Professor James D. Tabor is chair of the department of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He holds a Ph.D. in biblical studies from the University of Chicago and is an expert on the Dead Sea Scrolls and Christian origins. He written innumerable articles and several books, including, most recently, The Jesus Dynasty (Simon & Schuster, 2006). See www.jesusdynasty.com and www.jamesdtabor.org.
B'nai No'ach:The Reappearance of the God-fearers in our Time
By James D. Tabor
Does Judaism have a vital evangelistic message for the non-Jewish world? Can Gentiles respond to such a message without converting to Judaism? According to a growing number of Jewish authorities, just such an outreach to the world is not only desirable but is on the way to full and formal implementation. I recently attended the first International Conference of the "Children of Noah" (B'nai No'ach) held in Ft. Worth, Texas, April 28th-30th, 1990. As a specialist in Judaism and Christianity in antiquity, I went as an academic observer and adviser. But, as a Gentile, I also brought along a high degree of personal fascination and interest.
The rabbis involved insist that the B'nai No'ach concept is neither "new", nor formally, "another religion". In short, it is a form of "Judaism for Gentiles", with a complete halachic [Hebrew legal] foundation. First let me offer a bit of legal and historical background.
According to Jewish rabbinic tradition, all non-Jews are "children of Noah", and as such are subject to a special universal Noachite Covenant. This covenant, made with Noah following the Flood, is prior to, and separate from, the Torah Covenant made at Sinai with the "children of Israel." All humankind is accordingly obligated to follow the "seven Laws of Noah", traditionally enumerated as:
the prohibitions against idolatry, blasphemy, bloodshed, sexual sins, theft, and eating flesh (or blood) from a living animal; and the obligation to establish legal systems to administer justice.(1)
According to rabbinic interpretation, Jews, functioning as the chosen priestly people, and a "light to all nations," are obligated to teach the Gentile world those portions of Torah applicable to non-Jews (Exodus 19:5; Isaiah 42:1-6). Such Gentiles who turn to God, and turn away from these sinful practices, are said to "have a share in the world to come." They have become yirei shamayim ("fearers of Heaven," i.e., God), and in the Land of Israel are called ger toshav (i.e.,"the stranger that dwells among you")(2) These Noachites are not proselytes, nor full converts to Judaism. They remain Gentiles, but with special attachment to God, Torah, and Israel.
Many scholars of ancient Judaism and Christianity believe that something akin to this rabbinic concept of the "Noachite" existed in the Greco-Roman period. The oft expressed generalization that non-Jews in the Roman empire tended to be anti-Jewish is unfounded.(3) It is well established that large numbers of Gentiles were attracted to Judaism and became proselytes or full converts.(4) But there is also solid evidence that many Gentiles were attracted to Judaism, attended the synagogues that dotted the Roman empire, but pulled back short of full conversion. Such "semi-Jews," or "Jewish sympathizers," worshipped the God of Israel and observed various Jewish customs and laws. In the New Testament, the book of Acts refers to such Gentiles as "God-fearers," using the Greek terms phoboumenos or sebomenos.(5)
According to Acts, large numbers of these "God-fearers" responded to the evangelistic message of the apostle Paul and formed the core of his Gentile congregations in the Diaspora. Acts 15, and Paul's own account in Galatians, reports a sharp dispute between groups of these Jewish Messianic believers as to whether Gentiles, who had joined the movement, should be required to convert to Judaism, taking up full observance of the Torah. According to Acts 15 such conversion was not required, but they were directed to abstain from sexual immorality, blood, pollution of idols, and "things strangled."(6) Such a list of prohibitions, though not precisely parallel to the rabbinic enumeration, offers evidence that Jewish groups in this period were expressing something akin to the "Noachite" concept. (7)
In the subsequent centuries, Jewish sources have further expounded and elaborated the concept of the Noachite. Generally speaking, both Moslems and Christians have been considered "Noachites," as long as the latter have avoided tritheism - sometimes associated with popular Trinitarianism (i.e., making Jesus a "second" Deity , separate from God). Indeed, Hermann Cohen argued that the Noachite concept was the common rational ethical ground, and thus the penultimate goal, of both Israel and all humankind, i.e., a kind of universal "natural law."(8) On the other hand, Orthodox rabbinic opinion has tended to argue, with Maimonides, that Noachites must accept the "seven laws", not only on their own merit ("natural law"), but as divinely revealed precepts of Torah, mediated by the teaching mission of Israel.(9)
The best known Gentile exponent of "the Noachite religion" in our time was Aime Palliere (1887-1949).(10) Though born and baptized a Catholic, and raised for the priesthood, Palliere spent his adult years in the study and teaching of traditional Jewish texts. He openly declared himself a "Noachite," and promoted the concept as the proper religion for humankind. In recent years various publications have appeared, setting forth the halachic issues involved in the Noachite concept, and calling for their concrete implementation.(11) Still, to my knowledge, there have been no sociologically significant movements to actually organize and promote such a version of Torah faith among Gentiles, as something distinct from standard forms of Christianity or Islam.
That brings us back to the events in Ft. Worth, Texas. In the week prior to the Ft. Worth conference, rabbis and Torah Scholars from Israel and the United States, representing a variety of orthodox Jewish groups, together with Gentile representatives, hammered out a program to officially and formally implement the creation of B'nai No'ach study groups and congregations. I attended several days of these private meetings, full of intense discussion and debate, in which matters of policy and halachah were worked out. These discussions resulted in a formal proposal, which was immediately wired to Mordechai Eliahu, Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Israel (Sephardic), to form Agudat Kerem B'nai No'ach (Union of the Vineyard of the Children of Noah). Rabbi Eliahu sent his approval and formal blessing of the efforts.
What followed, I found amazing. On April 28-30 (1990), over 300 non-Jewish delegates from across the country gathered at the Ft. Worth Convention Center to officially register themselves as participants in this newly formed "B'nai No'ach" movement. They accepted the proposal from the rabbis, acknowledged the blessing of Rabbi Eliahu, and pledged themselves to faithfully observe and study the Torah as applicable to Gentiles.
Obviously, such a group did not spring up overnight. The conference was organized by Vendyl Jones, a former Baptist minister based in from Arlington, Texas. For over a decade Jones has promoted Torah study for Gentiles, according to the B'nai No'ach concept. He has encouraged non-Jews around the country who study with Orthodox rabbis and Torah scholars. They typically study and discuss the weekly Parashah [Torah reading] and Haftorah [readings from the biblical prophets and historical writings] based on standard Jewish sources.
The "Seven Laws of Noah" are seen as topical headings, under which an elaborate set of theological and ethical concepts are organized. For example, under the prohibition against "idolatry", one would delve into a whole cluster of Jewish ideas and observances as applicable to Gentiles: the nature of God, prohibitions against the occult, definitions of idolatry, and so forth. Likewise" under the heading of "sexual immorality," would come the whole Jewish of human sexuality as expounded in Torah and rabbinic tradition. Accordingly, like their Jewish counterparts, such B'nai No'ach have embarked upon a lifelong effort of Talmud Torah.
In 1989, Jones appealed to the rabbis he knew to set up an international B'nai No'ach organization. With the blessing of several Orthodox authorities, including Chief Rabbi Eliyahu, the Ft. Worth conference was born.
I had a chance to interview many of the non-Jewish participants. Most of them were from Christian backgrounds. They expressed a diversity of opinions regarding Jesus, the New Testament, and Christianity. Some appeared to be committed to B'nai No'ach as a distinct religious expression of faith, while others viewed their Torah study as a way to deepen the "Hebraic" aspects of their Christian identifications. The rabbinic proposal developed no creedal lines in this regard. The sole requirement for participation was a sincere desire to study and observe the Torah as applicable to Gentiles. The idea is that people of all religious backgrounds, whether Christian, Moslem, Buddhist, or any other, would come together in Torah study. I met two leaders, both former Baptist ministers, David Davis of Athens, Tennessee and Jack Saunders of Cohutta, Georgia, who head up actual congregations of B'nai No'ach. They had come under the influence of Vendyl Jones, and began studying, along with their congregations, with a local Orthodox rabbi. Over a period of years they have dropped their Baptist affiliation and many of their standard Baptist doctrines.
The future plans for B'nai No'ach are ambitious and international. Chief Rabbi Eliyahu is expected to take the proposal to his Ashkenazic counterpart, Rav Abraham Shapario. They in turn will take it to the Rabbinic High Court of Israel. Upon approval of the High Court, the minyan or tribunal would present it to the Union of Orthodox Rabbis in North America and other such organizations worldwide, for their input and approval. I was told that such study groups, unconnected to the efforts of Vendyl Jones and others here in the United States, exist in Europe and other areas of the world. Rabbi Eliyahu plans to visit the United States this fall for the express purpose of visiting with, and encouraging, some of the scattered B'nai No'ach groups in the United States. For the future, Jones sees B'nai No'ach "yeshivas," where Gentiles will come for intensive Torah study, as well as B'nai No'ach "synagogues," separate from, but allied with local Jewish congregations.
Apparently there are numerous halachic matters still to be ironed out. An international committee, headed by Rabbi Yoel Schwartz in Jerusalem, will be responsible for working out such details. Rabbi Schwartz is a renowned authority on the Noachite Laws. He is to consult with leading rabbis from all the various groups of Jewish orthodoxy. The Gentile leaders of the movement are strongly committed to the requirement that B'nai No'ach teachers be "fully observant" Jewish rabbis and Torah scholars. What, if anything, these efforts will eventually mean to Reform, Conservative, or other "branches" of Judaism remains to be seen. What is surprising is the range of Orthodox groups of different persuasions who are willing to co-operate in this effort.
As a historian of ancient Judaism and early Christianity, I find this movement fascinating and significant. The earliest Gentile Christians were more rooted in, and wedded to, a form of "Torah faith," than their brethren of later centuries. Something close to the Noachite concept is reflected in our New Testament sources. I find it intriguing that such options for Jewish-Christians connections are being replayed in our own time. My personal impression is that this movement has a solid beginning and might grow rapidly. Many may find appealing the combination of a universal ethical monotheism with a firm, conservative base in Scripture and tradition. Others might welcome the opportunity to study and learn the Torah in a traditional Jewish manner from rabbis and scholars. Such an option has seldom been openly available to non-Jews. Still others, who have difficulty with Christian dogma, may find this "half-way house" attractive. It offers a way to worship and follow the God of Israel, short of conversion to Judaism but free of many restraints of creed and cult. The emphasis is firmly on a spiritual and moral code, at a time when so many seem to have lost a sense of any certain "pathway." Whether we will ever see a B'nai No'ach version of Billy Graham, forcefully proclaiming this way of repentance to the masses remains to be seen. I might recast the question I posed at the beginning. If Judaism does have an evangelistic message for the non-Jewish world, what might be the practical outcome? By all measures it appears that this fledgling B'nai No'ach movement proposes a concrete answer.
(1)The basic Talmudic discussion of the notion of the "Noachite" is in the Babylonian Talmud, tractate Sanhedrin 56-60. Various additions and amplifications were made to these seven, so that in one place thirty Noachian laws are listed (tractate Hullin 92a)! See The Jewish Encyclopedia, "Laws, Noachian", and The Encyclopedia Judaica, "Noachide Laws", for general discussion and basic primary and secondary literature. (2) The precise meaning and use of these technical terms is disputed in rabbinic literature and subsequent interpretation. What I offer here is a general summary. For a good survey of the essential issues and terminology see the encyclopedia articles cited in the previous note as well as the article by Louis Feldman, "The Omnipresence of the God-Fearers", Biblical Archaeology Review, September/October, 1986, pp. 58-69. (3) For a balanced discussion of this topic, which corrects many common misconceptions, see John Gager, The Origins of Anti-Semitism: Attitudes Toward Judaism in Pagan and Christian Antiquity (Oxford: Oxford University Press,1983). (4) For the evidence see Louis Feldman, "Omnipresence of the God-Fearers", pp.59-60. (5) There are eleven references in Acts: 10:22,35; 13:16,26,43,50; 16:14; 17:4,17; 18:17. Some scholars have questioned the existence of such "God-fearers", notably A. Thomas Kraabel, "The Disappearance of the 'God-fearers"', Numen 28 (1981) 113-26. See the fascinating debate, with full citation of primary and secondary references, in the series of articles by Kraabel and Robert MacLennan, Robert Tannenbaum, and Louis Feldman, in Biblical Archaeology Review September/October,1986; also Thomas Finn, '"The God-fearers Reconsidered", Catholic Biblical Quarterly 47 (1985) 75-84, who argues against Kraabel that such a group was significant to the growth of early Christianity. (6) These four prohibitions are variously interpreted. The prohibition against "things strangled", apparently refers to 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). (7) Compare the list of commandments Noah teaches his grandsons in the 1st century B.C.E. text, Jubilees 7:20,28, namely, to cover the shame of their flesh; bless the creator; honor parents; love neighbor; abstain from sexual immorality, from murder, and from eating blood. (8) Religion der Vernunft (1929). (9) See the enlightening discussion of this dispute by Steven Schwarzschild, "Do Noachites Have to Believe in Revelation", Jewish Quarterly Review 52 (1962): 297-308 and 53 (1962):30-65, but now conveniently reprinted in The Pursuit of the Ideal: Jewish Writings of Steven Schwarzschild, ed. Menachem Kellner (New York: SUNY,l990), pp. 29-59. (10) See his moving autobiographical testimony, now translated into English by Louise Wise titled The Unknown Sanctuary: A Pilgrimage from Rome to Israel (New York: Bloch, 1985). (11) See Aaron Lichtenstein, The Seven Laws of Noah (New York: Z. Berman Books,1981) and Chaim Clorfene and Yakov Rogalsky, The Path of the Righteous Gentile (Jerusalem: Feldheim Publishers,1987). Rav M. M. Schneerson, the Rebbe of the Lubavitcher Chabad hasidic movement, has repeatedly stressed to his followers that Jews have the obligation to teach non-Jews the "Seven Laws of Noah."
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