Today’s first reading details a moment in the early days of the young church in a way both vivid and stylized. Those reading the daily lectionary will have an even sharper sense of the unfolding of events from Acts of the Apostles. The material is action-packed, easy to appreciate. Among its favorite topics are the relations between Jewish and Gentile Jesus--believers as well as those Jews (and Gentiles) who are not drawn into the Jesus movement. Today’s reading gives us an opportunity to offer some fresh scholarship on this issue to our contemporaries who likely have other default assumptions as they read.
A few points: First: Practices among Jews, including those who were following Jesus, were generally diverse in time and place; though this reading can sound as though one decision set things for everyone, that cannot have been the case. Diversity would have continued. Second: When we hear the issue of Jewish law discussed in biblical texts, we need to remember who is talking and who is being addressed. There will have been different issues for Gentiles than for Jews, as we can understand that “insiders” often do not need or want orientations given to “outsiders.” Each will need something distinctive, suitable.
Third, related: When Paul speaks, he is typically, is talking to Gentiles about what they must do, not to Jewish believers about their practices. Paul remains thoroughly Jewish and needs to be understood as such. His “conversion” re-orients him powerfully to Jesus, but he does not cease to be a Jew. Luke, as presumed author of Acts of the Apostles, is more difficult to characterize, but we do best to assume he is writing to and for mixed communities. Fourth: Our contemporaries who hear these readings may think of Christianity as having basically superseded Judaism, as indeed homilies still frequently imply. Or, if more fortunate, they may have been introduced to the decades after Jesus as a time of the “parting of the ways,” as Judaism goes its distinct way (especially after the war with Rome and the destruction of the temple) and Christianity takes its departure from Judaism. But scholars are pointing out more recently that “the ways” remained much more blended for perhaps another few hundred years. An antipathy and animosity we may feel inevitable was perhaps far less strong. Fifth: We see in today’s reading from Acts the concern of Church leaders to set up for inclusivity, not its opposite.
Barbara Green, O.P.