In the Second Temple period, there was a short barrier, a wall, erected at the terminus of the Court of the Gentiles, beyond which Gentiles could not pass on penalty of death. It was called the Soreg.
In Paul’s day, Jews in the Temple courts accused him of bringing a Gentile near the altar (past the Soreg), a false charge, but the prospect of this caused a riot.
“For they had previously seen Trophimus the Ephesian in the city with him, and they supposed that Paul had brought him into the Temple.” (Acts 21:29)
In our Torah portion, Emor, we read this:
“…nor shall you accept any such from the hand of a foreigner for offering as the food of your God; for their corruption is in them, they have a defect, they shall not be accepted for you.” (Lev.22:25)
This passage is speaking about a non-Jew bringing forth an animal for sacrifice in the Temple, and how the priest is to treat such a one. The law is disturbing for those not familiar with ritual purity laws, and distinctions between people groups in the Law of Moses, as it suggests to the reader that the non-Jew himself, and not just his animal, “has corruption in him”. The verse also alluded to the “food of God”. Those who studied Exodus with me in my online class know that the Brazen Altar is also considered God’s Table. This reminds us of a curious statement by Yeshua as recorded in the gospels, in which he speaks of the LORD’s Table in relation to Gentiles:
“And He answered and said, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” (Matt.15:26)
This law in the Torah that we find in Leviticus must be addressed, in light of many claims that are made concerning Israel, Jewishness and identity within the many groups which identify with Messiah, and with the Jewish people.
It must be addressed for two reasons: Contrary to the theology of many in the evangelical world, the Law of Moses has not been abolished or abrogated in any way. (Addressing this is not the purpose of this post. Rather, we will move forward with the perspective that this is so). Second, Paul uses Temple language and imagery to describe the status of the Gentile who has placed their faith in Yeshua as Redeemer in his epistle to the Ephesians. Therefore, the second chapter of Ephesians appears to lay down some important parameters for how a non-Jew should approach both their relationship with the Messiah as well as their status within Jewish space, with the Temple as the space du jour of Paul’s example.
This creates a problem, though. Because if Paul means what he says in Ephesians literally, then he is abolishing the distinction between Jew and Gentile regarding the approach of the holiest of places; the Temple itself. Is this so? We must look at this carefully, since if this is what Paul is suggesting, he can be accused of abolishing the Torah, which would put him at odds with his Master, Yeshua, who expressly declared that he would not do so in Matthew chapter 5.
Either Paul is redefining Torah Law on his own volition, or he is speaking metaphorically.
So that it’s fresh in our minds, let’s look at the passage in question:
“Therefore remember that formally you, the Gentiles in the flesh, who are called “Uncircumcision”, by the so-called “Circumcision”, which is performed in the flesh by human hands – remember that you were at that time separate from Christ, excluded from the Commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who were formally far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, by abolishing in his flesh the emnity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, so that in himself he might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace…” (Eph.2:11-15)
This passage contains, as you have read, the famous “one new man” declaration, which, for many Christians seems to remove any distinction between Jew and Gentile. But as we have already seen, the Law clearly does make a distinction. This distinction is not merely a Rabbinic “fence”, as some may suggest, but is expressly Torah-induced.
Again, without wasting too much time here to address the aspect of this passage which, on the surface seems to suggest the abrogation of the Law of Moses by the Cross of Calvary, we will be satisfied to remind ourselves, on that point particularly, Paul’s words in his first letter to the Corinthians,
“Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but what matters is the keeping of the commandments of God.” (1 Cor.7:19)
Obviously, since God’s commands are found in the Torah, and since Paul is telling us here that obeying the commands is our highest priority, Paul is not meaning to say in Ephesians that the Law of God is of no effect anymore for the “one new man” in Christ. So let’s dispense with that line of thinking and focus in on what he is actually saying, both in Ephesians, Corinthians, Romans and even Galatians.
The issue at hand is not the Law of Moses, which is established for all eternity, nor the distinction between Jew and Gentile regarding sanctified space, which is established by God through His Laws of the priestly service in the Temple, but rather, the issue is the status of the believer before God as Father.
Paul is stating something that is very Jewish in its orientation; that by virtue of the righteousness of Christ, and the associative atonement his followers received by their allegiance to him (according to his gospel), that the Gentiles who are “in Messiah” have been accepted at the Table of God, alongside the Jews who are in Messiah, without regard to halachic or ritual ordinances of either the Torah or the Oral Traditions. This should be clarified.
As articulated in Acts 15, there were, and are, serious halachic considerations for a Jew to participate in sanctified times, such as Shabbat and Festivals and, especially, activities related to worship at the Temple, with Gentiles. There were certain prerequisites that must be in place for a Gentile to be considered “clean” towards this end.
The Torah states some parameters, such as our verse above, but the Rabbis also had numerous “fences” which they erected to prevent transgression in these matters. These “fences” became more forcefully defended as the ritual purity emphasis of the Pharisees took on greater strength and focus. This emphasis should be understood as a form of “passive aggression” against Roman occupation, as well as a form of corporate teshuvah.
Therefore, the laws of ritual purity and Temple worship became “ramped up” as a way of reminding the greater Jewish community of its distinction from their Gentile overlords; the people who were overrunning Israel.
Paul is not abrogating the Torah. He is speaking, in Ephesians (and elsewhere) metaphorically, to describe something that has transpired in the spiritual realm. He should not be read as though he is establishing new Law, and setting aside the Torah, heaven forbid.
We have a similar dynamic today in the Jewish world. Christianity has caused a great deal of pain to the Jewish community through the centuries, and much of this pain finds its root in wrong interpretation of passages such as this one in Ephesians, which a person not familiar with Judaism can, and does, read in such a way as to make Paul sound as though he is done with the Jewish rules, and that, in effect, you should be too.
His own testimony should dissuade us from adopting this view, however;
“But this I admit to you, that according to the Way which they call a sect I do serve the God of our fathers, believing everything that is in accordance with the Law and that is written in the Prophets…” (Acts24:14)
Which brings us back to our parsha, in which the Torah states that Gentiles cannot, after all, come near God’s table. The Talmud gives an argument which explains the concern:
“…The concern stems from the fact that the priests will be distraught, this is the reason that the tanna teaches the halakha with regard to a sin-offering: The priests partake of the meat of a sin-offering. If they find out that they ate an animal that was forbidden to them, i.e., an offering slaughtered counter to halakha, they are likely to become distraught. But according to the opinion of Rav Yehuda, that the concern is about the honor of the altar, why does the mishna mention specifically the case of a sin-offering; shouldn’t the same concern apply to a burnt-offering, as well, as it too is burned on the alter? (Talmud, Gittin 55b, Koren Steinsaltz edition)
From this passage, we see that the concern of a priest eating impure or forbidden meat from a Gentile was very significant.
It is not hard to see, then, why James and the rest of the Jerusalem Council placed restrictions on the Gentile converts related to kashrut.
“…that you abstain from things sacrificed to idols and from blood and from things strangled and from fornication; if you keep yourselves free from such things, you will do well.” (Acts 15:29)
We must see that this ruling does not represent a comprehensive list of the commandments required of Gentiles. Nothing of the sort. However, it does offer a starting point, or bare minimum, which would enable a Jew to eat with Gentile converts without fear of Avodah Zara.
Non-Jews in Christ are welcome to draw near to Israel, but the Torah is still in force, and Gentiles should be wary of thinking that they can “come as they are”. At God’s table, protocol matters. You cannot approach Him any old way you please.
Christians should be ashamed over the way the Church has brushed aside this ruling in Acts 15 as though all that matters is today’s inspiration; today’s sensibilities.
Non-Jewish people in Messiah should not be eating non-kosher meat. Period. That’s what the Council ruled. Not the rabbis, not the Old Testament prophets, but the Yeshua-following Jewish heads of the early “church”: meat must be kosher.
This is exceedingly difficult to apply today for many people, since for many centuries the Church has been erroneously telling its members that the dietary laws have been abolished in Christ. This, even though the New Testament does not teach this. Yes, it’s possible.
My family has been on a journey towards a higher level of kashrut. Are we willing to eat vegetarian if need be to fulfill the ruling of the Jerusalem Council? We would do well to consider this possibility.
It’s time for a new form of Reformation; one that gets back to the worldview and practice of the men who wrote the New Testament. These men were observant of the Torah, Jewishly.
How are we doing with that?