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This may sound like a really stupid question, but I cannot tell you how many people over the years have cited one particular text that came from Apostle Paul. This text relates to the believers in Galatia, who thought that, since they now followed the Jewish Christ, it stood to reason that they should not simply be a part of the Jewish coalition (as sojourners with Israel), but that they should also adopt all the ancestral customs of the Jews, that is to go through proselyte conversion. This is what to convert to “Judaism” meant in that time. It is to them, in this nuanced and commonly misunderstood letter that the beloved Apostle wrote: “There is neither Jew nor Greek… in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:28)

We will return to this very important text and of course read in full as we progress, but first I want to provide a little contextual information to lay the foundation for our later discussion.

Important background

Conversions are well attested in the ancient times. However, conversions, as they were practiced then, have little in common with conversions as we understand them today. Unlike in ancient times, “religion” today is seen as a category of its own – so someone can be Irish and Jewish, American and Jewish, Russian and Jewish, and so on. Ancient peoples, however, did not speak of conversion in terms of simply accepting another religion, while remaining culturally unchanged. To them, conversion to Judaism (proselyte or full conversion) meant joining the people of Israel and adopting all of their ancestral customs which permeated every area of life. In other words, conversion to Judaism was a ‘package deal.’ If one converted, he or she was expected to cut ties with their previous culture in every respect – not just to accept a new divinity, but the entire package (God and people). There were also those who thought that it was better to adopt some, but not all ancestral ways of the Israel. Naturally they did modified their behaviour. They did so in such a way that the Jews would not have difficulty to be around them, yet in spite of their love and admiration for the Jews, they for one reason or another chose to stay “as is”.

Galatian Gentile believers in Jewish Christ (the recipients of Paul’s letter) were seriously contemplating conversion to Judaism. They saw nothing wrong with this, after all, Ruth the Moabite’s famous phrase “Your God will be my God, your people will be my people,” was already widely acclaimed. However, this was only one paradigm of legitimate Gentile dedication to Israel’s God. There was another – I call this the “Naaman” paradigm, to distinguish it from the “Ruth” paradigm.

You might recall the story of Naaman’s healing (2 Kings 5), where a kidnapped Israelite slave girl told Naaman’s wife, that her husband’s leprosy could be healed by a prophet who lived in Israel. With the permission of his Aramean king, Naaman went to Samaria in the hope of receiving the blessing of healing. I don’t have the space here to expound this amazing story, suffice it to say that when Naaman finally did receive his healing by washing himself seven times in an Israelite river (in the ancient times rivers were considered by people to be the channels of divine blessings), he proclaimed that “there is no God in all the earth except in Israel.”

Notably, he did not say or do as Ruth did. He returned to his country and his own people and continued to worship Israel’s God, but as Aramean. In contrast to Ruth the Moabite, Naaman’s approach was more along the lines of: “Your God will be my God, but my people will still be my people”. Interestingly, in the end, he receives the greatest blessing of all – the blessing of Shalom – from the prophet of God (2 Kings 5:18-19).

There is no doubt in my mind that the Jewish apostles in Acts 15 (the gathering that is often referred to as the “Jerusalem Council”) thought of Gentiles coming to faith in the Jewish Christ according to the trajectory of Naaman, and not the paradigm of Ruth.

Acts 16:4-5 tells us that the Apostle Shaul Paulos fully endorsed their decision and proclaimed its message with great joy as he travelled from congregation to congregation (both those he planted and those he did not): Full Torah observance (proselyte conversion to Judaism) was unnecessary for any Gentile who joined the Jewish coalition by following the Jewish Christ. They too as the Nations were now first class-citizens in the Kingdom of God.

Did certain cultural modification have to take place? Of course! But the big principle of “no further burden, than the great challenge Gentile followers of the Jewish Christ already had” living in the pagan Roman world, was upheld.

Jews and Greeks in Jewish Christ

Now to return to the text I touched on earlier – Galatians 3:26-29 (especially vs. 28):

26 For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. 27 For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise.

The Apostle Shaul Paulos, addressing Gentile followers of the Jewish Christ, tells them that through faith, they are now counted among the children of God by reason of their submission to the Jewish water-washing ceremony (translated as “baptism”) in the name of Christ Jesus.  Their identity has now been redefined by the Jewish Christ himself (vs. 26-27).  Just a short time earlier, Paul spoke of his own identity in similar terms:

I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me. (Gal. 2:20)

His point is becomes clear once we realize that Paul speaks about himself to get to them – when Jews or non-Jews are found in the Christ, something very important happens. They are now defined not so much by their social location as non-Jews, but by Christ Himself.

It is about here that the traditional Christian theologian may begin to (finally) feel some comfort in my argument, because it may seems to be coming next is that Jewish identity is rendered absolute/outdated/irrelevant when “in Christ”. A person was a Jew, but when he is “in Christ” his social location, in this case as a Jew, becomes of no consequence.

However, I argue the opposite, because the Christ in which, both Jews and non-Jews now find themselves, is in fact a Jewish Christ. He is the Messiah, as Paul sees him, long ago predicted by the Israelite prophets and long awaited by the people of Israel. Whether we refer to him as traditional Christians do today “Christ” or “Messiah” as do many others, it makes no difference at all, both mean one and the same and represent exclusively Jewish/Israelite concept.[2]

Distinction vs. Discrimination

When Galatians 3:28 is quoted, it is usual for only the first part to be emphasized – there is neither Jew (Ἰουδαῖος) nor Greek[3] (Ἕλλην) – to the exclusion of the rest of the verse.[4] The conclusion often drawn from this phrase is that there is no longer any distinction or difference between a Jew and a Greek. But this does not make sense as we continue to read: “there is neither male nor female” in Christ Jesus. Following this logic, if distinction or difference is in view, we can conclude (as some in fact have) that in Christ, same sex marriages are acceptable. The logic fails, however, when the same people who oppose same sex marriage on the grounds that men remain men and women remain women, fail to see that they cannot apply double standards. In other words, if men and women still retain gender differences (as I think they do), then so do Jews and Greeks retain their differences, even in Christ. So what does Paul intend to communicate when he tells Galatians that both Jews and Greeks, if found in Christ, become children of Abraham. Again Mark Nanos is very helpful here. Nanos argues that it is better to see what Paul is writing against as not “distinction/ difference”, but in fact as “discrimination”.

Some of you have rightly noticed that I conveniently left out the phrase “neither slave or free”. It too must be accounted for and brought into this conversation. Paul have not opposed Roman slavery in his writings as such (Eph.6:5), but what he wrote could be viewed as a step towards criticizing slavery one day in the future. To understand this we must not think of Roman slavery in the same way we think of racially based American or European slavery of the recent history. Roman slaves were often rich and had rights in the Roman society. In fact, if private slaves in Roman cities were in view, they were far better off that the free men and women in the same city. Although the system was evil and needed to be abolished, it was not nearly as bad to be a slave in Roman Empire as it was in colonial times of the recent past.

In one of the letters Shaul Paulos co-authored with Timothy, while being in prison, he strongly and passionately petitioned Philemon to forgive and receive back his runaway slave Onesimus back without penalizing him, as if he was receiving Shaul Paulos himself, whom he held in great honour (Letter to Philemon). So we can see here that for Paul distinction between slave and free was still intact even when both were “in Christ”, but that both could not be treating each other the same way as before. “Discrimination in Christ” in slave-owner relationship system had to end right then and there.

In Christ, Jews and Gentiles, become equal partners and members of the same Jewish coalition of the willing, tirelessly working to uphold the kingdom priorities of Israel’s God through their King and His beloved son – Jesus.

My Hesitation

As I begin to write on this topic I am doing so with what is called “fear and trepidation.” The reason being that this is a highly controversial topic, but since I already opened this “Pandora’s box” in my last section, I have no choice but to begin to address this topic in more detail – Is there, or is there not, one Law for everyone? My last paragraph stated the following:

Could it be that Paul envisioned one Torah for Jew and Gentile, but two sets of laws applicable to each group? Could it be that later “Muslims” and “Christians” were generally wrong (that there can be only one law for all people)? Could it be that “Judaism,” though in the minority, was actually right? There was one Torah for both (Jews and Gentiles), but two sets of laws in the Torah, appropriately and respectively applicable to each.

Before I begin, a disclaimer may be in order. I honor and love modern Christ-followers who may hold views with which I will disagree in this article. For me, while this topic is of great importance, love and respect between followers of the Jewish Christ must reign supreme – as one great theologian once said: “If Christians are at war with each other, they must not be at war with the world!” So do continue to consider my writing as a conversation and a continual invitation to think about these important topics, presented only with great respect to all sides involved.

So, without any further chit-chat please allow me to begin.

Torah is and is not law

Before we continue we must define our terminology. I define the Torah as a collection of the first five books in the Jewish and Christian Bibles. Torah, which in Hebrew means something like “instruction” or “teaching,” is a multi-genre work attributed largely to Moses. It contains poetry, stories, prophecies, testimonies, calls to worship, as well as a wide variety of laws.

By the time the Judeo-Greek Septuagint was available (and the translation of Torah was available much earlier than the rest of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament) the Jewish sages residing in Greek-speaking lands began to routinely call the Torah – Nomos, which in Greek basically, though not only, means – the Law. Whether the Greek word chosen best describes what Torah was is still unclear, but the fact of the matter was that the deed was done. Torah in Greek becomes nomos.

We, however, are dealing with this topic today, using modern terminology as we consider our modern conversation about ancient history. Therefore we must be clear that, while the Torah contains the Law/s, it cannot only be equated with law in the modern sense of the word. Torah is both law and so much more.

One Law in Christianity and in Islam

The subject of whether or not the Israelite Torah is applicable to everyone in the same way is actually a direct product of the historic emergence of Christianity in the 3rd -4th centuries and Islam as a self-sufficient and self-contained religious systems in the 6-7th centuries. Only then did both Christians and Muslims, because of the “universal” quality of both these newly established religions, set as a basic principle – “there will be only one rule of faith and practice for every adherent.” This one Law, referred to in Christianity and Islam respectively as Canon Law and Sharia Law, established the very fact that neither Christianity nor Islam were tribal religions. Anyone could become a Christian or a Muslim, while remaining culturally unchanged. The faith did not belong to, nor was it defined by, any one people group as was still the case in Israel – or what we later came to call the Jewish people.

But the faith of Israel at the time of Jesus and Paul was different in this regard: while it accepted converts to itself, it did not, until the Christian era (3-4th century), perceive itself as a separate religion. Being part of Israel certainly had a significant religious component, but it was the “package deal” that the converts accepted and not only the “spiritual and doctrinal norms.” Because Judaism, not as a separate religion but as a Jewish ancestral way of life, predated the formal establishment of both Christianity and Islam by many centuries, it appeared in a different mode all together. Anyone who joined Israel through proselyte conversion or full conversion actually joined “the people of Israel” as such, and did not simply assume the worship of Israel’s God which was the mode of conversion in both Christianity and Islam.

Not One Law in Judaism

Ancient Judaism also accepted people who would come to live among the Jewish people without actually going through the proselyte (full) conversion. It called them “sojourners” with Israel. These were people who, for whatever reason, decided to retain their ethnic and cultural identities but, either by choice or circumstance, found themselves living among Israelites for a prolonged, or even permanent, period of time.  In the time of the Apostle Saul Paul, this Jewish question of how the sojourners with Israel must live among Israelites naturally turned into another unanticipated question. How must the sojourners with Israel live in harmony with the rest of Israel, while also living within the confines of another nation – the Roman Empire? This was precisely the question the “Jerusalem council” asked and answered in Acts 15. Essentially, their response was: “The nations following the Jewish Christ in the Roman Empire must continue as they always were. There is no difference between sojourners with Israel living among Israelites only, or both of them residing in the Roman Empire.”

This is very important because, in Israelite tradition, there was never one law for everyone. Think about it. There was one set of laws that applied to all Israel and another set of laws that applied to the Levites. In other words, there was only one Torah, but separate sets of laws for Levites and other Israelites.

I am arguing here that this exact idea very much defined the Apostle Paul’s mindset regarding these matters. Remember, Paul was not a Christian but, according to his own proud confession, he was a Jewish Pharisee. He was of course a Jewish Pharisee who was called by Messiah Jesus to serve Israel and the Nations in a truly unique way, but he was still a Jew. He therefore thought, not as later Christians would (one law for everyone), but as Jews always had (one Torah, but several sets of laws).

Later Rabbinic Judaism developed this important concept into the idea of the seven Laws of Noah and the “Righteous among the Nations,” who represented the Nations of the world in covenant with the same God prior to the formation of Israel through the covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and their children. Although this brief treatment of the Jewish Paul cannot go into the details of this comparison, suffice it to say that the testimony of Acts 15 provides a window into the development of this Jewish idea. Essentially, the Jerusalem council’s conclusions, as expressed in their letter to Christ-following Gentiles in the Roman Empire, consisted of an earlier Jewish version of what later, because of the development of Rabbinic Judaism, became the Noahite Laws. Remember, the New Testament predates the first Rabbinic Jewish document, the Mishnah by several centuries. The New Testament therefore serves as an earlier historic witness to emerging Jewish Rabbinic ideas and practices.

Ruth vs. Naaman Paradigm

In the Hebrew Bible there are two ways to fully commit to Israel’s God. One is the way of Ruth the Moabite, when she said: “Your people will be my people, your God my God.” The other is the way of Naaman the Aramean, who after being healed in Israel’s river, declared that there is no other God in the world except in Israel. He then took Israel’s soil with him, so that he could worship Israel’s God among his own people. He committed to Israel’s God in a different way than Ruth did. In a sense he said: “Your God will be my God, but my people will still be my people.” Both ways were always honored and accepted in Judaism before Judaism official became a religion (the time of Jesus and Paul) and even after Judaism eventually became an established religion, like Islam and Christianity.

Paul and Judaizing

One of the most confusing and trajectory-setting ideas, and one that is generally misunderstood today in the Christian churches, is the idea of Judaizing. Paul, the Jewish Pharisee who followed Jesus as Christ, clearly thought Judaizing was wrong. Yet, “the devil is in the details” as they say in the West, or “God is in the details” as we prefer to say here in Israel. You see, what Paul meant by Judaizing and what the average Christian today means by Judaizing, are two entirely different things!

In Paul’s time, “Judaizing” was basically a process by which a member of the Nations fully and formally joined the Jewish people through proselyte conversion (this was its expressed and only goal). We are talking here about becoming a Jew – an Israelite in every way. Paul, the Jewish Pharisee understood this kind of “joining” as nothing less than a sabotage of the Shemah and the entire plan of Israel’s God. This explains the Apostle Paul’s sharply polemical language towards those who preached proselyte conversion for the Christ-followers in Galatia.

We are not dealing here with such ideas as Sabbath observance or celebrating the Feasts of Israel. These are Jewish practices that were not considered by Paul to be a proselyte conversion. In fact, these practices were assumed by the “Jerusalem Council” and Apostle Paul alike. While we will deal with the major differences between Paul’s letter to the Romans and the letter he wrote to the Christ-followers in Galatia in a separate section, it is fitting at this point to summarize that Paul’s arguments in his letter to the Romans sought to combat Roman politically expedient, anti-Jewish attitudes already present among early Christ-followers in Rome in the mid first century. Let me just make one important point: Paul did accomplish his goal in Rome through this letter. The message of the letter was so to the point that Ambrosiaster, in his commentary on the book of Romans in the 4th century, wrote the following:

It is established that there were Jews living in Rome in the time of the apostles and that those Jews who had believed passed on to the Romans the tradition that they ought to profess Christ, but keep the law… One ought not to condemn the Romans, but to praise their faith, because without seeing any signs or miracles and without seeing any of the apostles, they nevertheless accepted the faith in Christ, although according to a Jewish rite.[5]

Throughout the first letter of Clement written by the believers in Rome (c.96) to the believers in Corinth, it is astounding to what degree Israelite conceptual language can be seen. Paul, in his Torah-honouring ministry to Israel and the Nations, succeeded in directing the Church in Rome towards a proper relationship with the Nation of Israel, where there was one Torah for everyone but two sets of laws for Israel and for sojourners.

[1] “For Moses from ancient generations has in every city those who preach him, since he is read in the synagogues every Sabbath.”

[2] I use to the phrase the “Jewish Christ” to help the us to get unused to thinking of this false diachodemy “Christ” gentile, “Messiah/Moshiah” Jewish.

[3] The text actually does not talk about Gentiles, but Greeks. While it is probably legitimate to make a connection, but as one reads these ancient letters, this important point should be kept in mind.

[4] Note that the text does not use the word “Gentile” (as does the NIV and several other translations), but instead, “Greek,” making it parallel to Judean.

[5] Mark D. Nanos. The Mystery of Romans: The Jewish Context of Paul’s Letters (Kindle Location 320). Kindle Edition.

 

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11 COMMENTS

  1. Shaul Paulos writes in Romans 1:16 that the gospel is for the Jew first, and also for the Greek/Gentile. Every place he went, he first preached in the synagogues. What !is the basis of your assumption that the letter to the Galatians was directed exclusively to non-Jewish believers in the congregation there? There must also have been Jewish believers in the fellowship. thanks I look forward to hearing your response!

  2. Thank you for your answer! Yet Shaul was called as an emissary to both if God’s word to Ananias is to be believed. Surely there must have been both Jews and gentiles in the congregation at Galatia?

  3. Can you please expand/clarify the following?
    “We are not dealing here with such ideas as Sabbath observance or celebrating the Feasts of Israel. These are Jewish practices that were not considered by Paul to be a proselyte conversion. In fact, these practices were assumed by the “Jerusalem Council” and Apostle Paul alike”

  4. Not sure what they were assuming? You discuss the noahide laws which does not include the sabbath and feasts but also seem to be suggesting that the council assumed that the readers would of course observe sabbath and the feasts?

  5. And “These are Jewish practices that were not considered by Paul to be a proselyte conversion.”: meaning a gentile in that time observing these as a sojourner would not be frowned upon? It seems that there is some sensitivity today toward gentiles observing “jewish practices” as appropriation… Thoughts?

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