Responding to Ralph on Gentiles and Torah

Ralph Finley is a friend from the UMJC, a Messianic Jewish congregational network, to which we both belong. Ralph sent a few interesting arguments that I thought would be worth responding to in a post.

Note that there are two posts on the blog today. Please scroll down and read “Responding to Peter” also.

Ralph believes I have subtly missed the point of Acts 15 and that I am using it improperly to maintain Jewish distinction in the body of Messiah:

Although I do not hold to the interpretation of Acts 15 that states that Gentiles would go on to take on ALL of Torah over time as they are in the synagogue as some Hebrew roots groups hold, your rendering that it was about Jewish distinctives is reading into the text something that I think moves it away from the real emphasis, which deals with the guidelines for Gentile inclusion into the community of what was then a Jewish assembly. It was not about distinctives as some have sought to use this verse, it was about requirements for inclusion. –Ralph Finley.

1. For those a little unfamiliar with this issue, let me give you a crash course in Acts 15. Some followers of Yeshua felt that Gentiles needed to be circumcised and keep the Torah (esp. Sabbath and dietary law) in order to be accepted by God in Yeshua. The apostles met and decided that God accepts Gentiles as Gentiles. James only asked four things of the new Gentile followers of Yeshua. But he also said, “For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues” (Acts 15:21). Some in MJ and many in the Hebrew Roots movement take this to mean that Gentiles could start by observing James’ short list of four requirements, but over time they would have to go to synagogue and learn all 613 commandments and keep them.

2. Ralph does not subscribe to the view that James wanted Gentiles to go to synagogue, learn the Torah, and keep all of it.

3. Neither do I and here is why: (a) James does not mention the synagogue statement in his letter to the congregations, (b) James’ statement is about the past and not the present or future, and (c) if that is what James meant, then he would be reversing everything they had decided up to that point. Gentiles really would be Jews and there would be no distinction.

4. Ralph feels I have, nonetheless, improperly used Acts 15 as a proof-text of the idea that Gentiles are distinct from Jews in Messiah and are not required to keep parts of Torah that are just for Israel (circumcision, dietary law, Sabbath).

5. Ralph’s reason for calling me to task is that Acts 15 is about unity, not distinction. Acts 15 was about what Gentiles had to do to be included in the community, not about what makes Jews distinct.

6. My answer to Ralph: The entire discussion of Acts 15 assumes that Jews will continue to be Jews, even those in the community of Yeshua. The chapter makes no sense otherwise. Gentiles are not required to become Jews to be in the community of Yeshua. That is the underlying message of the entire chapter. If the apostles felt that Jews and Gentiles were now to be indistinct in the community, their answer would have looked very different. They did not say, “Torah is no longer God’s standard now that Yeshua made an atonement.” Instead, they said, “Gentiles, God accepts you as you are and you need not become a Jew. But we ask that you especially be careful about four particular issues that will affect our being together.”

7. Ralph, please respond and let me know if I have understood you correctly, if my answer persuades you even a teensy bit, and why or why not.

Derek

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6 Responses to Responding to Ralph on Gentiles and Torah

  1. Sean says:

    Derek,

    In your response to Ralph you say:

    2. Ralph does not subscribe to the view that James wanted Gentiles to go to synagogue, learn the Torah, and keep all of it.

    3. Neither do I and here is why: (a) James does not mention the synagogue statement in his letter to the congregations,….

    Several questions:

    Although it is true that James does not mention the synagogue statement in his letter, is it possible that it is significant that Luke (assuming he wrote Acts) takes the trouble to mention it in his account of the incident? It seems evident that many things were said at the Jerusalem council which Luke did not record for his readers. But he did record the synagogue statement. Maybe this was to clarify for Luke’s audience what was the intent of a letter written to believers years earlier. What do you think?

    I also wonder whether James’ letter was written to people who had little knowledge of the sacred scriptures, and whether Luke’s inclusion of the synagogue statment made at the council was to encourage his readers to “now go and study”, to use Hillel’s words. If this were the case, and if I were one of Luke’s original readers, it seems to me that the more I learned the sacred scriptures, the more I learned Torah, the more it would seem to be the most appropriate response to say to myself, “These are the words of the living God, spoken to a people who were to be consecrated unto Him, after He had initially brought them near; now that I have been brought near to Him by His own initiative, should I not also do all that he ever commanded? If I read that God told Moses to say to the People of Israel, “You shall not eat this or that,” should I myself not indeed find it hard to go on eating these things, whether I am Jew or Gentile?”

    Now that Gentiles have the Bible so accessible to them, it is hard for me to understand why they should read Torah and not try their best to carry out all the commands, not in order to be saved, but in order to be sanctified. God saved the Children of Israel out of Egypt and then called them a Holy Nation, not because of what they had done, but because they had been brough near by God to Himself. Nevertheless, he then commands them to be holy, to sanctify THEMSELVES. In the same way, those who are in Yeshua are saved by God and made holy, not because of what they have done, but because of what God did for them in Yeshua. Yet they are commanded to then make THEMSELVES holy, to immitate God, and to read the sacred scriptures, which are useful(full of use) for being trained in righteousness, scriptures which include the commands of Torah.

    I don’t know what to make of all this. I don’t know what a “Jew” really is in the sight of God.

    Derek, please share what you think about these suppositions. They are not my beliefs, just my wonderings. Thank you.

    Sean

  2. Sean:

    James said, at the end of his explanation of the role of Gentiles in the Yeshua community: “For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues” (Acts 15:21).

    Yes, I think the statement is important. I simply do not believe that James was, in this one verse, reversing the clear decision that Gentiles were not required to keep Jewish distinctives. As I noted, James’ reference is past tense. He did not say, “Let the Gentiles keep these four basic rules for now. After all, they will be going to hear Moses in the synagogue [and learn the rest].”

    So, what was his point? I am thankful to Russ Resnik who introduced me to a better interpretation. James is saying that something about the Gentiles’ PAST experience in the synagogues should teach us a lesson. What lesson could there be from PAST synagogue experience of Gentiles?

    That is easy. Numerous Gentiles attended synagogue in the Roman era. Yet only a small number converted. Why should we apostles think that now we can convince these numerous Gentiles to convert when they would not before? Therefore “we should not trouble these Gentiles” (vs.19).

    Hope this helps.

    Derek

  3. Sean says:

    It does help. Thank you. Is there strong evidence that Rabbi Resnik’s interpretation is valid?

    It seems so strange that God would have two types of people who are near him, laws for some and not for others. Maybe it is like the laws which were for the Kohanim or the Levites and not for the other tribes. Is it like concentric circles of responsibility? The Kohen HaGadol, then the Kohanim, then the Levi’im, then the rest of the tribes, and then the other nations? Yeshua as Kohen HaGadol, then the Jewish people, and then the Gentile believers? And then the rest of the world? Not as a heirarchy, but as groups with different responsibilities, which is why one may choose to become a Jew, instead of being consigned by birth to a particular group. Maybe that’s dumb.

    Thanks again.

    Sean

  4. Sean:

    Yes, Israel is the priestly people. Thus, just as the priests in Israel have a few restrictions not incumbent on other Israelites, so Jews have a few restrictions not incumbent on Gentiles. Other examples of God’s commands differing between groups include male and female and teachers/leaders and non-leaders.

    There is no evidence to prove or disprove an interpretation like the one I suggested (and Russ before me) regarding Acts 15:21. We do not have a historical source to tell us what James meant. Our interpretation has to come from evidence in the text. I mentioned some of the main reasons for the interpretation I hold: (a) the synagogue clause is not in the letter, (b) the synagogue clause is past tense and not present, and (c) whatever the synagogue clause means it should fit the tenor of the rest of the chapter. I believe the historical scenario I suggested fits the rest of the chapter and it is historically sound. There is much historical evidence about Gentile God-fearers in synagogues.

    Derek

  5. Marc says:

    Hi Derek,

    What does the Torah say about how Gentiles are or are not included?

    What I’m trying to do is connect the dots. What I’m learning is that scripture can’t contradict.

    So let’s take Acts 15. How would Acts 15 line up with Torah in this regard for Gentile inclusion and how much?

    Shouldn’t it be that Acts 15 needs to line up with Torah?

    I do believe that the Council created a halacha to this situation, am I correct? But I find it hard to think that James would go against Torah in this regard. So Acts 15 in my mind has to line up with Torah or we have problems?

    So my question is based on Torah: Is it a start or a finish? Based on Torah?

    How was it in David’s and Solomon’s days in regards to Gentile inclusion as an example?

    And I admit I’m wishy washy on this topic.

    Marc

  6. Marc:

    Did you forget? I have a whole list of Torah points for including Gentiles and Torah points distinguishing Jews and Gentiles in “Warning: This is a Long Post on Gentiles in MJ.”

    Anyway, here they are again:
    Torah Precedents for Gentile Inclusion in Israel

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