I recently encountered two of these debunked ideas in a small booklet that a friend shared with me. The booklet was written by an internationally known evangelical minister, teacher, and author. I won’t mention the name of the author or the booklet because this isn't about that individual nor am I attacking that individual. Instead I want our focus to be on the errors and this initial article is about the first error:
An Erroneous View of First-Century Judaism's Teaching on Salvation
The booklet utilizes the parable of the prodigal son found in Luke chapter 11 to illustrate the story of G-d’s redemptive work. The author writes:
"... to understand the parable properly, we must see it through the eyes of someone in the culture of first-century Judaism."
My initial reaction was "Great! That’s exactly what I try to do in my ministry!" Unfortunately, about half way through the booklet, I was saddened and grieved by what I found. The "first-century" perspective the author offers is old, outdated, and just flat out wrong. He writes:
"[T]he idea that God would freely accept and forgive repentant sinners (including the very worst of them) was a shocking and revolutionary concept. Almost no one in that society could conceive of God as reaching out to sinners. Most thought His only attitude toward sinners was stern disapproval. It was therefore the repentant sinner’s duty to work hard to redeem himself and gain whatever degree of divine favor he could earn – mainly through long-term obedience to the ceremonial minutiae of the Old Testament Law."
G-d has always called for His people to repent and trust in His compassion and lovingkindness.
Moses- "When you are in distress and all these things have come upon you, in the latter days you will return to the LORD your God and listen to His voice. For the LORD your God is a compassionate God; He will not fail you nor destroy you nor forget the covenant with your fathers which He swore to them." (Deuteronomy 4:30)
Isaiah- In repentance and rest you will be saved, In quietness and trust is your strength. (Isaiah 30:15)
Jeremiah- I have listened and heard, They have spoken what is not right; No man repented of his wickedness, Saying, 'What have I done?’ (Jeremiah 8:6)
Ezekiel- "For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone who dies," declares the Lord GOD. "Therefore, repent and live." (Ezekiel 18:32)
Joel- Yet even now," declares the LORD, "Return to Me with all your heart, and with fasting, weeping and mourning; and rend your heart and not your garments." Now return to the LORD your God, for He is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in lovingkindness and relenting of evil. (Joel 2:12-13)
Zechariah- "Therefore say to them, 'Thus says the LORD of hosts, "Return to Me," declares the LORD of hosts, "that I may return to you," says the LORD of hosts.'" (Zechariah 1:3)
Malachi- "Return to Me, and I will return to you," says the LORD of hosts. (Malachi 3:7)
John the Baptist- "Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." (Mathew 3:2)
Yeshua the Messiah- "Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." (Matthew 4:17)
So after 1,500 years of the same "repent because G-d is compassionate and will forgive you" message being repeated and reiterated by every prophet from Moses to Messiah, somehow this is a "shocking and revolutionary concept"?
Stop and think about that for a moment.
Fif-teen hun-dred years!
The United States has only existed as a nation for less than 240 years!
There is no evidence from archaeology, history, or literature that there was anyone in the first century teaching that it was "the repentant sinner’s duty to work hard to redeem himself and gain whatever degree of divine favor he could earn – mainly through long-term obedience to the ceremonial minutiae of the Old Testament Law."
This is an "old view" of first-century Judaism that dates back to the 16th century and has been proven to be inaccurate. Like Haeckel’s images, this view should not be used to mislead students of Scripture.
But this only begs the question: what was being taught?
First-century Judaism (and even some modern strains of Judaism) taught that salvation and eternal life were found in one's national identity: being a part of Israel, being part of the family of Abraham. John the Baptist confronted this exact line of thinking when he said,
"Therefore bear fruit in keeping with repentance; and do not suppose that you can say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham for our father'; for I say to you that from these stones God is able to raise up children to Abraham." (Matthew 3:8-9)
John’s audience believed that only the people of Israel were saved. As it is recorded in the Mishnah, "All Israel have a portion in the world to come." (Sanhedrin 11:1)2 and "Even a Canaanite bondwoman who lives in the Land of Israel is assured of a place in the world to come" (Ketubot 111)3. John was correcting their error: don’t think because you are Abraham’s children that you have eternal life by default.
Gentiles were taught they could only be "saved" and inherit eternal life by becoming "adopted children" of Abraham and converting to Judaism. For men, this meant that they had to become circumcised. This is why "circumcision" was such a huge issue in Paul’s writings. He wasn’t concerned about men being circumcised. Men had been circumcised within Judaism and outside of Judaism for over 2,000 years. Paul’s concern was that men were being circumcised in order to be saved. As he wrote:
Behold I, Paul, say to you that if you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no benefit to you. (Galatians 5:2)
If someone was entrusting their salvation to the act of becoming Jewish through physical circumcision then they weren’t trusting Messiah for their salvation. Paul goes even further in Colossians chapter 2, speaking to those who might desire to be circumcised "just in case":
For in [Messiah Yeshua] all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form, and in Him you have been made complete, and He is the head over all rule and authority; and in Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ; having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. (Colossians 2:9-12)
Paul tells them that they are already circumcised "without hands" by the work of Christ and their salvation is found in the work of the One who is the "head over all rule and authority". They had no need for a physical circumcision to achieve, complete, or perfect the salvation purchased by Messiah.
So… having made note of all this, what is the point?
If anyone uses this erroneous concept of the social and religious context of the first-century then the conclusions they draw (about Christ’s teaching, Paul’s writings, and the whole of the New Testament) will also be erroneous. Like Haeckel, their bad assumptions will lead to bad conclusions.
Let’s reject this "old view" and press on to the Truth. As Messiah declared, He is "the Way and the Truth and the Life."
Footnotes1. Cecie Starr & Ralph Taggart, Biology: The Unity and Diversity of Life, Tenth Edition (Belmont, CA: Thomson Learning, 2004), p. 315.
Joseph Raver, Biology: Patterns and Processes of Life (Dallas, TX: J. M. LeBel Publishers, 2004), p. 100.
Donald Voet & Judith G. Voet, Biochemistry, Third Edition (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2004), p. 14. [back]
2. http://halakhah.com/sanhedrin/sanhedrin_90.html#chapter_xi [back]
3. http://halakhah.com/kethuboth/kethuboth_111.html [back]