Tag Archives: exegesis

Exploring Reformed Theology: The Fallacy of Covenant Equality Between the Church and Israel

On Monday, I published an article I wrote called “Exploring Reformed Theology: Why the Church is Not Israel,” which was an extension of my previous blog post R.C. Sproul, Jesus, and the Doctrine of Active Obedience.

All this was started because a video snippet of Sproul’s teaching on “active obedience” was posted by someone I know on his Facebook page. He responded to my putting the above-mentioned link to my “Exploring” blog post in the relevant Facebook conversation thread thus:

Doesn’t bother me that you don’t agree entirely with how Reformed theology characterizes Israel… I don’t either. I was simply trying to point out that the objections to Sproul’s position–as expressed in the video snippet, and not expanded beyond it–was based on a misreading. I wish I had time to engage the two things you’ve written recently, as I believe there is much I could point to that would remove the necessity to see yourself as so “other.” B’ezrat HaShem, I may…

Frankly, I wish he would. I’d love to hear how Christianity and Judaism could be reconciled relative to the covenants and understand how he comprehends this process working out. But I just don’t see it in the Bible. I just don’t see how Church= Israel and Israel = Church, particularly without totally devaluing Hashem’s covenant relationship with national Israel and the Jewish people.

Reformed Theologians, as far as my meager understanding of them goes, don’t believe they are involved in Replacement Theology, the idea that the Church replaces Israel in all of God’s covenant promises. They believe, since Church = Israel and Israel = Church, that they simply become participants of those covenants equally with Israel. Israel doesn’t lose its identity as such, but if I comprehend what Sproul was teaching correctly, once Jesus “fulfilled” all of the Torah commandments perfectly, and had the righteousness he gained by doing so transferred to all of his believers, there was no need for Jews (or Gentiles for that matter) to make any further attempts at performing the mitzvot.

In other words, post-crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension, the entire Torah goes “poof” and vanishes in puff of metaphoric smoke.

The problem with that is the significance and uniqueness of Israel and the Jewish people goes “poof” as well. They either have to convert to Christianity in order to gain righteous standing before God, or they vainly continue Jewish religious practice after Jesus made it obsolete.

And as my regular readers will attest, I have a real problem with that idea.

Nearly three years ago, I wrote a multi-part review of David Rudolph’s and Joel Willitts’ book Introduction to Messianic Judaism: Its Ecclesial Context and Biblical Foundations (by the way, it’s a fabulous book offering up a wide variety of perspectives, both Christian and Jewish, on the Messianic Jewish movement, so if you haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend that you do).

One of those reviews is called Introduction to Messianic Judaism: The Silo Invasion.

trespass
Photo: sialicencehub.co.uk

Basically, it goes like this. Let’s say that I believe I am my next door neighbor and my next door neighbor is me. Keep in mind that my neighbors have different jobs, lead different lives, have a different family constellation, are of a different age, and aren’t a lot like me at all.

But if I believe I am them and they are me, then everything I have belongs to them and everything they have belongs to me.

Except they don’t know this, only I know this.

So one evening after work, instead of going back to my house, I go into their home. Without so much as a by-your-leave, I breeze into their kitchen, make myself a sandwich, grab a beer, plop myself on their sofa, and start channel surfing looking for a show I want to watch (they have Netflix and I don’t, so this should be a move up for me).

I’m barely acquainted with my neighbors in real life, so if I actually did all this, I’m sure they would be astonished and outraged. Imagine how you’d feel and what you’d do if you were on the receiving end of this “visitor” acting like he owned your place and believing that he did.

Remember, I’m not replacing my neighbors. I’m not evicting them from their house. This is still their home. I just believe Jesus also gave me everything he gave them because I and my neighbors are now one in the same. God said so.

But he failed to tell my neighbors that, and they’re probably on the point of physical violence or getting ready to call the police and have me arrested for trespassing.

Now imagine how Jewish people feel when Christian Reformed Theologians say that Jesus fulfilled the Law and made it so that the Church = Israel and Israel = Church, that it has always been that way going all the way back to the beginning of the Bible, and that everything that ever made the Jewish people distinct, unique, and precious to God has been watered down to the point of non-existence by a worldwide population of Christians being thrown into the bucket.

Is it any wonder that Christians make Jews nervous?

I decided to go back to Theopedia.com and look up Covenant Theology, since that seems to be at the core of Reformed Theology’s claim of total equivalency with Israel:

Covenant Theology (or Federal theology) is a prominent feature in Protestant theology, especially in the Presbyterian and Reformed churches, and a similar form is found in Methodism and Reformed Baptist churches. This article primarily concerns Covenant Theology as held by the Presbyterian and Reformed churches, which use the covenant concept as an organizing principle for Christian theology and view the history of redemption under the framework of three overarching theological covenants: the Covenant of Redemption, the Covenant of Works, and the Covenant of Grace. These three are called “theological covenants” because although not explicitly presented as covenants, they are, according to covenant theologians, implicit in the Bible.

Mount SinaiLet’s take a look at part of the last sentence of that paragraph:

These three are called “theological covenants” because although not explicitly presented as covenants… (emph mine).

You can click the link I provided above to read the entire content (it’s rather long), but I’m going to cut to the chase:

Criticism of Covenant Theology

Several primary weaknesses that are often attributed to Covenant Theology as a system are that, first, it requires an allegorical interpretation of many Scripture passages, including prophecy that relates to God’s future plans for Israel. Second, critics claim it does not draw a sufficient distinction between the conditional Mosaic covenant of the Law, the other unconditional covenants established by God for Israel, and the “better covenant” established by Jesus (cf. Hebrews 7:22; 8:6-13). Third, it equates the nation of Israel with the New Testament Church. Fourth, the two (and possibly three) primary covenants of Covenant Theology are no where named in Scripture as such.

Again, let’s look at part of the last sentence in the above-quoted paragraph:

the two (and possibly three) primary covenants of Covenant Theology are no where named in Scripture… (emph mine).

In order to make this system work, you have to use a lot of imagination, first by applying allegorical interpretations on various portions of scripture, and also substituting your imagination for what’s missing in scripture, since the so-called Covenant of Redemption, Covenant of Works, and Covenant of Grace don’t exist in the Bible at all!

Now I want to take a look on what this theology says about the New Covenant:

The New Covenant, predicted by the prophet Jeremiah in the eponymous book, chapter 31, and connected with Jesus at the Last Supper where he says that the cup is “the New Covenant in [his] blood” and further in the Epistle to the Hebrews (chapters 8-10). The term “New Testament,” most often used for the collection of books in the Bible, can also refer to the New Covenant as a theological concept.

I went nuts when I realized there was no direct connection between the New Covenant language we find in Jeremiah 31 and Ezekiel 36 and the “Last Supper” (Mt. 26:17-30, Mk. 14:12-26, Lk. 22:7-39 and Jn. 13:1-17:26). None. I couldn’t figure out how to bridge the gap.

new heartIt took me months and months of studying and banging my head against a proverbial brick wall, but piece by piece, I finally put the puzzle together. I wrote nearly a dozen separate blog posts chronicling my journey of discovery, and how I finally came to a sort of peace about how non-Jews can at all participate in some of the blessings of the New Covenant.

I’ve summarized that journey in a number of places including in The Jesus Covenant: Building My Model (that’s what I called it, “The Jesus Covenant,” because it’s a covenant that, as much of the Church understands it, doesn’t exist).

Subsequent to all this, I got my hands on a copy of D. Thomas Lancaster’s sermon series What About the New Covenant on audio CD, which filled the few small gaps in my knowledge base but otherwise mirrored my conclusions pretty closely.

Bottom line is that although Hashem has always intended the non-Jewish people to be part of His Kingdom, to worship Him, to honor Him, and to serve Him, apart from the Noahide Covenant (see Genesis 9), all of the significant covenants He made were with the descendants of Abraham, and of Isaac, and of Jacob. Period.

The only connection the rest of us have is because of God’s grace and mercy upon the world. We can attach ourselves to Israel, specifically through Israel’s firstborn son, Rav Yeshua, and through faith, trust, and devotion, God allows us to benefit from some of the blessings of the New Covenant, without us actually being named participants in said-covenant.

That doesn’t make the Church equals with Israel, it makes believing non-Jews beneficiaries of Israel. Put bluntly, we are in the “one-down” position, subservient relative to the covenants, because we have no actual right to them. We benefit from God’s mercy upon us. We should be grateful.

So instead of just waltzing into someone else’s house, eating their food, drinking their beer, and taking over the TV remote, we should be thankful that we have been invited in as humble guests.

And He began speaking a parable to the invited guests when He noticed how they had been picking out the places of honor at the table, saying to them, “When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for someone more distinguished than you may have been invited by him, and he who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘Give your place to this man,’ and then in disgrace you proceed to occupy the last place. But when you are invited, go and recline at the last place, so that when the one who has invited you comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will have honor in the sight of all who are at the table with you. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Luke 14:7-11 (NASB)

If God wants to exalt us, that’s God’s decision. We don’t get to exalt ourselves by taking a place that doesn’t belong to us.

JourneyI can only imagine that Reformed Theology gives its followers a great deal of emotional and spiritual comfort, but in a way, it also doesn’t take much mental exercise (except exercising your Biblical fantasy life). What do we get from God? Just look at all the covenants He made with Israel. That’s what belongs to the Church, too.

Except when you dig a little deeper, you come up with a tremendous mystery, especially if you don’t let allegory and imagination get in the way of what the Bible actually says.

I know that what I’m writing will make some people unhappy and maybe even angry. I know if you take what I’m writing seriously and you start your own exploration, you will find your faith challenged and your “comfort bubble” popped.

Every spiritual discovery of worth is preceded by a crisis of faith. It’s really uncomfortable. Sometimes it leads to apostasy and walking away from God altogether. Other times, Christians (of one variety or another) decide Judaism is the better option, because we know the Jewish people, all of them, are named participants of the covenants. No mystery there.

But if you just hang in there and keep digging, you’ll find there’s a lot more of value in understanding who we are as “people of the nations called by His Name” than you ever would have imagined.

What I Learned in Church Today: The Eisegesis of 1 Timothy 1:8-11

In church today, Pastor Randy preached on Deuteronomy 5 and 1 Timothy 1:8-11 but I want to preface this “meditation” by citing some of the notes from the Sunday school class, which taught on Deuteronomy 9.

What can cause us to not give God credit for our successes and blessings? Why is it important for us also to “remember and never forget” (citing Deut. 9:4-7) what God has done for us “in Christ”?

The obvious answer to that first question is “pride” and that plays into the next classroom question.

Have you or I been a source of frustration to someone in leadership responsibility over us? Give examples of our acts or omissions that make their job more difficult.

For me, the answer is “Well, yes, of course” and my examples would be most of my conversations with Pastor Randy over various theological issues, principally the issue of the continuation of the Jewish obligation to the Torah commandments.

Now I have to be very careful. Before the beginning of class, the teacher was telling me what a challenge putting together this week’s lesson was and later during class, he said that he prepares a full two-page lesson outline so we’ll have to study for several days before class and not just whip out our notes the night before.

Except I didn’t think his lesson was particularly challenging and I did complete the worksheet the day before in something under an hour.

To be fair, I have probably spent more time studying the Torah than most of my fellow students so grasping the essentials of the material seems a fairly straightforward affair, at least as my teacher presents them.

And I have to watch out for that “pride” thing. I had to keep stopping myself (my train of thought) in class and remind myself not to be so arrogant, which I’ve written about before. I thought I had successfully re-evaluated my role in church but I still find that I am struggling with some very difficult but very typical attitudes in Christianity.

One last question from Sunday school before I get started on the sermon.

In Deut. Chs. 9 and 10, God answers Moses’ prayer not to destroy the nation. He goes up for a 2nd written copy of the 10 Commandments. How easily do you and I give up on others?

As I’ve mentioned many times before, although Pastor and I don’t see eye-to-eye on very much in terms of theology and doctrine, I have a great deal of respect for him as a person, a scholar, and a Pastor. When he preaches, I usually am frantically taking notes and writing commentary and critique on the various points he makes, but this was the first time when, after he said something quite specific, I almost stood up and walked out in mid-sermon.

But let me back up a bit.

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, Pastor is taking several weeks to lay the foundation for a series on the Ten Commandments and his assertion that these specific commandments are universal, timeless, and apply to all Christians today. He’s lifting just the Ten Commandments out of the Torah and saying they are the only parts of the 613 Commandments that remain in force for the Church (although he has an interesting spin on the commandment to keep the Shabbat), and that the rest of the Law ended with Jesus (Romans 10:4, Galatians 3:19).

All this, I knew and it didn’t surprise me, but when he left Deuteronomy 5 and moved on to 1 Timothy 1, I was in for a surprise. I suppose I should insert the specific text for reference. Actually, it’s a little more than just verses eight through eleven.

As I urged you upon my departure for Macedonia, remain on at Ephesus so that you may instruct certain men not to teach strange doctrines, nor to pay attention to myths and endless genealogies, which give rise to mere speculation rather than furthering the administration of God which is by faith. But the goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. For some men, straying from these things, have turned aside to fruitless discussion, wanting to be teachers of the Law, even though they do not understand either what they are saying or the matters about which they make confident assertions.

But we know that the Law is good, if one uses it lawfully, realizing the fact that law is not made for a righteous person, but for those who are lawless and rebellious, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers and immoral men and homosexuals and kidnappers and liars and perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound teaching, according to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, with which I have been entrusted.

1 Timothy 1:3-11 (NASB)

Talmud StudySo the issue, as I’m reading it, was that Paul was relating to Timothy how in Ephesus some men were teaching “strange doctrines” that had to do with “myths” and “endless genealogies” and giving rise to “mere speculation”. Apparently, these guys wanted to be “teachers of the Law” but according to Paul, they didn’t know what they were talking about.

It would seem to indicate that these men weren’t Jewish since it would be fairly likely that Jewish teachers would have some idea of how to teach the relevant essentials of the Law (Torah) to newly minted Gentile disciples of the Master. I suppose the “endless genealogies” could be indicative of Judaism since we find numerous genealogies in the Torah and later, when the Apostolic Scriptures were canonized, we find that the genealogy of Jesus (Yeshua) is included and considered important in establishing his credentials as Messiah. But I hardly think that Paul would consider anything related to the Torah, including Jewish commentary on the scriptures, would qualify as “myth”. This is more reminiscent of how I have experienced, at different times over the past ten years or so, some non-Jewish teachers have rendered their interpretations of the Torah, and more than a few theories have been rather fanciful.

So what “strange doctrines” were the fellows Paul describes trying to pass off on the disciples in Ephesus?

In verse eight, Paul says that the Law is good, if one uses it lawfully…” but while Pastor acknowledged the wordplay in Greek (“Law”, “lawfully”), he chose to translate the latter word as “properly”. Toward the end of his sermon, in his notes, he asked “What is the improper use of the law?”

One of the misuses, according to Pastor, is following speculations, controversies, and myths rather than “sound doctrine”. So who is engaging in these speculations, controversies and myths?

Although it would have been impossible for Paul to have meant this, Pastor is applying this “misuse of the Law” to Rabbinic Judaism with all their “man-made rules” (which most Rabbis consider the interpretation of the various mitzvot and their application across history and the differing requirements and circumstances that arise). He also cited the teachings of Seventh-Day Adventism as distracting from the doctrine that one is saved only through faith in Christ.

And then he mentioned Messianic Judaism as “speculative” and “controversial” with their proposition that a Jew can have faith in Jesus as the Messiah and still realize that the Sinai Covenant and its conditions, the statutes and laws of the Torah, remain obligatory for Jewish Jesus-believers.

I know all of the areas that Pastor and I disagree upon, but this is the first time, especially publicly, that he directly hammered on the theological and doctrinal platform which is the foundation of my understanding of the Bible.

Imagine being a Seventh-Day Adventist and listening to this part of the sermon. How would you feel? Or at different times, Pastor or others in the church have taken exception to Pentecostals, Catholics, and Mormons. Imagine being a member of one of those denominations or orientations and being a guest in Pastor’s church to listen to such sermons and teachings.

Like I said, my first impulse was to stand up and walk out. My second impulse was to wait until the sermon was over and then leave, skipping Sunday school.

I thought better of both actions and when I’m caught off guard, it’s usually a bad idea for me to go with the first thought that pops into my head.

So I’m writing about it instead.

I used the word Eisegesis in the title of this blog post, which is basically reading your theology and doctrine into the Biblical text, as opposed to Exegesis which is reading the Biblical text and allowing it to develop your theology and doctrine, and I never thought I’d say something like this about Randy.

Although we disagree on many things, I know that he’s an intelligent, well-educated and well-read, thoughtful, and honest researcher. I know, like most of us, that he comes from a particular theological tradition and that perspective colors how he reads the Bible. My perspective equally colors my interpretation of the Bible, and I don’t believe any human being can be perfectly objective, especially in the realm of religion.

However, I do believe that my theology is driven by a more straightforward view of what the Bible says and treats all of scripture as a single, unified document which doesn’t require suddenly “jumping the tracks” from one major version of God’s redemptive plan to another at Acts 2. But to equate Paul’s comments on speculations, controversies, and myths specifically to variants on religious Judaism, as well as a Christian denomination that is generally accepted by most other mainstream Christian denomination, is pure opinion and cannot be reasonably derived from the text.

rabbis-talmud-debateI know that even Christians who say they love Jewish people and Israel, draw the line at Judaism as a religion, generally expressing at least some disdain at what is considered “the traditions of men” (and remember, it wasn’t that long ago in Church history when we were burning volumes of Talmud and calling said-volumes “obscene”), but I know that the “love” many Christians say they have for the Jews, once you throw religious Judaism into the mix, has a severe limitation.

I suppose this is just my opinion, but what if when Messiah returns, the way we will be worshiping and studying will be more like a Judaism than a Christianity? After all, “ekklesia” doesn’t mean “church”. I’ve written before that the word “church” didn’t come into existence for many centuries after the Bible was canonized.

Pastor himself said assembled Israel was referred to in Biblical Hebrew as “kahal” which is (interestingly enough) translated in the Septuagint as “synagogue”. The Apostolic Scriptures use the word “ekklesia” and they all (more or less) mean a gathering of people for a specific purpose.

I think it’s a shame that all English Bibles translate the word “ekklesia” as “church” not only because it’s anachronistic (although referring to the Children of Israel in Deuteronomy 5 as “synagogue” is as well) but because it sends the message that the Jews as Jews are out of the picture and replaced by Gentile (and Jewish) Christians.

Now to his credit, Pastor spent a significant amount of time saying that all of God’s promises to the Jewish people in the Bible are true and, if they aren’t, then we (Gentile) Christians have no assurance that God’s promises to us aren’t true as well (although all of God’s covenant promises are made with the House of Judah and the House of Israel…and only His covenant with Noah involves the rest of humanity…we’re just grafted into the blessings of the New Covenant).

But how can God’s promises to Israel all still be true if virtually all the conditions of the Sinai Covenant expired when Jesus died on the cross (something God never mentioned even once when He made the Sinai Covenant)? How can God’s promise that the Aaronic priesthood is an eternal covenant (Numbers 18:7) if, as Pastor says, the Priesthood of Melchizedek replaces the Aaronic? The Prophet Ezekiel says in no uncertain terms that the sons of Zadok, who are from the sons of Levi, will be the priests in the future Temple that will be built in Messianic times (Ezekiel 40:45-46).

It would be impossible for all of the Torah precepts except for the Ten Commandments to have ended permanently “at the cross.” If that were true, the Levitical priests in Ezekiel’s Temple wouldn’t know what to do with themselves since their duties are described down to the last detail only in the Torah.

That’s also why, when the New Covenant fully emerges into our world in Messianic Days, the Torah must continue as the conditions of that covenant, even as they remain the conditions of the Sinai Covenant, which is still incumbant on the Jewish people (including Messianic Jewish people) today.

Maybe in a later blog post, I’ll insert the diagram Pastor put in his sermon notes, which map the Ten Commandments to 1 Timothy 1:9-10 and which supposedly serve as proof of Pastor’s assertion that only the Ten Commandments survive out of the full body of laws given at Sinai. It is (again, this is all my opinion) wildly speculative to somehow read this portion of 1 Timothy and believe this is what Paul was presenting, rather than the Apostle writing to address a situational problem occurring at that point of time within the ekklesia at Ephesus.

Although his comments on Messianic Judaism were the real “capper” for me, I was still astonished with him explaining that the two greatest commandments we see Jesus teaching in Matthew 22:34-40 were “proof” that Jesus said only the Ten Commandments apply in Christianity (nevermind that Jesus was still alive so the Law hadn’t been “nailed to the cross” with him yet, that he was a Torah observant Jew, and that with rare exception, all of the people he spoke with and taught were Torah observant Jews) because the Ten Commandments can be divided into those laws that relate to God and man and those laws that relate to men and other men.

And yet, all of the 613 mitzvot can be divided into those two general groups, so Matthew 22:34-40 is not a good proof text to support Pastor’s assertion.

I know Pastor is well-educated in theology and I’m just an interested amateur, but I feel like I could walk through the gaping holes he left in his presentation.

I’m sorry, I really am. I know I’m probably going off half-cocked and I’m trying really hard not to let my feeling like my tail has been stepped on overwhelm my good sense, but it just seems fantastic to me that Pastor’s read on the Ten Commandments and especially his opinion on Messianic Judaism being a controversy and even a myth isn’t a projection of Christian traditions being read back into the Bible in order to support what he considers “sound doctrine”. It’s more like a defense against the idea that God really did make permanent covenants and that His promises actually do endure just as God uttered them and had recorded in the Bible. Pastor admits that the Jewish people will always be a nation before God, but he’s missing just how they’re supposed to remain recognizably and “covenantally” Jewish.

I inserted my Sunday school class notes above in part because they included a suggestion that disagreeing with church leadership is a bad thing. Am I being disobedient and prideful by disagreeing, especially so strongly, with the Pastor’s teachings? Is this my pride talking or am I allowed to have my own theological opinions independent of what’s being taught? God did make Randy the head Pastor of this church. He has authority over everyone who chooses to attend. Who am I to argue?

I stopped referring to Randy “my Pastor” when he called me on the fact that I disagree with him on almost everything. But why is it only “sound doctrine” when it’s stuff that he teaches based on the particular model of theology to which he subscribes? More than ever, I’m convinced that the Church teaches on principles that more resemble sound tradition. What one considers “sound” simply depends on what Christian traditions are employed to interpret scripture.

ChurchI don’t want to be prideful, disobedient, and arrogant, thinking I’m right and everyone else is wrong. Believe me, I know I’ve got a lot to learn. But what am I supposed to do, especially now, when I feel like I’ve been backed into a corner?

I used to worry that I’d never make any sort of impact in this church environment but now I’m worried I am making an impact, a bad one. If this is the result of my discussions about Torah and the Jewish people with Pastor in specific and with others more generally, then what a terrible thing I’ve done.

Oh, and yes, I plan to go back to church next week if for no other reason than because Pastor said that today’s and next week’s sermons are necessary to understand the foundation he’s putting down. He’ll be speaking on Galatians 3 next week. Oy.

Addendum: Continued in The Consequences of Disagreeing.

Why the Torah is the Tree of Life

I also raised My hand [in oath] against them in the Wilderness to scatter them among the nations and to disperse them among the lands, because they did not fulfill my laws, they spurned My decrees, desecrated My Sabbaths, and their eyes went after the idols of their fathers. So I too gave them decrees that were not good and laws by which they could not live.

Ezekiel 20:23-25 (Stone Edition Tanakh)

In a moment of great pique, God has the prophet Ezekiel tell his exiled brethren of the relentless misdeeds of their fathers, which brought about their loss of the land. God insists at one point: “Moreover, I have them laws that were not good and rules they could not live by.” The import of these harsh words is that God might just be the author of inadequate or even malevolent law, a proposition that flies in the face of God’s goodness, love, and perfection.

-Ismar Schorsch
“Divine Music in a Human Key,” pg 468 (May 14, 1994
Commentary on Torah Portion Bamidbar (Numbers)
Canon Without Closure: Torah Commentaries

The twenty-fifth verse in Ezekiel 20 relates a startling admission on the part of God through the prophet, that God gave Israel “decrees that were not good and laws by which they could not live.”

When reading those words, I was immediately reminded of the traditional Evangelical Christian reasoning about why God gave the Torah to Israel at Sinai in the first place. I mean, if God was going to cancel the Law with the death and resurrection of Jesus, or at least have it pass into obsolescence to be replaced by the much more “livable” grace of Christ, by what rationale did God require and demand that the Israelites keep the Torah mitzvot?

The answer, and I was also startled when I first heard the Pastor at the church I attend present it to me, is that God wanted to illustrate that no one could possibly keep the law and that we all need God’s grace to save us from sin.

So God sets forth a lengthy set of conditions associated with the Sinai covenant between Hashem and Israel, with a generous collection of blessings for obedience to God’s Torah (Deuteronomy 28:1-14) and an abundant list of curses for disobedience (Deuteronomy 28:15-68).

God, being faithful to His Word, has indeed blessed Israel when they cleaved to His Torah and cursed them when they strayed from obedience.

The haftarah reading for Bamidbar, Hosea 2:1-22, chronicles the course of God’s response to His covenant people, from wrath in response to Israel’s faithlessness when she “played the harlot” (v 7) by abandoning her “husband” (God) and chasing after foreign lovers (idols), to the promise of renewing the intimate relationship between Hashem and Israel when they returned to Him in obedience:

And I will espouse you forever: I will espouse you with righteousness and justice, and with goodness and mercy, and I will espouse you with faithfulness; then you shall be devoted to the Lord.

Hosea 2:21-22 (JPS Tanakh)

Laying TefillinAfter all of that, with generation after generation of Jews all striving, sometimes succeeding and often failing to willfully keep the commandments, yet in their heart, always loving and revering the Torah, they never suspected that God was just setting them up for a huge fall. And then, during the Roman occupation, just a few decades before the destruction of Herod’s Temple, God was going to yank it all away from them and abruptly declare that He had planned to have Israel fail and fail miserably all along, in some sort of demented preparation for the coming the Messiah and “the law of grace.”

I enjoy reading mystery books that have a creative and unanticipated plot twist to keep things interesting, but God, according to Evangelicals, is the undisputed master if “I didn’t see that one coming,” the ultimate jumping of the tracks where the train carrying all the exiled Jews back to Jerusalem becomes the carriages transporting endless hoards of formerly pagan Gentiles to Rome.

Ezekiel 20:25, especially when read out of its immediate context and outside the overarching plan of God for Israel, could be interpreted as supporting this “double-dealing” motivation of God except for this:

But note what has been accomplished by this exegetical twist: The holiness of the text has been preserved. Whatever blemish we may detect has nothing to do with the original power and beauty of the Torah, but derives solely from inferior mediation. Not the author, but the interpreter is at fault.

-Schorsch, pg 469

It is said that Biblical interpretation starts with translation but it obviously doesn’t end their. The value of our Holy Scriptures rises and falls with the correct understanding of what we’re reading. Putting on the supersessionism-colored glasses forged by the Gentile “Church Fathers” and polished by the men of the Reformation, we indeed do read the Bible “through a glass darkly” (1 Corinthians 13:12) rather than accessing the plain sight of God.

But how can man see with God’s vision? We probably can’t, though we are experts at saying we really can, and in saying that, we reveal ourselves to be deluded or liars.

This thing you call language though, most remarkable. You depend on it for so very much. But is any one of you really its master?

-Spock/Kollos (Leonard Nimoy)
Is There in Truth No Beauty? (1968)
Star Trek: The Original Series

Leonard Nimoy
Leonard Nimoy

The above quote references a “mind-meld” between Mr. Spock and a non-humanoid being named Kollos, an ambassador for his planet who is non-verbal and who can only communicate with people through telepathy. He experiences “humanity” for the first time seeing the world (or the bridge of the Enterprise) through Mr. Spock’s senses and communicating through spoken language which he never had done before. You and I like to think we are familiar and even (as I said above) “experts” on understanding the Bible, but an outside observer, if they could access our point of view, might accuse us of what Kollos accused the people on the Enterprise, depending on language for so very much without truly being its master.

We depend on the Bible for so very much, but who can say if anyone can be the master of a document that, while scripted in this world by human beings, was inspired by the mind and spirit of God?

But it’s just about all we’ve got, just like language is just about all we’ve got to communicate with one another, to learn about one another. We only have the Bible to teach us about God.

But no one of us being its master, how dare we say that any part of the Bible, down to even the tiniest jot or tittle, in any way has been cancelled, annulled, eliminated, replaced, folded, spindled, or mutilated?

“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)

It is a Tree of Life for those who cling to it, and happy are those who support it.”

Proverbs 3:18

It’s not just a matter of poorly interpreting the Bible but in selectively reading it. Christians can “cherry pick” those scriptures that seem to support a classic supersessionist view of an expired Torah, but they can’t explain those portions that support a high view of Torah, a continued zealous observance of Torah by multitudes of believing Jews in New Testament times (when Acts 21:20 speaks of “how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed, and they are all zealous for the Law,” the Greek word we translate into English as “thousands” is literally “tens of thousands,” and that Greek word is the basis for the English word “myriads,” telling us that vast numbers of Jesus-believing Jews were completely over-the-top zealous for the Torah), and since the Bible (in my opinion…and the Epistle to the Hebrews notwithstanding) doesn’t speak of the Torah expiring like an aging carton of milk in the back of the fridge, then I have no reason to believe that God intended to annul the Sinai Covenant and its conditions for the sake of the inaugurated but not yet arrived New Covenant…not until after Heaven and Earth pass away.

Tree of LifeUntil then, the Torah is a Tree of Life, first to the Jew and also to the Gentile, defining, among other things, who we are in relation to God and who we are to each other, Jewish believers remaining wholly and completely Jewish in identity, role, and responsibility, and grafted in Gentile believers taking on, not a Jewish role, but one that uniquely defines us as the people of the nations who are called by His Name, who have a calling that is not Israel but that supports Israel, for our salvation comes from the Jews (John 4:22).

The one mystery I have struggled with up until recently was why, after the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension, is worshiping God “not enough” anymore?

Many, many years ago, long before my wife and I became religious, we attended a Passover Seder at a friend’s home. At one point during the reciting of the Haggadah, he stood up and joyously cried out, “No one comes between a Jew and his God!” Even as a non-believer, it was quite obvious to me that he was referring to Jesus and Christianity, perhaps viewing Jesus as a layer of abstraction that was thrust between people (or Jews) and God when no such separation existed before.

We can debate whether or not the Temple and sacrifices separated Jewish people from God or actually brought them closer and say that Jesus draws Jews (and everyone else who will believe) closer still rather than further away, but from a Jewish point of view (I can only assume, not being Jewish), being told you now can only come to God through Jesus rather than praying to Him directly with no intermediary, makes it seem as if the rules have changed and a brand new player was added to the game, one that the Jewish people never needed before.

“For this commandment which I command you today is not too difficult for you, nor is it out of reach. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us to get it for us and make us hear it, that we may observe it?’ Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross the sea for us to get it for us and make us hear it, that we may observe it?’ But the word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may observe it.

“See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, and death and adversity; in that I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in His ways and to keep His commandments and His statutes and His judgments, that you may live and multiply, and that the Lord your God may bless you in the land where you are entering to possess it.”

Deuteronomy 30:11-16 (NASB)

The Torah is the Tree of Life, the source of everything that is good and is from God for a Jew. It was never too far away and it was never intended to be impossible to observe. God did intend for the Jewish people to observe the mitzvot and by obedience, they would draw closer to God and receive good life and prosperity in the Land. Why would that ever change? Not through Jewish disobedience, because God always provided Israel a way back through repentance. Not because of the coming of Messiah, but I’ll get into that at a later time (see below).

the-joy-of-torahSo far we’ve seen that Judaism is a religion of joy, and hopefully, I’ve shown that this joy emanates from observance of the mitzvot and study of the Torah, and that the Tree of Life brings a Jew (and realistically, all of us who embrace the Word of God) nearer to God. But where does Jesus fit in?

I know that’s an odd question and I know many of you think you know the answer. In my next meditation, I’ll see if I can show you a new answer (new to me, anyway) and why God didn’t change the rules, just as the New Covenant was never intended to replace the Sinai Covenant. God doesn’t destroy anything He has created, but He does continually reveal Himself to us across the history of the Bible.

It’s revelation I’ll speak of next time.

Does the Church Interpret the Bible Based on Traditions?

Question: What if I believe only in the written text of the Torah?

Answer: I’m glad to hear that you have such strong faith in the “Hebrew Bible.” My question is, how do you know that this is true? Certainly, you must be relying on tradition. Otherwise, how do you know that the words you have before you are the original words written by Moses and the prophets? How do you know that they ever received this to begin with? What other way is there than to rely on the integrity of the Jewish people over the ages?

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
-from “What If I Believe in Only the Written Text of the Torah?”
Chabad.org

Rabbi Freeman has written a multi-part series on the nature of Midrash which I plan to explore. The above-quoted text isn’t part of that series but I think it’s a good place to start my own investigation for a couple of reasons. The first, as I previously mentioned, is I have my doubts of the effectiveness of the philosophy of sola scriptura as practiced by certain expressions of “the Church”. I really don’t believe that most Christians really, really access “scripture alone.” To be fair, I believe they think they do and that they are sincere in their convictions, I just think they are either blind to the presence of interpretive tradition, or if aware of it, they do not believe it has as much influence on their “vision” as it actually does.

One of the things I admire about Judaism is that it admits to relying on tradition to interpret the Bible and in fact states that it is impossible to understand what the Bible is saying without a system of interpretation and tradition to use as a lens.

That’s going to freak out a lot of Biblical literalists in the Church and this isn’t the first time I’ve made such a statement (see Removing the Garments of Torah and The Purpose of Torah in New Testament Judaism series for examples).

I do want to state upfront that just because a tradition exists, either in the Christian or Jewish frameworks, doesn’t mean we should automatically accept it as fact and truth. On the other hand, without tradition (and I agree with the Jewish perspective on this), at least to some degree, we’d never be able to understand let alone implement various portions of the Bible.

I should also mention at this point that many (most?) Hebrew Roots groups echo the question stated above, believing in the accuracy and authority of the written Torah but disdaining any of the Rabbinic commentaries which are used to interpret and operationalize Torah (and how do they tie their tzitzit and lay their tefillin without relying on Rabbinic tradition?). Such groups seem to take what they want from normative Judaism while escorting the Rabbinic sages and their rulings and interpretations to the nearest dust bin.

And that, really, is Judaism: a faith in the integrity of the Jewish experience as transmitted to us by previous generations. It turns out that everything we believe, including faith in the word of the written Torah, is based on this faith in the Jewish people. Perhaps that is the reason we call it Judaism (or Yahadut, or Yiddishkeit) and not “Torahism” (or Karaism)—because the most basic faith we have is in the Jewish people, and from there extends our faith in the written word and in the prophets.

As I read Rabbi Freeman, I get the impression that one of the functions of Judaism is to provide the traditions by which Jews interpret the Torah. This gets complicated in that there is no one “Judaism” and thus no one authoritative interpretation of Torah, although within the larger “Judaism” construct, meanings heavily overlap.

But how the Chabad traditionally interprets a portion of the Torah and how to perform the associated mitzvot may differ greatly from how a Reform or Conservative synagogue may read and understand the same material. Thus, from an outsider’s point of view, it makes Judaism seem very inconsistent, highly variable, and the meaning taken from the Bible to be incredibly fractured.

But what about the untold hundreds or even thousands of denominations, subgroups, and sects of Christianity? The answer my Pastor would give me is that there is only one right answer, which is why the Fundamentalist movement was established in the early days of the 20th century…to create (or return to) that one “right” answer. My Pastor has tried to explain the core meaning of Fundamentalism to me, apart from all of the media hype and unfair interpretation of the “label,” and I’ve recorded that understanding on my blog so I wouldn’t lose track.

Really, Fundamentalism at its center is just “getting back to the basics” of Christianity, but those “basics” were established barely a hundred years ago. Would the apostles have understood their faith in the same way as John MacArthur, R.C. Sproul, or Steven J. Cole?

R.C. Sproul
R.C. Sproul

So the best we can say at this point is that Judaism and Christianity both heavily utilize tradition to tell each religious body and their various subgroups  (actually, each of the subgroups have their own traditions) what the Bible is supposed to be saying and how we are to live out what the Bible tells us in our individual and corporate worship lives.

I’ve also recently mentioned the story of Hillel, Shammai, and the Three Converts, which Rabbi Freeman too mentions in his commentary.

Another gentile who accepted only the Written Torah, came to convert. Shammai refused, so he went to Hillel. The first day, Hillel taught him the correct order of the Hebrew Alphabet. The next day he reversed the letters. The convert was confused:”But yesterday you said the opposite!?” Said Hillel: “You now see that the Written Word alone is insufficient. We need the Oral Tradition to explain G-d’s Word.”

Rabbi Freeman’s point, citing Hillel, is “that without an oral tradition, there is no written Torah. Written symbols on a scroll are meaningless without context. We have no clue what the words mean, or even whether they are at all true.”

But is that really true? Does not understanding the original language in and of itself impart some meaning? Of course, you also have to understand the historic, cultural, national, linguistic, traditional, theological (and many other) contexts involved that subtly or significantly modify the meaning of the plain text. Could the overall understanding of those contexts be codified to become an interpretative tradition?

Because the prevailing interpretations have probed Paul’s text without sufficient appreciation of the powerful role of ironic inversion at work, at the formal as well as functional level, the interpretation of the apostle’s scathing rhetoric has exaggerated and, regardless of other plans, continues to accentuate the differences that are imagined to separate Christian and Jewish identity, behavior, and even intentions toward God and neighbor. The legacy of this perception of the Jewish other has proven often tragic for the Jewish people, at least in a world that has been often dominated by those who look to Paul to shape reality, and for others, as a foil to justify their twisted construal of what is right.

-Mark D. Nanos,
from the Prologue of his book (pg 2)
The Irony of Galatians: Paul’s Letter in First-Century Context

It is Nanos’ belief that Christianity’s understanding of the basic nature and personality of the apostle Paul has changed not very much since the days of the so-called “Church fathers” and hardly at all in the last five-hundred years since the Reformation. While the Church doesn’t cite time-honored Christian tradition as the necessary element to understand the letters of Paul or as required to comprehend his actions as recorded in Luke’s Book of Acts, nevertheless, my recent reviews of some of the sermons of John MacArthur have convinced me completely that Christianity’s understanding of the meaning of scripture is totally reliant on revered Christian traditions.

When, on occasion, I’ve tried to challenge those traditions (and not the scriptures themselves), the reaction I observed could at least be called resistance.

Judaism has its traditions as well, but Jewish authorities are quite upfront about saying that they have a tradition and that, as far as Rabbi Freeman goes, “Judaism-colored glasses” (my phrase, not his) are required when reading the Word of God.

The Torah says to rest on the seventh day. I once met a man who told me that he tried to keep the Sabbath as written in the Torah, but it was too hard—by four in the afternoon he just had to get up out of bed! Who says his interpretation is worth anything less than anyone else’s?

The Torah says that “these words should be totafot between your eyes.” What on earth are totafot? Where is “between your eyes”? When do you wear them, and how?

The Torah says, “You shall slaughter an animal as I have commanded you.” What was it that G‑d commanded Moses? How can we know? There seems to be no hint whatsoever in the entire Five Books of Moses. Obviously, everybody knew what Moses had been told; they did it all the time, and nobody needed it in writing.

Praying with tefillinGood points, Rabbi Freeman. Of course modern Christians would say all that stuff is dead and gone, so who cares if we don’t know how to properly rest on Shabbat, figure out what “totafot” means or how to put them “between your eyes,” and what the correct method of “slaughtering an animal” was as required by God?

But even if I took the Christian point of view, I’d have to admit those things meant something once. Just how were they enacted in ancient days without sufficient written instructions? When asked, how did Moses answer those questions? In the days of the Temple, how did Solomon address those issues? And did Jesus even obey those requirements since the Temple still stood during his “earthly ministry?”

It seems like neither Christianity or Judaism can exist and practice their faiths without a rich tradition of…tradition.

Protestants, as I experience them anyway, seem to have a deep-rooted resentment against a central authority in religion. I’ve heard Evangelicals say some pretty rough things about Catholics and their Pope, and I’ve listened to more than one Christian say (more or less) that it was part of God’s plan for the Apostles to die off so “Christian authority” could be de-centralized. Never mind that Christians tend to revere the “Church fathers” and particularly the authors of the Reformation. Some churches, including the one I attend, even celebrate Reformation Day.

The oral tradition also includes later decisions and exegeses made by those who led the Jewish people and were empowered to make decisions on their behalf. These are the seventy elders in every generation, as established originally by Moses himself (read all about it in Numbers 11). It is to these sages that Moses refers when he charges the Jewish people that if anything is to difficult for them to solve, they must take it to these wise leaders, and “do not turn from whatever they tell you, not to the right and not to the left” (read that one in Deuteronomy 17:8–12). Otherwise, what on earth are we supposed to do when Faraday discovers how to harness electrical power? Is it fire? If not, what is it? So, a rabbinical assembly came to the consensus that we will treat it as fire, and not turn it on or off on the Shabbat. Now all the Jewish people can keep one rule and one Torah.

These same sages were empowered to protect the Jewish people from breaking the Torah by “building fences” about the prohibitions. If you can walk right up to the edge of a serious transgression, it’s unlikely that no one is going to fall off. Which should provide an answer to your question about the boundaries for walking on Shabbat.

All this is seen by Christians as “adding to the Bible.” I’ve heard Matthew 23:4 and the surrounding text applied to Rabbinic Judaism as a whole, casting all Jewish practices into the same bucket and observant Jewish people under a bus.

On the other hand, try telling people in a church to do away with their Christmas and Easter (or Resurrection Day) observances because they’re “man-made traditions” (not to mention the previously cited “Reformation Day”) and you’ll likely start a riot (OK, probably an angry and offended discussion, not a riot).

Christians don’t like the Rabbinic sages for the same reason they don’t like the Pope. They don’t like or trust a central authority that can establish binding religious rulings over their lives. It interferes with the “freedom of the gospel” they enjoy, but do Christians really have that much freedom?

It depends on the church and which Pastors and teachers are favored, with their books enshrined in the church’s library or bookstore. Which books are studied by the Wednesday night woman’s group or deemed worthy of possessing lessons to be followed by the men’s ministry? Are preachers like John MacArthur, R.C. Sproul, and Steven J. Cole considered the “sages” of modern Evangelical Christianity? Do the churches that follow their particular teachings not rely on these men and their theologies and doctrines to interpret the Bible for them?

But allow me to summarize the most crucial point: You can choose to believe in a book. Or you can choose to believe in a divine revelation. The divine revelation was encoded into a book by Moses, but its light never ceased to shine. In every generation, more and more of it enters into the world, through the medium of those sages who study the book and its surrounding traditions and all the accumulated wisdom that has unfolded over the millennia. One day, we will see how all that we unfold was contained in those original words Moses wrote. But to access it all now, make yourself part of the Jewish people, and have a little faith in us. After all, if it weren’t for us, where would that little book be?

To be fair, the whole concept of a set of traditions being required for understanding what God’s Divine Revelation means, especially as adapted across multiple generations, is alien to Christian thought, even if it’s not foreign to Christian interpretative practice. We just don’t talk about it, like some dirty family secret, some hidden skeletons in the Church’s closet.

Christian BookshelfAlso to be fair, Rabbi Freeman wouldn’t have written such an article if some Jewish people, perhaps a lot of Jewish people, weren’t as critical of midrash and oral tradition as we Christians are.

R. Freeman offered some additional resources for the Jewish (and Christian?) curious including The Essential Talmud by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, R. Freeman’s own article Is It Really the Torah, Or Is It Just the Rabbis, and a series of audio teachings by Rabbi Lazer Gurkow called The Oral Tradition. You also might consider Is Torah Just For Jews?

I encourage you to read the responding comments to Rabbi Freeman’s article (scroll down) so you can see that among individual Jewish people, what the Rabbi professes is not a “slam dunk” in their minds and hearts. Hopefully, that will help dispel the idea held among some Christians that Jewish people are “all the same,” meant in the worst possible manner.

When the Church and its “sages” disregard and denigrate Jewish traditions while upholding Christianity’s own long history of interpretive tradition (all the while denying its existence), then it participates in another historical tradition of the Church that, while also “hidden,” is nevertheless still a potent force in the lives of many Gentile believers: anti-Semitism and supersessionism.

For more on the same topic, see Tradition!, According to the Traditions: A Primer for Christians, and Introduction to Messianic Judaism: Tradition!, my review of Rabbi Dr. Carl Kinbar’s article “Messianic Jews and Jewish Traditions”.

For Now We See Through A Bible Darkly

John MacArthurWhen Jesus came, everything changed, everything changed.… He didn’t just want to clean up the people’s attitudes as they gave their sacrifices, He obliterated the sacrificial system because He brought an end to Judaism with all its ceremonies, all its rituals, all its sacrifices, all of its external trappings, the Temple, the Holy of Holies, all of it.

-Pastor John MacArthur
“Understanding the Sabbath,” September 20, 2009, posted on the Grace to You blog.
As quoted in Lois Tverberg’s blog post Test Your “Jesus Theories” in the Book of Acts

One of the folks who commented on a recent blog post of mine mentioned that Messianic Jewish/Hebrew Roots blogger Judah Himango had written a particularly illuminating article recently, based on Tverberg’s November 2013 commentary. I finished reading Judah’s write-up, suitably impressed, and clicked the link to his source material.

I really thought I was done with John MacArthur after my final series of reviews on First Fruits of Zion’s (FFOZ) book Gifts of the Spirit. But seeing that Tverberg had quoted MacArthur on her blog, I had to find the original sermon and see the quote in context.

It didn’t make me happy.

As you can probably tell from the above-quoted paragraph, in one fell swoop, MacArthur kills the Torah, the Temple, and Judaism (if not the Jewish people) and summarily replaces them with Gentile Christianity in a lecture I could characterize as one of the more noteworthy flowers in the garden of supersessionism.

I was still going to resist writing about all of this. After all, Judah covered the issues brought up by Tverberg’s blog and expanded on them in a way that would make anything else I had to say on the subject redundant. And I’m sure most cessationists and anyone else who thinks John MacArthur is “the cat’s meow” probably believes by now that I have nothing better to do with my time than to endlessly bash MacArthur, using my blog as a blunt instrument.

I wouldn’t have even put my fingers on the keyboard over all of this if I hadn’t read the following:

In 1982:

“The Bible clearly teaches, starting in the tenth chapter of Genesis and going all the way through, that God has put differences among people on the earth to keep the earth divided.”

– Bob Jones III, defending Bob Jones University’s policy banning interracial dating/marriage. The policy was changed in 2000.

In 1823:

“The right of holding slaves is clearly established by the Holy Scriptures, both by precept and example.”

– Rev. Richard Furman, first president of the South Carolina State Baptist Convention.

In the 16th Century:

“People gave ear to an upstart astrologer who strove to show that the earth revolves, not the heavens or the firmament, the sun and the moon. This fool…wishes to reverse the entire science of astronomy; but sacred Scripture tells us that Joshua commanded the sun to stand still, and not the earth.”

– Martin Luther in “Table Talk” on a heliocentric solar system.

Rachel Held EvansI took these quotes (there are plenty more where they came from) from an article called “The Bible was ‘clear’ …” by Rachel Held Evans.

Here’s part of the commentary summarizing these quotes of various religious, social, political, and scientific opinions, all based on scripture (emph. below is Evans’):

Of course, for every Christian who appealed to Scripture to oppose abolition, integration, women’s suffrage, and the acceptance of a heliocentric solar system, there were Christians who appealed to Scripture to support those things too.

But these quotes should serve as a humbling reminder that rhetorical claims to the Bible’s clarity on a subject do not automatically make it so. One need not discount the inspiration and authority of Scripture to hold one’s interpretations of Scripture with an open hand.

We like to characterize the people in the quotes above as having used Scripture to their own advantage. But I find it both frightening and humbling to note that, often, the way we make the distinction between those who loved Scripture and those who used Scripture is hindsight.

So maybe let’s use that phrase—“the Bible is clear”— a bit more sparingly.

Now let’s compare that to how MacArthur summed up his 2009 sermon on “Understanding the Sabbath”:

Father, we thank You for a wonderful day. We thank You for the consistency of Your truth. We thank You for the Word which opens up our understanding to all things. We’re so unendingly thrilled at the glorious truth of Scripture that comes clear and unmistakable to us. (emph. mine)

I know that MacArthur is big proponent of sola scriptura and the sufficiency of the Bible and, based on that, he believes that any and all conclusions at which he arrives must be air tight and iron clad because after all, it’s not him, it’s what scripture says, right?

But as Rachel Held Evans so aptly illustrated, lots and lots of people have depended on sola scriptura and the sufficiency of the Bible over the long centuries of Church history, and in many cases (such as the “fact” that the Bible supports everything in the heavens orbiting Earth), they were wrong. They were also doing what so many of us in the body of faith do today: use the Bible to support whatever theological, social, political, scientific, or other important ax we have to grind, and after we sharpen the ax, we use it to chop down whoever or whatever we stand in opposition against.

Coffee and BibleNo, I’m not saying that we can’t rely on the Bible, but I am saying that given a good enough reason, we can all go off half-cocked and make the Bible say whatever we want it to say. To be fair, most of us are unconscious to our own process and as such, we actually believe we are being unbiased, unprejudicial, non-bigoted, and completely objective.

More’s the pity.

It’s one thing to constantly investigate yourself and your opinions to verify and re-verify that what you believe isn’t too heavily colored by whatever filters you happen to be wearing over your eyes (and we all wear some), and it’s another thing to be so sure that you aren’t wearing any filters at all, that any of your opinions, because they’re “based on the Bible” must be the truth because “the Bible is clear” on the subject.

Usually, “the Bible is clear” when we “discover” it says something that exactly maps to some long-held belief that provides us comfort and confirms our own identity and convictions. We don’t like it when the Bible contradicts us and says something clearly that we don’t want to be true. Maybe that’s the real litmus test of Biblical interpretation, when we let what the Bible says show us what we need to believe rather than the other way around.

Struggles in Diversity

Apostle-Paul-PreachesAs early as the Jerusalem church, there was linguistic diversity, as likely reflected in the Acts depiction of ‘Hebrews’ and ‘Hellenists,’ terms which probably designate respectively those Jews in the Jerusalem church whose first language was Aramaic and those whose first/primary language was Greek. Also, Paul’s deployment of the little ‘Marana tha’ formula in 1 Corinthians 16:22 is commonly taken as reflecting his acquaintance with Aramaic-speaking circles of Jewish believers, as distinguished from the Greek-speaking (gentile) congregations to whom he wrote.

Moreover, remarkably early there was also a trans-local diversity. In Acts we have reports of the young Christian movement quickly spreading from Jerusalem other sites in Jewish Palestine, to Damascus, Antioch and Samaria, and through the activities of Paul and others (often anonymous) spreading through various locations in Asia Minor, Greece, Rome and elsewhere. Though the historicity of some features of Acts has been challenged, it is commonly accepted that there was an early and rapid trans-local spread of the young Christian movement to locations such as these. It is to be expected that this remarkably rapid spread of the Christian movement would have been accompanied by diversity, Christian circles taking on something of the character of the various locales, and also the varying ethnic groups and social classes from which converts came.

Larry Hurtado
from pre-publication typescript of his article Interactive Diversity (PDF), pp 7-8
As published in Journal of Theological Studies.
“Interactive Diversity: A Proposed Model of Christian Origins.”
The Journal of Theological Studies 2013; doi: 10.1093/jts/flt063

I tend to think of the early Messianic (Christian) movement as having started out as a single, unified entity and then at some point, splitting into divergent trajectories. I just found out, thanks to reading the above-referenced Hurtado essay, that there is a “‘trajectories’ model of early Christian developments introduced by James Robinson and Helmut Koester.” I think it’s what many Christians think about when they consider the origin and development of our faith from the first century CE forward.

In the Abstract of his essay (pg 1), Hurtado states:

The earliest model of Christian origins appears in certain ancient church fathers, who posited an initial and unified form of Christianity from which a subsequent diversity then flowed, including alleged heretical divergences from the putatively original form.

That sounds terrifically familiar.

But it isn’t necessarily so.

As the quote from Hurtado at the top of the page states, we can expect a certain diversity between Aramaic/Hebrew and Greek speaking Jews was established from the very beginning (see Acts 6:1). Hurtado also brings out how there very well could have been “trans-local” variations in the Christian populations in the diaspora based on ethnicity and social class as well as language and nationality. However I’m interested in exploring one slice of the pie, so to speak:

On the other hand, there are also indications of far more adversarial interactions as well, and at a very early date. Paul’s letter to the Galatians will serve to illustrate this. Exegetes are agreed that this epistle reflects Paul’s exasperation over unidentified other Christians (probably Jewish) who have visited the Galatian churches calling into question the adequacy of Paul’s gospel and urging his gentile converts to compete their conversion by circumcision and a commitment to Torah-observance. Paul represents these people as proclaiming ‘a different gospel . . . confusing you and seeking to pervert the gospel of Christ’ (Gal 1:6-7), and he thunders an anathema on anyone who proclaims a gospel contrary to that which he preached (1:9).

-Hurtado, pp 10-11

jewish-sand-paintingThis is actually a key point that my Pastor and I regularly discuss. His opinion is that Paul had been teaching both the Jewish and Gentile disciples in the Galatian area against circumcision and Torah observance, while my position is that Paul did not require circumcision and Torah observance for the Gentile believers, but they were a “given” for the Jewish disciples.

We can see a few things from Hurtado. One is that he (and other “exegetes” or textual interpreters of the Galatians scriptures) believes that certain people, which Paul identifies as “false brothers” (probably Jewish) were invading the churches in Galatia and questioning the validity of Paul’s teaching. The second point is that said-false brothers were encouraging the Gentile disciples that they had to be circumcised and take on board full observance of the Torah, and Paul refers to that teaching as a “different gospel,” one this is “contrary to the gospel of Christ.”

The specific focus upon the Gentiles by the false brothers and Paul’s response tells us that in not being circumcised (i.e. having converted to Judaism), the Gentile believers were not obligated to the full weight of Torah obligation. It also tells us by contrast, that the Jewish disciples (born Jews and those Gentiles who previously converted to Judaism) were obligated to observe the mitzvot. Paul defines this “diversity” between the Jewish and Gentile believers he’s addressing in his letter as the “gospel of Christ” and any attempt to change that relationship, Paul says is a perversion of Christ’s gospel.

(As an aside, I recently read a criticism stating that Gentile conversion to Judaism is not supported Biblically and is an extra-Biblical anomaly introduced by the later Rabbis. However, a quick reading of Acts 13:43 shows how Paul and Barnabas encountered such converts in the synagogue at Pisidian Antioch [they probably found converts to Judaism in any synagogue they visited, but this is the first example I could find]. To the degree that Luke doesn’t record any displeasure or complaint by Paul at meeting with the converts in this verse, and I don’t believe we see Paul objecting to the authenticity of “righteous converts” to Judaism elsewhere in the New Testament [the exception is in Galatians, when Paul objects to Gentiles converting to Judaism specifically in order to be justified], we cannot automatically infer that either he or “the Bible” object to or invalidate such a practice.)

The diversity of Jewish and Gentile believers relative to Torah observance and related issues are points I’ve been attempting to assert, both in my personal interactions with my Pastor and here on my blog. I bring Hurtado’s work into the mix as a way of illustrating that this discussion exceeds the bounds of what we call “Messianic Judaism” or any interest in a Hebraic interpretation of the New Testament, and is of scholarly interest in the far wider arena of general Christian studies.

(I should say at this point that this isn’t the first time I’ve mentioned Hurtado and Galatians on my blog.)

I’ve never been convinced that the Jewish and Gentile disciples ever “cemented” into a single, unified body of worship, at least not on a large scale. I believe that the “Jesus movement” was too young and was forming in too turbulent a world to allow for a widespread integration of populations. In just a tiny march of years after Paul wrote his Galatian letter, he would be arrested, testify at multiple legal hearings, eventually be transported to Rome, and ultimately  be executed. Jerusalem would fall and the Temple would be razed. The Jewish people, including disciples of Jesus, would be scattered. The troubled and frail unity between the Jewish and Gentile disciples of the Master would crumble like ash in such an inflammatory environment.

The diversity of the early Jesus movement was based on a significant number of differences between varying bodies of disciples. Not all believing Jews supported Gentile entry into the way without conversion (see Acts 15:1-2 for example). Even after the halachah issued by James and the Council of Apostles (Acts 15), divisiveness continued. Many Jews said Paul could not be trusted and that he did not support and affirm the Torah of Moses for the diaspora Jews (Acts 21:21). There were even accusations that he was taking Gentiles past the Court of the Goyim into the Temple (Acts 21:28-29).

paul-editedWhile Paul fought strenuously to keep the fragmented and unstable populations within the body of Messiah together, it was a losing battle. He even admitted that Israel would be calloused because of the Gentiles for a significant period of time (Romans 11:25), and Hurtado points to Romans 14:1-15:6 as Paul’s attempt to address the social and ethnic differences between varying groups of Jesus believers, trying to draw them alongside each other.

I know I’m painting a rather dismal picture of Jewish/Christian relations, both past and present. In his letter to Rome, Paul was writing of a temporary separation between Jewish and Gentile believers. Temporary means that one day, we will draw closer to each other again (or for the first time). I see some evidence of that today, but it’s only the beginning. I don’t doubt that Messiah will come and it will be he who finishes the work that was started so many centuries before.

But my message for today is that a certain amount of diversity between Jewish and Gentile believers is by design. The gospel taught by Paul supported Jewish continuance in Torah observance but did not require Gentiles to convert, which would have made them obligated to the Law (the implication is that Gentile disciples in the Way were not so obligated). Any teaching imposing circumcision and Torah observance on Gentile disciples was vehemently criticized and opposed by Paul.

Hurtado doesn’t attempt to predict the mechanism of how the diversity will be resolved and for the moment, neither will I. I simply write this to offer further evidence that such diversity between the Jewish and Gentile believers did exist and that it is substantiated not only within Messianic Jewish studies but within mainstream Christian scholarship as well.

Addendum: I wrote this meditation before last night’s (Wednesday, June 26th) conversation with my Pastor. I’ll blog about our discussion including how it may impact what I said above in a subsequent missive.