Jews and Gentiles in the First Century

One of the basic assumptions most Christian have about Jews in the first century is that they kept separate from the Gentiles. Josephus said that Jews “did not come into contact with other people because of their separateness” (Antiq. 13:245-247; Apion, 2.210).

Joseph and Asenath

But perhaps the situation was not as strict as Josephus would have us believe.  Gentiles were not totally excluded from Jewish worship (there was a huge “court of the Gentiles” in the temple complex) itself, giving Gentiles a place of worship in the temple.  On a number of occasions in the gospels Jesus speaks with Gentiles, although usually the faith of the Gentile is in contrast to the unfaithfulness of the Jews.

One factor bearing on this issue is the long standing Jewish belief that purity laws did not apply to Gentiles even when they lived in Israelite territory.  The “sojourner laws” of Deut 5:14 ff define these Gentiles as resident aliens and require only a few general commands for them while they are living within the nation of Israel. These are the same commands given by James at the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15:24-29.

Several Second Temple period texts indicate that Jews did not mix at all with Gentiles:Did Jews of the first century consider Gentiles impure and therefore exclude them from the inner courts of the temple?  In the Second Temple re-telling of the story of Joseph known as Joseph and Asenath we are told that “Joseph never ate with the Egyptians, for this was an abomination to him” (7:1). In fact, he refuses to even kiss the lovely Egyptian Asenath because her lips have touched unclean food.

Jubilees 22:16  And you also, my son, Jacob, remember my words, and keep the commandments of Abraham, your father. Separate yourself from the Gentiles, and do not eat with them, and do not perform deeds like theirs. And do not become associates of theirs. Because their deeds are defiled, and all their ways are contaminated, and despicable, and abominable.

Tobit 1:10-12 After I was carried away captive to Assyria and came as a captive to Nineveh, every one of my kindred and my people ate the food of the Gentiles, but I kept myself from eating the food of the Gentiles. Because I was mindful of God with all my heart…

Judith 12:1-4 Then he commanded them to bring her in where his silver dinnerware was kept, and ordered them to set a table for her with some of his own delicacies, and with some of his own wine to drink.But Judith said, “I cannot partake of them, or it will be an offense; but I will have enough with the things I brought with me.” Holofernes said to her, “If your supply runs out, where can we get you more of the same? For none of your people are here with us.”  Judith replied, “As surely as you live, my lord, your servant will not use up the supplies I have with me before the Lord carries out by my hand what he has determined.”

In any case, it was certainly not normal for a missionary from Jerusalem to turn up in the home of a Gentile to preach the gospel, as did Peter in Acts 10. If a Gentile was worshiping in the Temple or synagogue, such as Cornelius, then that Gentile would be welcome to hear the gospel. But for the Jewish mission in Judea, the home of a Gentile is not really the normal venue for missionary activity!

Yet Paul plans to take the Gospel to places where it has not gone before. On the island of Crete he approaches a Roman governor, Sergius Paulus, and in Lystra and Iconium he tries to preach the Gospel to Gentiles outside of the Synagogue.

If the examples listed above are a fair reading of Judaism in the first century, then how radical was Paul’s missions strategy?

8 thoughts on “Jews and Gentiles in the First Century

  1. It’s safe to say that Paul’s mission strategies were extremely radical for the time. Being a Jew himself and making a name for himself as a Zealous Pharisee, it would have come as a shock to his former “partners,” when instead of preaching against the Christians, he preached for them. Did Jews keep so separate from the Gentiles as the above passages indicate? It’s hard to say, many I’m sure chose to stay separate so as to stay pure, but what of the accounts of Gentiles converting to Judaism? At some point, Jews must have not been as separate or else Gentiles would never have been led to convert.
    Having said all that, there is no doubt that most Jews did stay separate at least in some form or another and strived to stay pure throughout the course of their lives. Paul, however, was very different. His new found faith in Jesus Christ, led him to go directly amongst the Gentiles. He went out to preach the Gospel to those living outside of Jerusalem, many of which were Gentiles. Was this of his own accord? In a way yes, although much of it may have been brought on when he was rejected, time and again, by the Jewish religious leaders in each city. It’s important to notice that Paul always started out in the synagogues in each city. In chapter 5, Polhill presents us with the usual pattern of Paul’s mission work in each city. It included, “beginning in the synagogues, rejected there, turning to the Gentiles, starting all over again in the synagogues of the next town” (84).
    Thus Paul’s mission strategies were radical, but almost out of necessity rather than choice. Paul started out in the synagogues, where he usually spent a lot of time trying to help Jews understand the Messiah and what He did on the cross, but sadly, he was rejected which led him to go to the Gentiles. Yet I see this radical mission as a part of God’s divine plan for his restoration of the world. He used Paul’s “failures” with the Jews, to produce a great work in the lives of many, many Gentiles. I know for me, at least, my hat is off to Paul and the example he set for us as believers!

    (Post for Ch. 4-5)

  2. In regards to the common Jewish thought that Gentiles were unclean and therefore did not associate much with them, Paul’s mission strategy might have seemed radical in the historical context. As Polhill points out, we are used to looking at Paul’s mission and happenings from a Gentile perspective (108), so going to the Gentiles after the Jews rejected him does not seem illogical. Yet, this was ground breaking at the time, especially with the controversy of what was required of Gentile converts. Paul understood that his mission was to bring the gospel to the Gentiles after he attempted to bring it to the Jews (Acts 13). Evidence of his mission seeming radical can be read throughout the accounts of his journeys by the amount of outrage that occurred by the Jews who rejected the gospel- and him. If Paul’s mission was not ground breaking, there would have been little point to the Jerusalem Conference and discussion/ solutions pertaining to Gentile circumcision and following food laws after conversion. Polhill explains that Paul’s mission was not about requiring Gentiles to become Jews before becoming Christians, rather it was about Gentile conversion to Christianity, which qualifies as pretty radical in my opinion.

  3. Paul’s missions strategy, even in this day and age, was very radical. It was radical back in the first century because the Jews thought that they were “good” – they were God’s chosen people, they did not need to be witnessed to by a guy who claimed to be a Jew but also a Christian. It was radical because he knew he was going to face much criticism from the Jews because of the previously stated thinking. It was radical because he knew many of the Jews were not going to grasp onto the idea of Jesus as the Savior – “Indeed, the failure of the bulk of the Jewish people to embrace Jesus was the most heart-breaking reality of Paul’s ministry, and it never ceased to torture him” (Polhill 91). And despite the torture that Paul felt, he continued to witness and preach to the unsaved people. Paul’s ministry was radical because he did not give up. Polhill explains this through the pattern that Paul’s ministry had, “That is the usual pattern of Paul’s ministry as depicted through Acts – beginning in the synagogue, excluded from there, continuing to witness to the Gentile populace outside the context of the synagogue, and then often being forced to leave the city altogether” (Polhill 93). Even though Paul faced much rejection, he continued to have a burden for the unsaved Jews and Gentiles alike, and did not let troubles or being forced to leave a city stop him. His ministry was radical in the first century because he somewhat left his early life Jewish ways, and lived and did ministry how Christ would have him do it. Even though he was a circumcised Jew, he told others that being circumcised was not necessary (most of the time). He told other Jews that keeping the food laws was not necessary. He left the traditional ways of doing things to be more like Christ.

  4. Paul’s ministry was something of a radical new thing that was never done before because he himself was the one behind this new push outside of the Jews. talk about new and exciting Paul was one who was going from town to town interacting between Jews then gentiles, something that seemed to be culturally different though Paul had seemed to do in his home town. “Indeed, the failure of the bulk of the Jewish people to embrace Jesus was the most heart-breaking reality of Paul’s ministry, and it never ceased to torture him” (Polhill 91) The heart break of the whole episode is the Jews are stuck in the way they have done things for so long they are missing out on what the new thing God was doing. No doubt this brought much pain to Paul to go to his people, the people he was so zealous for; and try and tell them the way despite only years past being the first to put a stop to the way.

  5. Paul’s missions strategy was very radical considering the time period and the customs of the day. In today’s culture we do not view Paul’s missionary journey’s to be very radical. However, Jew’s believed Paul was radical because although he was Jewish, he was also a Christian. Jew’s during that time period were strict on keeping the law and staying pure. Although they could not always avoid contact with Gentiles they tried to remain pure by separating themselves from the Gentile lifestyle. However, Paul, a Christian Jew was a follower of Christ and therefore he did not act on all of the Jewish traditions like the Jews did. He most likely did not completely discard all of the Jewish laws, but he did not follow them strictly any more. Jew’s believed Paul was radical, but not only because he did not follow all of the Jewish laws; they also thought he was radical because he preached to the Gentiles all over the Roman world. This type of missionary work was unheard of before Paul. Polhill says, “Paul saw himself involved in God’s call to preach as far and wide and to as many as he could until the ‘full number’ of the Gentiles had responded to God’s grace in Christ” (Polhill, 98-99). He traveled all over preaching the word to both Jews and Gentiles alike, and many lives were changed because of his radical approach to missionary work.

  6. Paul’s mission was very radical back in that time. The Jews had it that the Gentiles were very unclean and they would avoid them just because of that. With Paul going over and preaching the gospel to the Gentiles were much unheard of a Jew to do that with the Gentiles. Polhill made a couple of points in his book about Paul. “He (Paul) was convinced that God was reaching out to the Gentiles in Jesus Christ” (Polhill 106). Then he also said “Paul saw himself involved in God’s call to preach as far and wide and too many as he could until the “full number” of the Gentiles had responded to God’s grace in Christ” (Polhill 98-99). With that Paul was convinced that he was being led by God to evangelize to the Gentiles. Along with he saw that God wanted to use him to go to the Gentiles and preach the gospel to them as well.

  7. Paul’s mission strategy is radical in that although there may have been Diaspora Jews or the minimal willingness of Jews to interact with Gentiles out of necessity, it seems there was never a chance that Jews would go out and try to convert Gentiles to Judaism. However, Paul still went to the synagogues first in each city he visited; he did not necessarily give up hope completely that the Jews would turn to the Way (Polhill, 84). Paul’s mission strategy was radical because it seems no one had ever done what he was about to do; invite non-believing Gentiles to receive God’s gift of salvation. Even more shocking was that Paul did not require Gentiles to subject themselves to the Law in order to receive salvation. Hence I would suggest that Paul’s mission strategy seemed very radical to both Gentiles and Jews.

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