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Torah Observance

Perspective Paper

Just as one of the major stumbling blocks for Judaism is belief in Jesus as the Messiah, the Torah and the idea of keeping “the works of the Law” remains a significant stumbling block for many Christians. The following paper will therefore explore the topic of Torah observance and argue that Jewish believers in Jesus are encouraged to observe the Torah by the leading of the Holy Spirit, so long as observance is not perceived as a means of earning the free gift of salvation in Messiah.

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This is a part of our series of Perspective Papers. These papers are not official statements or positions from Gateway Church, but are our thoughtful perspectives on complex issues related to Israel.


Introduction

The Jewish scholar Jacob Neusner once remarked, “The Torah is for Judaism what Christ is for Christianity.” In a certain sense, this could also be stated in the reverse, “The Torah is for Christianity what Christ is for Judaism.” Just as one of the major stumbling blocks for Judaism is belief in Jesus as the Messiah, the Torah and the idea of keeping “the works of the Law” remains a significant stumbling block for many Christians. The following paper will therefore explore the topic of Torah observance and argue that Jewish believers in Jesus are encouraged to observe the Torah by the leading of the Holy Spirit, so long as observance is not perceived as a means of earning the free gift of salvation in Messiah.

It is necessary at the start, however, to clarify the usage of a few key terms. Throughout this paper, the capitalized words “Law” and “Torah” are used synonymously. The former often has a negative connotation within Christian theological discourse whereas the latter does not. The lowercase words “law/s” and “commandment/s” are also used synonymously to refer to the individual laws which make up the larger whole. Again, “law” is used more often in Christian contexts, whereas the word “commandment” (or mitzvah/mitzvot in Hebrew) is used in Jewish contexts. Lastly, the Hebrew word halakha is utilized a few times throughout the paper. Halakha is a technical term meaning “the way to walk,” and it refers to traditional Jewish interpretation and application of the Torah’s commandments. With these terms defined, we can now turn to consider the concept of the Torah itself.

What Is the Torah?

The Hebrew word torah (תורה) comes from the verbal root yarah (ירה), which means to “throw,” “point,” or “shoot.” As a noun, torah has the meaning of “instruction,” “teaching,” or “guidance.” However, in the process of the formation of the Old Testament, the word Torah began to refer specifically to the teachings and commandments given at Sinai within the narrative context of God’s covenant relationship with the people of Israel. Over time, these teachings were written down and compiled in what is known today as the first five books of the Bible, or in Greek, the Pentateuch.

Nehemiah records how Ezra and the elders read “from the book, from the Torah of God, with interpretation” (Neh 8:8). This moment is considered by some scholars to be the beginning of “Judaism,” not because it is the first time a distinct book is mentioned (“the book of the Torah” is found earlier in Josiah’s reign, 2 Kgs 22:8), but because it is the first time the “interpretation” of the Torah is explicitly mentioned. When the captives returned from exile to build the Second Temple, the Torah functioned as a text that was both “authorized” and “authorizing” for the new community (Brueggemann, “Torah” [2002]). Authority in ancient Israel was once vested in institutions like monarchy, priesthood, and prophecy, but beginning with Josiah and culminating in Ezra’s reforms, the text of the Torah became the ultimate authority by which kings, priests, and prophets were held accountable.

In the years following Ezra and leading up to the first century, the Torah is referenced as a distinct entity, separate from the “Prophets” and “other writings” (e.g., the prologue to Ben Sira). Although the Old Testament canon was somewhat fluid during this period, the Torah remained foundational for the development of nearly all forms of early Judaism. There was not much debate over whether the written Torah was authoritative for Jewish life. Rather, the issue became how exactly to interpret and apply the Torah. As evidenced in the Dead Sea Scrolls, competing understandings of Jewish halakha began to emerge, epitomized in the later debates between Pharisees and Sadducees—the Sadducees only accepted the writings of the Torah as authoritative, whereas the Pharisees accepted additional oral traditions (Halakha in the Making 2009). The Gospels confirm this and show how Jesus went against some of the traditions the Pharisees added, teaching His own view that it was lawful to pluck grain and to heal on the Sabbath (Matt 12:1-14).

After the destruction of the Second Temple and the failed Bar Kokhba Revolt (132–136 C.E.), Rabbinic Judaism took up the mantle of the Pharisees, thus paving the way for a broader understanding of the concept of “Torah” as that which consists of both the Written Torah (the Pentateuch) and the Oral Torah (oral traditions passed down from Moses). The various oral traditions were eventually codified and written down in what is known as the Mishnah, which together with the Gemara (an early commentary on the Mishnah) is called the Talmud, compiled between the fifth and sixth century C.E. Therefore, since the rise of Rabbinic Judaism, to be “Torah observant” began to connote adherence to the halakha of the rabbis (the Oral Torah), not just adherence to the writings we know today as the Pentateuch.

Returning again to the question, “What is the Torah?” it is clear that there are different possible ways to answer. On the one hand, the Torah is specifically the first five books of the Old Testament. But in another broader sense, the Torah is all of God’s divine “instructions” and “teachings” for living, encompassing every book of the Bible and even beyond to the broader corpus of Jewish traditions and interpretations developed over the centuries as the Jewish people have sought to live “Torah observant” in obedient response to the covenant relationship God first initiated with Abraham. In this sense, even the New Testament can be called “Torah,” in so far as it is a collection of Jewish writings claiming to reveal God’s divine instructions and teachings. Yet, the idea of the New Testament functioning as Torah should not discredit the more common usage of Torah as referring to the five books of Moses, which is the sense that occurs frequently in the New Testament itself.

The Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint) predominantly renders the word torah with the Greek word nomos (νόμος). Along this same trend, declensions of the word nomos are found 197 times in the New Testament—the majority of which occur in the Pauline epistles (122 out of 197 total). Often in view is the “written” Torah (Luke 2:23-24; 10:26; 24:44; John 1:45; 8:17; 10:34; 15:25; Acts 13:15; 24:14; 1 Cor 9:9; 14:21; Gal 3:10), and there is frequent reference to the Torah as a distinct collection, “the Torah and the Prophets” (Matt 7:12; 11:13; 22:40; Luke 16:16; John 1:45; Acts 13:15; 24:14; 28:23; Rom 3:21), even once found in tripartite form, “the Torah, the Prophets, and the Psalms” (Luke 24:44), which has since become the standard division of the Hebrew Bible as “Tanakh” (Torah, Nevi’im, and Ketuvim).

Two important trends emerge when examining the above passages that speak of the “Torah and the Prophets.” First, Jesus teaches that the two commandments to love God and love your neighbor act as the summary of all the Torah and the Prophets (Matt 7:12; 22:40). In a way consistent with Jewish contemporaries, Jesus offers His interpretation of the Torah by citing from the Torah itself (Duet 6:5; Lev 19:18). Second, the Torah and the Prophets are said to testify of Jesus (Luke 24:27, 44; John 1:45; Acts 28:23; Rom 3:21). Other passages also speak of the Torah as that which leads to Jesus (John 5:46; Rom 10:4; Gal 3:24). These ideas bring us to another key issue concerning the Torah in the light of Jesus. In what way is the “Torah” of the New Testament continuous or discontinuous with the “Torah” of the Old Testament? Does the former completely reinterpret the latter so as to render it “obsolete” (Heb 8:13)? How should the relationship between the two be understood?

The Torah “Fulfilled”

The idea of Jesus being an authoritative interpreter of the Torah as well as the one to whom the Torah points is encapsulated well by Jesus’ own words in the Sermon on the Mount:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Torah or the Prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the Torah until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the Kingdom of Heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matt 5:17-20).

Of particular significance is the phrase that Jesus came “not to abolish but to fulfill.” The pairing of these words immediately rules out two possibilities. On the one hand, if Jesus did not come to “abolish” the Torah, then that means the Torah cannot be ignored or discarded. That would be to commit the error of Marcionism (you can read more about Marcion in our paper on the Jewish Foundation of Christianity). On the other hand, if Jesus came to “fulfill” the Torah, then that means the Torah cannot be understood entirely the same way it was before or without Jesus. Although, this latter point ultimately hinges upon how the word “fulfill” is defined.

In his analysis of Matthew 5:17, Noel Rabinowitz lists nine possible ways to interpret the word “fulfill” (pleroō, πληρόω), which he then simplifies as six options under three main headers:

  1. To do the Torah
  2. To teach the Torah with the intent of:
    a. establishing or confirming the Torah
    b. adding to or expanding the Torah
    c. bringing out the intended meaning of the Torah
    d. replacing the Torah with Jesus’ own ethical standards
  3. To bring the Torah to its eschatological completion

After surveying the views of various biblical scholars and analyzing the wider context in the Gospel of Matthew, Rabinowitz argues that it seems most accurate to embrace nuances of all three meanings at the same time:

“Yeshua therefore ‘fulfilled’ the Torah both by doing it and authoritatively interpreting it. Simultaneously and without minimizing the term’s primary connotation, ‘fulfill’ points the reader to the Torah’s eschatological and prophetic fulfillment in Messiah. He is the goal to which the Torah points” (Rabinowitz 2000, 29).

This view is consistent with the whole of Matthew 5:17-20, which mentions “teaching” and “doing,” and which is eschatologically oriented by speaking of future rewards in the “Kingdom of Heaven” and the day when “all is accomplished.” It also takes into account the New Testament’s repeated statements that the Torah and the Prophets point to and lead to Jesus, without omitting how Jesus both observed the Torah and authoritatively interpreted the Torah, at times upholding it and at other times extending its meaning. In fulfilling the Torah, Jesus does not discard it or replace it. He affirms its ongoing importance by declaring Himself as its practitioner, its authoritative interpreter, and its final goal. In no way does Jesus make the Torah “obsolete” through its fulfillment.

Nevertheless, affirming that the Torah remains and is not rendered obsolete still does not answer the practical question of how followers of Jesus should apply this understanding of the Torah fulfilled. For instance, which aspect of the word “fulfill” deserves greater emphasis? If Jesus is the Torah’s goal, does that mean Torah observance is irrelevant now? On the other hand, if Jesus was the Torah’s practitioner and we are called to emulate Him, does that mean all the commandments He kept remain valid? If not, how do we determine which ones remain valid and which ones do not? Indeed, Rabinowitz likewise concludes his analysis by saying that although Matthew 5:17-20 “reveals the continuing validity of the Torah and Prophets for the believer,” it nevertheless “does not answer the larger question of how parts of the Torah are abrogated and other parts are not” (Rabinowitz 2000, 40). In order to answer this much “larger question,” we must delve deeper.

Parsing the Torah

When considering the many laws found in the Torah, it is apparent that there are different kinds of laws. The command “honor your father and mother” (Exod 20:15) is different than the command “do not wear clothing made up of two kinds of material” (Lev 19:19) because one concerns moral behavior while the other does not (although, as we will argue further below, the difference is not that simple). As the Torah became a written text and Jewish halakha began to develop, increasing amounts of attention was placed on distinguishing between the various commandments. By the first century, “experts in the Torah” were concerned with the question “Which is the greatest commandment in the Torah?” (Matt 22:35-36). And by the time the New Testament writings began to circulate, early Christians recognized that some commandments in the Torah were repeated in the New Testament, but other commandments were not. Moreover, the New Testament explicitly forbids the observance of some commandments but extends and elaborates the observance of others, such as the “you have heard it said…but I say to you” instances in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5–7). Thus, a need arose to formulate distinctions between the various kinds of commands found throughout the Scriptures.

One of the earliest Christian writers to formulate distinctions was Justin Martyr. In the mid-second century, Justin quarreled with a Jewish teacher named Trypho over the correct understanding of the Old Testament Scriptures: “Some precepts were given for the worship of God and the practice of virtue, whereas other commandments and customs were arranged either in respect to the mystery of Christ or the hardness of your people’s hearts” (Dialogue, 44.2). A few decades after Martyr wrote his Dialogue, Similar arguments were employed by Tertullian (An Answer to the Jews, 2–5) and again a couple centuries later by Saint Augustine (Contra Faustum VI, ii).

Yet arguably the most influential formulation appears much later in the work of Thomas Aquinas who wrote that the Old Testament Law consists of three parts: “the moral, the judicial, and the ceremonial law” (Summa Theologica q. 99, a. 4). This threefold division has now become entrenched within Christian theology and is not only popular in the Catholic tradition but also in Protestant circles—John Calvin adopted the same terminology (Institutes IV.20.14), and so did the Thirty-Nine Articles in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer and the Westminster Confession of 1646. To this day, many prominent Christian teachers and church leaders continue to divide the Old Testament Law into these three parts and to argue that only the “moral law” remains applicable for followers of Jesus.

Upon closer analysis, however, problems with Aquinas’ threefold division immediately arise. First, the Bible itself does not make these same distinctions with the laws given to Israel. Nowhere does it say, “these laws are moral” and “these laws are ceremonial.” There is always a danger in assuming divisions that Scripture itself does not give. Even the headers and chapter numbers that separate laws into groupings are products of modern Bible translations and not found in the ancient manuscripts.

Secondly, a significant overlap exists between that which is moral, judicial, and ceremonial. Many of the ceremonial laws were equally moral and judicial for ancient Israel. For example, which category does the command to keep the Sabbath fall under? It was judicial, because it was nationally legislated; it was ceremonial because it involved certain rituals (ceasing from work); and it was moral because its transgression resulted in the death penalty. Indeed, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy” is the fourth and longest of the Ten Commandments, and some (known as “Sabbatarians”) believe that it is morally incumbent upon all Christians in the same way that the other nine commandments are. The Catholic Church takes seriously the fourth commandment by teaching that Christians are “obligated” to attend Mass on Sunday, and any deliberate choice to not attend church is a “grave sin” (Catechism 1992, no. 2181). Some Protestant traditions (such as Seventh Day Adventists) similarly emphasize the moral imperative of Sabbath by appealing to Hebrews 10:25, “Do not neglect meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing.”

Thirdly, teaching that only moral laws continue to be valid after Jesus fails to acknowledge how ceremonial laws can be found even in the New Testament. The most explicit case is found repeated three times in the book of Acts. After coming to the agreement that Gentiles do not need to be circumcised, the Jerusalem Council nevertheless decrees four things: “tell them to abstain from food polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood” (Acts 15:20, 29; 21:25). One of these four, “to abstain from fornication,” is a moral law, but the other three are Jewish dietary laws. With this passage in mind, the Eastern Orthodox Church continues to this day to observe the three dietary laws decreed for Gentiles by the Council (Canon LXIII of the Apostles; Canon LXVII of the Quinisext Council).

Moreover, if a “ceremonial law” is understood in its true sense as a command to perform a certain ritual or ceremony, then more instances should be immediately apparent. First, followers of Jesus are commanded to be baptized and to baptize others in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Mark 16:16; Matt 28:19). Baptism was originally a Jewish ceremony involving ritual immersion in water (Josephus’ Antiquities 3:263; Mark 7:3-4; Luke 11:38). Whether or not it is necessary to be water baptized to receive salvation is a debated issue in Christian theology, but the book of Acts nevertheless reveals that it was a key practice in the early Church (Acts 2:38; 8:12-17; 10:47-48; 19:3-5).

So also, partaking of Communion (traditionally called the Eucharist) is a key ritual found in the New Testament. Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34, “As often as you come together” have been applied by some as a command to take Communion at every single Church gathering. And the saying of Jesus in John 6:53, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you,” is similarly interpreted as revealing the necessity of taking Communion. The Jerusalem house churches in Acts 2:46 are also described as daily “breaking bread” together, believed by some scholars to be the act of taking Communion. But even if one disagrees with these interpretations, Jesus Himself gave the ritual command, “Do this in remembrance of Me” (Luke 22:19; 1 Cor 11:24-25).

Other examples of New Testament ceremonies include the verbal confession of Jesus as Lord (Rom 10:9; Matt 10:32); praying “in the name of Jesus” (John 14:13-14; Acts 3:6; 1 Cor 6:11); the “laying on of hands,” which can confer apostolic authority (Acts 6:6; 13:3), healing (Mark 16:18; Acts 28:8), the impartation of spiritual gifts (1 Tim 4:14; 2 Tim 1:6), or the baptism of the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:17); and the “anointing of oil” for physical healing (James 5:14). All of these are ritual acts that go beyond moral instruction, illustrating that there is such a thing as ceremonial law in the New Testament era.

Finally, the fourth and most neglected reason why the threefold division of the Law is problematic is because it leads to the erasure of Jewish identity. If only the moral law remains, then those laws given to set Israel apart as holy and distinct from the Nations are tossed aside. Thus, the sign of circumcision, the observance of the biblical feasts, of Sabbath, and of a holy diet are rendered obsolete. But as we have argued in our papers on Jewish Identity and Messianic Judaism, these are key markers and practices that many Jewish followers of Jesus consider important in the maintenance of their Jewish identity. To say that these laws don’t matter is akin to saying that Jewish identity doesn’t matter.

The threefold division of the Law is a particularly Christian approach, meant to serve as a tool to help believers in Jesus understand how to apply the Torah. However, Judaism has similarly developed its own system of parsing the Torah. One of the earliest individuations of all the commandments found in the Torah appears in Makkot 23b, “Six hundred and thirteen commandments were communicated to Moses; three hundred and sixty-five negative commandments…and two hundred and forty-eight positive commandments.” Thus, according to this early tradition, there are both negative commandments (“you shall not”) and positive commandments (“you shall”). There is also a stated number: 613. Although the specific number remained an issue of debate for many centuries, it has become a widely accepted standard in Judaism today.

The twelfth century Rabbi Maimonides (Rambam) systematized the 613 negative and positive commandments by developing 14 “rules” to determine how to classify them. Using these rules, Maimonides divided the positive commandments into 10 categories and the negative commandments into 10 categories, and he distinguished between unconditional, contingent, procedural, and descriptive commandments. It suffices to say that this approach is far more complex and comprehensive than the threefold Christian division! Nevertheless, more recently Rabbi Yisrael Meir HaKohen published The Concise Book of Mitzvot (1931), in which he utilizes Maimonides to establish that only 297 of the 613 commandments remain applicable today (77 positive; 194 negative; and 26 only for those who live in the land of Israel).

To a certain extent, Meir’s “concise” approach is analogous to the Christian threefold-division approach in that it aims to clarify which commandments in the Torah have continuing applicability. A major difference, however, is that Meir’s exclusion of certain commandments is circumstantial, based on the lack of Temple and Priesthood, whereas the Christian exclusion is theological, based on belief in the Christological fulfillment of the Law. Although, it must be said that the exclusion of certain laws can be theological also within Judaism—many Conservative and Reform Jews do not believe that animal sacrifices will resume in the Third Temple, for example. There are various opinions regarding whether sacrifices will eventually be reinstated, making it an interpretive and thus theological issue within Judaism.

With that said, both Judaism and Christianity have their own, unique theological reasoning behind why certain Old Testament laws are valid and why others are not. For instance, in the case of animal sacrifices, one early medieval Jewish text puts it this way:

“Once, Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai left Jerusalem, and Rabbi Yehoshua followed after him. When he saw the Holy Temple destroyed, Rabbi Yehoshua said: Woe to us, for it is destroyed, the place where all of Israel’s sins are forgiven! Then Rabbi Yohanan said to him: My son, do not be distressed, for we have a form of atonement just like it. And what is it? Acts of kindness, as it says, ‘For I desire kindness, not the slaughtering of a sacrifice’ [Hosea 6:6]” (Avot D’Rabbi Natan 4:5).

The narrative goes on to reference how the prophet Daniel was highly favored of the Lord despite not being able to offer sacrifices. He instead chose to perform acts of kindness and to kneel and pray toward Jerusalem three times a day (corresponding to the times of daily sacrifice in the Temple). This is a key pivot that takes place in early rabbinic theology, as the actions of charity and prayer were seen as fulfilling the functions of the former Temple cult (Schechter, Aspects of Rabbinic Theology 1961).

A difficult question that Daniel’s life highlights is, how can one keep the Torah in exile when so many of its commandments revolve around the Land, the Temple, and the Priesthood? Although the Second Temple would soon be built after Daniel was taken into exile, the same question would nevertheless surface again after its destruction in 70 C.E. It is in this period that Tannaitic rabbis began to emphasize some of the very same passages quoted in the New Testament: “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings” (Hos 6:6; Matt 9:13); “Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired…In burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure” (Psalm 40:6-8; Heb 10:5-6). Indeed, the Old Testament had always spoken of God’s desire for righteousness and obedience beyond the outward performance of ritual sacrifice (1 Sam 15:22; Psalm 51:16-17; Prov 21:3; Isa 1:11-17; Jer 7:21-23; Micah 6:6-8), and this fact allowed later Rabbinic Judaism to evolve beyond the need for animal sacrifices and for many of the commandments related to the Temple and Priesthood, though whether this change is permanent or temporary remains a matter of debate within contemporary Judaism.

The same conviction that “to do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice” (Prov 21:3; Sukkah 49b) is also taken up by early Christianity, but, as mentioned above, the theological reasoning goes further. It was not just exile or the destruction of the Temple that led early believers in Jesus to exclude certain Old Testament laws. Rather, it was the belief that “one greater than the Temple is here” (Matt 12:6)—a conviction that something about the life and ministry of Jesus inaugurated a new era and along with it a new way of relating to the commandments given to Israel at Mount Sinai. Therefore, when Christians say that Jesus has “fulfilled” the Law, they are implying that there is a new Christological hermeneutic at work, a new way to interpret and apply the Torah.

In summary, the above discussion has shown that there are various ways to divide and categorize the laws found in the Torah. Theological rationales are developed by both Christian and Jewish communities to explain which laws remain valid and applicable in the present time. We have found that in the process of delineating and defining “the Law,” we are immediately faced with the difficult question, “Which laws?” But to answer which, it seems that we must commit to a particular mode of interpretation (a hermeneutic). It is not a matter of approaching the text literally and letting it speak for itself. If that were the case, then we would simply believe that all the laws written in the Pentateuch remain valid today. But as we have seen, neither mainline Christianity nor Judaism teaches this. Therefore, the topic of the applicability of the Torah is something that cannot be fully explored without an interpretive framework first in place.

Authority and Interpretation

At the Foot of the Mountain: Two Views on Torah and the Spirit is a recent book that chronicles a series of letters exchanged between two Messianic Jewish leaders, Jennifer Rosner and Joshua Lessard. As the subtitle suggests, the book details their points of agreement and disagreement regarding the role of the Spirit and the role of the Torah for Jewish believers in Jesus (You can click here to see the first part of an interview we did with them). Beyond the important contents of the book itself, Rosner and Lessard help to highlight the implications of determining which sources are authoritative for followers of Jesus.

Protestants often have a difficult time understanding how authority can exist outside of the written Scriptures, but those in historic church traditions have long accepted the interplay between different authoritative sources. The Catholic Church, for example, teaches that there are three sources of authority: the Scriptures, the Apostolic Traditions, and the Magisterium (Dei Verbum 10). One of the sayings that came out of the Reformation, sola scriptura (Scripture alone), first arose because of excesses in the Catholic Church’s emphasis on human tradition over the written text. Protestants thus tend to have a natural suspicion toward sources of authority that are external to the Bible.

However, it is crucial to see that sola scriptura can be harmful when it is taken to an extreme. It can overlook how written words need to be read, interpreted, and applied within a particular time and place (something that Judaism has always exemplified). For instance, when Paul speaks about the need for women to have head coverings in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, who gets to decide the way in which this is applicable for the Church today? As soon as one attempts to apply this passage, it is no longer Scripture itself that is authoritative, but a particular reading of Scripture that is authoritative.

The dilemma then becomes, whose interpretation is the most authoritative? Must there be one? Or can multiple interpretations exist alongside one another? Is the “literal” or “plain sense” meaning the most authentic? Is authorial intent the most important source of authority, or is it possible for a biblical text to have a different meaning than the one the author originally intended? These questions highlight the complexity of hermeneutics (the study of interpretation) and what Hans-Georg Gadamer called the two horizons of text and interpreter. Once a written text is read, the process of interpretation automatically begins. Although, as a further aside, it is important to recognize that affirming the necessity of interpretation and interpretive communities does not preclude the self-sufficiency and perspicuity of the Scriptures. It is possible to uphold both simultaneously. The danger rather lies in assuming that a particular “literal” reading of a text is universally self-apparent (David Kelsey’s Proving Doctrine [1999] is a helpful resource that illustrates how different conclusions can be reached through the same text).

Numerous pastors and church leaders living in the Antebellum South defended the right to own slaves based upon their “literal” reading of the Bible, citing such texts as the curse of Ham (Gen 9:22-25), the Mosaic laws of slavery (Lev 25:44-46), and Paul’s encouragement for slaves to remain obedient (Eph 6:5-7; Col 3:22-24). Moreover, throughout most of Church history, verses such as, “His blood be upon us and our children” (Matt 27:25), were used to justify horrendous and violent acts against the Jewish people. These examples should always serve as warnings for the limits of our “plain sense” readings but also for the inevitable fallibility of the interpretive communities we find ourselves in.

Nevertheless, returning to the topic of the interpretation of the Torah, the above New Testament example of applying head coverings for women is paradigmatic. When Scripture says, “Do not work on the seventh day of the week” (Lev 23:3), we are immediately faced with the need for interpretation. Is the “seventh day” Saturday or Sunday? Should the specific day of the week even matter, so long as we spend one day a week not working? Moreover, how should we define “work?” It is one thing in modern times to define work as someone’s primary occupation, but it was not that simple in ancient agrarian societies. Was it considered work to pick fruit from a tree when hungry? Was it considered work to walk to a friend’s house? The biblical text alone is not clear. For this reason, traditions were developed surrounding how to interpret the Sabbath law. In the latter case of walking, the rabbis soon established that any distance beyond two-thousand cubits was considered work (Sotah 5:3), whereas early Christians adopted a more liberal approach on account of the fact that “Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:28).

For both Judaism and Christianity, the question has never been whether the Torah has authority. Rather, the question is whose interpretation of the Torah has authority. The New Testament argues for one interpretation, whereas the Talmud argues for another. Both are Jewish interpretations, but only one became the normative Jewish interpretation after the so-called “parting of the ways” between Judaism and Christianity. The reason why this happened is multifaceted (as we briefly explain in our paper on the Jewish Foundation of Christianity), but it is clear that the theological rationale of supersessionism quickly began to shape the way the early Church thought about Israel and thus about the way Israel’s Torah was interpreted and applied.

Rabbinic Judaism developed a robust and resolutely practical interpretation of the Torah—despite the reality that many of the commandments were no longer applicable after the destruction of the Second Temple—because it still considered the Torah as the embodiment of the terms of the covenant God made with Israel. However, much of the early Church approached the Torah as that which was “fulfilled” in Jesus and thus to be observed “not according to the letter, but according to the spirit” (2 Cor 3:6; Rom 7:6). Early Christians therefore did not concern themselves with halakha as much as they did with how the Torah revealed the gospel of Jesus Christ. In the process, principles were abstracted from the Torah, and allegorical interpretations were elevated. Origen of Alexandria is exemplary here:

“If anyone wants to hear and understand these things strictly literally, he ought to address himself to the Jews rather than to the Christians, but if he wants to be a Christian and a disciple of Paul, let him hear him saying ‘For the Law is spiritual,’ and when he speaks of ‘Abraham’ and his ‘wife’ and ‘sons,’ let him pronounce these to be allegorical” (Homily in Genesium, 6.1).

Alongside the Alexandrian allegorical school was a second school of interpretation known as the Antiochene school, which focused on more historical and literal readings of Scripture (represented by such figures as Diodore of Tarsus and Theodore of Mopsuetia). However, even the Antiochene school never disregarded the importance of the allegorical sense of Scripture. It is not until the modern period with the rise in prominence of historical criticism that many interpreters began to assume that the only “literal” sense is the literal-historical-grammatical one according to so-called “original” authorial intent. Throughout the majority of history, the Christian interpretation of the Old Testament has been one that recognizes multiple layers of meaning alongside the meaning intended by a text’s author (known classically as the four senses of Scripture: literal, allegorical, tropological, and analogical).

Judaism has also taught that there are multiple layers of meaning inherent in the sacred text of the Torah. The body of Jewish exegetical literature known as Midrash reveals a profound attention to intertextuality and textual minutiae down to the very spaces, numbers, and shapes of the letters of each word in a biblical passage. But as the common saying goes, Judaism has historically concerned itself more with deeds than with creeds, whereas Christianity with creeds more than deeds. Although it is a pithy overgeneralization, there nevertheless exists a kernel of truth that the idea of “Torah observance” has remained in the realm of Judaism and Jewish life, rather than being a viable option within Christian life and practice (partly resulting from the decision in Acts 15, which we will discuss below). In fact, as early as the Council of Laodicea in 364 C.E., the practice of many Old Testament Jewish rituals became forbidden for Christians, culminating in the decision of the Second Council of Nicaea in 787 to cast out all those who “keep Jewish customs” from the Church (Canon VIII).

In contrast to the Second Council of Nicaea, the earliest Jewish disciples of Jesus saw themselves plainly in continuity with the “Israel” of the Old Testament, and, therefore, the Old Testament Scriptures were their Scriptures (not “old” in any sense of the word). The Torah was their Torah, and they observed it faithfully as Second Temple Jews living in a period when the Temple was still standing. Torah observance was normative, not unusual or taboo.

However, after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., the gospel spread out across the world into new nations and cultures which knew nothing about God’s covenant with Israel. Gentiles continued streaming into the nascent Jesus-believing movement while Jewish participation simultaneously waned. A universal understanding of “the people of God” naturally emerged when the ekklesia—the “called out ones”—became those who were mostly called out from the nations and not just from Israel. The issue of Torah observance was thrust to center stage. How could a Gentile appropriate the Torah given to Israel? Not long into reading the first book of the Torah, Gentiles are immediately faced with the question of how they relate to the patriarch Abraham and how they should apply God’s command, “Throughout your generations every male among you shall be circumcised when he is eight days old” (Gen 17:12).

The Apostle Paul set out to answer many of these questions and interpretive issues in his letters, and the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15 ruled definitively that Gentiles did not need to be circumcised or observe the Law of Moses, which was a watershed moment for the early Church. We have written briefly about the One Law position (that Gentiles should observe Torah) in our paper on Unhealthy Theologies of Israel. You can also learn more in David Rudolph’s excellent essay, One New Man, Hebrew Roots, Replacement Theology: How to Restore the Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith without Getting Weird. However, while Gentile Torah observance was discouraged, the matter of Jewish observance of the Torah was an entirely separate matter. This is illustrated well by a comparison of Acts 15 and Acts 21. The implication of Paul’s Torah observance in the latter passage is seldom discussed by biblical scholars.

The Torah Observant Paul

Within the wider context, Acts 18:18 describes Paul cutting his hair in the city of Cenchreae “because of a vow he had taken.” The vow likely being referenced here, which according to the Torah requires one’s hair to be cut in the end, is the Nazirite vow. The book of Numbers describes this vow as “a special vow of consecration” (Num 6:1-21). This is because its observance went above and beyond the normal requirements of the Torah. It wouldn’t have been undertaken by someone who was only trying to keep the status quo or maintain the minimum requirements of the Torah. Rather, it would have been taken by a zealous person who had the deep desire to draw closer to God in holiness (analogous to the spiritual discipline of fasting).

Just before Paul cuts his hair in Cenchreae, he is accused in Corinth of “persuading people to worship God in ways that are contrary to the Torah” (Acts 18:13). This accusation follows Paul all the way to Jerusalem where James and the Jerusalem elders call a meeting together with him and similarly say:

“You see, brother, how many thousands of believers there are among the Jews, and they are all zealous for the Torah. They have been told about you that you teach all the Jews living among Gentiles to forsake Moses, and that you tell them not to circumcise their children or observe the custom. What then is to be done? They will certainly hear that you have come” (Acts 21:20-22).

            Notice that the issue of Gentile Torah observance had already been solved by Paul, Peter, James, and the elders at the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15. The new issue had now become whether Paul was teaching Jewish believers in Jesus that their Torah observance no longer mattered. Here would have been the perfect moment for Luke (the author of Acts) to explain how this was true and Paul indeed saw no continuing validity for Torah observance, regardless of whether one was Jewish or Gentile. However, Luke recalls that the reverse happened:

“‘Therefore, do what we tell you. We have four men who are under a vow. Join these men, go through the rite of purification with them, and pay for the shaving of their heads. Thus, all will know that there is nothing in what they have been told about you, but that you yourself observe and guard the Torah’…Then Paul took the men, and the next day, having purified himself, he entered the Temple with them, making public the completion of the days of purification when the sacrifice would be made for each of them” (Acts 21:23-26).

            Paul was in fact visiting Jerusalem during the feast of Shavuot (Pentecost), one of the three main pilgrimage feasts (which also commemorates the giving of the Torah in Jewish tradition). The purification rite would have indeed been very “public” in front of the large crowds of people gathered in the Temple complex for the feast, not to mention that the appearance of the Nazirites themselves would have drawn much attention. Rather than go against the advice of James and the Jerusalem elders, Paul wanted to settle the matter once and for all that he supported Torah observance—and not just any observance, but the radical kind represented by the supererogatory rites of the Nazirite.

Paul thus “purified himself” in accordance with the laws of Moses and “entered the Temple” to help the four Nazirites fulfill all the requirements stipulated in Numbers 6. However, before the seven days were completed, he was again accused of “teaching everyone everywhere against our people, our Torah, and this place; more than that, he has actually brought Greeks into the Temple and has defiled this holy place” (Acts 21:28). Although both accusations were false, it was the latter that stirred the mob to demand Paul’s imprisonment. In defense, he reminded them of his heritage: “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city [Jerusalem] at the feet of Gamaliel [a renowned Pharisee], educated strictly according to our ancestral law, being zealous for God, just as all of you are today” (Act 22:3). And when set before the Sanhedrin, Paul repented of accidentally disrespecting the High Priest by quoting the Torah, “You shall not speak evil of a leader of your people” (Acts 23:5; Exo 22:28).

These snapshots in the book of Acts depict Paul as devoutly Torah observant. In addition, it could also be argued that Paul was more liberal than the other leaders from Jerusalem, because he was “called to the Gentiles” (Acts 22:21), as he explains in Galatians: “When James and Cephas and John, who were acknowledged pillars, recognized the grace that had been given to me, they gave Barnabas and me the right hand of fellowship, agreeing that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised” (Gal 2:9). Paul goes on in the next paragraph to rebuke Peter and Barnabas for being too strict in their separation from Gentiles (Gal 2:11-14). Therefore, if Paul was considered more liberal, then how much more Torah observant were the other Jewish apostles? How much more Torah observant was Jesus, their rabbi who taught them how to live? Indeed, with passages like Acts 21 in mind, a growing movement of Jewish believers in Jesus have begun reclaiming Torah observance as a biblically mandated calling.

Yet despite the parallels with Paul, Jesus, and the other apostles, Jewish believers who express the desire to be Torah observant are frequently met with controversy. Claiming faith in Jesus and simultaneously claiming to live a Torah observant life has provoked a host of critiques from both the Church and the wider Jewish community. Some opponents believe that the two are intrinsically incompatible. In the words of the Jewish scholar Ruth Langer, believers in Jesus who identify as Jews “must theologically choose a life according to Torah and some version of the rabbinic interpretations of it. For the vast majority of the Jewish community, that includes an understanding of God and God’s expectations that is other than the key teachings of Christianity” (SCJR 15.1 [2020], 6). In other words, she continues, Jewish religious identity properly defined, “embeds a different set of beliefs about God and messianic expectations incompatible with Christian creeds.”

This naturally brings us to the question of what it means for a Jewish believer in Jesus to be “Torah observant.” The issue of the authority of external sources mentioned above is key for Jewish believers in Jesus who desire to be Torah observant precisely because the historical Jewish community has chosen to define Jewish identity and practice based upon the interpretations of the rabbis and the external source of authority known as the Talmud, which is to Judaism in many ways what the New Testament is to Christianity. Therefore, we turn now to explore this complex topic.

Defining Torah Observance

In his survey of Messianic Jewish theology, Richard Harvey distinguishes between “Torah positive” and “Torah negative” perspectives (Harvey 2009). Like we discuss in our paper on Messianic Judaism, approaches to Torah observance exist on a spectrum of those who choose to identify more with Christian traditions on the one side to those who identify more with Jewish traditions on the other. There are theological rationales each side employs to uphold their positions on the spectrum, but the turning point often comes down to the authority and influence granted to Rabbinic Judaism. Harvey argues that various groups of Jewish believers in Jesus must choose either to “abandon, adapt, adopt, or accept” rabbinic tradition. There are thus a variety of proposals by Messianic Jewish teachers and congregational leaders for what it means to be “Torah observant.”

But even within mainstream Judaism, the application of the Torah and the description of what it means to be “Torah observant” can differ depending on one’s interpretive community, as Karin Zetterholm argues:

“[E]stablishing and applying halakha are processes that are both complex and multifaceted, in which multiple factors are taken into account, including contemporary social reality. A common commitment to Jewish law can nevertheless lead to very different rulings. Accordingly, deciding whether or not a given act constitutes ‘breaking the law’ is not that simple. The assessment depends upon the group to which an individual belongs, upon the personal interpretation of the details of halakha of the individual or group in question, as well as on the particular situation. What is for one group or individual a violation of halakha is for another a legitimate interpretation that is necessary in order to preserve Jewish law!” (Paul Within Judaism [2015], 88).

            Zetterholm goes on to conclude that what is most essential in defining Torah observance is “a general commitment to the law by the people of Israel rather than the fulfillment of every single commandment by every single Israelite” (Zetterholm 2015, 90). Torah observance in this sense is more a matter of intention than perfect adherence to a static list of commandments. A commitment and sincere intention to keep the Torah is ultimately guided by the desire to remain faithful to the covenant God graciously enacted with Israel after delivering them out of Egypt and entrusting them with His Torah.

Nevertheless, despite differing halakhic opinions and definitions of what it means to be Torah observant within the three major branches of Judaism (Reform, Orthodox, and Conservative), there are a number of common traditional practices that can be seen as uniting them. Thus, even those Messianic Jewish believers who hold to a so-called “Torah negative” view, continue to engage with Jewish tradition on some level, as Carl Kinbar argues:

“All forms of Messianic Judaism engage in traditional Jewish practices. On one end of the spectrum, even the most nontraditional forms of Messianic Judaism connect with the tradition by adapting elements of traditional Jewish prayer and ways of celebrating the festival days such as Passover. On the other end of the spectrum, tradition-oriented Messianic Judaism views Jewish tradition as a formative influence in personal and communal Messianic Jewish life” (Rudolph & Willits 2013, 80).

            Kinbar suggests that all forms of Messianic Judaism “connect with the tradition.” This seems to be a fact on the one hand because Jesus and the apostles were all Torah observant in ways that would have placed them within and not outside of the diversity of late Second Temple Jewish faith and practice, as we have already discussed above. But on the other hand, the personal identifier “Messianic Jew” signifies a particular stance toward Jewish tradition that is not connoted in the identifier “Jewish Christian” (which, again, we explain in our paper on Messianic Judaism). Jewish believers in Jesus who take the stance of “abandoning” all rabbinic tradition typically do not approve of the term “Torah observant,” according to Harvey’s survey.

            Critics of Torah observance frequently argue that the term contradicts itself because keeping the entire Torah is impossible—not only due to the absence of Temple and Priesthood, but also because of the inevitable need for interpretation, as mentioned above. Even a command as universally accepted as the observance of Passover requires numerous interpretive decisions to be made. Believers in Jesus must either formulate their own traditional ways of observance, or they must adhere to what rabbinic tradition dictates. Jewish believers who choose to “abandon” rabbinic tradition (to use Harvey’s terminology) may face difficulty when trying to integrate with many segments of mainstream Judaism. Therefore, for those who seek solidarity with the wider, Torah observant Jewish community or who seek to express Jewish identity as normatively understood, the question then becomes whether it is possible to adhere to rabbinic tradition and halakha while at the same time believing in Jesus (you can read more about this in our paper on Messianic Judaism).

The New Testament word for “tradition” is paradosis (παράδοσις). Matthew and Mark are slightly critical in their usage, stating that some of the Pharisees “lay aside the commandment of God through their tradition” (Matt 15:3-6; Mar 7:8-13). Yet Paul is more ambivalent. He warns of “the traditions of men” (Col 2:8) and says that he was once zealous for “the traditions of my fathers” (Gal 1:14), but he also encourages the Corinthians to “keep the traditions, as I delivered them to you” (1 Cor 11:2) and the Thessalonians to “hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, whether by word, or by our epistle” (2 Thes 2:15), even telling them to keep away from anyone who does not live “according to the tradition received from us” (2 Thes 3:6). Therefore, the concept of “tradition” is not inherently negative. Certain traditions were passed down from Jesus and the apostles, some of which were preserved in the writings of the New Testament, such as the Lord’s prayer in Matthew 6:9-13. But others were not written and apparently passed down “by word,” as Paul says.

Despite the New Testament’s neutral view of “tradition,” a major concern of many pastors and church leaders remains the idea that following rabbinic tradition, or “human tradition” more generally, too easily leads to legalism and works-righteousness. Yet is this danger of the improper use of tradition grounds enough to dismiss it entirely? Should the concern of legalism lead the Church to forbid the practice of any and all Jewish customs, like the Second Council of Nicaea did? Certainly not. Rather, in light of the freedom we have in Messiah, there is no reason why it cannot be possible to keep any number of traditions (whether Jewish or Christian) so long as one approaches the Torah rightly. This brings us to the next important issue of the Torah’s relationship to justification.

The Limitations of the Torah

Repeated emphasis on faith and the danger of “legalism” has led to widespread animosity among many Protestants toward anything that threatens the doctrine of sola fide (faith alone). But what exactly is inferred by the accusation of “legalism?” The word itself has a wide range of uses inside various church cultures. Bernard Jackson (1979, JJS 30) has identified six possible meanings of the term:

  1. Doctrine of justification by works (soteriological legalism)
  2. Preference for letter above spirit (literalism)
  3. Ritual or ceremonial law valued as highly as moral law (ritualism, formalism)
  4. Scholasticism (comprehensive elaboration of the law)
  5. Excessive attention to detail and particular cases (casuistry)
  6. External coercion versus internal motivation (externalism)

Jackson goes on to argue that all six definitions of legalism have been wrongly leveled at the Jewish community by Christians. In fact, because of the history of the word’s pejorative use in reference to Jews and Judaism, some scholars have suggested that it should be completely dropped from the Christian vocabulary. However, building upon Jackson’s work, Kent Yinger has contended that it can still be employed constructively, but only in the first sense of soteriological legalism: “One should refer to a person, a text, or a group as representative of legalism (‘legalistic’) only if one can demonstrate that these rely upon unaided human effort to obtain divine grace (in Christian terms, justification by means of works)” [Yinger 2008, AUSS 46.1, 108].

Although the other five types of legalism are viewed negatively, it is the first that generates the strongest reactions because of how explicitly it is refuted in Scripture. The epistle of Galatians was written primarily to Gentiles in Galatia who were being taught that they needed to be circumcised and observe the Torah to be saved. But Paul vehemently rejected this teaching, saying, “I testify to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obliged to obey the entire Torah. You who want to be justified by the Torah have cut yourselves off from Messiah” (Gal 5:3-4). Paul even went so far as to say that he wished those who taught the necessity of circumcision would instead castrate themselves (Gal 5:12)! He clearly had a strong opinion about this. Why? Because it renders the cross worthless: “If justification comes through the Torah, then Messiah died for nothing” (Gal 2:21).

Paul is adamant that the Torah cannot provide justification. But what does that mean? As a theological term, “justification” refers to being made right with God. The English word has its origin in Latin as iustitia (formed from the adjective iustus and the suffix –itia, which expresses “the condition of being just”). The Vulgate (an early Latin translation of the Bible) uses the word iustitia when translating the Greek word for justification, dikaiosyne (δικαιοσύνη). The New Testament usage of dikaiosyne also relates to the Septuagint (LXX), where it most often translates the Hebrew word tsedekah (צדקה), which signifies justice and righteousness in the context of covenant faithfulness.

In his letter to the Romans, Paul quotes the LXX and uses variations of the word dikaiosyne in multiple key passages. In the first chapter he states, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness [dikaiosyne] of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘The righteous [dikaios] live by faith’” (Rom 1:16-17; Hab 2:4). In chapter three of Romans, he builds a case that both Jew and Gentile are “under the power of sin,” and as long as one is “under” the Torah, sin’s power is exacerbated. Deliverance can only happen “apart from the Torah” by the “righteousness [dikaiosyne] of God through faith in Jesus the Messiah for all who believe. For there is no distinction, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified [dikaioumenoi] as a gift of His grace, through the redemption that is in Messiah Jesus” (Rom 3:22-24).

Scholars have long noted the inadequacy of English translations of dikaiosyne and the dikaio– word group in general (the verb “justify” is often used in absence of a corresponding verb for the noun “righteousness”). There is also much disagreement regarding the theology of justification itself, not the least of which was a major stimulus for the Protestant Reformation. The issue cannot possibly be addressed in this short paper, but it suffices to say that the relationship between the Torah and justification is stated explicitly in Scripture: “For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the Torah” (Rom 3:28); “We know that a person is justified not by the works of the Torah but through faith in Jesus the Messiah. And we have come to believe in Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Messiah, and not by doing the works of Torah, because no one will be justified by the works of Torah” (Gal 2:15-26). In these two verses, and elsewhere throughout Paul’s letters, the possession of “faith” is contrasted with the “works of the Torah.” The latter is deemed insufficient for justification in and of itself.

To depend on the “works of the Torah” for justification is to subject oneself under the “curse of the Torah” (Gal 3:10), which is declared upon those who fail to keep it entirely (Deut 27:26). But Messiah has redeemed us from any curse associated with the Torah, “so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith” (Gal 3:14). And in receiving this promised Spirit, we are then enabled to “fulfill” the Torah (Rom 8:4), “upholding it by faith” (Rom 3:31). In the end, works accompany faith because the Spirit accompanies faith, and the Spirit always empowers us to loving action (Gal 5:22-25; Eph 2:10; Col 1:10; Titus 2:14). Therefore, when discussing the so-called “limitations” of the Torah, it must be remembered that the New Testament views these limitations primarily in regard to justification. There is nothing wrong with the Torah itself, for “the Torah is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good” (Rom 7:12). Rather, as Paul says to Timothy, “The Torah is good, if one uses it legitimately, knowing that the Torah was not enacted for the righteous [dikaio] but for the unrighteous [anomois, literally “Torah-less”].” In other words, the Torah was never meant as a means for justification.

We at GCFI have found that it is important to be sensitive in our language about the Torah or the “Law.” Many verses can be taken out of context from Paul’s letters and turned into harsh or condemning statements against Torah observance. But if, as Neusner suggested, “the Torah is for Judaism what Christ is for Christianity,” then harsh statements against the Torah often lead to harsh statements against Judaism and against the Jewish people as a whole. We encourage pastors and church leaders to be much more nuanced in their discussion of the “Law,” knowing that Paul’s rhetoric against the Torah is centered upon the improper use of the Torah—namely, its use as a means for justification. Although no one can be “justified” [dikaioutai] by the works of the Torah (Gal 2:16), Paul still says that “all Scripture” can be used “for training in righteousness [dikaiosyne]” (2 Tim 3:16). Since the New Testament had not been written yet, Paul is here telling Timothy that all the Old Testament Scriptures can be used for training in righteousness, even the book of Leviticus!

Christian theologian Paul Tillich once defined justification as “accepting that one is accepted” (Systematic Theology II, 205-206). If we apprehend by faith that we are fully “accepted in the beloved” (Eph 1:6), then no amount of Torah observance can contribute to or hinder our acceptance. We are all justified as a free gift by God’s grace (Rom 3:24), regardless of what we have done or have not done. The process of growing in relationship with God and “bearing the fruit of repentance” (Matt 3:8; Acts 26:20) is another process known as sanctification. John Wesley’s famous house metaphor rings true wherein he says that the porch is repentance, the door is faith, and the inside of the house is sanctification (Principles Farther Explained). The goal is to explore all the contents of house, “to be filled with all the fullness of God” (Eph 3:19), or as Jesus commanded, “to be perfect like your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matt 5:48).

The Torah is one such tool given by God to aid both Jew and Gentile in the pursuit of “perfection,” like David says in Psalm 19:

The Torah of the Lord is perfect,
    restoring the soul.
The testimony of the Lord is trustworthy,
    making the simple wise.
The precepts of the Lord are right,
    giving joy to the heart.
The commandments of the Lord are pure,
    giving light to the eyes.
The fear of the Lord is clean,
    enduring forever.
The judgements of the Lord are true,
    altogether righteous.
They are more desirable than gold,
    yes, more than the purest gold!
They are sweeter than honey,
    and drippings of the honeycomb.
By them your servant is warned,
    and in keeping them there is great reward.

With a foundational understanding that justification only happens “by grace through faith” (Eph 2:8-9), rightly “a faith that works through love” (Gal 5:6), then both Jewish and Gentile believers in Jesus are free to approach the Torah as that which provides training in righteousness (2 Tim 3:16; Rom 15:4). This approach is not novel, however. In Reformed tradition it has been called, “the third use of the law.” John Calvin in fact called it “the third and chief use, which pertains more closely to the proper purpose of the Law” (Institutes, II.7.12). In other words, according to Calvin, the highest purpose of the Torah is not just to point to Messiah or convict us of sin but is to be fulfilled in us by the Holy Spirit (the Torah “written on our hearts,” Jer 31:33).

Yet, as previously mentioned concerning the problematic aspects of the threefold division of the Torah and how it leads to the erasure of Jewish identity, the standard “threefold use” of the Torah similarly precludes one of the original purposes of the Torah: to set Israel apart from all other nations. Indeed, the argument that the Torah only has three uses is far too limiting. The Messianic Jewish scholar David Rudolph, for example, argues that there are at least twenty uses of the Torah:

  1. To serve as the foundational revelation of God
  2. To remind us of God’s love, grace, and power
  3. To teach us how to love God and our neighbor
  4. To teach us how to worship God
  5. To establish the oneness and sovereignty of God
  6. To teach us to be holy as God is holy
  7. To point out sin so that we might return to God
  8. To train us to exercise faith in God
  9. To train us to be obedient to God
  10. To reveal the heart and priorities of God
  11. To reveal the wisdom and knowledge of God
  12. To uphold the order of God’s creation
  13. To uphold God’s standard of compassion and justice
  14. To draw the nations to God
  15. To foster unity among God’s people
  16. To give our children a heritage from the Lord
  17. To prepare God’s people for priestly service
  18. To point us to Jesus the Messiah
  19. To train us to hear the voice of God
  20. To demarcate Israel as a distinct and enduring nation by God’s design

Significantly, nineteen of the twenty purposes are universally applicable. The only one that is specific to the Jewish people is the final one listed above, “to demarcate Israel as a distinct and enduring nation by God’s design.” Rudolph goes on to argue, however, that when Gentiles appropriate the single purpose of the Torah which demarcates Israel, they contribute to the erasure of that very demarcation. In other words, when Gentiles live like Jews, the God-ordained distinction between Jew and Gentile ceases to exist, which can result in Gentile Torah observance being a form of supersessionism. Elsewhere, Rudolph has written extensively on the topic of “remaining in one’s calling” as the “rule” Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 7:17-24. Paul’s rule in all the churches establishes that Torah observance is not a matter of obligation for justification but of faithfulness to a calling,a calling that must be cultivated by at least some Jewish believers in order for the Church to properly be the Church—”one new man” consisting of both Jew and Gentile in mutual blessing and interdependence (as we argue in our paper on Jewish Identity).

Conclusion

It should be obvious by the end of this paper that explaining the phenomenon of Torah observance and the interpretation and application of the “Law” in general is one of the most complex topics in all of Christian theology. Nevertheless, once properly understood, it is one that profoundly illuminates the Jewish foundation of our faith. The Torah does not need to be a point of division between Judaism and Christianity. The Jewish theologian David Novak summarizes this idea well:

“In fact, one could very well say that part of the great divide between Judaism and Christianity is not whether law is or is not part of the relationship with God…. The divide is over what those immutable commandments are, which entails when and where one hears them and how one is to do them. Judaism or Christianity provide the only historical locations for hearing the commandments of the Lord God of Israel and responding to them in a covenanted community” (Modern Theology 16:3 [2000], 279).

As Jewish believers in Jesus choose to express their faith through Torah observance, they inhabit a covenanted community that is at times just as faithful to Judaism as it is to Christianity. We therefore believe it is time for the Church to make space for our Jewish brothers and sisters to interact with rabbinic tradition and the wider Jewish community and to live Torah observant lives as much as they feel led by the Holy Spirit. Even though there may be reticence within the Jewish community to accept Jewish believers in Jesus as proper “Jews,” let there be no doubt in the Church that Torah observant Jewish believers are proper “Christians” (though they may prefer not to self-identify this way, as we explain in our paper on Messianic Judaism) so long as they do not perceive their Torah observance as somehow meriting justification before God.

Furthermore, let there be no patronizing in the Church toward those who choose this calling of Torah observance, as if they are “weak-minded” (in the words of Justin Martyr [Dialogue, 47]). It unfortunately remains a common argument that many interpreters make in reference to Romans 14, that Paul permits Jewish believers in Jesus to observe the Torah but nevertheless calls them “weak in faith.” This misconception can be corrected by understanding that Paul wasn’t calling those who observe the Torah “weak,” but he was calling weak those who hold to an extreme view of ritual purity and who condescendingly judge others who do not. Paul, as a good Hillelite, believed that the issue of ritual impurity was connected firstly to a person’s intentions and that “nothing is unclean in and of itself” (Rom 14:14), whereas those who are “weak” say the opposite (Rudolph, Paul the Jew [2016]).

Indeed, it can be argued that Jewish believers in Jesus who avoid pork or choose not to work on Saturday don’t do it because they are weak in faith but rather because they are strong in faith—they have strong convictions about the way God has called them to live and are mature enough to recognize how these convictions don’t conflict with justification by faith apart from works. Gentile Christians should not look down on Jewish Torah observance and view it as for “the weak” while complete freedom from observance is somehow reserved only for “the strong.”

The Torah is God’s gift to Israel, and it remains the foundation of the Old Testament and thus the Scriptural foundation of both Judaism and Christianity. The Torah is meant to be “established” and “fulfilled” in the lives of New Covenant followers of Jesus (Rom 3:31; Matt 5:17), written on our hearts (Heb 10:16), and lived out through the empowerment of the Holy Spirit (Rom 8:4; Gal 5:22-26). Jewish believers who identify as Torah observant are not necessarily being “legalistic”—no matter their use of rabbinic tradition—unless they view their observance as in some way a means of justification for salvation. Christians should therefore affirm the validity of Jewish Torah observance and not look down upon it with a posture of arrogance or superiority. Though much more could be said about this expansive topic, we at GCFI hope this paper has helped shed further light on problematic perspectives of the “Law” and what a healthy approach to Torah observance looks like.

Additional Resources

  • The New Testament and Jewish Law: A Guide for the Perplexed, James Crossley. London T&T Clark, 2010.
  • The Law of Messiah: Torah from a New Covenant Perspective I and II, Michael Rudolph and Daniel Juster. Tikkun International, 2019.
  • “The Problem of the Old Testament Law: The Old Testament’s View of the Mosaic Covenant,” Daniel S. Diffey. In The Law, The Prophets, and the Writings: Studies in Evangelical Old Testament Hermeneutics in Honor of Duane A. Garrett. B&H Academic, 2021.
  • “Paul’s ‘Rule in All the Churches’ (1 Cor 7:17-24) and Torah-Defined Ecclesiological Variegation,” David J. Rudolph. Studies in Christian-Jewish Relations, vol. 5. 2010.
  • “The Question of Assumptions: Torah Observance in the First Century,” Karin Zetterholm. In Paul Within Judaism, Fortress Press, 2015.
  • “‘Under Law’ in Galatians: A Pauline Theological Abbreviation,” Todd Wilson. JTS 56.2 (2005): 362-392.
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