From Jerusalem To Rome: Jews And Gentiles

My dear readers, finally, we can go back to the series that was paused – to the comments on the book of Acts.  I would like to remind you why I have chosen this particular book to discuss. Even though the entire New Testament has largely been misread and misunderstood, the Book of Acts is especially crucial for understanding what happened between Judaism and Christianity.  At first glance, even the very structure of this book proclaims a big separation: the narrative starts in Jerusalem, and ends in Rome! In this sense, the book is very clear indeed: the message of Jesus has to go to the Gentiles as well – it has to spread from Jerusalem to Rome!  However, the Jewish historical and cultural context of the book of Acts is often overlooked by the modern reader – and my goal here is to restore this background (at least, as much as the format of the post allows) and to demonstrate the Jewishness of this book. Therefore, I address here only those details that pertain to the Jewish context and are not obvious to a Christian reader.

My last article on the book of Acts was about the Jerusalem council in chapter 15. Today, we are continuing from chapter 16.

Was Timothy a Gentile?

And behold, a certain disciple was there, named Timothy, the son of a certain Jewish woman who believed, but his father was Greek.[1]

Most Christians think that Timothy was a Gentile, since his father was Greek. This opinion is based on the fact that the genealogies in Tanach (Old Testament) usually mention men, not women. Some of you might know, though, that nowadays Jewish or non-Jewish descent is traced through the mother, not the father. The child of a Jewish mother and a Gentile father is Jewish, but the child of a Gentile mother and Jewish father is Gentile. The question is, whether Jewish descent was already defined by the mother in the first century.

In asking this question, we find ourselves in a very interesting situation, because we don’t know for sure when this shift from a patrilineal to a matrilineal-based principle in Judaism happened. There are some researches that date matrilineal Jewish descent to the second and probably even first century[2]. Maybe – just maybe – the situation we witness in Acts 16 happened precisely during the time of this shift.

While different theories try to explain this shift in different ways, it is clear that the importance of tracing Jewishness through the mother increased when Jewish families were torn apart by persecutors: if a Jewish woman was abused, it might be impossible to determine who the father was. That’s why, the destruction of the Second Temple (70 CE) seems like a very probable timing: the shift might have happened around this time, shortly after the destruction.

Now, back to Acts: According to scholars, while a precise date is impossible to establish, the book of Acts was most likely composed late in the first or even early in the second century CE – in any case, after the destruction of the Temple. If our suggestion above is correct, and the shift to a matrilineal-based descent did indeed happen shortly after the destruction, then in the eyes of a writer (Luke) and his Jewish readers, Timothy was undoubtedly Jewish. However, it did not seem to be the case in the narrative itself, which obviously happens before the destruction.  Maybe, by that time matrilineal Jewish descent was already “in the air”, but clearly, it was not yet officially established. Timothy was not circumcised – and that means that neither in his own eyes nor in the eyes of the Jews around him, was he Jewish. In this sense, what Paul did when he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews who were in that region, for they all knew that his father was Greek[3] – definitely was a statement! In fact, by this act, Paul is saying that Timothy is Jewish since his mother is Jewish.

There are several things in Jewish tradition where the earliest evidence is found in the New Testament (for instance, announcing the name of a baby boy during his circumcision – Luke 1:59), and this circumcision of Timothy might be just one of them: Rav Shaul declares here that a son of a Jewish mother and a Gentile father is Jewish!

 

Nazirite Vow

One of the sayings of Jesus that his followers are sometimes perplexed about, concerns oaths: “Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King”. Jesus’ approach seems very radical: while oaths were permitted in the Torah, he seems to prohibit them completely. Interestingly enough,  Jesus is not unique in addressing this issue: different Jewish texts of this period speak of oaths. For instance, even though we don’t have an explicit prohibition to swear from the Dead Sea texts themselves, Josephus writes that the Essenes avoid oaths and that what they say is stronger than an oath. However, as we are reading  the book of Acts, we are starting to doubt: did Jesus really prohibit all vows?

In Acts 18, we read that Paul “had his hair cut off at Cenchrea, for he had taken a vow.”[4] So, Paul actually took a vow, probably Nazirite vow, as described in the Torah. In Numbers 6, we read that the Nazirite vow consisted of not touching the dead, refraining from grapevine products and not cutting one’s hair. It was generally one to three months in length.  At the end of the vow, the Nazirite had to cut his hair and burn it on the Temple altar, and specific sacrifices had to be offered,

Later, in Acts 21, we will see another scene involving both Paul and the Nazirite vow. In Acts 21:21-26 we will see Apostle Paul offering a sacrifice in the temple and undergoing ceremonial purification for seven days! Next time, as we move on to these chapters, we will discuss this remarkable story.

 

[1] Acts 16:1

[2] Lawrence H.  Schiffman, Who Was a Jew? – Rabbinic and Halachic Perspectives on the Jewish Christian Schism –  Hoboken New Jersey, Ktav, 1985

[3] Acts 16:3

[4] Acts 18:18

 

I would like to remind you, dear friendsthat eTeacher offers a wonderful course, Jewish Background of the New Testament. . As always, you are welcome to contact me for more information!  Also, if you like the articles on this blog, you might enjoy also my books, you can get them  here.

About the author

Julia BlumJulia is a teacher and an author of several books on biblical topics. She teaches two biblical courses at the Israel Institute of Biblical Studies, “Discovering the Hebrew Bible” and “Jewish Background of the New Testament”, and writes Hebrew insights for these courses.

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  1. Gladys

    Thanks again Dear Julia ,
    Your blog is always the highlight of my week .
    Now that I am old and pretty much alone I study the Bible .more deeply and for 6 days a week I read 3 chapters and compare them to 6 different Bible versions . Recently I read a verse in the Torah about another son of an Israeli woman and an Egyptian father .Lev 24 : 10-15 . The commentary on it bothered me because it looked down upon the woman . What if she was raped by the Egyptian man ? I’m comparing this story to Timothy’s and what it says to me is this that GOD doesn’t care about who we are because we all are His children . He cares about what we believe . One son didn’t believe and one son believed .
    Many Blessings to you from the ONE who loves us

  2. Bob Spies

    Is it possible Timothy wasn’t originally circumcised originally because the community may have thought of him as a mumzer since he had a Greek father?

    [Deu 23:2 NASB20] 2 “No one of illegitimate birth may enter the assembly of the LORD; none of his [descendants,] even to the tenth generation, may enter the assembly of the LORD.