Noahide Law in the New Testament

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Decree of the Council of Jerusalem

After listening to Paul's opinion that Christ will be no benefit to people with no Israelite ancestry who allow themselves to be circumcised and concluding that circumcision is not required for those who are not Zera Yisroel, James, the leader of the Council of Jerusalem says:

15:19 διο εγω κρινω μη παρενοχλειν τοισ απο των εθνων επιστρεφουσιν επι τον θεον 15:20 αλλα επιστειλαι αυτοισ του απεχεσθαι των αλισγηματων των ειδωλων και τησ πορνειασ και του πνικτου και του αιματοσ: 15:21 μωυσησ γαρ εκ γενεων αρχαιων κατα πολιν τουσ κηρυσσοντασ αυτον εχει εν ταισ συναγωγαισ κατα παν σαββατον αναγινωσκομενοσ.

15:19 “Therefore I conclude that we should not cause extra difficulty for those among the Gentiles[1] (1) who are turning to God, 15:20 but that we should write them a letter telling them to (2) abstain from things defiled by idols and (3) from sexual immorality and (4) from what has been strangled and (5) from blood. 15:21 For Moses has had those who (6) proclaim him in every town from ancient times, because he is read aloud in the synagogues every Sabbath.”

Apparently setting down six prerequisites in addition to the Roman laws against theft:

  1. turn to God
  2. abstain from things defiled by idols
  3. from sexual immorality
  4. from what has been strangled (Treif)
  5. from blood (killing)
  6. proclaim him in every town

These rules are variously interpreted. The prohibition against "things strangled", apparently refers to Treif meaning animals which had been improperly slaughtered according to Jewish law, i.e., without the draining of blood. Some, accordingly, take the prohibition against "blood" as a reference to murder. The two, eating blood and murder, are closely associated in Genesis 9:3-6, in commands given to Noah and his descendents.

Compare Jubilees 7:28, which also combines the two as part of the Noachite covenant. Leviticus 17:10-18:30 was also an important text. There the immoral "ways of the nations", particularly eating blood and sexual immorality, are forbidden to the "stranger who resides among you" (the ger toshav) as well as the Israelite.

The textual manuscripts vary widely on the precise enumeration of these prohibitions in Acts 15:20, 29. Paul's account of this dispute, reflected in the book of Galatians, does not include this precise listing of prohibitions. However, his letters indicate that he would have generally supported such prohibitions as applicable to all humankind: e.g., sexual immorality (1 Corinthians 5-6;1 Thessalonians 4:3-8); idolatry and meat sold in Gentile markets (1 Thessalonians 1:9;1 Corinthians 10:14-22; but compare 8:1-13;10:23-33).[2]

Christian Commentary

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Augustine of Hippo (354–430CE) wrote: "The observance of pouring out the blood which was enjoined in ancient times upon Noah himself after the deluge, the meaning of which we have already explained, is thought by many to be what is meant in the Acts of the Apostles, where we read that the Gentiles were required to abstain from fornication, and from things sacrificed, and from blood, that is, from flesh of which the blood has not been poured out."[3]

According to Bruce Metzger's Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament: "the Apostolic Decree [15.29,15.20,21.25] ... contain many problems concerning text and exegesis"; "it is possible ... (fornication means) marriage within the prohibited Levitical Degrees (Lv 18.6-18), which the rabbis described as "forbidden for porneia," or mixed marriages with pagans (Nu 25.1; also compare 2 Cor 6.14), or participation in pagan worship which had long been described by Old Testament prophets as spiritual adultery and which, in fact, offered opportunity in many temples for religious prostitution"; "An extensive literature exists on the text and exegesis"; NRSV has things polluted by idols, fornication, whatever has been strangled, blood; NIV has food polluted by idols, sexual immorality, meat of strangled animals, blood; Young's Literal Translation has pollutions of the idols, whoredom, strangled thing, blood; Gaus' Unvarnished New Testament has pollution of idolatrous sacrifices, unchastity, meat of strangled animals, blood; New American Bible has pollution from idols, unlawful marriage, meat of strangled animals, blood.

Karl Josef von Hefele's commentary on canon II of Gangra] notes: "We further see that, at the time of the Synod of Gangra, the rule of the Apostolic Synod with regard to blood and things strangled was still in force. With the Greek Orthodox, indeed, it continued always in force as their Euchologies still show. Theodore Balsamon also, the well-known commentator on the canons of the Middle Ages, in his commentary on the sixty-third Canons of the Apostles, expressly blames the Latins because they had ceased to observe this command.

What the Latin Church, however, thought on this subject about the year 400, is shown by St. Augustine in his work Contra Faustum, where he states that the Apostles had given this command in order to unite the heathens and Jews in the one ark of Noah; but that then, when the barrier between Jewish and heathen converts had fallen, this command concerning things strangled and blood had lost its meaning, and was only observed by few. But still, as late as the eighth century, Pope Gregory the Third, 731 CE, forbade the eating of blood or things strangled under threat of a penance of forty days.

Possible Correspondence

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One possible correspondence to the Seven Laws is as follows:

  1. (turning to God) — Prohibition of Blasphemy #2
  2. ειδωλον (idols) — Prohibition of Idolatry #1
  3. πορνεια (sexual immorality) — Prohibition of Sexual Immorality #4
  4. πνικτοσ (strangled) — Prohibition of Limb of a Living Creature #6
  5. αιματοσ (from blood) — Prohibition of Homicide #3
  6. κατα πολιν (in every town) — Imperative of Legal System #7
  7. (missing) — Prohibition of Theft #5

The 15th Chapter of Acts is traditionally interpreted by Christians as referring to Noahide law.[4][5] It bases itself on Amos 9:11-12 which says:

9:11 In that day will I raise up the fallen tent of David, and close up the breaches thereof, and I will raise up his ruins, and I will build it as in the days of old; 9:12 That they may conquer the remnant of Edom, and all the nations, upon whom My name is called, saith HaShem that doeth this.

The New Testament quotes the Septuagint's version of Amos which is similar, yet with some differences:

15:16 ‘After this I will return, and I will rebuild the fallen tent of David; I will rebuild its ruins and restore it, 15:17 so that the rest of humanity may seek the Lord, namely, all the Gentiles I have called to be my own,’ says the Lord, who makes these things 15:18 known from long ago.

The wording "who makes these things known from long ago" is similarly worded to Sanhedrin 60a which says "My statutes ye shall keep, implying the statutes decreed from of old shall ye keep"

References

  1. εθνοσ,n {eth'-nos} 1) a multitude (whether of men or of beasts) associated or living together 1a) a company, troop, swarm 2) a multitude of individuals of the same nature or genus 2a) the human family 3) a tribe, nation, people group 4) in the OT, foreign nations not worshipping the true God, pagans, Gentiles 5) Paul uses the term for Gentile Christians
  2. Rainbow Covenant: The G-d Fearers, note 6
  3. Augustine's Contra Faustum 32.13
  4. Understanding Acts 15 by Robert Clanton
  5. The Spirit of the Law