The Eighteen Measures, Part 4: The Gentile Factor

St Peter's culinary vision
Image by Lawrence OP via Flickr

In the previous post in this series, I noted that the Eighteen Measures compromised Israel’s task to be a light to the Gentiles.   Indeed, as we will see, it was precisely because of the Measures that Peter required a vision direct from Heaven to prompt him to enter the house of Cornelius.

We will begin with a pair of quotes from the Talmud which at first seem contradictory:  First, “Yosé b. Yoezer of Seridah and Yosé b. Yohanan of Jerusalem decreed uncleanness on the land of the gentiles and on glassware” (b.Shabat 14b).  The two rabbis Yose were the first of the zugot (pairs), ruling at the time of the Maccabees.  But a page later, we read that it is the testimony of R. Yishmael b. R. Jose that “eighty years prior to the destruction of the Temple the decree was made that the lands of the peoples around the Land of Israel and utensils made out of glass were subject to uncleanness” (15a).

The Talmud itself recognizes the contradiction and explains that the zugot applied tumah to only the actual dirt of the Gentile lands, since this dirt could be from a grave or have some fragment of a dead body in it and there would be no way to know.  But eighty years prior to the destruction of the Temple—ten years prior to Yeshua’s birth, and at the time of the Eighteen Measures (since that is the ongoing subject at interest to the Gemara)—tumah was decreed on the very air of Gentile lands.  While certainly not the only factor, it is likely that this radical addition to Jewish Law, a generation before the time of Yeshua’s Talmidim, contributed heavily to the perception that entering a Gentile’s house “just isn’t done” (Acts 10:28, CJB).

In addition, another of the measures was that “the daughters of the Cutheans”—a community of Gentiles from Cuthea, in northern Babylonia in Samaria—“are deemed niddos from their cradle” (b.Shabbat 16b).  Now the Cutheans did keep the Torah and did observe the laws of niddah, separation during the time of menstruation. However, they did not do so to the same level of stringency as the rabbis.  Clearly, there is no Biblical support for regarding a pre-adolescent girl as niddos, unclean with menstruation. Furthermore, the rabbis held to separation so strongly during niddah that the Talmud relates a story of a rabbi who was struck dead by God for merely casual contact during the “days of [his wife’s] white clothing,” the period of separation after the woman had stopped menstruating but before she could mikveh (13b).

If even those Gentiles who observed the proscriptions of the Torah were regarded as so unclean that their very children were to be regarded as niddos, how much more would Gentiles who did not observe the whole Torah?

Rabbi Hillel was noted for gently guiding Gentiles into the kingdom where Shammai drove them away (b.Shabbat 31a)—he certainly had no problem with coming in close proximity to them or guiding them to the point where they were ready to proselytize.  If indeed the zealots were aligned with Beit Shammai against all association with the Gentiles and were not opposed to even murdering fellow Jews who might oppose the new ritual purity and separation laws, this might explain the strange withdrawal of Shimon Kefa from eating with the Gentile believers in Gal. 2:12.  It was not that Jacob (James) objected to table-fellowship with the Gentiles, for we see Jacob taking the Gentile side in Acts 15.  Rather, we must consider the possibility that the Zealots had become emboldened and were perhaps taking a particular interest in the one who initiated Gentile fellowship in the Ekklesia.

The above is supposition, of course, and must be taken with a grain of salt.  Nevertheless, it is a solid theory that accords with all of the facts we know about the political and religious situation of the time, including some of Yeshua’s own condemnations of the Pharisees, which we will review next week.


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