3.6.4. Attitudes toward Gentiles and Jewish law

The historical Jesus was a Jew who followed Jewish law and interpreted how it should be lived in everyday life. He was more strict in some areas and less strict in others, but well within the range of debate among Jews at the time. Furthermore, there is some evidence that the ministry of Jesus was conceived (at least originally) as only for Jews, not Gentiles, “Jesus sent out these twelve after instructing them thus, ‘Do not go into pagan territory or enter a Samaritan town. Go rather to american title loan Oregon the lost sheep of the house of Israel’” (Matthew 10:5–6). Soon enough this changed. In fact, the Jesus movement spread much faster among Gentiles than it did among Jews. Although the Essenes and Qumran sects seemed to have allowed Gentiles to convert, they did not promote it actively as the Jesus movement did.

Scholars believe the debate was nastier than the sources suggest

The question quickly arose whether Gentiles who became followers of Jesus had to observe Jewish laws, such a circumcision. It may have been most important to believe that Jesus is Lord, son of God, who died and rose from the dead. Even if less important, the laws which Jesus himself practiced and interpreted could still be important parts of how the followers of Jesus should live their lives. On the other hand, those laws were not an easy sell, and circumcision in particular can be rather uncomfortable, especially for adults. These details of practice came to be seen as impediments to the most important points of faith. In the end, Christianity rejected the Law of Moses as binding on Gentile followers of Jesus (Jewish followers of Jesus seem to have continued to practice the laws). We know about the debate from two sources. First is Paul’s letter to the Galatians, which argues that the laws were only temporarily binding, like training wheels on a bicycle, until faith in Jesus came. Second is the Acts of the Apostles, which presents the laws as an unnecessary burden.

We shall see this passage again in a few weeks. In the 16th century the reformer Martin Luther applied Paul’s arguments about the Jewish law to the Catholic sacraments. He argued that faith, not works, is required.

The Acts of the Apostles presents as a story how the Holy Spirit made known the change that Gentiles could be baptized too:

Later, the Spirit also makes known that Jewish laws such as circumcision are not required of Gentile followers of Jesus, but only the core laws against pagan sacrifice, some food laws, and unlawful marriage:

1 Some who had come down from Judea were instructing the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the Mosaic practice, you cannot be saved.” …

11 On the contrary, we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they.

28 It is the decision of the holy Spirit and of us not to place on you any burden beyond these necessities, 29 namely, to abstain from meat sacrificed to idols, from blood, from meats of strangled animals, and from unlawful marriage. If you keep free of these, you will be doing what is right. Farewell.

Note the claim is not that the historical Jesus taught these things, but that the Spirit continues to operate among the followers of Jesus and guides major decisions and reforms.

4.1. What changed when the Roman Empire went from persecuting to endorsing Christianity?

From the execution of Jesus by Roman officials up to Constantine in 315 CE, the Jesus movement had a tense relationship with Roman authority. The movement was at best tolerated and often persecuted. Christians refused to worship the emperor as a god, and parts of their message threatened the ruling powers that relied on the oppression of the weak. The Christian movement was small and sometimes literally underground. That all changed in the fourth century, when Christianity became tolerated and then the official religion of the Roman Empire . Some consider this to be a great moment in Christian history, the time when the Church triumphed. Measured by number of followers and power, this was the defining moment of the rise of Christianity. Others consider this the worst moment in Christian history. Christianity went from the subversive voice against imperial power to itself the imperial power. Certainly one could argue that the period of Christian domination (Christendom) was an improvement over the previous period of pagan Roman domination. One could also argue that Christianity adopted from the Roman government the very concepts of power that it had previously challenged.

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