CRITIQUE: Tim Hegg’s Article on Acts 15

I was recently asked on Facebook to “like” a page which used the word “Messianic” in its title. To me the Back-To-Torah groups whose belief is popularly called One Law or One Torah are not Messianic. They denounce Judaism, for one thing, so how can they be “Messianic,” a title which implies the second word: “Judaism”? So, I was disappointed to learn that this Facebook page and the accompanying website are nothing but One Law articles.

Not too far down on the page’s website I found a 2008 article by Tim Hegg, used (I assume) by permission, called “Acts 15 and the Jerusalem Council: Did They Conclude the Torah Was Not for Gentiles?” I will not be quoting Hegg’s article in full. I assume readers can find it on his website or other places on the web via Google search.

But I am going to critique his main points because, I will assert, his failure to interpret Acts 15, in its actual historical context, should be a wake up call for thoughtful people who have been persuaded by the One Law idea. If one of the most studious and theologically astute proponents of One Law cannot make Acts 15 accurately fit with One Law theology, then who can? If historical sleight-of-hand and anachronistic readings are required to sustain a theology, then it is time to throw out the theology. Let me answer the question in Tim Hegg’s subtitle and then let readers know what is wrong with Hegg’s article. Did the apostles conclude that Torah was not for Gentiles? To some parts of Torah, yes they did conclude that. Torah contains within it universal truth about love, justice, right and wrong. These are for everyone. But it also contains many other laws about owning slaves, wearing fringes, circumcising Israelite sons, about Israel’s different diet, about Israel’s sign of belonging to God (the Sabbath). The apostles most certainly concluded that many Torah commands are not required for Gentiles. Any historically astute reading of Acts 15 should realize this is the entire point of the passage. Now, on to a critique . . .

None of us are disinterested, unbiased readers of the Bible. We all come to the Bible and anything else we read with preferences and biases. We hope to get out of what we read things that are pleasing to us.

But sometimes it is obvious that a pre-determined conclusion is the entire basis of an interpretation. It becomes not interpretation but wishful thinking. We force the text to conform to our desires.

Tim Hegg asserts certain beliefs in his article and forces them to fit into Acts 15:

  • That the traditions of Judaism (the rabbis, the sages) are bad, opposed to Yeshua’s teaching, and are the unbearable yoke to which Peter refers.
  • That the practice of the apostles was to expect these Greco-Roman Gentiles to keep all of Torah (but not to be circumcised).
  • It is implicit in Hegg’s interpretation that he thinks the apostles intended the male children of these Greco-Roman converts to Yeshua to be circumcised (since they would now be keepers of Torah).
  • That in the Torah the native-born Israelite and the resident non-Jew (sojourner, alien, stranger, ger) were equivalently obligated to the Torah.
  • That the Torah itself does not envision a process by which a non-Jew becomes a part of Israel.
  • That it is possible to keep Torah strictly by what is written without any tradition or custom.

Hegg’s interpretation of Acts 15 is evident in the article and could be summed up with some simple points:

  • The apostles did, in fact, expect new Gentile believers in Yeshua to start living like Israelites with regard to Torah.
  • They simply wanted the new Gentile believers to reject the ceremony of conversion to Judaism and to reject the teachings of the rabbis and sages which added to the Torah (the Oral Traditions).
  • Another way of saying it: the apostles wanted new Gentile believers to become Torah-keepers who reject Judaism.
  • But, reluctantly, the apostles did require four traditions of Israel regarding eating idol food and blood to be kept, even though the other traditions of Judaism were bad and to be avoided.

Problem #1: Hegg fails to grasp that the “circumcision party” that opposed Paul and Barnabas misunderstood the good news for Jewish and for Gentile seekers. It may be that Hegg rejects the scholarship of the findings of the “New Perspective on Paul.” E.P. Sanders and others have identified the problematic Jewish idea which Paul combatted in his letters as covenantal nomism. People used to think the ideology which Paul opposed was some sort of common belief that a person could earn merit before God and thus earn eternal life by keeping commandments and doing good deeds. The problem is that Second Temple Judaism did not believe this “Jewish legalism” idea. It was actually an idea that came up in some early Christian circles and in the medieval church.

Covenantal nomism, the actual ideology to which Paul was opposed, is the idea that a person is saved by being included in the covenant people of God. You have to be a Jew to be saved. And to be a Jew requires two things:

  1. You must either be born Jewish or convert via circumcision, immersion, and ratification by a Jewish court.
  2. You must remain connected to the covenant by at least a minimal adherence to the commandments.

In Acts 15 the circumcision party states their case twice. The first time, their statement addresses only one requirement for Gentiles: they must be “circumcised according to the custom of Moses.” Hegg accurately notes that by this they mean Gentiles must convert through a Jewish court. The second time their statement concerns both requirements for Gentiles: “It is necessary to circumcise them and order them to keep the law of Moses.”

This is also what was commonly believed about how Jews could be saved. A Jewish person, according to covenantal nomism, had to bear the marker of belonging to the covenant (circumcision) and an ongoing commitment to remain in the covenant (basic, not perfect, adherence to the Torah).

It is because Hegg does not realize this (that the issue is how anyone is saved, not just “what do we do about Gentiles?”) that he fails to understand Peter’s comment about a yoke “that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear.”

Problem #2: Hegg doesn’t seem to understand what role traditions played in Judaism then or now. He seems to imagine that “the rabbis” dictated a Talmud of rules to Jews in the time of Paul, Barnabas, Peter, and James which were above and beyond the Torah. He seems to picture the Judaism of the Talmud as if it existed in the time of Acts 15. And he pictures the apostles as being a “back-to-written-Torah” movement.

There are so many errors in this understanding, they overlap and need to simply be listed separately:

  • There was no authoritative Jewish tradition in the first century, but a variety of practices and schools of thought.
  • The “rabbis” did not command broad authority in the practice of Jews or synagogues until the sixth or seventh century.
  • The Pharisees (predecessors of the rabbis) were a small movement with little influence in the first century.
  • Peter was not the kind of Jew who followed the traditions of the Pharisees, since he was from Galilee.
  • In Jerusalem the Sadducees and chief priests had far more authority than the Pharisees (far, far more).
  • Torah cannot be kept without added customs, more specific ways to define how to do what the Torah commands.
  • There is no such thing as “written-Torah only.” It is not possible.
  • The four prescriptions to Gentiles in Acts 15 could hardly be called Oral Tradition, as Hegg does.

This whole “rabbis-and-Oral-Tradition” idea of Hegg’s is part of that pre-determined conclusion problem I brought up at the beginning. Hegg desires to see in Acts 15 a Torah movement which fits his own One Law theology. He wants to find the apostles advocating “biblical Judaism” or “Torah without Judaism” or “written-Torah only with no traditions.”

How can I say that written-Torah-only is impossible? Simple. Every single commandment of the Torah requires interpretation, definitions, and specific regulations. God says to cease on the Sabbath. What does that mean? What is prohibited? A thousand specific questions come up for those who want to keep Sabbath. Someone has to answer those questions. Torah does not. When the community agrees on certain interpretations, definitions, and regulations for keeping God’s broad commandments, these are oral tradition. No one, no matter how hard they try or how obstinately they avoid calling their own interpretation a “tradition,” can keep Torah simply from what is written in the Bible.

How can I say Hegg misunderstands the place of tradition in the history of Judaism? He goes on in his article to name the traditions of the rabbis as the “unbearable yoke” to which Peter refers:

So if Peter cannot be referring to the written Torah by the descriptive phrase “a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear,” to what was he referring? James uses similar language: “For it seemed good to the Ruach HaKodesh and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these essentials . . .”

Would James have characterized the Torah as a burden? In his epistle, written before the Jerusalem Council, James refers to the Torah as “the perfect Torah,” “the Torah of liberty,” and the “royal Torah.” Far from being a “burden,” James himself tells us he considered the Torah an extreme blessing. Apparently both James and Peter had something other than God’s Torah in mind when they spoke of the unbearable “yoke” and a “burden.”

So, Hegg sets up a false choice between two ideas. Either Peter is saying Torah is an unbearable burden or he is saying that rabbinic tradition is an unbearable burden. The reader, he asserts, will have to choose between these two and only these two options. But as I will show below, there is an obvious, well-known, much-discussed, and actually relevant to the period of the first century option which Hegg has carelessly neglected to mention.

Problem #3: Hegg makes an unwarranted connection based on the occurrence of two single words, two very common words, as if they prove the ideology which the apostles were against was Judaism, oral tradition, the rulings of the rabbis, etc. Those words are “yoke” and “burden,” and the absurdity of Hegg’s conclusion should be driven home by the fact that “yoke” was a term used in everyday language and an image capable of being used on multiple ways. But Hegg acts as if it is a technical term, that Yeshua gave it a specific meaning, and that this meaning is all that Peter could have intended when he used it:

Yeshua refers to the man-made laws of the Sages via the metaphor of a “burden”: “And they tie up heavy loads, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves are unwilling to move them with so much as a finger (Matthew 23:4).

Furthermore, He characterizes His own teachings with the familiar term “yoke”: “Take My yoke upon you, and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart; and you shall find rest for your souls. “For My yoke is easy, and My load is light” (Matthew 11:29-30).

The use of the term “yoke” in the Rabbinic literature is well attested. The Midrashim speak of the “yoke of Torah” as well as the “yoke of God” and “yoke of the kingdom of heaven” while Sifra and the Mishnah include “yoke of the commandments.” For the Sages, the metaphor of the “yoke” was one of willful submission to the Torah and thus ultimately to the rule of God.

But when the rulings of men became so intertwined with the written Torah that for all practical purposes the two were one, to neglect the traditions of the Sages was viewed as a neglect of Torah. One of the Sayings of the Fathers warns that if interpretations of the Torah contrary to received halachah are accepted, this could render a person unfit for the world to come.

Yeshua was not denouncing “the Sages” in Matthew 23. He was denouncing the Pharisees. That Hegg equates the two shows his lack of understanding of Second Temple Jewish history. The Sages and these rabbinic ideas which Hegg refers to were not considered authoritative concepts in Judaism until many centuries after Acts 15.

Hegg has tried to make “yoke” and “burden” equal “the teachings of the rabbis.” Thus, he concludes in his article that the apostles wanted Gentiles all to keep the Torah, just not the traditions of the rabbis. But the rabbis were a tiny and powerless group in the time of Paul and Barnabas. Hegg’s entire understanding is an anachronism.

Problem #4: Oddly, Hegg concludes that the four restrictions the apostles end up placing on the Gentiles are “traditions” which are exceptions to their (alleged) general rule that Gentiles should avoid the oral traditions of the rabbis. But the four restrictions of Acts 15 are not oral traditions at all. They are written Torah.

The four restrictions of the apostles imposed on the Gentiles are:

  1. that you abstain from things sacrificed to idols
  2. from blood
  3. from things strangled
  4. from fornication

Participation in idol feasts is specifically denounced in the narratives of Torah (the Baal of Peor incident) and is implied by the command to avoid all worship of images and other gods. Abstaining from eating blood, which includes the category of strangled meat by definition in Torah (since Torah requires blood to be poured on the ground), is also written Torah. And fornication is a category of sexual laws defined in Leviticus 18.

It helps Hegg’s case to call these written commandments something they are not: “oral traditions.” It helps him maintain the consistency of logic he is trying to show in his reading of Acts 15. But it is another example of him forcing square pegs into round holes in order to arrive at his pre-determined conclusion.

It is simply not true that Peter and the apostles referred to oral traditions as the yoke which must not be placed on the Gentiles. There is a historically known belief which they were combatting, one which actually did exist in their time, and one which becomes a repeated subject in the letters of Paul.

The unbearable yoke is covenantal nomism. It is the false idea that Israel is saved by virtue of being Israelite, by the fact of God’s covenant promises to Israel, and that individuals must maintain their status in the covenant by at least minimal faithfulness to the Torah.

Peter is not a Christian or Messianic Jew or a teacher of the One Law theology. The battles between Judaism and Christianity are not a part of his world. He does not read Talmud (which does not exist). Peter is a Galilean Second Temple Period Israelite.

The history of Israel to Peter has nothing to do with Talmuds and rabbis and oral traditions. The idea of “traditions of the elders” in Peter’s day is part of a small group (Pharisees) with little influence.

And even these Pharisees who are of the circumcision party, who are opposing Paul and Barnabas, are not talking about the traditions of the elders. They are talking about an idea much more broadly accepted.

Covenantal nomism is an idea Galilean Jews like Peter are familiar with. It is an idea Jews in the diaspora (outside of Israel) are familiar with. It is an idea Sadducees and Pharisees and Essenes and common Jews are familiar with.

Covenantal nomism sounds good (be a member of the covenant people of Israel and maintain your status in the covenant until the day you die in order to be saved). But it is subtly wrong.

The covenants between Israel and God (the Abrahamic, the Sinai, the Davidic) do not specify how eternal life will be granted. They do not include final atonement within them (see my upcoming book, Yeshua Our Atonement).

Peter knows that adherence to the Torah has been an unbearable yoke for his people. Israelite history has been clear about this. Peter is looking at things on a corporate scale, looking at the nation and its history more so than at how hard or easy Torah is for an individual. The simple, undeniable fact is that if faithfulness to Torah, even basic faithfulness with a lot of room for mercy, is the standard by which people will be granted eternal life, then Peter knows the past generations of Israel are doomed.

Peter’s logic is simple: we the Jewish people have not been able to keep Torah on a basic level, to truly be faithful to God, to build a land covered with justice as the Torah demands; so how do we expect that these Greeks and Romans will be able to do what we have not?

Church history rather proves Peter’s point. Has the church done any better than historic Israel at building a Torah-justice society. I rest my case. I would simply add, neither has Messianic Judaism or One Law or Two House or Seventh Day Adventism or Mormonism or any Christian denomination or any Jewish denomination. Period.

Covenantal nomism is dead on the ground, baseless, hopeless. What we need is atonement. That is what the apostles are saying in Acts 15.