The Apostolic Decree and the Noahide Commandments

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Jerusalem Perspective is pleased to make available to the English-speaking world this important article written originally in German by David Flusser and Shmuel Safrai: “Das Aposteldekret und die Noachitischen Gebote,” in Wer Tora mehrt, mehrt Leben: Festgabe fur Heinz Kremers (ed. E. Brocke and H.-J. Borkenings; Neukirchen-Vluyn, 1986), 173-192.

Translated by Halvor Ronning[1]

Dedicated to the memory of Gregory Steen[2]

In August 1769 Lavater urged Moses Mendelssohn to undergo conversion to Christianity, thereby causing much distress to Mendelssohn.[3] For our subject it is especially productive to consider the letter that Mendelssohn wrote to the Crown Prince of Braunschweig-Wolfenbuettel.[4] Among other things, he wrote: “The founder of the Christian religion never explicitly said he wanted to remove the Mosaic Law, nor to dispense with the Jews. Such a notion, I do not find in any of the Evangelists. For a long time the apostles and disciples still had their doubts as to whether Gentile believers must accept the Mosaic Law and be circumcised. Eventually, it was decided ‘not to lay too heavy a burden upon them’ (Acts 15:28). This agrees completely with the teaching of the rabbis, as I noted in my letter to Lavater. But as regards the Jews, when they accept Christianity, I find no basis in the New Testament for exempting them from the Mosaic commandments. On the contrary, the apostle himself had Timothy circumcised. Therefore, it should be clear that there is no way that I could free myself from the Mosaic Law.”

When Mendelssohn spoke of “the teaching of the rabbis,” he was referring to what he had written to Lavater, “All our rabbis are united in teaching that the written and oral commandments, of which our religion consists, are binding only on our nation…all other peoples of the earth, we believe, are commanded by God to obey the law of nature and the religion of the patriarchs.”[5]

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  • [1] The translator would like to thank Horst Krüger, Christina Krüger, and especially Dr. Guido Baltes, for their invaluable assistance in preparing this translation.
  • [2] This article’s translation to English was made possible through the generous financial assistance of Paul, Clarice and Jeffery Steen, the loving father, mother and brother of Gregory. Jerusalem Perspective wishes to thank Dr. Volker Hampel and Neukirchener Verlag (http://www.neukirchener-verlagsgesellschaft.de) for permission to publish this article in English.
  • [3] David Flusser, “Lavater and Nathan, the Wise,” in Bemerkungen eines Juden zur christlichen Theologie (1984): 82-93.
  • [4] M. Mendelssohn, Schriften zum Judentum (1930), 1:303.
  • [5] Ibid., 10-11.

Comments 12

  1. This Gentile viewpoint seems to overlook many words of Scripture i.e.,
    Exodus 12:49 “One law (Torah) shall be to him that is homeborn, and unto the stranger that sojourneth among you.” (AKJV)
    Leviticus 24:22 “Ye shall have one manner of law, as well for the stranger, as for one of your own country; for I am the Lord your God.” (AKJV)
    Romans 3:31 “Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid! Yea, we establish the law ….. (Torah)???
    And when the “church” broke away from Judaism the “church” would have had no authority to add or delete practices ……….
    The Torah (law) explicitly states who has this Authority in: Devarim (Deuteronomy) 17:8 If there arise a matter too hard for thee in judgment, between blood and blood, between plea and plea, and between stroke and stroke, being matters of controversy within thy gates: then shalt thou arise, and get thee up into the place which HaShem thy God shall choose; 9 And thou shalt come unto the priests the Levites, and unto the judge that shall be in those days, and enquire; and they shall shew thee the sentence of judgment: 10 And thou shalt do according to the sentence, which they of that place which HaShem (God) shall choose shall shew thee; and thou shalt observe to do according to all that they inform thee: 11 According to the sentence of the law which they shall teach thee, and according to the judgment which they shall tell thee, thou shalt do: thou shalt not decline from the sentence which they shall shew thee, to the right hand, nor to the left. 12 And the man that will do presumptuously, and will not hearken unto the priest that standeth to minister there before HaShem thy God, or unto the judge, even that man shall die: and thou shalt put away the evil from Israel. 13 And all the people shall hear, and fear, and do no more presumptuously.
    And why would the Gentile follow the Jew to synagogue on the Sabbath to “hear” the teaching of Moses (Acts 15:21) if there was no obligation ??
    Thanks,
    Clint

    1. Joshua N. Tilton

      Dear Clint,
      I do not know what you wished to convey by describing a viewpoint as “Gentile,” and I do not wish to attribute to your words a meaning you did not intend. But, since there is potential for misunderstanding, I would like to remind Jerusalem Perspective readers that there is no person, object, or idea that is inherently bad by virtue of being Gentile, nor is anything good simply by virtue of being Jewish. We should therefore avoid using “Jewish” or “Gentile” as adjectives denoting goodness or worth. It is of utmost importance to maintain the mutual love and respect between Jew and Gentile, male and female, great and small that the Apostle Paul urged among his churches.
      In friendship,
      Joshua

      1. Shalom Joshua,
        Wow — Gentile (bad), Jewish (good) — I re-read my words and I am missing that meaning. In my reading of Scripture it seems to me the Goal of HaShem is to have ONE people, in ONE Kingdom, following ONE Torah (His Rules). Suggestions from Jewish or Gentile quarters showing how Jews and Gentiles can live throughout Eternity in this Oneness Kingdom (where the people are One with Yeshua while Yeshua is One with the Father) yet, having one group adhere to 613 instructions while the other group adheres to 7 instructions is simply anathema to me. In our fallen state of being, it seems each (Jew and Gentile) no matter how loving and caring can upon seeing a word, a phrase, a verse, etc. can cling to the idea of separateness — and I simply can NOT find that conclusion in God’s Word . I am a full-blood Gentile and I just have no problem doing what my “older brother” the Jew does. Especially, “after those days” when my God has written the Instructions and the halakha on my heart — then doing will be easy in the Kingdom.
        I can not see in Jeremiah where there is a difference in the amount of Torah written on the “inward parts” of the people.
        Shalom U’Brechot,
        Clint

        1. Joshua N. Tilton

          Dear Clint,
          Thank you for your clarification. It is so important to be careful when using terms like “Jew” and “Gentile,” or any other term that refers to a whole classification of people. Great sensitivity and care are needed, given the human tendency to create divisions between “us” and “them.”
          Regarding the unity of the Torah and its universal application, it is important to keep in mind that not every commandment in the Torah is equally applicable to everyone even in Israel. Commandments pertaining to priests, for example, are not applicable to regular Israelites. Likewise, Israelite women are exempt from many of the obligations incumbent upon Israelite men. There is of course one Torah, but it is important to ask to whom each commandment is addressed.
          Paul taught that some of the Torah’s commandments are not applicable to Gentile believers (e.g., circumcision), but that does not mean he believed the Torah was no longer valid. Instead, the one Torah addresses different groups of people (e.g., Priests, Israelite men, Israelite women, and Gentile men and women) differently. Therefore Paul could write, “Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God’s commands is what counts” (1 Cor. 7:19; NIV). In other words, some commandments apply to everyone, other commandments apply only to certain groups. We’re all performing in the same play, but we can’t all play the same part. Which group you happen to belong to doesn’t say anything about your worth. It’s by how well you’ve played the role that’s been assigned to you that you’ll be judged.
          On this whole fascinating topic, I recommend the work of Peter J. Tomson, who studied under David Flusser and Shmuel Safrai (the authors of the above article). In particular, his article “Paul’s Jewish Background in View of his Law Teaching in 1Cor7,” in Paul and the Mosaic Law (ed. James D. G. Dunn; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), and his book Presumed Guilty: How the Jews Were Blamed for the Death of Jesus (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005) are particularly enlightening.
          In friendship,
          Joshua

          1. Shalom Joshua,
            Yes I understand the division of responsibilities and that men’s laws do not apply to women and so forth. It is quite interesting to see the different understanding we each derive from the very same Scripture — your example of “Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God’s commands is what counts” (1 Cor. 7:19; NIV)” Since circumcision is one of the commands this becomes quite interesting —- To me this is Sha’ul’s message to those Jewish men who were saying “the only way to salvation is to become a Jew” and the major method to becoming a Jew is circumcision. In other verses he continues this theme by saying that the Law (Torah) is for Sanctification not Justification Thus, circumcision is important as “part” of the Law keeping, as it pertains to Sanctification — but unimportant as a stand-alone endeavor toward Salvation……… I.E., Circumcision and Salvation — no connection, Circumcision and Torah, as important as any other Rule. Notice, again, my understanding just does not seem to be able to separate “regular” Israelites and “regular” Gentiles very easily. Especially, as we move ever closer to The World to Come.
            Thanks,
            Clint

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  6. I have many questions on this article — on its historical and halachic aspects as well as on its theological message — but I’ll limit myself to one critical remark that to me is central as to the question of its theological coherence as well as relevant for its practical application and impact.

    In the Appendix Flusser & Safrai refer to “the twin streams of the early church”, and express their agreement to the opinion of Toland (1670-1722), who, in his book Nazarenus, “held the view that Jewish Christians were forever obligated to observe the Law of Moses, while the Christians of Gentile background, who lived among them, needed only to observe the Noahide commandments, abstaining from eating blood and making offerings to idols”.

    My question is about the phrase “who lived among them”. This phrase expresses an assumption which has to be clarified. For if the Jewish Christians observed the entire Law of Moses, why would Gentile Christians, who were only to observe the Noahide commandments “live among them”. I guess such a living together of two groups with very different lifestyles would be highly impractical. To my intuition there would be no sufficient reasons for such a living together. If Flusser & Safrai are historically and exegetically correct one would expect that Jewish Christians would live in a traditional community framework shaped by the Law and Jewish custom, while the Gentiles would live without this framework, and thus live their lives outside this Jewish community setting.

    To give an example: Since the Gentile Christians were not expected to keep the Sabbath, there’s no reason to suppose that they visited the Synagogue on this day and worshipped together with their Jewish fellow believers. The Sabbath, which isn’t included in the Noahide commandments, was irrelevant for them. And so were all the other feasts and celebrations.

    It appears to me, therefore, that according to this article one has to say that there were almost no tangible ties between the Jewish and the non-Jewish part of what is called the “church”. This would lead to the conclusion that, from a practical perspective, according to the authors there was only a Jewish church, in the sense of a real community of believers in Christ, bound together by a common religious lifestyle. On the basis of the Noahide commandments it is impossible to establish such a community. Noahidism knows of no celebrations, holy days, or any other communal religious observances.

    For all practical purposes the Gentile believers found themselves outside this church. They may have shared the faith in the same G-d of Israel and in the same Messiah, but on the basis of the Noahide commandments they simply didn’t have the means to form a community on their own, while at the same time they found themselves excluded from the Jewish church.

    To me this is a strong indication that the vision proposed in the article cannot be theologically correct. The NT Scriptures, in particular the Pauline Epistles, emphasize the unity of the church as well as strong practical and communal ties among its members. Such strong ties can only be imagined if all live under largely same set of rules. And this implies that there are only two possibilities for having a Christian church comprizing both Jews and non-Jews: Either all are to observe the Law of Moses, or none are. You cannot have one church, as the expression of the One Body of Christ, with within it two lifestyles so divergent from each other as the Mosaic and the Noahide ones. This simply doesn’t work. It can only lead to a complete separation of Gentile and Jewish Christians, which is what happened historically.

  7. Excellent article! Well thought-out and written! However, I am struggling with a scriptural exception, which was not presented. And, perhaps, an additional article needs to be considered–myself not knowing if an article already exists or has been presented on this website.

    Anyhow, it seems obvious that the Jerusalem Council understood the severity of laying upon the non-Jewish believers the yoke of circumcision and the law of Moses (haTorat) (Acts 15:5b), since they themselves could not keep it, and that God himself saved them through faith just like he was doing among the non-Jews.

    However, in verse 21 of Acts 15 it reads, “For Moses (the Torah) has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.” This verse, sadly, has been ignored in such discussions of non-Jewish participation in the Instructionsof God (Torah).

    Myself and many other Jewish believers understand this passage as simply stating that as all believers–Jews and non-Jews–are gathered throughout the cities in various synagogoues and homes enjoying fellowship with one another, the Torah would begin to take-hold in their lives along with other aspects of Torah would be observed. Not in the context of “necessity” (dei-GK) (Acts 15:5, NKJV), but out of self-definition. Surely, not all aspects to the Torah are meant to apply to non-Jews, just like particular laws do not apply to men but women; however, there are many passages in the Tanakh and New Testament, which brings to light a tremendous amount of halackhot for both Jew and non-Jew, whom want to walk in God’s ways.

    It is safe to presume that the brother of Jesus, James, and the other Apostles, including Paul, understood the present view of the Noahide laws; however, it is also safe to presume that they realized they were in the presence of prophecy being fulfilled with God’s hand of salvation being made available among the non-Jews (See, Jeremiah 31). If so, then, I doubt that the Apostles desired or intended that with giving these “Noahide” Laws to the non-Jewish believers that the matter was closed for further, progressive discussion. Given that the very next verse addresses where James midset was at.

    There is still much to discuss about this matter including defined halachot for New Covenant beleivers as Jews and non-Jews.

    Mendelssohn’s assertion that believing Jews must keep the Torah of Moses according to the Apostolic church is fabulous; however, I would assert that the Apostolic church also had more instructions and halachot for non-Jewish believers than the Apostolic Decree in Acts fiftteen, which is attested to within the Epistles.

    Either way, these are merely my thoughts and if anything, it would be nice to read an article by a scholar at JP, which addresses Acts 15:21 in light of the Apostolic Decree and what it means if I am indeed wrong from the start of my premise.

    Finally, and additionally, what we (Jewish and Christian scholars, historians, and theologians, including a few of us aged-students who think we are “something”) tend to refer to as early Chirstianity or Jewish Christians and non-Jewish Christians of the first centruy is a disservice to the believing Jews of the period. Why? Because it continues to allow for students, scholars, and lay-persons alike to ignore the greater picture of Messianic Jews and Gentiles worshiping in concert with one Messiah prior to the distruction of the Temple, under the banner of first-century Judaism.(Esphesians 2:15; Romans 11, et al.).

    This has given room for Jews to ignore the Modern Messianic Movement, and to allow for the belief that Jesus is merely the messiah of the Gentiles. Also, for Christians to suggest the same, leaving division between who and what the Jewish messiah means for the entire world–Jew and Gentile.

    Sincerely,
    Adrian A. Bernal, M.T.S.
    Columbia Evangelical Seminary

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David Flusser [1917-2000]

David Flusser [1917-2000]

Professor David Flusser died and was buried in Jerusalem on Friday, September 15, 2000, his 83rd birthday. A founding member of the Jerusalem School of Synoptic Research, Flusser was one of the world's leading Jewish authorities on Early Christianity. His pioneering research on Jesus and…
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Shmuel Safrai [1919-2003]

Shmuel Safrai [1919-2003]

Professor and Rabbi Shmuel Safrai died on July 16, 2003. He was buried the following day in a section of Jerusalem's Har ha-Menuhot Cemetery reserved for faculty of the Hebrew University. His grave is only a few feet from the grave of his close friend…
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