Thursday, February 21, 2008

Torah in Early Christianity: Diversity

One of the hobgoblins of New Testament Theology is "diversity". I think there are at least seven different views of the Torah in the early church. From my very brief survey of the NT, I identify them as follows:

(1) For Judean Jesus believers with a pharisaic background adherence to Torah is still the definitive marker of covenant identity and obedience to its precepts is the grounds for entrance into the new age even with the advent of the messiah (Acts 15.1, 5).

(2) For some Judean Jesus believers connected to the Jerusalem church, the coming of Christ compliments rather than replaces the Torah so that Jews and Gentiles are still bound to follow the Jewish way of life (Gal. 2.12, 14; 4.10; 5.2-4; Gal. 6.13).

(3) The apostolic decree states that Gentiles should obey minimally the noachide commandments as a mark of respect to their Jewish brothers and sisters (Acts 15.28-29).

(4) For some Diasporan Jesus believers living outside of Palestine Jesus is God’s supreme agent of salvation, but the Torah remains holy and good and should be followed (Mt. 5.17-20; Jas. 2.8, 12; Barn. 2.6).

(5) In groups connected to the Greek-speaking Jesus-believers the Torah has a limited role in redemptive history that has been completed by arrival of the messiah with the result that the Torah is relativized rather than abrogated (Acts 6.13-14; Col. 2.17; Heb. 10.1).

(6) For many Jesus believers with a history of Torah observance (i.e. the ‘weak’ who are easily offended), adherence to the mosaic law’s precepts is part of their social, familial, and devotional life and while professing faith in Jesus as messiah and Lord, they lack the maturity/insight to see that they are free to relinquish submission to its commands (Rom. 14.1–15.7).

(7) According to Paul the Torah exists in a set of binitarian antitheses between Christ and Torah and Torah and Spirit (e.g. 2 Cor. 3.1-9; Rom. 8.2; 10.4). The Torah points to salvation but does not provide it (Gal. 3.21-25; Rom. 3.21). Torah is bound up with the old age of sin, law, and death which those in Christ are free from (Rom. 7.5-6; 8.2; 1 Cor. 15.56). The Torah remains good and holy (Rom. 7.12). While the Torah can still inform the righteous behavior of the Jesus-believers (Rom. 13.9-10), the basis for upright living is the example of Christ (e.g. Phil. 2.5-11), the teaching of Christ (1 Cor. 9.20-21; Gal. 6.2), and life in the Spirit (e.g. Gal. 5.18; Rom. 7.6; 8.2-4). In the context of defending the integrity of his Gentile converts Paul regards law observance as leading to a curse (Gal. 3.10; cf. Acts 15.10), slavery (Gal. 4.22–5.1; Rom. 7.6) and he likens compelled obedience to Torah as to submission to hostile pagan deities (Gal. 4.8-9; Col. 2.14-15). What counts is not circumcision but new creation (1 Cor. 7.19; Gal. 6.15).

I wonder what we would could add to this list in terms of diversity if we included the Apostolic Fathers, Justin Martyr, and early non-canonical literature?

See further Raymond Brown and John Meier, Antioch and Rome: New Testament Cradles of Catholic Christianity (New York: Paulist, 1983): 1-9; Peter Stuhlmacher, ‘The Law as a Topic of Biblical Theology,’ in Reconciliation, Law and Righteousness (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1986): 110-33.
Why do I suspect that James Crossley will have a comment or two about this?


david santos said...

Hi, Michael!
Thanks for your posting and have a good day

Phil Sumpter said...

This was helpful, thanks.

Joel Willitts said...

It appears to me that the categories are rather arbitrary. For example what are the significant differences between #'s 2,3,4,5,6. Furthermore, I am not all that happy with the characterization of both Paul (#7) and the "weak" (#6). I am surprised by the lack of adequate nuancing in the categories for diverse perspectives on Torah observance for Jews and Gentiles.

Eric Rowe said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Eric Rowe said...

All of your options (at least as I read them) seem to pertain to the Church's reception of the Mosaic Torah. But you could expand the level of diversity by adding one that recognizes that some Christians seem (like some other sects of Judaism) to have accepted non-Mosaic alternatives to the Mosaic Torah (rewritten/reworked Bible type sources). Jubilees and a great deal of Enochic literature enjoyed a measure of authority with at least some early Christians. The Epistle of Barnabas cites Torah-like sources a number of times, almost always differing markedly from what we find in the Mosaic Torah both in halakhic and haggadic portions. And depending on what evidence we count (it can be hard to decide when something is a deliberate "midrashic" explanatory expansion on the Bible, and when it's something else), we may well find a lot of other examples. As late as Gregory of Nyssa, we find him intermingling extra-biblical details in his preaching of the Life of Moses (albeit in his case this could certainly not be taken as a sign of choosing something else over the Mosaic Torah so much as cherry picking from other traditions in service to his use of the Mosaic Torah).

John Hobbins said...

What Joel and Eric said.

Plus, under a single word, "Torah," lurk a number of concrete referents. The bit about Paul's understanding of the Law, despite the relative wordiness of the description, remains simplistic and misleading.

James Crossley said...

*Why do I suspect that James Crossley will have a comment or two about this?*

Because he's a right ****. I'll stay silent on this one, nothing to add! Actually, aside from the inevitable generalisations, I'm not convinced you are always wrong on this topic. Just the odd detail here and there ;-)