Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Unpacking Luther’s Baggage, chapter 2, page 2

Post by Dennis Kananen
Before I get into this section, I need to introduce a few terms. The transliterated Hebrew word that the Bible uses hundreds of times to describe God’s teaching and commandments is Torah. It is a very positive word that means teaching. The scope of the word "Torah" stretches from the 613 commandments up to the 5 books of Moses: Genesis-Deuteronomy which contain the commandments. These written commandments were later supplemented by a dynamic collection of commentaries on these commandments that became known as the Oral Torah. The New Testament is peppered with conflicts that arose when different groups debated the merits and authority of these laws. What makes interpretation tricky is that most translations do not always distinguish between the written and the oral law. 

In Acts 15 the Jerusalem church, which was primarily Jewish, was debating what to do with the influx of new Gentile converts who were ignorant of the Bible, Torah, and the Jewish culture.  Because the Tanakh does not say very much about how to bring a gentile convert into Judaism, oral traditions developed to help with the process of how to prepare a proselyte. One of the requirements of this oral tradition was for the male convert to undergo the painful and sometimes dangerous procedure of circumcision. Acts 15 alludes to this:
“But some of the sect of the Pharisees who believed rose up, saying, It is necessary to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses."
There was no quick and easy way (and there still isn’t) to learn the Torah, especially when having access to a Torah scroll was out of the question for the common person. It took many years of study and mentoring for a Jewish boy to advance to their Bar Mitzvah, so expecting a recent convert who just came out of paganism to understand the Torah without the proper education was and is a ridiculous expectation. And then to require the adult male converts to undergo circumcision was like adding injury to insult (pun intended).  So the first hurdle that the Jerusalem council had to jump over was time. Something needed to be done immediately (Acts 15:16) so that the new believers could enjoy table fellowship with the mentors (Jewish believers). But something also had to address the long term need of education.  James reminded them that the Torah was taught every week in the synagogues (Acts 15:17). To address the need in the diaspora, the disciples started to publish their own “Reader’s Digest” version of the Torah in the form of Gospels, letters and epistles. Nonetheless, Acts 15 makes it clear that there is a different standard for the Jew and the Gentile regarding the Torah. This point has been the focus of much debate today. One of the most important voices in this debate has just published a position paper on this subject and I will devote the next post to summarizing their conclusions.

No comments:

Post a Comment