Football Is Legalistic

The other night I was driving my family home from somewhere we had gone and my youngest son, who is obsessed with football, brought up the topic of the various ways a touchdown is considered valid or invalid. For instance, a play is considered a touchdown if the football crosses the plane of the goal line. However, he began explaining the difference between what is considered a touchdown in the NFL versus college football. Do both feet have to cross the goal line or just one? What if a player was in the end zone, but leaned across the goal line to catch the ball and immediately fell forward and the ball technically never crossed the goal line? What if a player was tackled a few inches in front of the end zone and slid, ball first, over the goal line? What if … As you can see, the scenarios are endless. But someone has to define what a touchdown is or isn’t in specific enough terms to allow the players to know if they have succeeded or not in scoring a touchdown.

But the details don’t stop there. For every play of the game there are specific rules that govern what happens next. What happens if a defensive player crosses the line of scrimmage before the ball is snapped? What about if that happens to an offensive player? When an offensive player is carrying the ball, what criteria has to be met for the runner to be considered stopped? How much forward movement must he have to continue and what about the whole thing with his knee touching the ground? When is a fumble really a fumble and when can a ball continue in play? You get the point. The rules are endless.

Towards the end of my discussion with my son, I told him he was a legalist. At first he didn’t understand. And then I said, “You’re so caught up with the rules, that you’ve lost track of the game.” But my comment was in jest. For him, and so many other men like him who have a passion for sports, knowing the intricacy of the rules is one of the things that make the game

One of the reasons I don’t enjoy football is probably because I don’t understand the rules. To me it all looks the same. Isn’t the object of the game to keep the ball away from the other team and hurt as many of their players in the process? It just seems so barbaric, uncivilized, and asinine. But that’s because I don’t see the sport from the inside. I don’t see the carefully calculated details and decisions that have been a part of the evolution of the game. I don’t see the long history of plays that have been the catalyst for developing tighter definitions of each of the terms and rules. I do see, however, that despite these inexhaustible rules and regulations, there are still millions upon millions of people across the world that enjoy and participate in football on an almost daily basis.

Here’s another problem. Sometimes the referees make a mistake and call a bad call against our favorite team. It happens. There’s no denying it. We get upset. Stand up. Shout. Make an idiot out of ourselves and then we go back to the game. We may talk about the refs and their bad decisions after the game, and complain to our friends that they should be fired. But do we ban all referees from football and claim football doesn’t need referees? Do we stop watching football? Do we stop playing football? Do we ban the sport entirely and close down all of the football stadiums across the country? No. That would be absurd.

But this is how we treat Judaism. First, we look at it from the outside and criticize it because we don’t understand it. We think its goal is one thing when its another. We try to superimpose our misunderstandings upon it and redefine it based on our misunderstanding. We look at all of the laws within the Torah with disdain because we don’t know the game. We haven’t been around the block long enough to know how those rules make the game enjoyable for those who love it. When we finally have some appreciation for the rules, we want to redefine them on our own terms and jettison the entire game history that has helped to articulate those rules more precisely over the last three thousand years. And we want to get rid of the referees, because they continue to reinforce those old rules. No matter what we do or how much we tell them they are wrong, they don’t seem to want to play by the rules we have created or even the ones we have redefined based on our understanding of how it should be.

Football fans like football. They don’t like a sport that has a bunch of guys running around with a pointy, brown ball with an entirely different set of rules, no matter if they seem to be wearing the same uniforms as their favorite team or not. It only brings confusion and frustration. It’s a mockery. A shame.

Messianic Judaism is a type of Judaism. It is one that is working to resemble the Judaism that Jesus and his disciples practiced. It is also working to look like the Judaism that will be practiced in the Messianic Kingdom. But it has to be concerned with the details. Otherwise, it’s not a form of Judaism, but only a mockery of it. Is the goal of Messianic Judaism to be “legalistic”? Of course not. But we could ask the same question of the NFL. Did it set out to be “legalistic”? No. But for each of these, a well-defined standard by which we measure success is absolutely necessary. It’s how we know if we have “played the game” well or not. It’s what makes the game worth playing and keeps everyone on the same page.

If I create my own standard for how Messianic Judaism should be lived out, it’s like writing my own rulebook for football. No one will want to play with me. In fact, no one could play with me, because I’ve changed all the rules that they are familiar with. So, the next time you see Messianics doing things that look too Jewish, too legalistic, just remember that these are the things that make the game accessible for some, but inaccessible for others. It’s not that they want to make things difficult, or legalistic, or offensive. But your appreciation of what they are doing depends on whether or not you want to understand the game. Fans and players understand it. Critics won’t ever get it.

Book Review: In the Shadow of the Temple

In The Shadow of the Temple coverIn the Shadow of the Temple :
Jewish influences on early Christianity
by Oskar Skaursaune

455 Pages
InterVarsity Press, 2002

Until reading this book, I was totally unaware of Skarsaune and his literary offerings. Now, I realize how deprived I have been.

In In the Shadow of the Temple, Skarsaune begins his account of the development of Christianity by first peering into the last two centuries of the Second Temple period, beginning with the Hasmonean dynasty and the subsequent influence of Hellenism upon Jewish religion and culture. From there he sets the stage to masterfully guide us through the first few centuries of the development of Christianity, culminating in “The Constantinian Revolution” of the early fourth century.

Throughout each chapter he weaves the story of the early believers with the fibers of secular historical records (such as Pliny the Elder & Tacitus), Jewish writings (Talmud, Apocrypha, etc.), and the writings of both Jewish and non-Jewish believers (Didache, 1 Clement, etc.). Skarsaune examines as much of the evidences as possible in order to place each piece of the puzzle with care. He is very articulate without being verbose. Following are some highlights from this work.

The impact of this way of looking at first-century Jewish and Christian history has been enormous, and is still felt in New Testament scholarship. There is no doubt, however, that a basic “change of paradigm” is taking place. For one thing, Jewish scholars have argued with great conviction that Jesus should not be placed outside Pharisaism, but within it: when Jesus debates with Pharisees, his own positions can be shown to agree with those of other Pharisaic authorities. In other words, Pharisaism itself was complex; it comprised different opinions; it could comprise those of Jesus. Jesus’ debates with Pharisaic opponents is therefore an intra-Pharisaic debate…It is meaningless and grossly anachronistic to picture Jesus, Peter or Paul as debating with “Judaism” or its representatives, as if they themselves were outside and represented something else, a non-Jewish position. 1

In this quote, Skarsaune rightly recognizes the intra-house debate between Jesus and the Pharisees of his days, rather than viewing Jesus as an outsider as is typically the case. Jesus has not come to topple the biblical religion in order to establish a new one through subversive tactics. He is in the order of the prophets of old, condemning hypocrisy and calling his people back to repentance through proper relationship to the Torah given at Sinai.

In another insightful passage, Skarsaune hits upon another often overlooked truth in regard to the standard model of prayer for the early believers:

In the days of Jesus the wording and sequence of the elements of the synagogue service had attained such stability that we are fully justified in speaking of a synagogal liturgy. The echoes of the synagogal prayers in the Lord’s Prayer and other early Christian prayers demonstrate that this liturgy was well known to Jesus and the early disciples. We should not think that the early Christians were antiliturgical in their worship gatherings. It is no accident that in Acts 2:42 Luke does not say that the early community “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching … and prayer,” but to “the prayers,” which suggests fixed patterns. All the evidence points to the synagogal liturgy as a source for those prayers. 2

When examining the letters of Ignatius 3, Skarsaune aptly notes:

One gets the impression that Ignatius’s relationship to the Old Testament was mainly a literary one. For him, the Old Testament was a book, not a living past which, through traditions and observances, determined his own life and thinking. It is this, more than anything else, that betrays the Gentile Christian. The position of Ignatius may perhaps best be characterized as New Testament orthodoxy. It was the apostolic writings that made him value the Old Testament and love the prophets. The authority of the Old Testament is undisputed, but it is derived from the authority of the gospel.

This was probably one of the most characteristic differences between Jewish believers and believers coming from an entirely Gentile background. It was not a question of doctrinal differences but rather a difference of mentality. For both groups the Old Testament was an authoritative book, and the church of the Gentiles was later to defend the Old Testament bravely and at considerable cost against attacks from within the church and without. But to them the Old Testament was and remained a book, describing a history that was past and finished. To the Jewish believers, it was so much more. Through innumerable cords of tradition, festivals, daily practices, religious concepts, etc., the Jewish believers were bound up with the Old Testament; it was part of their lives.

What we observe in Ignatius may perhaps best be described as a loss of Jewish context. 4

In this observation, I believe Skarsaune has hit upon one of the primary dysfunctions of modern Christian faith. We have built our house of faith from the top down, rather than from the bottom up due to our subconscious disconnect with the Tanach (the “Old Testament”) and the patriarchs. Yes, Jesus is the pinnacle of our faith. But in order to truly understand his work, we must first have an intimate relationship with the broad foundation of the Tanach, which was laid out in order to elucidate that which would come after it. Without this understanding, the majority of the Scriptures (i.e. the “Old Testament”) becomes exactly as Ignatius views it, as “a history that was past and finished.”

To conclude, the present work from Skarsaune is one which should be in the library of anyone who is serious about understanding the development of Christianity in the first few centuries, and how the apron strings began to be cut (whether for the good or for the bad) from Mother Judaism. Skarsaune does an excellent job at reducing and articulating a plethora of information into layman’s terms in a way which is easily comprehendible and manageable. I look forward to collecting his other offerings as well.

  1.  In the shadow of the temple : Jewish influences on early Christianity. 2002 (105–106, 107). Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.
  2. Ibid., p. 125.
  3. was among the Apostolic Fathers, was the third Bishop of Antioch, and was a student of John the Apostle.
  4. Ibid., p. 217

Pharisees vs. Karaites

Recently, someone started a discussion on Facebook as to whether followers of Yeshua should follow either a rabbinic (Pharisaic) path verses a more Karaite path in their Torah observance. I’ve got a lot of thoughts on this, but unfortunately am nearly always short on time due to pressing deadlines with my work. I would like to share, however, the brief response I wrote for this discussion:

It is natural to think that the Karaite way of doing things would be a better way of doing things. However, the Karaite interpretation is actually anti-Scriptural. Let’s think about it. If we were to go to a Karaite interpretation of Scripture, we would all being living out the Scriptures as we interpret them. Which means, we would not be in any kind of unity. Which means we would be celebrating the feasts at different times, celebrating them in different ways, trying to fulfill the commandments in different ways. In short, this is chaos and anarchy. The Master (Yeshua) was a Pharisee among Pharisees, in that he was in agreement with the Pharisees in all but one point: hypocrisy.

Here are 3 short examples of the many that can be sited to show his Pharisaic affinity:

  1. He & his disciples kept the feast at the same times as greater Israel (which was determined by Pharisaic halachah)
  2. He reclined at the Passover meal (a Pharisaic invention, seemingly contrary to the biblical mandate in Exodus)
  3. He gave a blessing before eating, strictly a Pharisaic invention

The list could go on and on. These are just off the top of my head. It boils down to this: Yeshua was in agreement with Pharisaic tradition so long as it did not contradict with the written Word. We must examine the words of the Master and the Apostolic writings to determine whether a tradition is able to be kept or not, and follow his example.

The Karaite method is not even an alternative. If we were following the Karaite method, we would revert to the days of the Judges when “Every man did what was right in his own eyes…And they again did wickedness in the eyes of Hashem.”