Jewish Law in Gentile Churches by Markus Bockmuehl

A Review by Jason Moraff

In this collection of essays, Markus Bockmuehl seeks to illuminate how Jewish halakhah undergirds the foundation of what became Christian public ethical discourse. The book is divided into three major sections ordered mostly chronologically, beginning with Yeshua1 himself, then the apostles and early Jesus movement, and then the early patristic period, addressing a logical progression of questions. Part one, “Christianity in the Land of Israel,” contains four chapters that examine “to what extent the Torah and a Jewish, halakhic mode of moral reasoning continue to shape the teaching of the Jesus movement.”2 Bockmuehl interprets the New Testament within its Jewish context and perspective, around which he asserts New Testament studies should be refocused,3 and he reads the New Testament in dialogue with other Second Temple texts. The first three chapters examine Jesus’ engagement in halakhic discussions to show that “Jesus’ God is the covenantal God of Israel, and his message of the Kingdom is rooted in the Torah.”4 Chapter four then turns to discuss the apostolic decree and possibilities on why James intervened in the Antiochene community.

Part two, “Jewish and Christian Ethics for Gentiles,” asks: “Given the theory that Gentiles could be adherents of a Jewish Messiah, what for them would be the moral practice of their new faith and discipleship?”5 Here Bockmuehl addresses “natural” or “universal” law in the Second Temple period. Beginning with a survey of the Tanakh and post-canonical literature, he notes that “in Old Testament and Jewish thought, more specifically, God and his creation never ultimately speak with two distinct voices . . . God’s voice is clearly heard both in creation and in the Torah, and the two are fundamentally related.”6 Creation and Torah are in harmony; “that is to say, not only is the Torah in accord with nature, but nature, rightly understood, endorses the Torah.”7

Bockmuehl then focuses on the New Testament’s view of natural law and explores how it relates to its ethical discourse regarding Gentiles in the Jesus Movement. Examining the teachings that came to be known as the Noachide laws, he again surveys the Tanakh, post-canonical literature, and the New Testament to support his conclusion that “the doctrine of the Noachide Commandments is a rabbinic development of the biblical laws about resident aliens [Lev 17-18]”8 Accordingly, Bockmuehl argues that the apostolic decree in Acts 15 applied the Torah’s own halakhah for resident aliens to the Gentiles who are now included in the Jesus movement. In other words:

James’s speech, far from being a compromise, in fact accepts Peter’s argument and simply spells out the halakhic consequences [that] . . . they are saved as Gentiles, then it suffices to apply to them the same ethical principles that would in any case apply to righteous Gentiles living with the people of Israel.9

Bockmuehl asserts that the apostolic decree “established the hermeneutical parameters within which to appropriate the moral teaching and example of Jesus for a worldwide Church,”10 providing clues towards the development and reasoning behind Christian ethical discourse.

Part three follows this idea to address how the halakhic principles presented to early Gentile believers developed into moral discourse in the Greco-Roman world. He discusses how the growing Gentile population within the Jesus Movement eventually distinguished itself, and was distinguished, from its Jewish foundation.11 This led to persecutions and the need for apologetics against Jews and Romans. Bockmuehl argues that this apologetic setting formed the beginnings of Christian public ethics.12  Focusing on Aristedes of Athens and the Epistle to Diognetus, he then examines the emergence of this ethical discourse built on the foundation of contemporary and antecedent Jewish and philosophical traditions with a more theological perspective. He then concludes by reemphasizing the Jewish foundation, particularly halakhah, of Christian ethics.

Parts one and two in particular are valuable to Messianic Jewish New Testament exegesis and theology, particularly in Bockmuehl’s interaction with Second Temple sources. Messianic Jewish readers will be glad to add this work to the growing list of resources challenging the traditional anti-nomian readings of certain New Testament passages and situating Jesus and his followers firmly within the bounds of mainstream first-century Judaism.13 Rejecting traditional binaries and assumptions regarding the supposed exclusivity of Jesus and Judaism, Bockmuehl’s observations are refreshing: “It is disturbing to note how apologists for both liberalism and confessional conservatism have continued to find refuge in assuming the a priori likelihood of assertions about Jesus’ radical distinctiveness vis-à-vis a Torah centered Judaism.”14

His discussion of the dispute in Antioch exemplifies his rejection of the traditional paradigm.15 When discussing the issue of table fellowship in Galatians 2, he critiques the assumption that the halakha on Jew-Gentile table fellowship can be straightforwardly identified as “all or nothing” [i.e., breaking kashrut or not eating together]. In fact, there was clearly a fairly broad spectrum both on halakhic opinion and of practice, both in Palestine and the Diaspora.16

Evaluating the range of halakhic opinion, he then locates the New Testament authors on its spectrum. Having surveyed the variations in halakhah regarding table fellowship between Jews and Gentiles, Bockmuehl argues that the dispute between Paul and Peter was halakhic, not theological. He points out that Paul’s critique of Peter and the Jewish believers in Antioch was their hypocrisy, namely that they accepted and then rejected fellowship.17 He suggests that James intervenes in Antioch only because in the apostle’s ideology of the land, Antioch fell within Israel’s eschatological boundaries. (This unique proposal merits further research and exploration due to its particular relevance for Messianic Judaism.) Further, he notes the similarity between James’s apparent stringent position regarding table fellowship with Gentiles and that of R. Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, as contrasted with a more lenient Pauline halakhah.18 This well-researched and carefully-argued essay provides a helpful corrective to common misreadings of Acts 1519 and Galatians 2.

Bockmuehl’s “halakhic approach” to the moral reasoning of the New Testament, Second Temple Judaism, and Christian thought makes this primarily a work in the field of comparative religion rather than New Testament theology. The breadth and scope of his impressive and thorough research20 provides an excellent resource to show the parallels between the thought of the Jesus movement. However, his halakhic approach greatly limits him. In particular, the question remains to whether or not his proposals are viable from a literary-rhetorical perspective. For example, chapter 3 attempts to explain Jesus’ statement of “let the dead bury their own dead” within a Nazirite background. While Bockmuehl brings out excellent parallels in the Tanakh and Second Temple sources, he does not adequately discuss how this fits within Matthew’s narrative. While this chapter contributes to a post-supersessionist reading by undermining the standard antinomian position, his proposal needs further examination from a canonical, literary-rhetorical method.21

The primary shortcoming of this work is one that Bockmuehl himself acknowledges: “Given the preliminary nature of this collection of studies, there are inevitable weaknesses and lacunae that remain to be addressed in future work.”22 This book intends to spark further research and discussion surrounding the topics of Torah, halakhah, natural law, public ethics, and others. Each chapter could be expanded on and examined further as his work raises quite a number of areas for further research. Some examples would be apostolic perspectives on the land (specifically the possibility that Antioch was considered part of Israel’s promised boundaries23), the apostolic decree, and halakhah for Gentiles. The General Epistles also offer rich research material around these subjects which remain largely untapped in Bockmuehl’s research.24

The discussion of Mark 7 highlights the strengths and weaknesses of Bockmuehl’s approach. Chapter one, focusing more generally on Jesus’s participation in halakhic debates, particularly his disputes with the Pharisees, uses Mark 7 as a primary case study.25 Bockmuehl argues that Jesus upholds Torah and that he does not annul the purity laws, which he identifies in this case as kashrut. Using his halakhic approach, Bockmuehl shows how Jesus, much in line with the prophets and other Jewish thinkers of the time, emphasizes the weightier matters of Torah and one’s motivations and intentions. Yet he also argues that this emphasis does “not suspend the other commandments”26 and that Jesus’ point in Mark 7 is that “ritual and moral purity must go in tandem.”27 Bockmuehl follows the more traditional view that, even if Jesus does not discuss kashrut, Mark does in his insertion of 7:19. A literary-rhetorical analysis of this section would be required to argue that the evangelist is in agreement with Jesus.29

Further, Bockmuehl examines Jesus’ relationship to the Pharisees. Here, Bockmuehl argues that Jesus, like his contemporaries, made a fence30 around the Torah and that his “legal disputes with the Pharisees represent a clash between different conceptions of halakhah, different ways of building that protective hermeneutical fence.” He goes on to argue that Jesus emphasizes Scripture above tradition, specifically that which becomes the Oral Law:

For Jesus, therefore, the ‘fence’ around the Torah is itself rigorously scriptural. . . . Jesus refuses to subordinate one written commandment to the oral tradition pertaining to another… . Torah serves as its own interpretive fence.31

This point is astutely made but perhaps overstated when he says that Jesus makes a “distinction between the authority of Torah, which he accepts, and that of the ascendant Pharisaic halakhah, which he rejects.”32 This is true in part, but Bockmuehl neglects to engage with Matthew 23:2-3 in which it can be argued that Jesus endorses Pharisaic halakhah. While Jesus no doubt has disagreements with the Pharisaic halakhah and subordinates it to Scripture, it may be an overstatement to say he outright rejects it. This raises the tenuous question of how Messianic Jews should relate to the Oral Law and rabbinic tradition. The correctives offered by Bockmuehl in his discussion of the interconnection of mainstream Jewish thought and the Jesus movement will no doubt be helpful as we continue evaluating these intersections today.

For the Messianic movement, this book is a challenging yet rich resource with much to offer Messianic Jewish theology and practice. Of particular relevance is Bockmuehl’s reading of Jesus’s interaction with the Pharisees and their tradition. If Jesus does not outright reject Pharisaic halakhah but rather filters it through a Scriptural lens, this may provide a model for Messianic Jewish evaluation of rabbinic tradition. Bockmuehl shows that when it comes to competing halakhic perspectives, an “all or nothing” approach is rarely accurate or viable, an insight worth keeping in mind when addressing this topic. Bockmuehl’s discussion of the halakhic ramifications of the Jerusalem Council also merits wider consideration. If he is correct that the apostolic decree mandated that Gentiles only need follow the laws for the foreigner living in the midst of Israel, Messianic Judaism has much to discuss regarding the halakhic expectations of Gentiles in Messianic Jewish communities. In this book, Bockmuehl directly engages theological issues with immense implications for the most difficult practical questions facing today’s Messianic Jewish movement.33 His work has much to offer and will undoubtedly continue to serve as a launchpad for further studies in the time to come.

1   For the sake of consistency with quotations from Bockmuehl, this review will use “Jesus” instead of “Yeshua” from now on.

2   Markus Bockmuehl, Jewish Law in Gentile Churches: Halakhah and the Beginning of Christian Public Ethics (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2000), ix.

3   This point is expounded in Bockmuehl’s more recent work, Seeing the Word: Refocusing New Testament Study (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006) especially chapter 7 discussing the importance of a Jewish Jesus.

4   Jewish Law, 14.

5   Ibid., xi.

6   Ibid., 89, The Second Temple period does not have “natural law” in the sense of “a moral authority in nature that is somehow distinct from that of God himself.” cf 110.

7   Ibid., 111.

8   Ibid., 172.

9   Ibid., 165.

10   Ibid., 173.

11   Though it does not detract much from his argument, his claims here did precede the discussion around the parting of the ways. See Daniel Boyarin, Border Lines: The Partition of Judaeo-Christianity (Philadelphia, PA: Univ. of Pennsylvania, 2004); Adam H Becker, and Annette Y. Reed, The Ways That Never Parted: Jews and Christians in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2007) among others.

12   Jewish Law, 184-185.

13   Ibid., i, vii-viii, 3, 23-33, 127.

14   Ibid., 33. Another example is found on 6-16 where Bockmuehl acknowledges that the New Testament views Jesus as the ultimate authority on Torah and that it becomes reoriented around him. This does not abolish the Torah itself. See in particular his discussion on especially the topic of purity laws, 6-15.

15   Ibid., 56-82.

16   Ibid., 59-60.

17   Ibid., 72-73.

18   Ibid., 51-82. Even here, the issue was about presumed Gentile behavior, not food.

19   Chapter 7 also contributes to his reading of Acts 15.

20   The book contains near 40-pages of bibliography and a nearly 20-page index of ancient source citations.

21   It is important to note Jewish Law, 35 states that his “remarks on this subject are brief and somewhat experimental, deliberately intended as an entrée to further discussion rather than as a full-blown hypothesis.” This is an example of the limited, introductory nature of this book, despite its excellent scope of research.

22   Jewish Law, xiv.

23   Cf. Jewish Law, 73-79.

24   Jewish Law, 141.

25   Ibid., 4-12.

26   Ibid., 8.

27   Ibid., 10. This is another example of his rejecting traditional assumptions and binaries.

28   Ibid., 11.

29   For a recent example and persuasive argument regarding this, see Daniel Boyarin, The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ (New York, NY: The New Press, 2012), chapter 3.

30   Jewish Law, 4.

31   Ibid., 6.

32   Ibid., 4-5. He points out that both the Sadducees and DSS agree with “the halakhic primacy of Scripture.”

33   Jewish Law, xi. asserts that Acts 15 and Galatians 2 indicate that “there was no easy agreement as to whether this meant a fully integrated church of Jews and Gentiles or two socially distinct and parallel movements.” This is quite reminiscent of the bilaterial ecclesiology in Mark Kinzer, Postmissionary Messianic Judaism: Redefining Christian Engagement with the Jewish People (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2005) and the recent SBL seminar discussing its impact ten years later.

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