Quick Conversation on Acts 15:21

My “Daily D’var” commentary today covered Acts 15:1-21. As most of you know this is a crux passage for Messianic Jews, Messianic gentiles, Judeo-Christians, and in general for the issue of roles of Jews and gentiles in Messiah and with relation to Torah.

As you probably also know, there is a One-Law reading of Acts 15:21, a reading which seeks to cleverly use this verse to reverse the meaning of the whole chapter. One-Law is a movement which claims that all followers of Jesus are bound by the law in the same way as Jews and it is a popular and misguided reading. One-Law rightly rejects the anti-Torah reading that is standard in Christianity. Yet it naively and harmfully neglects the distinction between Jewish and gentile relation to Torah.

In the conversation which follows I explain to a commenter why reading Acts 15:21 as a “secret key” to overturning the meaning of the entire chapter of Acts 15 just will not work.

A commenter sent me this by email:

Moses, synagogue, Shabbat -in other words, the remaining instructions will be obeyed/walked out as are discovered/made known.

I responded:
I strongly disagree with this interpretation in which people read Acts 15:21 as a verse to reverse the meaning of the whole passage. It is a dishonest reading.

Note that vs. 21 speaks of the reading of Moses in the past tense, not future. James does not say, “For Moses will be read in the synagogue,” so that they will learn. Rather, he says, “For Moses has been read in the synagogue…”

His point concerns something from the past. The thrust of the chapter is that some parts of Torah are not required of gentiles. In vs. 21, James says that something about the history of gentiles hearing Moses in the synagogue affirms the decision that Torah is not completely laid on the gentiles. What could James mean?

The simple and evident answer is this: gentiles have been hearing Moses in synagogue and most have not decided to convert. But now, in Yeshua, it is evident that gentiles are accepted as gentiles, without converting. Therefore, we can expect many gentiles to come into the movement now, since it is clear they do not have to convert to be acceptable to God. What the reading of Moses in the synagogue has not done for gentiles the preaching of the good news of Messiah to gentiles will do.

Please consider that the One Law reading of Acts 15:21 is dishonest and seeks to avoid the clear point of the text.

This entry was posted in Gentiles, Torah. Bookmark the permalink.

26 Responses to Quick Conversation on Acts 15:21

  1. James says:

    I take it that this blog post has some history attached to it and you’re throwing down the gauntlet, so to speak.

  2. Derek Leman says:

    James, the history is that any time Acts 15 is discussed in any forum with a large number of non-Jews with some connection to Torah practice, the magic-reversal reading of Acts 15:21 is what a large % assume to be true. I’d like to stand against that reading.

    One-Law is bad for so many things. It’s bad for Jewish-Christian relations. It’s bad for the people whose lives it wrecks. I don’t blame people who start to discover Torah and get sucked into this kind of reading. But I do hope after some time they will see its shallowness and grow.

    The solution, really, is for people to read and give thought to context as they read. We all get fooled and blinded at times, but if we keep reading, keep thinking, we should not remain stuck on irresponsible interpretations.

  3. Seth says:

    Also, the evidence for this “gradual observance” of the 613 by Gentiles is not found anywhere in the New Testament. In fact, Acts shows us the exact opposite. Acts 21 gives us evidence of Jewish believers zealous for Torah, and the four requirements placed on Gentiles is reiterated. Not, “Look how many Gentiles are zealous for the Torah, we just had to give them time to hear the Torah read in the synagogue!” You will not find a shomer mitzvot Gentile in any of the pages of Scripture.

    The matter of circumcision is key too. If Gentiles are obligated to the 613, then circumcision is one of the most important mitzvot for them to follow. Even more than Shabbat or festivals (since circumcision on the 8th day overrides the restrictions of these holy days). To refuse it leads one to be cut off from the covenant people. And yet, the apostles unmistakeably taught Gentiles were not to receive circumcision. So if Gentiles are required to keep the 613, our apostles were in grave error and are apostates from the Law. One Law had not adequately dealt with the issue of circumcision, and it is a fatal error in their theological system.

  4. James says:

    I don’t blame people who start to discover Torah and get sucked into this kind of reading. But I do hope after some time they will see its shallowness and grow.

    In my experience, most people get to a place where they’ve made up their minds and are comfortable. Once they arrive and settle in, it can be very difficult to overcome inertia and shift positions. Believe me, I know.

  5. Carl Kinbar says:

    Good work, Derek. The One Law interpretation of verse 21 isn’t just wrong, it’s virtually impossible.

    Verse 21 was spoken by James to the assembled Jewish apostles and elders (apparently with some members of the Jerusalem congregation present). And of course it’s in the book of Acts. If the apostles meant to including Gentiles in Torah observance (a seismic shift, to say the least), it’s inexplicable that they didn’t include in their letter to the churches. It doesn’t make any sense that the apostles would pass up such a golden opportunity to circulate this ground-breaking revelation among the churches.

    It makes no sense it makes no sense at all, so of course they included this important instruction in the apostolic letter. Wit makes no it would bethat If verse 21 was James’ way of including Gentiles in Torah observance

  6. Carl Kinbar says:

    Please ignore the last “paragraph” of the comment above. WordPress needs a “preview” button!

  7. “What the reading of Moses in the synagogue has not done for gentiles the preaching of the good news of Messiah to gentiles will do.”

    Derek, that has always been my understanding as well. Succinctly put.

  8. Andrew T. says:

    Well, ever since FFOZ decisively came out against the One Law position, no notable Messianic organization takes One Law seriously anymore, just a smattering of people here or there like Tim Hegg.

    On the other hand, wasn’t Paul’s disciple Timothy a circumcised convert to Judaism? And was that before or after Paul’s Damascus road experience? I’m rusty on this point.

  9. James says:

    As I recall, Timothy’s mother was Jewish and his father was Greek. Modern halachah would consider Timothy a Jew and if such were the case back in Paul’s day, then Timothy was required to be circumcised (we can only assume his Greek father was against the idea and his mother went along with it).

  10. Shimshon says:

    Nice Derek, I’ve not heard of this angle before. Most certainly the One Law theology takes Acts 15:21 out of context. To stand against the OL reading One only has to compare the notion that the Spirit would lead gentiles into the synagogue to learn the rest of Torah with verses like: Luke 21:12, John 12:42 and 16:1-4. By the time Yeshua had healed the blind man, it was agreed that anyone who even acknowledged Yeshua and his teachings would be banned from the synagogues. The leaders of the synagogues who did come to trust in Yeshua did not speak of it openly for fear of being banned. Yeshua implicitly tells us in the bible that his followers would be banned from the synagogues. That they would be banned from the synagogues and when the time came they would remember that He told them so. So in one verse they have him leading all into the synagogue and in others they have him explaining that they would be banned, and given examples of how they were banned.

  11. Andrew T. says:

    Shimshon,

    The early Jewish believers in the Holy Land continued to meet in the synagogues, whereas gentile believers in the diaspora were mostly forming their own assemblies outside of the synagogue system, with many probably meeting in homes. Paul did get throw out of synagogues regularly because of his radical message of gentile inclusion among other things. Also, even though the followers of the Way were intensely at odds with the Judean Sadducees, they continued to meet and worship in the Temple. In fact, going up to the Temple and singing praises to God was the first thing Simon “Kefa” Bar-Yonah (Peter) and company did after Yeshua ascended. The final “ban” of Jewish believers from the synagogues apparently did not come until later, at the time of the Bar-Kochba revolt and the canonization of the Birqat ha-Minim (Blessing against Sectarians, which included “Notzrim”, Christians) as standard Jewish liturgy.

  12. Derek Leman says:

    Shimshon and Andrew:

    A more complicated picture of Jewish, God-fearing gentile, and Yeshua-believing gentile involvement in synagogues:

    In some locales and at some times people were banned.

    In other locales and at other times, people were not banned.

    A lack of specific information about places and dates should lead us to say: it is hard to tell if in a given place during a given time period, Yeshua-followers were in the synagogues.

    But quite often, Jew and gentile, they were. In Jewish Believers, edited by Oskar Skarsaune, we can see that on-again, off-again interactions between Messianic Jews, gentiles in Yeshua, and synagogues. Yeshua-followers were in synagogues through the fifth century in some places.

  13. Dan Benzvi says:

    “One-Law is bad for so many things. It’s bad for Jewish-Christian relations. It’s bad for the people whose lives it wrecks. I don’t blame people who start to discover Torah and get sucked into this kind of reading. But I do hope after some time they will see its shallowness and grow.”

    I guess that these people, if they would undergo one swiping of the knife like you did will automatically become Kosher, right? Can’T you see how insane your premise is?

  14. Dan Benzvi says:

    Derek,

    you are also ignoring the historical aspect of this. There were no other covenant communities for believing Gentiles at the time, the Synagogue was it. All gentile believers attended the Synagogue. thaere was also no Apostolic Writing (NT) at the time which renders your interpretation of the verse anachronistic.

  15. TruthCeeker says:

    Derek,
    Thank you for bringing this issue to light again. After studying the “One Law” theological arguments for some time I agree with you. Aside from your point about Acts 15:21 “…Moses has been taught…” Seth makes an excellant point above as well in regard to circumcision. Act 15:10 seems to be quite clear in regard to the Yoke of the (entire) Law. That when one converts to Judaism (by being circumcised) they take on the Yoke of the whole Law. Paul states, “…why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?” And he ends by asking that the Gentiles adhere to a few key Laws which were most likely those which needed to be addressed at that time. In other words, not the whole burden (not conversion) but those parts of the Law which make sense for believers in Messiah.

    I would like to also point out that the whole point of Acts chapter 15 was in regard to Salvation of the Gentiles. And as we all know, the Law has nothing to do with Salvation.

    But the argument of the “One Law” group has little to do with the Salvation aspect of Acts 15 and more to do with promoting a theology which blurs the distiction between Jew and Gentile. Paul (Shaul) is very clear about Jew and Gentile, female and male, slave and free. They are all one in Messiah, but that does not mean that the slave is now free or the male is now female and certainly not that the Gentile is now Jewish.

    It is ironic that they choose to define themselves with the name “One Law” because no one I believe essentially is against the idea that the Lord’s Law is the only Law. We just don’t agree with the idea that all believers in Messiah should convert to Judaism and call themselves Jews.

  16. Dan Benzvi says:

    TruthCeeker,

    What is your take on Acts 15:9. hope you will not use the usual spin here…..

  17. Paula S. says:

    Hello Derek,

    I’m sure you are probably aware of disagreements with your past tense conclusion regarding Acts 15:21. Below is an excerpt from a TNN-Online article regarding Acts 15:21 found at http://www.tnnonline.net/faq/a.html#Acts 15:21-f

    I would appreciate your comments on this.

    Thank you.

    “We need to note the usage of the two main verbs in Acts 15:21: kērussontas (khrussontaß) is a present active participle, describing how there are those “proclaiming him” (LITV); anaginōskomenos (anaginwskomenoß) is a passive active participle, describing how the scroll of the Torah/Moses is “being read” (KJV/NKJV) every Sabbath, with the action obviously being performed to the Torah/Moses. Neither one of these things—“proclaiming” or “being read”—is some action in the past.[f]

    [f] Contrary to this, Messianic Jewish teacher Derek Leman insists, “James used the past tense, not the present or future. That is, he did not say, ‘After all, Moses is being preach [sic] in the synagogues.’ He said, ‘Moses has from ancient times been preached in synagogues’” (Classic Reprint: Acts 15. Messianic Jewish Musings. Retrieved 31 March, 2010, from ).

    Leman’s error here is seen in that he relies exclusively on an English translation (RSV), and not the two active participles as seen in the Greek. Even though I challenged him on his view from the source text of Acts 15:21, he did not fix his statements.”

  18. Derek Leman says:

    Paula:

    The writer at TNN Online is making a simple mistake. He is focused on the form of the verb “proclaim,” which is a present active participle. But how does it function in the syntax of the sentence?

    Let me first present the translation of Luke Timothy Johnson, one of the world’s foremost Luke-Acts scholars, who has forgotten more Greek than I will ever know:
    For Moses from ages past has had those who proclaim him in every city, as he is read every Sabbath in the synagogue.

    Hmm, where did Johnson get the idea that the proclaiming started in the past and continues up to the present day? And how can a participle be part of a clause expressing action in the past (up to the present and continuing)?

    It is a simple construction, found often in Hebrew also (which I am much more adept with). A participle can function as a noun in a sentence. Moses has had those proclaiming him and “proclaiming” can more clearly be rendered “who proclaim.” The participle is in the accusative case. It functions as the object of the verb εχει (echei, “has” or “has had”).

    The syntax of this construction is about past action up to the time of the speaker and possibly continuing (it is what has happened in the past up till now).

    My point stands and the writer at TNN Online is welcome to explain if in fact the syntax indicates future or past action. I welcome the discussion if he wants to have it.

    If James wanted to say, “For the gentiles can always learn Moses in the future,” he could have easily said it (and you’d think also he might want to mention it in his letter and not give the impression he was permitting gentiles to “break the least of these commandments”).

    But he didn’t do that and his opinion that gentiles were not bound by all the commandments violates neither a plain reading of Torah, nor Jewish tradition, nor Yeshua’s teaching in Matthew 5:17-19.

    Derek Leman

  19. Andrew T. says:

    Derek,

    Do you think Yeshua’s followers eschewed the ritual hand-washing of the Pharisees because it is only for the Kohanim?

  20. Derek Leman says:

    Andrew T.:

    I have a whole chapter on it in Yeshua in Context. So, in an effort to entice you to buy my book, perhaps I can just answer your question literally: no, I do not think that was the issue 🙂

  21. It’s tempting to get drawn into yet another debate about the meaning of this passage, as we have done well on this blog and other Messianic blogs for the last 5-10 years.

    Particularly strong is the draw when such one view is proclaimed with such certainty and pseudo-authority as to embarrass those who hold other views, views which have already been labeled “dishonest.”

    Here’s what I would like to point out to the fine blog readers here: there are alternative views to Acts 15:21, including views held by knowledgeable Christian and Messianic theologians, that suggest gentiles can learn Torah, or that even gentiles should learn Torah. From this higher ground, we see God doing a work among gentiles, a work that draws them towards God’s commandments and towards a more Israel-centric faith. A work that was prophesied in Isaiah when it was said: “The Torah will go forth from Zion, and the Word of the Lord from Jerusalem.” We believe it’s the work of God that many gentiles are keeping God’s commandments, as Messiah draws Jews and gentiles towards God’s instructions.

    I would encourage readers of this blog to understand that the author of this blog, rather than allowing for variance in interpretation of Scriptures, often uses the tactic of delegitimizing viewpoints he doesn’t agree with. I say that with the experience of having engaged in debate with the author and several of the commenters here (Seth, Shlomovich, Pyles) for the last 5-10 years. Rest in the knowledge that what Leman and friends write here is not supreme, know that the view pushed here is in the minority, know that, despite all the protesting that other views are dishonest, the viewpoint pushed here is only one of many.

    Having said what was needed, and knowing well how these volatile internet discussions quickly turn ugly ad hominem, I’m going to bow out of this discussion. Shalom.

  22. Derek Leman says:

    Judah:

    You’re bowing out after leaving a statement that is a problem. You said: “There are alternative views to Acts 15:21, including views held by knowledgeable Christian and Messianic theologians, that suggest gentiles can learn Torah, or that even gentiles should learn Torah.”

    Please give one reference to a Christian or Messianic theologian that upholds the idea of Acts 15:21 meaning “gentiles will learn Torah and start keeping it in the future.”

    If you cannot give such a reference, we will have to doubt that one exists.

  23. Andrew T. says:

    Judah,

    If we’re being real with it, the Apostles must have failed quite miserably if their aim was for the gentile brothers to eventually learn and keep Torah. I mean, America is considered a “Christian” country, but most Christians don’t keep the Torah to the extent of avoiding pornography or cheating on taxes, let alone keep Shabbos. You say “many” gentiles, when the numbers are actually miniscule. Who are Jews again? Those funny-looking rich people with the dreidels and icky flat bread? Wasn’t Jesus one? Nah, can’t be.

    At the same time, I think (and concur with Derek) that an increasing numbers of gentiles keeping mitzvot is a holy and good thing, and this phenomenon has a great power to heal Christian-Jewish relations. As long as the intentions are good and a false and shallow Jewish identity is not being claimed, God is being done justice. Unfortunately, a confused theology of Israel and the gentile Torah-keeper’s relation to it is often precisely what occurs, especially when the background is Christian.

    FFOZ was the last notable Messianic organization to support a One Law reading of Acts 5:21, but no longer.

  24. Dan Benzvi says:

    “Please give one reference to a Christian or Messianic theologian that upholds the idea of Acts 15:21 meaning “gentiles will learn Torah and start keeping it in the future.”

    “Are Gentile believers required to keep the Torah to earn salvation? No.
    Are Gentile believers required to keep Torah at all? Of course.
    As proof text for the legitimacy of his proposal, Jemes cites a passage from Amos.”

    Guess who wrote this? Your new found friend D. Thomas Lancaster.

    From: “The Mystery of the Gospel,” Page 151.

    How quick people forget……

  25. Andrew T. says:

    Dan,

    While Daniel Lancaster continues to believe that the Torah is “holy, righteous , and good*, in Paul’s words, and a blessing to the believer, Jew or gentile, he and his fellow FFOZ have since distanced themselves from One Law. He certainly no longer teaches that gentile believers are *required* to keep Torah. I know; I have listened to many of his sermons.

  26. Pingback: [Open] tags-a read and respond thread for all - Page 22 - Christian Forums

Comments are closed.