Jewish Christian Literature and the Law

Donald Hagner’s article on Jewish Christianity in the Dictionary of the Later New Testament provides a summary of the theology of Jewish Christianity. The first issue Hagner discusses is the Law and Christian Life. The Jewish community in Acts appears to have continued to keep the Law. As Jews, there was no real disconnect between keeping the law and salvation. The Temple was the main location of evangelism. This evangelism did not attack the Temple or the priesthood, but seems to use temple worship as an opportunity to reach priests and Pharisees. From the beginning of his Gentile mission, Paul had to deal with Judaizers who argued that Gentiles ought to keep the law.

Cross and StarJames Dunn agrees with this summary in his recent Neither Jew nor Greek (Eerdmans, 2015). In this book Dunn tracks the shift from an entirely Jewish Church in early Acts to a more or less Gentile church by the fourth century A.D. He discusses each of the books int he Jewish Christian literature and concludes they all represent some form of Jewish Christianity. With the possible exception of the epistles of John, each of these books are indebted to the Jewish Law.

The Jewish Christian literature displays a range of belief on the issue of Law. Hebrews which is has the most to say about the Law and the role of the law in the present age. The Law itself is rarely addressed in Hebrews, and the Hebrew Bible as a whole is treated as foundational for understanding Jesus. The writer of Hebrews does not argue that Jesus “cancels the Law,” but rather that the law is most fully understood in the light of Jesus and his sacrifice. There is a certain amount of “supersession” in Hebrews – what Jesus did goes beyond the Law, therefore the only way to “do the Law” is to read it through the lens of Jesus.

James seems to have been a law-keeping Jew throughout his life. The book of Acts describes James as the leader of a robust church in Jerusalem with many priests and Pharisees, all of whom were “zealous for the law” (Acts 21:20).  In James’ letter a short discussion on keeping the “royal law” (love your neighbor), and in the context James points out that breaking one Law makes one guilty of the whole law (James 2:8-10).

The most extreme example of Jewish Christians and the Law were the Ebionites. Some caution is needed here since we do not have anything that represents their own writings (possibly the Pseudo-Clementines, but this literature may reflect another early Christian group). We really only know of the Ebionites through the impression they left on the theological conversations of the second and third centuries. While it is likely that they are a sub-Christian sect (and usually included in lists of heretics), they claimed to be the real followers of Christ.  They required complete obedience to the laws, including circumcision, food laws and Sabbath (Eusebius HE 3.27, cf., Skarsaune, 437-8). They considered Paul’s view of the Law as inadequate and held James as the leader of the church.

Applying these observations to the New Testament, it is possible to call all the literature “Jewish” although the Pauline letters are clear that the Law is not to be imposed on Gentiles. There is no statement in the Jewish-Christian literature that Gentiles ought to keep the Law, but it is clear that Hebrews and James especially are interested in the interpretation and application of the Hebrew Bible in the present age.

But what about 1 Peter or the letters of John? Are they more or less interested in the continuing application of the Law to the Christian in the present age?  Since Paul does discuss the Law at in many of his letters (Romans and Galatians especially), this question might be better asked as “how does the Jewish-Christian literature use the Law differently than Paul?”

 

Bibliography: Donald Hagner, “Jewish Christianity,” pages in the Dictionary of the Later New Testament (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1997); Oskar Skarsaune, “The Ebionites,” pages 419-62 in Jewish Believers in Jesus (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2007).

11 thoughts on “Jewish Christian Literature and the Law

  1. P Long- While I do agree with your blog post comments about Jewish Christians and keeping the Law as Hebrews is the book that mostly speaks of this issue. I would have to replace the word “Law” with what Jobes refers to as the “New Covenant” (p. 45, Letters of the Church). None is to say that these two words don’t have the same meaning I just view it as a more proper term. I view the term Law is something that is set in place but more often than we realize “laws” are broken a lot of the time. If we use the term “Covenant” just as Jesus did in his period of time, it sounds like something that is demanded of us and that we follow in accordance to his will.
    If we were to use the word Law in its proper formatting than a lot of these issues as the blog points out, I believe would be solved because it all depends on the use of the term and how people are to respond to it. Laws and Covenants I believe have different meanings in this topic assuming that we aren’t all on the same page. According to Jobes, it is the relationship of the new covenant established by the blood of Jesus Christ to be the very first covenant as seen in Hebrews (p. 45, Letters to the Church). While we now understand the term covenant, we must now define the term Law. A Law is a set of rules used to run a community or country. Sounds a bit like a government run policy to me. This is not what God wanted for his people, which is why the two terms should be placed on completely different ends of the spectrum. For God wanted Jesus’ followers to want to live in a communion with him and offered himself as a sacrifice for this reason. He isn’t trying to be like the government officials, he is just trying to make us understand us better in the faith. This is something I wish Hebrews would explain more in detail as sometimes that can get confusing for some.
    Hebrews is not just a message for the Jews I would think, but a message for all people as seen in multiple chapters of the section. More specifically, the first page right when you open it seems to be a reminder to all people. Hebrews 1, 2, 3, and 5 as seen in the Bible are all evident of this and speak to the matter with conviction. As most of Hebrews mentions warnings for certain things such as falling away from the source (Heb. 6). This is why I think it to be important that we do not secularize the book of Hebrews to one specific group, as I believe we all have something to glean from it.
    Thanks, P Long and I hope you enjoy my insights on your blog posts.

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  2. P Long- As you have stated above Paul’s view of the Law is differing from some of the main contributors to Jewish-Christian Literature. However, the book of 1 Peter makes no right out mention to the Law. Although 1 Peter is addressed to “God’s elect, exiles scattered throughout the provinces”(1 Peter 1:1), which no doubt is a reference to the Jewish population that were scattered do to the Roman takeover of Israel that then later converted to Christianity. 1 Peter takes no real stance on whether Gentile coverts should follow the Law, instead doing good and living a life worthy of Christ(1 Peter 2:16) is emphasized. 1 Peter is much less concerned with kosher food laws or circumcision and more concerned with the heart, and in that way I would argue that 1 Peter is rather similar to Paul’s view of the Law. 1 Peter seems to be written with the third group of early Christian sub-groups in mind; those who did not insist on circumcision or purity laws for Gentile converts, nor did they insist Jewish Christians abandon the Law (PLong Notes p. 10). I think that in a way keeping the Law is much more than relating it to a part of one’s salvation. I think that keeping the Law for many Jews solidified their Jewish identity; it was tradition and reminded them of the Covenant that God had made with the people before them. If Peter is the author of 1 Peter is would seem that Peter like Paul does not believe that following the Law is relevant to accepting Jesus Christ as one’s savior, this is later supported When Paul, James and Peter all decided at the Council of Jerusalem that Gentiles did not need to practice the Law in order to receive salvation(Letters to the Church p.4). While, 1 Peter does mention Pagans, he does not mention the Law to differentiate Christians from them, instead Peter says to practice “good deeds and glorify God”(1 Peter 2:12). I can understand why many Jewish Christian converts were slow to let go of the Law it was part of their identity of as a people, it was a part of God’s covenant with them, also added to the fact that Jesus himself was a Jew and practiced the Law.

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    • Some good observations. Indeed, cultural, ethnic and national identity are all important parts of following the Law…. Doing so, even upon following Jesus as Messiah, was a way of remaining Jewish when they saw no reason NOT to remain so. Acts, Ch. 1, significantly has the disciples asking Jesus (who I don’t believe was actually embodied at the time, but that’s beside the main point here) if this is when the Kingdom will be restored to ISRAEL?

      It seems to have been mainly Paul (plus maybe a few “off screen” characters) who pushed forward the idea that the Kingdom was to be a new entity of Jews and Gentiles united in a single “body of Christ”. If one reads the last several chapters of Acts carefully with tensions between Paul and the Jerusalem leaders (which no longer included Peter by then) in mind, it is apparent that dogma and ethnic relations were far from settled yet then, around 58 AD.

      A great but so far little-known source developing this around the theme of Paul’s “collection for the saints” in Jerusalem is the book and documentary film by Robert Orlando. The book is entitled “Apostle Paul: A Polite Bribe” and the film, “A Polite Bribe”.

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  3. I see multiple times in Jewish-Christian Literature, especially Hebrews, how the Law and what was written in the Old Testament is used to prove how Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law. Jewish Christians are using the Law to prove to Jews how Jesus really was the Messiah and the Law is complete with His coming. Hebrews 2:17 explains that Jesus is the ultimate priest who made the atonement once and for all for the sins of the people. Jews really needed this explanation and proof for them to become Christians because of all the things they were used to practicing. These explanations provided in Hebrews are more effective than just talking about saving grace, because the Jews needed to know that their sins were now covered by Jesus’ blood, and they did not have to sacrifice and do the rituals they were used to doing for atonement for their sins.

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    • Jewish Christian literature displays a range of belief on the issue of Law, and Jews who became Christians held tightly to the Law. They had practiced rituals, given sacrifices, and followed specific customs for generations. Salvation through Christ and accepting Him as an atoning sacrifice would have done away with their need to practice the Law, but these new believers were content and comfortable in their traditions. As Kerri stated above, they needed to be reminded that Jesus, the ultimate Priest, made the atonement once and for all.

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  4. Jewish Literature seems to point at this idea of Jesus as a “high priest”, specifically in the book of Hebrews. (4:14) It also refer to the law as “useless” making nothing perfect. 1 Peter points to Jesus as the savior and asks that in response its readers turn from evil and instead live as a holy priesthood. (2:5) It even refers to them as “chosen people” which leads one to think that it is written to a pretty Jewish audience. It is quite easy to see that there is a certain amount of gratitude being displayed for the death and resurrection of Jesus. The significance is clear and distinct from Paul’s writings: rather than turning hard left away from the life they once knew and coming into the light of the new covenant, the jews were transitioning from their former covenant to the latter. However, Paul does write in Romans 7 about the effectiveness of the law. It is apparent that he also did not choose to abandon it entirely. The difference between the two is that Paul taught about the law from a very practical perspective (for example, its ability to help us discern right from wrong, 7:7) while the writer of Hebrews and the general epistles used more native language of the jews (priesthood, sacrifices) to explain it. The writings of Hebrews point to a message we can all relate to: Jesus has come, and by faith we can freely accept his sacrifice. We no longer have to live under a failing system, but one that is perfect and covers all sins.

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  5. In my opinion, when hearing about the writings of the Law in the new testament, my mind is immediately drawn to the council in Jerusalem in Acts 15. It is made obvious there about many of the Jewish-Christian leaders opinions. James had this to say in Acts 15:19-21, “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. For the law of Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.” To me, that clearly points to the fact that James was all for keeping what most Jews would view as some of the essential Mosaic Laws. Peter seems to be against using the law, as he says in verses 7-10. It would then make sense that not much discussion on the law would be included in his letter.

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  6. I can’t really say that I have anything substantive to add to this conversation. I will say that I see a clear distinction between Pauline epistles and the rest of the letters as to how they deal with the law. Paul seems to usually be concerned with freedom from the law whereas the writer of Hebrews seems more concerned with the sufficiency of Christ over that of the law (Heb 9:13-14). that is, that the law does not have the power to save but through Christ, the law is better understood and made whole.

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  7. Before I get into the dynamics of the law in regard to following it, I would like to discuss cultural relevance. Relativism is frequently discussed by philosophers and professors. I think that reading the Bible with relativism in mind is essential. Questions such as ‘who is Paul addressing’ and ‘what events were taking place at this time’ should be at the forefront of the brain when reading the New Testament.
    During the time at which Jesus was considered the Messiah, Caesar Augustus was also calling himself the son of God (Jobes, Letters to the Church, p. 3). August was incredibly legalistic and applied many restrictions among the Jews for when, how and where to worship their god. Jesus’ proclamation of being the Messiah brought hope to a whole new realm of Christians. Once it was decided that Gentiles could become Christians without being Jewish, the rules of the law had to be reconstructed (Jobes, 4). Even though the book of Hebrews scarcely discusses the Law specifically, is does address the merging of the old and new covenant. The final chapter in Hebrews gives a good example of this. It says that we are strengthened by grace and not by food We are to sacrifice to God by sharing what we have (Hebrews 13:14-16). The sacrifices discussed in Hebrews 13 are not of animals but praising His name and doing good deeds by sharing what you possess.
    Going back to the culture surrounding Jesus, the early Jewish Christians were used to following the laws and Paul telling them that Jesus’ blood covered everyone’s sin (Hebrews 2) and they no longer had to shed blood probably shook them up. In regard to your question about the letters from Peter and John, I do not know whether or not they believe the law ought to be strictly followed. 1 Peter 2:16 leads me to believe that we should take our new freedom in Jesus and choose to live as his slaves. I believe that living as God’s slave would mean to follow his Laws but as to which laws to follow I do not know.

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  8. I think that Jewish-Christian Literature, specifically Hebrews, uses the Law to correlate the old covenant to Jesus Christ in the eyes of Jewish converts.
    The author uses examples of the Law to illustrate how Jesus Christ has sufficed the Law. As a Jewish converts, I see it as wise of the author of Hebrews to have integrated the Law into his sermon. It seems as if it were of comfort or some sort of encouragement. Especially if the Jewish-Christians were brand new and could not yet even grasp Paul’s writings. I agree with what Nick Ewald posted; the writer used the native language of the Jews to help bring to light who Jesus was and the influence he had on the New Covenant that covers all sins.

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