An Investigation into the History of the Noachide Laws

by Tim Hegg

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In today’s rabbinic Judaism, a well entrenched teaching is that Gentiles who observe the seven laws given to Noah are worthy of a place in the world to come. This was explicitly taught by Rambam:

Anyone who accepts upon himself the fulfillment of these seven mitzvot and is precise in their observance is considered one of ‘the pious among the gentiles’ and will merit a share in the world to come.1

Among biblical scholars, it is not uncommon to find appeal to the Noachide Laws when the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15 is under discussion. At the Jerusalem Council it was decisively determined that Gentile believers need not become proselytes in order to be saved. The Apostles affirmed that salvation was based upon faith in Messiah Yeshua and not upon one’s Jewish status (Acts 15:11). But having affirmed salvation by God’s grace through faith in Yeshua, the Apostles went on to require Gentile believers to submit to a four-fold halachah: to abstain from 1) things sacrificed to idols, 2) from blood, 3) from things strangled, and 4) from fornication.2

In seeking an explanation for why these particular prohibitions were chosen, some scholars have suggested that Noachide Laws, known from the later rabbinic materials, were the recognized halachah for “resident aliens” among the 1st Century Jewish communities. As such, it would have been natural for the Jerusalem Council to utilize this established halachah for the Gentiles who were, in increasing numbers, filling their synagogues. Rather than requiring the Gentiles to become full proselytes, they accepted them as “resident aliens” (ger toshav) applying to them the same standards of conduct required by the wider Jewish community.3 The four prohibitions of the Council’s decree are thus interpreted as reflecting these laws. The following are representative of this position:

Agreeing with Peter’s recommendation (Acts 15:7–11), the assembly decided to “loose” (that is, absolve) the Gentiles from the obligation of undergoing circumcision and from the observance of the biblical commandments prescribed in the Torah of Moses. However, in accordance with James’ recommendation, the assembled leaders decided to “bind” (that is, “prohibit”) in the sense of obligating converts to this new sect of Judaism to observe three basic, universal and overriding commandments that within Judaism later developed into seven commandments known as the “Commandments of Noah” or the “Noachide Commandments.” … If this hypothesis is true, then the universal commandments that the leaders of the early church required of its Gentile converts were the same commandments that the nation as a whole expected righteous Gentiles, or God-fearers, to keep.…The Jerusalem council did not innovate, but rather ruled in accordance with usual Jewish expectations of Gentiles.4

In Jewish thought, all of the commandments of Torah are required of Israel, but the Gentiles are responsible only for its moral demands, which are epitomized in the covenant with Noah and his children. This is basically the position endorsed by the Jerusalem council (Acts 15:28–29). Gentiles who have accepted the message of Jesus and want to join the fellowship of the community will be responsible for the moral standard outlined in the Noachic covenant, but they do not have to be circumcised and assume Israel’s entire covenantal responsibilities.5

These examples take as their starting point the presumption that the Noachide Laws, or some early form of them (perhaps as some formulation of “natural law”6) were not only extant in the 1st Century, but that they were so well known and practiced by the Synagogue that they presented the natural choice for the Jerusalem Council in determining the necessary conduct of Gentile believers.7 

But is this presumption well founded? When were the Noachide Laws formulated by the Sages and considered as law for the Gentiles? And what was the purpose of the rabbis in formulated the Noachide Laws?

The Noachide Laws in Early Rabbinic Literature

t.Avodah Zarah 8.4

The earliest clear reference to the Noachide Laws is found in the Tosefta. The Tosefta embodies the additional comments and commentary to the Mishnah, traditionally thought to be gathered together by the 4th Century CE. However, there is no clear historical evidence that a body of rabbinic halachah, later known as the “Tosefta,” existed as a recognized, authoritative standard in the 4th Century CE, and it is very likely that such a collection of halachic formulations and discussions was not a “published”8 reality until much later. In fact, according to Millard (quoting Reif),

The transition from oral to written took place between the seventh and ninth centuries, only occasionally earlier…and the ‘current scholarly consensus’ accepts there was a ‘distinct preference not to commit [prayers and blessings] to an ‘authoritative written text’ earlier than that period.8

Thus, even though in sources like the Mishnah, Tosefta, Talmuds, and Midrashim, sages who lived in the early centuries are referenced in accordance with their teachings and halachic rulings, this by no means is a valid criterium by which one can confidently place the date of such a ruling, for as Neusner affirms:

Ample evidence in virtually every document of rabbinic literature sustains the proposition that it was quite common for sages to make up sayings and stories and attribute the sayings to, or tell the stories about, other prior authorities.9

In Tosefta Avodah Zarah 8.4 we read:

Concerning seven requirements were the children of Noah admonished: setting up courts of justice, idolatry, blasphemy, fornication, bloodshed, thievery, [and a limb torn from a living animal].10

But this Toseftan text goes on to show that while seven laws became the accepted tradition, other Sages reasoned that there were more than seven. For instance, in t.Avodah Zarah 8.6 R. Chananiah b. Gamliel (135–170 CE) reasons that if a limb torn from a living animal is prohibited, then so is ingesting blood. R. Chidqa (2nd Century Tana) adds the prohibition of castration. R. Simeon (b. Gamliel II [?] 2nd Century Tana) adds witchcraft, and R. Yose (b. Chalafta [?], 2nd Century Tana) includes all the prohibitions listed in Deut 8:10–11 (regarding all manner of sorcery). R. Eleazar (b. Hyrcannus [?], 2nd Century Tana) further adds the prohibition of hybridization of beasts and trees. All of these form the basis for the later Talmudic debates, but it should be realized that even the Tosefta, naming supposed statements of early sages, does not present a picture of the Noachide Laws as settled and formulated even in the predestruction era.

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  1. Mishnah Torah, Hilchot Melachim 8.11, quoted from Rabbi Eliyahu Touger, trans., Maimonides Mishneh Torah (Moznaim, 2001), p. 582.
  2. The textual issues that surround the listing of the four prohibitions given to the gentile believers have been much discussed. The four items are listed initially in the council’s discussion at Acts 15:20, then the decree itself is given in 15:29. The decree is also reiterated in 21:25. The Alexandrian texts list four things from which the Gentiles are to abstain, but the Western text omits “what is strangled” and adds a negative form of the Golden Rule in 15:20 and 29. The so-called Caesarean text omits “fornication” from 15:20 (P45 [which is not extant for 15:29 or 21:25] and the Ethiopic) and from 15:29 (as witnessed by Origen, Contra Celsum, viii.29 as well as by the Vulgate manuscripts Vigilius and Gaudentius). Many have suggested that the Caesarean text was emended to exclude “fornication” since it appears out of place when the other three prohibitions are understood as pertaining to food laws. The motivation for the Western text to exclude “things strangled” was to cast the prohibitions as moral injunctions rather than purity issues. The tripartite decree would thus require Gentiles to refrain from idolatry, unchastity, and murder (shedding blood). The addition of the negative Golden Rule emphasized the moral rather than ritual character of the prohibitions. But though some scholars have posited that the Western text was original, this perspective seems overburdened with difficulties, not the least of which is to offer a reasonable explanation for why the Alexandrian text would have added the prohibition of “things strangled.” Though the text critical problems are significant, it still seems to me that given all the extant evidence, the Alexandrian text (reflected in all English translations) offers the best reading. For further study, see Bruce Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (United Bible Societies, 1971), 429–34 (and the bibliography there); David Flusser, “Paul’s Jewish-Christian Opponents in the Didache” in Jonathan A. Draper, ed., The Didache in Modern Research (Brill, 1996), 195–6; Charles H. Savelle, “A Reexamination of the Prohibitions in Acts 15,” BibSac 161 (Oct-Dec, 2004), 449–68; Ben Witherington III, The Acts of the Apostles (Eerdmans, 1998), 460 n. 410; Markus Bockmeuhl, Jewish Law in Gentile Churches (Baker, 2000), 165-66; James Strange, The Problem of the Text of Acts (Cambridge, 1992), 87–105.
  3. Thus, in the later rabbinic materials, we meet with the term ger toshav resident alien” as distinct from ger or ger zadach usually denote a full proselyte. Accordingly, the later rabbis defined the ger toshav as a gentile who resided within Israel and lived according to the Noachide Laws, whereas the ger or ger zadach was a full convert who had taken upon himself the full yoke of the Torah. Cf. Mechilta Kaspa 3 (Lauterbach, 3.178), Bachodesh 7 (Lauterbach, 2.255), cp. b.Yevamot 48b; b. Gittin 57b; b.Kiddushin 20a; b.Bava Metzia 71a; Mid. Rab. Num 8.9; Rambam, Hilchot Avodat Kochavim, 10.6. However, as Novak has shown, the criteria for defining a ger toshav was being debated as late as the Talmudic era (cf. b.Avodah Zera 64b), and it may have been the need to define more clearly the term itself that necessitated the formulation of the Noachide Laws (David Novak, The Image of the Non-Jew in Judaism [Edwin Mellen Press, 1983], 14–19).
  4. David Bivin, New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus (En-Gedi Resource Center, 2005), 141–43. Bivin’s interpretation is based upon his view that the Western text (which does not contain “things strangled” and has the negative Golden Rule) represents Luke’s original. (See footnote 2 above.) Novak has shown that the Noachide Laws neither defined the ger toshav nor the foboumenoi/sebomenoi, the so-called “God-fearers” in the 1st Century CE (David Novak, The Image of the Non-Jew in Judaism [Edwin Mellen Pub., 1983], 21–26).
  5. Brad H. Young, Paul the Jewish Theologian (Hendrickson, 1997), 74–5
  6. This short study lacks space to explore the idea of “natural law” within the rabbinic literature, and especially in Philo. Note the remarks of Markus Bockmuehl, Jewish Law in Gentile Churches (Baker, 2000), 87–143.
  7. Davies, in writing of Paul’s theology, also considers the Noachide Laws to have been firmly established by the 1st Century: “Now, that Paul was familiar with the Noachide commandments cannot be doubted ….” (W. D. Davies, Paul and Rabbinic Judaism [SPCK, 1970), 115.
  8. Alan Millard, Reading and Writing in the Time of Jesus (Sheffield Press, 2000), p. 192, quoting S. C. Reif, Judaism and Hebrew Prayer (Cambridge Univ Press, 1993), p. 124.
  9. Jacob Neusner, Rabbinic Literature and the New Testament (Trinity Press International, 1994), p. 68. Note also the premise of Marc Shapiro, that the Bavli has gone through numerous changes, updates, and edits even in the pre-modern and modern period which utilized the printing press (Changing the Immutable: How Orthodox Judaism Rewrites its History [Littman Library: 2015]).
  10. There exists a textual variant among the early manuscripts of the Tosefta at this point: the Erfurt MS lists only six laws, leaving off the final one “a limb torn from a living animal.” The Vienna MS, however, has all seven, and since the Erfurt MS begins with “Seven laws…,” and includes the seventh in the ensuing discussion, scholars presume that its omission is the result of scribal error (see Markus Bockmuehl, Jewish Law in Gentile Churches [Baker, 2000], 159 n. 59). The first printed edition of the Tosefta, Alfasi (Venice, 1521-2) is based upon a manuscript which is now lost, and it likewise contains all seven laws (see H. L. Strack and G. Stemberger, Introduction to the Talmud and Midrash [Fortress, 1992], 178f).