Did The First Jewish Christians Live Under

Two Covenants?

I once heard it claimed that the first Jewish Christians lived under both the Old and New Covenants - but is that really correct? Is it even possible?

There is little doubt that the early Jewish Christians, based at Jerusalem, were somewhat uncertain as to the continued place of Mosaic law in the Christian life. See, for instance, Acts 21:20 where Jewish Christians of that period are described as 'zealous for the law.'

We need to clarify to what extent the earliest Jewish Christians continued to feel obligated to observe the Old Covenant even while, technically, living under the New Covenant.

Let us stand back a little and rehearse the relevant Scriptures on this topic.

The first Christians who were based at Jerusalem openly proclaimed the Gospel (as well as occasionally holding their private meetings) in the 'temple courts.' See Acts 2:46; Acts 3:1-10 and Acts 5:20-25.

But they also held meetings - and certainly conducted communion - in their homes; Acts 2:46 and Acts 20:7.

Some theologians have insisted that the first Hebrew Christians were really a sect of Judaism, but this is a very dubious argument, with no real evidence to back it up. In fact, there is little doubt that persecution from the Jewish authorities soon drove them out of the temple courts, and that meeting in homes became the usual routine. Even if some of these first Jewish believers wished to continue with Mosaic ordinances we can be sure that they would soon have been barred from doing so where those observances entailed any serious involvement in temple life (John 16:2).

Acts 21:17-29 is interesting because the apostle Paul shows sensitivity here to those in Jerusalem who still placed a high regard to Mosaic law. This can be dated to about AD56 which undoubtedly seems a surprisingly late date for Jewish believers to still be holding the Old Covenant regulations in such high esteem. Paul trod very carefully in this incident to respect the right of the Jerusalem congregation to differ because of their specific Jewish background, yet one cannot help feeling that he must have felt more than a little uncomfortable.

Of course, the early Church soon became quite clear that the Mosaic observations had no place in the life of Gentile Christians - see Acts 15, which can be dated at AD49 or 50 - the questions we are addressing here only pertain to Hebrew believers.

As we now know, this matter was finally resolved by the great Book of Hebrews and the purpose of that book was to clearly explain to Jewish believers that the Old Covenant was now a thing of the past. But our problem is that we cannot be sure exactly when that book was written! This is what we know:

* Hebrews was written before AD70 since the destruction of the temple in that year would almost certainly have been mentioned.

* The book contains no reference to the Neronian persecution of Christians of AD64, so was probably written before then.

* The book also contains no reference to the AD66 Jewish war and so it seems almost certain that it was written before that date.

* The book is quoted by Clement of Rome in his AD96 letter to Corinth and so it was written before then.

Who Wrote Hebrews?
By A.M. Stibbs

In the Epistle itself there is no explicit indication who wrote it. Nor do early Christian writers provide us with any unanimous or convincing testimony. Tertullian is definite in his witness; he says that Barnabas wrote it. But this witness is unconfirmed; though there is still a little to be said in its favour. The man who was given a Christian name meaning 'son of exhortation' (Acts 4:36) may well be responsible for this 'word of exhortation' (Hebrews 13:22). As a Levite he would have more than an ordinary interest in the sacrificial ritual; as a Jew from Cyprus he quite possibly had intimate contact with the Hellenistic and philosophical teaching of Alexandrian Judaism with which both the writer and his readers seem to have had some acquaintance; as one of those converted immediately after Pentecost (which may be what Hebrews 2:3-4 refers to), he doubtless came under the influence of the teaching of Stephen, an influence which seems to persist in this Epistle.

In Alexandria, where the Epistle (that is, the Epistle to the Hebrews), was accepted on its own merits, there is evidence of a growing tendency in the third century to connect it with Paul, but only rather indirectly. Clement suggested that Paul wrote it in Hebrew and that Luke translated it into Greek. Origen was prepared to think that the original thoughts were the apostle's but not the final written form and language. Such connection of the Epistle with the name of Paul commended itself widely because it gave it welcome apostolic authority, for lack of which many hesitated to accept it as canonical. Consequently many manuscript copies came to be headed with the title, 'The Epistle of Paul to the Hebrews.' This ascription to the apostle, however, most present-day students are not prepared to accept. The internal evidence of the Epistle itself, its language, style and contents, are regarded as conclusive evidence against it (e.g. contrast Hebrews 2:3 with Galatians 1:12 and 2:6).

Other suggestions are wholly speculative. They include Apollos, Silas, Aquila (or Priscilla and Aquila) and Philip the evangelist. Of these Luther's suggestion of Apollos is perhaps the best. From what we know of him (see Acts 18:24-28), he is exactly the kind of man who might have written such an Epistle. But there is no other evidence to prove that he did. When a human writer of Scripture was providentially led to hide his identity there is no need to try, and possibly little or no hope of success in trying, to discover it. It is wiser to be content not to know.
(Adapted from Introduction to the Hebrews, written by A.M. Stibbs in the New Bible Commentary, Inter-Varsity Fellowship, 1962, p 1088).

Putting many of these things together it seems fairly clear that Hebrews was written around AD57-63. So possibly only a very few years - and maybe only months - after the apparent confusion of Acts 21:17-29, this matter was clarified: Jewish Christians did not continue to stand under certain sections (or, all) of the Old Covenant and stood as much under the New Covenant as Gentile believers; therefore, Mosaic laws had no further claims upon them!

While this matter was probably becoming much clearer to the apostle Paul even before then, we must remember that Paul was seen as the 'Apostle to the Gentiles' without particular responsibility to the Jews and he was clearly careful, considerate and somewhat sensitive in his dealings with the Jerusalem Church. Paul was also careful not to venture into places which he saw as being under the jurisdiction of the other apostles. See Romans 15:20.

In order to learn a little more about the religious practices of the early Jewish believers, it will assist us to give some consideration to the dating of the Book of Galatians, for in this book we find a clear and settled theology that an excess of Mosaic-based legalism among Christians amounted to heresy!

Some have proposed that Galatians was written as early as AD47-49, but it is hard to imagine that Paul had reached the mature understanding of the place of Mosaic law which we find in Galatians, up to a decade before the incidents recorded in Acts 21:17-29 (if indeed those incidents are datable to about AD56, and they do appear to be); this would simply be contradictory! So this seems to be a very strong argument for dating Galatians to about AD55-57, with the possibility that 'the theological penny dropped' for Paul shortly after his difficult Acts 21 experiences! Paul also wrote Romans about AD57 and the overall tone is largely the same between these two great books, which, again, tends to suggest a similar date of authorship for them. In both Romans and Galatians (but especially Galatians), Paul's anger with the legalists is often white hot, and he writes with a great theological assurance on the subjects of law, faith and grace. Hebrews too appeared about then, or soon after (but Hebrews is probably not written by Paul - see the inset article - and, because of the somewhat sensitive subject matter of its insistence that Hebrews needed to break with the past and to move on to maturity, one feels that it probably had to be written by a leading Jewish teacher, such as Barnabas, who had some influence at Jerusalem, in order to gain wide acceptance).

So it seems that the awkwardness which Paul was subjected to at Jerusalem in AD56 (Acts 21), might have proven to be the catalyst for a leap forward in his understanding of the true place of Mosaic law (fulfilled in Christ and having no further merit or necessity) which we find in Romans and Galatians. Certainly in Galatians, as already alluded to, Paul seems in no doubt that Jewish legalism in the Christian life is a heresy. Carefully study the entirety of Galatians. This is why - theologically - one just cannot believe that Paul's response to the episodes of Acts 21 would have been such as that which is indicated in that chapter, up to ten years after his writing of Galatians! Even some of my fellow evangelicals believe that Galatians was written in the late 40s AD, but this is why I - respectfully - believe that they are probably incorrect on this point, however, I do not disregard the well-documented and considerable difficulties involved in dating Galatians. I recommend the reading of Galatians: Why I Accept the 'North Galatians View'.

So it could well be that our eminently patient God gave the first Jewish Jerusalem-based Christians up to a quarter of a century to gradually come to understand that the Old Covenant was now obsolete (Hebrews 8:13), before some pretty strongly-worded epistles (Romans, Hebrews and most probably Galatians) appeared around AD57-62 !!

Finally, God underlined that the Old Covenant was now dead by allowing the Romans to destroy the temple in AD70!

This is a typical papyrus letter dating to the first century AD. Paul used such papyrus for his epistles.

But without any doubt, Jewish Christians would have been barred from taking full part in the temple system long before then and the most likely scenario appears to be that the Jerusalem-based Jewish Christians only observed selective areas of Mosaic law, including the sabbath, circumcision, aspects of the purification laws and possibly certain sacrifices; but one must believe that as their understanding developed they increasingly came to see that these Mosaic elements were now fulfilled in their meanings by the work of Christ.

Did they also continue to tithe? Quite possibly although in exactly what way (if at all), nobody can say. However, the statement made by one modern-day evangelist that "... The Jews were used to paying tithes to the Jewish leaders, so it was natural for them to instead give their tithes to the elders of the church," cannot be justified. Yet even if a pocket of Jerusalem-based Christians tithed, it seems very clear from several things that Paul wrote in his epistles that the first century Church in general did not tithe - but that is far too big a subject to get into here. See my article on Tithing here.

But to answer the bigger question here: The First Jewish Christians did not live under both the Old and New Covenants at the same time since that is not even possible, for when that temple curtain barring the way into the Holy of Holies became torn at Christ's last breath, the New Covenant came into force! Rather, they lived under the New Covenant but still affectionately held to certain practises of their past until their collective understandings deepened.

So there is evidence that our Lord extended a long period of patience and grace for the first Jewish Jerusalem-based church to gradually move forward in understanding before the appearance of several Spirit-inspired Church epistles made clear that the Old Covenant and its regulations and ordinances was now dead. Finally, God allowed the Romans to totally destroy the temple in AD70, underlining the abolition of that system.

'...Before faith came, we were kept under guard by the law, kept for the faith which would afterward be revealed. Therefore the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor. For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.' (Galatians 3:23-28, NKJV).

Robin A. Brace, 2007.

The reader may also be interested to read:
Was James a 'Supplanter' at Jerusalem? What Happened to Peter?