|Bonus marks if you can identify the location of the stairwell.|
At the risk of caricature, I begin with two rough-and-ready ways of classifying the major options.
Taxonomy 1: The first typology plots Jewish-Christian Torah observance along a trajectory from least observant (option 1) to most observant (option 2c):
(1) Freedom from the law within Acts: The book of Acts tells the story of a progressive, divinely-orchestrated, abandonment of the law, in tandem with the spread of the gospel to all nations. Acts narrates the emergence of Christianity out of Judaism and the replacement of Israel by the church as the people of God.* This view is the starting point for many ordinary readers who conflate Acts with a conventional understanding of Paul, and who assume the New Testament is about Christianity not Judaism; it remains a common scholarly option as well. [*Supersessionism is a slippery term. Some scholars finesse “replacement” differently, while still holding that Luke presents a move away from the law among Paul and other right-thinking Jewish-Christians within Acts.]
(2) Law-observant Jewish Christians & law-free gentile Christians: A second broad approach grants (a) that the conversion of Cornelius in Acts 10-11 and the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 are focused on a law-free mission to gentiles, and (b) that Luke depicts Jewish Christ-believers within Acts—including Paul—as obedient to the law. What this means for Luke’s understanding of the significance of the law in his own time remains debated:
(a) A Torah-observant past within Acts vs. a law-free post-70 present in Luke’s own day: Acts distinguishes between Jewish and gentile Christians, defending a law-free gentile Christianity but depicting Paul—and therefore all Jewish Christians—as fully Torah observant. However, between the story of Acts and the time of writing a major break between Judaism and Christianity occurred. In Luke’s own post-70 (gentile?) context, there is no longer a distinction between Jewish and gentile Christians, and the law is not considered binding on anyone in the church. Supporters of this view (2a) often regard Luke’s description of law-observant Jewish Christianity in Acts as an attempt to justify the claims of gentile Christianity to be the people of God and heirs of Israel’s ancient heritage. As a result, view 2a often resembles view 1.
(b) A Torah-observant past within Acts and a Torah-observant option in Luke’s own day (?): Luke knows of Torah-observant Jewish Christians among his contemporaries, and he thinks it is fine for them to continue to keep the law, but he doesn’t think it is necessary to do so.
(c) A Torah-observant past within Acts and in Luke’s own day: Acts makes it clear that both Jews and gentiles are saved by faith alone, but the author distinguishes between “a people from the nations” who are not required to observe the law, and God’s covenant with Israel at Mount Sinai, which, Luke assumed, remained in effect. Faithful Jewish believers in Jesus are thus expected to continue to keep the law. More clearly than view 2a, adherents of this view tend to deny that Luke depicts gentile believers as replacing Israel as the people of God. The “true Israel”—not a biblical term, but a sectarian concept—consists rather of Jewish believers in Jesus.
This taxonomy helps us see at a glance the difference between the two major approaches to the law in Acts. On the first approach, Acts can be made to correspond with conventional readings of Paul's letters. On the second approach (options 2a-c), Acts presents Paul as fully Torah-observant.
A problem with the taxonomy is that it combines questions about the story Luke tells--“Are Jewish Christians Torah observant in Acts?”--with speculative reconstructions of Luke’s own later church context--for example, “Were Jewish Christians in Luke's later church still Torah observant?”
Taxonomy 2: Before attempting to form conclusions about Luke's own church context, we should probably begin by trying to relate the story Luke tells about the law with another closely-related theme (or themes) in Acts. So here is a second taxonomy organized like a JoHari Window that combines Luke’s depiction of the law in Acts (the x-axis) with Luke’s depiction of Jewish Christianity within Acts (the y-axis):
- The x-axis plots Jewish Christianity as described in Acts as either “Torah observant” or “Law-free.”
- The y-axis focuses on the significance of the story Luke tells, with “(gentile) church replaces Israel” at one end, and “Israel reduced to a Jewish sect” at the other.
Views 2a and 2b belong in the top left quadrant: Acts depicts Jewish Christians as fully Torah observant, but presents all believers in Jesus, both Jews and non-Jews, as part of a single new people of God. In the opening chapters of Acts, we see the development of a sectarian movement consisting only of Jews who claim to be experiencing the fulfillment of God's promises to Israel. As the sectarian assembly (or "church") expands to include non-Jews alongside Torah-observant Jews, non- or "trans-" ethnic Christianity begins to emerge out of Judaism and to replace ethnic Israel as the people of God.
View 2c belongs in the bottom right quadrant: According to this view, Luke not only distinguishes between Torah-observant Jewish believers (including Paul) and law-free gentile believers, he also continues to distinguish between a Jewish-Christian sectarian group that claims to be “Israel restored,” and a non-Jewish “people from the gentiles” who share in salvation, the Holy Spirit, and the other blessings brought by Jesus, but who are never fully merged with Jewish followers of Jesus and who are never described as Israel.
No doubt there are still other ways of organizing the scholarly options. Before pursuing these further I hope in the next few posts to begin to lay out the evidence that is so variously interpreted by modern readers of Acts.