Tag Archives: law

Captured in the Glass

dust-and-ashesThen the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground…

Genesis 2:7 (NASB)

…we commit his body to the ground; earth to earth; ashes to ashes, dust to dust. The Lord bless him and keep him, the Lord make his face to shine upon him and be gracious unto him and give him peace. Amen.

-from the funeral service in the Book of Common Prayer

That’s how I feel sometimes. Like ashes. Like dust.

I’m no theologian. I just finished reading Jobes’s and Silva’s book Invitation to the Septuagint. The title is rather deceptive, since after the first few chapters, the book is anything but introductory. I came away from the text realizing that it’s amazing how Bible scholars act like they are sure of so much. I’m stunned at how we can be certain of anything at all about the Bible. I knew this already, but the book reminded me that translating ancient texts is an almost impossible task, especially if you’re going to do something crazy with the translations like establish binding theology and doctrine for large groups of human beings, telling them the intent of God for their lives.

How can we be so sure of every, single, tiny, detail that we say we’re certain about? Can we say what God and Moses talked about on Sinai for every minute of those forty days and forty nights? Do we know what it actually felt like to stand in the presence of Jesus, to have watched him right before he began to teach on any given morning? Do we fully, completely understand the lived experience of what it was like to be a human being listening to the prophesies of Elijah, Jeremiah, and Isaiah, at the places and times where and when they lived and breathed?

We have words on a page, but that must pale in comparison to the original intent and action of the spoken words of Moses as he addressed all of Israel on the banks of the Jordan only hours and minutes before his death.

Who am I to tell anyone what I think as if I have any better thoughts than anyone else?

Sometimes I feel like I’m ready to give up spewing my thoughts and feelings into the blogosphere on a daily basis. Then I read something like this:

Another scholar who concurred with Sanders’s reading of Judaism was Heikki Räisänen, who retired from the University of Helsinki in 2006. Räisänen adopted a more radical solution than Sanders. If Sanders’s portrait of Second Temple Judaism is correct, then how do we explain Paul? Räisänen argued that the idea that Paul is a coherent and logical thinker is flawed. In other words, Paul’s theology of law is shot through with contradictions and is fundamentally incoherent. Scholars have labored to articulate Paul’s theology of the law as if it represented a consistent system of thought. They have generally failed to realize, according to Räisänen, that Paul operated with two fundamentally contradictory presuppositions. On the one hand, he posited that the Old Testament law was God’s authoritative word. On the other hand, he insisted that Gentiles were not required to observe the Old Testament law. Naturally, says Räisänen, Paul could not reconcile these two ideas since they are mutually exclusive.

-Thomas Schreiner from his book
40 Questions About Christians and Biblical Law
Question 4: What Is the New Perspective on Paul, and How Should It Be Assessed? pp 36-7

So close and yet so far. I believe Räisänen and ultimately Schreiner are missing the point. Räisänen lays it all out like a dream but still doesn’t grasp what Paul was doing. There was (and is) no contradiction between Paul’s view of the Torah and not requiring Gentile believers to keep it. Paul simply understood that Jewish believers continued to be bound to the Sinai covenant and the Gentiles were not.

Pastor Randy gifted me with this book a few weeks ago and I just started reading it yesterday (as I write this). There are significant parts I agree with and then there are parts that I believe miss the point. Yeah. Here’s me putting my thoughts and feelings out on the Internet again, non-theologian than I am. Go figure.

On the other hand, I thought Schreiner was more or less spot on in Question 2: Was the Mosaic Covenant Legalistic? when he said:

The giving of the law followed the salvation of Israel, and hence such obedience signified Israel’s grateful response to the redemption accomplished by the Lord. There is no basis in the text for the idea that Israel’s obedience established a relationship with the Lord. The Lord took the initiative in rescuing his people, and they were called upon to respond with faithful obedience.

-Schreiner, pg 26

Mount SinaiSchreiner almost has it right (IMHO) but he seems to believe that the Israelites observed the mitzvot out of emotional gratitude for being saved. This is a very Christian way of thinking. I agree that observing the Torah in a mechanical fashion does not make anyone right with God. It never did. However, once the Israelites were redeemed by God and agreed that He would be their God and they would be His people, He gave the Torah to the Israelites and they were expected to observe it.

When they didn’t, as the Tanakh (Old Testament) tells us, they didn’t lose their “salvation” (keeping in mind that Jewish people don’t think of salvation the same way we Christians do), but rather, they tended to lose their right to live in the Land of Israel and to enjoy personal and national freedom. They faced war, captivity, exile, and the destruction of Jerusalem.

Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be prolonged in the land which the Lord your God gives you.

Exodus 20:12 (NASB)

This is just one of the Torah mitzvot, contained in what we refer to as “the Ten Commandments,” that directly ties obedience to the mitzvot with continued residency in the Land of Israel.

I say all this because, in spite of the fact that Schreiner clearly states that Torah obedience is not and never has been tied to personal salvation and redemption by God, he subsequently becomes “confused.”

Consequently, Sanders’s claim that Second Temple Judaism did not emphasize the role of works in obtaining salvation is overstated. The Jewish sources do not so neatly support his contention that Second Temple Judaism was a religion of grace. At the very least some segments of Judaism focused on human obedience and had fallen prey to a kind of legalism.

We have significant evidence that Paul rejects the law because of human inability and that some of his opponents had fallen prey to legalism…

-Schreiner, pp 38-9

OK, Schreiner is talking about the practices of Judaism (Judaisms, really) during the Second Temple period and saying that some of the streams of Judaism believed that it was the scrupulous observance of the mitzvot that “saved” someone rather than faith in Hashem.

…and do not suppose that you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father’; for I say to you that from these stones God is able to raise up children to Abraham.

Matthew 3:9

Some men came down from Judea and began teaching the brethren, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.”

Acts 15:1

phariseesI tend to agree that the connection between faith and obedience became lost by many Jewish people in those days. Given that Israel was an occupied nation and that the Jewish people had no reason at all to love or regard the Gentiles, a form of ethnic and national “pride,” and in some cases, “egotism” was to be expected. You see that in any oppressed population. But if, as we have seen Schreiner state in earlier portions of his book, the Torah was considered a valid and indeed commanded form of response to God by the Israelites in ancient times, why was it suddenly so hard to obey in the late Second Temple era? Furthermore, why, given that we already know from Schreiner’s book, not to mention the Biblical record, would Paul, who esteemed the Torah as God’s Holy Word, ever reject it?

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that a lot of what Paul wrote really does seem contradictory. We have an extraordinarily difficult time in the 21st century trying to figure Paul out. In fact, Christians have been trying to understand Paul for who knows how long? My opinion is that he is woefully misunderstood and miscast in the role of the villain who took the teachings of Jesus and made them anti-Law and anti-Jewish. I’m not alone in this opinion.

…and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation; just as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given him, wrote to you, as also in all his letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction.

2 Peter 3:15-16

Peter admitted that Paul’s writings were hard to understand and that even during the time in which Peter was writing, “untaught and unstable” people were distorting Paul’s words. How much more do we experience this distortion as we work from copies of copies of copies of his original writings, translated again and again, and on top of all that, rigidly filtered through the smoky lens of thousands of years of Christian theology and doctrine?

The reason that Schreiner can’t figure out the contradiction between Paul’s reverence for the Torah of Moses and Paul’s specifically not requiring the Gentile believers to keep the Torah in the manner of the Jews, as well as forbidding them to circumcise and thus convert to Judaism, is that the Christian lens of theology and doctrine is not designed to “see” the obvious resolution.

I know I’ve said this before, but when we understand how the Abrahamic covenant ties all nations to the Messianic promise by faith but links only the descendants of Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob to the Sinai covenant, then we realize on what basis Paul, and the Council of the Apostles in their binding ruling of halachah for the Gentiles, established that the Gentile believers had a different legal status; one that didn’t require conversion to Judaism and being yoked to the entire mitzvot of Torah.

I’ll say it again for any Christians reading this. Keeping Torah or not keeping Torah is not an issue of personal salvation. The fact that Jewish people, including those who have faith in Yeshua (Jesus) as the Messiah, observe the Torah mitzvot doesn’t save them, but that doesn’t mean the Sinai covenant no longer applies to them. Paul, James, and the Council absolved the Gentile believers from having to take on board the same yoke. Once saved, we were given a status somewhat like non-Jewish people living among Israel (but not identical to the ancient Gerim) and obligated to a modified set of the mitzvot that, on the surface, seem deceptively simple.

shattered-glassBut there’s nothing I can see in the writings of Paul, especially the record of his life we read about in Luke’s Book of Acts, that tells us Paul dispensed with Torah observance in his own life, taught other Jews to do such a thing, or ever, ever disconnected Torah observance from the proper Jewish response to God.

I know this book is going to cause me more than a few headaches. It already has, and I’ve only read four of the questions. I’ve got thirty-six more to go. I suspect that my conversations with Pastor will be very dynamic. Hopefully, my conversations on this blog will be dynamic as well.

Our view of Paul is like he described our understanding of the Bible and God, as seen “through a glass darkly” (1 Corinthians 13:12). Our beliefs, theology, doctrines, and dogma are captured in that glass, trapped in crystal, frozen in amber. It’s time to take a big brick and start pounding on that glass, which was heated, blown, and cast by men who have long since died, and take a fresh look at Paul, Moses, Jesus, Torah, the Bible, and God.

Religious Judaism is accused of taking the Bible and weaving tons and tons of interpretations and traditions around it so that the original intent of the text is barely recognizable. What Protestant Christianity doesn’t realize is that we’ve done exactly the same thing with our post-Reformation, post-modern theologies and doctrines. That we are told we must see Paul’s love of Torah as God’s authoritative word, and his command to the Gentiles that they (we) are not required to observe Torah as mutually exclusive, is a perfect example of our own tradition-induced blindness in the church.

The next part of my review of Schreiner’s book can be found in Blessings, Curses, and Works of the Law.

The Purpose of Torah in New Testament Judaism, Part 1

creative-torahJewish tradition holds that “Moses received the Torah from Sinai,” yet there is also an ancient tradition that the Torah existed in heaven not only before God revealed it to Moses, but even before the world was created.

“The Written Law: Torah”
Jewish Virtual Library

Last night was my regular Wednesday evening meeting with Pastor Randy in his office at church. Often our conversations take various twists and turns (last night was no exception) but we tried to stick to our task of discussing D. Thomas Lancaster’s book The Holy Epistle to the Galatians

Between last week and last night, we managed to cover chapters 6 and 7, but we keep running into a wall based on our different perspectives.

Paul had an ulterior motive for this trip to Jerusalem. He intended to use the opportunity for a private meeting with the apostles, those reputed pillars of the assembly under James the Righteous, the brother of the Master. James presided over the assembly of Messiah as the steward of the throne of David, so to speak. Paul wanted to present his unique interpretation of the gospel to James and the apostles – namely the version of the gospel that God-fearing Gentile believers need not become Jewish in order to inherit salvation, enter the kingdom of heaven, and obtain citizenship in the people of God; rather that faith in the Master was sufficient for even Gentiles.

-Lancaster, Sermon 6: The Big Meeting (Galatians 2:3-5), pg 60

One of the problems Paul had encountered was hearing of “false brothers” (Galatians 2:4) coming into the Messianic communities in Galatia, and convincing some of the Gentile believers that they could only be saved if they were circumcised and converted to Judaism. This was contrary to what Paul believed, but he needed his understanding of the Gentile role in Messianic Judaism confirmed by the Council of Apostles in Jerusalem (which it finally was in Acts 15).

Pastor Randy agrees with me that non-Jews don’t have to convert to Judaism and take on the full weight of Torah as the Jews in order to become disciples of Jesus. However, he believes the “false brothers” were not just convincing the Gentiles to be circumcised, but the Jesus believing Jews as well!

The underlying belief is that both Jews and Gentiles were being taught by Paul that no one must “keep the Torah” once they have come to faith in Jesus because Jesus fulfilled the Law (This contradicts Paul’s own testimony that he never broke any of the laws of Torah, which he repeated many times starting with Acts 21, including what he says in Acts 25:8).

(Note that I’m using the New American Standard Bible – NASB – for quoting Bible verses unless otherwise indicated.)

Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill.

Matthew 5:17

For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.

Romans 10:4

According to the Greek (according to Pastor Randy), the word “fulfill” in Matthew 5 gives the sense of to fill up, to complete, rather than “fulfilling prophesy” as in simply meeting the qualifications.

Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith.

Galatians 3:24

Pastor interprets this verse the way you might expect, that the Torah had one primary purpose and that when Jesus came, that purpose was completed and the Torah, for the most part, is no longer valid or at least not currently valid.

temple-prayersThis actually is a little complex because there are whole sections of Torah that have to do with the Temple and Priesthood that cannot currently be performed for obvious reasons. However, both Pastor Randy and I believe that there will be a third Temple and when it exists, some or all of the laws related to Temple worship will be re-established. We also agree that what Christianity calls “the moral laws” of the Torah remain, such as feeding the hungry and visiting the sick, and these are laws that apply to Christians and (believing and non-believing) Jews. You can’t eliminate all of the Torah without eliminating Christianity.

My assumption is from the opposite end of the telescope, so to speak. I believe that the Jewish believers including James, Peter, and Paul, would not have automatically assumed that the coming of Moshiach would have meant their Torah-observant lifestyles would have been changed or diminished in any way. In fact, I believe that their faith in Messiah would have given them a renewed sense of purpose and meaning in Torah.

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

Acts 21:20

What shall we say then? Is the Law sin? May it never be! On the contrary, I would not have come to know sin except through the Law; for I would not have known about coveting if the Law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, taking opportunity through the commandment, produced in me coveting of every kind; for apart from the Law sin is dead. I was once alive apart from the Law; but when the commandment came, sin became alive and I died; and this commandment, which was to result in life, proved to result in death for me; for sin, taking an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me. So then, the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.

Romans 7:7-12

There seems to be a duality in how the Torah is addressed in the New Testament, so we can each make a case for the Law being considered “good” or “bad” but what we are trying to determine is if the Torah retained a purpose for the Jewish believers after the resurrection and ascension of Jesus. In order to do that, Pastor Randy and I need some sort of definition for “Torah” or more likely, a mutually agreed upon answer to the question, “What is the purpose of the Torah?”

Pastor believes that there is a purpose to certain portions of the Torah after the ascension but that those portions apply equally to both Jewish and Gentile believers, since believers are defined by faith in Jesus as the bottom line. I disagree and believe there is an additional differentiation between Jewish and Gentile believers based on Sinai and that the Jewish believers remain distinct, even among the larger body of Gentile disciples of Messiah.

My project is to try to investigate the purpose of Torah for Jewish people who are in Messiah. Pastor is going to approach it from his perspective starting with Calvin’s Purposes of the Law in the New Testament. While I think it’s necessary to look at such a viewpoint, my concern is that by definition, it will not take the possibility of continued Jewish Torah observance into account.

I think it is completely reasonable to say that believing Jews and Gentiles can still have differences in obligation and duty under the Torah, just as Levites and Kohens have different duties under Torah than other Jewish people. They are all Jewish and yet specific Jews have certain additional obligations based on who they are. In a community of Jewish and Gentile believers, they (we) are all believers, but the Jews have certain additional obligations based on who they are.

Even a casual Google search on the string, “What is the purpose of the Torah” turned up a vast number of what seems to be very compelling sources, too many to review and summarize in a single blog post. I know this conversation with Pastor Randy will go beyond next week’s meeting, but we both agree that we need to, if not settle the matter, at least have a better handle on it than we do now (we’re also covering Chapter 8 in Lancaster for next week).

torah-tree-of-lifeI may not be the sharpest knife in the drawer, so to speak, but I’m not the dullest either. I know how to do my homework. On the other hand, I’m still only one person and as such, have the limitations of a single perspective. If anyone has something useful or can point me to a resource that can assist me in looking at the purposes of the Torah for believing Jews, both in the time of Paul and in the present age, I’d certainly appreciate you giving me a “heads up.”

Oh, Pastor Randy reads my blog every day, so it’s not like I’m trying to pull a fast one or something.

One more thing. At the beginning of this blog post, I quoted from Jewish Virtual Library on part of the “identity” of the Torah. It’s interesting that Pastor Randy pretty much agrees with that definition. That is to say, he believes there is a “Word of God” that is independent of the physical object we call a “Bible.” There is a pure, refined, holy, transcendent Torah in Heaven that no man has access to. The Bible contains the Word of God, but the Bible isn’t actually that Word.

That belief lends itself to some very interesting possibilities about what happens when we study the Bible, but I’ll stop at this point rather than try to explore such a vast territory.

The Torah is a tree of life for those who grasp it, and its supporters are praiseworthy. Its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace. Lengthy days are at its right; at its left are wealth and honor. Hashem desired for the sake of its [Israel’s] righteousness, that the Torah be made great and glorious.

-from the Siddur

I hope to continue contributing to this project on my blog with some regularity, not only because of my conversations with my Pastor, but for its own sake. I suppose I’m “reinventing the wheel,” and perhaps some knowledgeable scholars have already done some or most of the work for me. If that’s true and who know where I can access that work, don’t be shy. Let me know.

More questions and another perspective on Torah coming up in Part 2 of this series.

Return to Jerusalem, Part 4

teshuvahTherefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God…For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well.

Acts 15:19, 28-29 (ESV)

After presenting the proof text, James placed Simon Peter’s decision before the council. He declared, “It is my judgment that we do not trouble those who are turning to God from among the Gentiles.” That is to say, “We should not require circumcision and conversion as the criteria for salvation.” James referred to the God-fearing believers as those “turning to God from among the Gentiles.” The word “turning” corresponds to “repentance.” The Gentile believers responded to the gospel message, “Repent, the kingdom is near.”

The decision exempted the Gentiles from circumcision and the particular commandments that pertain specifically to Jewish identity. It prohibited the Jewish believers from forcing those issues on Gentiles. Nevertheless, the apostles did not forbid the Gentiles from voluntarily participating in the Sabbath, the dietary laws, or any aspect of Torah-life.

-D. Thomas Lancaster
Torah Club, Volume 6: Chronicles of the Apostles
from First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ)
Torah Portion Yitro (“Jethro”) (pg 442-3)
Commentary on Acts 15:1-20

This is a continuation of the “Return to Jerusalem” series and I recommend that, unless you’ve done so already, you read part 1 through part 3 before continuing here.

We’ve seen the problem of whether or not Gentile disciples of Jesus should be compelled to convert to Judaism and conform to the full yoke of Torah brought before James and the Jerusalem Council. Each side of the debate has made its case and it appears that the testimony of Peter and his experiences with the Roman Cornelius and his household (see Acts 10) have weighed the debate heavily in one direction. James has presented Amos 9:11-12 as his proof text for allowing Gentiles to receive salvation and access to the Messianic promises without converting to Judaism and in accordance with Peter’s position on the matter.

And now we see what James is going to do about it.

For the Jewish disciples and apostles, the crux of their argument was if or how the Gentiles were to be admitted into discipleship. Should they convert and take on the full yoke of Torah or be allowed to remain Gentiles (not convert) and perhaps follow some other or abridged set of behavioral standards? It was the mechanism for admission that was the point for them, not whether or not Gentiles could/should follow the Torah.

However, I’ve received some comments lately on the earlier parts of this series about whether or not we non-Jewish disciples are obligated to the full list of Torah mitzvot (and arguably, all or much of the subsequent Rabbinic commentary on just how one performs the mitzvot) based on Acts 15 among other New Testament scriptures. Further, the question of whether or not the Jerusalem Council “cancelled the Torah” for Gentile and Jewish disciples of Jesus came up. To me, and especially after reading Lancaster, this is a no-brainer, but I keep forgetting that for most Christians, this raises a tremendous conflict in terms of what they’ve (we’ve) been taught (and as you can tell from my writing, I don’t always think like most Christians).

But I want to continue with my review/analysis of Lancaster’s Acts 15 commentary because I think it has a lot to say to both believing Gentiles and Jews. I won’t say that I believe every word Lancaster writes is undying Gospel (you should pardon the expression), but I do think we should take a serious look at what he says and see if there’s merit in what he’s teaching. I think we can learn much.

For instance, while Lancaster has said that Gentile believers are not obligated to the full yoke of Torah, and especially those mitzvot that have to do with Jewish identity (since they aren’t going to be converting to Judaism), he also says that “the apostles did not forbid the Gentiles from voluntarily participating in the Sabbath, the dietary laws, or any aspect of Torah-life.” But then how are we to separate Gentiles being limited to voluntarily participating in only certain elements of “a Torah-life” and “any aspect of Torah-life?”

I’ll address the specifics of what Lancaster defines as “Torah-life” for the Gentile later parts of this series. That said, Lancaster does give us a bit of a picture of what the “early Christians” were up to relative to the Torah, and maybe even a beginning of the answer to the question I just asked.

The God-fearing Gentile believers of the apostolic era were more Torah observant than most Messianic believers (Blogger’s note: or traditional Christians) today. They worshipped in synagogues in the midst of the Jewish community. They had no other days of worship or holidays other than those of the synagogue. They did not drive vehicles to get to their place of fellowship. To share table-fellowship with Jewish believers in the community, they maintained the biblical dietary laws. For all practical purposes, they looked Jewish already.

PaulTo support this claim, Lancaster quotes from Le Cornu’s and Shulam’s “A commentary on the Jewish Roots of Galatians” (Jerusalem, Israel: Akademon, 2005), 835:

This principle has obvious bearing on the language of “troubling” and “burdening” the Gentile believers. James’ ruling for the “majority” of the Gentiles who are now turning to God through Jesus: The Jewish community in Jerusalem will not impose anything on them which they will not be able to bear as a whole. This does not preclude their taking upon themselves additional observances according to their respective abilities and desires.

This lends a great deal of support to Lancaster’s and FFOZ’s position on Gentile Christians and the Torah. While obligation to all of the mitzvot is not imposed on the Gentile disciples as a whole, individuals among the Gentiles may choose to follow the path of Torah more fully and to varying degrees.

I’m going to skip over the “Four Essential Prohibitions” until next time and focus on how the Torah in general is applied to Jewish and Gentile believers. We see that, according to Lancaster and the Jews present at this debate, it was abundantly clear that Gentiles, if they do not convert to Judaism, are not obligated to the full yoke of Torah as a group. But what about the Jews? Did James really abolish Jewish observance of Torah in one fell stroke?

The apostles agreed that Gentile believers did not need to undergo circumcision and full obligation to the Torah as Jews. The obvious corollary requires that Jewish believers are obligated to observe the Torah. The thought that a Jewish believer might also be exempt from the whole yoke of Torah did not enter the minds of the apostles.

Traditional Christian interpretation, however, often assumes that Acts 15 releases both Jews and Gentiles from keeping the Torah’s ceremonial laws of circumcision, Sabbath, calendar, dietary laws, etc. On the contrary, the entire argument of the chapter presupposes that those obligations remain incumbent on the Jewish believer.

-Lancaster, pg 443

Lancaster then finishes off this point by citing some (to Christians, anyway) rather unusual authorities: both a believing Jewish commentator from the 19th century and two unbelieving Rabbis from the 15th and 18th centuries who also wrote scholarly opinions (amazingly enough) on Acts 15. For the full content of their writings as presented in the Torah Club, I encourage you to purchase Vol. 6, but I will briefly quote one source.

And it is forbidden for us to say: “If we have the righteousness of the Messiah unto eternal life, why do we need to observe the Torah, if this is not required for eternal life, for we are only saved by faith?” We are forbidden to speak this way, for who are we to annul it? The Messiah was not made the servant of sin. This is similar to what the Christians said: “Why do I need any longer to give alms to the poor or to do any other good deed, according to the New Testament? Is not my faith enough for me?” It is forbidden to speak like this, for he is a sinner who closes his fist, and the Messiah was not made the servant of sin. Therefore faith does not benefit him, as it says in the epistle of James 2:13, 1 John 3:3, and Paul himself in Romans 6:15. And James says (4:17): “One who knows to do good and does not do it, it is a sin for him,” for the omission is a sin. For when he repents and regrets the wickedness of his heart, then the faith by its power saves him, as Paul also says in Acts 26:20: “Return to God and perform deeds in keeping with repentance.” Then the faith is beneficial.

-Yechiel Tzvi Lichtenstein
“Commentary on the New Testament: The Acts of the Apostles”
(Unpublished, Marshfield, Mo: Vine of David, 2010),
on Acts 15; originally published in Hebrew: Beiur LeSiphrei Brit HaChadashah
(Leipzig: Professor G. Dahlman, 1897).

jewish-prayer-israelI am positive that this is the single most difficult message from Acts 15 for the vast majority of Christians to absorb. We have been taught that when it says Jesus is the goal of the Torah, it means the finale as opposed to the “gold standard” of obedience to God that the (Jewish) believers were to unservingly strive for. It is extremely acceptable to most Christians that we in the church are not subject to the “slavery” of the Law, but to believe that any Jewish person who is also a believer continues to be obligated to the Torah teachings is almost too much for us to bear.

I admit that given the scope of Lancaster’s commentary and the limitations of my already lengthy summary of his work, that I cannot indisputably prove that Gentiles have no obligation to Torah while Jews still do (although I think the point regarding Gentiles and Torah is reasonably well made). But in my meager attempts at study and to try to put myself in the place of the people witnessing the council debate this hotly contested (both then and now) issue, I think that Lancaster has made a good case for his conclusions. Again, space and time limitations prevent me from offering a more complete analysis and I don’t want to simply transcribe two weeks of Torah Club lessons into my blog (I’m already guilty of replicating a large portion of the two Acts 15 teachings from TC Vol. 6). Again, if you want to read the entire content of the work supporting these conclusions, you’ll have to consult the Torah Club Volume 6 lessons.

The remainder of this series will address the “Four Essential Prohibitions” and what they mean for Gentile believers, both in ancient and modern days. That’s where we’ll start in Part 5 of “Return to Jerusalem.”

Does Jesus Matter?

Why Native American religions, when scholars acknowledge that Native American tribes do not traditionally distinguish between religion and the rest of life?

-William T. Cavanaugh
Chapter 1: The Anatomy of the Myth”
The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict

But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.

Romans 10:8-9 (ESV)

Disclaimer: This is a long “meditation.” I’m sorry. I couldn’t make my point and keep it under 2600 words. Just letting you know.

I’ve been reading Cavanaugh’s The Myth of Religious Violence, albeit somewhat slowly, but I came to a complete stop when I read the quote from his book I placed at the top of this blog post. Cavanaugh is trying to refute those people who believe that religion is inherently more violent and prone to causing wars than secular systems of finance or government. One of his main criticisms against this viewpoint is the lack of definition for what is a “religion” which, on the surface may seem easily defined, but in the world of scholarly analysis, is pretty difficult to pin down.

But look at what he says about Native American religions. “Native American tribes do not traditionally distinguish between religion and the rest of life.” But shouldn’t it be that way for all other religions as well?

If you’re a Christian, you may be nodding your head and agreeing that your faith is your life, but I think for a great many of us, we tend to compartmentalize what we do into “religious” and “secular” activities. When you go to church, it’s “religious.” When you pay your taxes or take out the garbage, it’s “secular.” A lot of Christians say that their faith “isn’t a religion, it’s a relationship.” If that’s so, then are there times in your day-to-day life when your relationship with Jesus doesn’t exist or doesn’t matter? If you are married, are there times when your marriage or your spouse doesn’t matter or doesn’t factor into your decision-making, particularly when those decisions don’t have a direct connection to your being married?

Who we are in Christ should permeate every single part of our lives, everything we do, every thought we have. It was Paul who wrote (see 2 Corinthians 10:5) that we must “take every thought captive to obey Christ.” If our Christianity is supposed to function down to the level of our very thoughts, shouldn’t it be ingrained into everything else we are as well?

I’ve been participating in a number of online discussions, including one at Gene Shlomovich’s blog Daily Minyan, regarding the relevance of the Mosaic covenant between God and the Israelites as applied to non-Jewish Christians today. The principle question is, do Christians become obligated to the Law of Moses when we first confess faith in Christ?

I know the vast majority of Christians (and probably Jews) will immediately answer, “No.” But then, most Christians believe that the Law or Torah of Moses was wholly replaced by the grace of Jesus Christ when our Master died on the cross. I disagree with this “replacement theology” (and those of you who’ve been reading my blog for long know this quite well) and believe that the Jewish people continue to be bound to the covenant they made with God at Sinai.

But Christian brothers and sisters, you and I weren’t at Sinai. Our covenant connection to God isn’t dependant on that event, even though there were non-Israelites, the so-called “mixed multitude” of people groups, who also stood at the mountain and agreed to obey God in all things.

However, there are some folks out there who believe that the non-Israelites at Sinai sets a precedent that not only allows, but actually requires all Christians to be fully compliant (or as much as we can be living outside Israel, and without a Temple, Priesthood, and Sanhedrin) to the 613 commandments that the Jews must perform as a condition of their covenant with God through Moses.

But that raises one big, giant red flag for me. If all any Gentile ever had to do to have a covenant relationship with God was to perform the mitzvot as a Jew would, then why do we need Jesus in order to enter into relationship with God and be saved?

This issue is actually more complicated than I’m making it here, but the details would result in an impossibly long blog post. Also, I’m not historian, linguist, or Bible scholar, so I lack the educational “chops” to fully explore all of the niggling little details this topic brings up. On the other hand, any “ordinary person” should be able to discuss their faith in a reasonably intelligent manner without having to possess multiple advanced degrees. If we can’t, then we must relegate ourselves to the status of “sheep” and be at the mercy of anyone who comes up with a theology based on some understanding of what certain Hebrew and Greek words might mean in English.

(I have to say here that I am not denigrating scholarship and education. Far from it. I possess one graduate and two undergraduate university degrees, so I value education and learning very highly. However, it is important to search out and study the findings of legitimate scholars in religious studies. You won’t always find them involved in online religious debates in the blogosphere.)

Let’s get down to it. If Torah obedience is the primary key to entering into covenant relationship with God, then why don’t we all just convert to Judaism? More to the point, why did God bother to send Jesus Christ to be born, live, teach, suffer, die, be resurrected, and ascend to Heaven? That’s a lot of trouble and certainly it wasn’t any fun for Jesus. All God had to do was send a prophet to go to the Gentiles (someone like Paul perhaps) and say, “Convert to Judaism and you will be saved.”

But that’s not what Paul said. And that’s not what Jesus said. I don’t believe Jesus, Paul, Peter, or anyone else said that the Jews must give up Judaism and become Christians, since even Jesus, Paul, and Peter remained Jews, sacrificed at the Temple, and kept kosher throughout their entire lives. I do believe though, that something had to be done for the rest of the people in the world who were worshiping mute idols of stone, wood, and metal.

But if the Gentile pagans didn’t convert to Judaism, what did they become when they abandoned polytheism and began to exclusively worship the God of Israel through faith in the Jewish Messiah?

For a whole year they met with the church and taught a great many people. And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians. –Acts 11:26 (ESV)

The term “Christians” could more or less be thought of as “Messianics” as well, or people who are disciples of the Jewish Messiah. But it doesn’t translate into “Jews” and it doesn’t translate into “Israelites” or any other such thing. What the believers in Jesus as the Jewish Messiah were called was directly connected to his Messianic identity and what we can think of as the “Messianic” covenant; the covenant that makes it specifically possible for non-Jews/non-Israelites to come into relationship with God “without surrendering their ethnic, racial, or national identity as Gentiles.”

If we were expected to surrender our “Gentileness” and covert to Judaism or in some manner or fashion, become obligated to the full mitzvot of Torah, even while retaining our Gentile identity, why would Paul say this?

Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. –Galatians 5:2-3 (ESV)

He said something even more dramatic on the same subject:

I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose. –Galatians 2:21 (ESV)

Galatians by D.T. LancasterGranted, Paul’s letter to the Galatians is amazingly difficult to understand (see D. Thomas Lancaster’s book The Holy Epistle to the Galatians for an excellent analysis of this letter) but it’s hard to get around the idea that Paul was severely “discouraging” the non-Jewish members of the churches in Galatia from converting to Judaism (being circumcised) because doing so would place them under the full weight of the Torah mitzvot. Also, if the Gentiles thought they had to convert to Judaism and take on board the entire Torah as an obligation in order to be justified, it would make Christ’s bloody, humiliating, agonizing death on the cross completely meaningless.

So I just don’t see how Jesus is requiring every non-Jewish person who comes to him as a disciple to be obligated to the Torah of Moses.

Having said all that, is the Torah such a bad thing? No, absolutely not. Paul knew that even Jews were justified by faith and not by works of the law. (Galatians 2:15-16)

Is the law then contrary to the promises of God? Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law. –Galatians 3:21

Paul didn’t abolish the law and neither did Jesus (Matthew 5:17). In fact, Jesus said that “until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” (v. 18) As far as I can tell, Heaven and Earth are still with us and not everything the Messiah was supposed to accomplish has happened yet. So the law continues to exist.

I can confidently say Jewish people remain obligated to the mitzvot, both in Second Temple times and today. This, in my opinion, includes the Jews who have come to faith in Jesus as the Jewish Messiah. Jesus never got rid of the Mosaic covenant or replaced it with a newer covenant. I do believe the newer “Messianic” or “Davidic” covenant ratifies the older ones for the Jews so the Messianic promises are realized for them in Christ.

What about the Torah for the rest of us? Modern (non-Messianic) Jews believe that the rest of the people of the earth are obligated to what is called the Seven Laws of Noah and that the covenant of God made with Noah (see Genesis 9) puts all of us in relation with God as long as we obey our Noahide obligations.

But that doesn’t take anything we know from the Gospels or Epistles into account. The Messiah’s mission was not just to restore Israel nationally and spiritually, but to bring the rest of the world into relationship with God. That isn’t dependant on Noah or on Moses but only on Christ.

I’ve heard it said that the Messianic covenant with the Gentiles “travels back in time” as it were, so that the non-Jews at Sinai were brought into relationship with God through Christ and then obligated to the Torah mitzvot as a consequence, but to employ Occam’s razor, when two hypotheses are in competition, the one that makes the fewest assumptions is more likely to be true. The “time traveling” covenant hypothesis creates a lot of hoops to jump through just to support a theory.

Moses didn’t tell the Israelites that they had to obey God in all things and believe in the coming Messiah in order for God to be their God. This is what happened right before God gave the Torah at Sinai:

So Moses came and called the elders of the people and set before them all these words that the Lord had commanded him. All the people answered together and said, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do.” And Moses reported the words of the people to the Lord. –Exodus 19:7-8 (ESV)

Because of faith in God, the Israelites unreservedly agreed to obey everything God told them to do, including everything He hadn’t told them yet. Their agreement is the Mosaic covenant and the Torah mitzvot are the conditions applied to each party subject to that agreement (the Israelites and God). Belief in the future Messiah isn’t specifically mentioned so at that point in time (I know, mysticism could probably “explain” this but I’m trying to stick to the mechanics of the text), Israelites and the Gentile “mixed multitude,”  because of their faith, agreed to obey God and in order to fulfill their agreement, they obeyed all the conditions of the Torah.

But the mixed multitude who became “alien sojourners” among native-born Israelites have disappeared from history. We can argue back and forth that their lives in relation with God did somehow involve the Messiah and absolutely required mitzvot obedience that was identical to the Israelites, but what of the Gentiles who wanted to attach themselves to Israel during and after the earthly ministry of Jesus. Were there “sojourners” in those days or were they “God-fearers” like Cornelius the Roman Centurion? (see Acts 10) What was their status and was Torah obedience required?

While I think we can make a pretty good argument that even Jewish believers in Christ retain their obligation to God relative to Sinai, that seems to be unique to the descendents of Jacob. I do believe that the very first Gentile Christians probably worshipped God in a way that looked much more “Jewish” than we do today, but that’s just a guess. We only have “hints” of Gentile observance that looks Jewish in scripture, (see the aforementioned Cornelius in Acts 10 for example) but no “smoking gun” pointing to Paul teaching Gentiles to say the Shema, wear tzitzit, or lay tefillin. We never actually see an illustration of the Gentile Christians behaving exactly like the Jewish believers in all of the mitzvot.

the-joy-of-torahI don’t see any harm in Christians performing many or even most of the mitzvot. After all. The commandments have a great deal to do with feeding the hungry, treating even the neighbor you don’t like with respect and dignity, and loving God. In fact, if you actually read all 613 commandments, for those that we can actually perform outside of Israel, and without a Temple in Jerusalem, a Priesthood, a “Biblical” court system, I can’t find much that would violate a Christian’s faith.

I think it is mandatory to feed the hungry, to find shelter for the homeless, to comfort the widow, to make sure the orphan is taken care of. If you’re a Christian and you aren’t seeking social justice and performing acts of mercy and kindness, then there’s something wrong with your faith and your lifestyle. Recently, I’ve encouraged Christians to seek God and repent of sins during the month of Elul. I think it’s perfectly fine for Christians to participate in the High Holidays, light candles on Chanukah, eat the Passover meal with their Jewish brothers, count the Omer, celebrate Shavuot/Pentecost, and build a Sukkah.

Certainly Jesus did all these things in accordance to the halachah that was normative for the Jews of the late Second Temple period. Perhaps (though there’s no way to know for sure) even Cornelius the Roman built a sukkah. It don’t think it’s an outrageous idea.

I do think, believe, and endorse with all my heart, mind, and spirit, that Jesus, or Yeshua as he’s called in Hebrew, absolutely, positively must be the center of our faith and covenant connection with God. Without Christ and the specifics of the Davidic covenant that allows us to be in relation to God and to call Jesus Lord and King, we among the nations are lost. We have nothing. Neither Jew nor Gentile has ever been justified by obedience to Torah commandments. As Paul said, we’re justified by faith.

Jesus does matter. He matters to anyone who wants a relationship with God.

Make Christ your everything. He is not irrelevant. He is indispensible. He is the key. He is the vine and we are his branches.


Today’s daf discusses the halachos of a firstborn animal.

Although secular and Torah law sometimes share similar rulings, many times they are at odds. And when it comes to the overtly metaphysical aspects of Torah, non-Jews are understandably clueless. The Chazon Ish, zt”l, once said that the simple understanding of a person not immersed in Torah is often the very opposite of the halachah. For example, if one’s animal caused damage to someone else’s property, a person unfamiliar with Torah jurisprudence would say that the owner is not responsible. After all, why should the owner pay for damage caused by his animal unless it was through his own gross negligence?

In one predominantly non-Jewish community, the local magistrates did not fine the Jewish owner of an animal that had caused damage to his non-Jewish neighbor’s property a cent. They did decide, however, that the neighbor who had suffered the damage could seize the animal in lieu of payment. And this is precisely what the offended neighbor did. Unfortunately, the animal was a bechor.

When the Jew approached his neighbor and broached the issue, the non-Jew refused to sell the animal back to him for the market value. “I have witnesses that the damage caused to my property by your animal was more than he is worth. Now, although the law does not obligate you to pay me for the damage it is perfectly within my rights to seize the creature. If you want it back we can talk about it, but I warn you that it is going to cost you…”

The forlorn owner—who was a kohen— wondered what he should do. Was he obligated to pay more than the value of the animal to the non-Jew? After all, it was not his fault the non-Jew had seized his animal.

When this question reached the Maharam of Rottenberg, zt”l, he ruled that the owner was not obligated to pay more than the animal’s value. “This seems clear from the Talmudic principle regarding redeeming tefillin and the like from a non-Jew. Such religious objects should not be redeemed for more than their value, as we find in Gittin 45. Just as paying more than their value will encourage non-Jews to steal tefillin and the like, paying more for a bechor is also likely to be used to our disadvantage by non-Jews.”

Daf Yomi Digest
Stories Off the Daf
“Reclaiming the Bechor”
Bechoros 15

I know the above quoted story is probably difficult for most of us to understand. For the vast majority of Christians and Jews, we wouldn’t necessarily see much, if any dissonance between our religious responsibilities and obeying the secular civil and criminal law of our local communities. There are however, some religious groups that do attend to a specific set of religious codes and sometimes collide head on with the secular law enforcement and court systems. I periodically see examples of this in news items involving the Chabad community in Brooklyn and very occasionally I’ve seen indications of a dissonance between how Mormons see their responsibility to secular law as different than the larger population (it can be very subtle).

This isn’t a new problem.

Later they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Jesus to catch him in his words. They came to him and said, “Teacher, we know that you are a man of integrity. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not? Should we pay or shouldn’t we?”

But Jesus knew their hypocrisy. “Why are you trying to trap me?” he asked. “Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” They brought the coin, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”

“Caesar’s,” they replied.

Then Jesus said to them, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”

And they were amazed at him. –Mark 12:13-17

While the “render unto Caesar” example doesn’t include every possible religious/legal conflict, it does act as a general guide that our faith doesn’t absolve us of behaving like good citizens in the places where we live and obeying the laws of the local, regional, and national authorities. That begs the question, whose law is greater, man’s or God’s? Obviously God’s, but I don’t see a particularly strong directive in the Bible that allows people of faith to blow off police officers and legal court orders because God trumps their authority. We know that even secular authority is established by God and Paul tells us in 1 Timothy 2:1-4 to actually pray for our leaders that “we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness.”

All of this is an extension of what I’ve been talking about in one way or another for the past week or so; the relationship between two unlike groups such as Christians and Jews. In terms of culture, getting along isn’t too much of a chore but when we add in our various religious requirements, we can sometimes encounter problems with each other as well as with the society around us. It’s not that we want the problems, but we know that our competing interests can get in the way of each other. Add to that centuries of conflict and mistrust that result in the prejudiced thoughts or ideas we have about who Christians are or who Jews are and how they’ve treated us in the past. It’s amazing to think sometimes that we even worship the same God.

But who, or what, is really responsible for the rift that separates the creatures of God?

When we can’t get along with someone, we like to blame it on that person’s faults: stupidity, incompetence, outrageous actions, aggression or some other evil.

The real reason is none of these. It is that the world is broken, and we are the shattered fragments.

And all that stops us from coming back together is that we each imagine ourselves to be whole.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Getting Along”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

We can sometimes blame the other guy or even blame supernatural forces for how fractured our relationships seem, but in fact, our relationships are broken because the world is broken. It’s as if a man who was intended to be an Olympic-class runner has his knees broken and is forced to limp along for the vast majority of his life when he should be racing around the track. That’s the world we live in. If it bothers you that Christians and Jews can’t get along (or that Christians can’t get along with other Christians and Jews can’t get along with other Jews), it should bother you. We weren’t made for these sorts of struggles. That’s why, instead of focusing on what keeps us apart, we need to contribute just a little bit each day, to putting the world and ourselves back together again. We aren’t whole, but we can strive to be.

What one thing can you do today to make your broken world just one little tiny bit better?