Baker Academic

Friday, October 21, 2016

can Jews be Jews?

This isn't about Jesus directly, but if being a contributor to the Jesus Blog has any perks at all, surely they include being able to post marginally-relevant material from time to time.

This week an undergraduate student in my Romans class e-mailed me a question that was never directly relevant to the in-class discussion. Her e-mail:
I have a question that has been on my mind. It might be somewhat obvious, but nonetheless it has intrigued me. What would Paul say to a Jew who believed in Jesus as the Messiah and wanted to stop adhering to the Law? At first I think this would be fine due to salvation through Jesus is open to all, but what about the disruption it would have possibly caused in said Jew's family, who may or may not believe in Jesus? I immediately think of Romans 14:13-23, but Paul is writing that to the Gentiles. Does the same principle apply to the Jew who has already been living out a Law abiding lifestyle?
I love this because this student is obviously taking material we've discussed in class and applying it to material we haven't discussed. Also, it's just an intriguing question. So I thought I'd share my response, mostly in hopes that some of you who've thought about these same issues (ethnicity, culture, salvation, [Christian] faith, etc.) and how they intersect might have some additional response.

My reply:
Dear [student], 

You ask such great questions. This really is good. I like the way it shows me how you’re thinking about the things we’re talking about in class.

I can’t, of course, answer your question. Since we don’t have any record of Paul addressing a Jew who wanted to stop adhering to the Law, we don’t know what he would say. But we might imagine a couple of different scenarios and how Paul might react in each of them.
  • a Jew wants to set Torah-observance aside in order to present the gospel to gentiles: This is the easiest scenario to describe because it describes Paul himself. In 1 Cor. 9 Paul says, “For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some” (1 Cor. 9.19–22). Notice that Paul does not “stop adhering to the Law” completely; rather, he sets aside his Jewish lifestyle in order to open up opportunities to present the gospel. As I read this passage, Paul’s default position is to live like a Jew (hence, he mentions it first), but he’s willing to move away from that lifestyle as the situation requires. I would expect that, as the situation changes, he would return to his Jewish lifestyle. In other words, Paul stops adhering to the Law temporarily.
  • a Jew wants to stop adhering to the Torah because he rejects the covenant between Israel and YHWH: I think this, too, is an easy scenario to describe: Paul would condemn this Jew as unfaithful and subject to the wrath of God. Israel was unfaithful in her history, and God punished them for their sin. Paul does not hide from this. If we ever get to Romans 9–11 (😉), we’ll see Paul discuss Israel’s unfaithfulness and, as a result, their being broken off from the tree of Abraham’s family. “You will say, ‘Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.’ That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand only through faith” (Rom. 11.19–20). If a Jew who keeps Torah but fails to understand that Torah finds its fulfillment in Jesus (see Rom. 10.4) is broken off, then a Jew who rejects YHWH’s covenant is almost certainly also broken off.
  • a Jew wants to stop adhering to the Torah because he accepts the gospel and wants to be like gentile Christians: This is the most difficult scenario to describe, and I suppose a lot would depend on the specifics of a given situation. If a Jew (esp. a Jewish male) married a gentile, that might present the kind of situation in which ceasing to live like (and so to be) a Jew might be understandable. If a Jew (esp. a Jewish male) was so integrated into a (gentile) Christian community that maintaining distinctive Jewish customs became increasingly difficult, that, too, might present an understandable scenario. But we need to appreciate that Jews had spent the previous 3–5 centuries negotiating how to live as faithful Jews in a world dominated by gentiles. Some Jews rejected that world and retreated into their ancestral customs (e.g., the Jews at Qumran); others rejected their heritage and embraced the culture around them (e.g., Philo’s nephew, Tiberius Julius Alexander). But most Jews chose a middle way and sought to live as faithful Jews even as they embraced life with and among gentiles. So it’s difficult for me to imagine that very many Jews would want to abandon Torah-observance/adhering to the Law, any more than most people want to abandon the distinctive customs of their native culture. And if it would have been rare, I can’t help but imagine that Paul would look at such a Jew side-eyed. 👀
But really, the reason I like your question is because it draws attention to a real problem in Christian theology: Because of Paul, we’re very clear that gentiles do not have to (really, should not try to) become Jews in order to receive the blessings of God and live a life of faith shaped by the gospel. But we’re not very clear on the opposite question: Does a Jew have to become a gentile in order to be saved by the gospel? When we ask it that baldly, I think most of us would say “no.”

But in actual fact we look upon Torah/the Law with such suspicion that we can’t imagine a Jew would want to continue to live as a Jew if they were set free from the Law by the gospel of Jesus. It’s difficult for us—as gentile Christians—to appreciate that Jews viewed Torah as a gift of life, even Paul, who describes the Torah as “the commandment that promised life” (Rom. 7.10). When he asks, “Did what is good, then, bring death to me?” (Rom. 7.13), he emphatically rejects that possibility: “By no means! It was sin, working death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure.” If Jews considered the Torah as a God’s gift of life, and if Jews who confessed faith in Jesus as Israel’s messiah thought that Torah was established, fulfilled, and had its goal/purpose met in Jesus (see Rom. 3.31; Matt. 5.17; Rom. 10.4), then we should expect that most Jews would not want to abandon Torah. And those that would want to would stand out as being strange, and they would need to explain themselves to their loved ones if they hoped to avoid being judged by other Jews as apostates.

Does that make sense?

Again, this is a brilliant question. Thank you for asking it!


  1. Thanks, this is very interesting. I wonder if there is another case - a Jew who finds the demands of Torah very onerous, and wishes to be free of them. They don't reject the covenant, but believe it has been superseded for those who wish to accept that, so they choose the easier life - either for selfish reasons, or because they believe they can better follow Jesus and serve God that way.

    1. I must admit I am skeptical of this option (though of course, in history, anything is possible). I'm not aware of Jews complaining—the way Christians are wont to do—of Torah's onerousness. Jews who wanted to "be free of" Torah are usually, I think, described as apostates (à la Philo's nephew Tiberius).

      Are you aware of any instance of this option being described in the historical record?

  2. It's a good question and I like your division of your answer. The Torah of Yahweh is instruction not law in the sense of 'legalism'. I don't know how any believer in Christ Jesus can be faithful to the calling without instruction from God. God clearly points the gentile believer to the Tanach as example and given for our learning. So why would a Jew or a reader of the Hebrew Scriptures have to stop such learning either? In fact, it is the gentiles overall failure to learn the grace and love expressed in Tanach that led to persecution of God's elect people throughout history. It is not a good record. I don't feel a need to prove this from verses in the NT, but any Hebrew NT will show clearly just how much resonance there is with Tanach - one example is Psalm 37:11 and the Sermon on the mount.
    vs5 happy the afflicted, for they - they will inherit the land ... :אַשְׁרֵי הָעֲנָוִים כִּי־הֵם יִירְשׁוּ־אָרֶץ

  3. I think Paul would instruct fellow Jews who came to faith in Jesus to continue obeying Torah, but to allow for table fellowship with Gentile believers in Jesus. This is how I think we should interpret Paul's becoming one "outside the law."

  4. Thank you for that answer. As a Christian whose birth dad is Jewish and who once practiced Judaism before returning to Christianity, I cannot tell you how frustrated I get by Christians' misunderstanding of "the Law" and the Torah. The Law and Torah are a gift from YHVH. It is about love. The misreading of the New Testament (and the fact that lots of Christians do not really know Jews) has led to this belief that being a Jew is so onerous. I'll be frank: being a Jew was much more freeing in so many ways. The way that the Bible was read was much, much more life-giving and open. I have tried to take that spirit and bring it back to Christianity. There are so many things that we can learn from Judaism (and vice versa).

    1. Chris: Thank you for your response. I would love love LOVE to hear more.

  5. "If a Jew (esp. a Jewish male) was so integrated into a (gentile) Christian community that maintaining distinctive Jewish customs became increasingly difficult, that, too, might present an understandable scenario."

    I don't understand why you emphasize male Jews especially, 'though I would understand this for male God-fearers who were contemplating circumcision.

    As Julian has already noted, the key issue was probably table fellowship between Jewish and Gentile Christians in mixed communities or when welcoming visitors from other communities. This seems obvious from Gal 2,11-14.

  6. A timely post from Larry Hurdato:

  7. I am curious what advice Paul would give to a present-day Jew who came to believe that Jesus is the Messiah. Would he advise him to continue to live as a Jew and keep Torah? Or would he advise him to give it all up and just join a church?

  8. The former, in my opiniin, 'though I think he would obviously encourage him to also join a church community of some kind, and if that community included Gentiles, it would hopefully include mixed table fellowship of some kind. Such hypothetical advice, in my opinion, would also be optional and dependent upon a variety of other circumstances.