One of the Messianic movement’s raison d’etres is the belief that one cannot truly understand the Scriptures without understanding them within their original Jewish context. That is to say, since the Lord Yeshua and all His first disciples and apostles were Jews of the first century, they lived, spoke, and wrote with Jewish idioms, using Jewish exegetical (interpretive) methods, and from within a Jewish worldview. While their writings were distributed in Greek, they nevertheless thought in Hebrew and Hebraisms.
However, while we take that as axiomatic, we don’t always do a good job of conveying just what it means to “think like a Jew”–in particular, a Jew of the first century, since Jewish culture (as with all other cultures) has changed somewhat over the last two millennia. In this series of articles, I am indebted to J.P. Holding, webmaster of the Tektonics website (which I mentioned in my last post), as well as to D. Thomas Lancaster, author of The Restoration and King of the Jews (both available from Beth HaMashiach’s website here).
Holding draws a number of key points of comparison between Japanese and Biblical culture: Group-oriented identity and morality, an honor-based culture, a circular view of time, an emphasis on client/patron relationships, and the importance of ritual (and by extension, racial and cultural) purity. This stands in direct odds with our Western ideals of rugged individualism, guilt-based morality, linear view of time, an emphasis on free and equal friendships, an an egalitarian rejection of the notion of purity in any group. That’s not to say that our culture is necessarily wrong on these points, but that it is so radically different from the culture the Bible was written from and to that we can very easily misunderstand the nuances of what it is trying to say or why the Apostles made certain rulings.
The first two pieces of baggage that we must leave behind as Christians in the West is our plenty and our individualism. The fact is that we live in a truly blessed nation in a truly blessed time, on that is probably unique in history. We have plenty of food, no lack of leisure time, and (in theory, if not always in practice) an acknowledgement of “universal” rights.
Compare that to the situation of one living in the ancient world, whether Jew or Gentile: One good famine could lead to the starvation of hundreds of thousands. Only the Jews had the concept of a “weekend”–everyone else worked every day except for sporadic festivals (and many had to work even on those) just to hold down a job and make ends meet. And there were no universal rights, only the privileges afforded by belonging to various groups. Indeed, without the protection of a group, such as a family, town, nation, guild, or religion, a man had no protection at all and would swiftly find himself ruined and even dead.
Let’s take Sha’ul (Paul) for an example: On one occasion, he and his companion were flogged without a trial, and by virtue of their Roman citizenship could force the apologies of the town’s leaders (Acts 16). On another occasion, he invokes his citizenship to prevent a soldier from beating him (Acts 22:25f). Had he not had citizenship (which was not a given; one had to pay a large sum to be a full citizen, as opposed to a subject, in those days), the authorities could have scourged him without a thought.
As a result, where we have the luxury of being individualistic, concentrating on individual rights, happiness, and destiny, the ancients were collectivists, concentrating on the survival, destiny, and honor of their groups. (The importance of honor in the ancient world will be dealt with in the next part of this series.) When the High Priest sanctioned Yeshua’s death by saying, “Now consider that it is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not” (John 11:50), we might think that opportunistic and cruel, but to his audience, concerned as they were with the survival of Judea rather than the survival of any one man, his words were the simplest of wisdom.
Suddenly, this puts a whole new light on the Apostles’ teaching that they would accept Gentiles as full members of the then-Jewish Messianic Community based simply on their belief in Yeshua, imposing “no other burden” than that they “abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood” (Acts 15:20).
First, understand the radical nature of what they were proposing. In the ancient mind, either you were a part of the group, or you were a potentially-dangerous alien. Imagine having a neighborhood full of children who need protection, and suddenly a creepy-looking stranger moves in. Might you not watch him with a special caution, especially if you had no means to conduct a background check? That’s the kind of caution the ancients had–the survival of the community took precedence over that of outsiders. The exception to this would be if a member of the community decided to grant “guest-status” to said outsider (we’ll come back to this in another article).
If you were not born into the group, but wanted to enter it, you had to submit to living your life in every way that they did for an extended period of time to gain their trust, and then undergo a ritual which formally bound you to the group before they would accept you as a member and offer you the group’s protection. (This might be compared the the hazing and ritual tests many college fraternities force their members to undergo today.) This made it very difficult for God-fearers, Gentiles who worshipped the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but who had not (yet, in many cases) undergone circumcision and become fully Jewish proselytes. The Jews were given special privileges by the Roman Empire: They were permitted not to work on the Sabbath, for example (though many mocked them and called them lazy for it) and to forgo Emperor-worship. God-fearers lacked that protection, and if they refused to participate in the standard pagan rites of their family, town, and/or guild, they could wind up lacking any protection at all!
What the Apostles did was to turn that on its head: No longer did they force someone to earn, by their works, the group’s acceptance and protection. Instead, they accepted as full members any Gentile who was willing to accept Yeshua as Lord and who gave up idolatry (which is what the four stipulations in Acts 15 are designed to do), granting them the immediate protection of the group–a group which they not only saw in temporal terms, but in spiritual terms as well. In the eyes of the ancients, that was an utterly absurd thing! That was precisely why there was dispute in the early Jewish Church over whether members should be circumcised before being accepted: They were afraid of losing the group’s identity and of letting potential enemies in. And yet, moved by the Ruach (Spirit), that’s exactly what the earliest believers in Yeshua did, thus demonstrating their love for their neighbors as themselves.
This is not to say that they did not expect that once within the Community, the new believers would never progress beyond simply avoiding idolatry. For example, Acts 15 says nothing about forcing new believers to honor their parents, yet Paul tells the Ephesians (the very ones to whom he had just emphasized that salvation is by faith, not by works), “Honor your father and mother; (which is the first commandment with a promise)” (Eph. 6:2). Clearly, there was an expectation of growth and keeping God’s commands after entering the Community–the Apostles just didn’t want the motivation for the obedience to be wrong (i.e., fear of being cast out of God’s Kingdom), and they were willing to let the Spirit work on people at their own pace.
Understanding the importance and emphasis on the community, group, and/or family in the ancient’s life is just the start. In the next part of this series, we’ll be looking at the importance of honor to the Bible’s audience.