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Debate or Beer?

beerOne of the glories of life in the Messianic Jewish community is the unity of worship and service between its Jewish and Gentile members within a specifically Jewish context. In recent years, however, a trend has developed that challenges the Messianic Jewish community on this very issue. This trend involves various groups and movements that teach that all Jews and Gentiles under the new covenant are called to keep the same Torah in all regards.

In so doing, these One Law movements not only misinterpret a great body of Scripture, but they also miss the unique calling of Jews and Gentiles within the Body of Messiah, robbing both groups of the biblical richness of their identity. They lose the new covenant vision of unity in Messiah between Jews and Gentiles and replace it with a man-made rallying cry, which One Law advocate Tim Hegg has expressed as “One people, One Messiah, One Torah.”

-Daniel Juster and Russ Resnik
“One Law Movements: A Challenge to the Messianic Jewish Community” (January 2005)
As downloaded from Messianic Jewish Musings
Original Source: MJ Studies

This has already started something of a minor “buzz” in the Messianic Jewish and Hebrew Roots blogospheres. I wasn’t going to write about it, but since a certain amount if misinformation (or disinformation) is already becoming promoted (no, not at Derek’s blog) on the web, I felt it necessary to present a more balanced perspective. Also, since the Juster and Resnik paper significantly mentions Acts 15 and since I’ve already spent a lot of time and effort addressing Acts 15 from the current perspective of First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ) as published in D. Thomas Lancaster’s commentary in Torah Club Volume 6, I thought my perspective might provide just a little illumination.

I also want to say that FFOZ is mentioned in the Juster and Resnik paper and not in a complementary fashion. The paper was published in 2005 and references material produced by FFOZ from 2003 which was written by then-contributor Tim Hegg, a well-known Hebrew Roots scholar and proponent of “One Torah.” Since that time, FFOZ has shifted its theological and doctrinal perspective to be quite a bit more like that of Juster and Resnik as documented in their paper. It’s not identical but it’s pretty close. Unfortunately, this dates the Juster/Resnik paper somewhat, but the other content they present is fairly well “spot on.”

A few things.

By the time of Yeshua, an interpretative tradition was developing concerning the requirements for Gentiles. These later became formulated as the Noahide laws, binding on all people and rooted in the covenant with Noah. Already in the first century, Judaism made a distinction between universal requirements and requirements that were the particular responsibility of Jews.

Juster/Resnik, pg 4

This statement could be misconstrued to suggest that Juster and Resnik believe the Acts 15 letter is a reworking of the Noahide Laws and that such laws were the only restrictions incumbent upon the Gentile believers in Christ from the perspective of James and the Jerusalem Council. However, a further reading of the paper reveals this is not entirely true.

As has been noted, these are very similar to the Noahide laws. This does not mean that Gentiles are free to murder, steal, and dishonor their parents. The passage assumes a universal morality, as do Paul, Peter, and James (who were present that day), and John in their writings. As Romans 2 notes, Gentiles can perceive the law of God, even without the revelation of Moses, and are responsible for many standards that are also expressed in the Bible. For example, classic Roman moral law taught the ideals of monogamous marriage, honoring parents, honesty and much more. The essential and unique addition of New Covenant ethics is the sacrificial example of Yeshua.

-ibid

noah-rainbowI disagree that the halachah developed by James for the Gentile believers was a reworking of the Noahide Laws although this is a commonly held belief by many scholars and laypeople. But according to Lancaster, it would make little sense to require the Gentile believers to comply only to the Noahide Laws when in fact all of humanity is accountable to God by those standards. In fact, as I’ve mentioned on one of my blog posts, Lancaster states that James only uses the Noahide Laws as a starter and seems to leverage Leviticus 17 and 18 to forge a distinct Gentile identity in Messiah based, to some degree, on the stranger or “ger” in Israel.

In those chapters, the Torah describes the sins of the Canaanites, warns the people of Israel against imitating their ways, and prescribes four prohibitions which both the Israelite and the stranger who dwells among the nation much keep. “These correspond to the four prohibitions of the apostolic decree, in the order in which they occur in the apostolic letter.” [Richard Bauckham, “James and the Jerusalem Church,” in “The Book of Acts In Its Palestinian Setting, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995), 459]

-D. Thomas Lancaster
Torah Club, Volume 6: Chronicles of the Apostles
from First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ)
Torah Portion Mishpatim (“Judgments”) (pg 461)
Commentary on Acts 15:20-31

I would also direct the reader to Toby Janicki’s article The Gentile Believer’s Obligation to the Torah of Moses, found in issue 109 of Messiah Journal (Winter 2012), pp 45-62 to understand how the deceptively brief “four prohibitions” are extended to provide a rich and robust Torah observance for the non-Jewish believers that does not intrude on Jewish identity or unique covenant obligation to God.

Having read one staunch critic of the paper as well as Leman this morning, I agree that the Noahide Laws cannot be applied to the “fourfold decree” of the apostles, but that doesn’t shoot down the foundation of Juster’s and Resnik’s argument opposing the position of “grafted in” Gentile believers and Jewish believers forming a fused and completely uniform corporate identity. The so-called “One Law/One Torah” position by necessity, essentially eliminates the Jewish people in Messiah and replaces them with “One Torah” cookie cutter produced humanity. This may be inadvertent replacement theology on the part of One Law/One Torah advocates, but it is replacement theology nonetheless.

As far as I can tell, the criticism of the Juster/Resnik paper I read this morning is based on only a single element and since the Juster/Resnik position, as we see in Lancaster, is otherwise well supported, then the basic assumption of the paper remains valid.

Acts 15 specifically declares that nothing should be required of the Gentiles but four laws, three of them related to blood. Galatians 5 warns Gentiles not to receive circumcision or they will be required to keep the whole Torah. The clear implication here is that without circumcision, Gentiles are not required to keep the whole Torah. Colossians 2 warns that no one is to judge the Colossians with regard to Sabbath, New Moons or festivals. These are a shadow; the substance is Messiah. In Galatians 4:10 Paul writes that he fears that he labored over the Galatian Gentile congregations in vain because they were now observing “special days, months, seasons and years.”

Juster/Resnik, pg 2

This is probably one of the more devastating portions of their argument since the statement emphasized in the quote above plainly illustrates that the non-Jewish believers could not be obligated to keep the Torah mitzvot in the manner of the Jews unless they were circumcised (i.e. converted to Judaism).

line-in-the-sandOne of the comments I made on Leman’s blog was that Juster and Resnik seem to draw a hard and clear line in the sand between Jewish and Gentile Torah observance, especially in their belief of how Paul saw the matter, while the Lancaster commentary appears to allow for more leeway, providing a sort of “permission” for Gentiles to extend themselves into more of the mitzvot without an implicit or explicit command to be obligated to full Torah observance over some undefined period of time.

One of the things I liked about the Juster/Resnik paper is that it was very clear in showing what Paul, or James for that matter, didn’t say (I apologize in advance for the length of this quote):

One Law teachers make a big point of James’s statement that “Moses has been read every week in the Synagogue” (Acts 15:21). This is taken to imply that Gentile believers will, in the normal course of their new life, attend synagogue and adopt more and more of the whole Torah. Since Torah life is good and beautiful, why wouldn’t he? On this basis, the verse is taken as an exhortation to further learning and the adoption of the whole Torah. Thus, One Law teachers transform an ambiguous statement into a strong and unambiguous exhortation.

They apparently overlook, however, the fact that these words spoken in the council were not included in the apostolic letter that was circulated among the congregations. If this were such a crucial exhortation to Gentiles, it is amazing indeed that the apostles, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, did not think it important enough to put in their letter!

It is most telling that in all the epistles to congregations there is not a single word commanding Gentiles to adopt the whole Torah, and no direct statement of hope that they will eventually adopt a fully Torah- keeping life in the same way as the Jews. There is no word of such an exhortation or even mild encouragement throughout the whole book of Acts, which is written in part to show the relationship of Jewish-Gentile fellowship!

Even were we to say that Gentiles are free to embrace Torah, the calendar of Israel, and more, there is no word that there is any covenant responsibility for Gentiles to do so. Acts 21 reinforces this impression. Here James tells Paul of the rumor that he teaches Jews who embrace Yeshua to forsake Torah. This of course is not true. So, Paul demonstrates this to be a false rumor by his Temple involvement. James reminds Paul that Gentiles were freed from responsibility for the full weight of Torah. Neither Paul nor James gives the slightest hint that they were encouraging full Torah observance among Gentiles. Paul could have said, “Not only do I not teach Jews to forsake Moses, but I even encourage Gentiles to embrace more and more of the Torah as they come to understand and appreciate it.” This is the emphasis of the One Law teachers, but there is not one word in the New Testament that explicitly encourages Gentiles to grow in keeping the whole Torah.

Galatians 5 is a watershed passage. Here Paul in the strongest terms exhorts Gentiles not to receive circumcision. Some One Law teachers want to allow a legitimate option of circumcision, so they add the proviso that it should not be done for the wrong reasons. Yet, this is not in the text. The New Covenant offers the fullness of God’s blessing upon Gentiles without the necessity of circumcision. This was not the case in the Mosaic order.

ibid, pg 5

white-pigeon-kotelI think when added to the body of work produced by Lancaster, we find ample support for the Juster/Resnik position. I mentioned on Leman’s blog that I hope, given the age of the paper, the authors would be willing at some point to update and expand the document to reflect changes that have occurred in the movement and in research over the past eight years.

But given my numerous blog posts of this week, lest you think I’m talking out of both sides of my mouth, I also said this on Leman’s blog:

My blog post tomorrow is my tying up all the loose ends of my “rant” for this week regarding these sorts of debates. One of the problems I have with some of our discussions is they tend to overlook the fact that, even though we disagree, we *all* still are part of the body of Messiah. I believe it is important to point out error and to support a more correct interpretation of the Bible, but how do we balance that against the need to bring organization and some manner of unity to *all* of the members of the body of Yeshua, Jewish and Gentile alike?

Rob Roy, a One Law supporter, said on the same blog post:

Probably a sign that folks are growing tired of this debate.

I’m getting tired of it, too. But my question to Derek stands. In spite of the radical differences in perspective, theology, and theory between Messianic Judaism and certain expressions of Hebrew Roots, we are all disciples of the same Master and members of the body of Messiah. If the internal organs of a person’s body fought each other as much as we do, the person would die. What’s going to happen to the body of Messiah because of us and because of the much wider “battle” of body parts we find in the various Christianites of the modern era?

My appeal to “come together” will be published in tomorrow’s morning meditation. In the meantime, we still have to talk and we’ll still disagree. May God have mercy on our limitations and particularly on our foolishness in presuming we know more than our Master.

Now can we all go out for a beer or two and loosen up or are we going to just fragment the body some more?

Imploring Unity

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

Acts 16:13 (ESV)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Lancaster, ibid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matthew 23:5 (ESV)

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

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

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

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

-Lancaster, pg 489

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Return to Jerusalem, Part 6

strangers-in-israelThis is the sixth and final part of the Return to Jerusalem series where I’ve been examining the Torah Club, Vol. 6 commentary on Acts 15. I trust you’ve been following along since Part 1, but if not, please go back and read the previous submissions including Part 5 before continuing here.

Last time I asked, so what are the four prohibitions for Gentiles in the apostolic decree and what are their implications for the Christians in ancient times and today? To try to render a complete and detailed answer would invite simply copying and pasting everything in Lancaster’s lesson into this blog which, as I’ve said before, I’m not prepared to do. However, and this is particularly interesting to me, Lancaster borrows the status of the “resident alien” (“Ger” in Hebrew) from various portions of the Torah and applies it to the “resident alien” Gentile disciples worshiping the Messiah and the God of Israel in the midst of the Jewish community.

If indeed it is the case that in Christ these Gentiles have a portion in [Israel’s covenant membership and national eschatology], i.e. that they are saved as Gentiles, then it suffices to apply to them the same ethical principles that would in any case apply to righteous Gentiles living with the people of Israel, i.e. resident aliens.

-Markus Bockmuehl
“Jewish Law in Gentile Churches:
Halakhah and the Beginning of Christian Public Ethics”
(Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2000), 165

But in citing Bockmuehl, Lancaster reintroduces a problem that flies in the face of his and FFOZ‘s official theological stance on Gentiles and the Torah. While the gerim in the days of Moses were not Israelites as such and did not obtain full membership status in the nation due to lack of tribal affiliation, they did observe a large number (majority? nearly-full obligation?) of the Torah mitzvot in the days of Moses and beyond. The argument of some branches of the Hebrew Roots movement is that the gerim status can be wholly transferred to the Gentile disciples of Jesus and be used to justify Gentile Christian obligation to the full yoke of Torah. Lancaster has spent considerable effort in his commentary to illustrate how James and the Council exempted the Gentiles from the full yoke of Torah because they were not born Jews or converts. Now, he apparently brings in an element in explaining the four prohibitions that could reverse his argument.

It doesn’t help that he explains the four prohibitions, which go well beyond the confines of the Noahide laws, as derived from Leviticus 17-18.

In those chapters, the Torah describes the sins of the Canaanites, warns the people of Israel against imitating their ways, and prescribes four prohibitions which both the Israelite and the stranger who dwells among the nation much keep. “These correspond to the four prohibitions of the apostolic decree, in the order in which they occur in the apostolic letter.” [Richard Bauckham, “James and the Jerusalem Church,” in “The Book of Acts In Its Palestinian Setting, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995), 459]

-D. Thomas Lancaster
Torah Club, Volume 6: Chronicles of the Apostles
from First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ)
Torah Portion Mishpatim (“Judgments”) (pg 461)
Commentary on Acts 15:20-31

How was this all supposed to be lived out by the Gentile disciples of that day and what are the implications for modern Christians? As I’ve said in previous parts of this series, you’ll have to access the Torah Club (Vol. 6) studies relevant to Acts 15 for the full details, but it seems as if the four prohibitions were a significant subset of the Torah that was to be applied to Gentile believers above and beyond the Noahide laws of their day. That said, there is another source besides Lancaster who also discusses the same material and provides further illumination.

Toby Janicki wrote an article called The Gentile Believer’s Obligation to the Torah of Moses for issue 109 of Messiah Journal (Winter 2012), pp 45-62, and it provides a great amount of detail on the application of the four prohibitions.

I reviewed Toby’s article over a year ago and at the time, I recall being quite surprised when he suggested that our (i.e. Christians) obligation to the Torah of Moses went much further than I imagined, based on his analysis of the aforementioned prohibitions of the apostolic decree.

Toby’s article is still available in full in either print or PDF versions of Messiah Journal, 109 and I consider it required reading when attempting to delve into an understanding of the message of the Council to the Gentiles among the disciples of Messiah, both in the days of the Council and now.

As I’ve said, this message and how it was arrived at, remains very controversial in Christian/Hebrew Roots circles, but before attempting any sort of conclusion to today’s “meditation” and to this series, I want to remind you of how the Gentiles of that day received the “Jerusalem Letter” (Acts 15:22-29).

So when they were sent off, they went down to Antioch, and having gathered the congregation together, they delivered the letter. And when they had read it, they rejoiced because of its encouragement. And Judas and Silas, who were themselves prophets, encouraged and strengthened the brothers with many words.

Acts 15:30-32 (ESV)

the-joy-of-torahIn other words, it was really good news from the point of view of the Gentile God-fearing disciples. After what some of the Gentile believers may have experienced as “mixed messages” from different factions within “the Way” and/or between “the Way” and other sects of Judaism, it must have been a relief to have a final, definitive decision rendered by the Apostolic authority. Further, assuming we can accept Lancaster’s interpretation, it must also have been a relief to the Gentiles that they were not automatically required to convert to Judaism (some may have done so but many or most obviously did not) and thus come under the full weight of Jewish Torah observance and halachah. James had established a halachah for the Gentiles that “raised the bar” as far as behavioral expectations and observances of the Gentile believers, and was well above what was expected of the God-fearers who were not disciples of Messiah or members of universal humanity, but that bar was still not as high as the one God had set for the Jews that, according to Peter’s testimony, “neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear.”

One of the functions of the four prohibitions acted to allow Jewish/Gentile fellowship and interaction within the Messianic community of believers “by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances.” (Ephesians 2:15) Jewish believer Gene Shlomovich puts it this way:

“Where in the written Torah does it prohibit Jews from eating with Gentiles?”

Nowhere! However, many of the Torah laws, including kashrut, were designed, in part, to make Israelites “kadosh”, “separated” or “set aside” from the nations. Since nations all around them ate “treif” or idol-sacrificed food, no devout Israelite would sit down with idol worshippers at the same table, if only because of the appearance of sin. Not only that, eating with idolaters implied fellowship with them, and perhaps taking on their customs and even religions.

However, with the coming of Messiah, G-d reached out to the Gentiles without requiring them to take on the full Yoke of Torah and live in the manner of Jews. Jews, for their part, had to overcome their Torah and culture ingrained aversion to sharing (no doubt still kosher) food with former idolaters-turned followers of the Jewish Messiah. It is said that the leader of the Jerusalem community and brother of Jesus, Yaakov (James) never drank wine or ate meat, but only ate vegetables. This may be because he wanted to fellowship with Gentile disciples of Jesus around their tables without violating the laws of kashrut, to which Gentiles were not obligated nor were expected to be versed in.

I can’t say that Gene has “solved” the conundrum of Ephesians 2 and how the Messiah created “one new man” out of two (without obliterating the Torah and Jewish identity), but it is a nice summary that seems to lead in an interesting direction. We are “one in Christ,” just as men and women, and just as slaves and freemen are “one in Christ,” though obviously still possessing many differences.

If Jesus did reconcile the Jewish and Gentile believers “to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility,” (Ephesians 2:16) then the apostolic decree of James delivered to the body of faithful disciples of Messiah from among the Gentiles by letter and by emissaries, may have been the means to bring down “the dividing wall.”

The net result of my study of Acts 15 using the Torah Club, Vol 6 materials seems to be that we Gentile Christians owe a great debt to our Jewish “forefathers” and share a great heritage with our believing Jewish brothers and sisters. The most exciting part though, is that we are walking side-by-side together toward a future where we are united by a resurrected and returned Messiah King who will finish what we have been commanded to start: rebuilding the fallen tent of David, and restoring the glory of God on earth among both the Jews and the nations.

white-pigeon-kotelHow do we resolve the matter of the ancient Ger as applied to the late Second Temple Gentile God-fearing disciple? Lancaster doesn’t make that clear, but based on my own reading, particularly of Cohen, the full role of a Ger as it existed in the days of Moses was to allow a non-Israelite to live among the people of God as permanent resident aliens without being able to formally become national citizens due to lack of tribal affiliation. After the Babylonian exile, a tribal basis for Israelite society was lost and affiliation by clan was emphasized. By the time of Jesus, this clan affiliation basis was too lost, and thus the rationale for the status of Ger as it was originally applied no longer was valid. A Gentile in the days of Jesus or later, who wanted to join the community of Israel, in most cases, would convert to Judaism, since becoming a Ger was not an option.

I can only conclude that James (and this is speculation), in establishing halachah for Gentile entry into the Way as Gentiles and equals to the Jewish disciples, was taking some aspect of the Ger status as the best method available to forge an identity of “alien” Gentile disciples living and worshiping among the Jews in their religious sect. I realize your opinion (and for all I know, Lancaster’s) may vary.

The Jewish role in serving God as we see it in the Bible seems all too clear, but we in the church must always remember that our blessings only come by fulfilling our own unique role as “Gentiles called by His Name.” We are not Jews and we are not expected to “act Jewish,” at least to the degree that we appear to be what we’re not. In fact, we rob ourselves of the path God has laid before us by adopting an identity that is not our own. Acts 15 was the starting point on that path and the beginning of that journey for the early Gentile disciples. It is also where we begin today to understand who we are as Christians and what we must do if we are to be considered faithful disciples of our Master and worthy sons and daughters of God.

I know this series has been challenging for some, largely because going against established doctrine (regardless of the doctrine to which you’re adhered) suggests change and nobody likes change. Maybe none of this will result in anyone thinking any differently, but I hope I at least got some people to think about what they believe and consider that there may yet be something new we can discover about ourselves in the Bible.

“If you want to make enemies, try to change something.”

-Woodrow Wilson, 28th U.S. president

So concludes the series Return to Jerusalem. I hope you enjoyed it. Please feel free to (politely) tell me what you think.

Blessings.

Return to Jerusalem, Part 5

apostles_james_acts15The majority of Jewish believers in 49 CE did not accept Paul’s gospel of Gentile inclusion. They challenged the Pauline message by telling the God-fearing Gentile believers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1). They contended, “It is necessary to circumcise [the Gentile believers] and to direct them to observe the Torah of Moses” (Acts 15:5).

The Jewish believers calling for circumcision and conversion did not object to God-fearing Gentiles who wanted to learn about Judaism and Yeshua of Nazareth. God-fearers could be found in any Jewish community – not just among believers. Paul’s opponents objected to elevating the status of God-fearing disciples of Yeshua to that of co-heirs with Isarel and fraternity with the Jewish people. Rabbi [Yechiel Tzvi] Lichtenstein [Commentary on the New Testament: The Acts of the Apostles (Unpublished, Marshfield, MO: Vine of David, 2010), on Acts 15:7; originally published in Hebrew: Beiur LeSiphrei Brit HaChadashah (Leipzig: Professor G. Hahlman, 1897)] explains, “Paul and Barnabas said that the brothers among the Gentiles did not need to be circumcised and keep the [whole] Torah of Moses, but they were still full brothers in Israel and shared in their inheritance.”

-D. Thomas Lancaster
Torah Club, Volume 6: Chronicles of the Apostles
from First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ)
Torah Portion Mishpatim (“Judgments”) (pg 457)
Commentary on Acts 15:20-31

Continued from Part 4 of this series. Make sure you’ve read the previous parts  before proceeding here.

It’s hard to believe that any Christian, regardless of denomination or variant sect, could possibly object to such a bright promise as the one Lancaster interprets from the text of Acts 15, but as we’ve seen from some of the comments folks have made in previous parts of this series, such a promise is hotly contested. Traditional Christians tend to balk at the suggestion that the Jewish disciples of Christ never intended to “cancel” the Torah for Jews, and certain branches of the Hebrew Roots movement are dead set against the idea that all Christians everywhere aren’t fully obligated to the Torah mitzvot. It seems that full co-heir status with Israel in the Kingdom of Heaven and in all of the Messianic promises just isn’t enough.

But if Lancaster is correct and James and the Apostles never intended full Torah obligation on the Gentiles (unless some of them chose to convert to Judaism), then what does this mean?

Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood. For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues.”

Acts 15:19-21 (ESV)

The four prohibitions (v 20) aren’t always easy to pick out in inline text, so here they are in list form:

  1. abstain from the things polluted by idols
  2. from sexual immorality
  3. from what has been strangled
  4. from blood

But of all the prohibitions James could have applied to the Gentile God-fearing believers, why these four? What was so special about them? Was he imposing some version of the Seven Noahide Laws on the non-Jewish disciples?

These seven laws, developed centuries after the lifetime of James, Peter, and Paul, are based on what we find here:

And God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. The fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth and upon every bird of the heavens, upon everything that creeps on the ground and all the fish of the sea. Into your hand they are delivered. Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. And as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. But you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. And for your lifeblood I will require a reckoning: from every beast I will require it and from man. From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man. “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image. And you,[plural in Hebrew] be fruitful and multiply, increase greatly on the earth and multiply in it.”

God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.”

Genesis 9:1-7, 17 (ESV)

While there may be some superficial similarities, it doesn’t seem reasonable to say that James’s four essential prohibitions were directly lifted from the covenant God made with all of humanity through Noah. Also, and this is important, if some version of the Noahide laws were already understood within late Second Temple Judaism, wouldn’t the Jews have already considered all Gentiles bound by these laws? Why would James bother to simply re-state them and how would it have made any sort of distinction between the Gentile disciples of Jesus and the rest of mankind?

Are these four laws of the apostolic decree the only commandments of the Torah enjoined upon the Gentile believers? No. Judaism already taught a minimum standard to which the Torah held all God-fearing Gentiles. The sages taught that certain commandments of the Torah apply universally to all human beings. If not, how could God have punished the Gentiles in the story of Noah? For what did He punish the people of Sodom and Gomorrah? Why did He drive out the Amorites and Canaanites in the days of Joshua? – As Paul says, “Sin is not imputed when there is no Torah” (Romans 5:13).

Based on this line of reasoning, the rabbis derived a list of seven universal commandments. The earliest version of the list appears in the Tosefta (see t.Avodah Zarah 8:4-6).

-Lancaster, pg 459

D.T. LancasterI know what you’re thinking. I (and Lancaster) am being anachronistic. How can the Noahide laws, which I’ve already said were codified many centuries after James, have been applied to humanity and understood as such by James and the Jerusalem Apostles?

Some critics argue that, since the rabbis formulated the list of seven laws subsequent to the days of the apostles, those laws are not relevant to the context of Acts 15. On the contrary, the apocryphal “Book of Jubilees” (c. 150 BCE) demonstrates that the theological concept behind the laws of Noah already existed well before the days of the apostles:

Noah began to command his grandsons with ordinances and commandments and all the judgments which he knew. And he bore witness to his sons that they might do justice and cover the shame of their flesh the one who created them and honor father and mother, each one love his neighbor and preserve themselves from fornication and pollution and all injustice … [And he said], “No man who eats blood or sheds the blood of man will remain upon the earth … You shall not be like one who eats [meat] with blood, but beware lest they should eat blood before you. Cover the blood … You shall not eat living flesh …” (Jubilees 7:20-32)

That is not to say that the apostles considered observance of the laws of Noah or the four laws of the apostolic decree as sufficient for attaining salvation. The laws of Noah offered Gentiles a baseline for ethical, moral conduct, but salvation came to the God-fearing Gentile believers “through the grace of the Master Yeshua.”

-Lancaster, pp 459-60

I know. Jubilees isn’t canonized Bible, but the plain history of the document tells us that the Jewish people were aware of an application of the laws of Noah over a century and a half before James made his pronouncement that Luke recorded in Acts 15. There was already a Jewish consciousness that God held humanity to a certain set of universally applied standards. And the apostolic decree thus was not a simple restatement of the universal laws of Noah. As we see, Lancaster doesn’t believe that obeying any combination of laws actually “saves” anyone, and the message of James confirms that for Jews and Gentiles, salvation is from the Jews through Jesus Christ.

In today’s “meditation,” I’ve defined the four prohibitions by what they aren’t (the Noahide laws) rather than what they are. So what are the four prohibitions for Gentiles in the apostolic decree and what are their implications for the Christians in ancient times and today? For the answer to that question and more, you’ll have to read the sixth and final part of this series. I had intended to write only five parts rather than six, but when I tried to include all of my material in a single blog post, it was well over 3,000 words long. I’d rather write shorter missives that are easier to read and digest.

See the conclusion of Return to Jerusalem in Part 6.

Blessings.

Return to Jerusalem, Part 4

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

Acts 15:19, 28-29 (ESV)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Lancaster, pg 443

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

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

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

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

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

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

Return to Jerusalem, Part 3

ancient_beit_dinAfter they finished speaking, James replied, “Brothers, listen to me. Simeon has related how God first visited the Gentiles, to take from them a people for his name.

Acts 15:13-14 (ESV)

After Paul and Barnabas concluded their testimony, James the brother of the Master took the floor and addressed the assembly. He prepared to offer a formal declaration based upon the consensus that emerged around Simon Peter’s testimony

James summarized the arguments, both for and against, and then recapitulated Simon Peter’s testimony regarding Cornelius the Gentile. That story carried extra weight because it implied a halachic case precedent – something that had already been accepted and established by the assembly. Compelling Gentile believers to accept circumcision required overturning the endorsement they had granted the household of Cornelius.

-D. Thomas Lancaster
Torah Club, Volume 6: Chronicles of the Apostles
from First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ)
Torah Portion Yitro (“Jethro”) (pg 440)
Commentary on Acts 15:1-20

If you have read Part 1 and Part 2 of this series (and if you haven’t, I recommend you do so before continuing here), you know the direction this is taking. Paul and Barnabas brought with them some “opponents” from the synagogue in Syrian Antioch to the Council of Apostles in Jerusalem to settle a matter of great importance. In granting the Gentiles discipleship under the Messiah in the Jewish sect “the Way,” should the Gentiles be required to convert to Judaism and consequently, take on the full yoke of Torah, as do the people born as Jews?

Many arguments, for and against have been presented before James and the Council of Apostles and elders. Peter recounted his own experiences with the Roman Cornelius and his household of God-fearers and how they too received the Holy Spirit, just as the Jews had, but without first being circumcised and converting to Judaism. They were subsequently baptized in water. God had granted the Gentiles the Spirit as He did the Jews, but He did not require that the Gentiles convert to being Jews. And it absolutely never occurred to any of the Jewish witnesses present or the Apostles that any Gentile disciple must fulfill the full body of Torah mitzvot if they remained Gentiles and did not convert.

Now James, as head of the Council, is about to establish the official halachah on this matter, and it will become binding on the Messianic community from this time forth. It this decision a “slam dunk,” so to speak?

Simon Peter based his argument on the miraculous manifestation of the Spirit that accompanied the conversion of Cornelius and his household (Blogger’s Note: “conversion” is a poor word to use in my opinion, since Cornelius maintained his status as Gentile, but was accepted by the Holy Spirit as “a Gentile called by God’s Name,” see below). Paul and Barnabas added supporting anecdotes. Despite the weight of such stories, the sages do not determine halachah on the basis of miraculous signs. Before he could issue a ruling, James needed to provide a definitive proof text to support the decision. (b.Baba Metzia 59b.) In rabbinic disputation, a legal ruling is almost always paired with supporting proof text.

-ibid

At this point, some of your reading this may be crying “foul!” How can Lancaster use a Talmudic reference in defining the process by which James would make his determination, when the Talmud wouldn’t be documented for centuries? It is said that a significant portion of the process of rabbinic examination and judgment of issues predated even Jesus. For instance, we know that the teachings of Hillel and Shammai existed a generation or more before Jesus and those teachings are with us today in the Pirkei Avot. Lancaster may be taking a few liberties with his application, but it’s not entirely unreasonable to believe James was employing (even for that day) time-honored processes and traditions in the matter of judging halachah; traditions that were later recorded by the Rabbis and preserved for Jewish communities throughout the ages and until this day.

temple-of-messiahAssuming for the moment that Lancaster is correct in his description of what James is preparing to do (and a detailed discussion on Lancaster’s opinions regarding ancient halachah is beyond the scope of my blog post), what was the “proof text” to be used to establish the aforementioned halachah for allowing Gentile’s entry into the Way as disciples of the Master?

“After this I will return, and I will rebuild the tent of David that has fallen; I will rebuild its ruins, and I will restore it, that the remnant [rest] of mankind may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who are called by my name, says the Lord, who makes these things known from of old.”

Acts 15:16-18 (ESV)

In this case, James has chosen Amos 9:11-12 as his proof text, a passage of scripture that describes the re-establishment of the Davidic dynasty, placing Messiah, Son of David upon the throne of Israel, and the presence of the Gentiles from the nations in the Messianic age seeking the Lord.

But how does that prove anything?

The phrase “all the nations/Gentiles who are called by my Name” employs a common biblical Hebrew idiom for ownership. Ordinarily, Israel is the people “called by God’s name” (see Deut. 28:10, 2 Chron. 7:14, and Jer.14:9 for example). Ordinarily, the Gentiles are “those who are not called by your name” (Isaiah 63:19). Therefore, the Amos prophesy implies that in the Messianic Era, there will be Gentiles who belong to God in the same sense that the Jewish people belong to God.

-ibid, pg 441

Lancaster offers a very detailed analysis of Amos 9:11-12 in this Torah Club study, and I encourage you to get a copy and read it for the full details. More than that, Boaz Michael’s recent book, Tent of David: Healing the Vision of the Messianic Gentile, goes into exquisite detail about how James, his proof text, and the subsequent halalaic decision regarding the admission of Gentiles into the discipleship of the Messiah, applies to all Christians today, particularly those of us who are “hebraically-aware” and who find ourselves drawn to a Jewish perspective on the Bible, Messiah, and God.

From Lancaster’s perspective, James delivers a midrash on Amos 9, rather than simply quoting the text, that predicts Messiah rebuilding the fallen Temple in Jerusalem from where he will continue the Davidic dynasty, and where God will once again place His Presence. Once the fallen “sukkah” of David has been re-established, the Gentiles among the nations will seek out God in Jerusalem.

(References are numerous: Isaiah 2:2-3, 25:6, 56:6-7, 60:6-7, 66:23; Jeremiah 3:17; Micah 4:1-2; Zechariah 14:16, and also in many of the Psalms where the nations are called to worship God, according to Lancaster’s notes).

Lancaster further states that James’s words,  “After this,” or “After these things,” (Acts 15:16) utilize a prophetic formula that alludes to various prophesies of the Messianic Age (see Hosea 3:5 and Jeremiah 12:15-16; also Isaiah 45:20-22).

Based on what you’ve read so far, you may be convinced that God indeed allows Gentiles to enter into covenant relationship with Him through Messiah without converting to Judaism (and most Christians believe this), but some may be asking themselves, “What is it here that says the ‘Gentiles who are called by His name’ are not obligated to the same Torah mitzvot as the Jewish awareness-of-goddisciples?” Good question, though keep in mind that Part 1 and Part 2 of this series already established that only born Jews or converts to Judaism have an obligation to the “full yoke of Torah.” Lancaster asks something very similar.

Before proceeding with Lancaster, I should say at this point that we non-Jewish disciples of the Jewish Messiah are not completely “unyoked” from Torah, but rather not “yoked” fully in the manner of the Jews, or as Derek Leman recently said (scroll down to the comments section), The “Father’s instructions” might be different for Jews and non-Jews. Something to consider. Much of what Jesus taught and what is practiced in many churches today comes directly from the Torah, so we are not “lawless.” The law is simply applied differently to us, and I hope to describe that a little better later on in this series. Now, back to Lancaster’s commentary.

How does this passage legitimize the decision of James and the Jerusalem Council? In what way does this passage justify a Gentile exemption from circumcision, conversion to Judaism, and full liability to the laws of the Torah?

To James and the believers in Jerusalem, David’s restored booth represented Yeshua (Jesus), the Davidic king who comes to rebuild the monarchy of Israel. He is the repairer of the broken places, the restorer of the ruins, who will rebuild the house of David and establish the Temple in the Messianic Era. According to the Amos passage, the restored Davidic kingdom will include Gentiles who bear God’s name, i.e., they belong to God.

The God-fearing Gentile believers fit the description: Gentiles from the nations who identified themselves with God’s name and sought after God because of the revelation of the Davidic Messiah. If the apostles required those same Gentiles to become legally Jewish, however, they would cease to be “Gentiles who are called by God’s Name.” They would be Jews. They would fail to fulfill the prophesy because a literal fulfillment of the Amos prophesy requires that both Jews and Gentiles must exist in the Messianic Era.

-ibid, pg 442

If the Council required the Gentiles to all convert to Judaism as a condition of being called by God’s Name, they would all be Jews who are called by God’s Name, not Gentiles. Not only would the Council be frustrating the Amos prophesy, but they would be robbing the Gentiles of their (our) reward and their (our) destiny in the Messianic Age.

Notice there’s still a piece or two missing. The actual decision of the Council and how it was to be expressed (in this case, by writing a letter). But for the sake of space and not requiring you to read a “meditation” that is prohibitively lengthy, I’ll save that for Part 4 of “Return to Jerusalem.”