This study is part of a series that will examine the Jewishness of the original followers of Jesus. Did their belief in Jesus the Messiah and his death and resurrection lead to a subsequent abandoning of various Jewish practices? The approach taken will be to go through each book of Acts, examining relevant texts for insights into this question.
Acts 17:1-2 NIV “When Paul and his companions had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a Jewish synagogue. As was his custom, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures,...”
Paul may call himself an Apostle to the Gentiles, but he tends to seek out Gentiles close to the Jewish community. His God-fearing, Gentile converts are already informed on the basics— they are not idolaters, they understand that the Hebrew Scriptures are the foundation of belief and practice, and they are already present at synagogue services on Sabbath days. We may not have all the details, but since we know that Paul made his argument from Scripture, we can reconstruct his message using the Old Testament— it is the foundation upon which he builds. If we are to properly understand Paul, we must seek out the Old Testament texts that he quotes and study there the subjects that he emphasized.
If Paul or the other apostles had made a radical break with Judaism or even if such a break had occurred any time prior to the writing of Acts, if the believers were no longer keeping Shabbat and were ignoring the festivals, we would expect some kind of explanatory aside such as, “Paul usually met with the believers on Sundays, but when he entered a new territory his custom was to visit the Jewish synagogue seeking potential members for the new church he would be establishing.” Since Paul's Sabbath customs are mentioned without comment we can assume that this behavior was the norm for all and was not noteworthy.
All the apostles started life as Jews. There is no mention in the New Testament of any of them rejecting or repudiating Judaism. We can assume with complete confidence that they began life as faithful Sabbath-keepers. There is no mention in the New Testament that they stopped keeping the Sabbath. There is no Sabbath controversy described in Acts— certainly there would have been controversy if they were breaking the Sabbath and teaching others to cease Sabbath keeping. Since we know they started life as Jews and there is no mention of a break with Jewish customs, the burden of proof for any claim that the apostles no longer practiced Judaism is on the one making that claim.
The complete silence on any break from Jewish practices and the absence of any Sabbath controversy along with the casual descriptions of typical Sabbath activities as we would expect in a Jewish community— without explanatory comments for presumed readers who no longer keep Sabbath— are compelling evidence that there was no break with Jewish customs and Sabbath-keeping prior to the writing of Acts. The apostles continued to follow Jewish customs; they continued to be Sabbath keepers.
Acts 17:4 NIV “Some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a large number of God-fearing Greeks and quite a few prominent women.”
Paul's message was that Jesus was the Messiah— the Jewish Messiah, Son of David, King of Israel. Some Jews were persuaded; some were not. Paul makes his case with Jewish Scriptures in a Jewish synagogue to Jews and God-fearers— all his hearers are practicing Jews or are connected to the Jewish community. There is nothing that suggests that Paul is setting up a new religion or trying to draw people away from the synagogue. There is no mention of a different day of worship; there is no mention of new religious rituals; there is no mention of Paul trying to end certain Jewish customs. Everything that Paul teaches and practices is done within the context of Judaism and the Jewish community.
Acts 17:10-12 ESV “The brothers immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea, and when they arrived they went into the Jewish synagogue. Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so. Many of them therefore believed, with not a few Greek women of high standing as well as men.”
Let’s fill in some details in this story. Paul and Silas enter Berea and the first thing they do is go to the Jewish synagogue. They present a message— we can safely assume they used the Jewish scriptures. Their hearers are Jews and “Greek” people who are friendly with the Jewish community. “Many" of these people study the Jewish scriptures and come to believe that Paul and Silas are on to something— that indeed, the Jewish Scriptures contain the message that Paul and Silas are presenting.
It is not a stretch to think that these Bible-studying Jews might see some parallels and connections between Old Testament prophecies and the life of Jesus. But, it strains our credulity to think that the Bereans readily accepted the message that tradition would have us believe— that Paul was teaching them to abandon the law, throw away their tzitzit tassels, abandon their festivals, leave the synagogue, eat pork and break the Sabbath. Somehow we are expected to believe that they would be pleased with their new-found freedom from the burden of the law— and, most amazing of all, that they studied their Hebrew Scriptures and found the evidence there to support this radical change. Paul's powers of persuasion must have been amazing because there is no record of any controversy over this presumed, radical overthrow of their way of life. Nobody tells of their difficulties with leaving Judaism; nobody describes their first time “enjoying” pork; there is no mention of a sense of loss going in public without tzitzit; nobody talks of feeling an awkward moment when starting to work that first Saturday apart from Judaism. There is nothing there that makes this traditional assumption believable. It didn't happen.
Acts 17:17 NRSV “So he argued in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and also in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there.”
As is his “custom”, Paul is in the synagogue. His hearers are a mix of Jews and people friendly to Judaism. Most likely Paul met in the synagogue on the Sabbath.
Acts 17:18-19, 32-34 NIV “A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to debate with him. Some of them asked, “What is this babbler trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.” They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection. Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.” At that, Paul left the Council. Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others.”
Paul's experience at the Areopagus— meeting outside the Jewish community— does not follow the usual pattern that we find in the records preserved here in Acts. In Berea, “many” of the Jews and Greeks that heard him in the synagogue became believers. At the Areopagus, “some” believed— we are left with the impression that Paul is much more successful in the Jewish communities. It seems that many— perhaps nearly all— the Gentiles that come to believe are already associated with the synagogue and are just short of being proselytes— full converts to Judaism.