The purpose of this article is to examine the influence first century Judaism had on early Christianity, the changes that occurred during this time in the movement in relation to the obligations of the Gentiles to the Mosaic law, and specifically in regard to Sabbath observance.
A weakness in the Sabbatarian worldview is the attempt to anchor the identity of the church and validate it through its connection with Torah-observant Judaism. They understand genuine Christian origins to be found in observant and obedient Jews who accepted Jesus as their Messiah. I don’t dispute the fact that this is true among the earliest believers, but there was a divinely ordained change recorded in the New Testament which Sabbatarians seem to ignore.
Historic “Gentile Christianity” did not spring from Torah-observant Judaism, but rather, from first century “God-fearers” who accepted the gospel of Jesus. The “God-fearing” Gentiles who worshipped the God of Israel without the ceremonial requirements of Moses (circumcision, Sabbath, kosher, etc.) was valid in the eyes of Jews, who recognized that God never required Gentiles to keep these particular commands.
Therefore, Gentile worship of Yahweh, without the observance of Shabbat, was (and still is) entirely acceptable to Jews.
The book of Acts chronicles the foundational changes that happened in the Christian church in its first few decades. In Acts chapter 2, Christianity was simply a sect of Judaism, born at the feast of Pentecost (2:1); all of its adherents and converts were practicing Jews who met in the temple daily (2:46). It passed through the challenges that Gentile converts put on the movement (chapters 10-15), to the point where Paul became frustrated with the prevailing Jewish rejection of the gospel and said to them, “Therefore let it be known to you that the salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles, and they will hear it!” (28:28)
First Century Jewish Relations with Geniltes
During the first century, Jews were more “evangelical” than the Jews of today. Non-Jews who were seeking to learn about the God of Israel and live their lives according to righteous principles were welcomed into early first century synagogues.
“Outsiders could and did enter the Jewish fold. Some were resident aliens (gerei toshav) who resided in a Jewish milieu, sometimes marrying a Jew, sometimes living as slaves in a Jewish household and becoming part of the family in the narrower and the wider sense, and adopting Jewish practices. Outsiders regularly attached themselves to the Jewish people in this way. Some (like Ruth with her “Your people will be my people, your God will be my God”: Ruth 1:16-17) made a more deliberate choice of Judaism and were full converts (gerei tzedek, literally “righteous proselytes”). … Between the gerei toshav and the gerei tzedek was a third group, semi-proselytes or “God-fearers” who though still gentiles were regarded as friends of the Jews.” – – Judaism in transition, 175 BCE-150 CE: Christian and Jewish perspectives, by Rabbi Raymond Apple
God-Fearers and the Law
The non-Jews who sought to honour God but did not convert to Judaism were called “God-fearers”. This is a term that is used in the New Testament at the time when early Judaic Christianity was at the cusp of an explosion of Gentile converts, when it would walk on its own apart from the temple and other Mosaic structures of Judaism, within which this new religion was born and incubated.
Ancient Jews did not teach Gentiles that conversion to Judaism and obedience to all the laws in the Torah were necessary for them to become a part of the future kingdom of God. However, they were required to adhere to the seven Noahide laws:
“Being a gentile might prevent a person from enjoying the blessings of monotheism and morality, but gentiles were not automatically debarred from the World to Come: the righteous (other versions read ‘pious’) of the nations had a place in the afterlife. The commandments of Judaism did not obligate the gentile apart from the Seven Noahide Laws, basic ethics that derive from the post-diluvian age when civilisation had to be reconstructed. These seven laws prohibited murder, robbery, adultery, idolatry, blasphemy and cruelty to animals and required a system of justice (b. Sanhedrin 56b, Tosefta Avodah Zarah 8:4).” – Judaism in transition, 175 BCE-150 CE: Christian and Jewish perspectives, by Rabbi Raymond Apple
“According to religious Judaism, any non-Jew who lives according to the Seven Laws of Noah is regarded as a righteous gentile, and is assured of a place in the world to come, the final reward of the righteous.” – Wikipedia, Jewish Eschatology
Although these seven laws are based on Jewish tradition, they do show that Jews did not require Sabbath observance of Gentiles.
The Noahide Laws
In the first century A.D. many Greek and Roman women converted to Judaism, but few men took this step, due to the rite of circumcision. These “God fearers” were expected to obey the seven Noahide laws, but were not required to observe the specifically “Jewish” laws of circumcision, the Sabbath, festivals and eating regulations. Long before the Christian Era, Jews recognized that Gentiles were not expected by God to keep the Sabbath commandment, unless they converted to Judaism through circumcision.
“God-fearers (or ‘Fearers of God’) are considered to be of significant importance to the popularity of the Early Christian movement. They represented a group of gentiles who shared religious ideas with Jews, to one degree or another. However, they were not converts, but a separate gentile community, engaged in Judaic religious ideas and practices. Noahidism would be a modern parallel. Actual conversion would require adherence to all of the Laws of Moses, which includes various prohibitions (kashrut, circumcision, Sabbath observance etc.) which were generally unattractive to would-be gentile (largely Greek) converts.” Wikipedia, article God Fearer
Cornelius the God-Fearer
In Acts chapter ten we are introduced to Cornelius, a Roman centurion, and a God-fearer.
There was a certain man in Caesarea called Cornelius, a centurion of what was called the Italian Regiment, a devout man and one who feared God with all his household, who gave alms generously to the people, and prayed to God always. Acts 10:1-2
Prior to Cornelius, all believers in Christ were circumcised, Sabbath-keeping, Torah-observant Jews, without exception. It was expected (even by the apostles) that in order to become a Christian, it was natural and necessary to first be a devout Jew; after all, the promises of both covenants are to the house of Israel (see Jeremiah 31:31). This is why there was such great contention over the issue of circumcision in the early church.
For a Roman or Greek to completely bypass the Sinaitic covenantal requirements, and be grafted into the new covenant by faith only, was unknown.
“The [post-destruction] Judeo-Christians suffered a diminution in numbers and now, though not without an internal struggle, rebuilt and repositioned themselves as an increasingly gentile group, with new adherents directly coming to the new group without having to go through the old one first.” …
“After much internal debate it became possible for an outsider to become a Christian without ever being part of Judaism, either through genealogy or choice. Could you be a Jew without the Sabbath, festivals, circumcision (Jews were not the only ancient people to view uncircumcision as shameful) and dietary laws? The answer was no – but you could become a Christian.” – Judaism in transition, 175 BCE-150 CE: Christian and Jewish perspectives, by Rabbi Raymond Apple
The conversion of Cornelius, a non-Torah observant Gentile, created a crisis in the early church. His account reveals God fulfilling his promises given to Abraham, and through Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea and Amos of opening the way of salvation to the Gentiles, while not requiring the distinctive observances of Judaism.
Our next article will focus on what happened in the church between Acts 10 and 15, and specifically the council of Jerusalem, when the apostles decided which parts of the Mosaic law were relevant to the Gentile believers.
Edited october 18, 2014