Birth of the Messiah: Early Christian Tradition

The final article of this Christmas-season series will examine traditions related to the Birth of Jesus in the late-first and second centuries, insofar as they may reflect earlier or established Jewish tradition regarding the Messiah. This short study will be divided into three sections:

    • Revelation 12 and Early Christian Eschatology
    • The Protevangelium and other early Infancy narratives
    • Justin Martyr & Origen: Second Century Debates with Judaism

Revelation 12 and Early Christian Eschatology

There are only three passages in the New Testament that refer to Jesus’ birth, outside of the Infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke. Two of these have already been discussed (Rom 1:3-4 and Gal 4:4-5); the third is the vision of the Woman giving birth in Revelation 12:1-6. I have dealt with this passage in my (ongoing) notes on the book of Revelation (cf. the earlier note). There can be no doubt that, within the context of the visionary narrative, verse 5 refers to the birth, life, and ultimate exaltation to heaven. However, the story-pattern of the vision is wider than this narrow (historical) application. It has legendary, fabulous details common to a number of myths of the time, most notably the tale involving the the Python-serpent, opponent of the god Apollo, which sought to kill his mother Leto (Hyginus, Fabulae 140; Koester, p. 545). Moreover, the brief notice of the child being taken up to heaven does not entirely fit the historical situation of Jesus’ life, which here is compressed to include only the birth and ascension (cp. Justin Martyr First Apology 54.8). This raises the likelihood that an earlier story-pattern has been applied to Jesus, relating to it only those elements of his life which fit the pattern. It is worth considering whether this story-pattern, as adopted in the vision, originally related to the Messiah.

Certainly, Rev 12:1-6 is not simply a story about the birth of Jesus, but of his identity as the Messiah—that is, the Anointed Davidic ruler figure-type. This is especially clear from the wording in verse 5:

“And she produced [e&teken] a male son, who is about to shepherd the nations in [i.e. with] an iron staff. And her offspring [te/knon] was seized/taken (up) toward God and toward His ruling-seat [i.e. throne].”

The words in italics, of course, derive from Psalm 2:9, blended with the Messianic shepherd-imagery taken from passages such as Ezek 34:23. It is possible that Micah 5:2-4 is specifically in mind here, with its combination of elements:

    • The coming forth of God’s chosen ruler (v. 2)
    • The motif of a woman in labor (v. 3)
    • The ruler as a Shepherd who will be great over all the earth (v. 4)

The use of Mic 5:2ff in the Matthean Infancy narrative (Matt 2), with its description of Herod’s attempts to kill off a new-born Messiah, certainly seems relevant as well. However, it is by no means clear that a reference to this specific Gospel tradition is intended. The narrative motif of the wicked ruler seeking to kill a chosen (male) child as soon as he is born, is found in many traditional tales and legends worldwide. It is perhaps enough to view the motif here as indicating that the ‘dragon’ wishes to destroy the child before he can exercise his chosen position of rule; the implication being that the ‘dragon’ is already (currently) exercising rule over the nations, or may have the opportunity to do so.

Is it possible that there was a tradition in existence that the Messiah, following his birth, was taken up into heaven, to be kept hidden away until the moment when he should appear at the end-time? There are, in fact, Jewish traditions suggestive of this idea, however their existence as early as the first century A.D. is quite uncertain. The work known as 2 Enoch (or Slavonic Enoch) has been dated to the late-1st century A.D. by some scholars, based on internal considerations; if correct, it would be roughly contemporary with the book of Revelation. Chapters 71-72 describe the birth of Melchizedek—a miraculous (virgin) birth from the wife of Noah’s brother. To save him from the Flood, he is taken up into God’s heavenly paradise by the angel Gabriel; eventually Melchizedek will return to become the head of all priests that are to come, and will return again (in a second form?) at the end-time. While not referred to by the title “Anointed One” (Messiah), Melchizedek certainly has Messianic characteristics and features, as he does in several of the Qumran texts (cf. the article on 11QMelchizedek), blending elements of the Priest-Messiah and Heavenly Deliverer figure-types (cp. his application to Jesus in Hebrews 5-7).

In the Jerusalem Talmud, there is a tradition regarding the birth of the Messiah (in Berakot 5a, cf. also Midrash Rabbah on Lamentations 1.51 [on Lam 1:16]), which I have previously noted. In this story, a Jewish farmer, at the time the Temple is destroyed, learns that the Messiah (Menahem ben Hezekiah) has been born in the “royal city” Bethlehem. He finds the child’s mother, who expresses her wish to kill the infant, blaming him for the suffering that has come on her people. Eventually, the child is rescued from this threat, by “strong winds” (implying a divine/heavenly source , cp. 2 Kings 2:11) that snatched him from his mother’s arms. The implication is that he will be kept (in heaven) until the time he is to be revealed. There is no way of knowing how old this tradition is. To be sure, the setting of the story is the first century (70 A.D.), but whether it is an authentic tradition from this time is doubtful.

The setting of the Talmudic story (the destruction of the Temple) for the birth of the Messiah likely has some bearing on the traditional expression “birth-pains of the Messiah” (j^yv!M*h^ yl@b=j#), referring to the period of suffering and distress which immediately precedes the Messiah’s appearance. The background for this expression is ancient, as the pain of women in childbirth often was used to symbolize suffering, typically in relation to God’s Judgment—Psalm 48:6; Mic 4:9-10; Isa 13:8; 21:3; 26:17; 42:14; Jer 4:31; 6:24; 13:21; 22:23; 30:6; 48:41; 49:22, 24; 50:43; Rom 8:22; 1 Thess 5:3. It is used notably in the Eschatological Discourse of Jesus, in the context of the destruction of the Temple, for the period of distress that precedes Jesus’ end-time appearance and the coming Judgment (Mark 13:8 par; cf. also Luke 23:28-29). The same image of childbirth can also emphasize deliverance from pain/suffering—Mic 4:10; 5:3; Isa 65:23ff; 66:7-9; cf. also John 16:21. Cf. also the childbirth motifs in Isa 7:14 and 66:7, both passages which have been given a Messianic interpretation.

Even more uncertain is the theory that chapters 11-13 of the book of Revelation were influenced by an apocalyptic writing called the Oracle of Hystaspes. This work, in existence by at least the early 2nd century A.D., is Persian—or, at least, it has a Persian setting and provenance—but also appears to contain elements of Jewish apocalyptic. Unfortunately, its contents are only known from the Institutes of Lactantius (book 7) in the early 4th century, and even then only sketchily presented. The similarities between chapters 11 & 13 of Revelation and what Lactantius provides of the Oracle are clear and striking. Like the book of Revelation, it was a fiercely anti-Roman work, directed against the Roman Empire, and expressing the people’s hopes that God would deliver them from its evil control. It is conceivable that the birth of the “great King” who is to come was part of this Oracle, corresponding to Rev 12:1-6, though no mention is made of it by Lactantius, and the connection remains highly speculative.

The Protevangelium and other early Infancy narratives

Following the composition of the Matthean and Lukan Infancy Narratives (c. 70-80 A.D.), similar works narrating the birth (and childhood) of Jesus came to be produced. For the most part, these are imaginative expansions of the earlier (canonical) Gospel narratives, but they also can include separate traditions which have come down from an early period. It is worth considering whether some of these may reflect Jewish traditions regarding the Messiah.

By far, the oldest and most important extra-canonical Infancy Narrative is that of the so-called “Proto-Gospel” (Protevangelium) of James. Composed sometime during the early 2nd century, it contains at least one significant early tradition—that the birth of Jesus took place in a cave on the desolate outskirts of Bethlehem (17:3-18:1). This detail is attested independently by Justin Martyr in the mid-2nd century (Dialogue with Trypho 78.5, cf. also Origen Against Celsus 1.51). The main additions to the Matthean/Lukan narratives in the Protevangelium involve the role of Mary as the virgin who gives birth to Jesus. Indeed, much of what relates to Jesus as the chosen one (and Messiah) of God extends to include the person of Mary as well. Her birth and childhood (chaps. 1-16), in many ways, parallels that of Jesus himself. This tendency within early Christianity is best described as a strengthening or enhancing of the Messianic and Christological traditions. The following points of emphasis may be noted:

    • The sanctification of Mary and her identity as one specially consecrated to God. This is established two ways:
      • Her association with the Temple (7:1-12:1)—this is an important emphasis in the Lukan narrative as well (1:8-11ff; 2:22-24, 25ff, 41-51)
      • Application to Mary of the traditions regarding the birth and childhood of Samuel (1 Sam 1-3), even as they are used to shape the Lukan narrative of Jesus’ birth and childhood; in the Protevangelium, Mary is raised in the Temple under the guardianship of priests, just as Samuel was.
    • Mary’s Davidic lineage—that she is a descendant of David is specified (chap. 10), leaving no question whatever as to Jesus’ Messianic pedigree as being truly from the line of David. There is no trace of this in the Matthean and Lukan narratives, where Jesus’ descent from David is legal, not biological; the genealogies (Matt 1:2-16; Lk 3:23-38) clearly belong to Joseph, not Mary (cf. also Matt 1:20; Lk 2:4). Indeed, the information in Luke 1:5, 36 indicates that Mary was from the tribe of Levi, not Judah. However, Paul’s wording in Romans 1:3 (compared with Gal 4:4), suggests a biological birth from David, and later Christian tradition followed the Protevangelium in making Mary unequivocally a descendant of David. If nothing else, Protevang. 10 shows how important the association with David remained, among early Christians, for confirming that Jesus was, indeed, the Messiah.
    • The virginal conception (and birth) of Jesus. The Protevangelium goes considerably further than the Matthean and Lukan narratives in emphasizing that Mary was a virgin (6:1; 7:2; 8:2ff; 9:1ff; 10; 11:2; 13:1-3; 15:2-3; 16; 19:3-20:4). By the time the Protevangelium was written, this had become more of a matter of Christian apologetic (cf. below), than of the (Messianic) interpretation of Isaiah 7:14 so vital to Matthew’s narrative (1:22-23). However, there are still strong echoes of Isa 7:14 as a Messianic prophecy (see esp. the wording in Protevang. 19:3)

Perhaps the most striking scene in the Protevangelium, for modern readers at least, is in 18:2, where Joseph, while walking outside in search of a midwife, sees all of nature momentarily come completely still. This supernatural intervention in the natural order corresponds with the moment of Jesus’ birth, when a theophanous cloud of glory enters the cave and fills it with light (19:2). Such phenomena are fitting to the traditional identification of Jesus as the Messiah, at his birth, following similar signs and wonders marking his Baptism and Resurrection/Exaltation as the moments when he was ‘born’ as the Messiah and Son of God (for more on this, cf. my recent notes).

Second Century Debates with Judaism

A number of the Christian authors from the second and early-third centuries, whose works have survived, are called “Apologists”, as they sought to provide a proper account or defense (a)pologi/a, “apology”) of the faith, in the face of increasing challenges from Judaism and Greco-Roman paganism alike. At least two of these works contain significant discussions regarding the birth of Jesus as the Messiah.

Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho

Justin’s Dialogue, written sometime after 155 A.D., is presented, as the title indicates, as a dialogue (that is, the literary format, used by Plato, etc) between Justin and a Jew named “Trypho”. To whatever extent this “Trypho” represents a real person, we may safely regard the words placed in his mouth as reflecting the view of Jews at the time—their objections to the Christian belief in Jesus as the Messiah, and the way that the Scriptures are interpreted in support of this belief. His Dialogue is a long and rambling work, awkward and unconvincing in detail, but valuable for the light it sheds on Christian thought (and apologetics) in this early period. The question of Jesus’ birth—and, in particular, the application of Isa 7:14 as a Messianic prophecy—is introduced in chapter/section §43, then after leaving it for a while, Justin picks up the subject again at §66. It remains the point of discussion, off and on, through to §78. The question of Isa 7:14 (and Jesus’ birth) is really part of a wider—and more important—debate regarding how the Old Testament Scriptures are to be interpreted, and whether the Christian approach, advocated by Justin, is reasonable and consistent.

Discussions of this sort, between Christians and Jews, had been going on since the original apostolic mission, as we can see from the numerous references in Luke-Acts regarding the importance of demonstrating from the Scriptures that Jesus is the Messiah (Lk 24:27, 45; Acts 5:42; 9:22; 17:2-3, 11; 18:5, 28; 26:22-23). For the earliest (Jewish) Christians, the main sticking point was the suffering and death of Jesus, since that did not at all fit the general portrait(s) regarding the Messiah, and was an obvious impediment for Jews in accepting Jesus. By Justin’s time, this had evolved into a more general apologetic, covering a wide range of Scriptures, adopted by Christians as referring to Jesus, in a way that many (if not most) Jews would find hard to accept. Isaiah 7:14, as a reference to the miraculous (virginal) birth of Jesus, was one such passage, and, here, the extended discussion about it demonstrates that it remained of considerable significance as a Messianic prophecy (about Jesus). In objecting to the Christian use of the passage, “Trypho” raises certain critical points, including how the Hebrew word hm*l=u^ is to be translated (cf. my earlier study), which Justin is not particularly well-equipped to address. Even so, the dialogue between the two remains interesting and enlightening to read, even today.

Origen’s Against Celsus

Origen’s extensive writing Against Celsus remains one of his most popular and widely-read works. Written in the early-mid 3rd century, toward the end of his life, it addresses the arguments of Celsus, who was perhaps the most formidable Greco-Roman intellectual opponent of Christianity in the second century. Origen’s lengthy apologetic response to Celsus’ book The True Account (a)lhqh\$ lo/go$) continues to be of considerable historical interest today, for several reasons. Most significant, for the purposes of this article, is the fact that The True Account, based on Origen’s references to it, was framed as a dialogue between a Christian and a Jew, and thus Celsus cleverly makes use of Jewish objections to Christianity as a starting-point for his own arguments. Some of these objections centered around Jesus’ birth, and the Christian identification of him as the Messiah (an identification which otherwise would have been of little interest to a pagan like Celsus).

Celsus’ work argued against the deity of Jesus, and made use of the (supposed) facts surrounding his birth and life as a bar against the Christian belief in Jesus’ identity as the incarnate (Son of) God. Celsus was relatively well-informed regarding Christian beliefs, and seems to have had some familiarity with Jewish traditions as well. He attacks the virgin birth as something invented by Christians (comparing it with similar details in Greek myths and legends), and the Jew in Celsus’ Dialogue brings up Jesus’ illegitimate birth (from the adulterous union between Mary and a soldier named Pantera), and his years as a lowly day-laborer in Egypt (where he also learned the magic arts), as all quite contrary to the Gospel record, and unworthy of a belief in Jesus’ deity (I. 28-29ff, 32-33, 69); the Gospel genealogies (including Jesus’ Davidic ancestry) are similarly disregarded as Christian inventions (II. 32).

As it happens, the tradition regarding Jesus’ adulterous birth (as the illegitimate son of the soldier Pantera, ben-Pantera) is known from later Jewish sources (Babylonian Talmud Sabbath 104b, Sanhedrin 67a; Tosephta Hullin 2.22-23; Jerusalem Talmud Aboda Zara 40d, Sabbath 14d, etc). Its inclusion in Celsus’ work (written sometime before 180 A.D.) demonstrates that the tradition was in circulation by the mid-2nd century A.D. Tertullian was similarly aware of the charge that Jesus was the son of a prostitute (De Spectaculis 30.6). Cf. Brown, Birth, pp. 535-6.

It is quite possible that this all traces back to the basic historical traditions, recorded in the Gospel Infancy narratives (Matt 1:18-20), of the unusual (and potentially scandalous) circumstances of Jesus’ conception and birth. Almost certainly, these rumors of illegitimacy, which coalesced in the Pantera-tradition, would have been used by Jews at the time as a strong argument against identifying Jesus as the Messiah. While Jewish sources in this period do not say much regarding how the Messiah’s birth might take place (cf. the earlier articles in this series), the details of Jesus’ birth, according to the Pantera tradition, certainly would not be considered worthy of the Messiah. Celsus develops this further to argue that it is also not worthy of one considered to be the Son of God.

In other references to Jesus’ birth, Celsus draws primarily from the Gospel narratives (i.e. the Infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke). Interestingly, though he attacks the virgin birth, Celsus apparently made no mention of the prophecy in Isa 7:14 (Matt 1:22-23), nor the Jewish critique of the Christian use of it (cf. above). Even so, Origen feels compelled to introduce the subject (I. 34), touching upon the critical question of translating the Hebrew word hm*l=u^ as parqe/no$ (“virgin”), as well as providing a rudimentary (for the time) historical-critical assessment of the passage (I. 35). While the main issue for Origen is a defense of the Christian belief in the virgin birth, his continued emphasis on Isa 7:14, following that of Justin Martyr decades earlier, illustrates the abiding force of that key Scripture as a Messianic prophecy. It also makes vividly clear the uniquely Christian development of the Messianic idea, whereby the birth of Jesus was regarded as, not only the birth of the Messiah, but also the birth of the Son of God.

“Brown, Birth” refers to Raymond E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, Anchor Bible Reference Library [ABRL] (1977, 1993).
“Koester” above refers to Craig R. Koester, Revelation, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 38A (Yale: 2014).

September 15: Revelation 2:8-11

Revelation 2:8-11

Today’s note deals with the second of the letters in chapters 2-3—to the believers in Smyrna, “(city of) myrrh [smu/rna] (?)”, modern Izmir, one of the major cities in Roman Asia (approx. 40 miles N. of Ephesus). The epistolary format used in these letters was discussed in a previous note; here I will be discussing only those details which are distinctive of the second letter.

Rev 2:8b

“These (things are) said (by) the (one who is) the first and the last, who came to be dead and was (made) alive”

The introduction (to Jesus) in each letter includes titles and phrases characteristic of the risen/exalted Jesus, reflecting attributes of deity. They are drawn from the vision in 1:11-16ff—here the titles repeat the declaration in vv. 17b-18a (cf. the note on these).

Rev 2:9

The body of the main address (from the risen Jesus) here is found in vv. 9-10. Unlike most of the other letters, it is not a mixed message (praise and blame), but is entirely one of praise and exhortation. This seems to reflect a degree of persecution faced by the congregations in Smyrna, which was not faced, to the same extent, by believers in the other cities. This is presented dramatically by the first statement (in verse 9):

“I have seen your (di)stress and poverty—but you are (in fact) rich!—and the insult(s) [blasfhmi/a] (coming) out of the (one)s counting themselves to be Yehudeans [i.e. Jews], and (yet) are not, but (are actually) a gathering together [sunagwgh/] of the Satan.”

The suffering of the believers in Smyrna is due to two factors: (1) distress/pressure (qli/yi$), i.e. from outside forces, and (2) poverty (ptwxei/a). This latter term means that they are poor in a material (and/or socio-cultural) sense, while actually being rich (plou/sio$) in the eyes of God (i.e. in a spiritual sense). Both factors are relevant, since believers with a higher socio-economic status generally are less likely to endure suffering and persecution.

While the difficulties for the congregations in Ephesus are described as coming from ‘false’ Christians, the suffering in Smyrna is the result of attacks from the Jewish communities in the city. This, of course, is familiar from the accounts of Paul’s missionary work in the book of Acts (9:23-25; 13:45ff; 14:5, 19; 17:5-8, etc), and confirmed at several points in his letters (e.g., 1 Thess 2:14-16). For Christians today, especially those in the Western nations, the descriptions in the New Testament of Jewish/Christian hostility, with corresponding anti-Jewish statements, can be most troubling, in light of the long and tragic history of ‘Christian’ persecution against Jews. However, this should not cause us to ignore or gloss over the historical reality of another time and place. There were genuine conflicts between early Christians (many of whom were Jewish) and certain segments within Judaism.

Here the Jewish attacks are described as blasfhmi/a (“insult”), a word which often is used in a religious context (i.e. insult against God), as preserved in English by the transliterated form “blasphemy”. There can be no doubt that the religious connotation is intended here; any attack against believers in Christ is effectively an insult (i.e. blasphemy) against God. The grim irony is that Jews who attack believers, perhaps fueled by a sense of religious devotion, are actually committing “blasphemy” and insulting God Himself. We do not know the specific details related to this “insult”, but it may have involved the denouncing of Christians to the provincial (imperial) authorities, which could then lead to interrogation, imprisonment, etc. The context of verse 10 suggests that this is likely the case.

The Jews who insult/blaspheme in this way are considered to be false Jews, just like the would-be apostles in vv. 2-3. The same sort of derisive language is used: “the (one)s counting themselves to be Jews, and (yet) are not”, i.e. they are not truly Jews (cf. Rom 2:17ff, 28-29). There is no real reason to doubt that such persons were genuinely Jews from a religious-cultural standpoint. The basic idea being expressed, almost certainly, is that those who attack believers in Christ, rejecting Jesus as the Anointed One and Son of God, have departed from the true Israelite/Jewish religion. This would be all the more likely if the “insult” involved denouncing believers to the Roman authorities. The question of religious identity, for both Jews and Christians of the period, was complex and difficult. Most of the earliest Christians came out of a Jewish religious-cultural background, and yet lines of conflict and separation were present almost immediately. We know of this conflict best from the account of the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 (cf. also chaps. 10-11 and 21:17-26), and from many passages in Paul’s letters (esp. throughout Romans, and most of Galatians). The declaration in v. 9b is sharped with the concluding words, that these ‘false’ Jews are actually “a gathering together of the Satan”. The word sunagwgh/ (lit. “leading/bringing together”) is, of course, the typical term for a Jewish religious gathering and/or place of worship, transliterated in English as “synogogue”. Parallels for this expression are found in the Qumran texts, such as 1QH X.22 (“assembly of Belial”); 1QM 15:9; 1QH XIV.5; XV.34 (“assembly of wickedness”, etc). Cf. Koester, pp. 274-6.

This language is repeated in 3:9, which will be discussed in turn.

Rev 2:10

The statement(s) in this verse function as a prophecy (foretelling) of what believers in Smyrna will soon experience:

“Fear none of the (thing)s which you are about to suffer. See, the one casting (evil) throughout [dia/bolo$, i.e. the Devil] is about to cast [ba/llein] you into a (prison) guard (so) that you might be tested, and you will have ten days of (di)stress.”

This clearly indicates that believers will be put in prison, probably for the purposes of interrogation rather than as a term of punishment. The delimitation of “ten days” is most likely a figurative approximation, symbolizing a definite (though relatively short) period of time (Gen 24:55; Num 11:19, etc). A motif of ten days of “testing” is found in Daniel 1:12ff (Koester, p. 277). In light of this impending suffering, Jesus, in his message, provides a special word of exhortation:

“You must come to be trust(worthy) [i.e. faithful] until death, and I will give you the Crown of Life.”

A special honor is given to the one who endures suffering for Jesus’ sake to the point of death. The “crown” (ste/fano$), or wreath, typically woven out of laurel leaves, etc, in the context of Greco-Roman culture, is given as an honor to one who is victorious in competition (i.e., athletics, military battle) or who has given distinguished service to the people. The word (and concept) appears seven more times in the book of Revelation (3:11, etc), and is used occasionally by Paul (1 Cor 9:25; Phil 4:1; 1 Thess 2:19), and elsewhere in the New Testament (e.g., 1 Peter 5:4, “crown of honor/glory”).

Rev 2:11

The concluding exhortation/promise in the letters always begins: “[To] the (one) being [i.e. who is] victorious…”, followed by a description of the (heavenly) reward the believer will receive, after death, or at the end-time following the Judgment. Here the promise is related to the idea that some believers in Smyrna (and elsewhere in Asia Minor) will face death for Christ’s sake in this life:

“The (one) being victorious would not suffer injustice [i.e. injury] out of the second death.”

Being put to death as a Christian involves a terrible injustice (a)diki/a, lit. without justice); yet, the believer in Christ has the comfort and security of knowing that he/she will not be harmed in any way (i.e. suffer no injury [a)diki/a]) by the “second death”. This expression is eschatological, conveying the idea that there is final death for the entire person (the soul, etc), which follows the physical death (of the body). According to a traditional line of Jewish thought (fairly common, it would seem, at the time), at the end, those who are dead (righteous and wicked both) will be raised and enter into God’s Judgment. The righteous would enter into the blessed (heavenly/divine) or “eternal” Life, while the wicked would experience the opposite. The latter is depicted most dramatically in Rev 20:11-15; 21:7-8.

Jews & Gentiles and the People of God

This is the first of several articles which will be posted periodically. The subject is so large, and the sensitivity surrounding it so great, that it must be approached with care (and some caution). I will be posting these articles to run parallel with another, related, exegetical study series on “The Law and the New Testament” (see the introduction). This initial article on “Jews & Gentiles and the People of God” follows several daily notes in which I examined the Pentecost narrative in Acts 2:1-13. I set forth as a fundamental theme of Acts 1-2 the Restoration of Israel (see the note for Pentecost Tuesday with a concluding follow-up note). Consider, especially, the parallel thematic structure of the narrative:

    • The disciples, representing the twelve tribes of Israel—the Twelve (reconstituted, Acts 1:15-26) and the wider group of around 120 (12 x 10) disciples—are united, coming together in one place (Acts 2:1)
      • where they experience the manifestation (power and presence) of the Spirit of God (parallel to the Sinai theophany)—esp. the tongues of fire, Acts 2:2-4
    • Jews from the surrounding nations, representing the dispersed twelve tribes of Israel, also come together in one place (Acts 2:5-6), eventually speaking together with a united voice (vv. 7-11)
      • where they too experience the manifestation of the Spirit (the “voice”, v. 6), as at Sinai, with the word (of God) heard being spoken in other tongues (i.e. their own languages), Acts 2:6-7ff

Note also a second parallel involving the nations (ta\ e&qnh):

    • Jews from the surrounding nations (where they had been dispersed) come together in Jerusalem
      • In the hearing of the separate languages of the nations they encounter and respond to the word of God (spoken by the disciples)—in so doing, they join with the 12/120 apostles/disciples to form a new, restored Israel
      • The disciples (who spoke the languages of the nations), are, in turn, dispersed out in to the surrounding nations (see esp. Acts 8:1-4; 11:19), where they proclaim the word of God (to Jews and Gentiles)
    • Jews and Gentiles in all the surrounding nations come together—as Israel and in Jerusalem (at the spiritual level)

To what extent can this second parallel be demonstrated as part of the original thought and purpose of the author of Acts (or his underlying tradition[s])? There are several passages where the mission to the Gentiles is clearly understood as fundamental to the “restoration of Israel”. Perhaps the most prominent is in the speech of James in Acts 15:13-21—there James cites Amos 9:11-12 in a most original and distinctive manner, tying the “rebuilt tent/booth of David” to the Gentile mission. I have discussed this passage in some detail in an earlier post.

Before proceeding to an introductory analysis of the basic idea of the “people of God”, it may be useful to survey some of the key eschatological references in the Old Testament prophets (and subsequent Jewish literature) where the role (and fate) of Gentiles in the end times is described. To begin with, let me reiterate two important aspects of the “restoration of Israel”, which I pointed out at the end of an earlier daily note (on the Pentecost narrative):

    1. The return of Israelites (Jews) from exile among the nations—this return is to the Promised Land, and, in particular, to Judah and Jerusalem.
    2. The Nations (Gentiles) come to Judah and Jerusalem, bringing tribute and/or worshiping the true God there.

The first aspect is an important and popular theme especially in the later Prophets (from the exilic/post-exilic periods), and, in particular, so-called deutero- and trito-Isaiah (Isa 40-55, 56-66, generally regarded by critical scholars as stemming from this late period, though the matter remains much in dispute). Here is a sampling of some key Isaian passages: Isa 43:5ff; 44:21-28; 48:12-21; 49:5ff; 51:11; 52:2, 7-12; 54:2-8; 55:12-13; 56:1-8; and throughout chapters 60-66, esp. 66:18-24. The imagery and sentiment of these passages largely concurs with that found in exilic/post-exilic prophets such as Ezekiel (esp. chapters 34, 37 and 47-48) and Zechariah 9-14, though in those books the military side of the restoration (i.e. the defeat/conquest of the nations, cf. below) is already becoming more prominent. The motif of restoration/return appears frequently, of course, in subsequent Jewish writings—e.g., Tobit 14:5; 2 Maccabees 2:7; Jubilees, 1:15-17ff; Testament of Benjamin 9:2, etc (selection courtesy of Sanders, pp. 79-82, see below).

With regard to the second aspect, E. P. Sanders (Jesus and Judaism, Fortress Press [1985], p. 214) provides a convenient summary of select passages related to the role and fate of the Gentiles, which I present here in modified form (with expanded references):

“People of God”

In the Old Testament Scriptures, the precise phrase “people of God” (formally <yh!ýa$–h*— <u^, ±am (h¹)°§lœhîm) is actually quite rare (Judg 20:2; 2 Sam 14:13), with the similar expression “people of YHWH” (hw`hy+ <u^, ±am YHWH) a bit more common (Num 16:41; Deut 27:9; Judg 5:11, 13; 1 Sam 2:24; 2 Sam 1:12; 6:21; 2 Kings 9:6; Ezek 36:20; Zeph 2:10). However, Israel is referred to as God’s people many times, including numerous instances where the revelatory/prophetic voice of God refers to Israel as “my people”. These occur frequently in the context of the Exodus—Ex 3:7ff; 5:1; 7:4; 8:22-23; 9:17 (“let my people go”, 5:1; 7:16; 8:1, 20-21; 9:1, 13; 10:3-4); the status of Israel as God’s people is summarized in Ex 33:16. The emphasis of Israel as God’s people is often that of holiness, related to the idea of covenant obligation; this is particularly noteworthy in Deuteronomy—Deut 7:6f; 14:2; 28:9; 29:13, etc—and throughout the Deuteronomic history (e.g., 1 Sam 2:29; 9:16-17; 2 Sam 3:18; 5:2; 7:7-11; 1 Ki 6:13; 8:16; 16:20). For the theme of holiness, see especially Lev 11:45; 19:2; 26:12.

The address of “my people” occurs regularly as a complaint or admonishment in the Psalms and Prophets (Ps 50:7; 78:1; 81:8-13; Isa 1:3; 3:12; 5:13; 10:24; 26:20; Jer 2:11ff; 4:22; 6:26; 7:23; 8:7ff; 18:15; Amos 7:8ff; Mic 6:3ff. In Hosea, there is particular emphasis upon the identity of Israel as God’s people, as the message fluctuates between one of condemnation and a promise of future restoration (Hos 1:9-10; 2:1, 23; 4:6, 8, 12; 6:11; 11:17). Indeed “my people” proves to be an important keynote, in Isaiah and the later (exilic/post-exilic) Prophets, when the theme of deliverance and restoration becomes more prominent; cf. for example in Isa 32:18; 40:1ff; 51:4ff; 52:4-12; 65:19ff; Jer 24:4-7; 30-31; 32:38ff; Ezek 11:19-20; 37:11-14; 39:7 (cf. also 38:16; 44:23).

I will explore similar language and imagery in the New Testament and contemporary Judaism in the next article.

The Law and the New Testament: Introduction

This is the beginning of a series on the Old Testament Law (of Moses) as it is treated in the New Testament Writings. This issue, of course, cannot be separated from the question of the relationship between the (Christian) believer and the Law. Christians have long struggled with this question—from the very beginning until the present day, it has been a pressing concern, both in terms of doctrine and practical application to daily life and belief. It is deserving of thorough and thoughtful discussion today, particularly as modern society continues to move further and further away from the ancient thought patterns and religious culture in which the Old Testament Law first came to light. This study has, as its primary aim, to present a careful and objective survey (and exegetical Commentary) on many (if not all) of the relevant New Testament passages dealing with this subject. A basic outline of the study will be presented below.

To begin with, it is important to recognize several fundamental difficulties involved with a proper understanding of “the Law”:

1. First is a terminological difficulty. There are three primary words with overlapping ranges of meaning:

  • Law—the English word is from Germanic derivation (Old English lagu), in the basic sense of something laid down, i.e. a “binding custom or practice (of a community)”, as defined by M.-W. It is partially synonymous with the word rule (Lat. regula, regere, “[lead/make] straight”)—i.e., something which leads or guides a person or community.
  • hr*oT—the Hebrew word hr*oT (tôr¹h or tôrâ) is typically translated “law”, but is more properly rendered “instruction”. It is derived from a root word hr*y` (y¹râ) with the fundamental meaning (in the hiphil causative stem) of “direct, instruct, teach”. The related term hr#om (môreh) would be rendered “teacher, instructor”. The word hroT appears (in both the singular and plural) more that 200 times in the Hebrew Scriptures, often in the general sense of teaching/instruction (whether human or divine); however, it can also refer to a specific body or collection of (authoritative) teaching. The teaching which was understood to govern the ancient Israelite Community—in both religious (cultic) and social aspects (the two being closely interwined)—is preserved in the books of Exodus and Leviticus (also portions of Numbers and Deuteronomy), forming significant blocks of what is commonly referred to as the Pentateuch (Genesis–Deuteronomy), and which in Israelite/Jewish tradition is itself called “Torah” (hr*oT). The Old Testament Scriptures clearly indicate that this authoritative Instruction is the product of Divine Revelation, and is frequently referred to as “the Instruction [Torah] of God” (hw`hy+ tr^oT, tôra¾ YHWH)—cf. Exodus 13:9, etc. Several partially synonymous words appear in conjunction with hr*oT, such as: (a) qoj/hQ*j% (µôq/µuqqâ), indicating something inscribed or engraved, often understood in the sense of “statute, decree, ordinance”, etc.; (b) hw`x=m! (miƒwâ), from the root hw`x* (ƒ¹wâ), “direct, order, command”, and usually rendered as “commandment”; (c) fP*v=m! (mišp¹‰), “judgment”, often in the technical sense of a specific legal case or decision. These three terms, especially, can be seen as covered under the wider concept of hr*oT.
  • no/mo$ (nómos)—the Greek word usually translated as “law” originally had the basic sense of something assigned for particular use (spec. an allotment of land), and developed a broad range of more abstract meaning, such as a “(proper) custom, order, arrangement, usage,” etc. Within the political-legal sphere, the word took on the sense of a “(binding) custom” or regulation, much akin to the English word “law” (see above). Despite the clear difference in history and primary meaning of the two words, no/mo$ typically was used to translate hr*oT (in the Septuagint, etc). Indeed, within the New Testament itself, no/mo$ is usually understood in this manner—of the Old Testament and Israelite/Jewish “Law of Moses” (or “Law/Torah of God”), rather than Greco-Roman Law or “law” in a more general/abstract sense. The verb nomi/zw, which we might translate as “regard as proper/customary”, also has a technical legal or religious meaning, the background of which is important to keep in mind when examining certain New Testament passages.

We should be sensitive to the differences and nuances of language and meaning between these words, and be cautious against reducing everything to a specific or generalized concept of “Law”.

2. Second is a further difficulty of definition. At the time of the New Testament, how was the word hr*oT (Torah) understood? There are several aspects which should be considered:

  • As a law code—this stems from the basic definition of hr*oT as an (authoritative) body or collection of instruction (see above). Jewish tradition established the number of Scriptural commandments (twwxm) at 613 (see the Babylonian Talmud Makkot 23b-24a, and especially the “Book of the Commandments” [Sefer ha-Miƒwôt] by Maimonides)—365 negative, and 248 positive, commandments—compiled ostensibly from the relevant portions of Exodus-Leviticus and Numbers-Deuteronomy.
  • As a corpus of religious tradition—this includes not only the written instruction found in the Pentateuch, but two further related aspects: (1) the “Oral Torah/Law”, instruction passed down through the generations (beginning with Moses) and transmitted orally; and (2) authoritative commentary and interpretation of both written and oral Torah. This material is extensive and wide-ranging, having been preserved (and, in a sense, codified) in the Mishnah, the Talmuds and the various Midrashim. Many of the earliest Rabbinic traditions—of the Tannaim—may be contemporary with (or even pre-date) Jesus and the New Testament authors. The extent to which Rabbinic literature can be used to document beliefs and traditions from Jesus’ own time remains a topic of considerable debate.
  • As Scripture—sometimes “Torah” specifically refers to the sacred Writings, whether limited to the Pentateuch (the books of Moses, trad.) or the whole of Scripture. This latter sense is often covered by the expression “the Torah/Law and the Prophets”; however, even here the Torah tends to have priority, with the Prophets (probably including both the Historical books [Joshua–Kings] and the Psalms) seen as expounding/interpreting the Torah of God.
  • As a religious way of life—the observance of the Instruction (Torah) of God (as revealed in Scripture and tradition) was (and still is) fundamental to the Israelite/Jewish religious identity. It reflects the terms of the Covenant between God and His people. As we shall see, the idea of Torah observance as “works-righteousness”, by which one obtains salvation, is something of a serious distortion of Judaism at the time of the New Testament. More properly, we should regard Jewish observance of the Torah from the standpoint of a requirement (or obligation) which maintains and preserves the covenant (agreement) with God.

3. Third, and finally, is the difficulty of interpretation. All Jews in Jesus’ time would have agreed on the importance and necessity of observing the Torah; however, various groups differed in two respects: (1) on the precise nature and extent of the Torah, and (2) on what constituted definitive and authoritative interpretation of the Torah. This involved what we might call the perennial question of religious authority—who determines the required rules and customs, and how should they be performed or followed? The New Testament gives us only a narrow window into the debates and discussions which must have taken place in this regard. By all accounts, Jesus had numerous interactions with the Pharisees (or the “scribes and Pharisees”) over points of Torah, but only traces of this survive in the Gospels. There were fundamental differences between the Pharisees and Sadducees on chief points of doctrine. More notably, the Community reflected in the Qumran texts also had serious disagreements with other groups [including Pharisees, it would seem] over the proper interpretation and application of Torah. The centrality of Torah observance for the Qumran Community is especially clear in the so-called “Rule of the Community”:

As it is written: “In the desert, prepare the way…” This is the study [vrdm] of the law [hrwth] which He commanded through the hand of Moses, in order to act in compliance with all that has been revealed from age to age, and according to what the prophets have revealed through His holy spirit… (1QS 8.14-16)

The commitment to study (lit. searching, vrd) and observance of the Torah is virtually synonymous with entry into the Community (1QS 1.1-3ff, 5.1, etc), by which a covenant is established (or re-established) between the faithful and God (1QS 1.16-17). A basic premise for the Community was that Israel had abandoned the way of truth and no longer followed the Instruction of God (Torah) properly; furthermore, new revelation and insight regarding the Instruction was being given to the Community (as the faithful end-time Remnant). There are several references to an “Interpreter [lit. searcher] of the Law” (hr*oTh vr@oD, dôr¢š hattôrâ)—an idealized, eschatological figure representing the importance of authoritative instruction (CDMS A 7.18ff [4Q267 ii 15f]; 4Q174 fr. 1 col. 1, 11-12; 4Q177 col. 2, 5). This Interpreter is connected with the coming Davidic Ruler (i.e. Messiah, “Prince of the Congregation”), and may be identified with either the “Prophet like Moses” who is to come or to a Priestly ruler (“Messiah of Aaron”). However, in the history of the Community the role also seems to have been filled by the person known as “the Righteous Teacher” (CDA 6.7)—in such an eschatologically-oriented religious sect, present and future are closely intertwined. This “Righteous Teacher” (qdxh hrwm) or “Teacher of Righteousness” (hqdxh hrwm) served as a title for the leader who would offer divinely-sanctioned interpretation of both the Law and the Prophets; on this figure, see CDA 1.11; 6.11; CDB 20; 4QpPsa col. 3-4, etc; and throughout the commentary [pesher] on Habakkuk, e.g., 4QpHab 1.13; 2.2; 5.10, 7.4, 8.3, 9.9, 11.5. In many ways, Jesus filled this same role as authoritative Interpreter, especially in passages such as the Sermon on the Mount, as we shall see. The apostles, too, worked long and hard to clarify the relation of the Christian Community (broadly speaking) to the Torah and the Prophets. It was on this very point that the fiercest early battles were fought—most vividly demonstrated in Paul’s harsh polemic (esp. in Galatians) against other Jewish Christians who opposed his approach to Christian identity (in particular, the inclusion of Gentiles without requiring observance of the Torah).

As indicated above, Christians continue to struggle with the question of whether, or to what extent, it is necessary for believers to follow the Old Testament Law (Torah). A number of differing approaches have been taken, the most notable of which may be summarized as follows:

  • Believers are obligated to observe the Torah fully. This was a serious issue in the earliest years of the Church, but today it really only applies to Jewish Christians (or “Messianic Jews”).
  • Believers are entirely free from the Torah, and not required to observe it in any way; religious and moral conduct is now governed by other means (the Holy Spirit, inspired Christian instruction, etc). This view derives primarily from Paul’s teaching in Galatians and Romans.
  • Believers are still required to observe all things in the Torah which have not been explicitly (or practically) abolished (or rendered unnecessary) according to the teaching of the New Testament.
  • The ritual or ceremonial portion of the Torah no longer applies (nor does most of the political-social legislation and case law); believers are only required to observe the ethical precepts.
  • Believers are only required to observe the Ten Commandments (a narrower version of the two previous approaches).
  • Believers are required to observe only the “Commandments of Christ”, which can be defined various ways, but certainly includes Jesus’ own instruction related to the Torah (such as in the Sermon on the Mount).
  • The entire Torah for believers is reduced to the “Love-Commandment” (love of God and neighbor), according to the example of Christ. This is more of a general principle than a law or commandment as such.
  • Rather than observing the Torah commandments literally, believers should, by a process of interpretation, seek to understand and apply the underlying principles to modern religious and social circumstances.

I will reserve comment on these (and possibly other) approaches until the end of this series of studies. Here is a simple outline of how I will be proceeding:

  • Jesus and the Law—covering the following areas:
    • Evidence for two contrasting approaches by Jesus to the Torah
    • Jesus’ handling of the Torah in the Sermon on the Mount (esp. in the Antitheses)
    • Jesus’ interaction with Pharisees and religious authorities (esp. the Sabbath controversies)
    • Jesus’ relation to the Temple
    • The Law in the Gospel of John
  • The Law in the book of Acts (drawing also upon the Gospel of Luke)
  • Paul’s view of the Law
    • In Galatians
    • In Romans
    • Key references in the remaining epistles
    • Paul’s view of the Law in Acts compared with the Epistles
  • The Law in the Epistle of James
  • The Law in the Epistle to the Hebrews
  • The Law in the rest of the New Testament (with key references in the Apostolic Fathers)

Unless otherwise indicated, translations of the Qumran texts used in this series are taken from: The Dead Sea Scrolls Study Edition, ed. Florentino García Martínez and Eibert J. C. Tigchelaar, Brill/Eerdmans 1997-8.