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:
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.