How Jewish Was the Early Church?

The above is a representation of Torah observance on a scale of 0 to 100% with the unobservant Gentiles at one end of the scale and Yeshua, the Living Torah at the other. Going through them one by one we have:

  • The Gentiles, who have no interest in the Torah, are totally unobservant except insofar as certain laws such as "Thou shalt not kill" and "Thou shalt not steal" are essential for maintaining social order and are required by their Nation States. This does not mean the Gentiles are uncultured, and many of them might be a lot more moralistic than some of the people further up the scale, as Rabbi Sha'ul observed in Romans 2:13-15.
    For not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified. For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves, which show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another.
  • The "Slightly Observant" category consists of both Jews and Gentiles who observe a few Jewish customs and traditions, for example they might light the candles on a Friday night and say the Kiddush, but that's about all. Some Messianic Fellowships fall into this category - the ones that meet once a month on a Friday night and sing a few songs in a minor key, then listen to a speaker who expounds a Bible topic from a Jewish perspective. They don't observe the Jewish festivals but when it gets near a festival date they might have a speaker who talks about it, maybe with a few visual aids. It should be noted that Messianic Fellowships go quite a long way across the range, from the Slightly Observant to somewhere near the Chassidim.
  • The Reformed Jews are a Jewish denomination that observes Shabbat and all the Festivals. They meet regularly in the synagogue and the prayers are in both Hebrew and in their native tongue. The men and women all meet together in the same place, and they drive their cars to the synagogue. Many Reformed Jews like their food to be kosher but don't insist on it. Many Reformed synagogues welcome Gentile visitors.
  • The Orthodox Jews are more strictly observant than the Reformed Jews. The prayers in the synagogue are all in Hebrew, although the sermon would be in their native tongue. The men meet on the main floor of the synagogue and the women are in a balcony upstairs. They try to live as near as possible to a synagogue so that they can walk there. They insist that all their food is kosher, and at home they maintain a kosher kitchen with separate pots and pans for milk and meat. It's possible for a Gentile to go to an Orthodox synagogue, but only when invited by a member.
  • The Chassidim are the very strictly Orthodox Jews who attempt to observe not only the 613 laws of the Torah, but also the 3000 or so laws that have been instituted by the Rabbis to try and build a "hedge around the Torah" to avoid the slightest violation. For example, to avoid "kindling a fire" or "putting out a fire" on Shabbat, they will not turn a light on or off on Shabbat. To avoid any inconvenience this might cause, they install timers to turn the lights turn on and off automatically. They will take their own plates and cutlery to a restaurant to avoid mixing up the meat and milk dishes, and when travelling they will eat from vending machines that use plastic plates and cups that have never been used. The Chassidim are distinguishable by their black hats and long black coats, and the long locks of hair that hang down from either side of their beards. The Pharisees are the New Testament equivalent of the Chassidim.
  • At the very top of the scale there is Yeshua himself. Contrary to popular opinion (based on Renaissance Art) that tends to characterise him as a blonde, blue-eyed hippie in a white cloak and sandals, he was actually the most observant Rabbi the world has ever known, to the extent that he could say to the Pharisees "Which of you convicts me of sin?" (John 8:46). He was the only one who could observe the Torah perfectly, because he was the Torah made flesh, according to John 1:14.

The question is, where was the Early Church on this scale of orthodoxy, and how does it compare with the so-called Messianic Fellowships and Congregations of today? An understanding of this question will help us to understand the letters of Rabbi Sha'ul (Paul) when he appears to be trying to persuade the church to be less legalistic in it's Torah observance. The question is, if he was trying to move people to the left on the scale of observance, where exactly was he moving them to, and where were they starting from?

To answer this we need to look at the Acts of the Apostles and see how observant they were.

The Early Days of the Church

The church started off in Jerusalem, exclusively among the Jews.

Peter's sermon on the Day of Pentecost was entirely Jewish, quoting the prophets and the Psalmist David, and would have meant nothing to any Gentiles standing around, if there were any. The 3000 people who were saved that day would have been all Jewish. (Acts 2:1-41).

They met regularly in the Temple, where Gentiles were excluded (Acts 2:46). The nearest the Gentiles could get was the Court of the Gentiles that surrounded the Temple, but no Gentiles appeared on the scene until at least five years later in Antioch. See my article on the Chronology of the Early Church.

Peter and John went to the Temple at the hour of prayer, being the ninth hour. (Acts 3:1). That means they were observant Jews, going there at 3pm when sacrifices were being made.

When Peter had healed a lame man, an audience gathered and he addressed them as "Men of Israel" (Acts 3:12). Then he ends his speech like this: "Ye are the children of the prophets, and of the covenant which God made with our fathers, saying unto Abraham, And in thy seed shall all the kindreds of the earth be blessed. Unto you first God, having raised up his Son Jesus, sent him to bless you, in turning away every one of you from his iniquities." (Acts 3:25-26). This is the first indication from any of the Apostles that the Word would spread to the Gentiles, but as we shall see later, Peter still hadn't really grasped it. He thought the message was only for the Jews, and that by believing in Yeshua the Messiah, they would somehow bless the nations.

The ministry of the Apostles continued exclusively among the Jews. They were imprisoned but miraculously escaped, and an angel said to him "Go, stand and speak in the Temple to the people all the words of this life". (Acts 5:20). They went straight back to the Temple to preach, even though they had been told by the High Priest and the council not to do so.

Then there was the problem of the daily distribution to the widows. The Greeks were complaining against the Hebrews because they were being neglected. These were Greek-speaking Jews, not Gentiles. There is no mention of Gentiles appearing on the scene yet. It appears that the Greek-speaking Jews were considered to be rather Hellenised, inferior, and not as observant as the Hebrew-speaking Jews, so they were neglected and the situation had to be rectified. (Acts 6:1).

When Stephen was called before the High Priest and the council, he gave a defence that was thoroughly Jewish, all about the history of Israel, and then he was stoned. (Acts 7).

When Stephen was stoned, there was a persecution of the church in Jerusalem so that the Believers were scattered all over Judea and Samaria, but everywhere they went they preached the Word. (Acts 8:1-4). This event is referred to again later in the context of Peter's vision, his visit to Cornelius, and how the Holy Spirit had fallen on the Gentiles. It says that the Believers who were scattered because of the persecution went as far as Phenice, Cyprus and Antioch, preaching the Word only to the Jews. Some other people from Cyprus and Cyrene, presumably second generation converts who had not been dispersed from Jerusalem, went to Antioch and preached to the Greeks, and in this case they were Gentiles, not Greek-speaking Jews. (Acts 11:19-20).

When news of this reached the church in Jerusalem, they sent Barnabas to Antioch. It's not clear whether they sent him for ministry and encouragement, or to conduct an investigation, but Barnabas liked what he saw and promptly went to Tarsus to get Paul, and they worked together building up the church. (Acts 11:22-26).

Peter the Chassid

The one event that made ministry to the Gentiles possible was Peter's vision and his visit to the house of Cornelius (Acts 10). Contrary to popular opinion, Cornelius was not a Hellenised Gentile, ignorant of the Torah. He was:

A devout man, and one that feared God with all his house, which gave much alms to the people, and prayed to God alway. (Acts 10:2)

... a just man, and one that feareth God, and of good report among all the nation of the Jews,... (Acts 10:22)

To get that kind of reputation among the Jews he must have participated in Jewish worship. He was a class of person known as a "God Fearer", a Gentile who attended the synagogue and practiced some of the Jewish customs and traditions, without going through the complete process of conversion and becoming Jewish.

Another of these God-Fearers appears later at Corinth. Paul went into the house of a man called Justus, who "worshipped God", and his house was next to the synagogue. (Acts 18:7).

Cornelius saw a vision, in which he received instructions to send for Peter, and the next day Peter also saw a vision about a sheet full of unclean animals that he was supposed to kill and eat. There is something interesting about Cornelius' vision. It occurred at the ninth hour of the day, which was 3pm, the time when sacrifices were made in the Temple. The angel said to him:

Thy prayers and thine alms are come up for a memorial before God. (Acts 10:4)

The verb "come up" might suggest "aliyah" which means going up to Jerusalem, or a burnt offering ascending before the Lord. The Greek word "mnemosynon" meaning "memorial" is also used in Leviticus 2:2 in the Septuagint to represent the offering of fine flour and oil that was part of a burnt offering to the Lord. (New Bible Commentary, Davidson, Stibbs, Kevan, Inter-Varsity Fellowship, London, 1954).

So it's possible that Cornelius might have brought sacrifices and given them to the Priest to be offered at the Temple, even though he would not have been able to go beyond the Court of the Gentiles, or at least it means he was familiar with the sacrificial system.

Cornelius was obviously not an ordinary Gentile, but even so, Peter had difficulty going to his house, and would not have gone there if he had not been directly instructed to do so by the Holy Spirit. When he arrived, he explained that this visit was unusual:

And he said unto them, You know how it is an unlawful thing for a man that is a Jew to keep company, or come unto one of another nation; but God hath shewed me that I should not call any man common or unclean. (Acts 10:28)

Then he acknowledged Cornelius as a "God-Fearer", as if this made the visit a bit easier.

Then Peter opened his mouth, and said, Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons: But in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him. (Acts 10:34-35)

It's quite obvious from this story that Peter was a real Chassid, observant to the finest detail, and so were many of his fellow-believers in Jerusalem. When he went back there, they argued with him, and would not accept that this was from God until he had told them the whole story. (Acts 11:1-18)

Peter is often characterised as a rather impetuous buffoon, acting quicker than he can think. He probably was like that on some occasions when he was with Yeshua, but after the day of Pentecost he appears to have become a highly cultured, very observant Chassid.

Paul the Chassid

Rabbi Sha'ul (Paul) was equally as observant as most of his contemporaries in Jerusalem. He was born in Tarsus, but was brought up in Jerusalem and studied under the famous Rabbi Gamaliel. (Acts 22:3). Gamaliel is also mentioned in Acts 5:34-40 where he commanded the Sanhedrin to give the Apostles some liberty, following the traditional Jewish belief that God is the final arbiter in all matters of truth and error.

Did he become less observant after his conversion on the Damascus Road? Certainly not! His disagreement with Peter (Galatians 2:11-14) was purely about the requirement of the Gentiles to convert to Judaism, not about the lifestyle of the Jewish believers. He criticised Peter for his inconsistency because he was willing to live like the Gentiles when he was with the Gentiles, and then he expected the Gentiles to live like Jews.

This question was resolved in 50AD at the end of Paul's first journey when the full council of Apostles and Elders in Jerusalem agreed that Gentiles who believed in Yeshua should lead a moderately observant lifestyle, rather similar to the Reformed Jews of today, and there was no requirement for them to be circumcised.

During his ministry there are a number of occasions where Paul is seen observing a distinctly Jewish lifestyle.

Chassidim within the Church

We have already seen how the Believers in Jerusalem were thoroughly observant, and when they were scattered throughout Samaria they preached only to Jews.

However, there were observant Jewish Believers wherever Paul went, and some of them wanted the Gentiles to convert to Judaism and be circumcised. In Galatia, Paul referred to them as "some that trouble you, and would pervert the Gospel of Christ" (Gal. 1:7). The situation was exacerbated by the fact that, at that time, there was no ruling on this question from the Apostles at Jerusalem, but Paul's main cause of concern was that people in Galatia itself were expecting the Gentile Believers to convert to Judaism.

He also referred to them, later in his ministry when he had been taken to Rome as a prisoner and then released. It seems that he was able to travel for a short while, and was in Macedonia, writing to Titus, the bishop of Crete:

"For there are many unruly and vain talkers and deceivers, specially they of the circumcision". (Titus 1:10). The context of this suggests they were Judaising for the purpose of their own selfish gain.

Paul's letters are full of discussion about Jews and Gentiles, circumcision and uncircumcision, and the role of the Torah in the lives of those who are saved by faith in Messiah, especially the books of Romans, Galatians and Hebrews. Each of these books would justify a complete article in it's own right, so I will not elaborate on them here, except to ask the question - Why was Paul writing all this stuff? It was because the Judaisers were everywhere, every bit as orthodox as the Chassidic Believers in Jerusalem. He was concerned about the great gulf that existed between the Judaisers and the Gentile Believers - not the unobservant Gentiles who populate the church today, but people who had come a considerable way along the road to Jewish observance and were obedient to the requirements of Acts 15 (which among other things meant observing the kosher food laws).

Referring to the diagram at the beginning of this article, Paul's letters were aimed at people who were somewhere in the region of Reformed to Chassidic. The Gentiles had already moved from zero to Reformed, and he wanted the Chassidim to move a small way in the other direction, to somewhere near the Orthodox position, to maintain harmony and unity within the church. Never in his wildest dreams would he have imagined that the Chassidim would abandon their observance altogether and move to the zero position.

Today we have a church that is mostly populated by Gentiles of zero observance, but there is a minority who have moved to the position that I have called "Slightly Observant". They are now suffering a backlash from people who fire verses at them from Romans, Galatians, Hebrews and elsewhere, trying to persuade them to move back to the zero position. The answer must be that they are quoting the wrong books to the wrong people, because the letters of Paul were never written for them, but for people who were much higher up the spectrum of Jewish observance.

Copyright 1997

Mike Gascoigne
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