Author and blogger Lois Tverberg has a great idea: test your “Jesus theories” in the Book of Acts. Let’s call it the Acts Litmus Test for Jesus Theories. AltJT.
AltJT goes like this: your ideas about Jesus are probably colored by your very existence in a foreign culture 2000 years removed from Jesus.
Therefore, to test whether your ideas about Jesus have any merit, you should find evidence of it in the actions of Jesus’ disciples and the early Christian community.
Where can we find evidence of the actions of the early Christian community?
Well, it just so happens we have a book for that: Acts, i.e. The Book of Recorded Actions of the Disciples of Yeshua.
(I love literal names like that. Like Snakes on a Plane, there’s no mistaking its contents.)
Bottom line: your ideas about Jesus should be supported in the Book of Acts. This is the Acts Litmus Test for Jesus Theories, AltJT.
There’s no end, it seems, to how people can interpret the words of Jesus. It’s not hard to pluck out a line here and there and read it in some strange new way. How can we know how they actually sounded to his original audience?
I’ve discovered that a great place to look for answers is in the book of Acts. The people there were first-century believers who heard Jesus firsthand. No time had elapsed for his words to be reinterpreted, and his first followers were passionate for living them out. It’s not unreasonable to conclude that what the early believers did (or at least tried to do) was what Jesus taught.
She crystalizes this with an example where popular Christian preacher John MacArthur has a Jesus Theory. Let’s call it the Jesus Killed Judaism Theory. It goes like this:
“He [Jesus] obliterated the sacrificial system because He brought an end to Judaism with all its ceremonies, all its rituals, all its sacrifices, all of its external trappings, the Temple, the Holy of Holies, all of it.”
But if we apply the AltJT, we see disciples of Yeshua still partaking in the sacrificial system, meeting in the Temple courtyard, still practicing the feasts, and so on.
If MacArthur’s theory about Jesus obliterating Judaism is true, it was lost on the early Christian community.
MacArthur’s theory fails the AltJT test.
Everyone and their grandma has ideas about Jesus. Your liberal college grad will say Jesus was a peacenik. HuffPo will claim Jesus was ambivalent about homosexuality. The President of the United States’ pastor says Jesus was a social liberator. Thomas Jefferson claimed Jesus was merely a reformer. Some Jews will claim Jesus was a good rabbi.
People are gonna have their opinions about the most influential Jew who ever lived. So remember AltJT to see if those opinions have merit.
AltJT and what it can tell us about Paul, Judaism, and Torah observance
I’d like to extend this AltJT idea to theories about Paul. It’s the same idea: Paul was a very influential figure in the early believing community. Most scholars put some of his letters as the earliest books of the New Testament, within 20 some years of the events of the gospels.
Therefore, if your Paul Theory has any merit (i.e. is not just a bunch of new age-y shis conjured up by pampered 21st century minds), you should see evidence for it in the Book of Acts.
A great example of this is a popular, often-repeated idea is the Paul-As-Jesus-Corrupter Theory. It goes like this:
“Jesus might have been a nice Jewish teacher or whatever, but Paul clearly taught Jews to leave Torah. Therefore, he’s responsible for creating this new religion, Christianity, turning Jesus into a god and making it palatable to gentiles.
The other day, this theory reared its ugly head over at the Rosh Pina blog, where a Jewish person who happened to follow the anti-missionary shysters a little too closely regurgitated this theory to me:
“We are explicitly warned from accepting any prophet or dreamer who would take us away from the Torah (Deuteronomy 13v2-6). That obviously includes Paul and, if some of the words put into his mouth by the gospel writers are what he actually said, eg John 14v6, also jc…”
-gila8, a random guy on the internet claiming Paul invented Christianity and teaches Jews to leave Torah
Paul takes Jews away from Torah is the clear implication.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s recent popular book, Kosher Jesus, also makes this argument: Jesus was a fine Jew, but Paul corrupted it all and turned him into a god, inventing Christianity.
Does this theory pass the AltJT test; do we see in the actions of the early Christian community a belief that Paul was drawing Jews away from Torah?
Yes! We actually do see Jewish followers of Jesus who think Paul is doing that, right in Acts 21. (By the way, just reading the story again in Acts 21-23 is absolutely riveting. I’ve read the story many times, but it’s somehow more powerful as I read it today.)
Back in Acts 21, Jews who objected to this Yeshua-as-Messiah message claimed Paul was teaching Jews to abandon the Torah:
Paul, see how many tens of thousands of Jewish believers, and they are all zealous for the Torah. Now what they have been told about you is that you are teaching all the Jews living among the Goyim to apostatize from Moshe, telling them not to have a b’rit-milah for their sons and not to follow the traditions.
The believing Jews ask Paul to prove he is, in fact, doing the opposite: teaching Torah and practicing it himself:
“What, then, is to be done? They will certainly hear that you have come. So do what we tell you. We have four men who are under a vow. Take them with you, be purified with them, and pay the expenses connected with having their heads shaved. Then everyone will know that there is nothing to these rumors which they have heard about you; but that, on the contrary, you yourself stay in line and keep the Torah.
“However, in regard to the Goyim who have come to trust in Yeshua, we all joined in writing them a letter with our decision that they should abstain from what had been sacrificed to idols, from blood, from what is strangled and from fornication.”
The next day Sha’ul took the men, purified himself along with them and entered the Temple to give notice of when the period of purification would be finished and the offering would have to be made for each of them.
Observe what’s going on here: unbelieving Jews are claiming Paul teaches Jews to leave Torah.
(This is very much the same situation today, as noted previously.)
The believing Jews assume Paul is not teaching this, and even ask him to prove the rumors false. Paul carries out their request.
Paul is not teaching Jews to abandon the Torah.
The Paul-as-Corruptor-of-Jesus’-Teachings Theory fails the AltJT test: the acts of the early believers don’t align.
Thus, such theories will have to (and they do!) resort to conspiracy theories, where the New Testament is heavily redacted (but not enough to see the “real” Jesus and Paul under the veneer on which they base their theories – oiy!)
Conclusions and 2 anti-Torah theories that fail the AltJT test
If you have a belief about Jesus, a sticky idea in your head about who Jesus of Nazareth is, see if it aligns with the early Christian community, see if it aligns with the actions of the disciples. It’s our best measuring rod.
Notice 2 examples of Jesus or Paul theories fail the AltJT test:
- The Christian-created Jesus-Obliterated-Torah theory
- The Jewish-created Paul-Corrupted-Jesus theory, claiming Paul was anti-Torah and contrary to Jesus’ pro-Torah teachings
Both of these fail the test, and both have one thing in common: the supposed obliteration of Torah and Judaism.
I think the reason for that is, Christians and unbelieving Jews have a desire to believe Jesus-faith necessarily results in Torah obliteration.
The Church wants to believe it because it is now fully divorced from Judaism and is, in fact, a religion apart from Israel-faith.
The Synagogue wants to believe that because it can’t allow the Jewish Jesus out of the box, lest the human-erected barrier between Judaism and Christianity diminish.
But in the end, our ideas and theories must be measured against the Scriptures. The book of Acts – detailing the actions of the early disciples and Yeshua community – is perhaps our best testbed.
And the book of Acts shows the early community had not jettisoned Judaism and the practice in the Temple, nor do we see Paul teaching Jews to abandon Torah.
And best yet, there appears to be a growing chorus of scholarship, Jewish and Christian, acknowledging the reality of Jesus and Paul as Torah-upholders, rather than new religion inventors.
Perhaps this is a step in undoing the divorce of Messiah faith from Israel’s religion. Perhaps this is a step towards the restoration of all things.