One Torah, Different Laws

A traditional hand-written Torah scroll

As I begin to write on this topic I am doing so with what is called “fear and trepidation”. The reason being that it is a highly controversial topic, but since I already opened this “Pandora’s box” in my last section, I have no choice but to begin to address this topic in more detail – Is there, or is there not, One Law for Everyone? My last paragraph stated the following: Could it be that Paul envisioned One Torah for Jew and Gentile, but two sets of laws applicable to each group? Could it be that later “Muslims” and “Christians” were generally wrong (that there can be only one law for all people)? Could it be that “Judaism”, though in the minority, was actually right? There was one Torah for both (Jews and Gentiles), but two sets of laws in the Torah, appropriately applicable to both.

Before I begin, a word of disclaimer may be in order. I honor and love modern Christ-followers who may hold views that I will disagree with in this article, and for me, while this topic is of great importance, love and respect between followers of the Jewish Christ must reign supreme – as one great theologian once said: “If Christians are at war with each other, they must not be at war with the world!” So do continue to consider my writing as a conversation and continual invitation to think about these important topics, presented only with great respect to all sides involved.

So, without any further chit-chat please allow me to begin.

Torah is and is not law

Before we continue we must define our terminology. I define the Torah as a collection of the first five books in the Jewish and Christian Bibles. Torah, which in Hebrew means something like “instruction” or “teaching”, is a multi-genre work attributed largely to Moses. It contains poetry, stories, prophecies, testimonies, calls to worship, as well as a wide variety of laws.

By the time the Judeo-Greek Septuagint was available (and translation of Torah was available much earlier than the rest of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament) the Jewish sages residing in Greek-speaking lands began to routinely call the Torah – Nomos, which in Greek basically, though not only, means – the Law. It is very difficult to know exactly why and whether it was justifiable to call the Torah – Nomos back then. We, however, are dealing with this topic today, using modern terminology as we consider our modern conversation about Ancient History. Therefore we must we be clear that, while the Torah contains the Law/s, it cannot only be equated with law in the modern sense of the word. Torah is both law and so much more than that.

One Law in Christianity and in Islam

The subject of whether or not the Israelite Torah is applicable to everyone in the same way is actually a direct product of the historic emergence of Christianity (3-4th century) and Islam as self-sufficient and self-contained religious systems (6-7th century). Only then did both Christians and Muslims, because of the “universal” quality (after all the word catholic actually means universal) of both these newly established religions, set as a basic principle – ‘there will be only one rule of faith and practice for every adherent.’ Thisone Law, referred to in Christianity and Islam respectively as Canon Law and Sharia Law, established the very fact that neither Christianity nor Islam were tribal religions. Anyone could become a Christian or a Muslim, while remaining culturally unchanged. The faith did not belong to, nor was it defined by, any one people group, as was still the case in Israel – or as we grew in time to call it – the Jewish people.

But the faith of Israel at the time of Jesus and Paul was different in this regard. While it accepted converts to itself, it did not, until the Christian era (3-4th century), perceive itself as a separate religion. Being part of Israel certainly had a significant religious component to it, but it was the “package deal” that the converts accepted and not only the “spiritual and doctrinal norms”. Because Judaism (not as a separate religion but as a Jewish ancestral way of life) predated the formal establishment of both Christianity and Islam by many centuries, it appeared in a different mode all together. Anyone who joined Israel through proselyte conversion (full conversion) actually joined “the people of Israel” as such, and did not simply assume the worship of Israel’s God (the mode of conversion in both Christianity and Islam).

Not One Law in Judaism

Ancient Judaism also accepted people that would come to live among itself, without actually going through the proselyte (full) conversion. It called them – “sojourners” with Israel. These were people that, for whatever reason, decided to retain their ethnic and cultural identities but, either by choice or circumstance, found themselves living among Israelites for a prolonged (or even permanent) period of time.  In the time of Apostle Saul Paul, this Jewish question about how the sojourners with Israel must live among Israelites, was naturally turned into another unanticipated question. How must the sojourners with Israel live in harmony with the rest of Israel, while also living in the confines of another nation (Roman Empire)? This was precisely the question the “Jerusalem council” asked and answered in Acts 15. Essentially, their response was: ‘The nations following the Jewish Christ in the Roman Empire must continue as they always were. There is no difference between sojourners with Israel living among Israelites only, or both of them residing in the Roman Empire.’

This is very important because in Israelite tradition there was never one law for everyone. Think about it. There was one set of laws that applied to all Israel and another set of laws that applied to the Levites. In other words, there was only one Torah, but separate sets of laws for Levites and other Israelites.

I am arguing here that this exact idea was very much defining Apostle Paul’s mindset regarding these matters. Remember, Paul was not a Christian but a Jewish Pharisee, according to his own proud confession. He was of course a Jewish Pharisee who was called by Messiah Jesus to serve Israel and the Nations in a truly unique way, but he was still a Jew and therefore he thought, not as later Christians would (one law for everyone), but as Jews always did (One Torah, but several sets of laws).

Later Rabbinic Judaism developed this important concept into the idea of “Righteous among the Nations” and the seven Laws of Noah, who represented the Nations of the world in covenant with the same God before the nation of Israel was formed through the covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and their children. Although this brief treatment of Jewish Paul cannot go into details of this comparison, suffice to say that the testimony of Acts 15 provides a window into the development of this Jewish idea. Essentially, the Jerusalem’s council’s conclusions, as expressed in their letter to Christ-following Gentiles in the Roman Empire, constituted an earlier Jewish version of what later, because of the development of the Rabbinic Judaism, became the Noahite Laws. Remember, the New Testament predates by several centuries the first Rabbinic Jewish document called Mishnah and therefore serves as an earlier historic witness to the emerging Jewish Rabbinic ideas and practices.

Ruth vs. Naaman Paradigm

In the Hebrew Bible there are two ways to fully commit to Israel’s God. One is the way of Ruth the Moabite, when she said: “Your people will be my people, your God my God”. The other is the way of Naaman the Aramean, who declared after being healed in Israel’s river that there is no other God in the world except in Israel and took Israel’s earth with him, so that he could worship Israel’s God among his own people. He committed to Israel’s God in a different way. In a sense he said: “Your God will be my God, but my people will still be my people”. Both ways were honored and accepted in Judaism at all times – back when Judaism was not yet a religion (the time of Jesus and Paul), and even in Judaism that eventually became a religion, just like Islam and Christianity.

Paul and Judaizing

One of the most confusing and trajectory-setting ideas, and one that is generally misunderstood today in the Christian churches, is the idea of Judaizing. Paul, the Jewish Pharisee who followed Jesus as Christ, clearly thought Judaizing was wrong. Yet, “the devil is in the detail” as they say in the West, or “God is in the detail” as we prefer to say here in Israel. You see, what Paul meant by Judaizing and what the average Christian today means by Judaizing, are two entirely different things!

In the time of Paul “Judaizing” was basically a process by which a member of the Nations fully and formally joined the Jewish people through proselyte conversion (this was its expressed and only goal). We are talking here about becoming a Jew – an Israelite in every way. This kind of “joining” Paul, the Jewish Pharisee understood as nothing less than a sabotage of the Shemah and the entire plan of Israel’s God. This explains Apostle Paul’s sharply polemical language towards those who preached proselyte conversion to the Christ-followers in Galatia.

We are not dealing here with such ideas as Sabbath observance or celebrating the Feasts of Israel. These are Jewish practices that were not considered by Paul as Judaizing in any way. In fact, these were assumed by the “Jerusalem Council” and Apostle Paul alike. While we will deal with the major differences between Paul’s letter to the Romans and the letter he wrote to the Christ-followers in Galatia, in a separate section, it is fitting at this point to summarize that Paul’s arguments in his letter to the Romans sought to combat Roman politically expedient, anti-Jewish attitudes already present among early Christ-followers in Rome even in the mid first century. Let me just make one important point: Paul did accomplish his goal in Rome through this letter. It was so to the point that Ambrosiaster, in his commentary on the book of Romans in the 4th century, wrote the following:

It is established that there were Jews living in Rome in the time of the apostles and that those Jews who had believed passed on to the Romans the tradition that they ought to profess Christ, but keep the law… One ought not to condemn the Romans, but to praise their faith, because without seeing any signs or miracles and without seeing any of the apostles, they nevertheless accepted the faith in Christ, although according to a Jewish rite.[1]

Throughout the first letter of Clement that the believers in Rome (c.96) wrote to the believers in Corinth, it is astounding to what degree the Israelite conceptual language can be seen. Apostle Paul, in his Torah-honoring ministry to Israel and the Nations, succeeded in directing the Church in Rome towards a proper relationship with the Nation of Israel, where there was one Torah for everyone but two sets of laws for Israel and for sojourners (You can read First Clement HERE in English translation).

[1] Mark D. Nanos. The Mystery of Romans: The Jewish Context of Paul’s Letters (Kindle Location 320). Kindle Edition.


This article originally appeared on Jewish Studies Blog by Dr. Eli, March 29, 2016.