Original post at https://milewis.wordpress.com/2015/01/17/gospel-relevance-gentiles/
How did the the early church integrate non-Jewish adherents into the Jewish sect that eventually came to be called Christianity? The answer depends on whether you are speaking about circumcision, ethics or the language of faith.
Circumcision: Were non-Jewish converts required to convert to Judaism, undergo circumcision (the males) and take upon themselves the yoke of the Law, the 613 commandments (as later rabbis counted them) that went with being a Jew?
- The answer that clearly emerged within biblical Christianity was “no.”
Ethics: Were non-Jewish converts expected to live in accordance with ethical principles commonly accepted within the Jewish community as applicable to all humankind?
- Yes, but there was fuzziness around the edges of how to apply those principles.
Biblical Language and Story: Were non-Jewish converts expected to identify themselves with the story of God’s dealings with his chosen people as recorded the Law and the Prophets? Did Christians from gentile backgrounds have to learn about Abraham and the covenants, Moses and the Exodus, Joshua and the conquest, David and the kingdom, the priesthood and the temple, and the prophets who spoke in God’s name?
- None of the New Testament writings makes any sense apart from the great story of the Old Testament.
Paul and Circumcision
When the Apostle Paul carried the gospel of the Jewish messiah to the gentiles of the Roman Empire, he did not require non-Jewish Christians also to convert to Judaism. In fact, he did just the opposite. He taught that gentile Christians should not take on the yoke of the law through circumcision; through their union with Jesus Christ, they were already part of the one, eschatological people of God.
The thinking of Paul’s opponents was simple: Jesus came to bring the story of Israel to its completion and to save God’s chosen people. To participate in God’s saving work in Jesus, one must be a member of the people of God, the family of Abraham, the congregation of Moses and the kingdom of David. That is, in first century terms, one must be a Jew, an heir of the promise. If you were a gentile who believed in Jesus, you should join the family that Jesus came to save. And the way to do that was to be circumcised and take upon yourself the burden of living in accordance with the Law of Moses.
Paul believed, however, that by faith in Jesus Christ, believing gentiles had already been grafted into Israel. By faith, they were already Abraham’s seed. Thus, gentiles need not be circumcised into the covenant that God made with Moses or live within its boundaries. To seek a place in God’s kingdom through circumcision was to underestimate the superior work of Christ. Circumcision yoked one to the 613 mitzvot of the Law of Moses. Baptism united one to Jesus, the crucified and risen messiah. The Law – with its rituals, manners and boundary markers – was a waypoint on the path to something greater. For those who belonged to Christ, to take upon oneself the yoke of the law was a step backward, not a step forward.
The Jerusalem Council, the Diaspora and Righteous Gentiles
In Acts 15, Luke describes how, at Paul’s urging, the so-called Jerusalem council imposed only a minimal set of expectations on the emerging gentile Christian community.
For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell. Acts 15:28-29
In some ways, this concession to God-fearing gentiles was nothing new for Judaism. Among the congregants in Diaspora synagogues were so-called “God fearers,” gentiles who esteemed the God of Israel, participated in congregational life and lived virtuous lives. Gentiles who aligned themselves with the God and people of Israel were “resident aliens,” the same phrase that the Bible uses for foreigners who lived in the land of Israel and who were afforded certain rights in the Law of Moses. Even thought many of these God-fearers never converted to Judaism by undergoing Jewish proselyte baptism and (for males) circumcision, they were nonetheless regarded as “righteous gentiles” who might inherit the age to come.
The Talmud would later codify seven Laws of Noah that righteous gentiles were expected to follow.
- No idolatry
- No murder
- No theft
- No forbidden sexual relations
- No blasphemy
- No eating the flesh of an animal while it is still alive
- Have a just set of laws and courts
The Noahide Code sound suspiciously like the list of ethical requirements laid down in Acts 15, and apart from the portions relating to the flesh of strangled or maimed animals, you can see echoes of both throughout the New Testament.
In any case, Paul’s doctrine eventually the majority position in the church. None of the New Testament documents give any hint that gentile converts must convert to Judaism, submit to circumcision or live in accordance with the ritual requirements of the Mosaic Law. There is plenty of evidence, however, that gentile converts were expected to live within the moral code that Judaism envisioned as applicable to the entire world.
Was Paul’s Gospel Relevant to Gentiles?
One of the first exegetical tasks I was ever assigned was an interpretation of Romans 1:3-4. Here is that passage in context.
Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations, including you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ. Romans 1:1-6
I wrote thousands of words on grammar, language, social context, literary allusions, and so forth, but I missed the forest for the trees. Paul begins Romans by setting the gospel within the context of salvation history. God promised it beforehand through the prophets. It is about his son who was descended from David. It is about Jesus, Jewish messiah who rose from the dead. This was the gospel that he preached among the nations! The Second Letter to Timothy captures this exact framework in a single sentence.
Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, descended from David. This is my gospel. 2 Timothy 2:8
The gentiles might be familiar with myths about descending and ascending redeemers, divine men, and the like, but what did they know about David, the prophets or the Jewish messiah? Why would they care? This question bears some weight today, as well. Why should modern, secular people care about these things, either?
I frequently read arguments that go something like this. Christians use religious language and ideas that non-believers don’t know anything about. The world is no longer steeped in biblical imagery or doctrinal language. We need to follow the example of the New Testament, we are told. Just as you didn’t have to become a Jew to become a Christian, we shouldn’t impose the “foreign language” of the Bible on new Christians or potential converts today. We need to be more relevant.
I’m not convinced. The church of the New Testament era did not make its gentile members convert to Judaism, but neither did it shrink back the great story of God’s salvation in the Jewish scriptures. In its art, teaching and liturgy, the early church immersed its gentile converts in the idiom of the Old Testament. To become a Christian was, at least in part, to learn the language of Zion. Christian identity was, and is, inseparably bound to the whole work of God that began with our ancestor Abraham.