Recently on my Facebook page, a Hebrew Christian began taking exception to positions I hold while expressing a wide range of views contrary to the kind of Messianic Judaism I favor. I told him I was going to take his objections and statements and respond to them one by one on my blog. This blog post is the first of what will be a considerable series involving lots of work. Still, this series will illustrate the contrast between a certain brand of Messianic Jewish conviction and what I term the Hebrew Christian position.  While Hebrew Christians see the proper home for Jesus believing Jews to be in the Church, Messianic Jews insist on a deeper engagement with Jewish community and therefore form Messianic synagogues and even participate in synagogues in the wider Jewish world. My interlocutor is Mr Koenig.  His comments were part of a Facebook informal discussion, not an article or even a blog, so don’t expect his rhetoric to be polished, which is something he is well capable of under other circumstances.  He imagines that many of my views would be pretty standard for Jewish believers who attend churches, as opposed to messianic congregations, and for evangelical scholars and commentators, and that my view may be common in messianic congregations at this point, but likely would be viewed critically at any evangelical seminary like Dallas or Talbot. I think he is right in his assessment, although there are evangelical scholars whose findings definitely support this Messianic Jewish perspective. 

Let’s begin with one of Mr Koenig’s questions:

Even though Paul took a vow when he was in Jerusalem, do you really think he was living a Torah observant life and submitting himself to the teaching of rabbis who rejected the gospel? Why didn’t he side with Peter on the issue of table fellowship with Gentiles in Antioch?

Let’s break this objection down into a some subsidiary questions:

  1. Did Paul live a Torah observant life?
  2. Did he submit himself to the teaching of rabbis who rejected the gospel?
  3. Why didn’t he side with Peter on the issue of table fellowship with Gentiles in Antioch?
  4. (And therefore implied) Does living a Torah observant life under the general guidance of rabbinic standards mean we must agree on everything they say and not have different standards and opinions on select matters?

Let’s deal with each in turn.

Did Paul live a Torah observant life?

You ask me if  I “really think he was living a Torah observant life?”  What I think, or what I prefer to think is really not the point. The point is, does the text give us adequate reason to believe that this was the case? And the response is, “Absolutely yes!”

The lines of evidence are multiple. In Acts 21:17-26 James urges Paul to demonstrate that he remains Torah observant (v. 24), while parenthetically commenting, “But as for the Gentiles who have believed, we have sent a letter with our judgment that they should abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality” (v. 25). By speaking in this way, he indicates that Gentiles are not expected to adhere to the same Torah standards as Jews, but that Paul, as a Jew, even though he was the Apostle to the Gentiles, was expected to live a Jewish life.

Let’s pause to look at James for just a moment. Richard Bauckham is considered the world’s reigning expert on the family members of Jesus/Yeshua, including James. In his fascinating article, “James at the Centre: A Jerusalem Perspective on the New Testament,” Bauckham says much of crucial import to the kinds of questions you raise. Here is one of those statements, where Bauckham uses the term “Christian Jews” for those Jews who believed in Yeshua:

images-1James did not align himself with those Christian Jews who wished Gentiles to join the church only by becoming Jews and observing the whole of the law of Moses. Like Paul, he saw the messianic people of God as composed of both Jews and Gentiles, Jews as Jews and Gentiles as Gentiles. Like most Christian Jews he took it for granted that Christian Jews remained Jews and continued to observe the Mosaic law, but he did not require Gentile Christians to do so and endorsed even Paul’s Gentile mission. His vision was a thoroughly universalistic vision which naturally required no abandoning of Jewish identity by the Jewish people of God. James’s greatest difference from Paul was simply his position at the heart of the Jewish world, committed to the mission to his own people.

This was the man who required of Paul that he demonstrate that he was a bona fide Jew, that he had not abandoned the agreed upon standard, that Jews who believe in Yeshua should continue to lead Jewish lives. And Paul, who was no wimp, complied. And it will not do to say that Paul was just being a Jew to the Jews. That understanding of his action has been ably demonstrated to be fallacious by  David Rudolph in his award winning dissertation, A Jew to the Jews: Jewish Contours of Pauline Flexibilty in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23. 

And what kind of Jewish life was the Jerusalem community living under the leadership of James? Here they are, some fourteen to twenty-one years after Pentecost, and there are thousands upon thousands of Jewish believers in Yeshua there who are all zealous for the Torah. They are still living Jewish lives. If keeping Torah were simply a matter of, “It’s O.K. if that’s your style, but don’t lay your trip on anyone else,” would there have been such universal zeal for the Torah among the multiple thousands of Jewish believers in this central congregation of the entire movement? As this account shows us, they were still participating in Temple rituals, and most important,  living like the Jews of the surrounding community. From the information we have, James, Yeshua’s brother, was known in his day as “Ya’akov HaTzaddik–James the Just” because of his exemplary Jewish piety, such that the religious community in Jerusalem held him in high esteem. He was the most prominent and influential leader of the early Jewish believers, which is why Paul came up to see him in validating his ministry. This is the James who made that request of Paul, to which he acquiesed as evidence that “there is nothing in what they have been told about you, but that you yourself also live in observance of the law.”  

Again, if the evidence means anything, the answer is another resounding “Yes.”

Did Paul submit himself to the teaching of rabbis who rejected the gospel?

Prominent Messianic Jewish scholar Dr. John Fischer writes extensively about this in his article, “Paul in His Jewish Context.”  From Acts 18:18 and 21:24, 26 we read that Paul continued to observe the traditional customs of taking vows and purification rituals. Acts 20:5-6 has him observing Passover. Verse 16 reports his journey to Jerusalem for Shavuot. Acts 27:9 has him observing Yom Kippur. We have already considered the strong evidence from chapter 21.

In chapter 25, he reports, “Neither against the law of the Jews, nor against the temple . . . have I committed any offense.” (Acts 25:8 ESV) In chapter 28:17 he meets with the leaders of the Jewish community in Rome, ” After three days he called together the local leaders of the Jews, and when they had gathered, he said to them, ‘Brothers, though I had done nothing against our people or the customs of our fathers, yet I was delivered as a prisoner from Jerusalem into the hands of the Romans.'” (Acts 28:17 ESV, emphasis added).  In 23:6 he says that he has lived all his life as a Pharisee, meaning that he led a halachic life!  It can mean nothing else and nothing less. He confirms this to King Agrippa in chapter 26. 

Would he have been invited to speak in a synagogue (see Acts 13:15)  if he didn’t carry the behavioral emblems of halachic piety? And what of 2 Cor 11:24, where we read “from the Jews five times I received forty lashes less one.'”  Richard Longenecker comments, “There is no doubt but that these lashes were received in the synagogue and administered at the hands of the officials of Judaism. Now as a Roman citizen, a Jew could escape the synagogue whippings for . . . misconduct by an appeal to the imperial authorities.” That Paul didn’t do so shows that he still considered himself to be a member of the Jewish community, and subject to its communal discipline. And he went through this five different times. It was clearly a matter of principle for him.

Finally, when Paul stands trial before the High Priest, there is a little detail that demonstrates how seated in normative Jewish life he was, and how the Torah still had a regulatory role in his life, even down to tiny details. This passage is full of indicators of Paul’s Jewish social identity and his adherence to Jewish religious norms:

images-2And looking intently at the council, Paul said, “Brothers, I have lived my life before God in all good conscience up to this day.” And the high priest Ananias commanded those who stood by him to strike him on the mouth. Then Paul said to him, “God is going to strike you, you whitewashed wall! Are you sitting to judge me according to the law, and yet contrary to the law you order me to be struck?” Those who stood by said, “Would you revile God’s high priest?” And Paul said, “I did not know, brothers, that he was the high priest, for it is written, ‘You shall not speak evil of a ruler of your people.’” (Acts 23:1-5 ESV)

Notice he addresses these halachic Jewish leaders as “brothers.” He dares to say that he has not violated his conscience in his life with God. And here Paul quotes from Exodus 22:28, a relatively obscure passage in Torah and, due to his violation of it, admits his culpability. Notice: he shows respect for the fact that the High Priest is “a ruler of his people.” Paul does not display the contempt for Jewish authorities that is so common among too many Hebrew Christians.

All the evidence points to Paul living a thoroughly Jewish life, a halachic life. No other position is supportable, except on the flimsy basis of one’s own presuppositions.

In some of your statements, Mr Koenig, you flee from this kind of narrative evidence and demand that I produce some explcit Pauline teaching on the matter.  Glad to comply!   You, and all, should read David Rudolph’s masterful analysis of Paul’s rule in the churches which is stated here in 1 Corinthians 7:

Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches. Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. Was anyone at the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision. For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God. Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called. (1 Corinthians 7:17-20 ESV)

Here Paul teaches that Jews and non-Jews should adhere to the lifestyles appropriate to their disparate callings: that Jews in Christ should live as Jews, and gentiles as gentiles.  Rudolph comments on this in his artcle, “‘Paul’s Rule in The Churches’ (1 Cor 7:17-24) and Torah-Defined Ecclesiological Variegation:”

When we do not keep Paul’s rule, the church becomes devoid of practicing Jews. Some people are fine with this and say: “in Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile” or “the church is a third race.” But the evidence surveyed in this paper indicates that Paul took great care in his letters to differentiate between Jesus-believing Jews and Gentiles for the purpose of mutual blessing. Moreover, Paul (like the Jerusalem apostles) formulated a universal rule that the circumcised should remain circumcised (i.e. practicing Jews), and that the uncircumcised should remain uncircumcised in keeping with their respective callings from God.

Clearly, Paul lived a Jewish life, identified as bonafide by the Pharisaic people of his day. He expected himself and other Jews to live as Jews, but was adamant that such was not God’s calling for the Gentiles. Hence the argument of Galatians which does not present a wholesale dismissal of halachic living, but rather a dismissal of halachic living as a requirement for Gentiles. Six times in the letter he is explicit that his audience is Gentiles. Some of us have not figured that out yet!

Why didn’t he side with Peter on the issue of table fellowship with Gentiles in Antioch?

The reason Paul didn’t side with Peter was that Peter was violating the meaning of the Good News when he didn’t want to be seen eating with Gentiles. Formerly, Gentiles were categorically pagans, unclean outsiders to God’s people, Israel. But Paul and Peter both knew that God had changed that with the coming of Messiah.

(Implied) Does living a Torah observant life under the general guidance of rabbinic standards mean we must agree on everything and not have different standards and opinions on select matters?

Of course not!  But when you are going to talk about living in Jewish life and community, you must accept that the rabbinic consensus throughout time has shaped what that community looks like and how its members will act. The Torah is best interpreted in concert with the historical stream and transgenerational discussion of that people to whom it was given.  Torah is not something we found in a book which we are then free to interpret however we choose starting today, ignoring the layers of meaning and interpretation interwoven with the text through centuries of devout discussion and contemplation.  Torah is no set of golden tablets found by angelic guidance in a hill near Palmyra, New York, nor, like the Koran, something come down from heaven whole and entire. It is the transgenerational living legacy of a people. Torah embodies Divine instruction about the way of life appropriate to the descendants of Jacob. It was not given to the Jewish people simply as a book to be read, but as a life to be lived and a way of life to be interpreted communally.  To interpret the Torah while isolated or in categorical apposition to the Jewish communal stream and historical discussion seems prideful and naïve once one stands back and considers to whom the Torah was given. We must not miss the nature of mattan Torah—not simply the giving of a book, but the transmission of a mandated way life to a particular transgenerational community.

Some concluding words:

  1. We Jews who serve the King of the Jews should, like the earliest Jewish believers live in identifiably Jewish life in concert with the way of life given to our people. Unitl the 6th century, there were still Jewish communities of believers who lived halachic lives. These communities would never have persisted if the early Church hand not nurtured Jews in Jewish life in the earliest stages of the community’s founding.
  2. Recent books like Paul and the Jewish Law by Peter J. Tomson, and Jewish Law in Gentile Churches by Markus Bockmuehl demonstate that Paul used Jewish halachic processes in outlining norms for living in Gentile churches. It makes no sense at all that even more so, Jews in their own communities would not only be following halachic processes and living by Jewish norms, living a Jewish life. To assume otherwise fails to comport with the text of Scripture. The books by Tomson and Bockmuehl also flesh out the richness of Paul’s own halachically observant identity and his adherence to halachic norms. As Tomson says at the very end of his book, “Paul is not a gentile but a Jew and is not going to change that (1 Cor. 7:18!). And positively he is Law-respecting ‘under the aspect of Christ’: he does not observe the Law as an aim in itself and standing alone but as one among various members of Christ’s body.”  Tomson’s book and Bockmuehl’s  seal the case I am making in this post, and should be read by any with ears to hear, eyes to see, and hearts to know, if they would be open to changing their minds on matters they considered long ago settled.
  3. Finally, when imagining the beginnings of the Yeshua movement one must realize that the earliest churches were like havurot attached to synagogue communties.  One ought not to imagine that any one is postulating that the Jewish believers in the early days separated themselves out of Gentile churches, as if in the beginning there were Gentile churches which were the established institutions. At this earliest stage of the Yeshua movement, Yeshua faith was attached to Jewish communities, and it was Gentiles separating themselvs out from Jews that was more the norm. Paul regards the Jewish people and community to be the foundational people of God. This is why Gentiles were lost because they separated from God’s home base, the commonwealth of Israel, where Jews, including Jewish believers in Yeshua, of course lived as Jews. (For a better feeling for the institutional realities in the earliest years, see Mark Nanos’ The Mystery of Romans).  

It is clear that the Apostle Paul lived a normative Jewish life. And Mr Koenig, so could you–and I believe you should.

Or you can live like a gentile.