Torah, Israel, and the Nations: Part 6

Thus far in this series, we’ve addressed evidence in the Torah that not all Torah commands apply directly to non-Jews. This is the official position of Judaism and the emerging position of Messianic Judaism.

As has been observed in comments in this thread, One Law and Torah Revival folks do an end-run around the Torah’s distinction between Jew and Gentile by making claims like the following: “Faith in Yeshua makes a non-Jew part of Israel.”

This is an interesting twist. It is a theology born of desire to justify a confused identity. It is a theology of folks who have fallen in love with Torah and a Jewish lifestyle and wish to make it theologically true. As I have argued, there are good reasons for some non-Jews to convert, to join with Israel. But conversion should be about joining a people, not merely love for commands and customs.

This is also an interesting twist because it compares to the common Christian misunderstanding that “faith in Jesus makes Jewish identity of lesser importance and perhaps of no importance at all.”

Compare A and B:
A. Faith in Yeshua makes a non-Jew part of Israel.
B. Faith in Jesus makes Jewish identity of little or no importance.

Notice what they have in common: they erode the meaning of Jewish identity, of the special peoplehood of the descendants of Jacob. The One Law folks have a strange companionship with supersessionist Christianity.

Now, one of the most important ways to discredit the One Law position is with sound exegesis of Acts 15.

Rather than addressing Acts 15 in detail, I am going to assume that my readers have some familiarity with it already. If you don’t, stop and go read Acts 15 before continuing.

If you want to spend a bit more time on the subject, I recommend you go back and read some earlier posts with rather detailed notes on Acts 15:
https://derek4messiah.wordpress.com/2007/08/15/some-notes-on-acts-15/
https://derek4messiah.wordpress.com/2007/08/17/some-notes-on-acts-15-pt-2/
https://derek4messiah.wordpress.com/2007/08/20/some-notes-on-acts-15-pt-3/

In this article, I want to succinctly get to the logic of Acts 15. I want to consider three basic positions on the chapter. There are two at the extremes and one at the center. Let’s call them SUPERSESSIONIST, ONE-LAW, and, well . . . THE RIGHT INTERPRETATION.

I know, it’s arrogant. But even so, I might be right. Hear me out.

Supersessionism, for new readers to this blog, is the traditional Christian understanding that Christian identity replaces or renders insignificant Jewish identity. It is also called Replacement Theology. It is the notion that God intended the Church to replace Israel as his people. Supersessionism can be blatant or subtle. It is always anti-Biblical and wrong.

The SUPERSESSIONIST view of Acts 15 involves a simple, unproven assumption: when the apostles declared that Torah is not placed on the non-Jew, it is also an indication that Torah is no longer an expectation on a Jewish believer.

To some degree, we can cut the SUPERSESSIONIST position a little slack when we realize that the New Testament largely assumes rather than spells out a continuing Jewish obligation to Torah. Of course, the New Testament has strong, pro-Torah parts, like Matthew 5:17-20 and Acts 21:17-24. Yet the New Testament is largely Paul’s letters to non-Jewish congregations and often makes the point that the Torah is not a system of salvation or a way of life for non-Jews.

The problem with interpreting Acts 15 in this SUPERSESSIONIST manner is simple: Acts 15 says Torah and circumcision should not be laid on non-Jews. To go beyond that message and assume the same is true for Jews is just that, an unfounded assumption. In fact, if the message of Acts 15 is “we should lay no further burden on the Gentiles,” it is a nonsensical step to assume they meant, “on the Jews” also. If they had meant that, they would have said it.

The ONE-LAW interpretation of Acts 15 is equally strange and untenable. It hangs on Acts 15:21, “For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues.” The ONE-LAW position goes something like this:
1. Some Pharisees wanted to make conversion to Judaism a requirement for salvation and joining the Yeshua-movement.
2. Paul, Peter, and James opposed this move, knowing that no one can take on Torah suddenly from a pagan background and also knowing that Torah, not Jewish identity, was God’s way for his people.
3. Thus, James advocated weaning non-Jews slowly into Torah, starting with the four requirements listed and then allowing them to learn and adopt the rest in the synagogues.

Let me rephrase this in a simpler fashion. The ONE-LAW position is that Acts 15 is not separating Gentiles from a Torah requirement at all. It is simply indicating that they must take on Torah slowly through synagogue education.

The response to the ONE-LAW interpretation is simple. It is a move of desperation and I can hardly believe anyone truly believes it without some hint of self-doubt. It is the kind of move a person makes when they do not accept the teaching of a passage and are looking for a way out. Acts 15:21 is seen as a way out of an unpleasant reality. Here are reasons why the ONE-LAW interpretation lacks credibility:
1. If 15:21 were not allowed to trump the meaning of 15:1-20, then we would have to say the clear message of the chapter is TORAH IS NOT REQUIRED FOR NON-JEWS.
2. This message is consistent with the Torah, which indicates that identity markers like Sabbath, circumcision, and dietary law are strictly for Israel. It’s good when the Bible is consistent.
3. The ONE-LAW interpretation of Acts 15:21 completely ignores the sense of the verse.

The point of Acts 15:21 is something from the past, not about the future. That is, James did not say “for the Torah WILL BE taught” but “for Moses HAS BEEN preached.” James is not looking for a solution to the problem of moving Gentiles out of paganism and into a Torah lifestyle. He is saying something about how the current situation has come about.

Now, the reason Acts 15:21 is confusing is that it is a subtle point. James was a man of great Torah learning. He held his own with the sages of the day. If you study rabbinic sayings, you will find they are often subtle.

James’ point can be understood as follows, and this interpretation is consistent with Acts 15:1-20 and with Torah. That makes it a good bet. James’ point was this:
1. Some think the way we are going to bring the nations into Yeshua is by converting them to Judaism.
2. Yeshua commanded us to bring the nations in.
3. Yet, Moses HAS BEEN preached for a long time and the results have not been revolutionary. Look how few have converted.
4. This cannot be what Yeshua meant us to do. He meant that non-Jews would be accepted as non-Jews, just as verses like Amos 9:12 foretold.

Acts 15 is not about slowly weaning Gentiles into a life of circumcision, Sabbath observance, and dietary law. Acts 15 is not about Gentiles living like Jews. Neither is it about Jews living like Gentiles. It is about distinction and mutual blessing, Jew and Gentile living in unity but with differing communal obligations. It is about the Jewish mission of Peter and the Gentile mission of Paul and the fact that they have different parameters.

About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
This entry was posted in Gentiles, Judaism, Messianic Jewish, Theology, Torah. Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Torah, Israel, and the Nations: Part 6

  1. Derek: Please explain Romans 11 if it doesn’t mean faith in Messiah grafts you into Israel.

    You also demonstrate a gross misunderstanding of the One Law position (at least, my One Law position) when you state:

    > Acts 15 is not about slowly weaning Gentiles into a
    > life of circumcision, Sabbath observance, and dietary
    > law.

    This first item in your list shows your prejudices and misconceptions. This is not about circumcision. There are plenty of reasons NOT to circumcise adults, which are laid out nicely in the Apostolic Writings. Their kids, though, their sons, when they are born, is another issue.

    But what you don’t answer is, other than being “Jewish,” what is wrong with non-Jews keeping the Sabbath and the dietary commandments? Aren’t they part of God’s People now? Aren’t the dietary commandments healthier? Isn’t taking the Sabbath off to rest and worship a mitzvah? Aren’t they BETTER OFF keeping God’s Commandments? Why should we deny them?

  2. Gene Shlomovich says:

    Adam…

    You said: “There are plenty of reasons NOT to circumcise adults, which are laid out nicely in the Apostolic Writings. Their kids, though, their sons, when they are born, is another issue.”

    What?????????? How on earth did you come up with that kind of reasoning? Did Paul, when warning Gentile believers not to get circumcised, separate them into adults and children? Where is the exception clause for the children of Gentiles? Talk about an argument out of silence. I am sorry, Adam, but I think that illustrates nicely the One-Law folk mentality.

    You said: “But what you don’t answer is, other than being “Jewish,” what is wrong with non-Jews keeping the Sabbath and the dietary commandments? Aren’t they part of God’s People now? Aren’t the dietary commandments healthier? Isn’t taking the Sabbath off to rest and worship a mitzvah? Aren’t they BETTER OFF keeping God’s Commandments? Why should we deny them?”

    One-Law folks can do whatever they wish to do – there are plenty of cults and movements that “play Jews” already. Their intentions would be judged by the Almighty. But please, do not call yourselves Israelites (including some who outright call themselves Hebrews/Jews)! As Derek succinctly explained before, the dietary commandments were not issued for health reasons.

    Also, Adam – why does your congregation’s statement of beliefs refers to Jacob as the spiritual father of Gentile believers? Where does the Bible allude to that? I know only of Abraham who is the spiritual father of many nations. I am not sure if it’s an outright plain-sight twisting of truth, or just a heartfelt desire to see things differently than what they really are.

    Gene

  3. B Z says:

    A question if I may. Derek, you state that the meaning of Acts 15 is “TORAH IS NOT REQUIRED FOR NON-JEWS,” which I am guessing means that it is required for Jews. My question is what does require actually mean? Does it mean that a Messianic Jew is not saved if they do not keep the Torah? I am guessing you would not subscribe to that, but I am confused as to how something required plays out here with a salvation that is based upon faith and faith alone and not by any works. I would appreciate an explanation of this if you can.

    Thanks,
    B”H

  4. Nathan says:

    B-Z.. I went through a period where I couldn’t understand this. A few thoughts…. Maybe It’s like if your spouse were to have a birthday. You’re marriage is not based on whether you take her out for dinner, but you might be obligated none the less….

    I think most every believer doesn’t have a problem with following commandments Yeshua emphasized, in for example, the sermon on the mount, not in order to be saved, but as an out-pouring, or reaction to “being saved.” Or As I’ve heard it from a Calvinist, the life described in the sermon on the mount is what flows from the repented heart, that yeshua previously asks for. If you see a fellow believer sleeping with his neighbor’s wife, you’d probably say. “You really shouldn’t be doing that….Not if you really loved the Lord…”

    So as a Jew, it is the same cocnept. I am not saved or justified by anything that I could possibly do or not do. That’s what legalism is. In fact I can’t even keep most of the teachings in the sermon on the mount, let alone really keep Torah!!

    Once I got really mad at God for asking me to accept the convent of circumcision, because he was asking me to keep a law that I couldn’t possibly keep!
    But then I realized- Yeshua is the living Torah, the living Law. Therefore, in Him, I am not “UNDER the law,” “I’m IN the law.” Does that mean I no longer follow the law? Paul is so fond of saying time after time in Romans, “by no means! Rather uphold the law even more so!” It becomes an opportunity. An opportunity not in the law itself, but in doing what God wants me to do. (So for the gentile, the opportunity might actually be to NOT follow Israel’s law, in order to love his jewish brother and help him to exist as a jew amongst his people.)

    After all, Abraham was justified by faith, before circumcision, as Hebrews tells us. And he still was circumcised and then followed God’s command to sacrifice his son!
    That’s my understanding. Hope that helps a bit.
    Love in Messiah,
    Nathan

  5. Nathan says:

    I remember reading an interesting interpretation of Acts 15:21 that Rabbi Mark Kinzer seems to hint at in PMMJ. (158)

    Here If I’m understanding it rightly, Peter has just given his testimony of divine experience and intervention, citing his vision and experiences with gentiles receiving the holy spirit as gentiles, rather then a result of becoming Jews. James then, who seems to have the deciding voice and perhaps sensing that a decision needs to be made on something more then just personal experience, draws on evidence from the scripture. He quotes Amos 9:12. Then in verse 21 he gives credibility to this scriptural evidence, by saying “For Moses has been preached in every city…” Indicating that the scriptures are the ultimate and time honored authority.

    I personally like this interpretation. Rabbi Derek’s is also a good one. Regardless it is another way in which this verse supports a bilateral Ekklesia of Jew and Gentile, identified practically by observance and practice of Israel’s Torah.
    Blessings,
    nathan

  6. Marc says:

    Derek your exegesis does make sense to be honest. But why negate the fact that in the Millenial Kingdom those that keep the Sabbath will be blessed(unquote). It doesn’t pertain only to Israel but ALL people and nations who keep the Sabbath(unquote).

    I think that this needs to be addressed that in the Millenial Kingdom. Although yet future. Because the people that are One Law say since we will be blessed in the Millenial for keeping the Sabbath, why wait? We are living as Kingdom people right now, which is a good argument.

    So let’s address the prophesies about people and nations about keeping the Torah in the Millenial because you have to admit it makes sense to be living as Kingdom people.

    Marc

  7. Jon Olson says:

    Rabbinic response to Noachides can be a resource for drawing parameters for Gentile observance of the Sabbath within Messianic Judaism. See Yoel Schwartz, The Noahide Commandments, Chapter 1. http://www.geocities.com/Rachav/Chapter1_Rav_Schwartz.htm?20067.

    Rabbi Schwartz writes that “There is room to suggest that the Noahides, even nowadays, by accepting to fulfill the seven commandments, are in the same category as a Ger Toshav and should, according to Rashi, be required or at least allowed to keep the Sabbath.” Rabbi Schwartz gives practical advice for Gentiles to celebrate and rest, but in a manner slightly different from observant Jews.

    Jon Olson

  8. Shalom Bayit says:

    Jon

    I dont know about MJ “rabbis” but I for one would hold that a real rabbi like R. Schwartz knows more than a simple Jew about such matters. I see he mentions Tefillin and Mezuzah but not Tallit? Why?

  9. Jon Olson says:

    The simplest explanation is that Rav Schwartz (or the source he depends upon) was giving representative examples, not an exaustive list. It’s conceivable to me that there are specific words in Scripture in relation to the examples given, but not for tallit, e.g. one is prohhibited d’oraita (from the Torah) while the other is a rabbinic fence. In truth, I don’t know.

    An interesting comparison is the Reform responsa available from the Central Conference of American Rabbis. CCAR Responsa 5765.5, “May a Non-Jew Wear a Talit?” There was a preexisting responsa from Solomon Freehof to allow it for a non-Jewish clergy in an ecumenical service, and another responsa from Walter Jacobs not to allow it. The teshuvah endorsed Jacob’s position, arguing that the talit is a declaration that one is a Jew, and that Israel is sanctified through the mitzvot. I am not well acquainted with Reform thought and was surprised at how easily the responsa invoked traditional sources and concepts. I don’t understand the Reform logic. What goes on in individual synagogues is of course, not bound by CCAR responsa.

  10. michael says:

    Derek,
    I’ve read more of your postings and have a greater understanding of your view and it is refreashing. The whole thing of acts 15 seems to me to be; “what G-d calls delivered, is G-ds job to do, and not ours lest we (:10) put G-d to the test.
    I must say i do see room for both interpretations, because who can say “I know what james was thinking for sure!”. Could I take you thought further to say?… 15:21 james saying, “yeah, I agree with peter the yoke is too hard to bear, even our forfathers couldn’t bear it, besides they’ve been hearing from ‘ones proclaiming moses’ from former generations, till now in the synagogues, they’ve had enough ostrasizing.
    I can also see the possibility of James and peter in agreement, that they should do something about this “removing of obstacles”, and that the same “removing of obsticles” should be done in favor of Jewish people and, “we should tell them something as not to rock the boat. Keep doing what your doing. However, what ‘bible’ should these gentiles read ? What identity should they find in the Torah? I must confess I find it dissapointing, in that, if I accept your ‘balencing of the force” non jewish believers will not be enjoying ALL the beauties of torah observance.
    I wonder if it is possible for you to be ,(like so many of the ‘one law’ folks), giving too much creed to what the rabbis say.
    I wanna say your on to something calling out “hypocricy and wanna be jews”, but the holy One has given a tree of life, in exchange for the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and Yeshua IS Torah (the memra). Israel is not an ethnic identity the debates over paternal or maternal descenion speak for themselves. His Identity was Jacob.

    I Quote from mark D. nanos in “THe mystery of romans”:ch4 p166 …in the Jewish communitie(s), for even though the Christian “righteous gentiles” did not become Jews and thus were not part of Israel, they were part of the promises of God to restore Israel (15:16) and gather in the nations as equals…..Never the less the councel’s decision was that G-d had shown gentiles to be equals in view of their equal reciept of the holy spirit through faith in Christ Jesus(15:8-11,19) in fulfillment of the eschatological promises that were expected to follow from the restoration of Israel(15:13) James regaurds the gentile salvation by grace through faitha witness that Israel has been restored and thus G-d is now “taking from among the gentiles a people for His name”

    I’m really tired and have to get up, early, but if anyones still reading I would aldo throw out there that the 7 noahide Commandments outlined in the mishnah are dated aprox 150 years later. Also the exclusion of things from the councesls letter, like “Keep the sabbath” could point to the fact that they were already keeping shabbat.

    another “Also”: The word used for “jewish preaching” kerusso could suggest Jewish preaching to gentiles rather than the regular reading and exposition of the law for jews.

    Also the comment someone made about, Deu 14:21 Ye shall not eat of any thing that dieth of itself: thou shalt give it unto the stranger that is in thy gates, that he may eat it; or thou mayest sell it unto an alien: for thou art a holy people unto the LORD thy God. This is a real stretch as the term “stranger in the gate” does not excusively aply to the “god fearer or righteous gentile” This could in fact be a way to make money off the unrighteous ones!?

    The apostolic writings as a whole point to the fact the age has dawned.

    My Question to your conscience (not your rebbe) does a gentile have to be to be an Israelyte/Jew to osberve the Torah?

  11. michael says:

    I should ask for mercy this is my first time “blogging”

    I guess i failed to include (in my tired state) that like paul i tend to side with ” not all Israel are like these Israel” Seeing A national ethnic Israel and a remnant restored Israel.

  12. sunnyvj65 says:

    You know I’ve been pondering this whole thing. Jew versus gentile, who follows Torah etc. One day, as I was getting myself a glass of watch, pondering this, I heard the Lord say “What is a Jew?” Instantly, my mind went back to my studies and the books I have been reading. If I am correct…..Abraham was not a Jew. Period. He was a gentile. The word Hebrew is not a race per say. I is a term for someone who “crosses over a river” Like a person from U.S. moves to France, for example. We’d still be Americans. HaShem MADE

  13. sunnyvj65 says:

    oops, sorry. Computer glitz. Anyway, HaShem made Israel for a reason. Why? So that they would be a holy priesthood, a light to the other nations. They would lift up His name to the pagen nations. They would draw other’s to God, like a light bulb draws moths. This isn’t a members only club, people!
    If you read the Torah, it talks about the stranger in your gates who doesn’t want to be part of Israel and their God, then there is the Gentile stranger who moves in their gates, who wants to be part of Israel and their God. There is no conversion ceremony, just start walking Torah. The word Proselyte isn’t even a word. It was made up to make a distinction between gentile (stranger) within your gates who doesn’t want to be apart and the gentile (stranger) who does. It also keeps Israel from being over run my gentiles and keeps the genealogy safe and pure, but it that a God thing or a man thing? I too feel proud of my heritage and that I’m a pure blood levite from Itamar, but is that what God wants from us? Is this the only reason the Rabbi’s came up with this, to protect racial purity?
    Viola

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