Ron Moseley’s book, Yeshua: A Guide to the Real Jesus and the Original Church (Clarksville, Maryland: Messianic Jewish Publishers, 1996) is an interesting read. I have met representatives of this movement before, and read a number of their books, especially once I came into contact with this school of thought on my first trip to Israel. This school of thought is well described by the term Messianic Judaism.
Many things Moseley and his associates emphasize are correct.
- Jesus and Paul were Jews. Most Bible readers forget this, and this seriously affects their ability to interpret the scriptures.
- There is great benefit in setting aside time for study, worship, and cultivating an awe of God (p.42). Yet this is no proof that we need to observe the Jewish calendar. Slowing down and stopping normal work one day a week, attending seminars; going on retreats, having daily devotional times, and so on can serve this purpose equally well.
- The Jewish background of NT teaching is brought to light, often in a captivating way.
- The Pharisees’ teaching was quite similar to Jesus’ (p.91). I might go even further: if we were to compare our own spiritual heritage to the many Jewish sects active in the first century, theirs is unquestionably the group with which we have most in common.
A number of his ideas may be on track, but lack support. I think it is fine for Bible teacher to share his ideas, but only with a confidence in proportion to the evidence itself. This attitude Moseley repeatedly fails to exhibit.
- His comments on the tzitzit may be right (p.21), though it strikes me as a bit of a stretch. Yet I like this view.
- John hesitates to enter Jesus’ tomb because of his association with the high priestly family (pp.24-25). Could be. But then there are other reasons for which he didn’t enter (fear, deference to Peter, being out of breath…).
- Peter chopped off Malchus’ ear to disqualify him for the priesthood, or to insult the priesthood of Caiaphas (p.25). This strikes me as speculative, though I did mention the possibility in my (premium) podcast on Malchus. I think it is more likely Peter was trying to kill Malchus than maim him.
- Matthew 8:21-22 may refer to secondary burial (pp.27-28). I am familiar with the practice of secondary interment, and have shown ossuaries on many of my tours. Yet such an understanding of Jesus’ words does not significantly affect the point Jesus is making, that we are to let nothing, even family obligations, come between us and him.
- He claims that coins falling into the temple collection containers in effect “sounded the trumpet” (p.28). Yet what is the reference? This sounds like pure speculation. There are many such claims in this book.
- "Leaven” means giving God your second best (p.110). To prove this, he cites only a secondary source; there is no proof for this assertion. The problem with the teaching of the Pharisees was that it could spread so far and affect so many, not that it was second best. RM’s interpretation weakens the point Jesus and Paul make when they resort to this metaphor in their teaching.
The patent errors in the book are often not minor, but major.
- Moseley claims that the “new covenant” is not better than the old, but only an extension of it, or a call to observe it (pp.36, 57). That is certainly not how I and Bible scholars read Jeremiah 31! The Hebrew writer does not put down the old covenant – the fault lay with the people – but he definitely says the new is better.
- Moseley’s group believes that the NT was written in Hebrew, yet I am aware of no evidence. Even among early Christians, the only tradition circulating of which I am aware is that Matthew was originally written in Hebrew (the view of Papias). I believe Semitic thought patterns are discernible in most of the documents of the Greek NT, and without doubt Jesus taught primarily in the language of the people of Palestine, but there is not a shred of manuscript evidence for an original Hebrew NT.
- Luke 16:16, commenting on the Law being proclaimed until John, is claimed by Moseley not to indicate any fundamental shift vis-à-vis the Torah (p.41). Moseley is correct that we are under grace and still obligated to obey God’s laws; Protestant Bible teachers often stumble over that one, falsely pitting Paul against James, for example. Yet there is more than one way that the Law can remain the word of God for us. I would put it this way. For the ancient Jews, the Torah was the word of God and the law of God; for us, the Torah is still the word of God, yet not the law.
- “Replacement theology” makes its first appearance 160 AD, with Justin Martyr (p.60). What about Matthew 21:43? Here Jesus says the kingdom will be taken away from the Jews.
- The moral principles of Torah still apply today (p.50). Please listen to hear my series (“Night of Redemption: A Study of Exodus,” October 2011). We are called to go well beyond the moral level of the Jews. There is a trajectory in the Bible, from paganism to Judaism, and from Judaism to Christianity. The law leads us to Christ, after which point we are mature enough no longer to need it (Galatians 3:21-26). One obvious example is how we treat our enemies. While there are parts of the OT where grace is shown to enemies, in other parts the Jews are told to kill them, even to exterminate them without mercy. Jesus raises the bar. No longer are we permitted to kill, take revenge, or even resist the evil person. How to implement Jesus’ teaching in Matthew (also Paul’s in Romans 12) may be difficult, yet that does not entitle us to ignore it.
- Since the Torah was an “everlasting covenant”, it still applies today (p.62). This view shows a lack of understanding of Hebrew idiom, which is unfortunate for one who promotes himself as an expert. Here let me share an excerpt from my paper on Terminal Punishment, which I believe is germane. “We have to let the Bible define its terms... [T]here are a number of scriptures where words such as 'forever,' 'eternal,' and 'everlasting' do not entail a sense of infinite duration. For example, the following list is based (only) on the Greek root aion*, which appears in the LXX and the NT numerous times, with the general sense of (world) age, forever, always, eternity, etc. In none of the following cases does the word aion* bear the sense of infinite eternity. [Whether for the Greek aionios, the Hebrew ‘olam, or the Latin aeternalis, the point is that 'forever' isn’t always literally forever, at least in Hebrew thought.]
- Genesis 6:4—'Men of old' (giants/ungodly persons/fallen ones/sons of Cain) did not live infinitely.
- Jeremiah 25:12—Destruction of Babylon (though not literally destroyed)
- Genesis 9:12—Perpetual generations
- Exodus 21:6—The man or woman would become one’s servant 'forever' (!)
- Leviticus 25:34—Perpetual possession of fields
- Deuteronomy 23:3—'Forever' means the tenth generation
- 1 Samuel 2:22—Young Samuel was to serve at the house of the Lord 'forever'
- 1 Chronicles 16:5—'Forever' ~ 1000 generations—also Psalm 105:8
- Ezra 4:15, 19—Israelites had been 'eternally' resisting political domination
- Psalm 24:7—'Ancient' doors
- Proverbs 22:28—'Ancient' boundary stone
- Jonah 2:6—The prophet was confined in (the fish) 'forever'”
- Moseley claims that “fulfill” in Matthew 5:17-19 means to correctly teach (p.64). Yet when prophecies are fulfilled, they are not merely “correctly taught.” Rather, their words come true, or a deeper parallelism becomes manifest. “Out of Egypt I called my Son” (Matthew 2:15, quoting Hosea 11:1) is fulfilled when Jesus’ family returns from Egypt. When Jesus fulfills Psalm 22, Psalm 69, Isaiah 53, and so forth, he is not “correctly teaching” them—though he may have—but rather bringing to pass the plan of God, and bringing to light the truth of God, in accordance with what had previously been written.
- Christians knelt for prayer, so in reaction the Jews stood (p.60). The ancient literary and archaeological evidence refutes this claim. The preferred position of the early Christians was standing. Moreover, the orans (plural orantes) is well known from ancient art.
- The ethical requirements of the OT are the same as those of the NT (p.70). Not so, as I mentioned above in my comment on warfare. Back when we lived in the DC area, I pursued this notion, and wanted to include it in my part of the DPI book on the Sermon on the Mount. Tom Jones and Gordon Ferguson shot me down—and I’m glad they did. Back then I was trying too hard to find in the old law justification for many current practices. The point: between the covenants there is not only continuity, but also a radical discontinuity.
- Certain parts of the law were to be kept by Gentiles (all of it by Jews), in effect creating two levels or standards of commitment (p.79). There is no evidence that Gentiles could be saved through part of the covenant! RM’s exegesis of Acts 15 is questionable. Then he claims to have found, out of the traditional total 613 laws in the Torah, many which apply to Gentiles (37 positive commands and 135 prohibitions). He overreaches. Let me give two examples. We are to show reverence when enter the house of worship (Leviticus 19:30). I’m all for that, but in Christianity there is no church building (originally). He also states that Deuteronomy 24:15 requires employers to pay workers their wages when the job is done. Yet the passage refers to daily wages, not payment for completing a job. In short, Moseley’s method smacks of arbitrariness.
- In connection with the Feast of Tabernacles, rituals involving water and light had been neglected (p.135). Moseley says that this was part of the ceremonial law. There’s only one problem: it’s nowhere in the OT!
- Acts 2:38 refers to Gentile baptism (p.143). Proponents of another eccentric view teach that Gentiles were to be saved by faith alone, and Acts 2:38 baptism was only for the first generation of Jewish converts. In Acts 2:39 the phrase “those who are far off” refers to Gentiles (not the distant descendants of the audience), a point illustrated in such passages as Ephesians 2:17. RM’s understanding of conversion is lacking.
- The Messianic movement often claims that the NT was originally written in Hebrew. On this assumption, they rely on a reconstructed Semitic text of the NT, even though no such ancient manuscripts have survived. Claiming that the Greek NT is less accurate than the "lost" [and hypothetical] Semitic original, they dismiss verses that are problematic for their position. Be aware that no evidence exists for an original "Hebrew Testament." This is pure conjecture.
There were some points I wasn’t sure which category to place in. They contained some truth, but were pushed too far. Maybe these should be listed under the “maybe correct” heading, but I chose to list them separately.
- Augustine championed Marcion (p.40). Augustine (354-430 AD) would have vigorously protested this allegation! Marcion (c.140 AD) rejected the OT completely; Augustine relied heavily on it as he promoted his relatively novel ideas, such as original sin and Christian military service.
- Paul did not intend Greek readers to interpret nomos (law) in the normal way (p.59). It is true that we must discern whether the word means law (generally), the Law of Moses (which is both law in the common sense and Torah in the sense of instruction [<yarah], or principle. Yet to assume that his Greek-speaking letter-readers (and –listeners) would grasp the Hebraic nuance without specific instruction is wishful on Moseley’s part.
- 2 Corinthians 5:17 referred to conversion to Judaism (p.126). Even if it was once used that way, this is not the way Paul is using it here. Earlier in the letter he’d said that a veil hangs over the eyes of the Jews. If anything, Paul is calling people not to be taken in by the specious arguments of his opponents. RM’s view also ignores the eschatological dimension of Paul’s teaching. We participate in the age to come—the new creation—when we are created anew in the image of our Creator.
- We cannot read, understand, or expound the Bible unless we become Jews (p.160). I guess we’re all in trouble.
Moseley is very right to point us to the Jewish origins of Christianity. In my own teaching I often emphasize that the first generation of Christians leaders were predominantly Jewish; that every apostle was Jewish; and even that Jesus was a Jew, not a Christian. Yet, as I have tried to make clear, he grossly overstates his case, is careless in his use of sources, and at many points shows that he does not grasp what was radically new in Yeshua’s teaching. Further, the horrific proofreading of the book (it is fraught with jarring errors) does not do his position any favors.
This "messianic" teaching has gained traction in many churches worldwide. Why is this so? One suspects it is not only because it is interesting, illuminating many facets of scripture that are difficult to understand without background information or training in theology. Given the generally low quality of preaching and teaching worldwide (meaty, biblical exposition), it isn't surprising that many find this alternative to be far more compelling. Where the word is not carefully expounded, ground is being prepared for heterodox teachers. As Paul points out to Timothy, "Certain persons... have wandered away into vain discussion, desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions" (1 Timothy 1:6-7).