Mention the apostle Paul to most people and they conjure up an image of a first-century traveling missionary bringing his new “gospel” to the masses. His “good news” is a universal message of right-standing with God obtainable by anyone who expresses faith in his son Jesus, the Christ/Messiah. Having been rejected by his own people, Christ now offers, according to Paul, eternal life for everyone through such faith. This opportunity comes enshrined in a new religion, one that is superior to and supersedes the outmoded, failed, legalist approach of Torah-based Judaism. A new people of God have been chosen to replace Israel due to the latter’s unfaithfulness.
Sound familiar? This basic summary is at the root of almost every teaching, sermon, commentary, and textual treatment of Paul and his letters. But is this summary historically correct? A small, though growing, number of scholars are adamant that it is not. They claim that reading Paul in this way simply perpetuates centuries of Christian (and Jewish) misunderstanding. The historical Paul’s intended message has become distorted even to the point of denying what Paul actually affirmed. This failure to grasp Paul’s real teaching is the result of a number of factors including faulty knowledge of first-century Judaism, a lack of facility with Greco-Roman rhetorical writing, and a built-in, centuries-old anti-Jewish bias that taints every aspect (even translation choices) of coming to terms with the historical Paul.
Where did it go wrong? From reading Paul’s letters, the Acts of the Apostles, and other New Testament texts, we learn that audiences misunderstood Paul almost from the beginning. Suspicions arose immediately as soon as the former persecutor of the Jewish “Jesus-movement” became one of its staunchest supporters. Paul made the unusual announcement that he was sent by God (or Christ) to preach the benefits of Christ’s death and resurrection only to non-Jews (Gentiles). His message for them was that they did not have to become Jews by way of circumcision in order to share in the covenant promises once made to Abraham and his progeny (Genesis 17:4-7). With the death and resurrection of Christ, a new age had begun, one in which non-Jews were being called to worship the Jewish God. Paul’s belief seems to be based on scriptural prophecies (Psalm 86:9; Isaiah 49:6, 60:3; Jeremiah 3:17, etc.). Paul was not the only Jew to believe that non-Jews could be made righteous with God without circumcision (see, for example, Philo, Questions and Answers on Exodus 2.2; and Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 20.17).