Christ's followers clearly understood that he had fulfilled the requirements of the Law on their behalf, but it is also apparent that many of them were unsure about their obligations to that Law going forward. The writings of the New Testament make plain that the early Church continued to be very Jewish in its outlook regarding the Law of Moses. Indeed, the Church itself was founded at a gathering of Christ's disciples on the Mosaic Feast of Pentecost (Acts 2). From this same account, it is also apparent that Peter had continued to observe the dietary laws (Acts 10:14), early Christians continued to observe the weekly Sabbath (Acts 13:14, 42-44, 16:13, 17:2, 18:4), and many of them believed that the entire Law of Moses was still binding on Christians - including the provisions requiring males to be circumcised (Acts 15).
Much of this can be attributed to the fact that the Church remained exclusively Jewish for the first few years of its existence. Despite Christ's clear instructions to his disciples to take his message to all nations (Matthew 28:19-20, Luke 24:47, Acts 1:8), the early evangelistic efforts of the apostles were centered on Judea. In fact, we are told that God had to give Peter a special vision in order to move him to carry his message to the Gentiles (Acts 10). Initially, we are told that even after Christians were scattered and began to travel and preach outside of Judea that they preached exclusively to Jews (Acts 11:19). Likewise, it is apparent that Paul and Barnabas began their missionary efforts in the Jewish synagogues of Gentile cities (Acts 13). Hence, it is understandable that people who had been accustomed to obeying the precepts of the Mosaic Law their entire lives would continue to do so within the context of their acceptance of Christ as their Savior.
Nevertheless, it is also apparent that Gentiles had no such tradition of obedience to the Mosaic Law prior to their conversion to Christianity. The vast majority of these Gentile converts were not followers of YHWH. Their males had not been circumcised as babies. They hadn't grown up observing the weekly and annual Sabbaths. Mosaic dietary restrictions were wholly unfamiliar to them. In short, as Gentile converts began to come into the Christian Church in larger numbers, this naturally brought this contrast with their Jewish brethren into sharp focus. In other words, the influx of Gentile converts set the stage for discord within the Church over the question of Christian obedience to the precepts of the Mosaic Law.
Never mind that Christ's entire ministry had pointed to a new way of interpreting how the Mosaic Law should be applied to the lives of God's people, and that he had rejected the traditional legalistic interpretations of the Jewish religious leaders of his day. Many of his followers had forgotten that Jesus had distilled the purpose and intent of the Law into the principles of love toward God and neighbor. Thus, when faced with the impact of these different experiences on the lives and practices of both groups of Christians, the leadership of the Church appears to have steered a middle course between them and largely disregarded Christ's teachings on the subject.
According to the author of the book of Acts, "certain men which came down from Judea taught the brethren, and said, 'Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved.'" (Acts 15:1) Continuing, we are informed that this provoked a strong counter reaction from Paul and Barnabas (verse 2). This resulted in the Church sending Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem to consult with the apostles and elders who were still concentrated in that city (same verse). However, when the men arrived there and presented their case to the assembly of leaders, we are told: "But there arose certain of the sect of the Pharisees which believed saying, that it was needful to circumcise them (the Gentiles), and to command them to keep the law of Moses." (verse 5)
After "much disputing," Peter stood up and reminded everyone that God had chosen him to introduce the Gospel to the Gentiles (verse 7). Then Peter concluded his address with this statement: "Now therefore why tempt ye God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear? But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved, even as they." (verses 10-11) The author informs us that this gave Barnabas and Paul another opportunity to recount the fruits of their ministries among the Gentiles (verse 12). Next, we learn that James arose to speak (verse 13). After quoting a prophecy from the book of Amos concerning the Gentiles being drawn into God's fold by the Messiah (verses 15-17), he shares his judgment of the matter with the rest of the assembly. He said: "Wherefore my sentence is, that we trouble not them, which from among the Gentiles are turned to God: But that we write unto them, that they abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood. For Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every Sabbath day." (verses 19-21)
Notice that this passage implies that James sought to establish a compromise position that he hoped would satisfy everyone. Nowhere in this account is there any indication that Jewish Christians were compelled or even asked to stop obeying the Law of Moses. Instead, James suggests that a few token requirements be addressed to Gentile Christians - enough to hopefully silence Jewish objections. This is not a coherent theological statement about Christian obligations regarding the Mosaic Law! On the contrary, it is an attempt to mollify both sides in the debate by effectually ratifying the status quo (Jewish Christians keep their Law, and Gentile Christians aren't required to adhere to its tenets). And, as with most such attempts to please everyone, it failed miserably.
In his writings, the Apostle Paul came closer to the Gospel accounts' rendering of Christ's teaching on the subject of the Law than any of his contemporaries - especially in his letters to the Romans and Galatians. He wrote to the Romans: "Owe no man anything, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law. For this, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Thou shalt not covet; and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. Love worketh no ill to his neighbor: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law." (Romans 13:8-10) This hearkens back to Christ's distillation of the Law into its basic essence/purpose: LOVE. He wrote to the Galatians: "For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: for it is written, 'Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them.' (Deuteronomy 27:26) But that no man is justified by the law in the sight of God, it is evident: for, 'The just shall live by faith.'" (Galatians 3:10-11) This hearkens back to the basic premise of the Christian faith - that it is only through Christ's fulfillment of the Law, and the sacrifice of his completely innocent self, that we can have salvation. Paul also obviously sees the Law as a whole (same verse and notice Galatians 5:3).
Nevertheless, to suggest that Paul arrived at a completely clear, coherent and consistent thesis regarding Christian obligations relative to the Law would also not be supported by the facts. The letters to the Christians of Rome and Galatia prove that the issue remained unsettled even among churches that Paul had founded or had helped to establish. In the Second Epistle of Peter, we read that some of Paul's writings contain "some things hard to be understood," which were subject to misinterpretation (II Peter 3:15-16) Indeed, many people have interpreted Pauls' writings to say that Christians don't have any obligations relative to the Mosaic Law. Likewise, a great many people have interpreted Paul's message to suggest that Christ nailed the Law to his cross (Colossians 2:14). Paul, however, disputed that his writings should be interpreted as a license for Christians to sin (Compare Jude 4 with Romans 6). Hence, whatever conclusions we may arrive at relative to Paul's teachings in this regard, it is clear that the exact nature of Christian obligations regarding the Mosaic Law remained unclear in the minds of many of Christ's followers.
However, as the years passed, the number of Gentile "non-observing" Christians overtook the number of Jewish "observing" Christians. Moreover, it wasn't long before the Jewish "observing" Christians became a distinct minority within the new religion. Even so, the Romans continued to regard the new religion as a sect of Judaism (remember, the Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes were all well-known sects of Judaism prior to Christianity's arrival on the stage - see Josephus' Antiquities of the Jews and Wars of the Jews). And, as relations between the Romans and their Jewish subjects deteriorated, this presented some distinct problems for the new religion. We will explore some of these considerations in the next installment of this series.