Let’s basically define who the man Paul was. He was from Asia Minor but he was a Traditional Jew opposed to the Hellenistic Jews. This can be seen in Acts 7.58 where he supervises over the stoning of Stephen, a Hellenistic believer in Yeshua (Acts 6.1-5) and how he persecuted Hellenistic believers in Yeshua (look where he went after them), and yet left the Traditional believers in Yeshua alone (Acts 8.1).
He was familiar with Hellenism and comfortable in a non-Jewish environment. He was well versed in Pharisaic Judaism (from the School of Hillel) and a Roman citizen. He was well qualified to take the Basar to the Gentiles and this is seen in Acts 16.19-21 where they were being accused of teaching the Jewish Torah as it relates to Greek and Roman people in Thyatira.
Did Paul start a new religion? No, and to understand this will affect how you interpret the Scriptures. One of the points that we are trying to establish is that the Faith was totally Jewish at this time and functioning within Jewish concepts. So, that means the Gospels and Epistles were totally within that framework and to understand them we must see this very important point.
We must see the real Paul or else what you read in the Gospels and Epistles will be from someone that has been reinvented. Paul is from the sect of the Pharisees, from the School of Hillel (Phil 3.5; Acts 22.3). He believes that Yeshua is the Messiah (Acts 9.1-19). He remained no different than any other Jew from any other sect. He did not “convert” to Christianity because there was no such thing.
Jewish communities were scattered all over the known world and the non-Jews were coming out of paganism into the Faith and were known as “Yiray Shamayim” or the “fearers of Heaven.” In Greek they were known as “phoubenenoi” (God-fearers) and “sebemenoi” (worshippers; devout ones-Acts 2.5,10; 8.2; 16.14; 17.4; 17.17) and all these names basically mean the same thing.
In Acts 10.2, Cornelius, a Roman soldier, is called “devout “(sebenenoi) and one who “feared God” (phoubemenos) and his salvation would send a shock wave through the Jewish world. The God-fearers were in the synagogues and some believed in Yeshua and some did not. We do know that they kept the Sabbath, festivals, ate kosher foods and anything in the Torah that applied to them. They were considered a part of the commonwealth of Israel and subject to halachah and the local “beit din (house of judgment) in their local synagogue.
In Hebrew, they were seen in three groups. The “ger t’shav” was a stranger in the land. The “ger ha’sha’ar” was a “stranger at the gate” and lived outside of the land. The “ger tzaddik” was a stranger that had converted and become Jewish. These God-fearers have turned from idolatry and other gods to the God of Israel. They were “gerim”, not Gentile pagans. So, when you read that Cornelius, Lydia and those in Acts 2.5 were “sebemenoi” it means the above.
Acts 10 and Cornelius is so shocking because the Lord has opened the way for the non-Jews to enter the Kingdom of God without becoming Jewish through ritual circumcision. This will cause two problems. Within the Netzarim believers in Yeshua (Nazarenes) there were those from the School of Shammai who believed that a Gentile needed to be circumcised (become Jewish) to be saved (Acts 15.1). Also, this “open door” to the Gentiles will really upset those in other Jewish sects and this will be used against the Netzarim.
A Pharisaic Jew will not see a God-fearer as having the same status. But, a Pharisaic Jew (like Paul) who is believer in Yeshua will see them with the same status, especially after Acts 10. A God-fearer among Jewish believers will have the same status, can share in the government/offices of the synagogue, whereas a God-fearer in a non-believing synagogue could not. These battles will rage on, even among believers for awhile.
The Faith in Yeshua was centered in halachic, rabbinic Judaism and it is from that viewpoint that the Epistles will be written. The purpose of the Acts 10 vision was to reveal that God has not called the Gentiles unclean. Speaking of halachah, it’s alright to build “fences” and at times helpful (Mishnah, Avot 1.1) but Deut 4.2 says that we are not to add to or detract from the Word of God. You make judgments on the 613 commandments on how to walk and apply them, this is called halachah, but you can’t “void” a commandment by a tradition of men.
The issue in the Gospels and Epistles was that there was a “fence” that said Jews were not to associate with a Gentile, go into their houses or eat with them, not even a God-fearer. Table fellowship was seen as a sign of acceptance and unity. To legislate that, there was a group of laws passed by the Pharisaic School of Shammai called the 18 Edicts. These were promulgated by Chananiah ben Hezekiah in a joint session with Shammai and Hillel adherents (Talmud, Shabbat 13b).
Ben Hezekiah was the son of the founder of the Zealot party that sided with Shammai on these measures. Jews believed in the coming of the Malkut Shamayim (Kingdom of Heaven) and that it would arrive “in part” and the fullness later. The Gospel taught that man and creation would be restored and not subject to
Satan anymore. The Messiah would bring all this about. But, they believed that only Jews would be eligible for the Kingdom, so you had to become Jewish to have a part in it.
That was the road the God-fearers were on. Acts 10 shattered this doctrine amongst the Netzarim (Acts 11.1-3) and they accepted this change (Acts 11.4-18). It will become an issue later in Acts 15 and in the Book of Galatians. A perverted form of the Basar (gospel) was presented to the non-Jewish believers in Galatians that can be traced right back to believers from Jerusalem who agreed with the School of Shammai in their approach to the non-Jews, circumcision and their acceptance into the Kingdom of God. That is what is going on in Galatians.
Paul was not telling the Galatians that if they followed the Torah they had fallen from grace, he was saying that they did not have to embrace circumcision to be saved, as taught by these believers who were sympathetic to the teachings of the School of Shammai (Gal 2.4). This controversy was over the fact that Gentiles did not need to be circumcised in order to take part in the Kingdom of God. Remember, the Jewish concept of the Great Commission was that it was for the Jews and the Gentiles could only enter in by conversion by circumcision.
The Great Sanhedrin was over all of the different sects and their purpose was to establish how to walk. A court system filtered down from there. Each sect had their own “beit din” or a court and the Netzarim had their own beit din in Jerusalem (Matt 18.15-20; Acts 15.1-41). It is at this Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 that this issue was discussed and resolved, stating that the non-Jews did not need to be circumcised according to the edicts of Beit Shammai in order to partake of the Kingdom of God.
We will look into this further in Part 3. But, there was another issue going on at the same time. A major conflict has been going on between the Traditional Jews and the Hellenistic Jews. This battles goes back 167 years and this battle also went on amongst the believers in Yeshua because they didn’t just stop believing what they had been taught when they became a believer, just like none of us do.
In Acts 6.1-6 we see this battle going on over the care of the Hellenistic widows by the Traditionalists (Hebrews). The Apostles got involved and that is when they decided to have the Hellenist believers select seven men from among their number to attend to their widows. Look at the names, they are all Greek and this is where we first hear of Stephen. In part 3 of our study, we will begin to look into the School of Shammai and the School of Hillel. We look into what they believed, how they conflicted and why this is important to know in order to understand the Gospels and Epistles.