Questioning Boundary Markers

When did the earliest believers begin to question the “boundary markers” of Judaism? By “boundary markers” I mean primarily circumcision, food laws and keeping Sabbath. It is not really possible to describe Peter and John as preaching to Jews in the Temple that what Jesus did on the cross freed them from the Law. One reason for this is that there were few Jews who saw the Law as a slave master from which they longed to be free. For the men worshiping in the Temple, and likely for those in the Greek-Speaking Synagogue of the Freedmen, keeping the law was a privilege given to them by God. There were likely few Jews if any who would have relished the chance to throw off the constraints of the Law. In fact, the Maccabean Revolt indicates that the majority of Jews were willing to fight in order to be allowed to keep the Law!

boundariesFor me, this indicates that the Jewish believers in Jerusalem continued to practice Judaism in every way. The question “should we continue to circumcise our children” or “should we eat prohibited foods” simply would never have come up in the early years. Jesus is Messiah and Savior, but he did nothing to cancel the Jewish believer’s commitment to the Law. Another indication of this is that many Pharisees and other “zealous” Jews joined the Jerusalem church (Acts 15:5, 21:20-21). If Peter, John, Stephen or Philip urged Jews to defect from the Law, the reaction to Paul is unintelligible.

The boundary markers only became and issue after a significant number of Gentiles joined the church, likely in Antioch first, but certainly in Paul’s first churches in Galatia. Acts 11:20 indicates that the church at Antioch limited their evangelism to Jews until men from Cyprus came and evangelized the Hellenists. The noun Eλληνιστής refers to Greek speaking Jews (BDAG), not Greeks. The ESV footnote says that the word refers to Greek speaking non-Jews, but this explanation is not correct and misses the point Luke is trying to make. The Christians at Antioch are targeting both Hebrew/Aramaic speaking and Greek speaking Jews just like what was happening in Jerusalem until the persecution scattered the believers.

Even if these Hellenists are Gentiles, it is likely that the Gentiles who were joining the church in Antioch were doing so as God-fearers. This was the recognized practice in the synagogues anyway. There was no compulsion for these God-fearing Gentiles to submit to circumcision, although it appears that in every other respect they kept the Law and traditions of the Jewish people. The fact that the apostolic representative Barnabas was pleased with the progress in Antioch indicates that the Law is still respected and kept in these Christian synagogues.

So there is really no “questioning of the boundary markers” until the first Pauline mission, when the gospel is preached outside of the synagogue and Gentiles who were not already God-fearers accepted Jesus as savior. If the story ended in Acts 11, then Christianity would have been a sect of Judaism.

4 thoughts on “Questioning Boundary Markers

  1. It really impresses me how dedicated the Jews were to the Law. They knew every command of God, and were so dedicated to following the rules that they built in extra layers of regulations in order to ensure that no ordinance was broken. As was said in the post, they were even willing to risk their lives fighting for the continued freedom to follow the Law.
    Preservation of tradition and knowledge of Scripture are both great things, until they reach the point where they hinder the spreading of the Gospel. Evidently, the zeal that certain Jews had for the Law prevented them from accepting the fact that the life and work of Jesus Christ had changed things. The Jews were tasked with spreading God’s plan of redemption to the Gentiles, but many were actually driving Gentiles away. In the second half of Romans 2 Paul criticizes the Jews for loving the Law more than actually spreading the good news of Christ. In verse 24 he even states that “God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.” What a sad thing to be called to be a guide for the lost only to lead them farther astray. This makes me wonder how often we are guilty of the very same thing.

  2. It is very interesting to look at the chain of events that occurred from the time of Jesus until the end of the book of Acts. When you take a close look at it, you noticed that the first Christians were Jews. Now during Jesus’ mission here on earth, just as you noted above, he did nothing to circumscribe Jew’s pledge to the Law. In Acts chapter 10 is when we begin to see the dramatic paradigm shift to a more inquisitorial atmosphere which is how we get to the question” when did the earliest believers begin probing this “traditions”?” So, though it is logical to assume there wasn’t ever a specific time early believers began questioning such “boundaries,” I think it is persuasive to be pulled into the whirlpool of Acts 10, when God beckoned the apostle Peter. Consequently, this leads to the scene in which the apostle Peter shares the gospel before Cornelius and everyone close to him.

  3. It is understandable that the Jews wanted to keep following the law. It was the only thing that they knew; all of their traditions and culture was based on the law. It only became a question if they should follow the law once the Gentiles began accepting Christ. However, without Paul, the Gospel would have never been spread to the Gentiles. He spread the word of Christ to many Gentiles. 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, 99). You said in the post, “If the story ended in Acts 11, then Christianity would have been a sect of Judaism” (P. Long). This is an impactful statement, because it makes us think about where we would have been today if it weren’t for Paul.

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