According to Acts, there seems to be no contradiction in the time of messianic redemption between the exemption from the Torah’s ritual precepts of those Gentiles who have become part of the Jesus movement and the continuing faithfulness of Jewish believers in Jesus to these precepts (Acts 15:1–29; 21:18–25). Moreover, the tragic Stephen episode in Acts 7 notwithstanding, the author’s balancing act aims to establish that not only the first Jerusalem-based apostles but also Paul – even after his impressive missionary successes among the non-Jews in the Diaspora – remained faithful to the Temple, undoubtedly the core element of Jewish ritual observance of the day (Acts 2:46; 21:26).
Paul’s Epistles, however, appear to present a different picture, and it is on them that the traditional interpretation of Paul’s stance on the Torah, to be outlined further on, is mainly based. The apostle’s emphasis seems to have been on denying the capacity of Judaism’s ritual precepts to contribute to the cleansing of hearts. These precepts might have had such a capacity in the past; but in the messianic era, it is exclusively identification with and “sharing” in the Messiah’s expiating death, and belief in his resurrection, that constitute the path leading to salvation – by grace and not by acquired merit. Moreover, those who still put their hope in the “works of the Torah” are thereby bringing upon themselves “Torah’s curse” (Gal 3:10–11, 6:15). Even if Torah still has a very important function to fulfill—namely, to highlight and strengthen the awareness of the one’s sins (Rom 3:20)—it may also expose one to the cunning of the evil impulse and, most important, it does not provide the means to overcome humanity’s built-in sinful inclinations and follow God’s commandments(Rom 9:31). As a result, those of Israel who cling to the pre-messianic understanding of the Torah, find themselves entrapped by “the god of this world” (2 Cor 3:14–4:4).
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Serge Ruzer lectures in the Department of Comparative Religions at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem