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Are there still Jews in Christ? Yes and No.

Are there still Jews in Christ? Yes and No.         by Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

This may sounds like a really stupid question (and it probably is), but I cannot tell you how many people over the years have cited to me one particular text from the only surviving correspondence of the first century Pharisee, Apostle Saul Paul (I use both his Jewish and Roman name on purpose). 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 (sojourners with Israel), but they should also adopt all the ancestral customs of the Jews (This is what was meant to convert to Judaism back then). 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 further on, but first I will provide a little contextual information to lay the foundation for our later discussion.

Ruth vs. Na’aman Trajectory

Galatian Gentile believers (the recipients of Paul’s letter) were seriously contemplating conversion to Judaism. They saw nothing wrong with that, after all, Ruth the Moabite’s famous phrase “Your God will be my God, your people will be my people”, was broadly acclaimed.  Conversions were widely 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 people, however, did not speak of conversion in terms of simply accepting another religion, while staying culturally the same.

To them conversion to Judaism meant joining the people of Israel (especially its southern branch, “Judeans”, and hence “Judaism”) and adopting a set of 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 accept a new divinity, but the entire package (God and people).

However, this was only one paradigm of legitimate Gentile dedication to Israel’s God. There was another – I call this the “Na’aman” paradigm, to distinguish it from the “Ruth” paradigm.

You might recall the story of Na’aman’s healing (2 Kings 5), where a kidnapped Israelite slave girl told Na’aman’s wife, that her husband’s leprosy could be healed by a prophet who lived in Israel. With the permission of his Aramean king, Na’aman 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 to say that when Na’aman 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 there. In contrast to Ruth the Moabite, Na’aman’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 from the prophet of God the greatest blessing of all – the blessing of Shalom (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 Na’aman, and not of Ruth.

"Jerusalem Council"

They expressly forbade only four categories of behaviour, reaffirming thereby the same prohibitions which were enjoined upon the sojourners among Israel described in Leviticus 17-18. Being non-Jewish followers of the Jewish Christ in the Roman Empire was difficult enough (their new life clashed sharply with many Roman religious practices and accepted norms of patriotic behaviour), so the apostles decided not to lay upon them any further burden. It seems from Acts 15:21,[1] that it was assumed that Gentile believers would be attending synagogues wherever they lived, and hearing Moses read and presumably also hearing what Judaism taught about living a generally righteous life. In practical terms, observing these 4 laws would potentially enable Gentile believers to fellowship with Jews without offending them and being ostracized by them. (I owe this particular insight to my colleague Dorothy Healy). Years later as Rabbinic Judaism began to took form these same older Jewish ideas became known as Noachite laws. But it is important to realize that many Jews thought in these ways way before Rabbinic Judaism was even born (3rd century C.E.).

Acts 16:4-5 tells us that, while Apostle Saul Paul did not take part in the Jerusalem meeting itself, he fully endorsed it, and proclaimed its message with great joy as he travelled from congregation to congregation. 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.

There is neither Jew nor Greek? No, and yes.  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.

Apostle Saul Paul, 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 (baptism) in the name of Christ Jesus.  Their identity has now been redefined by the Jewish Christ himself (vs. 26-27).  In the previous chapter 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)

When Galatians 3:28 is quoted, it is usual for only the first part to be emphasized – there is neither Jew nor Greek – to the exclusion of the rest of the verse.[2] The conclusion often drawn from this phrase is that there is no longer any distinction or difference     a between a Jew and Greek (in this case, probably, “Gentile” by extension). 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 difference (as I think they surely do), then so do Jews and Greeks retain their differences, even when they become one in Jewish Christ.

No more discrimination

From this I conclude that something other than Difference becoming Absolutely The Same is intended by Saul Paul in this text. He knows very well that differences still exist between Jews and the Nations; in fact this is very important to him. He in fact, establishes a rule in all his congregations that this would not change (1 Cor. 7:17). He believes that the Jews must continue to worship the God of Israel through Jesus as Jews, but he also believes that Gentile believers should remain as they are – Nations, worshiping the God of Israel and the entire World alongside of the Jews.

For Paul this is the ultimate outworking of the Shema, Israel/Oneness of God (Rom. 3:28-30; Deut. 6:4)[3] - something, as Mark Nanos, insightfully pointed out is nothing less that the very center of Paul’s theology. If Gentiles in Christ become Jews, the God of Israel would be destined to remain but a tribal deity! However, if both the Jews and the Nations worship the same God as Jews and the Nations, the God that Paul the Pharisee believed in with all of his heart would then be revealed for who He really is – the God of entire world!

What Apostle Saul Paul meant by the phrase “there is neither Jew nor Greek” had to do, not with Cessation Of Difference, but with Cessation Of Discrimination. There is no discrimination with regard to race, culture, rank, or gender, for all are one in the Jewish Christ. Gentiles will no longer be discriminated against in the Kingdom of Israel’s God. They now will play an equally important role in God’s redemptive plan. Their faith in the Jewish Christ alone qualifies and justifies them (just as it does the Jews) in every way to be first-class citizens in God’s Kingdom, without relinquishing their important identity as the “Nations of the World”.

This is exactly why Apostle Saul Paul rejoiced greatly in the decision of “Jerusalem Council”, as did all the congregations planted by him (Acts 15-16). To Paul, the justification of Gentiles by faith without the works of the Torah, did not nullify, but establish (proved) the Torah to be true (Rom.3:31).  There were very few people in the world that were as committed to the Torah of Moses as the Apostle Saul Paul both before, and especially, after Christ Jesus has called him to his service.
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[1] “For Moses from ancient generations has in every city those who preach him, since he is read in the synagogues every Sabbath”.

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

[3] Read an excellent article by Mark Nanos by clicking here:
http://jewishstudies.eteacherbiblical.com/paul-and-the-jewish-tradition-the-ideology-of-the-shema/. His personal website can be found at www.marknanos.com


 

Publish Date: 
Friday, March 18, 2016