Jewish Law in Gentile Churches: Halakhah and the Beginning of Christian Public Ethics

By Menninger, Rich | Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, December 2004 | Go to article overview

Jewish Law in Gentile Churches: Halakhah and the Beginning of Christian Public Ethics


Menninger, Rich, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society


Jewish Law in Gentile Churches: Halakhah and the Beginning of Christian Public Ethics. By Markus Bockmuehl. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003, xvi + 314 pp., $29.99 paper.

Sooner or later any student of the NT must address the issue of how the Jewish and Gentile sectors of the early church related to each other. One topic that continually confronts scholars is whether or not each branch held to the same ethical code. Markus Bockmuehl of Cambridge University addresses this issue in his book Jewish Law. He invites us to examine a somewhat neglected subject of the dependence (if any) of Gentile Christianity on the Jewish understanding of the Torah. He proposes that the Gentile Christian ethic is indeed related to Jewish halakhah, and this understanding became the basis for the early Church apologists' discussion of a "public ethic." Jewish Law opens with a preface that offers a summary of each of the nine chapters. The book includes 60 pages of bibliography entries and literature indices.

Part 1 consists of the first four chapters and seeks to demonstrate that the early church did not reject Jewish halakhah as reasoned from the Torah. Bockmuehl offers four points for consideration. First, he argues in a general sense that Jesus' teaching did not contravene the Jewish law. He keeps before the reader the point that the moral and ethical heritage of the Jewish tradition is preserved by the Jewish NT writers who write for Gentiles.

second, Bockmuehl looks at the exception clauses in Matthew's reference to divorce (5:32, 19:9) and argues that such is in keeping with Jewish understanding. That is, it was well accepted in Jewish thinking that sexual union outside of marriage made divorce imperative and thus Jesus' teaching on marriage is consistent with Jewish halakhah. Third, Bockmuehl examines the much-debated logion in Matthew, "Let the dead bury the dead" (8:22). Our author suggests Jesus, when extending this call of discipleship, may have had in mind the Nazirite vow of "not touching a dead body." If this theory is true, then Jesus' demand is not unheard of at this time and thus should not be taken to mean a rejection of or even an attack aimed at the Jewish law.

Fourth, Bockmuehl examines the situation in Antioch (Galatians 2) and the motive of James the Just to "intervene" in the state of affairs of Jewish Christians and their table fellowship with Gentile Christians. Our author points out that James does not intervene in order to attack the Gentile mission or impose more restrictions on Gentile behavior than did the apostolic council (Acts 15). Rather, James, who perceives that the city of Antioch is part of the Promised Land, seeks to insure that Jewish Christians remain in position to benefit from Jesus' mission to restore Israel. Overall, then, Part 1 is an attempt to demonstrate that (T) by his actions and teachings Jesus continues the principles of the Torah; and (2) James' involvement in the Antiochian state of affairs was not an attempt to overturn the Gentile mission.

Part 2 (chaps. 5 to 7) is an examination of the concept of "natural law." Bockmuehl's position is that the ethics of Gentile Christians are continuous with the ethics of Jewish Christians. He supports this thesis by arguing that within second Temple Judaism (from the OT to Josephus) there is an implied expression of God's will both in creation and in the Torah. Furthermore, this expression points to a "universal ethic," thus suggesting that there are laws and ethics in the Torah that are applicable to the Gentile world, whether in terms of custom or innate law. Bockmuehl's point is that there appears to be no natural law separate from God.

Next, our author examines the NT and comes away with the same conclusion that there is no clear teaching that supports a natural law separate from God. To be sure, there are some things customary in society that Christians are to follow: Jesus teaches to pay taxes (Matt 22:21) and Paul urges obedience to the authorities (Romans 13).

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