Tag Archives: Paul

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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The Apostle Paul: Interpreter of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles

How does a Christian know what Jesus wants of us? From a traditional Church perspective, the answer is easy. Read the New Testament, that is the Apostolic Scriptures.

So primarily, Christians study the words of Jesus as recorded by four Jewish guys (I’m being way overly simplistic here regarding the source materials of the Gospels) Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, the “Acts of the Apostles,” which is mainly about the life of the Jewish Apostle to the Gentiles, Paul, as recorded by the aforementioned, Luke, and a whole bunch of letters generally attributed to the aforementioned Paul.

But arguably, Jesus taught almost exclusively or exclusively to Jewish audiences. The Gospel of Matthew is definitely written to Jews, while Luke’s Gospel may well have been intended for a wider audience. According to some sources, Acts may have been composed as part of Paul’s legal defense when he appeared before Caesar in Rome (as possibly was Luke’s Gospel), and we have to assume that most or all of Paul’s letters were addressing his Gentile students, although he may have had messages for particular Jewish people or communities as well.

MessiahHere’s one startling thought that occurred to me. For the most part, we can’t really depend on the actual, quoted words of Jesus or Rav Yeshua as a guide to worship and devotion for the non-Jewish disciple.

Why not?

Remember, I said that Jesus primarily or exclusively taught Jews about the true interpretation of Torah and performance of the mitzvot. He was a Jewish teacher teaching Jewish students about the Jewish mitzvot. What does that have to do with non-Jews?

In yesterday’s blog post about the Roman Centurion Cornelius, I mentioned that Marc Turnage in his presentation defined circumcision as the dividing line as to whether or not a person is Jewish, and thus, whether or not a person is obligated to the Torah mitzvot.

Of course, it’s not just circumcision, but a bris (brit milah) performed on a male, either on the eighth day of life for a boy born to Jewish parents, or as part of the proselyte rite undergone by a male Gentile converting to Judaism.

So if Jesus is a Jew teaching Torah to Jews and is not presupposing Gentiles reading his recorded words (let alone trying to act them out), we can’t always rely upon a red-letter edition of the Bible to be the Gentile Christian’s sole guide to a life of holiness.

So what can we do?

What did the vast majority of non-Jews in the diaspora do when they heard the good news of Rav Yeshua? For that matter, who did they hear those words from?

As far as the Apostolic Scriptures are concerned, most of the time, they interacted with the man who Yeshua specifically appointed (in Acts 9) to be the special emissary to the Gentiles, the man known as Saul of Tarsus but who most Christians call the Apostle Paul.

The Jewish PaulPaul had the responsibility of interpreting Jewish teaching so it would apply to non-Jewish lives. That’s no easy task. Well, it might not have been too much of a chore if his audience were Gentile God-fearers who had already spent a lot of time in the synagogue hearing Jewish teachings (see Acts 13:13-43 for example). But he may have fought quite an uphill battle when addressing pagan Gentiles who only knew their own mythology (such as in Acts 14:8-18).

So get this. Paul didn’t teach the Gospel message to the Gentiles in exactly the same way as Jesus taught it to the Jews (which may be why Paul called it “my Gospel” in Romans 2:16, 16:25-27 and in other epistles). Why? Because the Jewish message had to be interpreted and adapted by Paul so it would not only make sense to non-Jewish audiences, but fit their particular legal status in Jewish community. This is really important, since Jews are named subjects of the New Covenant (Jeremiah 31; Ezekiel 36) and Gentiles are not!

From that, we have to understand that the “admission” process must be different for Jews than Gentile initiates. Jews are born into the covenants, all of them, whether they want to be or not. Gentiles are born into no covenant with God at all except perhaps the Noahide covenant (Genesis 9). Our entry, so to speak, must be via a different process with different criteria involved.

I often wonder if this is why more traditional Jewish people don’t mind what Jesus taught so much, but most of them absolutely loathe Paul. Paul, when interpreted through traditional Christian and Jewish lenses, seems not to be teaching Judaism at all, but rather, creating a new religion. For modern observant Jews, this makes Paul a traitor to the Jewish people, and an advocate to the elimination of Judaism (and Jews, even in Paul’s day, also believed this of him — see Acts 21 starting at verse 15).

Ironically, many Christians believe the same thing, that Paul threw Judaism under a bus and replaced it with Christianity, but in this case, that’s considered part of God’s plan and not the ultimate insult to God and the Jewish people (more’s the pity).

bibleNo, I’m not saying that we non-Jews shouldn’t read the Gospels. We really need to get to know our Rav and what he taught. However, we cannot always assume we can apply each and every lesson he taught to Jews about the Torah to ourselves as non-Jews without some interpretation, anymore than we can assume to apply what and how Moses taught the Torah to the Children of Israel to the Church today.

That’s why it is so important to understand Paul correctly, such as they way he is rendered in the Nanos and Zetterholm volume Paul within Judaism: Restoring the First-Century Context to the Apostle.

Although the Apostolic Scriptures record that it was sometimes difficult to teach the Jewish people about the good news of Rav Yeshua, it would have been extremely difficult to get that across to Gentile pagans who lacked a Jewish educational and lived context. That’s why the Apostle to the Gentiles had to be highly educated, multi-lingual and multi-cultural, both a Jew and a Roman citizen. He had to be thoroughly Jewish and yet be able to “talk the talk,” as such, of non-Jewish peoples who lived in a wide variety of religious, cultural, and social venues.

That’s why the job was so hard and required such a unique individual.

But this is (in my opinion) why we modern non-Jewish disciples of the Rav, cannot simply imitate modern Jewish worship practices and performance of the mitzvot and say we understand the teachings of Yeshua and how to respond to them. That’s as erroneous as modern Christians in their churches today saying that Jesus did away with the Law for the Jew and that everyone, including born Jews, must abandon Judaism, Torah, and Talmud and become goyishe Christians in order to be reconciled with God.

WaitingSo how did Paul interpret Jesus for the Gentile? We may never have a solid answer, but I’m convinced that we’ll never get anywhere near that answer unless we’re willing to ask the question.

Ultimately, it may not be as complex as most folks who are “Judaicly aware” imagine. In fact, it might not be that different from what most traditional Christians do now, apart from a specific attitude toward the centrality of Israel (rather than the Church) in God’s plan of redemption.

Please keep in mind that everything I’ve just written I pretty much composed off the cuff. It’s not the result of an exhaustive review of the Bible and associated scholarly literature. If anything, it’s the result of my imagination and a number of years of reading, writing, listening, and learning. I still think the message has merit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Acts 21:20-22 (NASB)

And…

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

Acts 21:27-28

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zetterholm further states:

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

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

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

However…

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

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

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

Matthew 12:1-7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Philippians 3:4-6 (emph. mine)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Expressed another way:

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

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

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

The bottom line is:

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

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

She also said:

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

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

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

In her conclusion, Zetterholm wrote:

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

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

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

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

The Reasons Saul was a Persecutor and Paul was Persecuted

In email exchanges over the last couple of weeks, Paula Fredriksen and I have been comparing views on what might have been the nature of, and cause(s) for, the “persecution” of Jewish Jesus-followers that the Apostle Paul later lamented. There have been various proposals over the years, and hers is to my knowledge the latest. With her agreement for me to do so, I publish a response in this posting.

-Larry Hurtado
‘Paul’s “Persecution” of Jewish Jesus-Followers: Nature & Cause(s)’
Larry Hurtado’s Blog

I read Dr. Larry Hurtado’s blog regularly. He’s one of the leading New Testament scholars currently doing research and publishing his findings, and although I don’t have the educational background to always grasp everything he says, I still feel I learn a lot.

The issue at hand in the above-quoted blog post has to do with the rationale for Paul being “persecuted” by Jews early in his ministry. Were the reasons for such poor treatment of Paul the same reasons Paul had previously in his life when he persecuted “Christians” (in this case, Jewish disciples of Jesus)?

Frankly, it never occurred to me to consider such a question until now. But it’s a good question.

I think the story told in most churches is that “the Jews persecuted the Christians,” indicating that the Jewish followers of Jesus (Heb. “Yeshua”), once they “converted” to “Christianity,” were no longer considered Jews, and thus, were targets for Jewish persecution because they rejected the Law and replaced it with grace.

There are a lot of problems with those assumptions, including the fact that “Christianity” wouldn’t exist as a “stand-alone” religious entity for decades, and was only created once the Gentile disciples split from their Jewish mentors and “refactored” the Bible to reject the Jewish narrative, manufacturing a new Gentile religion, the aforementioned Christianity.

The Jewish Paul
The Jewish Paul

So Jews, at best, could “convert” to a different sect or branch of Judaism, in this case the Pharisaic/Messianic sect, which was virtually identical in its beliefs and practices to the Pharisees with just a few minor adjustments, such as acknowledging the revelation of the Messiah (and following one Messiah or another is a fairly common occurrence across Jewish history), and an unusually liberal policy about admission of Gentiles into their ekklesia (assembly) as co-equal participants in Jewish social and religious space.

Returning to Hurtado and the likely reasons Paul would have been beaten by his own people on numerous occasions, he writes:

In a recent publication, she probes the matter by first addressing Paul’s references to being on the receiving end of floggings by fellow Jews (five times) in the course of his Gentile mission (2 Corinthians 11:24). Her cogent hypothesis is essentially this: Paul required his pagan converts to withdraw from worshipping the gods of the Roman world. Given the place and significance of the gods in Roman-era life, this would have generated serious tensions with the larger pagan community. As he identified himself as a Jew and linked up with Jewish communities in the various diaspora cities where he established early assemblies of Jesus-followers (ekklesias), these Jewish communities could have feared that they would bear the brunt of these tensions. So, Paul was meted out synagogue discipline in the form of the 39 lashes as punishment on several occasions (he mentions five).

I find this entirely reasonable myself. It fits the setting, Paul’s Gentile mission. It fits his own behaviour, continuing to identify himself as a member of his ancestral people all through his ministry as apostle to the Gentiles and herald of the gospel. It fits also with what we know of real and potential tensions over the matter of worship of the traditional deities (of household, city, nation, etc.).

So according to this, Paul wasn’t beaten by his fellow Jews because he had exited Judaism in any sense, was proposing a “foreign” religion, or was thought to be speaking against the Torah of Moses or the Temple. Hurtado even says Paul was “continuing to identify himself as a member of his ancestral people all through his ministry as apostle to the Gentiles.”

Larry Hurtado
Larry Hurtado

The issue, as is stated in the quote above, was more likely the tension Paul was generating among the Gentiles by requiring his non-Jewish disciples to cease participation in Roman cultic practices and to be devoted to the God of Israel alone. The synagogues in the diaspora were deeply worried that they would receive the “fallout” from the pagans among whom they lived, which was not an unreasonable fear given the long history of enmity between Jewish and Gentile communities.

But how does this reflect on Paul when he was formerly “persecuting the church,” so to speak? Was Paul (previously “Saul”) worried about pagan Gentile “fallout?”

Hurtado states that Paula Fredriksen believes this likely, but he says otherwise, and lists very specific reasons (see his blog post for the details). In summation, Hurtado writes:

In sum, it seems to me that both the nature and the cause(s) for Paul’s initially violent opposition to the Jewish Jesus-movement were somewhat different from the nature and cause(s) for the synagogue floggings that he later received in the course of his ministry as apostle. I’m inclined to think that Paul’s initial Pharisaic zeal was incited, at least in part, by the christological claims and accompanying devotional practices that he later came to embrace, and that are reflected in his letters. Indeed, his zealousness for his religious traditions may have even made him particularly sensitive to the implications of the christological claims and devotional practices of the early Jesus-circles, perhaps more sensitive than many others, including perhaps even those early Jesus-circles as well! In any case, whatever the reasons for his strenuous initial opposition to the Jesus-movement, his subsequent shift to passionate adherent (e.g., Philippians 3:4-16) remains one of the most remarkable personal stories of the ancient world.

In other words, the bigger deal for Paul was the assertion among Jewish disciples of Messiah, that he was of a Divine nature and that they gave worship to Yeshua normally reserved only for Hashem.

But He kept silent and did not answer. Again the high priest was questioning Him, and saying to Him, “Are You the Christ (Heb. “Messiah” or “Moshiach”), the Son of the Blessed One?” And Jesus said, “I am; and you shall see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.” Tearing his clothes, the high priest said, “What further need do we have of witnesses? You have heard the blasphemy; how does it seem to you?” And they all condemned Him to be deserving of death.

Mark 14:61-64 (NASB)

This answer is what got Jesus killed, not claiming to be the Messiah, which as I said above, isn’t all that unusual a declaration in Jewish history, but stating that he was of Divine nature and appearing as co-equal with God in Heaven.

If Paul was indeed zealous for the Torah, such a claim would certainly have set him off. In fact, we see something similar occurring where Paul was actually involved:

Now when they heard this, they were cut to the quick, and they began gnashing their teeth at him. But being full of the Holy Spirit, he gazed intently into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God; and he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened up and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” But they cried out with a loud voice, and covered their ears and rushed at him with one impulse. When they had driven him out of the city, they began stoning him; and the witnesses laid aside their robes at the feet of a young man named Saul.

Acts 7:54-58

stoneAlthough Stephen said a great deal to anger the Jewish court before which he appeared, they didn’t turn murderous until he also described Jesus at the right hand of God. A young Paul (Saul) was present and the death of Stephen no doubt was part of his inspiration to pursue other Jewish believers and for the same reasons, not because it had anything to do with Gentile disciples or pagan community “blowback” on diaspora Jews.

This also touches on another topic Hurtado wrote on yesterday (as you read this) as to whether there was opposition and even persecution of the Greek-speaking Jewish Jesus-believers by the native Israelite Jewish believers. It is another question that would never have occurred to me and you can click the link I provided to explore the matter and read Hurtado’s opinion.

I’m writing about this because it’s yet another illustration how recent scholarly inquiry has dispelled some long-held “truths” in the Church, so-called “sound doctrine,” about “Jews persecuting Christians” for such-and-thus reasons, when indeed, those “truths” are merely long-held “assumptions” based on long-held “traditions”. Those traditions of the Christian church, in my opinion, were born out of the historic tensions that have existed between Christianity and Judaism that go all the way back to when Gentile Christianity violently divorced ancient Messianic Judaism.

I’m not telling Christians not to listen to their Pastors’ sermons or to what Sunday School lessons teach, but it might be a good idea to also pay attention to what Biblical scholarship is doing and what they are writing. It will be years (if ever) before the latest research trickles down to the local church pulpit and into the ears of the average Christian sitting in the pew.

Being a disciple of Jesus isn’t a spectator sport. It’s what you do that counts, including how you study the Bible. You’ll never know Jesus as well as you’d like unless you take an active role in acquiring that knowledge. It’s not just a matter of reading the Bible, although that’s critically important. It’s a matter of paying attention to and critically analyzing the collected body of research about the message of the Bible, what it meant within its original context and to its original audience, and thus what it means to us today.

For more on the early Jewish belief in the Divinity of Jesus, see Derek Leman’s blog post Are We Apostates? Yeshua’s Divinity.

Reflections on Romans 1 and 2

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “But the righteous man shall live by faith.”

Romans 1:16-17 (NASB)

When I was preparing for last week’s Sunday school class for the study on Romans 10:1-13, I decided to read the entire Epistle to the Romans. I’ve studied Romans before, principally using the Mark Nanos book The Mystery of Romans, but there’s something to be said for just reading the Bible and letting it speak to you.

I prefer, when I can, to read entire books in the Bible rather than just a few verses at a time. Imagine reading your favorite novel three or four sentences at a time, then putting the book down for four days, picking it up and reading another few sentences.

First of all, it would take you forever to get through the novel and secondly, you probably would have a tough time keeping the book’s overarching narrative in your mind as a complete story.

But we think nothing of treating the Bible or any of the books it contains as if it were a large collection of “sound bytes”.

Paul wrote each of his letters to be read as a whole, including Romans. Why don’t we read them that way? The impression we get of the epistle (or any other single book in the Bible) will probably be different and perhaps yield a more complete impression in the mind of the reader.

Alas, I can’t review the whole epistle to the Romans in a single blog post, so I’ll have to break my own rule. But I can use a series of blog posts to communicate my overall impression of Romans a few chapters at a time? Hopefully, that will be sufficient.

None of this is scientific or scholarly. I don’t read Biblical Greek and I didn’t use any references or other study aids while reading Romans. I just read Romans and took notes on the margins of the pages as I was reading. That’s what I’m going to share with you.

Oh, these are just impressions. Little bits and pieces that I picked up in my overall read of the letter. I’m not going to comment on all the verses in each chapter. Just what prompted me to write a note down.

Take it for what it’s worth.

The first thing I noted in my reading of Romans was the above-quoted verses. Paul was not ashamed of the Good News of Messiah. That good news is the “power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.”

What is “salvation?” We like to think that it’s as simple as being saved from the consequences of our sins and being reconciled to God, but remember, for Jesus and for Paul, based on the New Covenant promises, having your sins forgiven is only the first step.

The New Covenant promises are aimed solely at the Jewish people and the nation of Israel, and include restoring national Israel to its former glory and elevating her as the head of all the nations of the world. It’s the promise that Israel’s Messiah King will rule with justice and mercy, not over just Israel, but the nations of the Earth. It’s the promise that Messiah will completely end the Jewish exile and return all Jews to their nation. It’s the promise to rebuild the Temple and to restore the sacrificial system in accordance to the commandments. It’s the promise to defeat all of Israel’s enemies and bring them (us) under subjugation. It’s the promise to establish a reign of worldwide peace and tranquility. It’s the promise of the resurrection for the just, that they (hopefully, we) will live in the resurrection under Messiah’s reign, for that is the hope of our faith. It is the promise…

You get the idea.

So when Paul says something as simple as “power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek,” he’s really saying all of the stuff I put into the previous, large paragraph. That’s why it’s first to the Jew. Because promises were made to the Jewish people. Gentiles, by God’s mercy and favor, get to come along for the ride…but I’ll get to that in a subsequent blog post.

For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened.

Romans 1:21 (NASB)

balaam_israelI read this the same weekend I read Torah Portion Pinchas and hopefully you’ll see the connection. After Israel was spared being cursed and was in fact blessed by the Gentile prophet Balaam, Balaam had the “brilliant” suggestion to have Moabite and Midianite women seduce the men of Israel sexually to incite them to worship their (foreign) gods.

It worked. If not for the zeal of the Kohen Pinchas (Phinehas), the plague of Hashem might have consumed the whole nation:

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Phinehas, son of Eleazar son of Aaron the priest, has turned back My wrath from the Israelites by displaying among them his passion for Me, so that I did not wipe out the Israelite people in My passion. Say, therefore, ‘I grant him My pact of friendship. It shall be for him and his descendants after him a pact of priesthood for all time, because he took impassioned action for his God, thus making expiation for the Israelites.'”

The name of the Israelite who was killed, the one who was killed with the Midianite woman, was Zimri son of Salu, chieftain of a Simeonite ancestral house. The name of the Midianite woman who was killed was Cozbi daughter of Zur; he was the tribal head of an ancestral house in Midian.

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Assail the Midianites and defeat them—for they assailed you by the trickery they practiced against you—because of the affair of Peor and because of the affair of their kinswoman Cozbi, daughter of the Midianite chieftain, who was killed at the time of the plague on account of Peor.”

When the plague was over…

Numbers 25:10-19 (JPS Tanakh)

The Israelites knew God but they did not honor Him.

There’s also the corresponding Psalm for this Torah Portion:

But to the wicked God says,
“What right have you to tell of My statutes
And to take My covenant in your mouth?
“For you hate discipline,
And you cast My words behind you.
“When you see a thief, you are pleased with him,
And you associate with adulterers.
“You let your mouth loose in evil
And your tongue frames deceit.
“You sit and speak against your brother;
You slander your own mother’s son.
“These things you have done and I kept silence;
You thought that I was just like you;
I will reprove you and state the case in order before your eyes.
“Now consider this, you who forget God,
Or I will tear you in pieces, and there will be none to deliver.
“He who offers a sacrifice of thanksgiving honors Me;
And to him who orders his way aright
I shall show the salvation of God.”

Psalm 50:16-23 (NASB)

Even in the condemnation of the faithless and the wicked, God still offers a path back to salvation and redemption.

Or not…

And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer, God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper, being filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, greed, evil; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice; they are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, without understanding, untrustworthy, unloving, unmerciful; and although they know the ordinance of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only do the same, but also give hearty approval to those who practice them.

Romans 1:28-32 (NASB)

teshuvahGod always offers a way back, but you have to be willing to take it. You can only access the path of teshuvah and return to God if you repent of your sins. If you don’t, if you are guilty of what the above-quoted verses state, if you fail to acknowledge God, then God, according to how I read Paul, will give you enough rope to hang yourself with.

Or do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and tolerance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance?

Romans 2:4 (NASB)

God doesn’t always “drop the hammer” the minute we stray from the path of light and into darkness. In fact, often he just lets us do what we want to do, and it’s easy to take that as a sign that God doesn’t seem to mind. No, that’s not it. He’s giving us the rope with which to hang ourselves, but he’s also giving us time to realize how badly we’ve messed up. He’s giving us time to repent. For when our time is up, then and only then will it be too late.

He thereupon says to them, “Permit me to go repent!” And they answer him and say, “You fool! Do you know that this world is like the Sabbath and the world whence you have come is like the eve of the Sabbath? If a man does not prepare his meal on the eve of the Sabbath, what shall he eat on the Sabbath?”

-from Ruth Rabbah 3:3
quoted by Young in
Chapter 15: Death and Eschatology: The Theology of Imminence, pp 281-2
The Parables: Jewish Tradition and Christian Interpretation

I quoted this yesterday and for the same reason. To illustrate that we have lots and lots of time, at least as humans measure time (but maybe not as much time as we think), but in the end, God’s justice prevails. Don’t take God’s patience lightly.

There will be tribulation and distress for every soul of man who does evil, of the Jew first and also of the Greek, but glory and honor and peace to everyone who does good, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For there is no partiality with God.

Romans 2:9-11 (NASB)

I found this rather sobering. God puts the Jew first in both good and evil. If the blessings of the New Covenant come to the Jew first, so does tribulation and distress. There’s a definitely negative aspect to being at the center of God’s attention. I read “no partiality” both as God delivering consequences equally upon the Jew and Greek and as God not being partial to Israel giving her only good but not evil.

For all who have sinned without the Law will also perish without the Law, and all who have sinned under the Law will be judged by the Law…

Romans 2:12 (NASB)

under-law-torahIt seems that Jews will be held to a higher standard than Gentiles. But was Paul writing to believing and unbelieving Jews and to pagan Gentiles when he said “under the Law” and “not under the Law”? Paul was writing to the “church” in Rome, which Nanos said was more likely to the believing and non-believing Jews and the believing Gentiles in the synagogue. Paul had no audience with the pagans and his letter wasn’t addressed to them. So who is under the Law and not under the Law? Were the believing Gentiles under the Law?

…for it is not the hearers of the Law who are just before God, but the doers of the Law will be justified. For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them, on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge the secrets of men through Christ Jesus.

Romans 2:13-16 (NASB)

This is getting very close to something like having the law “written on hearts,” for how would Gentiles who were not given the Law at Sinai “instinctively” know to do the things of the Law? And what did they do? Did Gentiles “instinctively” put tzitzit on their garments and lay tefillin? Did they “instinctively” start observing the Shabbat and keeping kosher? Or is being kind, gracious, and compassionate a more “instinctive” response in doing the Law?

If Paul is talking about Gentiles who are already disciples of Jesus, then they would possess the Holy Spirit and the finger of God would be just beginning to write the Law upon their hearts.

But the Jewish believers (and non-believers) already had the Law.

But if you bear the name “Jew” and rely upon the Law and boast in God, and know His will and approve the things that are essential, being instructed out of the Law, and are confident that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, a corrector of the foolish, a teacher of the immature, having in the Law the embodiment of knowledge and of the truth, you, therefore, who teach another, do you not teach yourself?

Romans 2:17-21 (NASB)

Is it possible to take a gift for granted. Were there Jews who relied on outward behavior alone to justify them before God. Yes, it is the “doer” of the Law who is made righteous, but only by faith. Performing the mitzvot without faith is not effective. See Psalm 50 above if you don’t believe me.

Hopefully, a believing Jew would not take the Torah for granted, but if Nanos is right, Paul was also writing to Jews who were not believers in Jesus as the Messiah, and some of them may have strayed from their faith, relying on behavior and ethnic identity alone to justify them before Hashem. This is Paul’s dire warning to his brothers.

…you, therefore, who teach another, do you not teach yourself? You who preach that one shall not steal, do you steal? You who say that one should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who boast in the Law, through your breaking the Law, do you dishonor God? For “the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you,” just as it is written.

Romans 2:21-24 (NASB)

Hypocrisy? Jesus accused his brothers among the Pharisees of hypocrisy more times than I can count.

Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and to His disciples, saying: “The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses; therefore all that they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds; for they say things and do not do them.”

Matthew 23:1-3 (NASB)

PhariseesI’ve quoted Noel S. Rabbinowitz’s paper Matthew 23:2-4: Does Jesus Recognize the Authority of the Pharisees and Does He Endorse Their Halakhah (PDF) more than once to illustrate while Jesus accused at least some of the Pharisees of not practicing what they taught, he confirmed that what they taught was correct, and that they had the proper authority to be teachers in Israel.

Applying that forward to Paul, he may well have accused some of the Jews in the Roman synagogues of hypocrisy but at the same time acknowledged what they taught was correct and that they had the authority to teach in the synagogues. Thus, Paul was criticizing the hypocritical practices of some of his audience, not their validity as Jews nor the validity of the Torah as a continued covenant obligation for Jews.

But someone may well say, “You have faith and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder. But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar? You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected; and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God.

James 2:18-23 (NASB)

Faith and works are required. They come as a set. You cannot properly separate them. Faith without works is dead but so is works without faith.

Make no mistake though. God fully intended (intends) for Jews to observe the mitzvot.

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

Deuteronomy 30:11-14 (NASB)

That completely shoots down any Christian argument that God gave the Jews the Law to prove how impossible it would be to keep, thus showing them that they could only be “saved” by faith and grace alone, apart from the Torah.

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)

If a Jew fails to perform a mitzvah, does he stop being a Jew? Does he become “uncircumcised?” This used to puzzle me. The whole “For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh” thing has been used to justify calling Christians “spiritual Jews” and to support the old, tired theology of supersessionism. But I don’t think that’s what Paul is saying.

Paul is trying to inspire zeal for the Torah and for faith in Messiah in his non-believing Jewish brothers in Rome. How would he do that by insulting them and rejecting them? Worse, how would he do that by denigrating the Torah? He couldn’t.

JewishBut he could be saying that a Jew is justified before God if he is outwardly a Jew, that is, if he is obedient to the commandments, and if he is inwardly a Jew, that is, if he has faith in God and that faith is the motivation for obedience. The two go together…faith and works.

I had intended to cover Chapter 3 as well in this first “reflection” but I can see this “meditation” is long enough as it is.

This is an experiment of sorts, so let me know what you think. Should I continue writing my reflections of Romans for the entire epistle?

Next up: Reflections on Romans 3.

What I Learned in Church Today: Christianity is Jewish

Get past the title. Get past the title. Just keep reading.

Is Christianity a Judaism? I think most Christians and most Jews would say “no,” but last Sunday morning in church, Pastor Randy said it was. In fact, it was the second Sunday he’s said such a thing.

Christianity is a Judaism?

I was kind of surprised that he said that. He also said that when Jesus returns, it will be as a Jewish King, the Messiah and he will still be Jewish.

You might be thinking “oh duh, of course he’ll be Jewish,” but there are a lot of Christians out there who believe his being Jewish died on the cross with him and that Jesus was resurrected as someone more “generic” in terms of ethnicity.

The last few times when Pastor has spoken with me at church, practically the first words out of his mouth as we’re shaking hands is, “I’ve been reading your blog.” He hasn’t said much else to me lately, so I’ve tended to take that as a message meaning he’s not really happy about what I’ve been writing. But now I wonder.

I’ve certainly been hammering away at the Jewishness of the ekklesia of the Messiah and how the Christian Church, as it exists today, won’t be what the ekklesia will be like in Messianic days.

As I was quickly taking notes on the sermon (Acts 25:23-26:32), I continued to reflect on the implications of Pastor’s words. Although I have no problem with any of the statements he made, I wondered how the rest of the congregation was taking it. No one mentioned it in Sunday school, although we were studying Ephesians 4 rather than Pastor’s message, so there wasn’t a natural opportunity to bring up the subject.

In speaking on Acts 26:4-18, Pastor referred to it as “A Conversion Story” but oddly enough, he defined “conversion” as making a “u-turn,” turning away from darkness and turning to light, to God.

That sounds more like teshuvah than conversion and in any event, as Dr. Larry Hurtado mentioned in a comment to me on his blog:

In any case, Paul didn’t undergo a “conversion” to “Christianity.” He refers to his experience as a prophet-like “calling” (e.g., Gal. 1:13-15), and there was no “Christianity” (as a separate religion) to which he could “convert” as a Jew. We could describe the former “pagans” (gentiles) that formed his churches as “converting” from the worship of their various ancestral deities to the God of the Bible/Israel.

paul-on-the-road-to-damascusSo Dr. Hurtado would call it “A Prophet-Like Calling Story” while using Pastor’s own definition, I could call the Acts 9 event “A Teshuvah Story”.

No, Paul wasn’t repenting of being Jewish or of practicing Judaism. Far from it. However, we could say that he had to make teshuvah relative to his disbelief in Yeshua as the Messiah and opposing God’s plan of using the ekklesia of “the Way” to bring Jews and Gentiles to Hashem and inaugurate the New Covenant in our world.

“So then, all Jews know my manner of life from my youth up, which from the beginning was spent among my own nation and at Jerusalem; since they have known about me for a long time, if they are willing to testify, that I lived as a Pharisee according to the strictest sect of our religion. And now I am standing trial for the hope of the promise made by God to our fathers; the promise to which our twelve tribes hope to attain, as they earnestly serve God night and day. And for this hope, O King, I am being accused by Jews. Why is it considered incredible among you people if God does raise the dead?”

Acts 26:4-8 (NASB)

I’m pulling a lot of my interpretation of this section of scripture, not only from D. Thomas Lancaster’s lectures on the New Covenant, but his sermon series The Holy Epistle to the Hebrews.

Paul continues to identify himself as a Pharisee, living in the strictest sense of that stream of Judaism, and that he has the “hope of the promise made by God to” his “fathers”, the hope of the resurrection, of life from the dead. He even asks his Roman audience as well as King Agrippa why they should find it so difficult to believe that the God who created the universe could also raise the dead back to life, thus extending the promise beyond just the Jewish people and making it a hope for all human beings.

Apostle Paul preachingIt may have seemed that Paul was the prisoner, but he appears to have made a captive audience of his jailers and accusers in delivering the message of the Good News.

I did have the opportunity to discuss part of Pastor’s sermon with one young fellow in Sunday school. After class let out, he had some questions about a part of Ephesians he’d been studying and thought for some reason I could help answer his queries.

In the course of our conversation, I realized part of the problem many late second temple period Jewish groups had with accepting Yeshua (Jesus) as the Messiah.

So when they had come together, they were asking Him, saying, “Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority; but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.”

Acts 1:6-8 (NASB)

Even Yeshua’s disciples believed that the Messiah would first raise Israel as the head of all the nations, defeat her enemies, and ascend the Throne of David, and only afterward reconcile the Gentiles to God. Saying that the Messiah died, was resurrected, and ascended into Heaven to sit at the Father’s right hand and that before he returned to take the throne, the Gentiles would be brought alongside Israel in the worship of Hashem was reversing the expected order of things.

For a lot of Jews, it must have seemed pretty bogus to say that Gentiles could be brought into the ekkelsia, into a Jewish community and worship space, as equal co-participants while the Messiah was not yet physically ruling as King over Israel and over the rest of the world.

Paul knew the truth but he had a special insight. He had received two visions of the Messiah (Acts 9:3-8, Acts 22:17-22) and was caught up to the third heaven (2 Corinthians 12:2-4) and taught inexpressible words that he was not permitted to speak. For those Jews and Gentiles who believed, they did so from a profound sense of faith, since even though Paul could be persuasive, his words were not always convincing to every one who listened.

King Agrippa, do you believe the Prophets? I know that you do.” Agrippa replied to Paul, “In a short time you will persuade me to become a Christian.” And Paul said, “I would wish to God, that whether in a short or long time, not only you, but also all who hear me this day, might become such as I am, except for these chains.”

Acts 26:27-29 (NASB)

When Agrippa said “become a Christian,” the term “Christian” was not used in the same sense as we understand it today, because, as I’ve mentioned on numerous previous occasions, faith in Messiah Yeshua was not a religious stream distinct from Judaism at that point in history. Agrippa might have just as well said “make me a disciple of the Way”. And it was well-known that Agrippa was hardly devout and pious though he doubtless had some education in the traditions of his fathers (for Paul knew Agrippa believed the Prophets).

The Jewish PaulDoes that bring us back to thinking of Christianity as a Judaism, or am I the one getting things reversed?

During his lifetime, Paul obviously considered faith in Yeshua as Messiah King to be the next, natural, logical extension in the development of God’s plan for Israel. Yeshua was and is the beginning of God’s starting to fulfill the New Covenant promises to Israel, but those promises include bringing the Gentiles into worship of Hashem by coming along side Israel and becoming attached to her. Messiah was the doorway for the Gentiles to enter that forward-progressing stream of God’s plan for Israel, not by making Gentiles into Jews through the proselyte rite, but allowing them (us) to remain of the nations and yet, as was prophesied, enjoying the blessings of the spirit and the hope of the resurrection into the age of peace and tranquility.

I’d like to believe that some of the things I’ve written lately have been positively received by Pastor Randy, but that’s probably arrogant presumption on my part. However, his sermon last Sunday did seem to speak to many of the themes I write about on my blog. I not only found myself in general agreement with Pastor’s sermon but found myself learning some things I hadn’t noticed before in my reading of this part of Luke’s “Acts”.

Is Christianity a Judaism? In its current form, we can say that it owes a great deal to its Hebrew or Jewish roots, but there’s a lot about that “Judaism” the Church as left by the wayside. But as Pastor said, the return of Jesus is the return of the Jewish Messiah King to the Throne of David in the City of David.

With Jewish devotees cheering and Gentile disciples alongside them crying out in joyous approval, Messiah will raise Israel up as the most exalted of all nations, rebuild the Temple, return the Jewish exiles to their Land, rule the world with a rod of iron, and bring peace to all peoples.

What will the ekklesia be then? It will be Jewish, but it should be remembered that “every knee shall bow” (Isaiah 45:23, Romans 14:11), not just of the Jews but of everyone, the whole world.