New Testament Dietary Laws – Different for Jews and Gentiles

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Most Gentile Christians know of Jewish dietary laws in the Old Testament but not what made foods ‘unclean’ or what role these laws served.  Few are aware that there are dietary laws set out for Gentile Christians in the New Testament that are not simply a matter of individual ‘conscience’.  What are these and how did differing food laws for Jewish believers and Gentile Christians impact social interaction between us in the first century? Are these still in effect and if so, what are the implications for social interactions today. That is the topic of this article.

Is that Kosher?

The only time most people encounter the expression “is that kosher?” is as a euphemism for “is that ‘legit’ “ but the word kosher has a very specific meaning in the Tanakh (Old Testament). The term kosher comes from the Hebrew word כָּשֵׁר (kasher) meaning “fit” – as in ‘fit for consumption’ and refers to food that is fit to eat according to Jewish dietary law.

The Torah (the Law of God as recorded by Moses) outlines the Jewish dietary laws in Leviticus 11:1-47 and Deuteronomy 14: 3-20, with the passage in Deuteronomy beginning and ending with the underlying reason for them;

“…you are a holy people belonging to the Lord your God. The Lord has chosen you to be His own possession out of all the peoples on the face of the earth.”

Leviticus 14:2

The Jews were called over and over again throughout the Old Testament to live in a manner that distinguished them from the nations [Gentiles] around them; not to go after their gods and not to practice their customs that God described as abominations.

The Jewish dietary laws, along with circumcision and the practices involving Sabbath and the Feasts delineate the Jews as a people. Jews were to be distinctive so that the nations around us would see us as set apart as a holy people.

The laws associated with how we as Jews conduct ourselves are  collectively known as halakha and are divided into laws of diet, purity and idolatry.  Much of the confusion by the early Church Fathers in interpreting texts to do with Jewish dietary laws had to do with a failure to understand that in the Jewish mind of the first century there was a distinction between laws of purity and dietary laws and the laws of idolatry and dietary laws. We will elaborate on this further on in this article as well as a future article on whether Christianity evolved from the Judaism of the second Temple period.

For Jews, not eating certain foods was never a matter of salvation; eating foods that were unclean was not a sin requiring atonement.

Leviticus 11 refers to the foods the Jews were not to eat not as unclean or detestable – but as “unclean for you” (Lev 11:8) or “detestable to you” (Lev 11:12, 13a, 20 & Deut 14:7, 14:10, 14:19).  In the construct of the phrase “detestable to you” (l’chem hem t’meh-im), the l’ denotes purpose, intention or result. These animals did not possess an objective property called “impurity”; they were not in and by themselves unclean – they were to be considered unclean to us, as Jews – to be considered detestable to us, as Jews. The purpose, intention or result was to delineate us from the nations around us.

In case we missed it, the reason why were to not eat these foods is repeated again at the end of the lists of animals, fish, birds and insects in Deuteronomy 14:21a.

“…For you are a holy people belonging to the Lord your God.”

Deuteronomy 14:21a

We know these foods were not unclean in and by themselves, because it says in Deuteronomy 14:21b that we can give them to a “temporary resident living within your gates and he may eat it or you may sell it to a foreigner [a Gentile]”.  The Law was abundantly clear that we were not to mistreat Gentiles in any way; if these creatures were unclean in themselves and unfit for people to eat, God would not have permitted us to give them or sell them to Gentiles to eat.


Does the New Testament abolish the Jewish Dietary Laws?

There are two passages in the New Testament that are commonly raised as ‘proving’ that the Jewish Dietary Laws were abolished, so we will address ourselves to these;

  1. Peter’s Vision in Acts 10
  2. “Nothing going into a man from the outside can defile him” from Mark Chapter 7

1. Peter’s vision in Acts 10

The scene opens with Cornelius, a Roman centurion and a man described as devout and God-fearing having an angel of the Lord appear to him.  The angel told Cornelius to send men to Joppa and call for Simon, who is also called Peter and so he did.

Independently, Peter who was staying with Simon the tanner went up on the housetop around noon the following day to pray.  He became hungry and wanted something to eat and while Simon the tanner’s household was preparing the food, Peter had a vision. Peter saw something that resembled a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners. In the sheet were all the four-footed animals and reptiles of the earth and the birds of the sky.  Peter heard a voice say to him “Get up, Peter; kill and eat!” Peter replied, “no!” insisting that he has “never eaten anything common and ritually unclean!

Peter heard the voice a second time, this time saying “what God has made clean, you must not call common.” This happened three times, and then the object was taken up into heaven.

People who say this passage refers to God declaring that foods that were considered ‘unclean’ (unkosher) to Jews were now considered ‘clean’ (kosher) and God was saying Peter and the Jews could eat them, haven’t read the rest of the story.

The text says that “Peter was deeply perplexed about what the vision he had seen might mean” (10:17) and was thinking about the vision (10:19) when the Spirit told him to go downstairs and let the men Cornelius had sent in. The next day Peter set out with them for Cornelius’ house and when he arrived, Cornelius met him. Given how perplexed he was and that he had been reflecting on it while at Simon the Tanner’s house, Peter probably continued to ponder the meaning of the vision as he traveled to Cornelius’ house. When they had arrived and walked into Cornelius’ house, Peter noticed that there was a huge crowd of Gentiles already there and Peter said to them;

You know it’s forbidden for a Jewish man to associate with or visit a foreigner [Gentile] but God has shown me that I must not call any person common or unclean.

Acts 10:28

It’s at this point it is clear that Peter understood the vision and that it had nothing to do with food, but people.

On a side note, when Peter said that it was forbidden for a Jewish man to associate with or visit with a Gentile, he was speaking from the standpoint of the Pharisees interpretation of the Law. There is no commandment in the written Torah forbidding Jews from visiting with or associating with Gentiles but what made it forbidden by the rabbis according to their Oral Law was that Gentiles were associated with idolatry — something Jews were not to associate with.

Something that is very important to keep in mind is that the laws of idolatry are an entirely different area of halakha than the dietary laws.

If there was any doubt from the passage in Mark that it was people the vision was referring to and not food, in Acts 11 Peter retells the whole event again and in verse 11 and 12 says;

“At that very moment, three men sent to me from Caesarea arrived at the house where we were. The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make distinction between them and us”.

Acts 11:11-12

Interestingly, in Acts 15:8-9, Peter uses this same phrase again.  He speaks of the giving of the Holy Spirit to the Gentiles as them having had their hearts ‘cleansed’ by faith and that He [the Holy Spirit] made no distinction between them [Gentiles] and us [Jews].

“And God, who knows the heart, testified to them by giving the Holy Spirit, just as He also did to us. He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith.”

Acts 15:8-9

Note here that Gentiles Christians were no longer “unclean” because they were no longer idolaters. That is what ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ in these passages refers to.

  1. Mark Chapter 7 – “Nothing going into a man from the outside can defile him”

As we did above, let’s set the scene.

The Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Him. They observed that some of His disciples were eating their bread with unclean—that is, unwashed—hands. (For the Pharisees, in fact all the Jews, will not eat unless they wash their hands ritually, keeping the tradition of the elders. When they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they have washed. And there are many other customs they have received and keep, like the washing of cups, jugs, copper utensils, and dining couches. Then the Pharisees and the scribes asked Him, “Why don’t Your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders, instead of eating bread with ritually unclean hands?

Mark 7: 1-5

This is where Jesus replies and quotes a passage in Isaiah and applies it to the Pharisees;

the people honouring Me with their lips but their heart is far from Me.  They worship Me in vain, teaching as doctrines the commands of men

Mark 7: 6-7

As if there was any doubt what Jesus was saying to the Pharisees, Jesus elaborates;

Disregarding the command of God, you keep the tradition of men.” He also said to them, “You completely invalidate God’s command in order to maintain your tradition!

In verse 11-13, Jesus talks about the practice that the Pharisees had of encouraging men to give money to the Temple that was supposed to be to care for their parents — thereby overlooking God’s command to ‘honour your father and mother’.  Then Jesus said to the Pharisees;

“You revoke God’s word by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many other similar things.” Summoning the crowd again, He told them, “Listen to Me, all of you, and understand: Nothing that goes into a person from outside can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him. [If anyone has ears to hear, he should listen!]” When He went into the house away from the crowd, the disciples asked Him about the parable. And He said to them, “Are you also as lacking in understanding? Don’t you realize that nothing going into a man from the outside can defile him? For it doesn’t go into his heart but into the stomach and is eliminated.” (As a result, He made all foods clean. Then He said, “What comes out of a person—that defiles him. For from within, out of people’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immoralities, thefts, murders, adulteries, greed, evil actions, deceit, promiscuity, stinginess, blasphemy, pride, and foolishness.  All these evil things come from within and defile a person.”

Two theologians, James D.G. Dunn (Jesus, Paul and the Law, 1990, pg 51) and E.P. Sanders (Jewish Law From Jesus to Mishnah, pg 28) make the same point that this passage is contrasting two issues and that the “not…but” contrast is not to be taken literally. That is the phrase “not what goes in but what comes out” (Mark 7:15) could well mean that “what comes out – the wickedness of a person’s heart is what really matters, leaving the food laws untouched.

Mark S. Kinzer (Post-Missionary Messianic Judaism, 2005, pg 54) says that the passage in Mark 7:15 would be similar to the quotation from Hosea 6:6 that Jesus quotes in Matt 9:13 and 12:7 “I desire mercy not sacrifice”. Kinzer says that in both passages “sacrifice” is associated with restrictions; on eating with sinners (Matt 9:13) and plucking and eating grain on the Sabbath (Matt 12:7).  Jesus’ quotation from Hosea in the context of Matthew is Jesus saying that ‘mercy is the more important when compared to ritual restrictions”.  Jesus isn’t nullifying all ritual restrictions but in this passage and in the one in Mark 7:15, He is emphasizing the ‘weightier matters of the Law”. Kinzer understands the Mark 7:15 passage to be taken to make a prioritization of categories of impurity, rather than a denial of physical impurity.

Personally, we see an additional factor. When we look back at the passages in Leviticus and Deuteronomy that define foods as fit for consumption for Jews or not, the foods were not unclean in and by themselves.  Both the passages in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14 refers to the foods the Jews were not to eat as “unclean for you” (Lev 11:8) or “detestable to you” (Lev 11:12, 13a, 20 & Deut 14:7, 14:10, 14:19).  In the Hebrew it is even more clear that the very construct of the phrase “detestable to you” (l’chem hem t’meh-im), the l’ denotes the purpose, intention or result.

As mentioned earlier, these animals did not possess an objective property called “impurity”; they were not in and by themselves unclean – they were to be considered unclean to us, as Jews – to be considered detestable to us, as Jews with the purpose, intention or result being to delineate us from the nations around us.

More importantly,  when Jesus said that “nothing that goes into a person from outside can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him”. Jesus was speaking about defilement and defilement is a matter related to Jewish purity laws and not Jewish dietary laws.  Purity laws, like laws related to idolatry are a different area of halakha from dietary laws.

Another thing that is needed to understand this passage is that under the Law, most cases eating a food that was considered unclean was not a sin in need of atonement but was rectified by washing and waiting until sunset.

In this passage, Jesus was saying that eating an unclean food DID NOT defile someone but that even thoughts of these DID; evil thoughts, sexual immoralities, thefts, murders, adulteries, greed, evil actions, deceit, promiscuity, stinginess, blasphemy, pride, and foolishness. The first matter (of eating an unclean food) never needed atonement even in the Old Testament.  Jesus is teaching here that the second matter (of unclean thoughts and desires) does.

Isolating the New Testament from the Old Testament results compartmentalization which is at its heart is a failure to see that the New Testament is contiguous with the Old and that the teachings of Jesus are entirely consistent with the teachings of the Old.  It also often results in people appropriately interpreting and understanding what is being spoken of in the New.

These two passages are only two examples where people think the passage is referring to something entirely different than would be understood from a first century Jewish perspective.

With regards to Jesus declaring all foods clean (vs 19), some scholars say this verse is a later textual addition, made to try and make sense of what Jesus just said.  Even if we assume this is in the original text neither food nor the Gentiles are unclean in and by themselves — certain foods were to be considered unclean and this served as a social delineator. Likewise, under Jewish law it is the practice of idolatry that made Jews forbidden to associate with Gentiles [something that was no longer an issue for Jewish believers when Gentiles become Christians].

These social delineators set the Jews apart from the nations around them in much the same way as the Church being called to bein the world not of the world (John 17:16).


Gentile Dietary Laws in the New Testament – say what?

Most people have some idea of Jewish dietary laws (at least in the Old Testament) yet have no idea there are explicit dietary laws for Gentiles in the New Testament.

In Acts, when the Holy Spirit fell on the Gentiles,  some of the Jewish believers who were Pharisees (Acts 15:5) thought it was necessary for the Gentile Christians to be circumcised and keep the law of Moses. Paul and Barnabas and some others went to the Apostles and Elders in Jerusalem and after there had been much debate, settled the matter. Gentiles did not need to be circumcised, observe the Sabbath, keep the dietary laws or any of the other commands of the Law but were to ;

“(1) abstain from things polluted by idols, (2) from sexual immorality, (3) from eating anything that has been strangled and (4) from blood”

Acts 15:20

As covered in a previous article, these four laws were the same laws set out in Leviticus 17 & 18 for Gentiles living amongst Jews in the Old Testament;

(1) abstain from things polluted by idols; (Leviticus 17:7-8) “They must no longer offer their sacrifices to the goat-demons that they have prostituted themselves with. This will be a permanent statute for them throughout their generations. Say to them: Anyone from the house of Israel or from the foreigners who live among them who offers a burnt offering or a sacrifice but does not bring it to the entrance to the tent of meeting to sacrifice it to the Lord, that person must be cut off from his people.

(2) abstain from sexual immorality; (Leviticus 18:1-26) “Do not profane the name of your God; I am Yahweh. You are not to sleep with a man as with a woman; it is detestable. You are not to have sexual intercourse with[f] any animal, defiling yourself with it; a woman is not to present herself to an animal to mate with it; it is a perversion….You must not commit any of these detestable things—not the native or the foreigner who lives among you.(Leviticus 18:21, 26)

(3) abstain from eating anything that has been strangled (Leviticus 17:15) “Every person, whether the native or the foreigner, who eats an animal that …was mauled by wild beasts is to wash his clothes and bathe with water, and he will remain unclean until evening; then he will be clean. 16 But if he does not wash his clothes and bathe himself, he will bear his punishment.”

(4) abstain from eating blood (Leviticus 17:10,12) “Anyone from the house of Israel or from the foreigners who live among them who eats any blood, I will turn against that person who eats blood and cut him off from his people…Therefore I say to the Israelites: None of you and no foreigner who lives among you may eat blood

Three of these four laws for Gentile Christians are dietary food laws and two of the four were explicitly dietary laws for Gentiles living amongst Jews in the Old Testament;

  1. abstain from eating anything that has been strangled
  2. abstain from eating blood

As for the third law, the matter of

3. abstaining from things polluted by idols, the issue as to whether food could be polluted by idols and therefore unfit for Gentile Christians to eat (as well as Jews) was raised by Paul in 1 Corinthians 8 -10. Paul teaches that Gentile Christians should abstain from eating as soon as another’s conscience appears to be directed to idolatry. As long as no idolatrous consciousness is signaled, Gentile Christians could eat what is being offered “without asking” (1 Cor 10:25, 27).

So yes, Gentile Christians under the New Testament had dietary food laws.

Something to consider…

Why would the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 have needed to meet to decide whether Gentiles had to undergo circumcision and follow Jewish dietary customs if the Jewish believers in the first century no longer did so? It makes no sense.


Gentile Dietary Laws Today

As with the Jewish dietary laws, there is nothing in the New Testament that indicates the the dietary food laws for Gentile Christians were abolished.  As a result, it seems to us that these same three dietary laws still apply to Gentile Christians now.

As far as we can see, Gentile Christians should still;

  1. abstain from eating anything that has been strangled
  2. abstain from eating blood; which would include foods commonly available in many European cultures such as “boudin” (blood sausage) and a food commonly eaten in Chinese culture, pork blood.
  3. abstaining from things polluted by idols may not  seem like it could be much of an issue today, but a matter of conscience may still be raised for Gentile Christians with regard to food being offered to idols in many South East Asian grocery stores and restaurants.  Having a look around in many Chinese, Vietnamese and Thai restaurants one can find food being offered in front of a Buddha idol.  Whether Gentile Christians want to eat  or buy food in such places can still be a matter of conscience. We have also heard of Gentile Christians (and Jewish believers) not wanting to purchase or eat ‘halal’ meat which has been slaughter while pronouncing Islamic blessings.

Were Jewish Dietary Laws a Barrier to Fellowship with Gentiles in the First Century

We’ve heard it said that Paul and the other disciples must have had to ‘ease up’ on observance of the dietary laws when they went on journeys, especially when amongst Gentiles; failing to realize that keeping Jewish dietary laws in the first century was fairy easy.

The list of foods from the Law of Moses that Jews are to consider unclean is so small and is limited to pork and shellfish and meat from clean animals if they were killed in a way that made them unkosher (e.g. strangled or killed by another animal). But Gentile Christians weren’t to eat meat that had been strangled either!  If the meat had been offered to idols then Jewish believers would not eat it and Gentile Christians would not eat it, if doing so was a matter of conscience.

What is important to know is that by and large, meat was not central to the diet during this time and most of the calories in the diet came from vegetarian sources.  Besides, it took a long time to raise any animal for food and without any refrigeration, all of a large animal would need to be eaten so it was not something that was regularly consumed.


What Foods were Commonly Eaten in the First Century?

We know that 70% of daily calories in the first century diet came from grains (emmet wheat, barley and millet) and most common protein sources were legumes (like chickpeas, lentils, etc). Goat milk cheese or sheep’s milk cheese was made as was fermented milk products such as yogourt.  Fresh leafy vegetables were eaten with vinegar and olive oil and cured olives were available even to those on a very limited budget and figs, dates and pomegranate were available in season as were a variety of nuts.

Jewish believers in the first century could eat most foods that would have commonly had been offered by Gentiles to visitors; that of bread, legumes [chickpeas, lentils], fresh greens, yogourt, cheese, fruit [such as pomegranate, figs and dates].

Chicken, beef, lamb and goat were animals commonly raised throughout the Roman Empire as well as pork but as mentioned above, meat was not central to the diet.  It was easy for Jewish believers to avoid pork or for Gentile Christians or Jewish believers to avoid meat if there was a question of it having been offered to idols.

As we have demonstrated, for a Jew to follow Jewish dietary laws according to the written Law of Moses in the first century did not pose a barrier to fellowship with Gentiles.


Food Laws as a Barrier to Fellowship – today

We’ve heard it said that Jewish believers observing the dietary laws today “divides the body” and puts a strain on having fellowship together.

We don’t see that Jewish believers observing Jewish dietary laws divides the Body of Messiah any more than those that abstain from meat.  If it is okay for people to be vegetarians within the body of Messiah then it should be just as okay for us as Jews to not eat pork or shellfish.

If anything, Gentile Christians expecting Jewish believers not to observe Jewish dietary laws is dividing the Body; for the same reason as Judaizing was in the first century — except that it is in reverse.  Gentiles “Gentilizing” Jews is no different than Jews Judaizing Gentiles.

What would Paul have to say about Gentile Christians expecting Jewish believers to act like Gentiles in the Church?

Here is something that may help understand what we are getting at; the next time you are reading a passage from Paul dealing with the first century issue of Judaizing, take out the term “Judaizing” and replace it with “Gentilizing” and swap Jew for Gentile.  This should provide some helpful insights.

Imposing our cultural distinctions on the other is wrong regardless which side it comes from.

Should the Church not be a place where the Jew feels welcome — not needing to assimilate?


So why should we continue to observe these Dietary Laws?

If neither Jesus nor Paul nor any other of the Apostles abolished the dietary laws then why as Jews should we?

Furthermore, as we taught in a previous article (on Jesus as a prophet like Moses),  Jesus said in speaking to Jews in the preamble to the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5) that those Jews that practice and teach the commands to other Jews would be called great in the kindgom and those that do not practice and teach other Jews to practice them and teach other Jews to do so would be called least in the kingdom.  Clearly both those that do and those that do not are “in the kingdom” so the practice of these things has nothing to do with salvation.  Jesus said we would be called great in the kingdom if we practice the commands and teach other [Jews] to. Who are we to overrule Jesus’ exhortation?

As it was in Biblical times, the practice of the dietary laws by Jewish believers today delineates us as the people with whom God made an everlasting covenant in Genesis 17:7-8 and marks us as ones set apart for the purposes of God.  We don’t see this as any different than being called to be “in the world, not of the world“.  Whether Jewish believers or Gentile Christians, we are to be a people set apart.


Neither Jew Nor Greek

We often hear people saying to us that we should not keep the dietary laws because “there is neither Jew nor Greek [Gentile] now”.  If there is neither Jew nor Gentile then there is neither male nor female (Gal 3:28)!  As Daniel says sarcastically: “then cut it off gentlemen”.

Is there still male and female?  Yes. Then there is still Jew and Gentile.


Equal but Different

We want to be very clear that we believe without question that Gentile Christians and Jewish believers are absolutely equal before God, we are equal but different.

Let’s let’s not confuse equality with uniformity

In the first century, the Jerusalem Counsel in Acts 15 came to the conclusion that Gentiles didn’t have to act like Jews to be in the Church and were fully equal with Jews without keeping the Law of Moses.

Why is it that today, Jewish believers are expected to act like Gentiles?

 

A Visit from the Mormons

mormon-missionariesIt’s not every day that we get a visit from the Mormons and you can imagine their shock when they found us engaged in Scripture study with a four volume Hebrew-English Interlinear and Strong’s Concordance at the ready. Daniel answered the door and invited our visitors in. This post is about their visit with us.

Wow, you are having a Bible study?  What are you studying?”, asked one of the Elders.

Actually, we are studying the Sabbath.” I replied. “You know, Saturday, not to be confused with Sunday, which is the Lord’s Day.”

They smiled politely (likely having no idea what I was talking about!). One of the Elders asked us why we were studying it.

Daniel replied “Because the command to the Jews to observe the Sabbath was given as an everlasting statute throughout the generations and we are studying what the actual observance was commanded by God, separate and apart from what the Pharisees taught.”

Still smiling, and likely still having no idea what we were talking about, one Elder says “You know, that Jesus came to fulfill the Law and that those who wanted to enter the kingdom of heaven needed to follow His new commandments, like in the Sermon on the Mount”.

Actually,” said Daniel “the word “end” in Greek is “telios” which is more correctly translated “goal” rather than “end” .

Yes“, I added.  “If you look at the end of Matthew 4 you’ll see He was talking to the Jews who had followed Him there from from the Galilee, the Decopolis, Judea and Samaria and from beyond the Jordan.  He was saying to them “you have heard it said” meaning ‘in the Law of Moses’ “but I tell you” this is what it means.  He wasn’t giving a new law but telling the Jews what the actual meaning of the Law of Moses was.”

Daniel said to the Elder; “Did you know that when Jesus came if He actually taught something different than the Law of Moses taught, that the Old Testament says that we would have been right to kill Him, right?

Talk about an awkward silence!

Daniel waited an appropriate amount of time for that to sink in then added, “Deuteronomy 13 says that if a prophet comes and says anything that causes us to no longer follow what God had told us previously that this proved he was a false prophet.  If Jesus actually taught us to follow a new law  instead of the Law of Moses this would have proven He was a false prophet and we would have been right to kill Him. He also couldn’t have been the Messiah because if He is a false prophet, He is also a heretic.  And heretics don’t make good Messiahs”.

Then Daniel said, “Did you know what the purpose of the Law was? Genesis 18 says what it is.  The purpose of the Law is to reflect God’s character which is righteousness, justice and faithfulness.  It says there that God chose the descendants of Abraham through Isaac and Jacob to give the Law to because, quote: “Abraham will command his children and his house after him to keep the ways of the Lord by doing what is right and just“.  The purpose of the Law was for us to act like God; doing what is right and just. God’s character doesn’t change, and since the purpose of the Law was to reflect His character, there is no reason to do away with it.

Yes,” I added.  “Everything that Jesus taught was in accordance with the Law of Moses. Jesus upheld the Law at every turn.  You should have a look at our blog page, we covered that in a recent article about Jesus being a Prophet like Moses“.

Turning the tables a little bit, we gave them the url for our blog.

So,” said one of the Elders, changing the subject. “Have you ever read the Book of Mormon?“.

Yes, let me go get it!” replied Daniel.

The two young Mormons were shocked.

Daniel returns with the Book of Mormon, with his notes sticking out of it and two NASB New Testaments with Psalms and Proverbs.  “Here, a gift to each of you!“.  Reaching out they each take one of the New Testaments and replied “wow! Thanks!”  One tried to fit it in his shirt pocket behind his name tag but it wouldn’t fit.  Thanking Daniel again, they held onto the New Testaments.

So what did you think of the Book of Mormon?“, asked one of the Elders to Daniel.

Well I haven’t read the whole thing, because I am going through it very carefully.  I mean, if you want me to consider whether this is ‘another testament of Jesus Christ’ I have to make sure it is consistent with what the Old and New Testament say, right?”

Yes of course!” the Elder replied.

I piped in “you know, I was born and raised in a Jewish home and I have been a believer in Jesus as Messiah and Lord for 33 years.  Do you think I just became a believer in Jesus because somebody knocked on my door, told me Jesus was the Messiah and gave me a New Testament?”

There was another pregnant silence.

Having the same talk we had with the Mormons that visited with us in our last house, I asked “how could I know that the New Testament was Scripture?”

There was no reply.

When I read the New Testament if it contradicted what the Tanakh taught (that’s what Christians call the ‘Old Testament’), then I would have rejected it. I knew the Old Testament was God’s word, so if the New Testament was too, it should not contract it. “

Yeah, God is not going to contradict Himself“, added Daniel.

I continued, “If the Christians that first talked to me about Jesus being the Messiah promised to the Jewish people had said that Jesus brought in a ‘new law’ instead of the Law of Moses or said that Sunday was the ‘new Sabbath’ in place of Saturday or that Jesus taught that the Jews could eat pork, do you think I would have given them five minutes?  That’s why it is important for Christians and you guys as Mormons to read and study what Jesus and Paul said and what it actually meant in its first century Jewish context! If you don’t know the culture and beliefs of the Jews, you’re going to miss it!  Using those three examples, Sunday is the Lord’s Day, the day Jesus rose from the dead.  If you read through the whole New Testament, the word ‘Sabbath’ only refers to Friday night to Saturday night. The passages people confuse with saying Jews could eat unclean foods either had nothing to do with food at all, or are mixing up the different types of Halakha.”

Daniel continued, “its crazy how many Gentile Christians don’t take the time to learn these things! People will say “Oh, you know the New Testament does away with dietary laws“. They only say that because they haven’t taken the time to study the New Testament in its first century Jewish context.  They take passages that are dealing with purity laws and say ‘see, food doesn’t defile you!’, mixing up purity laws and dietary laws! Or they mix up idolatry laws and purity laws, not knowing there is a difference!

Jesus explicitly said in Matthew 5:17-19 that any of you (speaking to the Jews) that keep the least of the commandments and teach others to practice them and keep them themselves will be called great in the kingdom.  And those that don’t practice and teach others to practice will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus was referring to the commands in the Law and the Prophets.

The Mormons, had absolutely no idea what Daniel or I were taking about. Then doing what they usually do when they don’t like or know anything about the topic, they changed the subject.

One of them asked Daniel; “so what did you think of the Book of Mormon?

Well, like my mom was saying, as a Jew when she was presented with the New Testament, the way she determined if it was of God was to compare it to the Old Testament, what we call the Tanakh.  If the teachings of the New Testament contradicted what the Old Testament said, then she’d know it could not be from God.  God doesn’t change and neither does what He says.  What He says through the whole Old Testament and whole New Testament is the consistent, in fact, Jesus teaches from the Law of Moses…everything He says is out of the Law, the Prophets and the Writings — the Old Testament.  Even the Early Church made decisions for what was appropriate behaviour for Gentiles, from the Law of Moses! So, the test for the Book of Mormon which you guys call ‘another Testament of Jesus Christ’ is to hold it to the same test and compare what it says with what the Old and New Testament say.  If it conflicts, then respectfully, I have to reject it as Scripture or from God.

And what did you find?”

Well there were things in the Book of Mormon that didn’t conflict with the Bible and I was fine with those, but let me give you an example of something that stood out to me a couple of pages into the first book.”

“1 Nephi?” one of the Mormons asked.

Yeah“, replied Daniel opening the Book of Mormon.  “It says here in Nephi 1:4 and at the beginning of Chapter 2, that the events took place during the first year of the reign of Zedekiah and that this was in 600 BC, right? But Johoiakim was king of Judah until his death during a siege of Jerusalem in 597 BC according to the Babylonian Chronicles. So the dates in the Book of Mormon are wrong. Furthermore, the Book of Mormon has Nephi prophesying to King Zedekiah, king of Judah in a year that Zedekiah wasn’t yet king about the taking of exiles from the siege, but Zedekiah was only made king by Nebuchadnezzar after the taking of exiles. It’s pretty easy to prophesy about something that already happened but it’s impossible to do it to a king who wasn’t king yet.

You could have heard a pin drop.  Silence.

Turning their attention away from Daniel, one of the Elders says to me  “I want to read you something from the book of Alma, Alma 25:15-16.

I replied “sure“.


Yea, and they did keep the law of Moses; for it was expedient that they should keep the law of Moses as yet, for it was not all fulfilled. But notwithstanding the law of Moses, they did look forward to the coming of Christ, considering that the law of Moses was a type of his coming, and believing that they must keep those outward performances until the time that he should be revealed unto them. Now they did not suppose that salvation came by the law of Moses; but the law of Moses did serve to strengthen their faith in Christ; and thus they did retain a hope through faith, unto eternal salvation, relying upon the spirit of prophecy, which spake of those things to come.” Book of Mormon, Alma 25:15-16


What do you think?”, the Elder asks me.

Replying I said “First of all, the purpose of the Law wasn’t for salvation, it was so that our people would be a light to the nations by reflecting God’s character of righteousness, justice and faithfulness. Secondly, no where in the New Testament does it say that the Jews must only keep the ‘outer performances’ until a time He would reveal.  In fact, Jesus took issue with those that concerned themselves with the ‘outer performances’ of the Law, while neglecting the inner issues of the heart.  He never said ‘don’t concern yourself with the ‘outer performance’ but He did say not to neglect the ‘weightier matters of the law’ which are what is happening inside. Paul said something about a future time that is coming and that is “when the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled”, that is when God will turn His attention back to the salvation of Israel”.

Then Daniel added “and as for the Jews not needing to keep the ‘outer performances’, in Matthew 23:23 Jesus said to the Pharisees;


You tithe mint, dill and cumin, but you have neglected the more important matters of the law–justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.


Daniel continued, “Jesus actually upheld the Law as He always did, in this case saying they should have practiced justice, mercy and faithfulness which are the more important matters but not neglected to tithe mint, dill and cumin“.

Glancing at the time and noticing it was ten to 4,  I turned to Daniel and said “we need to get ready to go to services‘.

One of the Mormons was curious why we went on Saturday night.  I explained, we keep Saturday as Sabbath because we are Jews and added that there is no requirement for Gentile Christians to do so, and that the early Church met on the first day of the week after Jesus’ resurrection, and since most of the disciples were Jews, for them Sunday began Saturday night at sundown.

Daniel added “yeah even though Shabbat hasn’t ended yet, Saturday night makes more sense for us than Sunday because it is our day of rest.  We both work on Sunday.”

They asked if they could return next Saturday, and we said “sure“.  I suggested that they come a bit earlier, so we can have a time of study and not be rushed for getting to services.  “3 o’clock?” asked one of the Elders. “3 o’clock would be perfect“.

As we walked them to the door, one of them asked “How do you say goodbye in Hebrew?

Daniel replied “shalom, which means ‘hello or ‘goodbye’ “.  I added, “yes ‘shalom’ is hello when the tone goes up and the end and it means goodbye when the tone falls.”

Shalom!

Shalom! We’ll see you next week.”

 

What does Paul mean that he became ‘as a Jew to the Jews and to the Gentiles, a Gentile’

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Paul said in 1 Corinthians 9 19-23 “To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win Jews” and “to those who are outside that law, like one outside the law“. Some say that he was setting a new precedent in terms of what foods he would eat so that he could be reach Gentiles. Is there another way that this passage can be understood?

[This article is based on exegesis of this passage by Dr. Mark Kinzer, adjunct professor of Jewish Studies at Fuller Theological Seminary.]

In 1 Corinthians 9, Paul writes;

Although I am a free man and not anyone’s slave, I have made myself a slave to everyone, in order to win more people. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win Jews; to those under the law, like one under the law—though I myself am not under the law—to win those under the law. To those who are outside that law, like one outside the law—not being outside God’s law but within the law of Messiah—to win those outside the law.  To the weak I became weak, in order to win the weak. I have become all things to all people, so that I may by every possible means save some. Now I do all this because of the gospel, so I may become a partner in its benefits.”

1 Corinthians 9:19-23

This passage has traditionally been understood to be Paul’s missionary principle of accommodation that would justify him living as a practicing Jew amongst Jews and as a non-practicing Jew amongst Gentiles.

What naturally follows from this understanding would be that Paul would have viewed himself as sometimes exempt from observance to the Law of Moses.  Is that actually what the passage is saying, or is there another way to view it?

Under, Outside, or Within the Law

This passage describes three groups of people; those “under the Law”, those “outside the Law” (sometimes translated “without” the Law) and those “within the Law of Messiah” (or “within the Law of Christ” in some translations).

Much hinges on the understanding of the expression “under the Law” and refers to the relationship a Jew would have legitimately before the death and resurrection of Jesus. It is compared elsewhere to a child who has not yet reached the age of maturity (Gal. 4:1-2) as contrasted with full adult “sonship”. From verse 21 in Galatians 4, it seems Paul is addressing Gentile believers in Galatia who wanted to be “under the law” because they falsely thought it provided something that they lacked though faith alone in Jesus.

In the passage in 1 Corinthians 9, the contrast is made between being “under the Law” with being “outside the Law”.  The first refers to the status of Jews apart from the death and resurrection of Jesus and the second refers to Gentiles who apart from faith in Jesus and His death and resurrection are entirely outside the framework of any divine covenant.

Under the Law” is negative only in relations to the far greater status offered through Messiah’s death and resurrection, being “outside the Law” is entirely negative.  Both of these terms are contrast with a third term “within the Law of Messiah” which refers to the new relationship to the Law established for both Jews and Gentiles through faith in Jesus.

Unbelieving Jews “under the Law” might be seen to have enjoyed a relatively positive status compared to those “outside the Law” (unsaved Gentiles) however once both Jew and Gentile receive Jesus as Messiah and the fullness His death and resurrection afford us,  we are brought together “within the Law of Messiah” and called to a life of partnership.  This partnership does not eliminate all distinctions between Jews and Gentiles; the two are fully equal yet distinct.  It is both Jew and Gentile being “within the Law of Messiah” that entirely changes the previous relationship that existed between Jews (who were “under the Law”) and unsaved Gentiles (who were “without the Law”).

So in the passage above, Paul is saying that when relating to non-believing Jews he lives as though he were “under the Law” – though he is in fact not “under the Law” but “within the Law”.  He treats these ‘brethren according to the flesh’ as his genuine covenant family rather than relating to them from a position of superiority and separation. In seeking to win them to faith and the life “within the Torah of Messiah” he was willing to adopt a level of halakhic observance that would be expected within a strictly Jewish environment that would be inappropriate in the Jewish-Gentile setting “within the Law of Messiah”.  So for example, Paul might participate in hand-washing in accordance with Pharisaical understanding of how it should be done; becoming as a Jew “under the Law” to those “under the Law” but not to act in such a way with the Jews “under the Law” so as to cause them to view Gentile Christians “within the Law of Messiah” as being in anyway inferior.

Likewise, Paul says that to those “outside the Law” [Gentiles that had not yet come to faith in Jesus] that he identifies with them even though his is not “outside the Law” but “within the Law of Messiah”.

Paul, who now eats and travels and works with Gentile Christians (those “within the Law of Messiah”) in the task of reaching those “outside the Law” [unbelieving Gentiles] and Paul demonstrates that he has the capacity to understand and empathize with them where they are at.

 

Status-Quo in the First Century Church vs Today

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When greeting visitors in church, do you start by explaining what pews are, what they are expected to do when someone upfront is praying or why we sing songs.  Why not?  Because it is presumed and uncontroversial.  People in our culture “know”.  What was status quo in the first century was different than today; there was no need to explicitly address Jewish practice in the writing of the New Testament because the vast majority of believers were Jews and Jewish practice was understood and uncontroversial.

Jewish practice needed no elaboration by the writers of the New Testament because it was understood by all at the time.  The Church was a Jewish movement, led by Jews and made up of Jews. It is only later, long after the death of the (Jewish) Apostles, when the Church had become led and populated by Gentiles that practices of the first century were presumed to be as they understood them and with no identifiable Jews remaining, these presumptions became ‘understood’ and likewise uncontroversial. The problem was, the assumptions that were made bore little resemblance to the Jewish practices of the early Church.  What was ‘status quo‘ when the Apostles were alive had changed.

Jews knew what they and others did in synagogue, so when Luke wrote in Chapter 4 that Jesus went to the synagogue in His hometown of Nazareth and read the Isaiah scroll that was handed to Him (Luke 4:16-30), they would have known that He was the reader of the Haphtorah portion for that week. They also would have understood that what He said after reading the Isaiah scroll was the derashah (short sermon) that He was able to give because He was the Haphtarah portion reader. There was no need on the part of the Gospel writers to explain this as it was common knowledge.

What Gentiles now refer to as the “Early Church” was viewed at the time both internally and by Rome to be a sect of Judaism, not a separate religion called “Christianity”.  There were Jews that believed (e.g. John 8:31) and Jews (implication, those that did not believe) and later Gentiles that came to believe. The concept of a predominantly Gentile Church with no understanding of Jewish practices that were implicitly understood could not even be conceived of by the writers.

What Jesus did that Sabbath in the synagogue in Nazareth was common place, ordinary, unremarkable. Of course what He said was anything but unremarkable, but in the record of the events themselves, it was unnecessary for the New Testament writers to elaborate on Jewish practice; it was understood, presumed and needed no explanation.  Jesus going to the synagogue (Matt. 4:23), teaching in them (Matt. 13:54), healing in them (Luke 4:33-35; Mark 3:1-5) and debating the interpretation of Torah in them (John 6:28-59) likewise needed no explanation — as Jesus was in synagogue on the Sabbath “as was His custom” (Luke 4:16) and Jews knew what other Jews did in synagogue.

Such is also the case with other Jewish practice including the celebration of the Sabbath or pilgrim festivals or other holidays, circumcision and Jewish Dietary Laws. Jews understood what was meant by the Scriptures saying that Paul was circumcised the eight day (Phil 3:5) or that Paul circumcised Timothy (Acts 16:3); an explanation of practice was unnecessary.  Likewise, it was unnecessary to explain in the New Testament why Jesus was at the Temple for the Passover (John 2:13-22, John 5) or for Succoth / Feast of Tabernacles /Booths (John 7) because every Jew knew these were two of the three yearly pilgrim festivals in which Jews were required go to the Temple. First century Jews needed no explanation as to why Jesus was at the Temple for the Festival of Chanukah / Feast of Dedication (John 10) and also with his disciples (Matt 20:17-19; Mark 10:32-34; Luke 18:31-34) as His Jewish practices were presumed and unremarkable.

What was not presumed and not unremarkable was Gentiles coming into the ekklesia (the Church). This was a huge deal!  It was such a big deal, that the Jerusalem Counsel had to meet (Acts 15) to determine what they [as Jews] should reasonably expect Gentiles to do and not do.  The decision was made that Gentiles did not need to become proselytes to Judaism; they did not need be circumcised, did not need to observe the Sabbath or other festivals or to keep the Jewish dietary laws.

The decision of the Jerusalem Counsel was that Gentiles (also called foreigners) were to continue to follow the same protocol set in the Mosaic Law (Leviticus 17 & 18); that is “(1) abstain from things polluted by idols (Leviticus 17:7-8), (2) from sexual immorality (Leviticus 18:1-26), (3) from eating anything that has been strangled (Leviticus 17:15) and (4) from blood” (Leviticus 17:10,12).

The New Testament is explicit when it comes to what Gentiles were expected to do because this was something out of the ordinary.  Jewish practice by Jews isn’t remarkable and needed no explanation.  Jesus and the Apostles continued to do what the Law of Moses set out for Jews to do.  As elaborated on in an earlier article, Jesus upheld what God had revealed in the Law because to do otherwise would have caused the people to stray from the way God had already spoken and would have warranted the Jews rightfully putting Him to death. Jesus said in the preamble to the Sermon on the Mount, “Don’t assume that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill.” (Matt 5:17) and then goes on to exhort the Jews that had followed him there from all over the region not to set aside the commands of God but to practice and teach them.

In the previous article, we elaborated that what the Pharisees expected Jesus and His disciples to do and what they actually did were often at odds. The Pharisees interpretation of the Law of Moses was held by them to be  equal in authority to the “Written Law” of Moses and we believe it is this that Jesus was referring to when He quoted the prophet Isaiah and said that the Pharisees and scribes were “teaching as doctrines the commands of men” (Matt 15:9).  Jesus and His disciples got into all kinds of trouble for breaking the Pharisees interpretation of the Law, rather than the written Law of Moses. It is important to note that the Scribes and Pharisees were said to “sit on Moses’ seat” (Matt 23:3a); which meant they had the authority to interpret the Law of Moses.  From what Jesus said in this section of Matthew, He held them responsible for how they used this authority. Jesus said that they teach commandments of men which make void the commandments of God (Matt 15:6) and that their teachings are plants which will be uprooted (Matt 15:13) as they were not planted by God (13:37-39). We do not feel that Jesus was making a wholesale denunciation of everything the Pharisees taught, but it was the Pharisees emphasis on doing things that made the outer man look good, while leaving the inner man untouched (Matt 23:25-28) that seemed to be at the heart of Jesus’ strong words. They focused on the omission of tiniest detail of observance while it seemed, failing to teach the essence of the command that  had Jesus describe them as straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel (Matt 23:24).  Since the Pharisees sat on the “seat of Moses” and were responsible to interpret the Law and how it should be lived out, the charge by Jesus that “they didn’t know the Scriptures” (Matt 22:29) seems to underscore their focus on finding the tiniest of infractions while neglecting the weightier matters of the Torah (Matt 23:23).

Getting back to where we started in this article, Jewish practice needed no elaboration by the writers of the New Testament because it was understood by all at the time but after the death of the (Jewish) Apostles, when the Church had become led and populated by Gentiles that practices of the first century were presumed to be as they understood them and with no identifiable Jews remaining, these presumptions became ‘understood’ and likewise uncontroversial. The problem was, the assumptions that were made bore little resemblance to the Jewish practices of the early Church.  What was ‘status quo‘ when the Apostles were alive had changed.  One example discussed at length previously, was how the Jerusalem and Antioch church (including the Church Father Polycarp) continued to commemorate the death and resurrection of Jesus in association with the Jewish festival of Passover for the first 200 years and while there was much dialogue between the church at Rome and the church at Jerusalem and Antioch, ruling came down from Rome that the Church was to no longer commemorate His death on the 14 of Nisan, in association with the Jewish Passover, but that it must now occur on the first Sunday after Passover on a holiday they named Easter.

[for more on this, with extensive references, please refer to http://www.jewishrootsofchristianity.ca/early-church-including-polycarp-continued-to-celebrate-passover/]

From the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea in 325 CE until the present day, what has been presumed and been viewed as uncontroversial is that the Church has always celebrated Easter on a Sunday, but that was not the case. What is status quo wasn’t always so.