“This is the law of the Nazirite who vows his offering to the LORD according to his separation, in addition to what else he can afford; according to his vow which he takes, so he shall do according to the law of his separation.” (Num.6:21)
The Nazirite vow was, and is, voluntary. It is, at its best, a choice that an individual makes to assume a higher degree of holiness (separation) and observance than is required of the common Jew. The presumption is that it is for a season.When the vow, or purpose of separation, is complete, the Torah instructs the man to follow a ritual of offering sacrifice for his “sin”.
“Now this is the law of the Nazirite when the days of his separation are fulfilled, he shall bring the offering to the doorway of the tent of meeting. He shall present his offering to the LORD: one male lamb a year old without defect for a burnt offering and one ewe-lamb a year old without defect for a sin offering and one ram without defect for a peace offering, and a basket of unleavened cakes of fine flour mixed with oil and unleavened wafers spread with oil, along with their grain offering and their drink offering. Then the priest shall present them before the LORD and shall offer his sin offering and his burnt offering. He shall also offer the ram for a sacrifice of peace offerings to the LORD, together with the basket of unleavened cakes; the priest shall likewise offer its grain offering and its drink offering.” (Num.6:13-17)
We know from Luke’s record of the event in the book of Acts that Paul entered the city of Jerusalem (after his 3rd missionary journey, many, many years after the resurrection of Christ) while under a Nazirite vow from the following passage:
“We have four men who are under a (Nazirite) vow; take them and purify yourself along with them, and pay their expenses so that they may shave their heads; and all will know that there is nothing to the things which they have been told about you, but that you yourself also walk orderly, keeping the Law. But concerning the Gentiles who have believed, we wrote, having decided that they should abstain from meat sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication.” Then Paul took the men, and the next day, purifying himself along with them, went into the Temple giving notice of the completion of the days of purification, until the sacrifice was offered for each one of them.” (Acts 21:23-26)
The Nazirite offerings had specific designations to them in the Oral Law regarding how they were performed.
“The thanksgiving-offering and the ram of a Nazirite were offerings of lesser holiness. They could be slaughtered anywhere in the Temple court, and their blood required two sprinkings (at opposite corners of the Altar), making four in all. The meat of these offerings, prepared in any manner, was eaten anywhere within the city, by anyone during that day and the following night until midnight. This also applied to the portion of these sacrifices (given to the priests), except that the priests’ portion was only to be eaten by the priests, their wives, children and servants.” (Mishnah Zevahim, Chpt.5, as recorded in the Koren Sacks Siddur, Koren Publishers, Jerusalem, pg.52, “Shacharit service”)
So, to recap this event, Paul was under a Nazirite vow when he entered the city. Given the fact that this marks the termination of Paul’s lengthy 3rd missionary journey, and that one cannot properly end the vow except by making offerings at the Temple, it is likely that Paul was quite a scraggly looking fellow by the time he found audience with James in Acts 21. It is also apparent that the keeping of Nazirite vows was a common practice among the Yeshua-followers at this late date, which was quite a number of years after the resurrection of the Master. Reading the account in Numbers above, two things are apparent: First, that there were a large number of animals being slaughtered for Paul to follow James’s instructions.
Also, when Paul says that, through Christ, the “Law of ordinances has been abolished”(Eph.2) he cannot mean what the Church says it means, since apparently Paul still considered himself (and James’s men) to be fully under these ordinances.
If Paul was Torah-observant around Jews but not Torah-observant around Gentiles (as is the common interpretation of the “Jew to the Jews” passage of 1 Cor.9), then it is certainly very awkward to see Paul violate the Roman sensibilities of hygiene by looking like John the Baptist, and acting all separatist and weird concerning ritual purity and food and drink, just to fulfill ordinances that supposedly he was proclaiming had been done away with, especially around a predominantly Greek/Roman citizenry who would have had little to no empathy for why he was doing it or what the meaning of it was. Where’s the evangelical advantage in such behavior, if that is Paul’s incentive?
(Interestingly, when Paul suggests to Timothy to “not drink water alone, but to take a little wine for his infirmities” in 1 Tim.5:23, it raises the realistic probability that Timothy was under a similar vow).
Certainly, from the text of the Bible itself, there is strong evidence that the Nazirite vow was a regular practice among the early Jewish followers of Yeshua, as stated earlier.
However, a Gentile could not, by law, participate in a Nazirite vow, since it was impossible for him/her to be set apart in this way, being non-Jewish, and it was also impossible for them to fulfill such a vow, since they could not complete the purification ritual.
We know that the mere suspicion that Paul, based on his reputation, had taken Gentiles into the courts of the Temple past the Soreg was enough for a riot to ensue, prompting his arrest by the Roman guard, as we see in Acts 21.
“…and besides he has even brought Greeks into the Temple and has defiled this holy place.” (Acts 21:28) See my article from a couple weeks ago about this here: Eating at God’s Table
According to the sages of Israel, there are divergent opinions regarding why a man under a Nazirite vow must offer a sin-offering for himself upon the completion of his vow. Shmuel states in the Talmud that the sin is in becoming a Nazirite to begin with, and denying oneself the pleasures of the world God created and declared good (Talmud Bavli, Taanit 11a, Nedarim 10a).
It is believed that this opinion arose out of the Hellenization of the Diaspora, where asceticism was popular; the notion of mortifying one’s flesh as a way of connecting with the Divine Presence, a common practice among the Gnostics.
In contrast, according to Rabbi Elazar, the Nazirite was praiseworthy, citing biblical precedent:
“Then I raised up some of your sons to be prophets and some of your young men to be Nazirites.” (Amos 2:11)
Interestingly, the Rambam (Maimonides) promotes both views equally in separate entries in his Mishneh Torah.
“A person may say: “Desire, honor, and the like are bad paths to follow and remove a person from the world; therefore I will completely separate myself from them and go to the other extreme.” As a result, he does not eat meat or drink wine or take a wife or live in a decent house or wear decent clothing…This is too bad, and it is forbidden to choose this way.” (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Deot 3:1)
Yet in another place he supports the ruling of Rabbi Elazar: “Whoever vows to God (to become a Nazirite) by way of holiness, does well and is praiseworthy…Indeed scripture considers him equal to a prophet.” (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Nezirut 10:14)
The conflicting dichotomy, like so many such instances in Jewish philosophy, is resolved by a third idea: The place of the believer within community.
To understand the Rambam’s point, if a man seeks to become a Nazirite as a way of setting himself apart from his fellow Jew; to elevate himself above his brother, than his motivation is impure and his efforts will result in sin. However, if his goal is devakut, or intimacy with HaShem, related to a specific issue or concern, while still maintaining positive identification with those who are not under such a vow, then it is credited as righteousness for him. The a fortiori inference which guides this principle is the voluntary nature of the vow. No Jew is required to take a Nazirite vow.
This is a huge consideration, and one which is paramount to Paul’s concerns in his writings to the Gentile believers coming into Jewish space. In each of his letters, but particularly Ephesians, Galatians and Romans, he emphasizes the surpassing importance of the status of non-Jews in the community of faith as equal inheritors of life in Messiah and the promise of the World to Come.
This is the prime motivation behind his commentary at the beginning of Romans, his rebuke of the “Judaizers” in Galatians (and particularly in his rebuke of Peter), and certainly in his metaphor regarding the Temple ordinances in Ephesians chapter 2, where he writes:
“But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who made both groups (the Jew and the non-Jew drawing near to the covenants of God through Messiah) into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, by abolishing in his flesh the enmity, 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, and might reconcile them both in one body through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity.” (Eph.2:13-16)
In a strictly literal sense, apart from socio-religious context and the nature of Paul’s mission, it appears that Paul is brushing aside the Torah Law of the Jews and announcing a completely new framework of obedience to God for all men, equally.
However, our earlier exploration of the fastidious nature of Paul’s observance of the Law in relation to his Nazirite vow, culminating in the clear practice of animal sacrifices at the Temple, make this view seem childish and misguided.
What, then, does Paul actually mean?
He is speaking metaphorically, in a spiritual sense, but not in a halachic, practical sense.
What Paul is saying to us is that in the heavenly realm, through Christ, the Gentile drawing near to Israel has the same status of purity, and the same access to the throne of grace that the Jew has. However, since the Torah made clear distinctions between Jew and Gentile regarding Torah observance (particularly in relation to the Temple and its service) it is impossible to suggest that Paul, a good Jew…
“…circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee” (Phil.3:5)
…would have attempted in any way to abrogate either the Torah itself or the traditions of his people.
We must be reasonable and intelligent in our analysis of the letters of the apostles. Heaven forbid we would think that any of them would in any way speak against the Torah or the righteous traditions of the Fathers. However, it was clear to all of them that there was a surpassing righteousness related to the Messiah which transcended the ordinances of the Law in regard to the imputed righteousness of those in allegiance to him. Christ, in essence, becomes righteousness for us.
This concept, which is theological, philosophical, mystical even, is explained by Paul through the use of powerful metaphor of the Temple and its service.
Perhaps Paul’s arrest as a result of false accusation was something he often reflected upon and contemplated in relation to his ministry to the Gentiles.
The destruction of the Temple in AD70 only added fuel to the flame of Replacement Theology in later interpretations of Ephesians 2, as many theologians who had no personal connection to the Temple and its service surmised anachronistically that Paul’s letter could be applied to the notion that God had rejected Judaism and the Jewish people from the “altar of God”, and that the Christian Church had now supplanted them in that role. This, of course, goes far beyond what can even be inferred from Paul’s statement in Ephesians that Jew and Gentile had been made into “one new man”. He does not state, for instance, that the Jew had now become “Christian”.
At any rate, Paul’s obvious allegiance to Jewish Law, both in and out of Jerusalem, and at the Temple (as seen in Acts 21) should cause us to reflectively reject any notion that Paul is suggesting the abrogation of Torah, which includes distinctive elements of Jewish and Gentile observance.
Further, there is nothing in Paul’s words which suggest that a Gentile who wishes to do so cannot take on the mitzvot of obedience to God’s commandments, to whatever degree they are able, based upon their level of understanding. In fact, the writings of the apostles suggest to us in a strong way that this is exactly what the apostles expected of them.
Again, it appears that Paul’s concern is the same as the Rambam’s many centuries later: the peace of the community.