Archive for the 'Conversion' Category

On Tim Hegg’s Fellow Heirs; A Critical Review

While I greatly appreciate Tim Hegg as a scholar on Paul (The Letter Writer), I see some difficulties in his opinion on circumcision and in his conception of the relation of Jew and Gentile in the Messianic Community. The following remarks try to explore the difficulties inherent in Hegg’s viewpoint in his book Fellow Heirs, with the intent of developing a clearer vision on the implications of full Torah observance by Gentile believers in Yeshua. My criticisms of Hegg’s position are not purposing to discourage or undermine Gentile Torah observance.

In his Fellow Heirs Hegg makes a sharp distinction between circumcision as a biblical commandment on the one side and as a part of the rabbinic conver­sion procedure on the other side. He maintains that the biblical command­ment may apply to Gentile believers, not however the rabbinic conversion procedure. He further holds that biblical ciricumcision, when applied to a Gentile, does not make a Jew out of the Gentile. According to Hegg, a circum­cised Gentile is still a Gentile. The rabbinic conversion ritual however, does intend to change the Gentile into a (proselyte) Jew. Hegg rejects the rabbinic conversion for Gentiles. Matters become a bit complicated here because he even considers the rabbinic conversion to be illegitimate. It would lack a foun­dation in Scripture. Hegg takes the position that a conversion from Gentile into (proselyte) Jew is impossible. For him, Jewishness is defined by ethnicity, and ‘proselyte Jew’ therefore is a non-category. Everyone is either a Jew or a Gentile by birth, and that status cannot be changed by any means.

Hegg tries to prove his position on Jewish and Gentile status  by pointing to the biblical stranger (ger) who attached himself to Israel. The stranger could become in­cluded in Israel, but he remained a non-Jew.  By means of the above made distinctions, Hegg is able to make room for Gentile circumcision in a way that seems not to be in conflict with either the Apostolic Decree of the Jerusalem Council or with Paul’s letter to the Gala­tians. The circumcision applicable to Gentiles is the biblical circumcision, not the circumcision of the rabbinic conversion procedure. Gentile believers who get themselves circumcised are in Hegg’s view simply obedient to a bibli­cal injunction, without any consequences on Jewish or Gentile identity. Gentiles nowadays become included in Israel by faith in Yeshua, but they do not be­come Jews, not even by means of circumcision. Like the stranger in ancient Israel, they remain non-Jews, while sharing equal covenantal rights and respon­sibilities with their Jewish fellows in the Messianic Community. Hegg’s conception is in a way an intelligent one. It has the double advantage of making Gentile circumcion harmless so to say in regard of consequences on Jewish or Gentile status, and at the same time of seeming not to be in con­flict with the Apostolic Decree and Paul’s letters. The Apostolic Decree is in­ter­preted as bearing upon the circumcision of the rabbinic conversion ritual, not upon the biblical commandment. Paul’s letter to the Galatians is viewed by Hegg in the same light. Paul’s anger was directed against the rabbinic conversion procedure, not against the biblical commandment. 

Now the question arises whether this conception is indeed true. My hypothesis is, that it is not. I’ll try to prove this below. My first point is that Hegg’s stance on the stranger in Israel is unsatisfactory. By defining Jewishness in purely ethnic terms he creates an enduring distinc­tion between Jews and strangers within the one covenant community of Israel. And at the same time he reduces this distinction into a kind of non-distinction, because both born Israelites and faithful strangers have equal ac­cess to the covenantal privileges and share the same obligations. But, one may ask, is Jewishness indeed an ethnic category? And what sense is to be attri­buted to Hegg’s distinction (and non-distinction) between Israelite and stranger (ger)? 

Let’s begin with the last question, the distinction Hegg makes between born Israelites (or Jews) and strangers. Hegg says that this distinction is found in the Torah. The Torah knows about several categories of strangers, to be accu­rate, but among them is a category of faithful strangers who fully attach themselves to Israel and become covenant members. This is the category that really matters for Hegg’s conception. He emphasizes that their attachment to Israel is by faith, without a conversion ritual. He interprets the rabbinic con­version procedure as an “ethnic status change”, and qualifies it as unbiblical: “…the Scriptures nowhere contain a ritual of conversion, since this was a later rabbinic innovation. Nor do the Scriptures ever suggest that when one attaches himself to Israel or to the God of Israel, his ethnic status changes. Thus, the “ritual of conversion” was a rabbinic idea, nor a biblical one”. (Fellow Heirs, p. 32) 

From what Hegg further says it is clear that he views the biblical attachement to Israel as full incorporation in Israel and its covenants. It is a national in­clu­sion: “When the native born and the ger stood together on Ebal and Gerazim, they together swore to obey all of the Torah. The covenant of God is a single piece of cloth that cannot be divided”. (Ibid, p. 38)  In my eyes it is not convincing to deduce from the formula that there shall be one law for the born Israelite and for the stranger that the circumcised Gentile remains a Gentile. This sentence in the Torah is simply a warning against dis­cri­mination, of making a distinction between two classes of Israelites. There is only one class of Israelites, that is what the Torah is saying by this formula. The circumcised stranger is fully absorbed by the Jewish people. He is called a stranger only because he is no descendant of Jacob. And it is obvi­ous that his descendants — or the fourth generation of them — are Jewish. They are all members of the same nation, the same people. Peoplehood is the view­point here.

Now when Hegg sees the Israelite nation as composed of Jews and non-Jews, this may be so from a purely ethnic viewpoint. But from a his­torical viewpoint this is a distinction that disappears within a few generations. In the long run, all the members of the Israelite nation, strangers or native born, are Jewish. When Hegg comes to consider Paul’s theology of adoption, he seems to equate the aforementioned national inclusion of born Israelites and strangers with the pauline conception of the adoption as sons: “All of God’s chosen ones, whether descended from Jacob or brought near from the nations com­prise the people called God’s adopted son” (p. 47). In this way, the Commu­nity of Yeshua the Messiah comprises the believing remnant of Israel and the faithful of the nations. But the real question is whether the faithful of the na­tions in the Messianic Community become identified with Israel on a national level, in the same way as the strangers before the appearance of Messiah. This question is not treated by Hegg in its propter terms, because he conceives of Jewishness as a purely ethnic reality, a matter of lineage only. But precisely this conception is untenable in my view. A historical people never is to be equated with ethnicity.

For the Jewish people in particular such a point of view would have disastrous results. Large parts of it, descendants from converts, would be a kind of illigitimate Jews, despite the fact that they factually are fully incor­porated in the Jewish people. Thus there are two vital differences here. First, peoplehood or nationality appears to be something different from he­redity. Second, identification on a national level may not be equated too quickly with inclusion by faith. Identification on a national level may be by birth or by legal means, by a change of nationality. Identification by faith is not by birth, nor by any legal means, but is a spiritual reality. It is clear that Paul meant that Gentiles have been brought within the com­mon­wealth of Israel by means of their faith. Well, no one can become a mem­ber of another nation by such a thing as faith. I am a Dutchman, but I cannot be­come a member of the British commonwealth, or the British nation for that matter, by any faith whatsoever, not even by adopting the faith of the Angli­can Church. If I want to become British, I have to change my nationality in an orderly formal and legal way, otherwise things would become hopelessly confused. In Israel in the days of Paul this change of nationality was per­formed by the rabbinic conversion process. Hegg’s interpretation of the rabbinic conversion remains largely unintel­ligible to me. First, I never found that the rabbis conception of the proselyte ritual is that of an ethnic status change. That would be a selfcontradictory con­ception, because ethnic status by definition can never change. A person has the parents he has and the heredity he has. No one can change that, not even a rabbinic tribunal. Neither does the rabbinic conversion intend to perform such a kind of change. The rabbis do not say that one’s ethnic status is changed by the conversion ritual. One’s legal status and one’s peoplehood is changed. The convert becomes a legal (or adopted ) son of Abraham because he chooses for a change of peoplehood, of nationality. That is the basic idea. A change of nationality or peoplehood is far from selfcontradictory, in contra­distinction to an ethnic change, which is a contradiction in the very terms.

The rabbis conceived of this change of nationality as motivated by faith in the one God of Israel. Faith is always presupposed by the rabbis as the real and valid motive for conversion. But at the same time, faith should not be seen as the formal and legal means of national inclusion. In this respect it is only a motivating force. One of the new things consequential upon of the appearance of Messiah ac­cording to Paul is that Gentile believers can become faithful covenant mem­bers without national inclusion in Israel. They need not become members of the chosen nation. Their faith therefore need not (perhaps even must not for Paul) result in circumcision, as this would be an effort to perfect by the flesh what was be­gun in the Spirit (Gal. 3:3). The Gentile believers must not get circumcised, because the result of covenantal circumcision is national inclusion in Israel according to Paul. By means of circumcision — whether this be interpreted as the rabbinic procedure or as the biblical commandment is irrelevant at this point —, Paul conceives one to be added to the community of the circum­cised. The community of the circumcised for Paul is the circumcised nation, Israel. This national inclusion was precisely what the Pharisees of Acts 15:3 were attempting to bring about. For them the unity of the nation and the unity of the faith was the same thing. Paul however at this point makes a cru­cial dis­tinction.  To put it simply, Hegg’s primary distinction is between ethnic inclusion in Israel and inclusion by faith. He conceives both types of inclusion as national inclusion if I have understood him correctly.

My primary distinction however is between national inclusion and inclusion by faith. Inclusion by faith in my view therefore does not necessarily result in national inclusion. Gentile mem­bers of the Messianic Community can be spiritually included in Israel, with­out national identification (through circumcision).