Back in September of 2009 I posted a comment entitled “Who were the Judaizers?” For some reason this post has become the most viewed page on Reading Acts since it launched in September of 2008. Various forms of the question turn up as search items more than any other topic (even beating out N. T. Wright and Rob Bell, which surprises me!) I do not think that was a particularly good blog, but perhaps it is an indication that people struggle with the traditional view of who the people mentioned in Acts 15:1-2 were.
In that post, I reviewed the traditional view that the Pharisees mentioned in Acts 15 were Jewish Christians who were insisting that Gentiles were converting to Judaism, and therefore needed to keep the Law beginning with Circumcision. I briefly reviewed the view of F. C. Bauer who thought there was a “split” within the early church between the Paul’s Gentile mission and Peter’s Jewish mission. I then dealt briefly with J. B. Lightfoot and J. F. A. Hort , who offered a critique of Bauer and suggested that James was the leader of the more Jewish side of the church, while Paul was the leader of the more or less Gentile wing of the church.
Walt Russell surveyed the various views of the opponents in Galatia and concluded: “While the last 70 years of scholarly study about the identity of these opponents have given rise to a more balanced view of their identity, it has not effectively overturned the traditional Judaizer identification” (Russell, 350).
I still stand by my conclusion from 2009: “Who were the Judaizers, then? Jewish Christians, likely Pharisees according to Acts 15, who, with good intentions, sought to supplement Paul’s gospel by requiring that the basics of the Law be followed: circumcision and food laws. Perhaps the real issue at stake here is the status of the Gentiles within the people of God. Could an uncircumcised Gentile be part of God’s people along with Israel? Could a person be faithful to God and not keep the key elements of the covenant?”
This is another opportunity to think about the theological implications of Acts. Paul argues passionately in Galatians that a Gentile believer is not converting to Judaism and that he is not required to submit to circumcision or the Law. Paul is not advocating freedom from all rules and moral commands, but a freedom for Gentiles from the requirements associated with being a Jew. Paul is does not conceive of his mission as reforming Judaism, nor does he see his churches as converting to the practice of Judaism. Paul argues in Galatians (and I assume Acts 15) that God is doing something new with the Gentiles.
Why then were Gentiles interested in keeping the Law? To those of us who are not Jewish, the Law seems like a burden. But to the Gentile convert, the Law gave form and structure to a new religious experience. Christianity has no Temple, no Sacrifice, no Ritual. That is extremely strange in the world of the first century. Perhaps the attraction to the Law was the result of the human need for “religion,” while Paul preaches freedom in Christ.
I am not sure we are that much different 2000 years later.
Bibliography: Walter B. Russell III, “Who Were Paul’s Opponents in Galatia?” BibSac 147 (1990), 328.