Jewish Law in Gentile Churches:
Halakhah and the Beginning of Christian Public Ethics:

Markus Bockmuehl (2000)

What was the basic selection criteria for New Testament ethics with its view towards a gentile mission? Upon what basis did its ethics depend? Markus Bockmuehl concludes that Christian ethics for gentiles and the related notion of "universal ethics" is deeply rooted in the Jewish scriptural tradition and operates within its perimeters. The book's thesis is presented through three major sections: 1) concerning the Jewish Law and the teaching of Jesus, 2) concerning the concept of "universal" or "natural" law in Jewish and apostolic tradition, and finally 3) the development of Christian public ethics from Luke to the early apologists. The following is a detailed overview taken largely from the Preface.

Part One : Christianity in the Land of Israel

Bockmuehl begins his investigation exploring the indebted relationship between Jesus' ethics and the Torah within the contemporary spectrum of first-century Jewish debate. He uses two controversial topics as testcases for determining Jesus' halakhah: divorce (i.e. Matthew's exception clauses) and ethics of "Let the dead bury their dead" compared to the command to honor father and mother. In the former case, Bockmuehl provocatively concludes that Jesus' teaching on divorce fits within the pre-rabbinical traditions rooted in Old Testament passages viewing acts of pornea (e.g. rape, adultery) as necessitating divorce. For the latter, Bockmuehl shows that the present evidences do not necessarily support the scholarly consensus that Jesus contradicts the commandment of honoring father and mother by his call to discipleship. As an alternative, he suggests Jesus' radical call in terms of Nazarite vows for ritual purity. Finally, Bockmuehl re-examines the cause of controversy concerning the tensions between Jewish and Gentile converts at Antioch (Gal 2) resulting in the apostolic conference of Acts 15. He suggests that Antioch served as the main point of decision for Jewish and Gentile relationships in the church since it was situated on the border of the Promised Land in a time of renewal for the twelve tribes of Israel.

Part Two: Jewish and Christian Ethics for Gentiles

Next, Bockmuehl deals with the question of the role of Jewish ethics when applied to the apostolic affirmation of a Gentile mission. According to Bockmuehl, Christians inherited an ancient Jewish understanding that Torah was obligitory to Gentiles only with respect to the laws that the Torah itself applies to them. He begins by tracing the concept of "natural law" in Second Temple Judaism followed by its use in the New Testament. The former he concludes that while holding some reservations to the perspecuity of nature, Jewish writers, especially in diaspora, went out of their way to affirm the analogous relationship between Torah and nature, even that nature works according to Torah. Likewise, although appeals to ethics based upon nature in the New Testament are analogous rather than deductive and sparse, Christian writers recognized the universal ethical relevance of created order and its harmony with revealed morality. Finally, he examines the New Testament application of Jewish Law to Gentiles and maintains that its concept of universal ethics is largely derived from the Noahic creation covenant applied from a thoroughly christological foundation and perspective.

Part Three: The Development of Public Ethics

The final section moves from the discussion of moral application of the Law to Gentile believers to its logical development of public moral discourse in the Graeco-Roman context. First he traces the increasing emergence of a distinct Christian public identity from Luke himself to early Christian apologists. The final chapter provides a concluding synthesis of both Jewish and Christian articulation of ethics in a public forum, as a comparison and contrast. Some Christian distinctives include a greater apologetic emphasis on exemplary living and concern for social welfare of outsiders. Christian apologetics had a martyr identity in its first few centuries shaped by its lack of civil rights and privileges as an officially respected religion in the Roman Empire. It argued from the tension between the attractiveness of a new "third race" and an authenticity rooted in antiquity. Its public moral discourse was also qualified by apocalyptic sectarianism: while Christian apologetics in a public discourse tried to maintain its attractiveness and persuasiveness, its ethics remained implicitly or explicitly determined by Christian revelation.


Just from the overview, one can perceive some suggestive and subtle contributions to the ongoing discussions concerning New Testament ethics with respect to Torah and apologetics. The book as a whole seems to lack comprehensiveness and an overall cohesiveness in its presentation. Many of the chapters are from articles or lectures that he has done for various occassions, and the author readily admits that there were probably many more things he could have read or said. Nevertheless, each chapter and major section is pregnant with possibilities ready to explode into volumes of their own, and the incompleteness served only to further my interest. The bibliography looks impressive and up to date, especially with respect to interactions with new perspective writers. His exegesis, while obviously not free from an interpretive grid, seems reasonable and restrained from dogmatic agendas. Even when he seems critical of protestant/reformed exegetical consensus, his criticisms remain compatible with reformed confession, in my opinion. At some points (e.g. synoptic relationship), he draws from some higher critical assumptions, but in a fashion that is not incompatible with faith and the inerrant authority of Scripture. The reading level is somewhat challenging with its appeals to original languages and modern theological vocabulary, but he usually provides enough context for those who have not been through seminary. Overall, I believe that Bockmuehl provides a convincing case for the underlying Jewishness of Christianity with respect to ethics and public discourse. Those interested in a diachronic and synchronic treatment of biblical natural theology, ethics, and church apologetics should be careful not overlook this book.

Eric Pyle

August 28, 2002