We have been responding to the perspective outlined by the writers of The Torah’s Goal? (TTG), a group of leaders at Israel College of the Bible, who would have us believe that the Jewish way of life, as reflected in the observance of the mitzvot of Torah, became obsolete and purely optional after the New Covenant was inaugurated, that is, with the death, resurrection and ascension of Yeshua the Messiah. Further, they deny the legitimacy of the ways in which that pattern of obedience was shaped and mediated to Israel by the discussions of the rabbis. In other words, they reject the authority of the normative patterns of Jewish custom.
Because they call their book The Torah’s Goal? , I call this series “The Torah’s Goalkeeper,” becuse I hold that Yshua, the Goalkeeper, wants to keep people from scoring points against normative Jewish life and a life of Torah faithfulness. And so we continue!
In our previous posts I have been showing how this perspective is difficult to square with the teachings of Yeshua, and with the example and teachings of the Apostles Peter and Paul. Today we move on to a third Apostle, the most prominent of them all.
James, really Ya’akov, was the great Messianic Mashgiach, the “Inspector General” of the first century Yeshua movement. Ya’akov was one of Yeshua’s four brothers together with Shimon, Yehudah, and Yosef. They also had sisters, but how many and their names, we do not know. You may remember from 1 Cor 13 that Yeshua made a special post-resurrection appearance to Ya’akov—Perhaps Ya’akov influenced the other brothers to believe that Yeshua was indeed Messiah, Although the gospels record the brothers as seriously cynical about Yeshua before the resurrection, after Yeshua’s post-resurrection appearance to James, the other brothers travelled in service to Messiah, while James led the home congregation of the entire movement, in Jerusalem.
Ya’akov was the most influential Jewish believer in Yeshua of the FIrst Century, and the only one named in secular history—known as “Ya’akov ha-Tzaddik”—James the Just. He had a great reputation for piety among the Jewish people. Yet, he was stoned to death, probably for blasphemy.
Richard Bauckham is considered the world’s premier expert on Ya’akov and on Yeshua’s family. He holds that Ya’akov was the author of the document we know as the Letter of James, and that he was a messianic wisdom teacher who made the eschatological wisdom of Yeshua his own and applied it to the resources of Jewish wisdom tradition. The wisdom tradition is one in which the writer positions himself as a sage informing the community of how life works. Proverbs is a wisdom book, as is Ecclesiastes. And so is the Letter of James, and Pirkei Avot from the Mishna.
Comparing the letter to the synoptic gospels, we will find features of comparison between the teachings of Ya’akov and Yeshua:
(a) The focus on the Torah’s concern for ethics and the heart as the source of words and actions (Jas. 1:22-25; 3:6-8; 4:11-12);
(b) A standard of community living in which solidarity with the poor replaces hierarchy and status (Jas. 1:9-10; 2:1-7);
(c) God’s eschatological judgment as the overriding motivation for righteous living, with punishment especially threatening the wealthy (Jas. 5:1-5) — but no less a reality for everyone else (Jas. 2:13; 3:1, 4:12, 5:8-9), as is the prospect of reward (Jas. 1:12, 3:18);
(d) The concern for “Israel as a light to the nations”, whereby Yeshua brought the Kingdom to Israel, and now James addresses Jewish communities in the diaspora (Jas. 1:1) as the nucleus of the ongoing messianic movement which must serve as a beacon to the Gentiles.
Clearly, this letter is a very Jewish document, from the leader of the home congregation of Jewish believers in Yeshua which consisted of thousands upon thousands of Jews all zealous for Torah! This was a VERY Jewish movement and a very Jewish Apostle!
What Should Messianic Jews Imitate From Ya’akov’s Context and Leadership?
- Our congregations and their members should lives respected by the surrounding Jewish community. This was certainly true in Ya’akov’s case. People were so impressed with the congregation that they had an approach avoidance conflict. They wanted to join, but they were afraid of the manifest power of God they saw evident in the community.
- Our congregations should live lives responsive to Torah and Mitzvot. This was the way it was for Ya’akov. He took for granted that the mitzvot were to be observed by Messianic Jews.
- Mitzvot bein adam l’chavero—Ya’akov 4:11—Commandments applying to relationships between people, and therefore deeply ethical—rich relationships in which the imperative to love our neighbor as ourself is disciplined and instructed by the guidance of Torah.
- Mitzvot bein adam la-Makom, Acts 21:20-25 — Commandment governing our relationship with God. Ya’akov’s congregation was very naturally integrated with Jewish ritual life. This is why can read this:
And they said to him (Paul), “You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed. They are all zealous for the law, and they have been told about you that you teach all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or walk according to our customs. What then is to be done? They will certainly hear that you have come. Do therefore what we tell you. We have four men who are under a vow; take these men and purify yourself along with them and pay their expenses, so that they may shave their heads. Thus all will know that there is nothing in what they have been told about you, but that you yourself also live in observance of the law. (Acts 21:20-24 ESV)
There is much to note here, but for now note expecially the matter of fact way in which Ya’akov and the other leaders in Jerusalem say that they have four men in their community who are under a vow, who are going up to the Temple to end the vow, who Paul is being asked to accompany, paying for their expenses that “all will know . . . that you yourself also live in observance of the law.”
Ya’akov was a Torah observant Jew, living in the context of Jewish tradition, these fourteen to twenty-one years after Pentecost, the dating of this incident. Not only that, he expected other Jews to live that way, even the Apostle to the Gentiles!
Assessing the example of Ya’akov and his congregation
As far as we can tell, the vast majority of Jewish Christians in the NT period continued to observe the whole law, taking for granted that they were still obligated to do so” [Richard Bauckham, James].
- If we follow Ya’akov’s example, our best leaders will develop halakha to address new community concerns—yet based on honored precedent. This is what Ya’akov and the others do when confronted in Acts 15 with the issue of whether Gentiles must be circumcised and keep Torah. And by the way, that discussion is most interesting, because the Jerusalem believers never would have discussed this issue unless it was assumed that Jews must circumcise their children and keep Torah. If the Jews had forsaken this, there would have been no question as to whether Gentiles needed to!
- If we learn from Ya’akov’s example our congregations will deeply honor Yeshua as Messiah and Coming Judge. Ya’akov spoke of patiently awaiting the Lord’s return, of the Judge who is standing at the door. This was his brother, but he knew who he was, and knew himself to be accountable to him. We should too.
- If we are following Ya’akov’s example, our congregations will experience the power of the Spirit in the context of proper order—Ya’akov 5:14-18.
- And finally, if we learn as we should from Yaa’akov, our congregations will see substantial numbers of Jews attracted to our congregations, to the lives we live, and to the Messiah whom we serve.
To be sure, we have much to learn from Ya’akov, a very Jewish Apostle of a very Jewish Messianic Judaism! This Jerusalem Messianic Congregational Community under Ya’akov’s leadership was not, as is often supposed on the basis of outmoded scholarship, progressively marginalized as the Gentile mission developed in opposition to its allegedly conservative Jewish stance. On the contrary, the Jerusalem Messianic Congregational community remained central. For Messianic Jews, for the budding Church among the Gentiles, as for the Jewish community at large, it was axiomatic that the word of the Lord should go forth from Jerusalem.