No three aspects of the Torah Driven Life have come under attack nearly so prevalently as keeping the Sabbath, the practice of circumcision of the flesh, and eating the kosher diet. These three elements of Torah keeping are undoubtedly three of the most physically defining points of obedience to God’s commandments.
According to YHWH our God, these three ordinances were, like all of His other commandments, very important:
- The Sabbath – “Therefore the children of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, to observe the Sabbath throughout their generations, for a perpetual covenant. It is a sign between Me and the children of Israel forever…” (Exodus 31:16-17)
- Circumcision – “This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your seed after you. Every male among you shall be circumcised… My covenant will be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant.” (Genesis 17:10, 13)
- Kosher Eating – “You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy. This is the law of the animal, and of the bird, and of every living creature that moves in the waters, and of every creature that creeps on the earth, to make a distinction between the unclean and the clean, and between the living thing that may be eaten and the living thing that may not be eaten.” (Leviticus 11:45-47)
Consider how important these three ordinances are to God. He said they are “a sign… forever”, an “eternal covenant”, and “holy”, knowing clean from unclean. It is no surprise that attacks against them should come from pagan, anti-God sources. One account of such is found in the first book of the Maccabees, in which the Greek Seleucid emperor Antiochus Epiphanes IV launched an attack on the Torah and the Jewish nation:
1 Maccabees 1:44-50
…the king had sent letters by messengers to Jerusalem and the cities of Judah that they should follow the foreign laws of the land: to forbid burnt offerings, sacrifice, and drink offerings in the temple; to profane the Sabbaths and festival days; to pollute the sanctuary and holy people; to set up altars, groves, and chapels of idols; to sacrifice swine’s flesh, and unclean beasts; to leave their children uncircumcised; and to make their souls abominable with all manner of uncleanness and profanation. This was done so that they might forget the Torah, and change all of God’s ordinances. Whoever would not conform to the commandment of the king, he said, would be put to death.
The text very specifically records why Antiochus did these things: “This was done so that they might forget the Torah, and change all of God’s ordinances.” (1 Maccabees 1:51)
It can be shown that that the Sabbath, circumcision, and kosher eating still played an active part in the Nazarene culture and the early church, and yet the modern church, in virtually all their denominations, has declined to observe them. At what point did the Body of the Messiah fail to observe these three ordinances?
This line of reasoning that it’s okay to break God’s commandments does not come from a Godly place of reasoning, but from the influence of a heretical sect called Gnosticism that had infiltrated the ranks of the early church. The Gnostics perceived that the ordinances of the Old Testament were purely symbolic, esoteric in nature, and were not to be taken literally on any level. (Interestingly enough, they also believed that the suffering, death, and resurrection of Yeshua the Messiah was purely symbolic as well, and did not literally happen.) An excerpt of one such Gnostic writing detailing this line of reasoning is as follows:
Ptolemy’s Letter to Flora
You must learn that the entire Law contained in the Pentateuch of Moses was not ordained by one legislator- I mean, not by God alone; some commandments are Moses’, and some were given by other men… The first part must be attributed to God alone, and his legislation; the second to Moses- not in the sense that God legislates through him, but in the sense that Moses gave some legislation under the influence of his own ideas; and the third to the elders of the people, who seem to have ordained some commandments of their own at the beginning…
Since all these things are images and symbols, when the truth was made manifest they were translated to another meaning. In their phenomenal appearance and their literal application they were destroyed, but in their spiritual meaning they were restored; the names remained the same but the content was changed. Thus the Savior commanded us to make offerings not of irrational animals or of the incense of this worldly sort, but of spiritual praise and glorification and thanksgiving and of sharing and well-doing with our neighbors. He wanted us to be circumcised, not in regard to our physical foreskin but in regard to our spiritual heart; to keep the Sabbath, for he wishes us to be idle in regard to evil works; to fast, not in physical fasting but in spiritual, in which there is abstinence from everything evil.
Although the Gnostics were rejected from the early church, many of their ideals remained in full force, the rejection of the literal observance of the Torah being one of them. By this point a pattern should be emerging: these attacks come not from a place of Scriptural understanding, but a place of pagan / secular reasoning.
Divergence in Early Christianity
The attack on these three ordinances crept in very early on in Christianity. Written sometime between 70 and 135 A.D., an early writing known as the Letter of Barnabas records an early attempt to “spiritualize” the Sabbath, circumcision, and kosher eating. This letter, having been preserved in some Septuagint manuscripts, ranked very highly in popularity, and was nearly regarded as canonical Scripture in some ancient circles.
Barnabas 15:6-9 (Regarding the spiritual meaning of the Sabbath)
If, then, anyone has at present the power to keep holy the day which God made holy, by being pure in heart, we are altogether deceived. See that we shall indeed keep it holy at that time, when we enjoy true rest, when we shall be able to do so because we have been made righteous ourselves and have received the promise, when there is no more sin, but all things have been made new by the Lord: then we shall be able to keep it holy because we ourselves have first been made holy. Furthermore he says to them, “Your new moons and the sabbaths I cannot away with.” Do you see what He means? The present sabbaths are not acceptable to Me, but that which I have made, in which I will give rest to all things and make the beginning of an eighth day, that is the beginning of another world. Wherefore we also celebrate with gladness the eighth day in which Jesus also rose from the dead, and was made manifest, and ascended into Heaven.
Barnabas 9:3-4, 6 (Regarding the spiritual meaning of circumcision)
…He circumcised our hearing in order that we should hear the word and believe. But moreover the circumcision in which they trusted has been abolished. For He declared that circumcision was not of the flesh, but they erred because an evil angel was misleading them… But you will say, surely the people has received circumcision as a seal? Yes, but every Syrian and Arab and all priests of the idols have been circumcised; are then these also within their covenant? Indeed, even the Egyptians belong to the circumcision.
Barnabas 10:2, 9-10 (Regarding the spiritual meaning of kosher eating)
…The ordinance of God is not abstinence from eating, but Moses spoke in the spirit… Moses received three doctrines concerning food and thus spoke of them in the Spirit; but they received them as really referring to food, owing to the lust of their flesh. But David received knowledge concerning the same three doctrines, and says: “Blessed is the man who has not gone in the counsel of the ungodly,” as the fishes go in darkness in the deep waters, “and has not stood in the way of sinners,” like those who seem to fear the Lord, but sin like the swine, “and has not sat in the seat of the scorners,” like the birds who sit and wait for their prey. Grasp fully the doctrines concerning food.
Fourth Century Misconceptions
Church historian Eusebius of Caesarea records that fourth century Christianity identified themselves with the righteous believers who lived prior to Abraham.
Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History I.4
If any one should assert that all those who have enjoyed the testimony of righteousness, from Abraham himself back to the first man, were Christians in fact if not in name, he would not go beyond the truth… They did not care about circumcision of the body, neither do we. They did not care about observing Sabbaths, nor do we. They did not avoid certain kinds of food, neither did they regard the other distinctions which Moses first delivered to their posterity to be observed as symbols; nor do Christians of the present day do such things.
Notice how Eusebius specifically cited these three ordinances as not having been observed prior to Abraham. Evidently, Eusebius was not aware that the righteous men and women who lived prior to Abraham were Torah keepers, as has been detailed in my article “The Torah Before Sinai”.
What about the New Testament?
The final attack on these three ordinances of the Torah come from a tragic misunderstanding of the New Testament itself. Each one of these arguments will be detailed, and then refuted.
The “New Testament” and the Sabbath
The attack against keeping the Sabbath is found in Paul’s letters to the Romans and the Colossians,
One man esteems one day as more important. Another esteems every day alike. Let each man be fully assured in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it to YHWH; and he who does not observe the day, to YHWH he does not observe it.
Let no one therefore judge you in eating, or in drinking, or with respect to a feast day or a new moon or a Sabbath day, which are a shadow of the things to come…
It must be noted here that in both of the above references, Paul makes no reference to Sabbath- none whatsoever. In fact, the over-all context of what he was discussing in each instance of his letters to the Romans and the Colossians was actually the topic of fasting. A bit of historical reference can shed some light here: it was a customary practice in both early Judaism and Christianity to fast on specific days of the week. Jews had made a practice of fasting on Mondays and Thursdays, whereas Christians had made it their practice to fast on Wednesdays and Fridays. (Didache 8:1-2) This tradition is cited in Luke 18:12, in which an example of a Pharisee is cited as saying, “I fast twice a week.”
Regarding the establishment of man-made holy days for fasting, what Paul is essentially saying is “Don’t worry about it.” Aside from the fast of the Day of Atonement, If you choose to fast for any days at all, that is good; just as if you chose not to fast, that is also good.
Contrary to this misunderstanding, the writings of the Apostles are actually in full support of keeping the Seventh Day Sabbath.
He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up. He entered, as was His custom, into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and stood up to read.
Hebrews 4:9 (Lamsa’s Aramaic Peshitta translation)
It is therefore the duty of the people of God to keep the Sabbath.
It is even recorded 85 times throughout the book of Acts that the Apostles and their followers kept the Sabbath. Departing from Sabbath observance was in no way a practice of the early church.
The “New Testament” and circumcision
Circumcision of the flesh was both foreign and repugnant to the Greco-Roman culture. Although the Maccabean revolts of the second century BCE temporarily restored peace to the Jewish way of life, the hostile pagan attitude toward circumcision continued. The influx of gentiles coming into the fold of the early church brought with them this hostile anti-circumcision mentality. As a result, circumcision became exclusively of the heart, and those who practiced circumcision of the flesh were considered legalistic and Judaizers.
The misinterpretation of the “New Testament” attack against circumcising is found predominantly in Paul’s letter to the Galatians:
But not even Titus, who was with me, being a Greek, was compelled to be circumcised.
Behold, I, Paul, tell you that if you receive circumcision, the Messiah will profit you nothing. Yes, I testify again to every man who receives circumcision, that he is a debtor to do the whole Torah. You are alienated from the Messiah, you who desire to be justified by the Torah. You have fallen away from grace.
Before jumping to conclusions, one must critically evaluate some of Paul’s prior actions.
Paul himself personally circumcised Timothy in Acts 16:3, implying it as necessity based upon the fact that he was at least partially Jewish. He then specifically mentioned in Galatians 2:23 that Titus, who was a Greek, was not compelled to be circumcised. The theological inconsistency here emerges in Galatians 3:28, in which Paul writes that that “There is neither Jew nor Greek… for you are all one in the Messiah Yeshua.”
If there is neither Jew nor Greek, but both are one in the Messiah, then we must assume that God does not have special rules for one group that He would not expect of the other. From that perspective, only one of three positions is possible: first, that Paul erred in circumcising Timothy; second, that Paul erred in not circumcising Titus; and third, that there is another option that has not yet been considered.
This third option- that has been presented in my commentary on Galatians– is that Paul was writing against a specific heresy that had been plaguing the assemblies since the ruling of the Jerusalem council in Acts 15. This heresy taught that new believers were first required to be circumcised, then keep all of the commandments of the Torah, including its Rabbinic additions, and then they could be considered “saved”. They taught a works-before-faith method of salvation which God has never been approved of by God! Rather, the faith-before-works method of salvation absolutely and definitively reconciles Paul’s theological discrepancies seen in Acts 16:3, Galatians 2:3, 3:28, and 5:4.
- Faith-before-works “fits” in the case Acts 16:3. Paul circumcised Timothy without remorse or hesitation. Because of his faith and Jewish background, circumcision was the “next step” for him in following the commandments of God.
- Faith-before-works “fits” in the case of Galatians 2:3. As a Greek, Titus was a newcomer to the faith, having no prior understanding of God’s Law. Paul notes that he was not compelled to be circumcised, in the sense that this decision was left solely up to him, rather than falling to the pressure of the heretics. If Titus was to be circumcised, it would have to be done out of sincere devotion to the commandments of God- not because he was compelled by heretics.
- Faith-before-works “fits” in the case of Galatians 3:28. The expectations of God do not differ from one people group to another, but are consistent across the board. Either God does expect His people to keep His Torah, or He does not- but both statements cannot be true. Followers of God (Jews and non Jews alike) are held to the same standard- faith that is made evident by works (James 2:14-26).
- Faith-before-works “fits” in the case of Galatians 5:2-4. For those seeking to be justified by their own attempts at keeping the Torah, they have taken God, Yeshua, and faith out of the salvation equation altogether. But those who keep the Torah as an expression of their faith fall right in line with every pattern of every righteous patriarch and prophet in the Tanakh, and the Apostles and Disciples in the Apostolic Writings.
It should be evident that Paul was not making blanket statements against either circumcision or Torah keeping in general, but was rather targeting a specific heresy that had been consistently plaguing the early assemblies: works-before-faith. One must keep in mind the social context in which Paul is writing before making such claims.
The “New Testament” and kosher eating
The attack against kosher eating is found in a translational error of Yeshua’s words in the Good News According to Mark:
Mark 7:18-19 (NIV)
“Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.)
Please be advised that this translation is not supported by any of the Greek or the Aramaic manuscripts of Mark, and is a blatant addition on behalf of the translators to teach an an anti-Torah doctrine. For shame, for shame! A more accurate translation is as follows:
“Do you not perceive that whatever goes into the man from outside cannot defile him, because it does not go into his heart, but into his stomach, then into the latrine, thus making all foods clean?”
It would be helpful here to establish the overall context of this teaching.
Then the Pharisees, and some of the scribes gathered together to Him, having come from Jerusalem. Now when they saw some of His disciples eating bread with defiled, that is, unwashed, hands, they found fault. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they wash their hands and forearms, holding to the tradition of the elders. They do not eat when they come from the marketplace, unless they bathe themselves, and there are many other things, which they have received to hold to: washings of cups, pitchers, bronze vessels, and couches.) The Pharisees and the scribes asked Him, “Why do not your disciples walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat their bread with unwashed hands?”
What is being discussed here is not an overturning of the Torah ordinance of kosher eating, but rather whether or not Rabbinic rulings of “clean” and “unclean” are to be followed.
Regarding verses 18-19, what Yeshua is actually teaching is that food that has been eaten with unwashed hands, or has broken Rabbinic tradition, is not going to render its eater unclean. The issue here has nothing to do with clean vs. unclean food, but placing the traditions of man over the commandments of God.
In response to the allegation that Yeshua declared all foods clean, the Hebrew prophets wrote, concerning the last days:
They (the priests) shall teach My people the difference between the holy and the common, and cause them to discern between the unclean and the clean.
If Yeshua had declared all foods clean, then what is the need for a priesthood to teach the distinction between clean and unclean?
Another misunderstanding from the so-called “New Testament” that supports the consumption of unclean foods is found in Peter’s vision of the book of Acts:
Peter went up on the housetop to pray at about noon. He became hungry and desired to eat, but while they were preparing, he fell into a trance. He saw heaven opened and a certain container descending to him, like a great sheet let down by four corners on the earth, in which were all kinds of four-footed animals of the earth, wild animals, reptiles, and birds of the sky. A voice came to him, “Rise, Peter, kill and eat!”
But Peter said, “Not so, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.”
A voice came to him again the second time, “What God has cleansed, you must not call unclean.”
This was done three times, and immediately the vessel was received up into heaven.
Assuming that the vision here refers to the repeal of kosher eating has no basis in Scripture or Hebraic culture; after all, this attack on the Torah has only come from pagan sources. The true interpretation of the vision becomes readily apparent to those who keep reading:
While Peter was pondering the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Behold, three men seek you. But arise, get down, and go with them, doubting nothing; for I have sent them.”
There is a definite correlation here between the vessel coming down three times and the coming of the three men to Peter. Then Peter himself understood the vision, and explained it:
“…It is an unlawful thing for a man who is a Jew to join himself or come to one of another nation, but God has shown me that I should not call any man unholy or unclean.”
The vision has nothing to do with food, but is all about the acceptance of non-Jews into the folds of the early church, composed predominantly of the Jewish followers of Yeshua. The “unlawful” activity here that Peter describes is not a part of the Torah itself, but is based upon the man-made hedge laws put in place to separate the Jews from non-Jews.
Upon hearing that Peter had entered the home of a non-Jew to eat a meal with them, thus breaking the Rabbinic hedge laws, the Jewish believers were greatly troubled; but once Peter explained the vision to them, they understood the meaning of the vision:
“Then God has also granted to the nations repentance to life!”
Setting the record straight
In reality, the New Testament upholds these three ordinances to their fullest degree. Numerous scholars have cited that departure from the Torah was neither the cultural norm for Yeshua, nor for James the Just, nor for Paul. To assume that the Torah ordinances of the Sabbath, circumcision, and kosher eating- ordinances which righteous men and women have lived for and died to protect- were commanded by God one day, then rejected the next, is both inconsistent and foolish. These ordinances were ordained by God, and He expects them to be kept, from the day He gave them, and forever.
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