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).
By the time of Paul, Jews had been forming communities and building synagogues in the Greco-Roman world for centuries. And many non-Jews had shown interest from the start. Jewish teachings on ethics and morals, taken directly from the Jewish scriptures, offered an effective means by which non-Jews might learn to govern their passions and desires. This kind of self-mastery was strongly encouraged by the Emperor Augustus. It formed an essential part of the Roman frame of mind when it came to acquiring authority either in one’s home or in the political world outside it. Jewish teachings were attractive to non-Jewish women as well. Among other things, women found scriptural concerns for justice, mutual care, and family and community values appealing. Numbers of non-Jewish men and women are historically known to have frequented, funded, and fellowshipped with their Jewish neighbors. It is likely to these non-Jews that Paul felt compelled to preach.
What was Paul’s message? Was it to abandon this Judaism they had come to know because it kept uncircumcised non-Jews from becoming equal members of God’s people? Was it to forget Sabbath observances, kosher eating, and other obligations that they had learned from Torah instruction because the Jewish messiah had released everyone from these arcane and impossible-to-follow rules? The answers, according to those advocating a new perspective on Paul say, “Not at all.”
There are numerous occasions in Paul’s letters where the apostle praises Judaism, Torah, and Jews in general as the chosen people (Romans 3:1, 31, 7:12, 9:4, etc.). Yet, there seem to be other times when Paul challenges this positive view (Galatians 3:10-11, 6:15, Romans 3:20, 9:31, etc.). Was Paul being two-faced? Was he confused? Inconsistent? The problem may lie in our way of reading Paul. There are a number of basic presumptions that must first be made (or corrected) in order to read Paul properly, according to those advocating for a new perspective.
First, keep in mind what many scholars have known for a while now: It is highly unlikely that Paul wrote many of the New Testament letters traditionally attributed to him. These later letters reflect issues and opinions facing a church in subsequent generations. They were written in Paul’s name to lend them authority. Paul’s undisputed, authentic letters are 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Philemon, Philippians, and Romans. We cannot read these while simultaneously appealing to the inauthentic letters for clarification of Paul’s thought.
Next, it is vital to remember that Paul was born, lived, and died a Jew. There was no Christianity when Paul was alive. He did not convert to a new religion or out of his original one. Paul’s vision of the risen Christ turned Paul from being hostile to the new movement founded on Christ to advocating it. But he did not create a new religion. Paul’s mission, as set out in Jewish prophecy, was to bring in the “nations” (non-Jews) to worship the Jewish God at the end of the age. And that end, according to Paul, had begun.
Another factor to keep in mind when reading Paul is that his chronological horizon was very short, perhaps a few months or a few years, before the end of the present age took place (1 Thessalonians 4:15). He was not interested in reforming society – there was no time and no need. It was all to end shortly anyway. There was no new religion to create – Judaism and Torah offered the only hope for the salvation of humankind. Paul’s concern was how to get non-Jews adopted into the people of Israel before the wrath came and all hope was lost.
Paul announced another way, without requiring circumcision, for non-Jewish males to join the people of God as equal members to await the (re-)arrival of God’s messiah and enter with them into a new kingdom on earth (1 Corinthians 15:24). In a mysterious way not fully explained, non-Jews were invited to join Christ in his death and resurrection by way of baptism in order to experience a righteousness until then only available to Jews through the covenant (Romans 6:4). Non-Jews did not thereby replace Jews. They did not supersede Jews. They joined them. They were adopted. They were “grafted onto” the cultivated olive tree of Israel (Romans 11:17-24).
Paul thereby offered a means of grace (that is, undeserved blessing) and justification (to be made righteous or acquitted of past sins) to the non-Jew. Jews had already received grace: they were the elect people of God, chosen by grace during the time of Abraham to be blessed among the nations. They did not earn this blessing nor claim to have done so; it was given by grace. Nor did later Jews have to earn it again by performing a sufficient number of good deeds (i.e., works) by way of Torah observance. One could not earn salvation in this way. For a Jew, Torah observance was a privilege by which one could maintain his or her status in the people of God.
Did Paul turn his back on Torah? On Judaism? How could he write “We know that a person is justified [made righteous, acquitted of past sins] not by the works of the law but through faith in Christ”? And “No one will be justified [made righteous, acquitted of past sins] by the works of the law” (Galatians 2:16)? Did Paul discount the many means of atonement offered in Torah for the repentant Jew? Most readers assume that Paul was directly refuting any reliance on Torah (“works of the law”) for forgiveness and salvation while simultaneously replacing that outmoded process with “faith in Christ,” i.e., membership in Christianity.
Regardless of the various meanings of the Greek nomos (“works”) as Paul uses it throughout his letters, one must keep in mind another presumption with regard to reading Paul. Paul always writes to non-Jews. He does not write to Jews. He rarely even writes about Jews, Christ-believers or otherwise. Not only that, Paul employs a rhetorical style of writing that, among other things, enabled him to identify personally with his non-Jewish audience. Re-reading the above verses with these caveats in mind, we should understand Paul as saying, “We know that a [non-Jew] is justified not by works of the law [= some level of obedience to Torah] but through faith in Christ…No one [i.e., no non-Jew] will be justified by the works of the law.” All Paul is saying is that no matter how diligently a non-Jews tries to obey the obligations of Torah, they cannot be saved by this means while still a non-Jew. Paul announces a new means of salvation for the non-Jew. No longer, according to Paul, does a non-Jew have to be circumcised and be made responsible for obeying the entire Torah in order to join the people of Israel in their salvation. They can be “saved from the wrath” of God’s end-time punishment of non-Jews through the faithfulness of Christ who helped carry out God’s plan with regard to them, the promise made earlier to Abraham regarding the “nations.”
Does Paul teach any aspect of Torah to his non-Jewish audience? Yes he does! Where else does Paul get his ethical and moral teachings? Paul sums up the commandments for his non-Jewish audience just as any Jewish rabbi, including Jesus, would and did: “Love your neighbor as yourself…love is the fulfilling of the law” (Romans 13:9-10; Matthew 19:19; Leviticus 19:8). Does Paul teach the Shema of Israel: “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One. Blessed is His name, whose glorious kingdom is forever and ever”? Yes he does! In a list of prohibited Torah violations (fornication, sorcery, jealousy, etc.) Paul includes idolatry and warns his non-Jewish audience that “those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Galatians 5:19-21). Idolatry is directly opposed to the first commandment, “You shall not make for yourself an idol” (Exodus 20:4). Paul lauds his non-Jewish believers: “You turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God” (1 Thessalonians 1:9). What God is this? The God of Israel.
There are, of course, many more examples of Paul’s use of ancient rhetorical devices and our lack of appreciation for them has led to many misunderstandings of Paul’s teachings. If we start from the premise, as promoted by early Christians trying to disassociate themselves from Judaism as well as the anti-Judaism of the later church, that Paul rejected his native religion and its teachings for a superior Christianity (a word that was not even used until the 2nd c.) we will always fail to understand Paul. It is incumbent upon honest readers to allow Paul to speak within his historical circumstances recognizing all the tools of persuasion that were at his disposal and not limit his message to a predefined outcome based on 2,000 years of Christian triumphalism. Paul’s message was not written for us. It was not even written for the generation following his. It was written to non-Jews of his generation seeking to join hands with Israel to welcome the arrival of the Messiah of Israel’s God who was expected to usher in a new age for all “righteoused” humanity.