Self-Defense on the Sabbath(s); Nomos

I started volume 4 of John Meier’s A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus.  This is the last volume of the series that has been published thus far, but more volumes will come out sometime in the future.  Meier still hopes to discuss the parables, Jesus’ self-designations, and Jesus’ death.  He says in his intro to volume 4 that he’ll do all this in volume 5, but I have my doubts, for he said in volume 3 that he’d wrap everything up in volume 4, and that didn’t happen!  As far as the date of volume 5’s publication is concerned, I don’t know.  Volume 3 was published in 2001, and volume 4 was published in 2009 (in part due to the passing away of David Noel Freedman).  Volume 5 will come out sometime in the future, and I’m sure it will be as comprehensive and as informative as the volumes so far.

Volume 4 is about Jesus’ stance towards the Torah.  I have two items for today.

1.  During the Maccabean revolt, the priest Mattathias issued a ruling allowing the Jews to fight to defend themselves on the Sabbath.  This ruling came as a result of Jewish casualties that resulted from their enemies attacking them on the Sabbath, when certain pious groups were resting and thus refrained from fighting back.  According to this ruling, the Jews could not be aggressors on the Sabbath, but they could defend themselves.

This decision was not accepted by everybody, however.  The Book of Jubilees states that fighting is prohibited on the Sabbath (Jubilees 50:7-12).  The producers of Jubilees had issues with Mattathias contradicting what they considered to be God’s primordial revelation to Moses about the sanctity of the Sabbath.  The fact that Mattathias was a non-Zadokite didn’t help, either.

On page 57, Meier talks about Josephus’ stance on Mattathias’ ruling.  In Jewish War 2.19.2, Josephus tells a story about Governor Cestius of Syria approaching Jerusalem with his army in 66 C.E. to subdue an “incipient revolt” (Meier’s words).  Josephus narrates that the Jews in Jerusalem took up arms and thereby disregarded the high-day Sabbath during Sukkoth, allowing their passions to shake them out of “proper religious observance” (Josephus’ words).  According to Meier, Josephus obviously disapproves of what the Jews did.  Meier speculates that Josephus thought that self-defense was fine on the weekly Sabbath, but not on the high-day during Sukkoth, for Mattathias’ ruling applied specifically to the Sabbath.

If that is Josephus’ stance, then I find it odd.  So you can defend yourself on one day, but not on another?  What sense does that make, when the whole point of Mattathias’ ruling was to preserve life?  Moreover, couldn’t one do a qal va-chomer to justify Jews defending themselves on the high-day?  If they could defend themselves on the Sabbath, how much more could they do so on a day that is less in holiness, the high-day during Sukkoth?  After all, they could cook and do other things during the high days that were prohibited on the weekly Sabbath (see here).

2.  Something that I have long heard is that Torah means teaching, whereas the Greek word used for law, nomos, means law.  The implication is that the Septuagint added a legalistic dimension to the Torah that was not present in the Hebrew.  Meier disagrees with this, for on page 38, he states that nomos, too, is broader in its meaning than “law”: “In Greek, nomos was used in various and overlapping contexts that included religion, civil society and law, philosophy, cosmology, and royal ideology.”  For Meier, nomos is a good word to use in translating the word “Torah” into Greek.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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4 Responses to Self-Defense on the Sabbath(s); Nomos

  1. truthceeker says:

    Consider all of the New Testament passages which make more since when understood in light of the translation of “nomos” with Torah.

    “Man of Lawlessness” becomes “Man who is devoid of Torah”
    “He is a Law unto himself” (from the book of Romans) Paul in speaking of the Gentiles who have not the “law” but do those things naturally which are in the “law”. They are “Torah” observant naturally.


  2. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Hi Truthseeker! Some months ago, I was reading and blogging about books concerning Gentiles and the Torah. I learned a lot from that, but I still feel something’s missing. How exactly would you interpret that passage in Romans 2 about Gentiles observing the Torah naturally? Does “Torah” there include things like the Sabbath, dietary laws, etc.?


  3. truthceeker says:

    This is exactly what I used to question myself, but the answer is an easy one. The passage in Romans 2 is simply in regard to those truths which are universal accross diverse cultures. The argument is based mainly in understanding the Torah which was unique to Israel such as Sabbath, dietary laws, etc, because they were called to be a nation of Priests for the world, and therefore were held to extra instructions.

    The confusion begins when Gentiles are called into Messiah. Should they now keep those Torah laws which are unique to Israel? This was the issue of Acts 15 (The Jerusalem Council). And so the debate continues within the modern Messianic Communities today with some few ultra orthodox, a majority of conservatives, and some reform groups.

    Ironically, the messianic groups have aligned themselves with the three main sectors of Judaism, those being the Orthodox, Conservative, and Reformed.

    Personally, I follow the dietary laws in a partially conservative manner and am currenty seeking a new Messianic Community to worship on Saturday. In the meantime I am attending the Catholic Church with my wife. 🙂

    But going back to Paul’s notion of a Gentile who does those things naturally which are in the Torah. In all likelyhood Paul’s meaning is in reference to those parts of the Torah which are universally true.

    We have to realize that the Jewish understanding of Torah has three basic meanings:

    1. The First Five Books
    2. The Whole of the Scriptures.
    3. Teaching on the Scriptures.

    As well as these three meanings there was also the understanding that Torah was eternal and was only represented by the Scriptures.

    The Western view of “law” tends to be all encompassing at times. A Gentile must have kept all of the laws naturally is the assumption. The Jewish mind however understands that the Lord’s Torah does not apply the same to every tribe, man, woman, and in some cases servants.

    I continue to study this matter myself. 🙂


  4. jamesbradfordpate says:

    I think you’re right about what Paul meant. I think, though, that there was a strand of Judaism that thought even Gentiles should observe the Torah. I get into that in my write-ups on Terence Donaldson’s Paul and the Gentiles. Here’s a post I wrote:

    That’s cool that you go to a Messianic congregation and a Catholic church! I went the Messianic route for a brief time. Later, I attended a Latin mass for two years.


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