What you never knew about the New Testament’s view of the Law

One thing most of Christianity is unaware of is just how the Jews applied the Law of Moses to Gentiles in the time of Christ. As noted in the article about Pharisees, the dominant school of Pharisees, the School of Shammai, did not welcome or approve of Gentile converts. The School of Hillel did, however, and there were generally two sorts of Gentile converts they accepted:


Ger tzedeks. These were full Gentile converts (called proselytes) to Torah-based Judaism, who underwent circumcision and thereafter observed the full range of commandments within the Law. The “Hellenistic” (or Greek) Jews would have fallen into this category, as would Apollos, Steven, and possibly the group of Jews in Ephesus who had only known John’s baptism (Acts 19).


More importantly (for us to understand portions of the New Testament) were...


Ger toshavs. These were Gentiles who chose to worship God without making a full commitment to Judaism. They did not necessarily become circumcised, nor did they keep the full Torah--but they often observed what were called the Noachide commandments, several fundamental commandments Jewish tradition asserted that God gave to Noah after the Ark landed. Ger toshavs were known as “God-fearers.” Naaman the Syrian is an Old Testament example of a God-fearer.


Cornelius, called in the New Testament “a man who feared God” was probably a very religious Ger toshav, since it was next to impossible to be fully Torah observant in a Roman legion.


The reason it is important to know about these two groups is that without understanding that the Jews did not necessarily require Torah observance of Gentile converts, we may become confused when we see apparently contradictory teachings in the New Testament that vary between extolling Jews keeping the Law while suggesting to Gentiles that they do not need to. The reason is, both groups treated the Law differently!


Acts 15, for instance, came about because legalistic Shammaiite Pharisees (who resented Gentile converts in the first place) wanted to require the Gentiles to adhere to strict Torah-keeping as they did, whereas the Hillelites (like Paul) saw no reason for it.


The result was a ruling that seems to have applied the principles of the Noachide commandments to the Gentiles, relieving them from the obligation to become fully Torah observant.


Following is a list of both the commandments given in Acts 15 and the 7 Noachide commandments.


Commandment given in Acts 15

Noachide counterpart



Abstain from meats offered to idols

Abstain from idolatry

Abstain from fornication

Abstain from fornication/incest

Abstain from blood

Abstain from murder

Abstain from eating things strangled

Abstain from eating a living animal


Abstain from theft


Abstain from cursing God


Establish courts of justice


It will be observed that the commandments issued by the Jerusalem council bear a degree of similarity to the Noachide commandments. The last three, it will be noted, are missing, but unquestionably were and are consistent with Christian living even if not specifically stated. Even the law of establishing a court system may actually have been put into practice by the early church--Paul’s words in 1 Cor. 6, in which he rebukes the Corinthians for using pagan courts instead of being judged by “the Saints” may refer to such a court system within the church.


Once we see an apparent tie-in to the Noachide commandments on the part of the early New Testament church, the true view of the Law on the part of Paul and the other New Testament writers emerges and gives us a clearer insight than we had before.  

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