Moshe and Nikos
MOSHE BEN GURION and Nicolas Stavropoulos were great pals. Born at about the same time as Jesus Christ of Nazareth, weaned on ribald stories describing the antics of Cleopatra, they grew up together in the happy-go-lucky atmosphere of first century Alexandria. Here, Jews and Greeks could mingle freely, and Nikos and Moshe's fathers were partners in the rag trade, specializing in Tyrian purple garments. Nikos grew up in the Brucheium district; Moshe in the north-eastern quarter. Often as lads they scrabbled among the rocks that ringed the Paphos lighthouse searching for the shellfish their fathers used in the dye shop. (Not that they added much substantial to the day's catch.) In the wee hours of the morning, before even early worms were scurrying for cover from early birds, they would huddle in the back room of their fathers' shop while their dads were preparing the dye vats for the coming day's activity, and would chatter about those mighty matters that so preoccupied lads of that time — saving money, what they had for dinner the previous evening, and what they would do when they grew up.
They were birds of a feather, Nikos and Moshe, and saw eye to eye on everything. It was a perpetual source of chagrin to them that they were expected by the world around them, even in free-wheeling Alexandria, to never forget the great gulf that supposedly separated them, a gulf they themselves believed was a fiction. For Nikos, if you hadn't guessed, was a Greek; and Moshe was a Jew. Nikos was a good Greek and Moshe was a good Jew, raised on the Scriptures from birth.
Their lives changed dramatically when they were young teens, as the family partnership dissolved, and the Stavropouloses moved to Antioch in search of the fabled pot of gold while the Gurions moved to Jerusalem to be closer to Mrs Gurion's ageing parents. Before parting, Moshe and Nikos took a solemn oath to always remember each other, and to make every attempt to track each other down as soon as they had the opportunity.
In Jerusalem, the ben Gurions underwent a rather remarkable change as a family. Moshe's father and mother fell under the influence of the party of the Pharisees, and began to reorient their lives around the strict religious teachings of the Pharisees. Whereas life in the Arcadian atmosphere of Alexandria had been easy-going and fun, life for Jews in Jerusalem, particularly hard core Jews, was entirely different. What a contrast between the free and easy atmosphere of Alexandria where many Jews were quite wealthy and the austere way of life of the poorer yet more religious Jews of Jerusalem (Johnson 1976, p. 11). Now Moshe experienced first hand what it meant to become a pious Jew, Jerusalem style. It was no easy change for him.
His family had always striven to live by the precepts of Torah, the law of God. Now they started also living by the proscriptions and prescriptions of the oral Law of Moses — the halakhah. These were the traditional Pharisaic interpretations of the Old Testament law that had become, by this time, enshrined in pharisaical lore. Moshe had never eaten pork before, because the Torah had prohibited it. But now abstaining from unclean foods wasn't enough; Moshe's mother would not even purchase food from a "sinner", for this would be defiling. Nor would they ever eat with such people in the sinner's house; and even if they ever entertained such people in their own home, they would provide their guests with clothes to wear, lest their guests' clothes might be ceremonially impure.
As for Gentiles, well, Moshe found himself embroiled in a terrible emotional turmoil, as his new-found Jewish friends would have nothing whatever to do with Gentiles. He soon discovered that Gentiles were considered enemies of Israel, and that about the worst insult you could fling in the teeth of a fellow Jew was to call him a "Gentile". He was horrified to be taught that one of the rabbis had declared that "Gentiles were created for one purpose — to fuel the fires of hell". He was mortified to learn that a Jew should not assist a Gentile woman in labor, as that would be helping to bring another Gentile into the world. How far removed were the halcyon days when he and Nikos would play amicably together. If Nikos were here now, Moshe would be defiled by touching him. Never again would they be able to eat together, Moshe thought to himself, even if they did meet up. Such thoughts plagued Moshe for years, thrusting their unwelcome presence upon his mind in the middle of the night, crushing the joy welling up in his sleep-laden mind when memories of happy days in Alexandria fought to find a spot in his dreams.
Become a Jew, Oh Gentile!
There was one way though, but only one, whereby Moshe would ever be able to have free and full fellowship with Nikos again. If Nikos were to fully convert to Judaism, and actually become a Jew (Buttrick 1962, Vol. Three, p. 929), then all would be well. Moshe knew of only a few Gentiles who had taken such a step — the step to complete assimilation within Israel.
Large was the number of Gentiles who had partly converted to Judaism. In fact, Moshe had been aware for years of the large number of quasi-converts to Judaism from the Gentile world. He knew that belief in the God of his forefathers had swept the whole Roman world. After centuries of following a panoply of pagan gods, many Roman citizens had decided to throw in their lot with the people of God. They were highly impressed with the religion of the Jews. Here was a people who not only had one God, they had God, the God. Here was a people who obviously had something special, for wherever they went, apart from in their own homeland, they prospered. In the big cities of the Roman world, the Jewish communities were self-confident, wealthy and successful. Moshe knew well that there was not a single city or single people to which the custom of Sabbath and Holy Day observance and dietary laws had not spread (Johnson, p. 9-12). He remembered well the vast throng of Gentiles who attended synagogue services in Alexandria.
Such Gentile infatuation with the ways of the God of Israel was not restricted to the common man. In Moshe's new home of Jerusalem, the God of the Jews was honored by Herod through a lavish building program which saw the rebuilding of the Temple on twice the scale of Solomon. Yes, the God of the Jews was the God of the century. The religion of the Jews was the religion to embrace. And Gentiles were doing it in enormous numbers. But again, only a small percentage of these new converts went all the way. The vast majority went only most of the way.
This large group were called "God-fearers", because they worshipped the God of the Old Testament. They were willing to live by the laws of the Old Testament, including Sabbath-keeping, dietary laws of clean and unclean foods, and even fasting on the day of Atonement (Buttrick, p. 927 and 929). They regularly visited the synagogue, and listened to the scriptures expounded in Greek.
As Moshe's family business grew and thrived, he rubbed shoulders with some members of the small Roman military force in Jerusalem. His father was doing a roaring trade in Tyrian purple with them. Moshe became aware of the large number of Romans who were God-fearers and practiced the basics of his own religion. He met a number of Roman officers who worshipped his God. They too observed the Sabbath. The generosity of some of them was widely bruited abroad. Everyone had heard of the wealthy Roman centurion who had built a synagogue in Capernaum (Buttrick, p. 929).
The devotion of Herod's family to the Jewish way of life was renowned throughout the Roman world. Moshe knew well that anyone who wished to marry into the Herod family had to go all the way, and become full Jewish proselytes, being circumcised to accomplish this (Buttrick, p. 925). Herod's patronage of the Jewish religion made it very easy for any Gentile to practice the ways of Judaism without fear or embarrassment. And so the number of Gentile devotees to the ways of the Old Testament was enormous. To follow such ways caused no difficulty at all for Gentile converts.
As a young man, it always puzzled Moshe that such obvious devotion was still not good enough to gain these Gentiles full acceptance in the eyes of Moshe's people (Buttrick, p. 929). Moshe couldn't figure out why, if a Gentile was willing to keep the Sabbath, the Holy Days and the dietary regulations of the Old Testament in consequence of their worship of God, that he still was not considered good enough to be treated as an equal by Jews. Jews and God-fearers were still poles apart socially. Such exclusivism on the part of his own people embarrassed him.
It seemed rather unfair, even extreme, that in order to really dismantle the barrier between the two peoples, so that Jew and Gentile could even sit at table together, only full conversion to all things Jewish would suffice. Aspiring Gentile converts had to take on board all the boundary markers that for centuries had separated Jews from Gentiles. Not just Sabbath and food taboos, but also circumcision, (these three in particular had come to constitute the three-cornered badge of Jewish identity), as well as the halakhic rules. Few Gentiles were willing to do that, for one main reason — circumcision, a painful rite. It was one thing for baby boys to have their foreskin cut off at eight days of age, in accordance with God's instruction to Abraham. But for an adult to be subjected to such an ordeal in the manner prescribed in the rules of the halakhah seemed inordinately unnecessary (Stern 1992, p. 273).
The Pharisaic insistence on circumcision was not the only reason few Gentiles were willing to become full Jews. Most certainly not the only reason. How well he remembered the stories he had heard from Nikos of Gentile families in Alexandria who had been hurt so badly when one of their family members converted fully to Judaism. Such neophytes would completely turn their backs on their own Gentile families (Buttrick, p. 927). This was the price they had to pay in order to become an Israelite in full.
In addition, aspiring converts to Judaism had to not only keep the laws commanded by the God of Israel, they not only had to be willing to break completely with their "Gentileness", they also had to rigorously observe the halakhah — the oral rabbinical traditions added to the Old Testament law, and that were called by the same name as the Old Testament law — the Law of Moses (Stern p. 273). Some even put the oral law ahead of the biblical law, or at least on the same level as Scripture, and said they should be observed with even greater stringency (Pfeiffer, p. 114). (However, note that the Mishna, in which this idea was expressed, was not written down till the second or third century AD. However, it is reasonable to assume that this idea had much earlier roots.) Moshe understood well that this was not required by God, but was a later rabbinical requirement. In fact, he often considered how strange it was that things were ascribed to Moses that Moses had nothing whatsoever to do with.
Circumcision on its own was bad enough. But at least it was over in days, or weeks at the most. Obedience to the rigors of this oral Law of Moses, these legalistic additions to the law of God, was forever. Not even Jews could measure up to such rigorous and onerous standards (Acts 15:10). Who in his right mind would expect a Gentile convert to do such a thing, even in a favorable religious climate? It was these same halakhic restrictions that forbad Moshe from entertaining the thought of ever eating with Nikos again. Yes, Moshe thought, I don't like these halakhic dos and don'ts. They were from men, not from God.
The more he thought about it, the more Moshe was repelled by certain aspects of his own religious legacy. Though he observed them himself for the sake of his family, he was sure that the God of Israel was not like that. He loved the Sabbath, he loved going to the house of God on holydays, and he had no difficulty recognizing that some foods are symbolic of things unclean, and therefore should be avoided. These practices were commanded by God. But he saw no purpose in religiously washing his utensils before eating, lest they had been defiled by touching a Gentile. And above all, he was sure within himself that the God of Israel would not expect a Gentile to do such things if he wished to enjoy the favor of God. These things were commanded by traditions of men.
Moshe becomes a Christian
Then one day, when Moshe was in his early twenties, something unbelievable happened. The entire city was in an uproar. A man by the name of Jesus had strode into the temple and created a memorable scene by overturning tables and chairs, driving out the animals on sale for sacrifice, and generally creating a major disturbance. Moshe's life was never the same. He eagerly sought news of this man's movements and deeds. He listened intently to every report that came his way. His ears tingled when he first heard the claim that this man was the Son of God. When it was rumored that he was also the promised Messiah, the son of David, he could hardly contain himself. And then, the clincher. This man, who obviously came from the God of Israel, made it clear that God loved Gentiles too. It was even rumored that he had said that God so loved the world, not just Israel, that even Gentiles could have everlasting life. Moshe knew that he must follow this man.
By this man's teachings, even Nikos could come under God's favor, if only he would believe in and follow this man. Clearly, this Jesus expected his followers, both Jews and Gentiles, to live as He Himself had done. He made no difference between them in regard to how he expected them to live, any more than He made a difference between them in regard to their eternal salvation. The Sabbath had been made for man, he had said, not just for Israel. One did not have to become an Israelite in order to worship the God of Israel.
But then something dreadful happened. Jesus was crucified. Moshe's life started coming apart. But within days, rumors started circulating that His body had vanished, and that some were claiming that He had been resurrected and had been seen by a number of his disciples. The tension and excitement began mounting, both in Jerusalem and in Moshe's mind. When, on Pentecost, some weeks after Jesus' death, his disciples were proclaiming his resurrection and Messiahship, Moshe was convinced, and joined with three thousand other people in committing his life to this Jesus of Nazareth, and to God who had sent him. Moshe became a Christian — one of the first.
The years started flashing by. Moshe was totally engrossed with the dual activities of taking over his father's business and serving in one of the Jerusalem congregations of the new community of believers in Jesus Christ. He was very happy. His happiness was soon doubled when the apostle Peter one day addressed his congregation, telling them of the conversion of the god-fearing Gentile Cornelius. Cornelius was a centurion in the Italian band. For some years he had been keeping the Sabbath and other scriptural guides to life. But now, he had been convicted of the need to have his sins cleansed by the blood of Jesus Christ. He now saw the need to not only observe Old Testament laws, but to have complete faith in the lamb of God.
Moshe was thrilled. True, he was rather set back by the attitude of some of his brethren, particularly some of those who had previously been Pharisees. A small but powerful group of them had criticized Peter, not on the grounds that he had baptized and welcomed a Gentile into the fellowship, but on the grounds that Peter had broken with halakhah restrictions, and had actually eaten with Cornelius and his family (Acts 11:3). And to add insult to injury, he had not insisted on Cornelius's circumcision. This group of Pharisees was still trying to figure out why God had actually given the gift of the Holy Spirit to a group of people who, though willing to keep the Sabbath and holy days, and had been doing so for some years, were not willing to be circumcised, clearly showing by such reluctance that they were not intending to be assimilated into the community of Israel. After all, it had been made abundantly clear in the Old Testament that any Gentile who wished to be absorbed into the community of Israel and thereby to have access to Israel's special privileges, had to be circumcised (Gen. 17:10-14, Ex. 12:48). That was what circumcision was all about — or so they thought. It was not revealed in the Old Testament as a universal law.
But they all soon forgot about this short-lived debate. For Cornelius lived a long way away in Caesarea, and there were no Jewish Christians in his district to cause an ongoing problem by insisting that Cornelius become a Jew through circumcision before they could socialize together. But for those with the eyes to see, herein lay the seeds of a great potential controversy. Must a Gentile Christian become a Jew in order to be a bona fide member of the people of God? Must a Gentile convert to Christianity also become part of the covenant people of Israel?
Moshe visits Nikos
Moshe had thrilled when the well known Pharisee, Paul, had been converted, and had departed to preach the gospel in far regions. Reports started filtering through that a congregation had been formed in Antioch. Which was exciting in itself. But what took Moshe's breath away was the reports of large numbers of Gentiles being converted. Others of his Jerusalem brethren were disturbed by such reports, worrying that Christianity would become a Gentile religion before long. But not so Moshe. He was thrilled, especially when he heard that Jews and Gentiles were able to mingle totally freely in Antioch, to attend Sabbath and holy days services arm in arm, the wall of division between them having been abolished by their common faith in Jesus Christ.
One day a thought hit him. Was there any possibility that Nikos might be numbered among the converts? Most unlikely, but still a possibility. He remembered also their childhood vow to try to see each other again if at all possible. Without hesitation, Moshe started making plans for a journey to Antioch.
The first problem that confronted him upon arrival was finding Nikos. Not really expecting to find him amongst the Christian community, he immediately set to work. He reached for the telephone book in his bedside drawer, only to find there wasn't one. In his heart, Moshe rued the fact he was born in the first century. He was left with the old tried-and-tested method of finding a Gentile in a Gentile metropolis — ask anyone and everyone you bump into. But it didn't work. For three days he searched high and low. No sign of Nikos.
The Sabbath came, and off Moshe went to worship with his brothers and sisters. He had no idea what he was about to walk into. Moshe would never forget the day as long as he lived. It was far and away the most bittersweet experience of his life. It was so sweet. He was thrilled at seeing such a large number of Gentile converts in the room. Such a contrast against the Jerusalem congregation. And he couldn't believe his luck when, within minutes of walking through the door he spotted a young Greek who looked oh so familiar. Sure enough, Nikos had become a follower of Jesus Christ. The look on Nikos's face was simply indescribable. Tears flowed, laughter gushed and rarely in the history of man had voices been so unsubdued. To add to the sweetness of the occasion, Moshe soon was informed that Paul was in Antioch at the time, as he had been for a while. What a thrill, Moshe thought, to see the apostle to the Gentiles.
It was also about the most bitter experience of his life. When he walked in he had spotted a few more familiar faces in the crowd that day — members from Jerusalem. Some prominent ones in fact, from the same party that had been critical of Peter for eating with Cornelius. One of them had been invited to speak. In sum, he said:
Brethren. As a representative of the mother congregation in Jerusalem, may I say how thrilled I am to see so many non-Jews in our midst. What praise must go to our God for his kindness in adding so many Gentiles to our number. Gentiles who are willing to obey the law of the God of Israel. But we in Jerusalem have heard some disturbing reports, and we have come here to find out for ourselves the truth of them. What we have discovered is most distressing. Most of you Gentiles have not yet been circumcised. Don't you know that if you wish to be part of the holy people of God, a member of the nation of Israel, to whom the promises were given, of whom Jesus said salvation came, that you must fulfill all that is required? For God commanded Abraham that his descendants must be circumcised, and whoever would not do so must be cut off. Jesus made the new covenant with us Israelites. Do you wish to be cut off from Israel?
And the rabbis have told us that any Gentile who wishes to be considered an Israelite in deed must practice the deeds of a true Israelite. And that means you must begin immediately to follow halakhah. And until such times as this is done, those of us who are of the house of Israel cannot mix with you in social matters. In fact, we have been quite distressed to hear that Jews and uncircumcised Gentiles have been getting together for meals. This must stop. And we Jews will have to hold separate Holy Day services from you Gentiles, as we are not able to eat with you, until such times as you rectify this situation by circumcision and obedience to the halakhah Law of Moses.
And, of course, far more serious for you than not being able to eat with us is the knowledge that you cannot be saved unless you become part of Israel. Of course, it is true that we all are made just in the eyes of God by faith in the blood of Christ. That is not the point. Since salvation comes from the Jews, you must become a Jew if God is going to apply the blood of Christ to you for your justification. But we trust you do want to be saved, and therefore to become part of God's chosen people Israel, and we know therefore that you will fulfill what we require.
Oh, and by the way. You must surely realize that a convert to Israel is obliged to enter into full ritual duties. We haven't seen any of your faces in Jerusalem yet. Remember the Ethiopian eunuch that Phillip baptized — he knew he must go to Jerusalem occasionally to pay homage to God. Haven't you been shamed by the greater zeal of some of your relatives who have converted to the truth of Israel but not of Jesus Christ, who make an annual trip to Jerusalem to carry out their ritual obligations? Shame on you. You are supposed to be an example to others. How can you feel you are honoring Christ if your friends and relatives who have converted to Judaism are more zealous than you who have converted to Christ?
The longer he spoke, the more tense the atmosphere became. Moshe noticed that Paul's face went from pink to red to crimson. When the service was over, it was on. Paul and Barnabas went immediately up to the speaker, and entered into vigorous discussion. A huge circle gathered around those locked in verbal battle. The first shot in the great debate had been fired.
Moshe and Nikos were shocked. What could they do? They had visited each other's homes regularly in Alexandria. What a paradox. Now they were both followers of Jesus Christ, through whom they both believed the wall between their respective peoples had been dismantled, and now they were being told the wall was still there. It had never occurred to either of them that a Gentile might actually have to become a Jew in order to enjoy the freedom found in Jesus Christ.
But they both took heart in the fact that Paul and Barnabas seemed to think the same way they did. And they were delighted to hear that Paul and Barnabas would go to Jerusalem to get it sorted out once and for all. Little did they realize that history was in the making.
For the next week, Moshe and Nikos got together as often as they could, making sure that they did not do anything in such a way as to upset the applecart for anyone. They met and talked in public places rather than going to Nikos's home, as that had just been outlawed by the delegation from Jerusalem. Moshe asked Nikos whether he had found it difficult keeping the Sabbath holy, and observing Holy Days, and abstaining from unclean foods, and tithing. Nikos responded that it wasn't a piece of cake by any means to turn one's life around. But he added that in Antioch, like elsewhere, there were many Gentiles who had converted to Judaism, so that at least he had no opposition from his family and friends. And when it came to time off work, well, that was no more a problem here in Antioch than anywhere else, as most everyone was self-employed in some kind of trade or craft.
Nikos did say, though, that he wasn't sure about whether or not he had to worry about the ceremonies of ritual cleanliness and the sacrifices that the book of Leviticus spoke so much about. He had been moved by the speaker from Jerusalem, and wondered if it is indeed true that Gentiles should make a trip to Jerusalem to fulfill such obligations. As Nikos pointed out, he had no access to a priesthood to put him through the rituals, and he was miles from Jerusalem and therefore could not offer any sacrifices. Perhaps he really should, like his Jewish brethren in Antioch, and like other full Gentile proselytes to Judaism in Antioch, following the scriptural example of Elkanah and Hannah, take a trip to Jerusalem occasionally to undergo some of these things. After all, Jesus himself had implied that offering sacrifices was a perfectly normal thing to do (Matt. 5:23-24). However, Nikos wasn't sure whether or not it was expected; it was all a bit hard to figure out. Moshe wasn't sure, either, whether these were universal regulations for all times, or whether they were merely, like circumcision, for Israel. They both expressed the hope that this would be discussed at the conference in Jerusalem.
Moshe returned to Jerusalem about the same time that Paul and Barnabas arrived. The entire church was abuzz with talk of the Antioch incident, and opinion was divided as to how the issue ought to be settled.
The Fateful Days: The Great Debate
As a leader in the Jerusalem congregation, Moshe was involved in the discussions. And what a lively debate it turned out to be. Like so many issues that seem so simple to begin with, this one turned into quite a complex affair, and the field of discussion expanded as the day (or days) wore on. There was a great deal of confusion to begin with as to what exactly was at stake, because so much stirring had occurred on the part of people with various agendas. Some thought the question was over whether or not the Scriptures showed that everyone, Gentiles included, must be circumcised, while others realized the bone of contention surrounded the question of whether or not Gentiles had to be naturalized as Jews.
Even those who were pushing for universal circumcision stated that the grounds for requiring circumcision was not that Scriptural law said it was necessary, but that if a Gentile wished to become a Jew he must be circumcised and it must be done "after the manner of Moses". In other words, they insisted that circumcision itself was not sufficient, but that it must be done according to the manner prescribed in the oral "Law of Moses". There was nothing in Scripture about a specific way in which it was to be carried out, but there was such instruction in the traditional law (Stern, p. 274). These hardliners were really going overboard.
Very quickly it became clear that the real debate was over whether or not a Gentile convert to Christianity must also become a convert to Judaism as a condition of salvation. And Moshe realized very well that Judaism was not the same thing as the religion of the Scriptures.
After much disputation, Peter took the stand and made a simple but profound point: neither they nor their forebears, loyal Jews every one of them, had been able to carry the full yoke of the Law of Moses. For a handful of nanoseconds Moshe wondered if he was referring to the written scriptural law. But then his knowledge of Scripture flooded into his mind. No. That's not what Peter was referring to. The law of God was never a burden. Not even the ceremonial parts of it. It was all a great blessing to Israel. Moshe remembered the words of the prophet Malachi, the very last of the prophets, who roundly chastised the post-exilic fathers for treating the sacrificial system as if it were a burden, and looked forward to a future day when even Gentiles would be delighted to bring offerings to God. The words rang loud and clear in his mind:
"Who is there even among you that would shut the doors for nought? neither do ye kindle fire on mine altar for nought. I have no pleasure in you, saith the Lord of hosts, neither will I accept an offering at your hand. For from the rising of the sun even unto the going down of the same my name shall be great among the Gentiles; and in every place incense shall be offered unto my name, and a pure offering: for my name shall be great among the heathen", saith the Lord of hosts (Mal.1:10-11).
He knew very well that God does not judge people for not being able to bear an unbearable burden. He remembered the words of David, that clearly showed that burnt offerings are pleasing to God, so long as they are preceded by a contrite heart:
For thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise. Do good in thy good pleasure unto Zion: build thou the walls of Jerusalem. Then shalt thou be pleased with the sacrifices of righteousness, with burnt offering and whole burnt offering: then shall they offer bullocks upon thine altar (Ps. 51:16-19).
No, the sacrificial system was not a burden, though it certainly troubled hardened hearts. He reflected on the fact that for Jews living miles away from Jerusalem, the sacrificial system could be considered a yoke. Some few Jews from the Diaspora had grumbled to him about feeling obliged to travel to Jerusalem occasionally to offer sacrifice and go through other temple-related rituals. But the vast majority quite enjoyed it. It was a part of being a Jew. They recognized that there were some great benefits from doing so.
Tithing perhaps the most onerous of all of God's statutes from a human perspective, was not a burden as originally given. It was a means of honoring God. How could that be a burden? (Prov. 3:9). It was a burden only to a hardened heart.
The great message of the exodus of Israel from Egypt was release from bondage. God did not give any aspect of the law at Sinai, including sacrifices, as another form of bondage (Goldsworthy 1981, p. 63-64). No, Moshe immediately recognized that it wasn't the law of God that had proven a burden but the traditional oral Law of Moses.
As the discussions continued, Moshe reflected on the fact that, with one exception, the laws of God, the written words of Scripture, were not a burden for Gentiles, either. He remembered well the huge population of God-fearers in Alexandria, who seemed quite delighted to observe the Sabbath, and go to the synagogue on holy days. Nikos had told him that both proselytes to Judaism and Gentile converts to Christianity in Antioch did not even consider tithing a burden. They were glad for the opportunity to honor God with their substance. It seemed rather ironical to Moshe that at that time tithing was less of a problem for Gentiles outside Palestine than it was for good Jews in Judea. In fact, on a few occasions the Gentiles outside the pale of Judea had sent care packages to the poor Jews of Jerusalem.
No. Indeed no. The law of God was not a burden. But the traditional oral Law of Moses certainly was.
Peter hammered the point that, in truth, the party espousing the need to observe the halakhah were in grave error. He emphasized that even for Jews it was burdensome to try to live by it. And worse, it was serious heresy to suggest that even a Jew would lose his salvation if he wasn't a "good" Jew, and didn't treat the halakhah as vital to maintaining a right relationship with God. Let any Jewish Christian who wished to live by halakhah do so if he wished. So long as he didn't view it as mediating his relationship with God. Naturally, Jewish Christians needed to exercise discretion in relation to rabbinical oral traditions — the Law of Moses — and not to flagrantly snub them in the presence of non-christian Jews. Yes, indeed. Let a Jew be a Jew. So long as he didn't look upon that fact as being his means of salvation. Faith in Christ was that means.
Peter's words struck home to Moshe with great force, when he almost shouted: "Brethren, we are followers of Jesus Christ first, and Jews second. We are brothers to Gentile Christians first, and to non-Christian Jews second." That seemed to say it all.
With these truths being espoused, it soon became evident that a Jewish Christian should not refuse to have dealings with a Christian Gentile simply because that Gentile did not want to renounce his Gentile background and live as a Jew. If Jews had difficulty living as Jews, how absurd to expect a Gentile to do so! No longer could a Christian Jew look upon a Gentile as unclean merely because he was a Gentile, and refuse to eat with him. A Gentile who had faith in Christ was justified in exactly the same manner as a Jew who had faith. And no human being who has been justified by God and thereby declared spotless should be looked upon as still in his spots by any human being.
James then spoke, and showed from Scripture itself that God was not the God of Israel only but of all nations, and that the time was coming, and now was beginning, when all Gentile nations would seek God and be found by Him. Yet these prophecies gave no hint that such Gentiles would have to renounce their Gentile cultures, and become assimilated into the house of Israel. No naturalization process was necessary. Renouncing one's former family and friends most certainly was not hinted at in Scripture.
The basic issue was emerging from the fog of confusion into the broad light of day. However, as the basic issue was clarified, the discussion naturally progressed into the much thornier issue of the duties of a Gentile Christian towards the temple — the house of worship that God gave to Israel, with all its glorious rigmarole. Though human accretions to the law were thunderingly denounced, it was taken as a given that one cannot ignore the word of God itself. Were the Gentiles doing just that?
The circumcision party was not a bunch of lily-livered wimps. Beaten in the first round, they weren't finished. They sharpened their sticks as they piously drew attention to the alleged failing of the Gentiles in Antioch to visit Jerusalem to sacrifice or be cleansed. Out came the scriptures. Attention focused on the book of Leviticus. For in this book were some very clear universal laws that were obviously applicable to all mankind who wished to serve God. One of the circumcision party was quick to point this out, citing Leviticus 19:15-17 as a case in point:
Ye shall do no unrighteousness in judgment: thou shalt not respect the person of the poor, nor honor the person of the mighty: but in righteousness shalt thou judge thy neighbour. Thou shalt not go up and down as a talebearer among thy people: neither shalt thou stand against the blood of thy neighbour: I am the Lord. Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thine heart: thou shalt in any wise rebuke thy neighbour, and not suffer sin upon him.
And then the verse immediately following it, that Jesus himself quoted as the second great commandment:
Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself: I am the Lord.
If such obviously superior ethics appear in Leviticus, then surely everything else in there had to be observed as well, house purifications and all. The leaders of the circumcision party were quick to point out that proselytes to Judaism poured into Jerusalem by the thousands every year to worship at the house of God. Where were the Antioch Gentile Christians? They were willing to observe Sabbath and Holy Days, but not willing to go all the way in obedience and go all the way to Jerusalem to fulfill all their biblical obligations. Proselytes to Judaism were showing themselves more zealous for God than the converts to Christianity.
Others in attendance, though, pointed out that the book of Leviticus was clearly a mix of universal and local legislation. Some laws were clearly related only to the ritualism of the sanctuary, being ceremonial holiness regulations. The most obvious were the regulations that governed the sacrifices themselves. The sacrifices were voluntary, and not even Jews living in the Diaspora had to travel to Jerusalem to carry out such things. Some laws, such as statutes dealing with the redemption of land, were limited to the Promised Land itself (Lev. 25:24). (However, the Jubilee year was not being observed anywhere in Paul's day, and the Sabbatical year was not being observed in areas outside Palestine (Encyclopedia Judaica, Vol. 14, page 582, and Jewish Encyclopedia, p. 666). Jews in the Diaspora did not practice these.
But some were not so obvious. It was a little hard to tell whether rules prohibiting eating blood and strangled things, and eating meat offered to idols, and rules of prohibited consanguinity were of universal significance, or were only part of the tabernacle holiness code regulating who could offer sacrifices and how they were to be offered. Exploration of these and other passages showed that they were of universal significance. The statements in Leviticus specifically applied them to strangers. In addition, Deuteronomy also mentioned that blood should not be eaten, and it was stated in Deuteronomy in a non-tabernacle context. Yet it was determined that much in the book of Leviticus was not obligatory even for Jews under the old covenant to observe. Especially if they lived miles from Jerusalem. These regulations were given as a great blessing for Israelites while they lived in the Promised Land if they wished to be have their sins atoned. They were not mandatory even for Israelites; even less so for Gentiles.
The meeting closed with a specific statement that these regulations under question from the book of Leviticus applied to all peoples of all times, even though so much else in Leviticus was of limited scope. The universal must not be lost in the limiting of the ceremonial.
The day ended as a great victory for the cause of truth. Jews and Gentiles alike who trust in Jesus Christ have salvation — equally. Even Jews did not have to live by halakhic legalistic restrictions for the sake of salvation. Gentiles certainly did not have to learn to live as Jews, shouldering burdens that even they could not fully bear. But woe betide them if they despised and deposed the written Word of God.
Moshe could hardly wait to see Nikos again.
References and notes
Buttrick, G. A. (ed.) 1962, The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, in four volumes, Abingdon Press
Goldsworthy, G. 1981, Gospel and Kingdom, Lancer Books, Homebush West
Johnson, P. 1976, A History of Christianity, Touchstone, New York
Stern, D. H. 1992, Jewish New Testament Commentary, Jewish New Testament Publications, Inc., Clarksville
Dawn to Dusk publications
Other printed material
The themes covered in this article are dealt with in much greater detail in Showdown in Jerusalem
Krister Stendahl, Paul Among Jews and Gentiles (easy reading)
Hendrikus Boers, The Justification of the Gentiles (for serious students)
Floating Navigation Bar
|Edited and expanded copies of this article, in reprint pamphlet form, can be purchased by going to the reprints order page.
As well as reprints, Dawn to Dusk offers books in printed form and on CD-ROM. We mail to anywhere in the world! For more information on what is available, prices, and how to order, click the icon.