I have been doing a lot of reading lately about the way in which early Christianity was practiced, especially by the first generation or two following the Apostles, and have come across some staggering facts and tidbits of information that I cannot ignore, but must instead examine more carefully if I am to truly live as Christ. I am in the process of reading Paul and Palestinian Judaism, by E.P. Sanders and Restoration, by D. Thomas Lancaster, and will be using them as reference for my next few posts. Please remember that my comments here are meant to be concise, so I highly recommend you read these resources for yourself, consult Scripture, and take the time to honestly examine what is said here before either taking it as law or rejecting it out of hand. We all owe it to ourselves to examine fully the claims of Christianity, and of those who would be our educators. So, without further ado, lets begin by taking a look at the context and practices of the earliest “Christians”, if you will, by quickly examining Christ himself, his early disciples, and the Apostle Paul.
Whose town is this anyway?
It is no secret that Christ and his earliest followers were Jews from Palestine. Though Christ did, on occasion, minister to those outside of the Jewish ethnic group, it is clear that just as salvation is “first for the Jew, then the Gentile”, so Christ’s ministry was primarily for the Jew, followed by Paul for the Gentile.
So what does this mean? After all, weren’t Jerusalem, and the rest of Palestine under control of Rome? This was indeed the case. However, in an effort to maintain some level of peace the Jews of the region were, at the time of Jesus, permitted to practice their religion without excessive persecution, and were even allowed to govern themselves to a certain degree under the supervision of Rome. Yet along with this seeming freedom came some restrictions. For example, the Jewish court, or the Sanhedrin, did not have the authority to condemn a person to death. This is why it was necessary to have Christ condemned and sentenced by Pilate before he could be crucified. Because of this and other restrictions, the Jews had to adapt their understanding of rightly practicing Torah, which sometimes called for punishment by death.
Yet aside from this and perhaps some other issues, Jews were free to practice Torah. Christ himself, as the only perfect person, did indeed practice Torah, and he did so perfectly. Though he was challenged on many occasions as to his manner of keeping Torah, he made it clear that these questions arose out of a faulty understanding of the Law.
So, what about Christ’s disciples? In Jesus’ day, it was not uncommon for Rabbis to have devoted disciples living with them, traveling with them, and learning everything they could from them. What they came away with was not only a school of thought, or an intellectual exercise, but also a lifestyle that matched that of their master. This was no different for the disciples of Jesus who traveled with him, questioned him, and ultimately learned to imitate him. As Jews, we know that they would have already been keeping Torah prior to meeting and following Christ. Rather than ending this practice, they would have changed the way in which they both understood and practiced the Law to match that of their master. This is seen throughout the Gospels and the letters we have in the Cannon from writers other than Paul.
Now we get to Paul, who is without a doubt the most difficult to understand of all of the New Testament authors. This difficulty comes from the “seeming” conflict in Paul between the Law and justification by faith. Since dealing with this seeming conflict would take far more time than we have here, let’s push that to the side for now, and instead look at Paul’s actual life.
Paul was a Pharisee, who was so zealous for the Law that he persecuted and even affirmed the murders of the earliest Christians. After his encounter with the Lord on the road to Damascus, Paul turned his zeal for the law into a zeal for Christ. In Philippians, he speaks of having more right to boast in the Law than anyone, because he was a Jew, born of Jews, a keeper of the Law, and even a Pharisee. He counts all of this lost in the face of justifying faith, and affirms for us that there is no way to justification through the Law. Because of this and many other statements against the Law, one might draw the conclusion that Paul no longer considered the Torah important, and stopped practicing it. Yet instead what we see is Paul as a follower of Christ still practicing Torah, and encouraging others to do so as well. Even at the time of his arrest, Paul was on his way to make sacrifice in the Temple.
Though Paul and others clearly state that there is no reason or need for Gentile believers to become ethnically Jewish, he does not at any time advocate an abandonment of Scripture. And Scripture at this time was confined to what we now call the Old Testament (i.e. Torah).
I know that what we have discussed so far barely scratches the surface of the issue, and seems awfully concise. It is not, however, intended as an instructional aid, but merely a place to start if we are to really investigate what was going on with regard to Torah observance at the time of Christ.
The next part of this series will briefly cover the authority of Scripture for Christ and his followers.