Modern Judaism discourages gentile conversions to the religion of Israel. One who is not Jewish should simply be a good Noahite, following the universal laws of God’s covenant with Noah, the new founder of the human race after the flood. The laws of the Noahite covenant are:
1.Do not deny God.
2.Do not blaspheme God.
3.Do not murder.
4.Do not engage in illicit sexual relations.
5.Do not steal.
6.Do not eat of a live animal. (i.e. cruelty to animals is forbidden)
7.Establish a legal system to ensure civil order and justice.
Israel is bound to the Law of Moses, but a gentile who follows these Noahite laws is considered righteous. It is unnecessary for a gentile to convert to Judaism. This was not always the case. In the second temple era when Christianity emerged there was a time in which Rabbinic Pharisees invited conversions to the religion of Israel. Ancient Greco-Roman religion was a crazy quilt of competing gods and goddesses and in most cases religion was not connected to moral behavior in any way. The gods of the nations were principally capricious nature spirits and religion was a way to get the gods to do your will, or least to leave you alone. The gods did not love humanity. In fact, the gods could be dangerous. The point of pagan religion was to placate these powerful capricious forces.
The incoherent nature of paganism made the religion of Israel very appealing to the ancient Greek and Roman thinkers, one all powerful, all knowing God who intentionally created and loved mankind, a reasonable moral code and a coherent religious literature. This was certainly better than traditional religion with its “once upon a time” myths of gods who often took vengeance on humanity. There was a problem, however. This one reasonable God demanded some very odd things.
There were dietary restrictions on quite a number of foods, especially seafood and pork, two of the staples of Greco Roman cuisine and, still worse, the god of the Israelites demanded male circumcision which the ancient Greeks and Romans considered barbaric and obscene. There was, however, a whole class of gentiles who tried to live an Israelite life. They read the Hebrew Scriptures, attended synagogue and worshipped the God of Israel. They did not, however go the whole route. They were called God-fearers and could be found throughout the Greek and Roman world. Israel had never been as universally respected in the world as it was at the time of Jesus and the second temple. Then along came Saul of Tarsus.
Saul was probably born around 5 AD in what is now southern Turkey. He was a second generation Roman citizen, a mark of probable wealth and distinction. He was clearly educated in Greek literature which he quotes in his epistles, and was by his own admission a zealous Pharisee, the son of Pharisees. He was sent back to the Holy Land to be educated in the rabbinic school of Gamaliel or so he claimed. There is a very unusual story in the Talmud that may refer to Saul as “that student” ( oto hatalmid):
Rabbi Judah used to pray as follows: May it be Thy will, O Lord our God, to save me this day from the impudent, and from impudence in learning. They asked, what is meant by impudence in learning? He answered as follows, Rabban Gamliel would sit and teach ... but OTO HA-TALMID scoffed at him.” (Sabbath 30b)It is pure speculation to suggest that Saul of Tarsus was “that student’” but one would not be surprised. Gamaliel was the most flexible and generous of teachers. Saul/Paul was not. One can see Saul, if indeed he had been sent study at the feet of Gamaliel as he claimed, soon parting ways with his moderate teacher. Perhaps Saul became “radicalized” in his devotion to the religion of Israel, and perhaps he understood that this ridiculous sect of the Nazarenes would make the God of Israel available to the gentiles in a way that was entirely unacceptable. All speculation aside, it was clear that Saul was an impetuous young man who could be used by the temple authorities to nip this thing in the bud.
One of the miracle-working preachers of the new sect was of particular concern, a certain Greek speaking Israelite named Stephen. He was hauled before the court and was promptly taken out and stoned by a mob who “laid their coats at the feet of a certain Saul” (Acts 7:58). I suspect that Saul was the organizer of the lynch mob. Saul is a young man on the move. We next hear that he is ferreting out Nazarites and has been deputized to go north to the Hebrew community living in Damascus where this nonsense had taken hold.
He makes it to Damascus, but not the way he had expected. He is knocked down and blinded by some strange vision and is taken to Damascus. There the Christian community makes contact with him and he becomes one of them. He receives his sight back and begins to make the situation in Damascus worse by telling everyone that He has seen Jesus, who is the Son of God and risen from the dead. He has to escape Damascus by being lowered over the walls in a basket. He seems completely unhinged by the experience and travels to the desert of Arabia (probably Sinai). He goes back to Damascus, then to Jerusalem where he again upsets the locals and is sent back home to Tarsus for his own good. Essentially the leadership of the Nazarene movement told him, “Go home. Don’t call us. We’ll call you.” Which they did, ten years later. Saul has been doing nothing much other than causing trouble for about 15 years since his experience on the Damascus road.
At about that time, the Church was growing especially among Greek speakers in the area of Antioch, not far from Saul’s home town. The leadership of the movement sent Barnabas, a leader, to check things out and while he was there he might as well look up that hot-head Saul to see what he was up to. Saul accompanied Barnabas back to Antioch and eventually back to Jerusalem.
At about this time Simon Cephas had an amazing experience. He is invited to preach at the home of a God fearing Roman centurion who had been studying Judaism, and lo and behold the prophetic spirit seems to take hold of this uncircumcised Roman and his non-Jewish household, just as it had when the Church had gotten its start on Pentecost years beforehand. Cephas (Peter) lets them all join the Church just as they are.
Saul and Barnabas begin their missionary travels at about the same time. They go out into the world preaching that anyone can be saved with or without circumcision and halakhic law. This is wonderful as far as the God-fearers and some of the Jews scattered throughout the empire are concerned. You could be an Israelite and still eat pork, not to mention the advantages of remaining uncircumcised. The Christian/Nazarite movement took off exactly among the people with whom Rabbinic Phariseeism had been making real headway.
Just imagine! If you were a Greek who wished he could be an Israelite, now it was possible with just a simple baptismal ceremony. Imagine the difficulty of being an Israelite in a hostile society. Circumcision made sure you didn’t get too friendly with your gentile neighbors. You weren’t going to the gym with them where Greco Romans met to wheel and deal, and you weren’t going to dinner parties where very non-Kosher things were eaten. Until now, no self-respecting Israelite was going to join paganism with its ridiculous gods, but now one could still read the books of Moses but, according to Saul and Barnabas, pork and circumcision were optional. Thus was born Christianity, the first reformed Judaism and a universal religion that made the treasure of the Hebrew Scriptures accessible to all. Things had gone from bad to worse.
Next week: things go from bad to worse to even worse.