Tag Archives: God-fearers

Paul the Advocate for the Gentiles

fish mosaicThe Saturdays when we don’t have the grandkids over is usually when I do my yard work. I know for you out there, both Jews and Gentles who are Sabbath keepers, that may sound scandalous, but my wife, who is Jewish and not a believer in Rav Yeshua (Jesus Christ), is out doing a side job today, and in fact left me a “honey do” list with what she wanted me to accomplish in her absence. Since she, as a Jew, isn’t observant of Shabbos, it probably would cause issues between us if I, as a Gentile, insisted on keeping the Sabbath in some manner or fashion.

The last task on the list of things for me to do outside was weeding. I hate weeding. I find it exceedingly boring. There’s nothing to do but sit on the ground with the spiders and pull useless plant matter out of the ground by the roots while hoping to avoid wasps.

My son Michael loves listening to podcasts, particularly about ancient history. My wife listens to podcasts about health and aging while going on her morning walks. Maybe I should take my iPhone out with me and listen to something too.

I have no ideas if there’s such a thing as a Messianic Jewish podcast, particularly a credible one (remember, anyone out there can put on a kippah and tallit and call themselves a Messianic Rabbi or teacher, and then spew all kinds of nonsense).

I used to listen to a lot of the recorded sermons by D. Thomas Lancaster on the Beth Immanuel congregational website. Most of them were quite illuminating.

However, I found it necessary to distance myself from First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ) which employs Lancaster, not because I dislike the people involved and not because I dislike FFOZ’s teachings, but because, in certain circles, it was believed that on some level I worked for them. That became a problem. My opinions expressed on this and my other blogs are my own and no one else’s. I reserve the right not to have my content restricted, edited, or censored by anyone but me.

So it’s easier to be a lone wolf blogger as well as a lone wolf believer.

But that has drawbacks. I wanted to listen to a lesson of Lancaster’s while weeding. No, that part isn’t the problem. The problem is I can’t listen to anything like that without wanting to write about it. That’s the problem.

I did listen to the first in a series of sermons Lancaster gave on the Book of Romans, specifically The Early Believers in Rome.

I thoroughly enjoyed it and it took the sting out of having to weed.

I’m not going to review the sermon as I might have done in the past, but I am going to write about some of the things it reminded me of.

It reminded me that the Apostle Paul (Rav Shaul if you prefer) actually wanted Gentiles to be part of the club. No, not convert to Judaism, and not to take on board Jewish praxis, but he believed that we non-Jews are totally sufficient as worshipers of Hashem and disciples of Rav Yeshua without being Jewish.

That was a minority opinion in Paul’s day, and opinions are divided even today in Messianic and Hebrew Roots circles as to whether or not Gentiles should engage in Jewish praxis to one degree or another. Some Gentiles today feel totally inadequate in Jewish community, deciding to bypass Rav Yeshua altogether and convert to Orthodox Judaism, sort of missing the forest for the trees.

In Paul’s time, some, actually probably most, Jewish believers were of the opinion that no Gentile could come to faith in Hashem and be a disciple of Messiah without converting to Judaism and taking on the full yoke of Torah. Some, maybe most Messianic Jews in that day didn’t want hordes of unconverted Gentiles in their synagogues.

It was interesting because Lancaster explored the history of whether or not there was about a five year period when all Jews were expelled from Rome. He said that if all of the Jews, including believers in Yeshua were absent from Rome, then the Messianic congregations were left in the hands of the Gentile God-fearers.

It must have been very interesting when the Jewish believers came back to find their synagogues run totally by these Messianic Gentiles.

It also makes me wonder if many of these Messianic Jews preferred to have believing Gentiles in their own congregations. It would make sense and have advantages from their point of view. The believing Jews would have their wholly Jewish synagogues, and Gentiles could worship in a more or less parallel way in Gentile congregations.

Lancaster believes that Paul taught a different Gospel than the other Messianic Jewish Apostles.

I remember a Pastor with whom I was once well acquainted chafed at the idea that Paul had a different Gospel since there is only one Gospel of Jesus Christ. What he didn’t understand or chose not to believe was that Paul’s Gospel was good news to Jews and Gentiles alike.

It was good news to the Jews first because Messiah had come as the forbearer of the New Covenant promises of God. He came with evidence of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, the resurrection of the dead, and the promise of the life in the world to come (which, by the way, are all very Pharisaic beliefs, particularly the last two).

But it was also good news to the Gentiles because they too could participate in the blessings of the New Covenant without being named members of that covenant. In other words, the Gentiles could also receive Hashem’s grace and mercy through the merit of Rav Yeshua without converting to Judaism and taking on the total body of Jewish praxis.

Paul had a lot of opposition to this Gospel from most of the other Jewish believers, at least as Lancaster tells it (and I agree with him), since their Gospel was one that was indeed good news for the Jews but only good news for the Gentiles if the Gentiles converted to Judaism.

The Jewish PaulJudaism was an official religion in the Roman empire but not so being a God-fearer, so there was a lot of motivation for Gentiles to believe the Gospel that was not Paul’s.

But Paul persevered. He had the support of James, brother of Rav Yeshua, and the Council of Leaders and Elders in Jerusalem, but the diaspora was a big place. It’s even bigger now.

Nothing has changed. We face the same problems Paul did, and I should point out that Paul never came to an ultimate resolution. All of the congregations Paul himself established believed in his Gospel for Jews and Gentiles, but Paul didn’t establish the congregations in Rome.

Nor did he establish (at least not directly) the Messianic congregations, and certainly not the mainstream Christian churches of today (though those churches probably believe something different). Paul probably would have no idea what was going on in a modern church service if he could visit one today. And while maybe he would have some difficulty with a modern Messianic Jewish service, even one closely modeled on traditional Orthodox Jewish practice, he would understand very well the problems facing believing Jews and Gentiles.

That’s what this sermon reminded me of. It reminded me why I no longer affiliate with any organized religious community (well, there are many reasons actually). It also reminded me that he truly believed I should be part of the club. Not me personally, but Gentiles like me. That we could come to faith and be disciples of Yeshua, and it’s okay if we’re not Jewish. He didn’t even have a problem with Jews and Gentiles worshiping together. Only his believing Jewish contemporaries did.

Yeah, just like today.

Thanks be to Yeshua for choosing Paul to be his special emissary to the Gentiles. Thanks be to Paul for staying the course, not giving in to peer pressure or any other kind of pressure, and being a relentless defender of both his people the Jews, but of those of us on the outside, the Gentiles who are attracted to the God of Israel by way of Jewish teachings and practice.

I’m glad there was someone pulling for us back in the day. I wish someone would take up that mantle today, but there are no more living Apostles.

Paul, a bond-servant of Christ Jesus, called as an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which He promised beforehand through His prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning His Son, who was born of a descendant of David according to the flesh, who was declared the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead, according to the Spirit of holiness, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for His name’s sake, among whom you also are the called of Jesus Christ…

I do not want you to be unaware, brethren, that often I have planned to come to you (and have been prevented so far) so that I may obtain some fruit among you also, even as among the rest of the Gentiles I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish. So, for my part, I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome.

Romans 1:1-6, 13-15 (NASB) emphasis mine.

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Book Review of Paul within Judaism, “The Question of Worship: Gods, Pagans, and the Redemption of Israel”

Paul’s convictions about the impeding dawn of God’s kingdom place him securely within the world of the late Second Temple Jewish apocalyptic hope. But Paul’s biblical tradition was Greek, not Aramaic or Hebrew. His audience–unlike that of Jesus and of the earliest disciples–was pagan, not Jewish. And he stretched his time-driven gospel over the spatial frame provided by antiquity’s map of the cosmos.

-Paula Fredriksen
from the beginning of her essay
“The Question of Worship: Gods, Pagans, and the Redemption of Israel”
Paul within Judaism: Restoring the First-Century Context to the Apostle (Kindle Edition)

I had a difficult time wrapping my head around Fredriksen’s essay at first but when I finally figured out where she was going, not only did everything click into place, but I saw the connections between what she was saying and what I wrote about not that long ago.

Fredriksen draws a sharp distinction between the teaching and mission of Jesus (Yeshua) and that of Paul. While Jesus operated almost exclusively within a Jewish context, speaking to Jews, drawing Jewish disciples, training Jewish apostles, Paul had an extremely different audience to contend with and an environment at odds with Jews and Judaism, the pagan arena of the diaspora.

While the message of Jesus, the repentance of the Jewish people and return to the Torah in preparation of the coming Kingdom of Heaven, was not particularly surprising, Paul’s role required him to do the astonishing. He had to bring Gentiles out of worshiping pagan gods and into exclusive devotion to the One God of Israel, while leaving them in their diaspora towns, cities, and countrysides, living among idol worshiping family, friends, and business associates.

The Church tends to take all this for granted, having Paul preached to them like any modern missionary they know or have read about, but in fact, he was charting a course through unexplored territory, doing what no one had ever done before, at least on such a large-scale, and dealing with Gentiles not only as different ethnicities, but as pagans.

Today, we separate one’s ethnic orientation from their religion, but in ancient times, no such distinction was made. Lifestyle, business, family life, everything tied together into one’s identity. So a Jew practiced Judaism and Gentiles practiced some form of pagan worship, although, as I said, it was really all a part of living your life as you had been born.

interfaithOccasionally, a non-Jew would undergo the proselyte rite and live among Jews as a Jew, but Paul was attempting to bring a large number of Gentiles into a form of Judaism, while having them remain wholly distinct from Jewish ethnicity and obligation to the Torah mitzvot.

What we think of as “religion” ancient people accordingly constructed as an inheritance: “mos maiorum, fides patrum, ta patria ethe, paradoseis ton patrikon (this last from Paul, Gal. 1:14). “Religion” as a category separable and separate from one’s “family”–household to empire–did not exist.

And…

Finally, gentile versus pagan masks the degree to which not only households but also cities were family-based religious institutions.

In some ways, what Jesus had attempted in the Jewish homeland among his own people was all but child’s play compared to the mission he gave to Paul. While Jesus was imploring the Jews around him to return to a Torah lifestyle that was their inheritance, Paul was directing pagan Gentiles to leave behind everything they had ever known to join with a foreign people, the Jewish people, in worshiping what for them would have been an alien God.

I suppose I’m leaving out the non-Jewish “God Fearers” who frequented synagogues in the diaspora nations, but according to Fredriksen, these “God Fearers,” while worshipping and praying to Israel’s God on Shabbos, also worshipped and prayed to the various pagan gods during the other days of the week. As long as they behaved themselves while in Jewish community, these “God Fearers” were not required to leave their other “gods” behind.

Changing gods “was tantamount to changing ethnicity” but without undergoing the formal rite of conversion, abandoning the pagan gods and worshiping the God of Israel only would seem not only bizarre, but an all but impossible act.

What was everyone, human and divine, so upset about? Paul (and others like him), in proclaiming the gospel, radically disrupted the long-lived and socially stable arrangements prevailing between synagogues, god-fearers, and the larger pagan community; and they disrupted relations within the pagan community itself, from those of immediate family right up through the larger family of fellow citizens and the cities’ gods.

It’s easy to see why just about everybody learned to hate Paul, from many of the Jews in the diaspora, to the citizens of the various pagan communities in which the Apostle operated. He was stirring up a hornet’s nest of trouble no matter who he talked to, Jew or Gentile. The Jews needed the good will of the Gentile community around them and the Gentiles needed to be able to live life as was expected of them by the self-same community. Paul threatened all of that.

Receiving the SpiritIt was a miracle that anyone bucked the system at all and came to faith, and yet it was a miracle God arranged.

But this, as I suggested above, put the Gentile disciples into an uncertain state:

But Paul’s pagans fell into neither category. Like converts, his pagans made an exclusive commitment to the god of Israel; unlike converts, they did not assume Jewish ancestral practices (food ways, Sabbath, circumcision, and so on). Like god-fearers, Paul’s people retained their native ethnicities; unlike god-fearers, they no longer worshiped their native gods. Paul’s pagans-in-Christ are neither converts nor god-fearers.

Then Fredriksen asked the poignant question:

So who and what are they?

The very same question I’ve been dealing with lately.

You may not like Fredriksen’s answer:

…they occupied a social and religious no-man’s land. Eschatologically, however, they represented a population long anticipated within centuries of Jewish restoration theology: they were pagans-saved-at-the-End.

Paul and the other apostles and elders in the ancient Messianic movement then known as “the Way,” would have seen these droves of Gentiles turning to Israel’s God through Jesus-devotion as the fulfillment of prophesy, that at the coming of the close of the present age, the Goyim would be redeemed as part of God’s overarching plan of redemption for Israel.

Seen from that perspective, it would have been a very exciting time for Paul. He couldn’t possibly have realized that nearly two-thousand years later, both Israel and the faithful among the nations would still be waiting for Messiah’s return. He may indeed have believed, as other Jews in Messiah did, that Yeshua’s coming back in power and glory was imminent.

I’ve mentioned in other blog posts, both related to this review series and otherwise, that in all likelihood, Paul had no idea how to fully resolve the social status of Gentiles in Jewish community, including the development of a complete and functional halachah for such a population.

If I’m reading Fredriksen right, he likely didn’t think this was a problem. If Messiah’s return was right around the corner, so to speak, why bother? The effort would be wasted and Yeshua would be back so quickly that he’ll be the one who will finish the job of establishing how Gentiles were supposed to be integrated.

Restoration
Photo: First Fruits of Zion

Or, given that all Jews were to be returned to Israel as part of the Messianic promise, all Israel’s enemies would be defeated and removed from the Jewish homeland, and all (or the vast majority) of Gentiles would reside in their own nations, the task of integration would be completely unnecessary. Except for events such as the moadim in which devoted Gentiles would come to Jerusalem to pay homage to God, Jews and Gentiles in the Messianic Kingdom might not do much mixing at all, at least as Paul may have seen things.

Here’s an important point Fredriksen made that I think should be shared:

What about Paul? Paul’s circumstances differed pointedly from those of the Baptizer and of Jesus. His “mission field” was the cities of the eastern empire. His hearers were not Jews but pagans. And these he called to repent not of “Jewish” sins (i.e., breaking the commandments), but of “pagan” sins (most especially idolatry and its perennial rhetorical companion, porneia).

I mentioned this above but here we see Fredriksen emphasizing the imperative of each population repenting of sins specifically connected to their own populations in terms of how they had come into relationship with God. For Jews, it was primarily the Sinai and New Covenants, and while the New Covenant blessings also could be applied to the Gentile believers in terms of the promise of the resurrection and giving of God’s Spirit, that overlap only covered just so much common ground.

One of the clearer commandments for the Gentiles was to worship the God of Israel only, but their/our lives were not so specifically defined and delineated as were the Jews.

The Gentiles were to practice righteousness and justice, but these concepts were less “about religious sentiment than about showing respect.”

So how were the Gentiles called to “fulfill the law” (Rom. 13:8-10; Gal. 5:14-15; 1 Cor. 14:34)?

The common translation of the Greek in Romans 5:1 is rendered “justified by faith” but Fredriksen suggests that this would better be understood as a directive for the non-Jewish disciples to practice piety toward God and justice (charity) toward others.

Piety toward God can be covered in commandments such as no other gods, no graven images (idols), and no abuse of God’s Name, while justice toward others is exemplified in no murder, no adultery (or other sexual sins), no theft, no lying, and no coveting.

So, reading Paul without anachronism, “fulfilling the law” for a Gentile means turning away from pagan idols and turning to God alone as the One God “through baptism into the death, resurrection, and impending return of his [God’s] son” and making “right toward each other by acting rightly toward each other–‘not like the ethne who did not know God’ (1 Thess. 4:5; cf. Rom. 1:18-32).”

JerusalemBut then “who enters the Kingdom,” as Fredriksen asks? This is also a question recently asked in the comments section of my aforementioned recent blog post.

Since approximately the second century, in part basing their view on their reading of Romans 9-11, most Christians have answered “only Christians.” This despite Paul’s insistence, in this very passage of Romans, that “the fullness of the ethne” and “all Israel” will be saved (11:25-26), and that God’s promises are “irrevocable” (11:29; cf. 15:8).

No, not “true Israel” or “new Israel” but “all Israel will be saved!” Exclamation point. End of story.

But Fredriksen says not just all Israel but “the fullness of the Gentiles”. That sounds like a lot, and that’s not a very Christian point of view.

God’s universalism, in short, is a very Jewish universalism. And his particular universalism is reflected in the ways that Paul imagines ethnicity in the eschatological community, both the proleptic one of the present ekklesia, before the Parousia, and the final community, once Christ returns.

In both present ekklesia and future Kingdom, Jews and Gentiles are “one in Christ” (Gal. 3:28) and yet Paul absolutely insisted that all those “in Christ” should and must remain Jew and Gentile, distinct from one another, and Paul “has no problem accommodating both difference and oneness.”

That may not have been a problem for Paul, especially as I said before, because he believed the present ekklesia was to be short-lived and Messiah would settle the matter once the Kingdom was established, but it’s a problem we struggle with today, if only for those of us who have left the anachronistic interpretive traditions of Christianity behind and who have chosen to engage with the Jewish scriptures on their own terms.

If the nations, through an eschatological miracle, now worship Israel’s god alone, then even though they remain ethnically distinct, they are spiritually joined to God’s family.

Even our ability to call God “Abba, Father” (Gal. 4:6; Rom. 8:15) is a deeply mystical mystery, one we may end up spending all of our lives exploring.

According to Fredriksen, the Jewish Paul believed “Eschatological Israel will stand together with but distinct from the other nations, for they are the nation long ago set apart by God.”

I completely and wholeheartedly agree, both with Fredriksen and with Paul (assuming Fredriksen’s understanding of Paul is correct).

The Jewish PaulIt may not seem so, but I’ve only scratched the surface of Fredriksen’s article regarding the connections between Gentile devotion to the God of Israel and the redemption of Israel herself.

So far, I’ve found all of the chapters I’ve read and reviewed to be very illuminating and edifying and I hope, if you choose to read the Nanos/Zetterholm volume, that you will as well.

There are only three essays left for me to consume, though it seems like I’ve gotten through little more than half the book.

I’ll post my next review soon.

Imploring Unity

jewish-davening-by-waterAnd on the Sabbath day we went outside the gate to the riverside, where we supposed there was a place of prayer, and we sat down and spoke to the women who had come together.

Acts 16:13 (ESV)

They did not find any Jews. On that particular Sabbath only a small group of God-fearing Gentile women gathered to worship the God of Israel in the open air. The handful of God-fearers seems to be all that remained of the Jewish community in Philippi. The decree against the Jews had overlooked God-fearers. Even in the absence of the Jewish community, the women continued on with Sabbath observance and prayers.

-D. Thomas Lancaster
Torah Club, Volume 6: Chronicles of the Apostles
from First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ)
Torah Portion Terumah (“Heave Offering”) pg 488
Commentary on Acts 15:36-17:14

Yesterday’s extra meditation addressed the “Jewish oral traditions” as applied to the early Gentile disciples in the days of James, Paul, and the Council of Apostles. We saw, based on Lancaster’s commentary, that it is very likely Paul taught a sort of oral law or “halachah” to the Gentiles regarding the teachings of Jesus and how to implement those teachings using a basic understanding of Torah as a foundation.

I wrote that meditation because for the past week or so, I’ve been focused on Jewish halachah and the right of the Jews in the modern Messianic communities to establish and maintain a halachah for themselves that is substantially similar to halachot utilized by other streams of Judaism. But in defining Jewish identity through halachah, Gentile identity definitions have been neglected relative to the Bible. Based on that neglect, some Christians have opposed the maintenance of a unique Jewishness among the Jewish disciples of Messiah, defining it as “exclusivist” and even “racist.” There’s also a suggestion that “things of the flesh” and “things of the spirit” are mutually exclusive, and that God has ceased to apply a special spiritual identity and purpose to the Jewish people, the living inheritors of Sinai, particularly now that the Messiah has come and will (hopefully soon) come again.

Christianity and Judaism stand in stark contrast to each other, even within the context of Messianic Judaism where Jews and Gentiles share the same God and the same Messiah. However, as we saw in Lancaster’s commentary on Acts 16:13 above, in the days of Paul, the Gentile disciples and God-fearers probably looked more “Jewish” than we ever would look today, up to and including observing Shabbos. Lancaster quotes Ben Witherington’s The Acts of the Apostles : A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (pg 491) to provide us with a bit more detail.

Presumably these women had assembled to recite the Shema, to pray the Shemoneh Esreh, and to read from the Law and the Prophets and perhaps to discuss its meaning, to hear from a teacher, and to receive a final blessing. In this case, Paul was the guest teacher.

This short paragraph provides us with a rich picture of a group of non-Jewish women, not yet disciples of the Messiah Yeshua, who came together in the absence of their exiled Jewish mentors and teachers, to continue to worship the God of Israel in the only way they knew how. If it had been the custom to light Shabbos candles in that day just before the arrival of Erev Shabbat, I can imagine these devout women doing so with humility and even a sense of awe and wonder, welcoming God’s rest into their homes as best they could.

LydiaMariaElkinsSome Christians, primarily those associated with the Hebrew Roots movement, have come under the mistaken belief that supporting Jewish identity uniqueness means abandoning what the women in Acts 16 were practicing and scurrying off to a Christian church, learning to be a “good goyishe” believer, and forgetting the rich history and imagery of worshiping God within the beauty of many of the mitzvot. Nothing could be further from the truth. Here we have a wonderful example of a small group of women who had devoted themselves to God within the Jewish traditions, but who were isolated from exploring and extending their faith until they met Paul and his small group by the water.

The women gladly welcomed the visitors. Paul, Silas, Timothy, and Luke sat down with the women and explained their errand to Philippi. They presented the women with the good news of the kingdom.

-Lancaster, ibid

There’s a certain simplicity in picturing such a scene and it makes me long for that sort of encounter with holy men of God and indeed with the good news of the Messiah. I can only imagine what it must have been like to sit by the river and listen to Paul and the others teach. One day, may we all be privileged to hear such words of integrity and holiness.

“Religion” has gotten so complicated and so divisive (not that religious divisiveness didn’t exist during the days of Paul). Even in my own little corner of Christianity/Hebrew Roots/Messianic Judaism, sparks fly, tempers flare, and opinions are bandied about as if they were the sacred texts themselves (well, in the blogosphere anyway…my face-to-face encounters are always very civil and friendly, even when some of my brothers and I don’t see eye-to-eye).

Derek Leman shared a link on Facebook, and I found the article written by Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo called I am Taking Off My Kippah quite compelling.

Don’t be shocked. But I need to be honest. I am contemplating taking off my kippah. No, do not worry. I have no intention of becoming irreligious, or even less religious. Far from it. In fact, I want to become more religious and have come to the conclusion that my kippah prevents me from doing so.

All my life I am trying to become religious, i.e. genuinely religious, but so far I have bitterly failed. Oh yes, I am observant, even “very observant.” I try to live by every possible halacha. It’s far from easy and boy, do I fail!

But that is not my problem. My problem is that I don’t want to be observant. I want to be religious, and that is an entirely different story.

Please pause and read all of Rabbi Cardozo’s missive and capture the full flavor of his message and intent before proceeding here. You see, he makes a very good point. As I read his words, I am aware of a thought and a direction that has become my “traveling companion” for the past few years now. When I was involved in Hebrew Roots (and I still maintain friendships with my former colleagues), I originally fell into the “trap” of mistaking being “observant” for encountering God. It’s not that you can’t do both. It’s not that you can’t wear a kippah, don a tallit, lay tefillin, daven from a siddur and not still encounter God, it’s just that doing a bunch of “stuff” and wearing a bunch of “stuff” doesn’t guarantee the experience, nor does it make you better or more holy than the Christian who doesn’t do all that.

They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long…

Matthew 23:5 (ESV)

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying that davening while wearing tzitzit and tefillin is a bad thing (particularly for a Jewish person), but it is a pit that some have fallen into, like the scribes and Pharisees Jesus was addressing. When the “stuff” becomes more important than what you’re trying to accomplish with the “stuff,” then it’s time to put it all in a box, put the box on a high shelf in your closet, and proceed to encounter God unfettered and exposed. Then maybe if you choose to pick some of that “stuff” back up in the future, it will actually mean something to you by then. If Rabbi Cardozo, who is Jewish and who is a child of the commandments can see this for himself, how much more should we who are not Jewish and who are “grafted in” only by faith and mercy see it for ourselves?Jewish_men_praying2

But even in acquiring this view, and returning to Paul and the Gentile God-fearers who have become disciples of the Master, there is a problem. While I do indeed support Jewish identity distinction within the body of Messiah, I’m not going to pretend that it doesn’t present a barrier to unity.

As Paul spoke about repentance, the Messiah, and the kingdom, “the Lord opened her heart to respond.” She declared her desire to become a disciple. She and her household (children, slaves, and husband if she had one) received immersion into Messiah.

After her immersion, Lydia implored the apostles to consider staying in her home. As a God-fearer, Lydia was aware that Jews did not ordinarily lodge in the homes of Gentiles. She attempted to persuade them, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come into my house and stay.” Her request implies an appeal to judge her favorably on the basis of her observance to the Torah. The apostles expressed some reluctance, perhaps because of uncertainty about the Gentile home or perhaps because their lodging in the home of an unmarried woman (if she was) might appear unseemly. Luke says, “She urged us…and she prevailed upon us.” At last, the apostles agreed to accept her hospitality.

-Lancaster, pg 489

Some folks will jump on the phrase, “judge her favorably on the basis of her observance to the Torah” as an indication that Lancaster believes Lydia and her household were Torah observant in an identical manner to the Jews, and certainly in order for Paul and his party to stay in her household, a number of the mitzvot involving food and wine would have to be followed. We don’t have very many details regarding Lydia’s “Torah observance,” but putting everything together, we can see that she and the other devout God-fearing women in Philippi appeared to follow a number of the mitzvot, and from an outsider’s point of view, much of the behavior of these Gentile women may have been indistinguishable from Jewish women.

But there was a dynamic tension involved when Lydia asked Paul and his group to stay in her home because she wasn’t Jewish and because Paul and his party were Jewish (I believe Timothy was considered halalachally Jewish because Paul had him circumcised…Luke was arguably not Jewish but obviously was accepted as an appropriate traveling companion by his Jewish associates nonetheless). That dynamic tension has resurfaced in the Messianic realm today and for similar reasons…but not identical reasons.

In Paul’s day, being a disciple of Jesus and being Jewish was not at odds at all. While other Jewish sects may have disagreed with the identity of Jesus as Messiah, the Master’s Jewish disciples were unequivocably considered Jews. It was a no-brainer. No one gave it a second thought. But as we’ve seen in some of my previous blog posts, just who and what a Gentile disciple in the Messiah was presented quite a problem. The Apostolic Decree James issued in Acts 15 provided a basic starting point for Gentile disciples, but how far their observance and worship could be taken may have still been up for grabs.

Today, like it or not, the tradition of the church says that a person is only a Christian if they believe Jesus is Lord and died for your sins…and for Jews, they are only Christians if they give up “the Law” and rely on grace alone. No Jewish mitzvot are welcomed along on the journey of Christian faith. Yes, those attitudes are changing, but it’s completely understandable that Jewish Messianics are sensitive to any suggestion that they’ve “converted to Christianity” and are no longer observant Jews. Just as Paul was nearly lynched when it was even suggested that he took a Gentile into the Temple (Acts 21:28-29), a Messianic Jew associating with non-Jews who, for all intents and purposes, are also taking on board Jewish identity markers with apparent impunity, brings forth a lot of questions about just “who is a Jew?” Sometimes the answer to that question prompts “circling the wagons.”

Dr. David Stern in his book Restoring the Jewishness of the Gospel: A Message for Christians insists that Messianic Jews continue to observe the mitzvot and follow halachah as long as it doesn’t hinder unity with the Gentile believers. Paul, Silas, and the others were caught in a similar bind, desiring to observe halachah but also recognizing the need to be accepting of their fellow Gentile disciples.

Shechinah-Above-The-TownI don’t have an absolute answer for this puzzle, but we do see that Paul was able, in some manner or fashion, to overcome the struggle he was facing and allow his party to stay in Lydia’s home. The Bible text is silent about the specific arrangements involved so we don’t have a concrete map to use for our present situation. We also see that “Christian” women were acting a whole lot more “Jewish” than is typical in most churches today. That suggests it may be possible for completely Gentile churches or congregations to “recite the Shema, to pray the Shemoneh Esreh, and to read from the Law and the Prophets and perhaps to discuss its meaning.” That’s not “normal” in most churches today, but according to the Bible, it’s not exactly forbidden, either. I think this type of worship is at the heart of what the Hebrew/Jewish Roots movement is supposed to be all about.

But the goal isn’t for Gentile Christians to become “Jewish” or even to go out of their way to “act Jewish.” For that matter, the goal isn’t really for Jews to “act Jewish,” recalling the intent and purpose of Rabbi Cardozo’s blog post. The goal is to be who we are in our relationship with God and to seek His face always.

If your “stuff” is getting in the way of that or in the way of your relationships with the wider body of believers, including the church, then it’s time to reconsider what your goals are and who your Master is. It’s time to restore bonds between the different little “bodies” of Messiah that have been running around on this world, all proclaiming that they hold exclusive truth. Efforts are being made. Barriers are being lowered. Books like Tent of David are being written which embrace this vision of healing the shredded and fragmented body of Messiah. And amazingly, Boaz Michael and Toby Janicki from the Messianic Jewish educational ministry First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ) are being interviewed on Christian television (two-hour long video).

The world is changing. God is bringing us together. But that will only happen if the different parts of Messiah body know who we are and what we’re supposed to be doing, each of us with our special gifts and unique identities. Bring peace and unity. The barriers will fall. The fallen sukkah will be restored.

The Early Christian According to Cohen

In order to maintain their distinctiveness and identity, most Jews of the ancient world sought to separate themselves from their gentile neighbors. In the cities of the East, they formed their own autonomous ethnic communities, each with its own officers, institutions, and regulations. Some cities, notably Alexandria and Rome, had neighborhoods inhabited mostly by Jews. (These were not “ghettos” but “ethnic neighborhoods.”) Following the lead of Ezra, the Jews of the Second Temple period grew more and more intolerant of marriages with foreigners.

Shaye J.D. Cohen
Chapter 2: Jews and Gentiles
Social: Jews and Gentiles, pg 37
from the book
From the Maccabees to the Mishnah, 2nd Ed

I quoted this portion of Cohen’s book in a recent extra meditation and I want to continue discussing the theme of early Jewish and Christian (and Gentile) identity as we can apply it to today’s community of Jewish and Gentile believers. As I also mentioned in my previous missive, there is a group within Hebrew Roots that is invested in believing that for a time, both the Jewish disciples of the Messiah and the non-Jewish disciples brought into the faith, primarily by Paul, were completely of one accord and shared a completely uniform identity as “Messianics,” being “neither Jew nor Greek” (Galatians 3:28), but rather “one new man” (Ephesians 2:15) in Christ, with all distinctions of cultural, ethnic, national, and covenant identity as established by God, completely obliterated.

In traditional (supersessionist) Christianity, this takes on the form of Jews no longer being Jews but rather, “converting” to Christianity. Anyone who has read this blog for any length of time knows that I reject this suggestion and I do not believe it can be sustained from even a casual reading of the Bible. The chronicles of the Jewish disciples recorded in the early chapters of the book of Acts clearly shows them continuing to live lifestyles completely consistent with the other Judaisms of their day. There is nothing to say that Peter, James, or Paul ever surrendered being Jewish and while the Temple stood, ever forsake the festivals or the sacrifices.

However, the aforementioned movement within Hebrew Roots, sometimes referred to as “One Law” takes the same approach from the opposite end of the spectrum. Instead of demanding that Jews stop being Jews, they demand that Gentiles have the right and obligation to be “Jews” in all but name (sometimes referring to themselves as “Israel” or “Spiritual Judaism”). They cite a number of passages in the Bible to support their claim, primarily the “one law for the Jew and the Stranger” in various parts of the Torah (for example, see Leviticus 24:22, Numbers 15:16, and Numbers 15:29) as well as Acts 15:21 to establish the suggestion that God and the Jerusalem Council required the Gentile disciples to more or less “convert” to a form of Judaism without actually converting to Judaism. Further, assuming these suppositions are correct, they state that this practice must be carried forward and established among Gentile Christians today, using the modern synagogue worship model as the template for Gentile practice of what they refer to as “Messianic Judaism.”

In reading Cohen, I’ve become more convinced than ever that the foundation upon which One Law is built is a soggy sandcastle rather than a rock. One Law, by definition, must require the ancient Israelite to share national and tribal identity with the (non-Israelite) “ger” (stranger, alien, sometimes convert) among them and also, that the Second Temple era Jews must surrender their halakhic, ethnic, cultural, national, and covenant identity to the Gentile disciple due to their grafted in (see Romans 11) status. In both cases, the unique people group established by God must become “un-unique.” For this to be true, it must mean that God lied to the Jewish people when He established them as His splendorous treasured people (Exodus 19:5) among all the nations of the earth.

I know there’s a danger is relying on a single source of information (Cohen) for doing any sort of research, so I’ll say right now that my conclusions can’t be considered definitive. On the other hand, I think Cohen’s work does indicate that a number of historical factors related to the ancient Israelites and the Second Temple era Jews have been ignored by One Law proponents and I’d like to briefly bring some of those factors into the forefront.

Let’s take ancient Israel and the status of the “ger” first. According to One Law supporters, the various “one law for the native, etc…” passages indicate that God originally intended for Israelites and non-Israelites (who have attached themselves to the God of Abraham) to operate identically in terms of covenant and identity.

When discussing Conversation to Judaism in Chapter 2 of his book, Cohen states:

In preexilic times, conversion to Judaism did not yet exist because birth is immutable. An Ammonite or an Aramean could no more become an Israelite in preexilic times than an American can become a citizen of Liechtenstein in our own. Mere residency in the land does not confer citizenship, and a social system that defines a citizen solely as a child of a citizen has no legal mechanism by which to assimilate a foreigner.

This seems to support the general supposition of One Law, that Gentiles did not “convert” to Judaism in preexilic times (before the Babylonian exile), and if taken out of context, may be construed as meaning that Gentiles who lived in the land would be under the same law (Torah) and have the same legal status as the native of the land…even though they didn’t have citizenship. But does that make sense?

Biblical law frequently refers to the “resident alien” (ger in Hebrew) who is grouped with the widow, the orphan, and the Levite. All of these are landless and powerless, and all are the potential victims of abuse. (An American analogy to the ger is the Chicano (specifically, undocumented alien) farmworker; a European analogy is the Turkish laborer in Germany.) The Bible nowhere states how a ger might ameliorate his status and become equal to the native born, because there was no legal institution by which a foreigner could be absorbed by a tribal society living on its ancestral land. Resident aliens in the cities of pre-Hellenistic Greece fared no better.

Cohen soundly torpedoes the suggestion that “one law” gerim were equal to the native Israelites in the Land in all aspects of Torah and other covenant status. There was no legal avenue that would allow a non-member of an Israelite tribe to enter into a tribal society that was established by heredity and covenant. There was no way for the ger to become equal to the Israelite in terms of the Mosaic covenant, at least according to Cohen. Any legal requirement for the ger to become circumcised or to not eat from an animal killed by a wild creature was not an indication that the ger was in anyway equal to the native of the land in covenant status, anymore than an undocumented immigrant in the U.S. shares equal status to  U.S citizens.

After the exile of 587 BCE, the Israelite tribal structure was eliminated and the Jews who returned to Judea from Babylon were organized as clans, according to Cohen, not tribes. The ritual organization was specifically “Priest,” “Levite,” and “Israelite.” Further, it became possible to consider the idea that foreigners could somehow be “joined” to Israel and to God. Cohen continues:

But these centuries saw the creation of an institutionalized method for the admixture of gentiles. Ezra was still unfamiliar with the notion of “conversion,” but some of his contemporaries were discussing the idea. One prophet assured the “foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants” that they would not be excluded from the rebuilt temple but would be gathered to God’s people (Isa. 56:6-8). Several prophets predicted that in the end of days foreigners would join in the worship of the true God in Jerusalem, either as servants of the Israelites or as independent worshipers.”

The mechanism by which all this would occur was not spelled out as far as Cohen is concerned, but Christians believe that it is through our being brought into the New Covenant through faith in the Messiah, Jesus Christ, that we are joined to the God of Israel. Of course, that still doesn’t mean we become identical to the Jewish people in every conceivable detail, particularly if, as we’ve already seen, Gentile residents of ancient, tribal Israel were not included equally in citizenship or covenant, but rather, relegated to the status of alien residents with few, if any rights.

However, as the history of Israel progressed, the concept of conversation to Judaism for the Gentile began to become more formalized. Cohen cites three essential elements of conversion to Judaism: belief in God, circumcision, and joining the house of Israel. Again, this is a definition of a convert to Judaism, not conditions required for the Gentile to join “the Way” as disciples of Christ. Cohen even references the difference:

For Paul, circumcision represents subjugation to the demands of the Torah (Gal. 3-5).

In other words, while Paul did not see circumcision and thus full obedience to the mitzvot as a requirement for the Gentile Christians, he did see it as a necessary step for full conversion to Judaism. The natural conclusion then is that a Gentile becoming a disciple of the Jewish Messiah in the time of Paul was not the same as a Gentile converting to Judaism.

If we take the message of the Book of Galatians as a unit, then we must conclude that Paul is arguing for the sufficiency of faith in Christ for the Gentile. The non-Jew does not have to convert to Judaism in order to be justified before God.

We tend to take the concept of God-fearers as they existed in the late Second Temple era as a sort of stepping stone between Gentile paganism and Christianity, but according to Cohen, these Gentiles were just as likely to be attracted to another form of Judaism (one without the involvement of the Messiah) and perhaps to even convert to one of the many Judaisms of the day.

Even more numerous, however, were those gentiles who accepted certain aspects of Judaism but did not convert to it. In polytheistic fashion, they added the God of Israel to their pantheon and did not deny the pagan gods…In the city of Rome, many gentiles observed the Sabbath, the fasts, and the food laws; in Asia Minor, many gentiles attended synagogue on the Sabbath. Although these gentiles observed any number of Jewish practices and venerated in one form or another the God of the Jews, they did not see themselves as Jews and were not seen by others as Jews.

Cohen does not specifically state that any of these God-fearers were associated with “the Way” nor do we have any indication that the Gentile God-fearers saw themselves as obligated to the Torah or having “rights” of observance. Just as they would have observed any number of other religious practices associated with other “gods,” these God-fearers also observed a number of religious practices associated with the God of Israel. Cohen goes on:

They resemble the polytheists of the preexilic period who feared the Lord but who never changed their identity.

For One Law proponents, the good news is that there is a record of early first century C.E. gentiles observing some of the mitzvot. The bad news is that they were polytheists who did not truly “convert” to any form of Judaism (or necessarily what we now think of as “early Christianity”) nor did they forsake polytheism, which is in direct opposition to fiercely monotheistic Judaism.

Cohen does reference the New Testament (specifically sections of Acts) in further describing these God-fearers.

The book of Acts calls these people “those who fear” (phoboumenoi) or “those who venerate” (sebomenoi) the Lord (Acts 13:16, 26; 16:14; 17:4, 17; 18:7). Modern scholars call them “sympathizers” or “semi-proselytes,” but these terms lack ancient attestation…After all, how can a gentile become a “little bit Jewish?” And why would he want to?

The explanation goes back to Cohen’s description of God-fearers as polytheists who considered the God of Israel as “just another god.” But there may have been other reasons.

Rather than look upon God-fearers as gentiles interested in Judaism, perhaps we should see in the phenomenon the contribution of Judaism to the cultural mix we call Hellenistic. Greco-Roman culture provides various analogies to Jewish ideas and practices.

In other words, gentile interest in Judaism was not for Judaism’s sake per se, but for the sake of multi-culturalism within Greek society, the way that many different religious and cultural practices are integrated into modern Japanese life. My daughter lived in Japan for almost a year with a Japanese family. At one point, she attended the wedding of a Japanese couple who practiced Buddhism but who were married by a Swedish Catholic Priest. When my daughter tried to find out the reason for such an interesting mix, about the best answer she could get was, “In Japan, it’s all good.” Maybe that was also true in some corners of Greek society.

Continuing to read Cohen, I began to wonder if, from the Gentile point of view, converting to Christianity was viewed in the same light as how Gentiles were converting to other forms of Judaism.

Josephus insists that Judaism has no mysteries, no secrets that it keeps hidden from curious observers. This claim may not be entirely true (note, for example, how secretive Jesus is according to the Gospel of Mark), but it is essentially correct. Some Jews even engaged in missionary work. The Pharisees travel about land and the sea in order to make even one proselyte (the Greek word for convert to Judaism; Matt. 23:15). Josephus narrates that in the middle of the first century CE, the royal house of the kingdom of Adiabene became Jewish under the tutelage of itinerant Jewish merchants…

Some scholars have suggested that much of the Jewish literature written in Greek had as its goal the propagation of Judaism among the gentiles, since the literature often emphasizes those elements of Judaism that would make it attractive to outsiders.

Seen from this perspective, Paul and his mission to convert the Gentiles to faith in the Jewish Messiah may have well been just one Jew among many who were attempting to mine the same population of Gentiles and convert them to one of the various forms of Judaism that existed in that era. So it wouldn’t be unusual at all for “Christian” Gentiles to practice various Jewish religious and cultural behaviors in the same manner as other “converts” to Judaism, although as I previously stated, a Gentile converting to Christianity was not converting to Judaism. But at that point in history, the “Judaism” we consider “early Christianity” was considered a Judaism and it had not yet adopted a trajectory that caused it to deviate from Jewish practice and finally to not be considered a Judaism at all.

Apparently that took some time.

Many Christians, generally called “Judaizers” by modern scholarship, were drawn to Jewish practices. For some of these Christians, Judaism was attractive because of Christianity. Through Christianity they learned the Jewish scriptures and became familiar with Jewish observances. Many Christian groups, for example, insisted that Easter must coincide with the Jewish Passover and that it be celebrated with rites similar to those of the Jewish Passover.

It’s interesting that Cohen, although acknowledging a close Christian association with Judaism, continues to differentiate between the Gentile Christians and the Jewish people, presumably even those Jews who followed Jesus as Messiah. Note that early on, the concept of Easter was born and was to be treated in a similar manner to the Passover, but not as if they were the exact same festival or celebration. Nevertheless, according to Cohen, the Jewish-Christian connection endured for a number of centuries, even through the schism began most likely within the lifetime of Paul and John.

In Antioch in the late fourth century, John Chrysostom was shocked that many Christians were doing what pagan God-fearers had been doing in other parts of the empire three centuries previously: they were attending synagogues and observing the Jewish festivals.

It seems as though Christianity and Judaism maintained a “mix” for hundreds of years after the fall of Jerusalem but were never quite “in synch,” making Christianity a unique experience for the Gentile disciples, since they never adopted an actual Jewish identity the way that other proselytes did when they completed an actual conversion to one of the other Judaisms. This seems to indicate a bond between Gentile and Jewish disciples of the Master but not a fused cultural, national, or ethnic identity.

What may have driven a further wedge between Gentile Christianity and the Jewish “Messiah” movement was this:

What did change after 70 CE was that Jews, or at least the rabbis, were no longer as eager to sell their spiritual wares to the gentiles.

There is also some indication that post-Second Temple, Gentile Christianity began to gain some traction independent of the other Judaisms, possibly including the Judaism of “the Way.”

Perhaps (and this is the common explanation) the rabbis saw the growing power of Christianity and decided not to try to compete with it. Outside of rabbinic circles, perhaps some Jews still actively attempted to interest gentiles, especially Christians, in Judaism, but the evidence for this activity is minimal.

The picture Cohen paints of Gentiles in relation to the Judaism most of us call “Christianity” is incomplete, but we can draw some conclusions. First, the historical figure of the “ger” in ancient, preexilic times, is not a model for modern One Law Christians in adopting equality with Messianic (or any other sort of) Jews. The ger’s observance of Torah was for the purpose of having them obey “the law of the land” the way that even an undocumented alien worker would obey some or most of the laws in the U.S., but it didn’t make them citizens of a tribal nation nor did it confer anything even approaching equality between the gerim and the native-born Israelite. There were laws to protect the gerim in the manner of widows or orphans, but they were most definitely “second-class inhabitants” in Israel. The final blow to the “gerim” argument of One Law is that in post-exilic times, the status of the ger ceased to exist because Israel had shifted from a tribal-driven to a clan-driven society.

We see that in the time of Jesus and following, God-fearers were in evidence and they did practice synagogue worship and a number of the other mitzvot but primarily in the manner of polytheists who practiced the religions of multiple Gods. They did not forsake all other gods for the sake of the One God or become equal to the Jewish people in any covenant sense. As far as a Gentile converting to “Christianity” goes, they were not actually converts to Judaism in that they did not enjoy the full covenant benefits of converts to the other Judaisms and full obligation to Torah (which required circumcision as a covenant sign). It is acknowledged that the Gentile disciples of the Way did practice many of the Jewish religious customs including Shabbat and the festivals, even into the fourth century C.E., but the Roman authority never recognized these “Christians” as having legitimate legal rights to these observances the way that the Jews did and Cohen indicates that Gentile observance, particularly of Easter, was similar to but not identical with Passover.

And as the centuries passed, the trajectories of Christianity and Judaism continued to diverge until any “quasi-Jewish” observance by Gentile Christians simply ceased to exist.

Today, Christianity can be said to have its origins in Judaism but it has not been even remotely associated with Judaism for nearly 2,000 years.

I am not saying that there are not Christians today who maintain an attraction to Jewish practices, theology, and philosophy, but there is nothing that we can pull forward across from the time of Paul, and absolutely nothing we can draw forth from the time of Moses, that would suggest that a Gentile Christian today has any right or obligation whatsoever to observance of any aspect of the Jewish Torah mitzvot, except perhaps those that are common with kindness, compassion, and decency toward other human beings (feeding the hungry, and so forth).

While Cohen cannot be considered the final word in the history of Gentiles in the early movement of “the Way,” he certainly gives us a perspective we must pay attention to, and he helps us to realize that whatever the early Christians were in the days of Peter, Paul, and John, we are not the same as they were. They never were Jewish and neither are we.

God-Fearers: Gentiles and the God of Israel, A Book Review

When I first started writing this review, I couldn’t find anything about Toby Janicki’s new book, God-Fearers: Gentiles and the God of Israel either on First Fruits of Zion’s (FFOZ’s) website or through a general Google search. The book hadn’t been released for public sale when I got my advance copy at FFOZ’s recent Shavuot conference, but I didn’t realize it was so new that there was no advance publicity available. I emailed Boaz Michael and he asked me to hold off publishing my review for a few days. As a consequence, this review is a bit different than the one I originally created. Not too different though, and my conclusions are the same.

The question of when the book would become available for purchase was kept as an unexpected announcement for the Shavuot conference. Boaz and Daniel Lancaster wanted to surprise Toby by presenting him with a copy during one of Toby’s presentations. No one, including me, expected to be able to actually get their hands on “God-Fearers” as early as last week. Boaz gave me my personal copy at the conference so I’d be able to write a review soon after I returned home. I had it completely read by the time I had to board my flight at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport to return to Boise last Monday night.

I have to admit that I was a little disappointed when I read the book and discovered that it didn’t contain the one piece of content I had anticipated. I think both Toby and Boaz mentioned at the conference that this book would describe Toby’s personal journey from a One Law position to his current theological stance, which I guess we now call (more or less) “divine invitation” (I put that in quotes because when you’re invited but not commanded to take on additional Torah mitzvot beyond what a Christian would consider obligation, the results from one person to the next can be variable). I was really hoping Toby would write what it was like from inside FFOZ as their formal policy and faith structure transitioned into its current form. I was hoping to be able to actually see Toby’s personal journey against the backdrop of FFOZ’s ethical, moral, and spiritual development from what it was originally to what it has become today. At the conference, Toby even shared a story (which I’ll write about in a later “meditation”) about an “epiphany event” in his life that dramatically illustrated for him the dissonance between a Gentile publicly practicing Jewish identity behaviors and how it actually looks to Jewish people. None of that kind of content actually made it into the book.

What did make it into the book is a worthy read, however there is a fair amount of repurposed materials from articles Toby wrote for Messiah Journal (MJ). Since I read MJ regularly, the vast majority of what Toby’s book contained was familiar to me. Of course, if you don’t subscribe to MJ or you want all of this information collected in one place, God-Fearers is definitely for you. The material is also “fleshed out” somewhat so that articles that were only loosely related and published across the span of many months, are integrated into a fairly seemless set of topics focusing on the history and evolution of the presence of Gentiles in the worship of the God of Abraham.

OK, what’s the book about? Toby researches and investigates the history and context of non-Jewish people who, across the long centuries from Sinai to the fall of the Second Temple, have attached themselves to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but without the benefit of a formal convenant relationship with that God being available (unless you count the Noahide covenant). Toby presents to his audience, a set of pictures of what Gentiles looked like as they became aware of the God of Israel, began to grasp the concept of ethical monotheism as opposed to pagan polytheism (which was universal among the non-Jewish nations throughout the vast majority of our history), and how we non-Jews began to enter, however hesitantly, into the presence of God through the “interface” of normative Judaism.

When Christians think about God-fearers, they tend to think of the Roman Centurion Cornelius in Acts 10, who Jews would tend to call “a righteous Gentile.”

Now while Peter was inwardly perplexed as to what the vision that he had seen might mean, behold, the men who were sent by Cornelius, having made inquiry for Simon’s house, stood at the gate and called out to ask whether Simon who was called Peter was lodging there. And while Peter was pondering the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Behold, three men are looking for you. Rise and go down and accompany them without hesitation, for I have sent them.” And Peter went down to the men and said, “I am the one you are looking for. What is the reason for your coming?” And they said, “Cornelius, a centurion, an upright and God-fearing man, who is well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation, was directed by a holy angel to send for you to come to his house and to hear what you have to say.” –Acts 10:17-22 (ESV)

Most Christians are familiar with these verses and based on this text, we imagine that God-fearers sprang abruptly into history as fully realized as Cornelius sometime in the late Second Temple period. But Toby shows us that the concept of God-fearers goes way, way back, possibly as early as the time of Moses and the Sinai covenant. His book presents Biblical evidence of God-fearers in the psalms, such as Psalms 115, 118, and 135. He also cites Midrashic references, such as Numbers Rabbah 8:2 and Genesis Rabbah 28:5 to show us that normative Judaism acknowledged the presence of God-fearing Gentiles within their midst across the span of Jewish history.

Conceptualizing the relationship between Gentile God-fearers and the Torah is complex. It can even be complex (depending on your point of view) for the Gentiles who have become disciples of the Jewish Messiah (i.e. “Christians”). We see the bare bones of the expectations for the non-Jews who wanted to enter the Messianic covenant in Acts 15, and the book reveals itself to be a commentary not only of God-fearers the way the church traditionally thinks of Cornelius, but of the Gentile who is on a journey of discovery from first becoming aware of the God of Israel, to attaching to that God, perhaps as a Noahide or something similar, and then finally being adopted as sons and daughters of the Most High when we confess the Jewish Messiah as Lord and Master, formally becoming disciples of Jesus and members of the Messianic covenant.

Additionally, Toby describes many of the detailed questions a lot of us have in terms of Gentiles and Jewish identity markers such as Shabbat, tzitzit, tefillin, the Festivals, and other examples of the mitzvot. Please keep in mind that in writing this review, I’m shooting through material that covers over 150 pages in barely 1600 words so I’m just hitting the high points. There’s a lot more elucidating information contained in Toby’s “God-Fearers” book which of course, you’re going to have to read for yourself.

god-fearers mosaicI can see “God-Fearers” being a really great resource either for a non-Jew just entering into the Messianic movement, or for someone who has been active in the movement for awhile but who experiences significant gaps in understanding the role of a non-Jewish disciple in a Messianic Jewish context (I met many people in both of these groups last week at the conference). For those of you who fear that FFOZ is using this book to say, “Gentiles can’t study and take on anything in the Torah,” this book will reassure you that nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the book represents a great deal more flexibility as far as what Gentiles are allowed and even obligated to do under Torah than I originally anticipated (I discovered this when I read part of this material in Messiah Journal some months ago). If you keep an open mind and let the book tell its own story, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed as a non-Jewish person who feels “called” to some form of Torah mitzvot observance.

As I mentioned before, I really was hoping that at least the last chapter would have told something of Toby’s personal journey. It’s one thing to provide scholarly information about “generic” non-Jews and how we relate to the Torah and the Messianic movement, but I think the book would have really come alive if Toby had shared his personal thoughts and emotions as FFOZ and he both moved away from the One Law perspective. I got a sense in having talked with Toby for a bit at the conference (he was really busy for those four or five days so I didn’t get to spend any significant time with him) that there is a lot more for him to tell than what finally made it into God-Fearers.

Do I recommend Toby’s book? Absolutely. I think it’s an extremely valuable asset for the audience I described above. I hope if this book goes to a second printing or, if it be God’s will, a second edition, that Toby will include some of his lived, personal experience into the text. The intellectual, emotional, and spiritual value of God-Fearers: Gentiles and the God of Israel would increase immeasurably if he did. That said, if you get your hands on a first edition now, consider it a terrific resource and possibly even a collector’s item.

As I mentioned before, I have a story to tell about Toby (he knows I’m going to share it on my blog) and how it is part of my own.

Blessings.