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The Illusion of the Unified Body of Messiah

In the article, I tackled the now-familiar “trajectories” model of early Christian developments proposed influentially by James Robinson and Helmut Koester, showing examples of how it has involved dubious results. The trajectories model does reflect the sense of diversity in early Christianity, but I contend that it is inadequate as a model in allowing for the complexity of that diversity. For it seems to me that all our evidence points to a rich and vibrant interaction of the various early Christian groups.

Sometimes this was of a hostile nature, as in the well-known conflict of Paul and certain other Jewish Christians whom Paul refers to as “false brothers,” and even agents of Satan. Sometimes, however, perhaps more typically, this interaction was of a more positive nature, as reflected in the appropriation of “Q material” in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, or the implicit affirmation of Peter in John 21.

-Dr. Larry Hurtado
discussing the presentation of his paper,
Interactive Diversity: A Proposed Model of Christian Origins,” Journal of Theological Studies 64 (2013): 445-62
on his blog post “Interactive Diversity SBL Session”
Larry Hurtado’s Blog

I suppose it would be naive to consider that there was a single, uniform expression of Christianity in the mid-to-late first century CE. As Dr. Hurtado points out, both on this blog and in his paper, there are multiple different theories to describe these varying expressions including the “trajectories model.”

However, in his paper, Dr. Hurtado suggests a different viewpoint he calls “Interactive-Diversity”.

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

I should note that regardless of believers being Jewish or Gentile, Dr. Hurtado refers to them as Christians.

In this first example, the diversity is linguistic and between Greek speaking and Aramaoic speaking Jewish disciples of Rav Yeshua (Jesus), as well as distinguishing them from the Greek speaking Gentiles.

However…

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

Larry Hurtado
Larry Hurtado

There was, as we might expect, also diversity among the Gentiles based on “trans-local diversity,” or distinctions of geography, nationality, ethnicity, and custom.

All this seems to suggest that there were different interpretive traditions of not only the Jewish scriptures (remember, at this time there was no such thing as the “New Testament”) but how these differing groups understood the letters of Paul as well.

The different attitudes toward ‘food sacrificed to idols’ (8:1-13) comprised another potentially serious difference in Corinth that may well have reflected different social groups. Likewise, Paul’s exhortations in Romans 14:1—15:6 are widely thought to address differences that likely reflect a diversity of a social or ethnic nature.

But along with the evident diversity, a well-attested ‘networking’ was another feature of early Christianity. This involved various activities, among them the sending
and exchange of texts, believers travelling for trans-local promotion of their views (as, e.g., the ‘men from James’ in Gal 2:11, or Apollos’ travels to Corinth in 1 Cor 1:12; 3:5-
9; 16:12), representatives sent for conferral with believers elsewhere (as depicted, e.g., Acts 15:1-35), or sent to express solidarity with other circles of believers (as, e.g., those accompanying the Jerusalem offering in 1 Cor 16:3-4).

For that matter, Paul wasn’t the only one establishing “churches” in the diaspora. There were others, most or all of whom were anonymous, who were also “planting” faith communities and apparently establishing differences in teaching and praxis.

However, it wasn’t because these communities were isolated from each other geographically that allowed the rise of diversity. In fact, according to Hurtado’s paper, they were quite interactive, sometimes uncomfortably so.

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

And…

This is rather clearly an example of early Christian diversity of a more hostile variety! But it is also indication of the interaction that I emphasize here, with non-Pauline teachers visiting Corinth (with intent!) and Paul reacting with an uncompromising vigour.

It can result in some exchange and adaptation or in a hardening of previous positions. But my point is that early Christian diversity was often (even typically?) of a highly interactive nature.

Apostle Paul preachingDoesn’t sound terrifically different than how different Christian denominations “get along” in the 21st century CE.

You can read the full 16 page document as a PDF to get all of Dr. Hurtado’s message on this topic. My point in bringing all this out on my own blog is somewhat similar to what I pointed out in one of my reviews of the Nanos and Zetterholm volume Paul within Judaism: Restoring the First-Century Context to the Apostle.

Various articles within “Paul within Judaism” put forth the idea that Jews and Gentiles “in Christ” not only did not share a single, uniform identity and role within the faith, but that the identity and role of the Gentile within the first century Jewish movement of “the Way,” was ill defined and incomplete.

Paul and others may not have thought this was a problem if they believed that the Messiah’s return was imminent. If Messiah was coming back in a year or two, or a decade or two, he would straighten things out as he completed establishing his Kingdom.

That may also be one way to view the diversity between various diaspora congregations and their differences in interpretation, doctrine, and praxis. While it’s compelling to imagine that in the beginning of the Yeshua movement within Judaism, and as it was being exported to the diaspora Gentiles, the conditions operating within the overall movement and trickling down to specific “churches” were uniform, representing a single, complete unity, perspectives such as “Interactive-Diversity” paint a much different portrait.

What we think of may never have been unified, at least not since Rav Yeshua lead his small inner circle of apostles and disciples through the Galilee or taught from Solomon’s Portico at the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. His teachings wouldn’t be documented and widely disseminated for decades, and even then, they would likely have been interpreted differently by the numerous congregations and house fellowships of Jews and Gentiles in both Israel and the diaspora nations.

I remember during my early days in the Hebrew Roots movement (some fifteen years ago or more) I thought what I was experiencing in my local, little “One Law” group was something akin to what the Gentiles experienced in their congregations in the days of Paul.

I was really inexperienced and unstudied.

I’m not exactly a genius now, but as time has passed and I’ve accessed a wider variety of information sources, I’ve come to realize that we aren’t particularly certain of what was normative practice for Gentiles in Messiah while Paul was on his journeys and writing his letters. Here we see that there probably was no one normative practice, but that not only were the teachings and praxis of the different groups of Gentiles highly variable and even competitive, but that their very identities and roles as disciples of our Rav were probably indistinct and variable as well.

Granted, I’m drawing a great deal out of a few small examples, but it does possibly mean we do have one thing in common with the earliest non-Jewish followers of Yeshua. Our variability or interpretation and practice and even the competition and (sometimes) hostility between differing factions within both the Hebrew Roots and Messianic Jewish movements is normal.

Like Paul, we too may have to wait until Messiah comes so he can sort everything out.

Christian CoffeeAlmost a week ago, I had coffee with a friend, and we were discussing this topic. He believes that as the time of Messiah’s return draws near, the variability between all the denominations of Christianity, let alone those of us who, at least in name, don’t call ourselves “Christians” (well, we do and don’t…long story), will begin to erode and a clearer vision and more stable platform will emerge for Messiah’s disciples.

I disagree.

In fact, I think the opposite will happen. I think we’ll all become increasingly fragmented and confused. Sure, there will be a remnant that will maintain a stable perception of God, Messiah, Israel, and the Bible consistent with God’s redemptive plan for His Jewish nation, and through them, the people of the nations, but a lot of “nutsiness” will emerge and thrive as well.

I even think there will be scores of churches that will reject the resurrected Messiah and ascended King because he’s too Jewish, because he rebuilds the Temple in Jerusalem, because he rules from Jerusalem instead of Heaven, and because the “raptured” will join him in Jerusalem instead of Heaven…

…and because Israel will rule the nations of the world with King Messiah instead of “the Church”.

I’m not saying we should just sit on our laurels and wait around for Messiah to come back. I’m not saying we shouldn’t continue to study the scriptures, to teach, to go to teachings, to seek out greater truth, to improve our walk, or any of that.

I’m saying it’s expected if we don’t know everything right now. It’s normal not to get everything right. We should accept that, when Messiah does come and when he teaches, that he will point out where we made mistakes, even as we were (and are) sincerely seeking him and searching out the face of God.

Fortunately, Hashem is patient. He understands us, even though we don’t always understand Him or what He’s trying to tell us. We may have the Spirit of God, but that doesn’t mean we always listen to the Spirit either, no matter how much we think we want to.

We aren’t one candle, but many, yet all burning for our God.

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Book Review of Paul Within Judaism, “The Question of Politics: Paul as a Diaspora Jew under Roman Rule”

The measure of Paul’s Jewish identity remains a matter of considerable controversy in current scholarship. As Pamela Eisenbaum observes, the question has provoked anxiety among some scholars, and not surprisingly, since the study of Paul “continues to be the arena of discourse where Christians (and recently some Jews) work out their religious identity.” It is an indication of that anxiety that today, some thirty years since the announcement of a New Perspective on Paul, it remains profoundly difficult for many interpreters to escape the constraining categories of the older “Christianizing” view of the apostle.

-Neil Elliott
from the beginning of the essay
“The Question of Politics: Paul as a Diaspora Jew under Roman Rule”
Paul within Judaism: Restoring the First-Century Context to the Apostle (Kindle Edition)

This could be the introduction to any of the essays contained in the Nanos and Zetterholm volume or even the introduction of the volume itself.

I know using the term “Christianizing” when referring to the Church’s traditional understanding of Paul would seem puzzling if not insulting to most lay-Christians, Pastors, and even many New Testament scholars. After all, what is “unChristian” about the Apostle Paul who brought Christianity to the Roman Empire while showing the Jews the uselessness of living by the Law?

Well, that’s how some or most Christians might see it.

But I don’t think that many of these Christians would feel anxiety about the New Perspective so much as they would consider it misguided, misleading, or totally false…unless they entertained the thought, even for a few seconds, that Paul might be better understood within the context of the Judaisms as they existed in the late Second Temple period.

Who am IThen these Christians might actually break out in a cold sweat because, as Elliott suggests above, it is through Paul that we gain any understanding of our identity as believers at all. If Paul turns out to be totally different from who the Church has imagined him to be for most of the past two-thousand years, it means we have to totally reinvent ourselves.

Which is what a lot of us have been talking about lately.

One consequence is that significant political aspects of Paul’s context (and of our own) continue to be minimized or marginalized in interpretation.

According to the older, Christianizing view, we must understand Paul fundamentally as someone whose thought and experience–however these may have been formed by his background in Judaism–had been decisively reshaped by his encounter with the risen Christ…

It’s not that Paul’s encounter with Moshiach wasn’t a game changer. Certainly it was. But it might not have been the sort of game changer imagined by most Christians.

Elliott compares and contrasts two major themes in this essay: Paul as the Mystic/Visionary seeking apocalyptic revelation, and the New Covenant meaning of being sent to the Gentiles with the goal of turning large populations of Goyim to the God of Israel.

Consider Paul’s “Damascus experience” in Acts 9 as compared to 2 Corinthians 12:

I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago—whether in the body I do not know, or out of the body I do not know, God knows—such a man was caught up to the third heaven. And I know how such a man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, God knows—was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words, which a man is not permitted to speak. On behalf of such a man I will boast; but on my own behalf I will not boast, except in regard to my weaknesses. For if I do wish to boast I will not be foolish, for I will be speaking the truth; but I refrain from this, so that no one will credit me with more than he sees in me or hears from me.

2 Corinthians 12:2-6 (NASB)

The man Paul describes as being “caught up to the third heaven” is commonly believed to be Paul himself. He describes a highly mystical experience, something uncommon to most modern Christians, and something many modern Christians prefer not to dwell upon too much.

On the other hand, Paul’s “Damascus experience” is thought of primarily as Paul’s “conversion” to Christianity from Judaism and the mystic aspects aren’t given a second thought nor even a first one.

paul's visionBut what if we were to consider Paul a mystic who actually sought out such vision? What if his Damascus vision wasn’t his first?

Admittedly, this is a bit of supposition on Elliott’s part, and even if you consider it a really big stretch, it does get us to think in previously unexplored directions.

Instead of Paul “jumping ship” from Judaism to Christianity, or making an abrupt departure from Judaism and creating a new religion based on these “radical interruptions,” what if his change from persecuting the Jewish disciples of Yeshua (Jesus) to actively making new disciples from the Goyim was all consistently part of how Paul understood being Jewish within Judaism in the First Century?

In contrast, Alan F. Segal understood Paul’s visionary experience of Christ in context of the apocalyptic-mystical tradition of early Judaism…

…Rather, here “Paul reveals modestly that he has had several ecstatic meetings with Christ over the previous fourteen years.” Participants in Jewish mysticism, “and perhaps apocalypticism as well, sought out visions and developed special practices to achieve them.”

Like I said, at least a bit of a stretch. But if it’s true, then it means that all of Paul’s experiences, before and after the Damascus Road encounter, were part of Paul’s lived existence as a Pharisaic Jew.

There’s more:

…that he perceived in heaven a divine figure at the right hand of the Ancient of Days (cf. Dan. 7:9-14), one such experience was the first in which that figure was perceptible to Paul as the crucified Jesus. Just here Segal provided us with a powerful explanation of the “apocalypse” of Christ on fundamentally Jewish terms.

But what about Paul and the crucifixion of Messiah? I’ve been told by a number of Jewish people that the death of Jesus on the cross automatically a “show stopper” because a Jew hung on a tree is cursed (Deuteronomy 21:23).

In no Jewish writing of the period, Paul included, do we find crucifixion itself taken to indicate a death cursed by God or by the Law. To the contrary, archaeological evidence shows that crucified Jews were buried and memorialized honorably. The notion that Paul (or any Jew) would have regarded a crucified Jew as “cursed” is historically improbable.

The Death of the MasterIt could even have been likely, given Elliott’s perspective, that a crucified Messiah may have fit very well within Paul’s apocalyptic viewpoint of Judaism in terms of the Gentile disciples and under the Rule of the Roman Empire.

But what about that?

…the original apostles so readily accepted these Gentiles because they saw in their response, as with their leader’s resurrection, yet one more sign that the Kingdom approached…

And…

We must suppose that as a Jew, as an apocalyptist, and as a Pharisee, [Paul] assumed that God’s triumph over the Romans was inevitable, however indeterminate…

Paul the Mystic connected the dots to determine that his vision of a resurrected Messiah and his mission to turn the hearts of a multitude of Gentiles to Israel’s God was all part of the apocalyptic plan to restore Israel and elevate the Jewish nation to the head of the nations, defeating Israel’s enemies and placing them under Israelite dominion, with the knee of every Gentile bending to Hashem.

Elliott states that Paul (Saul) originally persecuted the communities of Yeshua disciples, not out of some fanatical zeal to impose the Torah of Moses over the Grace of Christ, but as a matter of national security. Groups of Jews running around declaring that their Messianic King had risen and would overthrow Roman tyranny, from Paul’s previous viewpoint, would only inspire greater persecution against Israel by Rome.

But then…

“The vision would have confirmed to [Paul] that what the apocalypses promised God would do someday, God had in fact begun to do now. The consequence would have been an abrupt about-face from persecuting assemblies, but this turn would have been motivated and remains completely explicable within categories supplied by the Jewish apocalypses.

As well as…

I suggest that there is nothing “essentially” Christian about a Pharisee experiencing a visionary ascent to heaven and seeing the resurrected Jesus there.

I’m choosing to review only a small portion of Elliott’s overall essay. It’s so densely packed with information that I’m concerned I’ve already done this scholar a disservice by attempting summarize such a complex set of factors.

Most of this seems highly speculative, especially since I haven’t included the references to all of Elliott’s source material, but this is one of the most compelling visions of Paul that I’ve read about. It seems to, in my way of thinking, explain both to Christians and to observant (and non-Messianic) Jews a rationale for why Paul said and did the things we read about in the Bible.

The Jewish PaulHe was always zealous for the Torah, zealous for the Temple, and zealous for Hashem. He persecuted “the Church,” that is, Jewish disciples of a sect in Judaism that claimed a resurrected Messiah King, not out of any belief that they were not Jewish or opposed Moses or the Temple, but because they represented a fundamental danger to the nation of Israel as well as the diaspora Jews by provoking Rome against them, much as we’ve seen how the Romans responded to other Jewish revolts. Paul, however misguided, persecuted the believing Jews as the defender of Israel and protector of the Jewish people.

As a apocalyptist and a mystic who constantly sought visions of the Heavenly realms, while his encounter with the risen Messiah on the road to Damascus in Acts 9 may have been a startling game changer, it also fit perfectly with Paul’s orientation within Jewish mysticism. Paul’s zeal was unquenched and merely redirected based on the revelation that this sect of “Messianics” weren’t delusional in believing Yeshua was the risen King. Paul saw the vision and heard the bat kol for himself. The Messiah was revealed and alive.

Now realizing that the Messiah was resurrected, and that he had directed Paul to fulfill the next step in bringing about the Kingdom of Heaven now by recruiting large numbers of Gentile disciples as Gentiles (rather than having them undergo the proselyte rite), the apostle attacked his current task as he had his previous one, with passion and devotion, never relenting in his service to God.

Everything Paul did as we see him recorded in the Apostolic Scriptures including his own epistles, was wholly and thoroughly consistent with his praxis within First Century Judaism. In a very real way, there was nothing “Christian” about it or him.

Only two essays left to review. I’ll post my next one soon.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seed of Abraham

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Holy Bodies

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

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

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

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

And…

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

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

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

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

Gentiles as a Part of Israel’s Story

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

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

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

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

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

Rethinking the Question

maskSo, what is the real question?

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

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

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

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

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

Hodge states:

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

Citing Brubaker, Hodge writes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-from the Ask the Rabbi column
Aish.com

Acting Jewishly But Not Jewish, Part 2

First things first. Mark Nanos graciously contacted me to let me know I didn’t quite grasp everything he was saying in his paper ‘Paul’s Non-Jews Do Not Become “Jews,” But Do They Become “Jewish”?: Reading Romans 2:25-29 Within Judaism, Alongside Josephus,’ which I highlighted in Part 1 of this two-part series.

Two clarifications:

  1. While many do hold that the Jews were expelled from Rome in mass or entirely, in the appendix to The Mystery of Romans Nanos explains why that is almost certainly mistaken historically, and not helpful for explaining Romans.
  2. More importantly, Nanos does not argue that Paul was actually criticizing Jews in Rome for being hypocritical; rather, he was using the ideal of Jews not being hypocritical as the backdrop for developing a diatribal character, not a real one or even a real accusation as if it is happening, but what it would be like and how obviously hypocritical if so, that one who would call himself a Jew would seek to teach non-Jews Torah if not also committed to keeping Torah, or to get circumcised if not living as one who is circumcised is, dedicated in heart to doing what one separated to God should do regardless of whatever anyone else does or thinks about him and what he does or does not do. That hypothetical character is used to challenge any incipient pride or temptation to judge or behave hypocritically among the non-Jews he addresses directly by way of this diatribal fiction.

I appreciate Dr. Nanos bringing this to my attention and correcting my misreading of his paper where I thought he was saying that Paul was criticizing the Jews in Rome for hypocrisy (and it should be obvious that I’m leveraging Nanos’s words in the numbered list above).

To quote Lt. Cmdr Data, “It is clear that I have much to learn.”

In reporting my impressions on Nanos’ paper last time, I deliberately left out some significant portions for the sake of space. I’m including them here for further discussion.

There are many striking elements in Josephus’s account about Izates, the king of the Parthian client territory of Adiabene, and his mother, Helena, who were not born Jews and ruled a non-Jewish/non-Judean people (Ant. 20.17-96). The events overlap with Paul’s ministry in the 40s and 50s CE (20.15-17), and include interesting parallels to elements of Paul’s approach to and instructions for non-Jews in the Roman Empire. Several scenes warrant discussion.

-Nanos, p. 13

Nanos relates the story of Izates who prior to being crowned King, was sent to Charax Spasini for his own protection. There, Izates encountered the Jewish merchant Ananias. Ananias had been teaching Jewish traditions and customs to several women in the royal family and Izates also became his student.

Or to quote Nanos:

…who taught several women of the royal family with whom Izates was staying to “worship God [the Deity] according to the Jewish ancestral traditions…” (20.34).

-ibid, p. 14

HelenaIt is doubtful there was a Jewish community or synagogue present in Adiabene and questionable if Izates and the “women of the royal family” were undergoing this training as part of the proselyte rite (at least at this point in the process), nevertheless, we have several Gentiles being taught to worship the God of Israel “according to the Jewish ancestral traditions.” This at least suggests that said-Gentiles were A) worshiping the God of Israel, and B) doing so “jewishly,” that is, employing Jewish traditions and methods in worshiping Hashem.

While it’s tempting to think that the Ananias in question is the same person who the Master sent to Paul to relieve him of his blindness (Acts 9:9-19) and thus believe that Izates and the “royal women” were being taught Judaism within the Messianic faith, there’s no evidence to support such a theory (see First Fruits of Zion’s Torah Club volume 6: Chronicles of the Apostles for a further discussion of Izates and Ananias in light of Acts 9).

By an amazing “coincidence,” when Izates returned home to assume the throne after the death of his father, he discovered in his absence, his mother had also been studying Judaism.

…he learned his mother had simultaneously begun to observe certain Jewish customs under the direction of a different Jew, who remains unnamed (20.35-38). Izates is described as becoming aware of Helena’s “rejoicing in the Jews’ customs,” (20.38), referred to also as “their laws/conventions” (20.35).

-ibid

It was at this point that Izates decided to extend his Jewish studies and undergo the proselyte rite, converting to Judaism. Here’s where it gets interesting.

It remains unclear whether Izates supposed heretofore that he had become a Jew, or if he was simply unaware of the distinction between adopting (some) Jewish behavior, most likely adding such behavior to the rest of the customs and cult practices of his people as well as those of the people among whom he was residing, and becoming a Jew. Since the matter of circumcision with its signification of identity transformation does not pertain to Helena, it is also unclear if she is still a non-Jew or is recognized to have become a Jew.

-ibid, p. 15

The Jewish PaulFrom Paul’s point of view relative to his teaching Jewish practices to Gentiles within the context of Messiah worship, the distinction between Jew and non-Jew in Messiah was clearer, at least to him. But from an outside observer’s perspective, would Paul’s disciples have been seen acting any differently than Izates and Helena? How closely can the two cases be compared, particularly when we realize that nothing called “Christianity” existed in those days as a stand-alone religious entity? Paul’s disciples and Izates and Helena as disciples of other Jewish teachers may have had a great deal in common in acting “jewishly” but not being Jewish (maybe).

Ananias strongly discouraged Izates from converting because of how he thought his non-Jewish royal subjects would react to being ruled by a Jew. But while both Ananias and Helena opposed Izates’ conversion, they “did not, however, oppose him observing certain Jewish beliefs and behavior!”

Tweaking that last statement just slightly, could I call Izates a (somewhat) Torah-observant non-Jew? Nanos asks a similar question:

…it is worth pausing to ask whether Helena and Izates at this point represent jewish non-Jews? They are behaving jewishly, and their jewishness is observably different from that of other nobles and their subjects…

Much of the Apostolic Scriptures record the struggle Paul had in integrating Gentile Jesus-believers into Jewish religious and community space as co-equal participants with the Jewish occupants, particularly in defining how unconverted Gentiles could still receive the covenant blessings that were promised by God to Israel alone. And yet in Paul’s conceptualization, he seemingly had a clear vision of who the Gentiles in Christ were relative to Jews in Messiah (and the wider body of Jewish people).

But in the persons of Helena and particularly Izates, we have a greater degree of ambiguity. Was Izates what we would call a God-fearing Gentile, was he a proselyte, or was he something in-between? He was certainly a Gentile (up to the point when he finally converted) who was practicing at least some aspects of Judaism. How far was he allowed to go?

If Paul’s Gentile disciples had a less ambiguous status in terms of Jewish practices and Judaism than Izates, how do we answer the same questions on their behalf? Can we, as Nanos asks regarding Izates and Helena (p. 17), consider them “jewish” Non-Jews who were gathering in Jewish assemblies or synagogues?

I’ve avoided asking the obvious question so far, but how does any of this apply to Gentile Christianity today, particularly to those of us who call ourselves Messianic Gentiles? Twenty centuries ago or close to it, we have a record of many non-Jewish people co-mingling with Jews within Jewish assemblies and communities and being treated as near-equals or equals in social and even covenant standing. The Gentiles were largely, and some probably fully entrenched in Jewish cultural practices. What does that say about Gentiles interacting and worshiping with Jewish Jesus-believers (Messianic Jews) in Jewish community space today?

Goyish is not bad. Goyish is good. It may not be good for Jews, but if you’re a Gentile—goy is good! It is what God made you. ENJOY!!! And realize that salvation has come to the Gentiles as Gentiles. You don’t have to discover your Jewish roots. You should not abandon or disparage the churches from which you came or where you still live, and move, and have your being. You should enrich them through engagement with the Bible, through discovering and expressing your spiritual gifts, and through your whole-hearted participation, but please please please: Don’t despise your roots or imagine that you have to abandon them to find God. God has come to find you and your people just as you are and where you are.

-Dr. Rabbi Stuart Dauermann
“The Problem With Hebrew Roots, or, It’s Good to be a Goy”
Interfaithfulness.org

Up to JerusalemThis might almost be seen as the same view from the opposite end of the telescope. It’s an expression (if I’m reading this right) of how the Gentile Jesus-believers do not have to adopt Jewish cultural traits and practices in order to be faithful Jesus-believers and benefit from the Jewish covenant blessings of salvation, justification, and the resurrection to come.

In Paul’s day, there was no template for integrating faith in the Jewish Messiah within the various Gentile cultures, so it was probably easier to bring the Gentiles into Jewish culture. Paul probably wouldn’t have known how to teach about Messiah and the God of Israel in any other way. But two-thousand years later, Christianity has a rich (and sometimes dark) history and culture of its own. Each church could be said to be its own cultural milieu with its traditions and mores and very little if any of it looks at all Jewish.

Some Gentile believers feel kind of ripped off by the Church, especially when they learn to read the Bible, and particularly the Apostolic Scriptures, as God encountering man within Jewish culture and community. It seems inviting to witness the first Gentile believers being taught by Paul and Barnabas at the “Synagogue of the Way” in Syrian Antioch (see Acts 11).

But can or should a Gentile’s faith in the Jewish Messiah be expressed within a Jewish community and cultural context today? From the above-quoted blog post of R. Dauermann, in answer to a comment, he replies:

Yes, right Chris, learning about the Jewish/Hebrew roots of what CHristians believe is instructive and helpful, but not when a Gentile is erroneously steered in the direction of seeking to establish their *own* alleged Jewish roots as a passport to greater spiritual authenticity. As I said above, “It is true that Christianity at its inception had Jewish roots, but this is not Not NOT and never to be understood as recommending that Christians think they have Jewish roots or that they need to find those roots in order to legitimize themselves and their faith.”

From my point of view, I think there are circumstances when Gentile believers can and even should appropriately express their faith within a Jewish cultural context. In fact, at least in the United States, most authentically Messianic Jewish synagogues contain a significant if not majority population of Gentiles in their membership. Like Izates, there will always be Gentiles who are inexorably drawn to Judaism for whatever reason and they will find their way into Jewish community. Further, there are numerous intermarried couples who would benefit from the Jewish spouse participating in Messianic Jewish community along with the Gentile spouse. This is particularly important if they have Jewish children who need to learn and preserve what it is to be Jewish and to be Messianic.

But I was thinking in church last Sunday about Christians (which I suppose isn’t surprising). What do we do about them?

The first thing to consider is that most Christians are more than overjoyed to be in their churches and couldn’t imagine any other venue for their worship of and devotion to Jesus Christ. From their viewpoint, they neither want nor need to engage Jesus within a Jewish cultural context and doing so would just make them feel uncomfortable if not downright alienated.

But that’s not to say that the Church is perfect nor that they cannot learn from what Messianic Jews and Gentiles teach. I was talking to a young fellow after Sunday school class the other day about Jewish traditions and the benefits they possess. We talked about the set times of prayer and the abundance of blessings a Jew recites on various occasions. I also told him that a Christian does not specifically have to adopt Jewish practices in order to gain the benefits of the values that lie behind the traditions.

ShabbatOn Erev Shabbat for example, it is traditional for Jewish parents to bless their children in a specifically proscribed manner. I told my young friend that he and his wife could also chose to bless their children, but they didn’t have to do it “jewishly”. The values behind Jewish traditions and culture provide context, identity, and meaning to Jewish families, and I think Christians can and sometimes do employ similar practices for the same reasons and can get similar results.

Two-thousand years of history have separated most Christians from even the idea that we could act “jewishly” and for most Christians, it would drive them crazy even to consider the possibility. But if someone like me, who has a few “jewish” ideas to relate to my Christian counterparts, can communicate those concepts in the Church, maybe it will build a bridge between the two worlds.

For those Christians who are drawn to a more “jewish” lifestyle, many of them either come from family and culture that melds into behaving more “jewishly” or they learn to do so through marriage or some other process.

The main takeaway for me is that it’s not a “have to,” that is, I don’t feel compelled by God that I must live “jewishly” and that it’s a sin not to. It may well have been acceptable for Izates and Helena to live “jewishly” and never to convert to Judaism, at least in a formalized manner. Certainly Paul’s Gentile disciples lived “jewishly” probably by default, since there was no other cultural pattern one could employ for a Gentile to live as a disciple of a Jewish teacher.

But that was then, and this is now. While some Gentiles elect to live “jewishly” as an expression of their faith, it doesn’t seem absolutely necessary, at least in the current age. I’ve seen some Christians in the Church observe more of the weightier matters of Torah than I have some Hebrew Roots Gentiles in One Law gatherings.

It isn’t the cultural or religious context that makes the person of faith, it’s the heart. One circumcised heart is worth ten-thousand kippot and tallitot wearing people with uncircumcised hearts (not that you can’t be a kippah and tallit wearing Gentile with a circumcised heart, of course).

To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

Mark 12:33 (NASB)

A friend of mine said it best: Don’t seek Christianity and don’t seek Judaism. Seek an encounter with God.

Acting Jewishly But Not Jewish, Part 1

Paul’s “Jewish Assemblies” rather than “Paul’s Gentile Churches”? “Paul’s Jewish non-Jews” instead of “Paul’s Christian Gentiles?”? Paul bringing Non-Jews into “Judaism” rather than into “Christianity”? Am I really going to argue that these are more accurate labels for discussing the non-Jews who Paul brought to faith in Jesus Christ and the gatherings of them with Jews sharing that conviction, as well as the communal ways of life into which Paul sought to enculturate them? “Yes” — and “No.”

Dr. Mark D. Nanos
‘Paul’s Non-Jews Do Not Become “Jews,” But Do They Become “Jewish”?: Reading Romans 2:25-29 Within Judaism, Alongside Josephus,’ p.1
forthcoming in The Journal of the Jesus Movement in its Jewish Setting (2014)
and presented as a paper at the SBL Annual Meeting in 2013, Baltimore, MD.

Since this cites a portion of Romans 2, it would be prudent to review that part of scripture before proceeding:

For indeed circumcision is of value if you practice the Law; but if you are a transgressor of the Law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision. So if the uncircumcised man keeps the requirements of the Law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? And he who is physically uncircumcised, if he keeps the Law, will he not judge you who though having the letter of the Law and circumcision are a transgressor of the Law? For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh. But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God.

Romans 2:25-29 (NASB)

How did the Apostle Paul see the distinction between Jesus-believing Jews and Gentiles in Jewish worship and community space? I’ve written on this topic numerous times, often utilizing the research and publications of both Mark Nanos and Magnus Zetterholm in such “meditations” as Nanos, Paul, and the Consequences of Jewish Identity in Messiah, Nanos, Ancient Antioch, and the Problem with Peter, and Zetterholm, Nanos, Ancient Antioch, and Some Implications. In this more recent paper by Nanos, one that should be published later this year, we see an interesting development in how Nanos presents Paul relative to Romans. Did Paul see the non-Jewish disciples of the Jewish Messiah as practicing Judaism or behaving “jewishly” without converting to Judaism or taking on identical obligations and roles with the Jews?

Being identified as a Jew and behaving like a Jew are readily recognized to represent two related yet not identical matters (p.2).

This behavior can be referred to by the adverb “jewishly,” and as the expression “jewishness.” In colloquial terms, one who practices a Jewish way of life according to the ancestral customs of the Jews, which is also referred to as practicing “Judaism”… (p.3).

Mark Nanos
Mark Nanos

Nanos distinguishes between being born ethnically Jewish and (as a male) being circumcised on the eighth day and acting “jewishly” (the lower-case “j” is used deliberately by Nanos), as having significant overlap, but not precisely being same. Even a Jewish person born of two Jewish parents and circumcised may choose not to observe any of the mitzvot and nevertheless will be considered Jewish, albeit apostate.

A Gentile who chooses to observe some or even all of the Jewish behaviors associated with the mitzvot can be said to be acting “jewishly” or practicing “Judaism,” but that does not mean the person is actually considered Jewish.

But where is the dividing line? How far could a Gentile Jesus-believer go in Paul’s time, and how far can a Gentile Jesus-believer go in our time in “acting Jewishly” without actually being Jewish? Can we use Paul to establish any rules or guidelines for Gentile Christians today who are attracted to Jewish practices or learning and yet do not desire to convert to Judaism because of their Christian faith?

Because ethnic identity (Jew/s) and ethnic thinking and behavior (Jewish / jewishly / jewishness / Judaism) are clearly related, but not synonymous, interchangeable terms, an interesting phenomenon arises when seeking to describe groups as Jewish. Although “Jewish” can be and is most often used to refer to Jews specifically, and thus gatherings of Jews: they are Jewish, the Jewish people, a Jewish service, and so on, as we will see, “Jewish” can also refer to groups or activities that include non-Jews: that group is Jewish, although it includes non-Jews who appear to think and behave like Jews (p. 6).

Nanos could easily be describing almost any synagogue I’ve ever been in. I’m a Christian married to a Jew. It’s very common to find a mixed Jewish/Gentile group in our local Reform/Conservative synagogue and of course at the Chabad, a number of intermarried couples attend, and yet both venues are undeniably Jewish. The same may be said for some Messianic Jewish synagogues that have at least a core population and leadership of Jews but that also houses a large number of Gentiles who are involved in Jewish practices, such as listening to the Torah readings, davening from a siddur, praying in Hebrew, and so forth.

In all of the contexts listed in the above paragraph, the participating Gentiles can be considered as acting “jewishly” within a Jewish community while remaining fully Gentile. But as I said before, how far can we take the concept of “Gentile jewishness” and consider it a valid method of “practicing Judaism?”

orthodox-talmud-studyAlmost two years ago, I stopped searching for an identity and declared myself a Gentile who studies Messianic Judaism. While my practice isn’t all too “Jewish” (or “jewish”), my thought processes, study materials, and some of my study methods borrow heavily from traditional Judaism.

Of course, I can be a Gentile studying Judaism in the same sense as a 21st century American studying 16th century Greek cuisine. I don’t have to be the thing that I’m studying. Learning the typical dishes of Greece of the 1700s doesn’t require that I be Greek.

But it’s a little different in the world of religion and religious lifestyle. I could study Torah as an abstract collection of knowledge the way some people study the Bible as literature or as history, but the Bible is unique and the Torah is designed to change lives. To be a Gentile student of Messianic Judaism involves not only specific study methods and materials but the required context in which to live it all out.

To continue from Nanos:

What if a group mostly made up of non-Jews with some Jews in leadership behaves jewishly? What if it is made up exclusively of non-Jews yet founded or advised by Jews? What if it consists of only non-Jews and functions independent of any Jews and yet bases its thinking and behavior on Jewish Scriptures, traditions and ways of life? (pp. 6-7)

As I read these passages from the Nanos paper, I can’t help but see a progression from Messianic Judaism (MJ) into Hebrew Roots (HR). The closer the Gentile is to the MJ side of the scale, in a mixed group of Jews and Gentiles to a group of Gentiles with a core leadership of Jews or even arguably, a group of only Gentiles that is advised and guided by Jewish mentors, that group is or could be considered “Jewish” or at least perceived correctly as acting “jewishly”.

However, once to you approach the opposite side of the scale, which would be defined by a group made up exclusively of Gentiles with only Gentiles in leadership, even if they are using Jewish educational materials and religious artifacts (siddurs, kippahs, Tallits, the Chumash, and so on), that group may still appear to be acting “jewishly,” but they are not a Jewish group. They can study Judaism, but they aren’t a Judaism, thus a group made up exclusively of Gentiles with no ties to Jewish oversight cannot, in this paradigm, call itself “Messianic Judaism” and is better defined as “Hebrew Roots” or by some other label.

This directly reflects back to the communities Paul established or in which he was involved such as the “synagogue of the Way” in Syrian Antioch (see Zetterholm’s The Formation of Christianity in Antioch as well as Nanos’ The Mystery of Romans).

The level of “jewishness” practiced by Gentile disciples of the Master may have been in direct proportion to the involvement and influence of Jesus-believing Jews operating in the same religious and social community. The less influence exerted by Jewish mentors on the Gentiles, the less “jewish” were the behaviors and lifestyles of the Gentiles.

The Jewish PaulWe see something of this in Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. Historically, we know that for a time, Jews were banned from Rome. Prior to that event, there were both Gentiles and Jews who co-mingled as disciples of Jesus. Once the Jews were banned and (presumably) Rome was without a Jewish population, the Gentiles became solely in charge of their own social and religious dynamic, including how “jewishly” they chose to behave. When the Jews were allowed to return and attempted to resume their prior relationship with the Gentiles in Messiah, they discovered the Gentiles were riding on their “high horses,” so to speak, pushing back against Jewish synagogue authority and even criticizing the Jews for lack of strict adherence to Jewish Torah practice.

The chapter (Romans 2) within which this text appears begins with a challenge to anyone judging others, based on the argument that the very act of knowing there is a standard to which the other is held logically involves knowing that one has also failed to achieve it. Realizing that God is the judge who is fully aware of both one’s own intentions and actions as well as that of one’s neighbors, the message Paul drives home is to focus on one’s own responsibilities to do what is required of one, to judge oneself and leave the judging of others to the Judge… (p.19)

And again, Nanos states:

Paul’s argument is constructed to encourage non-Jews to avoid making the same mistake they are quick to recognize in this diatribal caricature. Paul calls them to concentrate on being faithful to what they are responsible to do in service instead of judgment toward the other, including the one who may be judging them… (p. 31)

Nanos is specifically referencing Romans 2:25-29 which I quoted at the top of this blog post, and is saying that those Gentiles who were choosing to judge their Jewish counterparts for any errors or lapses in Torah observance would be better advised to pay attention to their own responsibilities and let the Righteous Judge of Israel judge Israel.

Which, given the current conversation, begs the question of what behaviors of theirs should the Gentiles in Rome have been attending to? Put another way, should the Roman Gentile disciples have been paying attention to the proper execution of their “jewish” behaviors? What does it mean to “concentrate on being faithful to what they are responsible to do?”

Paul argued that these uncircumcised non-Jews were full and equal members of the family of God alongside of the Jewish members, indeed, equally children of Abraham and co-heirs of the promises made to him and his seed, not simply welcome guests (p. 7).

That sounds good but it doesn’t complete the picture.

In the next argument, vv. 12-16, Paul makes it plain that God judges according to the faithful behavior, which is not expected to represent precisely the same standards for Jews and non-Jews; indeed, each is held to the standard of what they know to be proper behavior (p. 19). (emph. mine)

studying_tanakh_messiahSeveral chapters in Romans seem to toggle back and forth between the responsibilities of Jews and Gentiles relative to God and the potential for hypocrisy among the Jews who claim the advantages of being Jewish but who, while teaching the Gentiles what is proper for God (for Gentiles), fail themselves to perform what is proper before God (for Jews). It should have been fairly clear to the Jewish people involved what their roles and responsibilities were, but were the Gentiles just supposed to “wing it,” hoping to know what is right and wrong?

We know that Paul had certain expectations of the Gentiles. Although he opposed Gentiles in Christ from undergoing the proselyte rite, he also discouraged them from continuing any idolatrous practices (Rom 3:29–4:25; 6; 1 Cor 7:17-22; Gal 4:8-10; 1 Thess 1:9-10).

Of the Gentiles taught by Paul, Nanos says:

Paul was exhorting non-Jews turning to God in Christ to seek to discover within themselves the noble values of jewishness, what being a Jew ideally signifies. They should learn to internalize jewishness as the highest value for themselves, albeit remaining non-Jews… (p. 32). (emph. mine)

But here’s a strong caveat:

His letters consist precisely of instruction in the Jewish way of life for non-Jews who turn to Israel’s God as the One God of all the nations; he enculturates them into God’s Guidance (Torah) without bringing them under Torah technically, since they do not become Jews/Israel. They are non-Jews who are learning, by way of Paul’s instructions, to practice Judaism! (p. 33) (emph. mine)

I can see where you might think all this is as clear as mud.

How can Gentiles learn to draw their values from Judaism and even practice Judaism to the degree that outside observers would say the Gentiles are acting “jewishly” and yet still operate under an overlapping but distinct set of standards from the Jews, not be considered under the Torah, and not be considered either Jews or Israel?

From the Didache (6:2), it is said:

For, on the one hand, if you are able to bear
the whole yoke of the Lord, you will be perfect;
but if, on the other hand, you are not able,
that which you are able, do this.

quoted from The Didache: Text, Translation, Analysis, and Commentary, pg 19
by Aaron Milavec

The Didache is considered a set of formalized instructions for Gentile initiates who were seeking to become disciples of Jesus. The document is traced to the second century C.E. and probably represents an earlier form of oral instructions and traditions, possibly originating with the Apostles or their immediate disciples. These standards would have been the basis Jewish mentors used to train the Gentile initiates in preparing them to become baptized and enter into their role as disciples.

beth immanuelFrom here we see that it is likely the Gentiles were encouraged to bear “the whole yoke of the Lord” Torah, in order to be “perfect,” but if they were not able, it was allowable that they should perform whatever was within their capacity. Again, please keep in mind, that a Gentile acting “jewishly” was both voluntary and was designed to occur within a Jewish communal context.

Given space limitations and the patience of those of you reading this, I’m going to stop here and pick it up in a subsequent blog post. There’s still much to explore about a Gentile acting “jewishly” in ancient times and what happens when he or she is outside a Jewish space. Also, what are the implications for those of us today who are Gentiles who study Messianic Judaism, both inside a Jewish context and outside?

Addendum: I’ve published the second part of this two-part series including a correction to some mistakes I’ve made in part one. I want to thank Dr. Mark Nanos for bringing what I’ve misunderstood about his paper to my attention and allowing me the opportunity to fix my mistakes.