What Runesson says next supports what I said above:

…the English translation “church” is inappropriate and misleading…

It is more accurate to say:

Paul’s use of ekklesia indicates that as the “apostle to the nations” he is inviting non-Jews to participate in specific Jewish institutional settings, where they may share with Jews the experience of living with the risen Messiah, of living “in Christ.”

Maybe that can be said to be true also of Gentiles who find themselves in fellowship within modern Messianic Jewish community. We are invited to share in a Jewish institutional setting while remaining Gentiles, and “share with Jews the experience of living with the risen Messiah.”

The Jewish PaulWe can dispense with colonizing the past and instead participate in giving a voice to the dead, letting them speak to us again, letting them…letting Paul use his own voice, or as close to it as we can manage.

Runesson concludes his essay with:

The terminology used by the sources themselves invites us to understand Paul as practicing and proclaiming a minority form of Judaism that existed in the first century. Such an invitation is, however, not the end of the research project; it is its very beginning.

I’ll continue my review soon.