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The Jewishness of the Early Church in Acts

The Jewishness of the Early Church in Acts

by Mike Prah on October 25, 2019

The Jewish Setting of the Early Church in Acts

The Book of Acts supports the view that the early church had a Jewish orientation. Jesus proclaimed that He did not come to abolish the Old Testament law but rather fulfill it (Matt 5:17) as demonstrated by His observations of Jewish traditions and practices, as did the apostles, post-resurrection. Peter, Paul, and the early Church were not at odds with Judaism and Jewish customs. One of the reasons Luke wrote Acts was to remind his audiences, both then and now, that unrelated to the disagreements that developed between Judaism and Christianity, Christianity began as a legitimate movement within the piety of First-Century Judaism.

The first Christians remind us of their Jewishness, which is helpful in understanding and appropriating much of the New Testament (Stacy, Liberty University NT Orientation Video presentation). Luke makes this point sufficiently in his choice of context throughout his narrative in the Book of Acts. For example, Luke details that the first Christians “met daily in the Temple (Acts 2:46; Acts 5:21, Acts 5:25, Acts 5:42), and after the apostles were imprisoned, an angel told the apostles to continue teaching at the temple (Acts 5:19-20).  In choosing a replacement for Judas, Luke records that Peter elected after prayer and deliberation, that they leave the choice in God’s hands by casting lots, contextualizing that, “casting lots had an honorable history in Judaism” (Acts 1;12-26; Prov 16:33) (Lea and Black, 261).

The New Testament Church miraculously began (Acts 2:1ff) when the members assembled on the Feast of Pentecost (also called the Feast of Weeks or Firstfruits), following God’s commands in Leviticus 23:15-16, Leviticus 23:21 and Deuteronomy 16:16. Lea and Black note well that the Jews celebrated the wheat harvest at the Feast of Pentecost and also the traditional day on which Moses received the Law at Sinai (Lea and Black, 262). The rushing, violent wind the Pentecost observers heard might resemble the “threshing” of the wheat harvest in the OT. Also, the sight that resembled tongues of fire resting on the individuals might conjure images of the booming thunder and bolts of lightning that accompanied Moses on the cloud-covered Mount Sinai as he bore aloft the two heavy tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments (Exo 20-23).

Luke recorded that the First Century Christians worshipped in Jewish Synagogue settings and on the Sabbath as they dispersed from Jerusalem to other nations, confirming their Jewishness. In Thessalonica, Paul, “as his custom was,” went to the synagogue “and for three Sabbaths reasoned with them from the Scriptures” Acts 17:1-2). In Athens, Paul reasoned in the synagogue with Jews and Gentiles (Acts 17:17). In Corinth, Paul “reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath, and persuaded both Jews and Greeks” (Acts 18:4). In Ephesus, Paul “entered the synagogue and reasoned with the Jews” (Act 18:19).   Paul departed Ephesus, saying, “I must, by all means, keep this coming feast in Jerusalem” (Acts 18:21 KJV ), following God’s command in Deuteronomy 16:16. After returning to Ephesus, Paul “went into the synagogue and spoke boldly for three months” (Acts 19:8).

Luke also highlighted the First Century Christian’s commitment to the Jewish feasts, and observance of the Jewish rituals and laws. Dr. R. Wayne Stacy explained that baptism arose from a practice well known by the first Jewish Christians They called it the Mikvah, a Jewish ritual bath in which the participant confesses their sin, repented of their rebellion against God, and committed themselves to a new life of covenant faithfulness to the one true God. And so baptism to the First-Century Jewish Christ-followers was a Jewish ritual modified by their belief that the new age had broken in by Jesus' sacrifice for sin and by the practice of John the Baptist who performed baptism as an eschatological act of repentance and preparation for participation in the coming Kingdom. In Acts 10:4, Luke records that Peter said, “I have never eaten anything common or unclean”— confirming that about a decade after Christ’s resurrection, Peter was still observing Jewish dietary laws regarding clean and unclean meats found in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14. Peter claimed emphatically that, ‘Lord, by no means, has nothing common or unclean ever entered my mouth.” (Acts 11:8).

Luke also highlighted the First Century Christian’s commitment to the observance of Old Testament laws. In Acts 24:14, Paul, in a legal hearing before the Roman governor Felix, stated that he worshiped the God of his fathers and believed “all things which are written in the Law and the Prophets.” In Acts 25:8, during his legal hearing before the Roman governor, Festus, Paul said, “Neither against the law of the Jews, nor against the temple, nor against Caesar have I offended in anything at all.” Also, speaking to the Jews in Rome where he was now a prisoner, Paul told them, “I have done nothing against our people or the customs of our fathers” (Acts 28:17).

In Acts 20:6, Paul and his group  “sailed away from Philippi after the Days of Unleavened Bread,” one of God’s festivals commanded in Leviticus 23:6 and Deuteronomy 16:16. In Acts 20:16, Paul changed his travel plans because he was hurrying to be at Jerusalem to celebrate the  Day of Pentecost, another of God’s festivals.  In Acts 27:9, Luke noted that sailing in the Mediterranean Sea in late autumn “was now dangerous because the Fast,” a reference to the Day of Atonement, one of God’s Holy Days (Leviticus 23:27), “was already over.” To counter false accusations that Paul taught against the law and to show that he was “living in obedience to the law” (NIV), Paul joined with several men to be purified at the temple, and he paid their expenses for the purification rites and offerings (Acts 21:21-26). In Jerusalem, the apostles told Paul that “many thousands of Jews have believed [in Jesus Christ], and all of them are zealous for the law” (Acts 21:20). They saw no contradiction between Christianity and the Jewish laws they had always followed. 

Luke also highlighted the First Century Christian’s commitment to the observance of Old Testament laws. In Acts 24:14, Paul, in a legal hearing before the Roman governor Felix, stated that he worshiped the God of his fathers and believed “all things which are written in the Law and the Prophets.” In Acts 25:8, during his legal hearing before the Roman governor, Festus, Paul said, “Neither against the law of the Jews, nor against the temple, nor against Caesar have I offended in anything at all.” Also, speaking to the Jews in Rome where he was now a prisoner, Paul told them, “I have done nothing against our people or the customs of our fathers” (Acts 28:17).

Understanding the Jewishness of the New Testament is essential to the interpretive process. Luke narrates in Acts 6:7 that” A large number of priests became obedient to the faith,” an indication that they saw no contradiction between Christianity and their roles as Jewish priests. The early Christians in their everyday lives portrayed their Jewish traditions as they prayed, worshipped, celebrated Jewish festivals, and ate as Jews. They still practiced circumcision, kosher eating, the mikvah Jewish ritual bath. They read and observed the Torah, Prophets, Wisdom Books, and followed the Jewish feasts and festivals. These first-century Christians where neither pagans nor heretics, they were faithful Jews.

 

 Bibliography

Lea, Thomas D and David Alan Black. The New Testament. Its Background and Message. 2nd Ed. (Nashville:  B&H Publishing, 2003).

Stacy, Dr. R. Wayne. “The Jewish Setting of Early Christianity,” Module 1 Overview (Video Lecture).  https://learn.liberty.edu/webapps/blackboard/content/listContent.jsp?course_id=_508310_1&content_id=_31510573_1 (accessed 5-16-2019).

Tags: new testament, acts, judaism, jewish setting of the new testament church

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