This is part of a series of blogs on Amy-Jill Levine’s The Misunderstood Jew, just released by Harper San Francisco. Amy-Jill Levine teaches New Testament at Vanderbilt and is an Orthodox Jew, though a progressive and a feminist (how’s that for a contradictory list of identifiers!). My musings on her book may range from using her as a springboard for topics to critiquing her work or allowing her work to critique myself and others.
First, let me say thanks to a reader who encouraged me to be more careful about lumping Christians together when the truth is that many Christians today love Israel and want to have a pro-Israel theology. Please do constructively criticize. It helps me learn.
Second, let me remind you that I am not as thrilled with Levine’s second chapter as I was with her first one. It is rather unimpressive. I hope he won’t mind me quoting him, but Rich Robinson characterized it as: the second chapter seemed too often a breezy rehash of Discovery-Channel caliber about the history of the early church (everyone was apocalyptic; when Jesus didn’t reappear, they adjusted their religion; Paul divided the world into those who believed the right things and those who were damned). There was no real attempt to understand the early church “sympathetically” and no nod to alternative ways to read early church history. Rich has a blog you may want to check out: http://www.jewsforjesus.org/blog/20070119TheMisunderstoodJew. (I think it is important to say that I have some problems with the philosophy and practices of Jews for Jesus, but I respect Rich and many others in the organization as great thinkers).
So, enough of that. Now on to the issue du jour. Levine raises a good issue in her second chapter: how did the Jewish movement called the Way become the Gentile movement known as the church. She has her own answer to the issue called “The Failed Two-Track System.” Here is my summary. If you’re out there, Dr. Levine, I invite you to correct me if I misspeak for you:
1. The original movement was completely Jewish and Torah-Observant. For those not initiated in such discussions, Torah-Observance comes down practically to three practices not found in traditional Christianity: Sabbath observance on Saturday and by Jewish standards, circumcision of sons, and dietary law (no pork, shellfish, etc., and other regulations not found directly in the Bible).
2. Then the mission to the Gentiles developed and many Gentiles became followers of Yeshua.
3. Peter and James devised a plan she calls the Two-Part Track: the Jews would be Torah-Observant and the Gentiles would not, with both groups remaining separate.
4. Paul initially agreed with this approach. He said, “To the Jews I became as a Jew that I might win Jews . . . to those that are without Torah [Law] as without Torah” (1 Cor. 9:20-21). That is, Paul kept Torah when he was with Jews, but enjoyed pork chops and grilled lobster at First Ephesus.
5. Then, more and more, the congregations became mixed groups of Jews and Gentiles.
6. So, in response, Paul’s ecclesiology [theology of how to do church] changed to a one-body-of-Messiah model. That is, there were no longer Jews or Gentiles but all were to be one new man. Practically, this meant no one would be Torah-Observant. In this model, the Jews had to lose their identity for the sake of the Gentiles (the common practice for 2,000 years of Christianity).
7. Paul sought to eliminate Jewish distinction in the congregations and to proclaim a lawless gospel in Christ. Numerous Christian interpreters of Paul use this term, “lawless gospel” or “law-free gospel.”
Now, practically, many Christians would agree with the outcome of Levine’s view but would have problems with such ideas as: (a) Paul had to change his theology as the situation changed and (b) Peter and James believed in Torah-Observance. So here is a similar model that I have heard from many Christian thinkers:
1. Original church was Jewish and kept Jewish customs (same as law, but only did them as a custom).
2. Mission to the Gentiles developed and the church sought answers from God about what to do.
3. Paul, Peter, and James understood that there would be two tracks, one Jewish and one Gentile, but the Torah observance in the Jewish track was merely custom and as a transition (Augustine espoused this view).
4. Paul kept Jewish customs only to win Jews but did not keep the Torah as a matter of principle.
5. The need for Jews and Gentiles to be together in one body meant Jewish customs had to be eliminated or greatly reduced.
I could argue for paragraphs about a lot of details, but I try to keep these posts readable and brief. So let me simply suggest a model I find more compelling:
1. Original movement was Jewish and Torah-Observant.
2. Mission to Gentiles developed and Paul, Peter, and James realized early that Torah-Observance was not required for Gentiles.
3. There were two-tracks in the movement with mixing gradually increasing. The solution was unity in diversity. That is, Jews remained Jews and Gentiles remained Gentiles. The only Jewish customs that had to be forbidden were non-biblical traditions such as forbidding Jews and Gentiles eating at the same table. Sharing a common table, however, in no way meant Jews giving up dietary law.
4. The intention of the apostles was that the movement would continue on two tracks with permeable borders. Gentiles could worship in predominantly Jewish congregations but would have to respect Jewish distinctives. Jews could worship in Gentile congregations (witness John and Paul) but without abandoning Jewish distinctives.
Finally, one little argument: the frequent interpretation of 1 Cor 9:20-22 that Paul was kosher with Jews and a pepperoni-eater with Gentiles is absurd. First, it would be the utmost hypocrisy to keep kosher as a ruse to win Jews. Second, Paul was against inconsistency and opposed Peter in Galatians 2 for that very reason. Third, it is easily possible to understand Paul’s stance on this without resorting to making him a hypocrite. If you wonder how [***warning***commercial plug***], try reading my book, Paul Didn’t Eat Pork, available at hopeofdavid.com.