Romans from a First-Century Jewish Perspective

Romans from a First-Century Jewish Perspective

Adrian A. Bernal
Frederick, Maryland, U.S.A.
All Rights Reserved © 2013, 2020


The underlying truth of the gospel message in the letter to the Romans is that Yahweh is the God of the Jews and of the nations equally by the grace of God through faith in Christ Jesus (Yeshua HaMashiach). This is commonly referred to as the Shema within Jewish and Messianic Jewish circles: “Hear, O Israel: the LORD our God, the LORD is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4, NIV) meaning, that Yahweh is not only the God for the Jews but that there is only one God for all the nations on the earth as well. Albeit, the overall extension of the Shema’s message was not realized among the Jews until the New Covenant was established by Yeshua and recognized by his followers as such. Thus, the fullness of the Gentiles had begun and the work among the gentiles was now being realized through the apostles; especially, through the work of the Apostle Paul (Romans 11:25). Despite the simplicity of Romans, however, its message has been lost through its various interpretive Christian readings of the letter with their dismissals of Torah observance and other church doctrines not realized.

No other work in the New Testament (Apostolic Writings) has been more challenged and expounded on than Paul’s letter to the Romans. It has been the champion book for both early church fathers and modern exegetes regarding the birth or movement of Christianity and its theological arguments for or against Paul’s conversion to Christianity and his dismissal of the Torah and Judaism, which is nothing more than Supersessionism (Replacement Theology). And, although Romans has been expounded on throughout the centuries, modern scholars admit to several problems which arise in their readings of Romans in regards to its apparent impartiality among Jews and Gentiles (Romans 2:11) and grace over works (Romans 11:6; Ephesians 2:8), for when in one chapter—chapter two—five passages appear to challenge these views (verses 7, 10, 13, 14-15, and 25-27). Richard N. Longenecker in Romans & the People of God: Essays in Honor of Gordon D. Fee on the Occasion of His 65th Birthday, states:

The first problem text appears in 2:7, 10, where it is said that God will give “eternal life”—or, “glory, honor, and peace”—to those who persistently do good works . . . The second is 2:13, where it is said that “those who obey the law [are the ones] who will be declared righteous,” which seems to be in conflict with Paul’s statement about no one being declared righteous by observing the law in 3:20, . . . The third is 2:14-15, where there is the parenthetical statement that some Gentiles do by nature “the things of the law” and “show the work of law written in their hearts” . . . The fourth problem text is 2:25-27, which appears to be built on the assumption that righteousness is associated with the practice of the Mosaic law.

Therefore, if these problems exist as Longenecker argues in the book of Romans, then what seems to be the overall evidence for the Christian movement in defense of grace alone may well be a letter, which is confusing at least and heretical at most in its various interpretive approaches regarding the dismissal of the Torah (Law). Meaning that if Paul is not advocating for a dismissal of the Law and its observance in regards to faith in the Messiah, then the myriad teachings which have followed and have resulted in its dismissal are heretical or deceptive at best and must be considered false doctrines; yet, the complete opposite holds true within Christianity today.

Frankly, the word “works” has become a negative concept in Christianity when connected to one’s salvation regardless of its true meaning within first-century Judaism and its real cohesive understanding alongside one’s salvation. This is understandable when seen in the light of how salvation is granted; however, salvation and works are only semi-separate concepts; yet, related within Judaism and must be understood as such, which is exactly how first-century Jewish believers would have understood those concepts. The idea was not two opposing theologies; rather, two ideas that work in concert with each other. James (Ya’akov) states it best when he writes:

What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? . . . In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do. You believe that there is one God [Israel’s Shema]. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder. You foolish man, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend. You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone. In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction? As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead (emphases added, James 2:14, 17ff).

In essence what Ya’akov is writing about to his fellow Jewish believers among the nations is that their labor in serving the Lord through their righteous deeds (walking according to Torah, or halakhot) was faith in action and a must for one’s declaration of being a follower of the Messiah. Thus, works are the evidence of one’s salvation, not the granting of it. Grace alone leads to salvation, but once a person is saved works become apparent, and not only for the Jew.

During the second-temple period, there were groups of gentiles who became a part of the greater commonwealth of Israel including attendance at synagogue meetings and worshiping at the temple. However, there were certain behaviors expected among the gentile worshipers by the Jewish people if they were, indeed, to be accepted (Acts 15). Expecting gentiles to walk out their faith (halakhot) in the messiah was not conducive to the formation of the Church, but rather, it was something already expected within the Jewish community. And, although some gentiles became complete converts to Judaism (proselytes) by becoming Jews through the practice of circumcision and other religious rites, godly gentiles or God-fearers have always been accepted among the Jewish people as righteous gentiles. Daniel Boyarin states:

By blurring the boundaries between “Jews” and “Christians,” we are making clearer the historical situation and development of early “Judaism” and Christianity. We can understand much better the significance of our historical documents, including the Gospels, when we imagine a state of affairs that more properly reflects the social situation on the ground of that time, a social situation in which believers in Jesus of Nazareth and those who didn’t follow him were mixed up with each other in various ways rather than separated into two well-defined entities that we know today as Judaism and Christianity.

Among those different types of Jews, we will find “proselytes, God-fearers, and gerim.” The “proselytes” were non-Jews who completely threw their lot in with the Jewish people and became Jews, while the “God-fearers” remained indentified as Greeks and pagans but adhered to the God of Israel and the synagogue because they admired the religion of the One God. The gerim, sojourners or resident aliens, were Gentiles who lived among Jews in “their” land. As such, they were required to observe certain laws of the Torah and received certain protections and privileges as well (emphases added).

Therefore, despite the fact that some Jewish sects, specifically the believing Pharisees, demanded circumcision, gentiles who forsook paganism and embraced the Shema and walked accordingly (practicing halakhot) were allowed to worship within the synagogues (Acts 15:5).

The phenomenon of the established beginnings of the New Covenant (the fullness of the covenant is not yet realized), however, was groves of gentiles entering into the Jewish faith through Yeshua rather than just those who wanted to practice Judaism and become a greater part of the commonwealth of Israel outside of paganism. The Psalmist writes, “All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations will bow down before him” (Psalm 22:27). Furthermore, through Yeshua the promise made to Abraham was now being realized, “You will be the father of many nations” (Genesis 17:4b). Therefore, regardless if these behaviors were known as the Noahide Laws during that period or not, obviously there were certain criteria expected among the gentile followers of Judaism; furthermore, those behaviors were no less expected among the believing gentiles, as seen in the Apostolic Decree (Acts 15:20). Scholar Mark D. Nanos writes, “While these gentiles did not keep the Jewish Law per se (the 613 commandments of Torah), they kept what was later referred to in rabbinic Judaism as the ‘Noahide’ or ‘Noachian Commandments’” (emphases added). Oftentimes, the scene taking place in Acts 15, with the debate over the inclusion of non-Jewish believers, is seen as a first-of-its-kind by modern exegetes; however, it was more of a carryover of similar halakhot already known, and for which Christ had mentioned that they would be given authority to establish (Matthew 16:19; 18:18).

In fact, this paper will argue that the letter to the Romans was written firstly to the gentle believers in Rome who had become conceited in their faith, and secondly to the Jewish believers in Rome who were battling similar behaviors to that of the Apostle Peter’s when confronted in Galatia by Paul (Galatians 2:6ff). However, throughout the entirety of the letter, the primary audience to Paul’s instructions and corrections were to the gentile believers of Rome. Paul first sets out to prove his calling and credentials, and then explains God’s salvation message and his plan for both Jews and Gentiles within those realms. Eventually, he admonished the gentile believers for their biblical practices and how they should properly conduct themselves among those whose “faith is weak” (non-believing Jews) within proper worship. Thus, the letter to the Romans, from a Jewish perspective, appears to reveal that Paul had to remind the Roman gentiles of the Jewish calling that somehow got lost through incorrect ideology and fleshly practices and attitudes among the gentile believers.

Furthermore, it is possible that the subjects of the book of Romans were those gentiles that were influenced by the Edict of Claudius in A.D. 49. In this regard, many Christian scholars have accepted the “fact” that at the time of Paul’s letter, there were no Jews left in Rome and house-churches had began to function without the auspices of the synagogue; however, this evidence is not as conclusive as one would believe because the accounts of the event are not in harmony with each other, including Luke’s account in 18:2 of Luke’s Gospel. Despite this, however, Jews must have already returned to Rome by the time Paul addressed the Roman believers, because the “weak,” as this paper will show, referred to non-believing Jews as well as his mention of particular Jewish believers he addresses in his closing remarks (Romans 16:1, 6-7, 11, 17, etc.). At minimum, the book of Romans should be read as a caveat to modern non-Jewish believers because similar attitudes have resurfaced which can and will be detrimental to the entirety of the Body of Christ. And, at most, a clearer understanding of the gospel message, which does not set grace against works, but reveals how grace opens the door to living an expected, righteous life both for believing Gentiles and Jews.

Paul has not only heard of their faith, which he gave thanks to God “at all times” (Romans 1:8), but he was equally disappointed in their ungodly behaviors and judgments towards others (Romans 2:1). Is it possible that Christians have approached the book of Romans incorrectly for centuries? Have misinterpretations of this Pauline corpus actually hindered proper Christian interpretation of grace and law? For example, no one would build a house starting with the roof; yet, the book of Romans has been approached from this angle as early on as the formations of Church doctrine. Meaning that most readings of Romans, among modern scholarship, deals with how the early church fathers interpreted the book rather than how the book should be interpreted: through first-century Judaism not early Christianity and moving forward from that position. Thus, Romans must be read from the perspectives of the first Jewish believers in Yeshua and their Jewish understandings of the Law and its promises for both the Jews and the nations, “the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures” (Romans 1:2). This approach does not advocate a works-only doctrine of justification and salvation; rather, a balanced approach, which lends credit to Paul’s somewhat conflicting teachings on law and grace. Furthermore, it properly sheds light on Christian Soteriology from a first-century worldview to the modern world’s application of both Old and New Testaments for all believers, Jews and Gentiles.

Throughout this paper, to avoid confusion, the terms: Jews will relate to non-believing Jews of Rome and elsewhere; Messianic Jews will relate to Jewish believers in Yeshua; Messianic Gentiles will relate to gentile believers in Rome and elsewhere who remained in their calling as gentiles, and God-fearers will relate to those gentiles considered righteous by the Jewish community but, nevertheless, rejected the gospel message. The term, “Messianic Gentile(s)” is more accurate to the times when the book of Romans was written; furthermore, it properly reflects the conflicts among these groups for which Paul was addressing. Additionally, for any gentile believer to be considered a follower of the Jewish messiah during antiquity, he had to be a member of a Jewish synagogue to become a member of any house congregation being set up by the ruling synagogue. Rome gave no allowance for cults to formulate and then gather and worship upon their own initiative; they had to be a part of a greater whole; in this case, first-century Judaism.

There is a common misconception that as soon as Jews (or gentiles) got saved and believed in Yeshua, they quickly formed house churches opposing Jewish rituals and advocating for the immediate separation between the Jews and Christians, as if it were a boxing match between them. However, the evidence found among archeology—the Dead Sea Scrolls—historians like Josephus, and the literature at the time including the extra biblical texts, shows that Judaism “tolerated many different views.” This is supported in the book of Acts where the disciples continued to attend and worship in existing synagogues and where Paul established his pattern of evangelistic outreach, first to the Jew and then the Gentile: “At Iconium Paul and Barnabas went as usual into the Jewish synagogue. There they spoke so effectively that a great number of Jews and Gentiles [God-fearers] believed” (emphases added, Acts 14:1). And, despite the acceptance or rejection of the gospel message within the synagogues, it appears that all four groups (Jews, Messianic Jews, Messianic Gentiles, and God-fearers) worshiped together in the synagogues scattered throughout the Diaspora. The argument in Acts chapter fifteen seems to center around those God-fearers who were accepted as righteous gentiles, but now were being grafted into the entirely of the Jewish faith including first time messianic gentiles. Albeit, common special interest groups may have started within the homes to accommodate those differences within Judaism, but the fact remains that all four groups worshiped together prior to the destruction of the Second Temple under the auspices of the ruling synagogue(s); including those communities in Rome, and this is where the problems in the readings of the book of Romans arises and where making sense of Paul and his teachings rest. Again, Romans must be read from a first-century Jewish perspective, not from a western method of interpretation of the text so often applied ; especially, a modern one looking backwards through the Reformation and the formations of previous church doctrines set by the early Church Fathers.

Romans from a First-Century Jewish Perspective

Scholars agree that the book of Romans was written approximately in A.D. 57-58 and that the congregation in Rome was not founded by the Apostle Paul. To whom the letter was written differs among scholars; however, it will be argued that the addressees of the letter to the congregation(s) in Rome were primarily Messianic Gentiles: In part, because Paul’s language throughout the letter mirrors that of Luke’s language in chapter fifteen of the book of Acts; albeit, the book of Romans goes into greater detail about the attitudes expected from the Messianic Gentiles by the Jews. And, in part, because Paul appears to jump back and forth regarding grace and law, which was a normative among rabbis and teachers during the Second Temple period.

Although Messianic Jews are mentioned and their roles among all the believers in Rome are crucial for the advancement of the gospel message, Paul remains focused on his purpose of the letter to its readers, the Messianic Gentiles:

I have written you quite boldly on some points, as if to remind you of them again, because of the grace God gave me to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles with the priestly duty of proclaiming the gospel of God, so that the Gentiles might become an offering acceptable to God, sanctified by the Holy Spirit. Therefore I glory in Christ Jesus in my service to God. I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me in leading the Gentiles to obey God by what I have said and done—by the power of signs and miracles, through the power of the Spirit. So from Jerusalem all the way around to Illyricum, I have fully proclaimed the gospel of Christ (emphases added, Romans 15:15-19).

Surprisingly, the overall theme of the letter for Paul was monotheism (The Shema and its congruent message) and the expected attitudes for those coming out of paganism into a monotheistic form of worship (The Ten Commandments and the Apostolic Decree). Many churches today have for their mission statements, “Loving God, Loving People.” In essence, this is the Christian interpretation of the Shema and the Golden Rule. Yeshua sums up the Law and the Prophets (The Tanakh) similarly to the question when asked, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law [Torah]?” (Matthew 22:36), by stating, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. . . . And . . . Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37, 39). Ironically, Christian theology upholds the Shema through their mission statements despite not applying its greater meaning to the book of Romans. Christians would also be surprised to discover that the second part of Yeshua’s answer, “Love your neighbor as yourself” is a direct quote from the Old Testament in the midst of a long list of laws for which the Jews were to obey (Leviticus 19:18).
Paul was not only the Apostle to the Gentiles, but was also set apart for that very purpose (Acts 9:15; 13:2b). Furthermore, he was present with the Jerusalem Council when the Apostolic Decree was enacted for the Messianic Gentiles and he understood its importance as being essential to God’s plan of salvation and redemption for mankind: “So then, God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life” (Acts 11:18b). Thus, Paul remained faithful to not only his Jewish calling but his being set apart for the work of the gospel message unto the gentiles, for God was, indeed, the God for the gentiles as well as the Jews, through his grace first and foremost. Paul understood the mission of the Jews; specifically the Messianic Jews or the remnant of the Jews, as being a light unto the Gentiles through their upholding of the Torah—the Word of God—and proclaiming its message (Isaiah 51:4). As a Jewish believer in the Jewish messiah, he would have understood his wholeness as a completed Jew in revelation of who Yeshua was, and he would have realized his significance as a Jew in the role of the gospel message as seen in the Tanakh (Romans 1:2).

Earlier readings of the book of Romans, specifically after the Reformation, places its theme as primarily being, “justification,” despite other themes emerging, like: assurance, sanctification, the place of the Law, the ministry of Spirit, God’s plan for both Jews and Gentiles, and the varied responsibilities of the Christian life. John R. W. Stott, referring to Krister Stendahl’s work Paul Among the Jews and Gentiles, states, “He [Stendahl] maintained that the traditional understanding of Paul in general and of Romans in particular, namely that their focus is on justification by faith, is wrong.” These and other themes, Stott asserts, are “due to the western church’s morbid conscience, and specifically to the moral struggles of Augustine and Luther, which the church has tended to read back into Paul” (emphasis added). To some extent Stott agrees with Stendahl by stating “this is a necessary corrective. For justification is certainly not Paul’s exclusive preoccupation, as we have seen.” Again, these themes have been born from the writings of the early Church fathers (Augustine, Origen, Jerome, Erasmus, etc), and admittedly, modern scholars liken much of these readings as coming from personal struggles that the early church fathers had. For example, Martin Luther, during medieval Christianity, confesses to his personal struggle with Romans and likens his journey of salvation in similar fashion to Augustine’s.
In her work, Paul Was Not a Christian: The Original Message of a Misunderstood Apostle, Jewish scholar Pamela Eisenbaum agrees with Nanos’s position regarding monotheism being Paul’s main thrust by stating, “In contrast to the traditional view, I assert that the most important theological force motivating Paul’s mission was a thoroughgoing commitment to Jewish monotheism and how to bring the nations of the world to that realization as history draws to a close.” Understanding this point to Paul’s mission is crucial in understanding the entirety of Paul’s message to the Romans. Mistakenly, Christian scholars have placed Paul’s conversion experience (Acts 9:1-21) into their own experiences by believing that Paul converted to Christianity and gave up being a Jew as if being Jewish was a sin. However, if understood in its proper context, Paul converted from being a murderer of the Messiah’s community to becoming a believer in the Jewish Messiah (from glory to glory) and later being accepted into that same community. Therefore, Paul’s message was primarily monotheistic in nature with the pinnacle being that Yeshua was the Messiah and God was the God for both the Jews and the Greeks equally through Yeshua by faith in Yahweh’s grace.

The common, and somewhat comical, approach to interpreting the book of Romans from the average Christian’s perspective, ignorantly, appears to “reveal” that the Jews had it wrong for thousands of years while the Hellenists were right all along. God apparently had the Jews running in circles with all that Old Testament stuff while the non-Jews simply needed to understand that Yahweh was God. Once this was clarified and accomplished through Jesus, the Jews had to simply stop being Jews and then had to become pork-eating Christians while non-Jewish Christians were free from obedience to the Law and were not obliged to observe it. Simple logic could argue the ignorance of this approach; however, modern teachers of the Bible teach these “truths” weekly from the pulpit without apology, as if Jews must repent for being Jewish and observing the Law, while the Gentiles only have to believe and have faith in Jesus and continue in the patterns of destruction for which they have grown accustomed to. Is this logical? Did the pagans have it right while the Jews were deceived for thousands of years?

The law of sin and death quoted by Paul in Romans 8:2 is, oftentimes understood or taught that it refers to the Law of Moses or the Old Testament in its entirety. Sadly, what some refer to the Torah as being dead or death, Paul calls, “good” (Romans 7:7, 12, 16; 1 Timothy 1:8) and God calls “perfect” (Psalm 19:7). Furthermore, Paul’s first letter to Timothy encompasses the righteousness or goodness of the Law. Paul states:
We know that the law is good if one uses it properly. We also know that law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious; for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers, for adulterers and perverts, for slave traders and liars and perjurers—and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine that conforms to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me (1 Timothy 1:8-11).

Both Christians and Messianic Jews have misused the Torah and its understanding within the New Covenant. Some Christians have denied obedience to the Torah to the point of contrarily advocating obedience to man-made laws, while some Messianic Jews (and other movements like the Hebrew Roots movements) have tried to enforce certain Torah aspects of the law upon non-Jews, which were only meant for Jews; the truth, however, lies somewhere in the middle to both understandings.
Paul is using the concepts of the “law of sin and death” and the “law of the Spirit of life” (Romans 8:2) in Romans in much the same way he is describing the law to Timothy. Therefore, to fully understand the differences between the two concepts, one must first understand the terms of the New Covenant. In First Timothy regarding those who were teaching false doctrines, Paul states, “Some have wondered away from these [true doctrines] and turned to meaningless talk. They want to be teachers of the law [Torah], but they do not know what they are talking about or what they so confidently affirm” (emphasis added, 1 Timothy 1:6-7).

The New Covenant is a covenant bought with the purchase of Yeshua’s blood being shed for mankind. Therefore, unlike the previous covenants, which were done through the shedding of blood from bulls and goats, this new one was done by God through Yeshua his son (Hebrews 8). Thus, this new covenant has replaced the old covenant (Hebrews 8:13), not because it was wrong or bad, but because the children of the Israel could not keep it and continuously broke it. Therefore, the covenant itself is what is referred to as new, not the Law, for the Law of God good. It is God’s instructions; thus, if Yeshua is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 11:8), than God’s instructions remain the same. However, the rules in which God’s Instructions or Teachings (Torah) are applied to the recipients of the new covenant are different.

The Old Covenant is a specific contract through a specific event outlined within the Tanakh, not the entirety of the Tanakh. The contract starts at Mount Sinai when God commissioned Moses with a contract to present to the people: “Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. . . . These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites” (Exodus 19:5, 6b). The contract is then agreed upon by the children of Israel, “We will do everything the LORD has said. ‘So Moses brought their answer back to the LORD’” (Exodus 19:8).

This contract was then inaugurated with a wedding procession where God commanded the people to consecrate themselves by abstaining from sexual relations, washing their clothes, and being ready on the third day when God was going to present himself on the mountain (Exodus 19:9-23:33). In this contract were listed the Ten Commandments, Idolatry and Proper Altars, Kinsmen Servants, Personal Damages, Protection of Property Rights, Social Responsibilities, Laws of Justice and Mercy, Sabbath Laws, Three Annual Festivals, and God’s Messenger to Prepare the Way (a messianic promise), which was again agreed upon by the people stating, “Everything the Lord has said we will do” (Exodus 24:3). Moses wrote down everything in the agreed upon covenant that God had spoken with the people (Exodus 24:4a). Bovine sacrifices and fellowship offerings were then done at the base of the mountain. Moses reread the covenant to the people, which at this time was called, “The Book of the Covenant” (Exodus 7a), and the people again agreed to the terms of the contract by stating, “We will do everything the LORD has said; we will obey” (Exodus 24:7b). The contract was then sealed by the sprinkling of blood upon the altar and the people before the presence of YHWH, with Moses stating, “This is the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words” (emphases added, Exodus 24:8b).

Sadly, no later than forty days and forty nights had passed, the people turned from their covenant and had Aaron build them a golden calf. In their worship of it and their celebrations of rivalry and dancing (honeymooning) with their newly formed god, the covenant of God was broken and the people of Israel were unable to keep it. From that point forward, despite all the repenting and all the renewing of the contract with additional laws and consequences for breaking those laws, the children of Israel were incapable of living up to the perfection of the covenant’s demands.

However, the New Covenant was now based on YHWH’s words (The Torah) and actions established with his son’s—the exact representation of the Father in Heaven—words and actions (Matthew 26:17-29). Therefore, in essence, it was God’s blood, not a bull’s blood that was shed for the atonement of mankind as Yeshua holds to the high office of mediator, the high priest of the covenant, by making sure this newer covenant cannot ever be broken by the ill-faded acts of men. Rather, its surety is upheld by the Father and the Son, which has abolished the curses of the Torah for those who do not uphold them (Deuteronomy 27:15ff). The Torah or the Law, however, remains. The terms of the New Covenant are that those laws will be put upon the minds and written upon the circumcised hearts of men (Jeremiah 31:33b), which began with but not consummated with the death of Yeshua upon the cross of Rome. The final consummation of the realized New Covenant will take place during the future millennia reign of Yeshua in the New Jerusalem and after the wedding feast of the Lamb (Revelation 22:3).

Therefore, the Apostle Paul was getting across to the Messianic Gentiles that the work which Christ had begun in them was not finished (Romans 8:28ff). And, that their attitudes towards the Jews were the keys to their growth, “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2). Prior to this instruction, however, Paul warned them of their possible conceitedness by walking (halakhot) according to their ways and not Gods, “I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers, so that you may not be conceited: Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in” (emphases added, Romans 11:25). Furthermore, Paul instructs:

As far as the gospel is concerned, they are enemies on your account; but as far as election is concerned, they are loved on account of the patriarchs, for God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable. Just as you who were at one time disobedient to God have now received mercy as a result of their disobedience, so they too have now become disobedient in order that they too may now receive mercy as a result of God’s mercy to you. For God has bound all men over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all (Romans 11:28-32).

Additionally, Paul instructed them to offer their bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God (Romans 12:1). Again, this was about their behaviors towards their enemies (non-believing Jews) according to and for the gospel’s sake, but not according to their table fellowship or honoring their roles as leaders within the synagogues. Expressed further by Paul, because their fellowship included Jews, Messianic Jews, God-fearers, and Messianic Gentiles, they needed to understand that they were under the authority of the synagogue rulers (Romans 13:1-7). Even Yeshua admonishes his followers to give respect to those who are set above them for the sake of the kingdom, “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees seat in Moses’ seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not do what they preach. They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them” (emphases added, Matthew 23:2-4).

The purity of the gospel message through grace for both Jew and Gentile was the main thrust that Paul was relating to the Messianic Gentiles. And above all else, it was for the sake of the gospel and the name of the Messiah, which had to be protected among the Jews of Rome concerning table fellowship, “Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Romans 12:17b-18). And although their spiritual act of worship included the gifts listed at the beginning of the chapter (Romans 12:6-8), Paul also makes it clear that their bodies were to be set apart as the Day of the Lord approaches (Romans 13:12ff).

Although the Messianic Gentiles were not obligated to abstain from pork and other non-kosher foods according to the Apostolic Decree in the book of Acts, their faith was not to be used to dismiss the “weak” faith of the unbelieving Jews (Romans 14:1); rather, they were to accept the Jews’s “weak” faith as being just as legitimate as theirs. If anything, at minimum an attitude of graciousness needed to be offered by the messianic gentiles towards the non-believing Jews, which is at the heart of the gospel message. Not because their faith in God was actually weak, in the sense of being incapable of doing the right thing, but that their faith to abstain from unclean foods was where their faith was settled or determined. This is the main idea behind the strong and the weak concept of Romans. The strong were not strong by definition of strength, but that their faith allowed for or was settled with Kashrut (a state of being kosher) as primarily belonging to a Jewish diet, not a non-Jewish one.

Those whom were weak of faith are identified in earlier chapters; especially, in chapter eleven where Paul describes that their lack of faith in Yeshua as Messiah gave room for the gentiles to be grafted into the commonwealth of Israel. Paul did not forsake this theme but expounded on how the gospel can win “some” (Romans 11:14, 17). He also warned them of their arrogance and pride. Again, according to Jewish halakhah, the dietary laws were to be upheld by the Jews and the Noachide laws were to be upheld by the God-fearers and Messianics Gentiles. The strong or weak terms used, then, had less to do with one’s abilities, but rather one’s settled faith. To the Jews and Messianic Jews, Kashrut was important to ones belief, while to the Messianic Gentiles revealed through the Holy Spirit and attested to by the Apostles, their faith was settled on a lesser state of Kashrut observance, because of the grace of God. However, neither the Jews nor the Messianic Jews and Messianic Gentiles were to use one’s faith as a means of opposing the other’s settled faith (Romans 12:18; 14:19). As Paul writes, “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and approved by men” (Romans 14:17-18).

Sadly, the advice given by Paul to the Messianic Gentiles, regarding arrogance, was not heeded because by the fourth century A.D. allowances were made for Jews entering the Church through confessions by denouncing anything having to do with ritual Judaism including Sabbaths, holidays, and foods. One such confession is as follows:
I renounce all customs, rites, legalisms, unleavened breads and sacrifice of lambs of the Hebrews, and all the other feasts of the Hebrews, sacrifices, prayers, aspersions, purifications, sanctifications and propitiations, and fasts, and new moons, and Sabbaths, and superstitions, and hymns and chants and observances and synagogues, and the food and drink of the Hebrews; in one word, I renounce absolutely everything Jewish, every law, rite and custom.

The Book of Romans has a simple message, but it has become complicated over the millennia because of its various interpretations. The continuance of misinterpretations will remain if the book of Romans is read from modern-day exegeses back through antiquity, instead of the reversal. Furthermore, given that a majority of Christian readings interpret the book of Romans from the viewpoints of the Reformation and Early Church Fathers, a more accurate approach would be to read the book from an early first-century Jewish perspective.

Many Christian and Jewish scholars are beginning to apply such knowledge to the book of Romans and in so doing they are beginning to make sense out of some passages that appear to counter a salvation-by-grace-alone doctrine. Other passages, which seemingly appear to be anti-Jewish or anti-Semitic in origin, Jewish scholars are realizing that those passages are more clearly understood from a Jewish perspective when placed within the Jewish context of the first century; therefore, they are seen as less anti-Jewish than previously accused of being. Sadly, regardless of the attempts at trying to bring new readings of Romans to the surface by interpreting it through the Reformation fathers, anti-Semitism continues to glow brightly. For example, in Stanley K. Stowers book, A Rereading of Romans: Justice, Jews, & Gentiles, he attempts to make sense of many passages that bring confusion but falls short with the typical rhetoric that dismisses a Jewish interpretation:

In the Logic of this view, because Christianity is in some sense what Judaism should have been, the Christian critique of Judaism is justified [In the sense that Judaism teaches works for salvation—a false assumption]. At this point the Christian tradition has, above all, drawn on its interpretation of Paul. The problem with Judaism is that it sought salvation through works of the law and legalism rather than through true inward and spiritual faith.

Frankly, spiritual faith without works is dead, according to Ya’akov. Without proper exegeses of Romans, one is incapable of removing oneself from such rhetoric that has oftentimes pitted Judaism and Jews against Christianity and Christians for no other reason than for false, previously-drawn conclusions and biased positions. Surely, there are differences among Judaism and Christianity but those theology differences are oftentimes unwarranted when it comes to the Jewish understanding of salvation, justification, and redemption when understood from the first century.

Paul was primarily addressing the Messianic Gentiles of Rome with the intended background audience being the Messianic Jews; however, Paul never loses focus of his message. He not only praised them for their faith (Romans 1:8), but Paul also admonishes them for their behavior in table fellowship with the Jews. Despite the Jews lack of faith in Jesus as the messiah, Paul calls the non-believing Jews, “brethren,” (Romans 14:10, et al.) and exhorts his audience to see them as those of the natural olive branches being supported by the root or first fruits of the remnant of Jews (Messianic Jews), and that although some have been broken off from the olive tree for a time being, their re-engrafting is revival from the dead for the whole world (Romans 11). As such, they (the Messianic Gentiles) needed to remember their place and calling in the Lord and live at peace with everyone (Romans 121:18), despite the Jews established laws of Kashrut or other aspects of the Torah not understood through the Messiah, Yeshua. And, because all four groups worshiped and fellowshipped together, the Messianic Gentiles were to remain focused on the things of the Lord so that his name would not be profaned among the non-believing Jews and the other nations (Romans 1:5; 2:24; 15:9).

The book of Romans is of equality, yet distinctions between two classes of people are what the Bible tends to refer to often; they are: (1) the Jews, and (2) the nations or the rest of humanity. With this in mind, the New Testament never leaves those distinctions but draws upon them to clarify certain matters in regards to the Messiah. The Apostle Paul states clearly that the gospel message and the Messiah are for both classes of people. And, although he renders for the Jew first (Romans 1:16; 2:9), other renditions of the Greek word proton may be considered chiefly or principally because salvation is of the Jews. Therefore, it makes perfect sense that the message of the gospel should be brought to those principally or chiefly held responsible for guarding, protecting, and revealing the words of the Messiah because it made sense to their already practiced religion. Only then, the message can make sense to those moving from paganism to monotheism once the truth of Messiah was realized. However, there was no need to switch one’s calling as a Jew or a Gentile once the gospel message was made; rather, Paul makes it clear that they are to remain in their calling once they became believers: “As far as the gospel is concerned, they [Jewish non-believing brethren] are enemies on your account; but as far as election [their calling as Jews] is concerned, they are loved on account of the patriarchs, for God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable” (emphasis added, Romans 11:28-29).

Finally, among the Romans, Paul was trying to relate that although grace is a given for salvation in Christ, obedience to the Torah (Instructions of God) that comes from faith in the Messiah was not (Romans 1:5). To the Jews of the first century, a separation from the nations was ideal to maintain their faith in God (monotheism). There were already established behaviors expected among the God-fearers that attended the synagogues to worship the monotheistic God of the Jews (being separate from polytheism). Regardless of whether or not these expectations were coined the Noahide laws, like they are today, evidence in the Jewish literature of the period enforces the belief that godly gentiles were expected to live according to some aspects of the Torah. This did not change with the coming of the Messiah and the outreach to the nations other than Israel. And, in Acts chapter 15, after much debate it was determined that with the four directives of the Jerusalem Council, messianic gentiles indeed had points of obedience that had to be met. Although they were free from the covenant responsibilities of Jews like circumcision and certain kosher laws, they had to maintain a godly lifestyle of love, peace, and forgiveness according to gospel of the Kingdom of God.


Le Cornu, Hilary., and Shulam, Joseph. A Commentary on the Jewish Roots of Romans. Baltimore, MD: Lederer Books, a division of Messianic Jewish Publishers, 1997.

The Holy Bible: New International Version, electronic edition. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996.

Boyarin, Daniel. The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ. New York, NY: The New Press, 2012.

Eisenbaum, Pamela. Paul Was Not A Christian: The Original Message of a Misunderstood Apostle. New York, NY: HarperOne, A Division of Harper Collins Publishers, 2009.

Hill, Craig C. “The Jerusalem Church,” in Jewish Christianity Reconsidered: Rethinking Ancient Groups and Texts, edited by, Matt Jackson-McCabe. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2007.

Nanos, Mark D. The Mystery of Romans: The Jewish Context of Paul’s Letter. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress Press, 1999.

Sherbok-Cohn, Dan. Messianic Judaism. London, U. K., and New York, NY: Cassell, 2000.

Shulam, Joseph. Hidden Treasures: The First Century Jewish Way of Understanding the Scriptures. Jerusalem, Israel: Netivyah Bible Instruction Ministry, 2008.

Soderland, Sven K., and Wright, N. T., co-editors. Romans & the People of God: Essays in Honor of Gordon D. Fee on the Occasion of His 65th Birthday. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1999.

Stendahl, Krister. Paul Among Jews and Gentiles. Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1976.

Stott, John R. The Message of Romans: God’s Good News for the World. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2001.

Stowers, Stanley K. A Rereading of Romans: Justice, Jews, & Gentiles, reprint edition. New Haven, CT., and London, U. K., Yale University Press, 1997.

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