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I received an email from someone recently. He relates an indictment against mainstream Christianity from a messianic Christian perspective. I’ve changed the names and edited slightly our correspondence (to protect the innocent).
Hello, Dr. Capes! My name is Cody Hall, and I am a student. I looked at your information on the HBU website, and your interests and publications have prompted me to come to you for a few answers (via email).
I’m sure you have heard a lot about Messianic Judaism and are familiar with many of their arguments. But in case this particular Messianic congregation is unique, here are its beliefs:
1) Christianity as we know it is based entirely on an incorrect interpretation of Paul’s writings. Particularly, we incorrectly misread Acts 15 and Galatians.
2) Christianity is hypocritical, choosing to:
A) affirm the Ten Commandments while rejecting other Mosaic law (such as Kosher laws, Sabbath, etc.)
B) keeping pagan based holidays such as Christmas and Easter and rejecting Jewish feasts
C) using religious language based in paganism, such as “Lord”, “God”, “sacred”, the Trinity, etc.
3) Translation errors: Christianity uses incorrect translations of scripture (especially the NT). These translations obscure the reverence of the Torah in the NT and the teachings of Paul. These translations are also “translations of translations” because the NT was originally written in Aramaic and later translated into Koine Greek.
4) Jews and Gentiles are now one in the olive tree. When you are grafted in, you also inherit the laws of Moses.
5) The “lawlessness” described in the NT are those who do not observe Torah. These are the people who will come before the Lord and be turned away in their “lawlessness”.
My parents have been members of this congregation for many years. Their congregation is called ********** and they have a website. I used to be very sure this was all entirely incorrect, but being home for the summer has started to fill me with doubt. My parents seem very happy and have many kind, new friends. It appears many evangelical Christians are converting to messianic Judaism. I also do see glimmers of truth and hear some fair critiques of mainstream Christianity (some even I have thought). I’m sorry this is a bit lengthy, but I hope that maybe you could share some wisdom on the matter. Thank you very much for your time.
Thanks for your email. I have a number of friends who are messianic Jews so I’m quite familiar with the movement. However, I’ve never heard of a group that looks down so judgmentally on others calling them hypocritical, incorrect, error-filled, lawless, etc, for not agreeing with their interpretation. I’d be wary of any group that thinks itself so “right” and everyone else so “wrong.” God resists the proud but he gives grace to the humble. However we hold faith in the Lord Jesus, we should do so humbly.
The fact that your parents and others are happy in this movement and have good friends in itself is not a measure of its truthfulness. Nor does it guarantee that they are faithfully representing what other Christians believe.
I’d be glad to discuss these issues with you in some length in person, but let me give a basic response to a few of the things you mention.
1. This group claims Christians are “hypocritical” because they keep the ten commandments while rejecting other aspects of the Mosaic law. I would suggest humbly that most Jesus-followers and even orthodox Jews practice Mosaic law selectively. Do women in this group follow all the laws of menstruation? Do they put to death children who insult their parents as the law requires? Do they not wear blended clothing (cotton and polyester, for example)? Do they forgive all debts in the year of jubilee?
There are principled reasons why Christians read Genesis through Deuteronomy the way they do. People of good faith try to understand what God was doing, saying at the time. They take seriously that God made a covenant with the ancestors of Abraham on his way to redeem the world and that the stipulations and laws of that covenant deal specifically with the children of Israel.
Christians take seriously the new covenant established by Jesus with his church. You are probably aware of the Sons of Noah, and the seven laws of Noah. The seven laws of Noah are for righteous Gentiles. There was no expectation that non-Jews had to follow all 613 commands; seven were sufficient. Again, I suggest humbly that most messianic Jews, Christians and orthodox Jews practice God’s law selectively.
2. There is no evidence that the NT was written originally in Aramaic. I’ve heard this, of course, many times but there is no evidence for it. All the earliest documents and quotations we have from NT books are in Greek.
That said, I have full confidence that the Greek translations we have of Jesus’ Aramaic-speeches are faithful and true to what Jesus said. God is able to inspire, protect and preserve his Word in whatever languages he chooses. I study and use the original languages (Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic) but do believe that God can speak to people in other languages too. Now I do think that Jesus’ native tongue was Aramaic but there is good reason to think historically that he could also speak Greek since he lived in a bilingual area (people who speak Spanish at home often speak English at work or in the market). Since Americans can often only speak a single language, we don’t realize how people raised in a different environment can speak multiple languages. But they did.
3. I would differ—as would the majority of scholars and serious interpreters—on some of the interpretive issues mentioned in your email.
Regarding Acts 15. The purpose of Acts is to show the progress of the Jesus movement from Jerusalem to Rome and from people group to people group (Acts 1:8) (Hebraist Jews to Hellenistic Jews to Samaritans to godfearers to Gentiles). An important moment comes when trying to figure out what Gentiles must do in order to enter the movement and thus enter into Christ. Did they have to live like Jews (technical term is judaize) or could they come as Gentiles. I take Acts 15 as Hebraist Jews deciding to allow Gentiles to enter the community and thus into Christ/baptism/table fellowship without full adherence to the law (circumcision, kosher diet, Sabbath and festival observance). The four things asked by James in Acts 15 are in tune with the 7 laws of Noah, perhaps a version thereof. The reason given is because in all the cities where they will be going there are synagogues and Jewish communities. This is the language of accommodation. In order to keep from offending Torah-observant Jews please refrain from sexual immorality, idol worship, eating things killed via strangulation, etc. Perhaps the key is James’ quotation of Amos in 15:16ff. The dynasty of David is to be reestablished (Jesus), Israel is to be restored and the exile ended, and the full inclusion of “the nations” is what God has in mind. Ultimately the church is a countercultural movement of Jews and Gentiles united in Jesus. So what unites them is Christ not necessarily uniform practices. This certainly complicated. There are many good commentaries on Acts which may help.
4. The Jewish festivals go back to the biblical period but the ways in which they are practiced today by Jews and Messianic Christians do not go back to the biblical period. Most of what is said, done, for example, at a Passover seder is post-biblical, developed in the rabbinic period after Christianity and Judaism had gone their separate ways.
I applaud Jesus-followers who attempt to understand his Jewishness and prefer to worship in messianic congregations. I am concerned, however, to think that they would think so highly of themselves and so badly of others who disagree with them. I concur with you there are glimmers of truth and we, as Jesus-followers, need to be self-critical and always reforming our faith to conform to the image and likeness of Christ. There are other messianic congregations that would have a more generous view of more mainstream Christianity.
I hope this helps. I’d be glad to visit with you on this and other matters if you’d like. Let me know.
How would you answer some of these objections?
There is a phrase in Galatians 3.13 which is often misunderstood:
“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who hangs on a tree– . . . “ (RSV)
The phrase I’d like to consider is “the curse of the law.” What did Paul mean by it? How did/does Christ redeem us from it? All this talk of blessing and curses probably strikes you as kind of strange.
Well, let’s back up to consider the broader context of the letter.
Not long after Paul left the churches he founded in Galatia false teachers moved in and started teaching a form of the gospel which was not good news at all. These false brothers were insisting that non-Jews live like Jews in order to get in on the benefits of Christ. What does it mean to live like a Jew? Well, several things. They would have to observe Sabbath as a day of rest, keep certain dietary rules and regulations, celebrate Jewish holidays, promise to uphold all of God’s law, which included men being circumcised. Paul referred to these as “the works of the law.”
When Paul heard his churches had been infiltrated by these Judaizers (as we call them), he fired off the letter we call “Galatians.” His essential argument is this: no one—Jew or Gentile—is put into a right and proper relationship with God by doing “the works of the law.” Instead, the faithfulness of Jesus has made it possible for those who put faith in Jesus to be made right with God.
In Galatians 3 Paul argues that faith all along has been what made rightness with God a reality. It started with Abraham and his covenant. It’s evident in the message of the prophets as well. Those who trust in “the works of the law”—remember, dietary rules, Sabbath observance, circumcision—soon find they are living contrary to the law. For Paul, it is clear the law is not the means of salvation. To try to make the law into something it was never intended is foolish. The law does not justify. It never did. It was never meant to.
So here is where our phrase “the curse of the law” comes in. Jesus, God’s Anointed, has redeemed us from the curse of the law. What did Paul mean? To some degree it depends on what “of” means? You need to know that the word “of” is not found in Greek. It is commonly supplied in English to express the relationship between two words (e.g., the love of God, the friend of sinners, the rock of ages). In Galatians 3 the words are “curse” and “law.” So what is their relationship? In large measure it has to do with how the Greek genitive case—now I’m getting really technical—is interpreted. Let’s start with what Paul did not mean. Paul did not mean that the entire law is a curse. That would be what is known as an epexegetical use of the genitive. So: “Christ redeemed us from the curse, namely, the law, . . . “ Some have taken this approach and unfortunately missed Paul’s point altogether. No Pharisee like Paul would have ever thought of the law as a curse. If you want to know what Jews like Paul thought of the law, read Psalm 119. The longest chapter in the Bible is a celebration of the law, its goodness and its benefits. After that, notice that even before he came to Christ Paul felt confident before God precisely because he was blameless before the law (Philippians 3:4-6). I think we can safely rule out the epexegetical genitive. Well the best candidate for understanding what “of” is may be found in the partitive genitive. The partitive genitive expresses the relationship between a part and a whole. For example, in the phrase “one of my friends”. The set is “my friends.” The subset is “one.” The “one” is part of a whole, “my friends.” This is probably the best way to read the phrase “the curse of the law.” The set is “the law.” The subset is “curse.” The phrase “the curse of the law” could be rendered “the part of the law that pronounces curses.”
“OK,” I can hear you saying, “now in English.” If you haven’t noticed, there are places in the law—especially Deuteronomy 27-28 (part of the law)—where curses are pronounced against those who violate the terms of the covenant. Ancient treaties and covenants always included a list of blessings and curses, announcing what would happen if one party kept or broke their promises. It’s much the same today in modern contracts when a lawyer spells out the trouble you’ll be in if you violate the agreement you made. In those days the penalties for breaking a promise were called “curses.” I suggest the best way to read Galatians 3:13 is this way: Now Jesus the Anointed, the Liberating King, has redeemed us from that curse-part of the law. How? He did it by becoming a curse for us, that is, becoming subject to the law that said “everyone who hangs on a tree is under the curse of God” (Deuteronomy 21:23). Since Jesus hung on the cross, he fell under the curse. Now how did the cursed one—Jesus—liberate us from the part of the law that pronounces curses? In a word, resurrection. When God raised Jesus from the dead, he vindicated him as His Messiah and effectively reversed the curse, not just the single curse which affected Jesus but the entire system of curses which affected all of humanity. In the resurrection Jesus became the curse-buster. As a result, the curses associated with the first covenant have been rendered null and void through Christ’s faithfulness. This apparently had been God’s purpose all along.
I’ve met Christians who question why we read the Old Testament. “The New Testament has all we need,” they say. “Jesus did away with ‘the curse of the law.’” Well, yes and no. He did away with that part of the law that pronounces curses, but he didn’t do away with honor your father and mother, or do not steal, or do not murder. He didn’t do away with love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. In fact, Jesus repeats these directives, affirms them, and makes them central to his own teaching. Yes, Jesus reversed the curse so that blessing might extend to all people who put faith in Him. But the law in all its beauty and goodness remains.