Developing an appropriate cultural hermeneutic for the New Testament
This observation may seem a little random, coming as it does, in a stream of posts about the Old Testament.
But I’ve been thinking about my New Testament essay, which I handed in a couple of weeks ago – that addresses the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, and the prohibitions it places on Gentile Christians.
Acts 15 starts with a question of salvific significance – do Gentile Christians need to be circumcised in order to be saved?
“1 Certain people came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the believers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.”
5 Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses.”
And ends with these four prohibitions that are passed on to Gentile churches and Christians around the world. In between, Peter points out that salvation for the Jew and Gentile is found in Jesus – which I think settles the question of salvation, and then he moves on to addressing the question of how Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians can live together.
19 “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. 20 Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. 21 For the law of Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.”
My dear brother Kutz reckons the prohibitions are also salvific in focus – ie the Gentiles have to follow them in order to be saved. I don’t know… I reckon the issue of table fellowship Paul discusses in Galatians 2 might also be underpinning the concerns of the council… There’s also the question about what verse 21 contributes to the prohibitions.
Anyway, what this question really brought to the fore for me is an unhelpful dichotomy I think modern scholarship places on the text. Most people have tried to understand these prohibitions by suggesting that they are either fully in response to Jewish concerns (ie the Old Testament laws regarding Gentiles (from Leviticus 17-18 in particular), or the Noahic Covenant (which are pre-Jew/Gentile) , or the Old Testament laws that come with a warning that transgression will lead to being cut off from the people), or that they are responses to Graeco-Roman culture – that the prohibitions are directly related to the practices in Idol temples (Ben Witherington III). The problem is that none of these options are perfect fits – and scholars always seem to try to shoehorn the passage into their preferred reading. Very few have suggested that it might in fact be the shortest possible way or representing all of these concerns. A dichotomy has been created where perhaps it is unnecessary. People want the context of the New Testament to be either really Jewish, or really Roman – when I reckon it should be understood as both (it’s a bit of a simplification, everybody recognises (well almost everybody) that it’s both, it’s just a question of degree). We find both represented ideally in Paul, whose background must have some bearing on how we interpret his writings. He’s a very Jewish Jew, who happens to have a very Roman background too (coming from Tarsus), or at the very least Roman citizenship. In Paul we see a possible Graeco-Roman philosophical education (judged on references to his hometown, and his familiarity with Platonism, Stoicism and Epicurianism demonstrated in his Areopagus address and epistles) matched with education in the Jewish law. Which makes him a perfect person to address both concerns. It’s a case of “both and” not “either or” – which is why I went for a bit of an “everybody is right” approach to the question of the origins of the Acts 15 prohibitions. And I like it.