I have to admit that I’m often frustrated by some of my Sunday-brethren. In particular, I often get frustrated when I go back and re-read or re-hear favorite teachers and find them continuing to teach under the old “Christianity vs. Judaism” paradigm, rather than what I would call the “Judaism vs. Judaism” paradigm–that is, recognizing what it means that all of the Apostles and most of the Nazarenes were Jews who were in the midst of an “inter-family” struggle rather than being persecuted by some outside force.
That’s why I was tickled to find Christianity Today publishing an article called, “The Paul We Think We Know,” in which Timothy Gombis openly challenges the old paradigm:
The misconception about Paul with the longest historical pedigree is that he was anti-Jewish. Many imagine that after his Damascus Road experience, Paul immediately rejected Judaism and embraced Christianity. They assume that in the first century these were two clearly distinguishable religions. Before his encounter with Christ, the thinking goes, Paul was wrapped up in a legalistic pursuit of salvation and was teaching others a similar philosophy. So great was his passion that he persecuted the Christians who taught salvation by grace through faith. After his conversion, everything changed. He embraced God’s gracious salvation by faith in Christ and rejected the system of dead rituals bound up in Judaism. Paul left Judaism, therefore, and turned to Christianity.
This account of Paul thrives among evangelicals because it resonates with many who come from legalistic environments. We narrate our testimonies as a movement from guilt to grace, from enslaving oppression to freedom in Christ. We assume, therefore, that Paul’s journey mirrored ours. This view also shapes much of our preaching. Eager to let the glorious light of the gospel shine brightly, evangelicals set it against the dark backdrop of Judaism as a religion of works righteousness.
This scenario, while familiar, is deeply mistaken in at least three ways. First, it represents a faulty vision of Judaism in Paul’s day. E. P. Sanders’s seminal book, Paul and Palestinian Judaism, was the catalyst for much of the intense debate over the past three decades in Pauline studies. Until its publication in 1977, the sharp contrast between Paul and his Jewish heritage dominated scholarship. Sanders’s work gave scholars an entirely new appreciation of first-century Judaism, opening up afresh the world of Jesus and his first followers. We now have to realize that Paul’s past wasn’t ruled by simple legalism. . . .
Paul remained a Jew. He did not imagine that he was inventing a new religion, nor did he leave Judaism to join the Christian church. At the end of his third missionary journey, Paul arrived in Jerusalem and, at the suggestion of James, went through purification rituals at the temple (Acts 21:23-26). Paul saw no contradiction at all between his commitment to Christ and his faithful participation in Jewish practices.
We’ve done our own study on the implications of Acts 21 and are pleased to see that mainline Evangelicals are recognizing Paul’s continued fidelity to Judaism too. This is not to say that no Christian recognized Paul’s essential Judaism before; half a century ago, E.W. Davies engaged the same point in his Paul and Rabbinic Judaism:
We begin with the significant fact that throughout his life Paul was a practicing Jew who never ceased to insist that his gospel was first to the Jews, who also expected Jewish Christians to persist in their loyalty to the Torah of Judaism, and who assigned to the Jews in the Jews in the Christian [Church] no less than in the pre-Christian dispensation a place of peculiar importance. (p. 321)
It’s interesting that Rabbi Jacob Emden (which we are grateful to the Rosh Pina Project for bringing to our attention) came to pretty much the same conclusion:
For it is recognized that also the Nazarene and his disciples, especially Paul, warned concerning the Torah of the Israelites, to which all the circumcised are tied. And if they are truly Christians, they will observe their faith with truth, and not allow within their boundary this new unfit Messiah Shabbetai Zevi who came to destroy the earth.
But truly even according to the writers of the Gospels, a Jew is not permitted to leave his Torah, for Paul wrote in his letter to the Galatians (Gal. 5) “I, Paul, say to you that if you receive circumcision, the Messiah will do you no good at all. You can take it from me that every man who receives circumcision is under obligation to keep the entire Torah.” Again because of this he admonished in a letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 7) that the circumcised should not remove the marks of circumcision, nor should the uncircumcised circumcise themselves. . . .
But it is as I have said earlier–that the writers of the Gospels never meant to say that the Nazarene came to abolish Judaism, but only that he came to establish a religion for the Gentiles from that time onward.
It’s gratifying to see that what has been recognized by both Jewish and Christian scholars for over a century is starting to gain some currency in the mainline theologians of both religions: That Paul was indeed a Jew of the Jews, completely faithful to Hashem and His Torah, not an apostate who created a new religion. (For an example of a modern Jewish scholar on Paul, read the commentaries of Mark Nanos on Romans and Galatians.)
Gombis also correctly identifies the real challenge facing the early Ekklesia:
The problem in the early church, therefore, was not the temptation toward legalistic works righteousness. They faced the communal challenge of incorporating non-Jewish converts into the historically Jewish people of God. First-century Judaism didn’t have a legalism problem; it had an ethnocentrism problem. The first followers of Jesus were all Jewish, and had difficulty imagining that the God of Israel who sent Jesus Christ as their Savior could possibly save non-Jews without requiring them to convert to Judaism. This is the issue in Acts 15, when Christian Jews from Judea urged the Gentiles in Antioch, “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1).
While the early church leaders decided in theory that non-Jewish believers in Jesus were not required to become Jews (Acts 15:13-21), many churches struggled with the practical challenges of becoming healthy multiethnic communities. Paul, as pastor and theologian, addresses these challenges . . .
Exactly! And once we recognize that the principle tension of the NT is not “Grace vs. Law,” but rather, “What the heck are we supposed to do with all of these Gentiles? And where is Israel’s specialness if anyone can be saved?” a lot of the apparent contradictions resolve themselves. For example, we no longer have to argue, as Ken Silva recently found himself doing, that the Torah “has been done away in its entirety as a code,” but that “God’s command concerning homosexuality is clear: ‘You shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female; it is an abomination’ (Lev 18:22).”
Homosexuals seeking Scriptural justification are quick to point out the self-serving nature of such a distinction; it basically comes down to picking and choosing what to believe. Silva argues that there is
the “law of the Spirit” (Rom 8:2), the “law of Christ” (Gal 6:2), and the “royal law” (James 2:8). This “law” includes numerous commands, both positive and negative, which form a distinct code of ethics for today.  It is here that the pro-homosexual exegetes have made their mistake. As a unit the New Testament code is new, but not all the commands in the New Testament are new.
The problem is that not everything that Christians think is covered in the NT really is, and some things that they don’t think are there actually are. For example, the NT has no express commandment against bestiality; would we argue that homosexuality (expressly mentioned in Romans 1) is still wrong, but that bestiality is still permitted? Conversely, Hebrews 4 actually does tell us that the seventh-day Sabbath is still the command of Hashem.
If, on the other hand, we recognize the continuance of the Torah in the NT, and especially in Paul, then we are not left simply picking and choosing which parts of the Torah are still valid. It all is! Some parts may be constrained, as some argue, for the Jews only, while others are for “when you come into the Land” and still others specific to the Temple service–but the woven thread of Scripture is not broken neatly in two between “old” and “new.”
And after all, if God could annul His promises and commandments once before, on what basis can we argue with Muslims and Mormons that He could not do so again? Only by arguing for an absolute continuity of the Scriptures in the past can we argue for it in the present and future.
I hope that this sort of scholarship does not remain in the ivory tower this time, as it has in times past, but will instead trickle down to more and more pulpits and from there to the rest of my Sunday-brethren. Perhaps then more Jews would be willing to read and understand Paul–as is already happening with Yeshua–rather than assume that he’s the bad guy.
- If Paul’s epistle to the Galatians was published in Christianity Today. (defendingcontending.com)
- Galatians Chapter 2 (faithgirlsdiscipleship.wordpress.com)
- 1,400-year-old fresco of St Paul discovered in ancient Roman catacomb (travelnews.britishairways.com)