Marriage in the New Testament

Modern marriages, especially in the West, are usually a legal affair requiring a license, sometimes a blood test, occasionally pre-nuptial agreements, and offering tax considerations. In addition, many times marriages also involve the services of a religious official combining church (or other religious organization) and state in the recognition of an official arrangement. Dissolution of such an arrangement requires more legal representation, court appearances, judgments, payments, and additional involvement by the secular world. Strangely perhaps, religious officials are rarely involved at this stage.

Marriage in the ancient Roman world during the first-century was quite different. It may help to understand passages in the New Testament that speak about marriage and divorce if we understand what marriage looked like back then.

Strikingly, legally-sanctioned marriages were only an option for citizens of the Roman Empire. Needless to say, as a percentage, few inhabitants of the empire were Roman citizens. Most were Italians and others were dignitaries at the highest levels of society. Legal marriages, or what scholars refer to as licit marriages (which are not quite the same thing), involved the recording of the arrangement by a magistrate. The legal documents sometimes specified the ownership of assets brought to the marriage by either party. Occasionally the contract stipulated legal heirs and how inheritances would be portioned out.

What did the non-Roman-citizens do if they wanted to be married? To answer that, we must first differentiate between Jewish residents of the Empire and non-Jewish, or Gentile, residents. Non-citizen Gentiles could enter into illicit marriages and many did. Illicit is not the same thing as illegal. There was nothing criminal or socially immoral about illicit marriages. They were simply not recorded by a magistrate and hardly ever required any paperwork. A couple decided that they wanted to be married and then conducted themselves that way. Society accepted their decision and treated them as a married couple. If they decided to end the relationship, they just ended it. No messy court battles, legal wrangling or other civil involvement was required. How were the children handled? In licit marriages, the children went with the father. In illicit marriages, they went with the mother.

Continue reading “Marriage in the New Testament”

The Jewish Paul: A Running Commentary on Galatians (Part 5)

This running commentary on Galatians demonstrates that Paul remained an observant Jew throughout his life. He neither advocated the abandonment of Judaism or Torah for himself nor for any Jew, whether they believed that Jesus was the Messiah or not. We complete the commentary on Galatians with this final post, picking up with one of Paul’s two major allegories: the allegory of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar. It probably doesn’t mean what you were told it meant.

4:22 For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one [Ishmael] by the slave woman [Hagar, Gen. 16] and the other [Isaac] by the free woman [Sarah, Abraham’s wife, Gen. 17:19]. 23 But one [Ishamel], the son by the slave woman [Hagar], was born by natural descent [sexually], while the other [Isaac], the son by the free woman [Sarah], was born through the promise [i.e., miraculously].

4:24 These things may be treated as an allegory [Paul creates this unique allegory, practicing a Jewish form of exegesis called midrash.], for these women represent two covenants [In accord with Paul’s target audience, this allegory has nothing to do with Jews. These covenants are described in terms of how they affect Gentiles.]. One is from Mount Sinai [where the Torah was given to Moses] bearing children for slavery [Those who refused to follow Torah when it was given, i.e., Gentiles, became slaves of sin and idolatry]; this is Hagar [a pagan/Gentile (Egyptian)]. 25 Now Hagar represents Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children [Once, again, Paul is describing the condemnation of “sinners” (non-covenant people, Gentiles) by Torah. According to Torah, Gentiles are idolaters and slaves to sin and thus condemned for being outside the law. The present Jerusalem is the symbolic seat of the Torah-faith that condemns them.]. 26 But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother [Paul said earlier that his Christ-believing Gentiles have become adopted sons and heirs of God. Here he adds that they are also heirs of a new, or spiritual Jerusalem, something many apocalyptic Jews believed would replace the earthly city at the end of the age. In any event, none of this has to do with Jews or the abrogation of any Jewish covenant. The “second covenant,” which Paul does not further describe, is Paul’s new covenant which, as we said before, has to do with the writing of God’s laws on the hearts of his people (including Gentiles – the Spirit will instruct them how.].

4:28 But you, brothers, are children of the promise like Isaac [Again, a reference back to the promise made to Abraham about the nations which Paul links to the promise made about the birth of Isaac. The one reenforces the other as one was fulfilled according to Torah and one is being fulfilled according to Paul. He compares the Christ-believing Gentiles to Isaac: promises made to Abraham about Isaac as well as promises made about the nations both proved true. Paul does not say the Gentiles are Isaac.]. 29 But just as at that time the one born by natural descent [sexually] persecuted the one born according to the Spirit [miraculously], so it is now [Paul means that the Galatian syncretists (see earlier posts on this blog) are like Ishmael, they are “under the law” in the negative way. They remain condemned Gentiles. And they are persecuting the “children of the promise,” that is, those Gentiles loyal to Paul’s gospel. As Paul indicated above, the syncretists were rejecting Paul’s loyal Gentiles for not accepting their religious interpretations.]. 30 But what does the scripture say? “Throw out the slave woman and her son [i.e., throw out the syncretists!], for the son of the slave woman [syncretists] will not share the inheritance with the son” of the free woman [Paul’s loyal, Christ-believing Gentiles]. 31 Therefore, brothers, we [Paul is again speaking inclusively here but would certainly also include himself in this case.] are not children of the slave woman but of the free woman.

5:1 For freedom [from sin and the idolatrous powers] Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not be subject again to the yoke of slavery [to sin and the idolatrous powers – Rom. 7:14]. 2 Listen! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised [as the syncretists were advising along with returning to worshiping their pagan gods], Christ will be of no benefit to you at all [This is a very important statement! On one level Paul is advising his loyal Gentiles not to fall for the syncretistic teaching advocating their circumcision. If they attempt to acquire righteousness by (at least symbolically) converting to Judaism, they will fail because they are not prepared to live the way of life prescribed by Torah (Gal. 5:3). But Paul is also implying, if not outright stating, that Christ’s death is of no benefit to circumcised Jews. This is not a knock on Jews! According to Paul, Christ died for the redemption of the ungodly (Rom. 5:6; see next). Jews have had in place for centuries various means of atonement as provided in Torah. Paul does not mean that Messiah Jesus is not the Jewish Messiah, but that Jews benefit from him in other ways.]! 3 And I testify again to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law [Exactly! Circumcised Jews do follow the entire Torah, it is a way of life. No one in Galatia seems to have made that point with the Galatians demonstrating that whoever is suggesting Paul’s baptized Gentiles get circumcised was not Jewish.]. 4 You who are trying to be declared righteous by the law [Pay attention here: “You who have been trying to be declared righteous.” These are Gentiles. Jews don’t try to be declared righteous by the law. They are already in a righteous covenant with God and by faith and obedience they remain so] have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace! 5 For through the Spirit, by faith, we [Gentiles] wait expectantly for the hope of righteousness. 6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision carries any weight [This is not a repudiation of Judaism, Jewish practices, or circumcision for Jews. Paul is adamant, however, that “in Christ” the status of Jews and righteous Gentiles is equal.] —the only thing that matters is faith working through love [Faith matters as much for Jews as for Gentiles. Paul makes this, as well as obedience, the key means for entering the kingdom. See below.].

5:7 You were running well; who prevented you from obeying the truth? 8 This persuasion does not come from the one who calls you! 9 A little yeast makes the whole batch of dough rise [Paul likes this adage (see also 1 Cor. 5:6). It can mean any number of things. Here he may mean that by staying true to the course Paul put them on, they will bring others to right thinking, even those who have slipped up. Or he may mean that the “one who calls” them (Christ? The Spirit? Paul?) can make all of them righteous.]! 10 I am confident in the Lord that you will accept no other view. But the one who is confusing you [This may just be a rhetorical use of “the one,” a cypher for all those who are misleading his converts but could refer to a single leader of this movement calling for both circumcision and worshiping the idols.] will pay the penalty, whoever he may be. 11 Now, brothers, if I am still preaching circumcision, why am I still being persecuted [This is a fascinating line. It seems to imply that Paul once taught that Gentiles must be circumcised in order to be made righteous. By agreeing with that common Jewish belief, he remained immune to persecution from fellow Jews. Now, he teaches that Gentiles need not be circumcised as long as they are “in Christ.” For that, he is persecuted, probably by some Jews who don’t accept Paul’s gospel but also by pagans whose Christ-believing neighbors and family members have entered into a limbo state exclusively worshiping the Jewish God yet without the political cover given by the empire to Jews (after all, they are not circumcised). But these Christ-believing Gentiles also refuse to honor the pagan gods. The syncretists may be advocating a return to honoring the pagan gods and/or circumcision so as to find relief from such persecution.]? In that case the offense of the cross has been removed [According to Paul, it is the death of Christ (“the cross”) that makes salvation without circumcision possible for Gentiles]. 12 I wish those agitators [the syncretists] would go so far as to castrate themselves [Paul is so angry with losing some of his flock that he spews a very troubling invective. Nevertheless, it is good rhetorical strategy.]!

5:13 For you were called to freedom [from sin and condemnation brought about by the law which brings status equality with Jews], brothers; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity to indulge your flesh [i.e., sin; just because the law no longer condemns you for not being Jewish, you are still called to obedience], but through love serve one another [love will help them obey]. 14 For the whole law can be summed up in a single commandment, namely, “You must love your neighbor as yourself” [Supersessionist Christians would like to interpret Paul as saying, “Forget Torah. Just love each other. That’s all you need.” He means no such thing. He is quoting Torah (Lev. 19:18). If Torah was obsolete, this saying would be meaningless.] 15 However, if you continually bite and devour one another, beware that you are not consumed by one another. 16 But I say, live by the Spirit [Contrary to some modern, feel-good interpretations of Paul that understand him here as saying “live as the spirit moves you,” Paul is referring to the new covenant in which the Spirit will write the laws of God on the hearts of his people (Jer. 31:33). How do we know? Read on.] and you will not carry out the desires of the flesh [you will not sin]. 17 For the flesh has desires that are opposed to the Spirit, and the Spirit has desires [i.e., Torah requirements] that are opposed to the flesh [sin], for these are in opposition to each other, so that you cannot do what you want [Yes, there are restrictions and they are found in Torah]. 18 But if you are led [as in “taught obedience”] by the Spirit, you are not under the law [Remember, this does not mean that the law is obsolete or of no meaning for Gentiles. “Under the law” means condemned by the law. Paul is saying that Gentiles in Christ are no longer under the law’s curse. But they must obey the law as the Spirit directs. He will now cite some Torah rules.]. 19 Now the works of the flesh [sinful, anti-Torah behavior] are obvious: sexual immorality [Ex. 20:14; Dt. 5:18; Hos. 4:2; Dt. 27:20-23; Lev. 18:6-7, 20:14-17], impurity [Ex. 19:6; Lev. 11:45, 18:30, 20:26], depravity [see the former], 20 idolatry [Ex. 20:3-5, 23; Dt. 5:7, 6:14], sorcery [Ex. 22:18; Lev. 19:26-28, 31, 20:6, 27; Dt. 18:11; 1 Sam. 15:23; 1 Chron. 10:13; 2 Chron. 33:6; 2 Kgs. 21:6; Micah 5:12], hostilities, strife, jealousy [Ex. 20:17; Prov. 6:34, 14:30, 27:4], outbursts of anger, selfish rivalries, dissensions, factions [for these four, see, e.g., Lev. 20:9; Prov. 10:6, 11, 12:18, 15:1, 18:21, 29:22; Dt. 6:4; Psa. 133:1-3; Eccl. 4:9-12], 21 envying [see jealousy], murder [Ex. 20:13, 21:12; Lev. 24:17; Num. 35:31; Dt. 5:17; Prov. 6:16-19; Hos. 4:2], drunkenness [Lev. 10:9; Dt. 21:20; Prov. 20:1, 23:20-21, 29-35], carousing [see drunkenness, sexual immorality], and similar things. I am warning you, as I had warned you before: Those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God! [For all those who would say Paul preaches a law-free gospel, re-read passages like this one (including 1 Cor. 5:11, 6:9-10; 2 Cor. 12:20-21; Rom. 1:29-31; etc.). Paul does indeed hold his Gentiles accountable to the parts of Torah they can obey. While he largely leaves it up to the new covenant Spirit to guide his Gentiles, he is sometimes moved to list some of the laws applicable to Gentiles. For those who say that Paul teaches only the moral provisions of Torah, why does he prohibit idolatry? Sorcery was not unequivocally amoral in the Greco-Roman world. Why are Paul’s rules for sexual morality (1 Cor. 6:9; Rom. 1:26-27) based on Torah rather than the prevailing Greco-Roman sexual mores? The cost of disobedience for violating these laws is the kingdom itself. Faith plus obedience: this is Paul’s Jewish rule for Gentiles.]

22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. Against such things there is no law. 24 Now those who belong to Christ have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 If we live by the Spirit [meaning that the Spirit will teach them obedience], let us also behave in accordance with the Spirit [that is, the Spirit’s teaching of the law, now written on the hearts of believers]. 26 Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, being jealous of one another [for Torah’s teaching on jealousy, see above].

6:12 Those who want to make a good showing in external matters [i.e., the syncretists who seemed to have been trying to spare the Christ believers in Galatia from persecution] are trying to force you to be circumcised. They do so only to avoid being persecuted for the cross of Christ [See?]. 13 For those who are circumcised do not obey the law themselves [This indicates that the syncretists are not Jews but Christ-believing Gentiles who espouse a different gospel that includes some Jewish ritual practices, including circumcision, as well as a return to some form of honoring the pagan gods.], but they want you to be circumcised so that they can boast about your flesh [that is, the syncretists can demonstrate that the Christ-believers have been circumcised and so should not be persecuted (by Jews?) but thought of in some way as “Jews”]. 14 But may I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. 15 For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that matters is a new creation [This line has been interpreted by Christian supersessionists as demonstrating that, according to Paul, being a Jew no longer has any value – Judaism has been replaced. “Don’t be a Jew! Be a ‘new creation’!” That is definitely not what Paul is saying. As he wrote several times before, being “in Christ” gives the same status to a Gentile as that of a Jew when it comes to being righteous before God and entering the kingdom. The Gentiles become a “new creation” in Christ once they are baptized – they are no longer “Gentile sinners.” They become “clothed with Christ” – Gal. 3:27] 16 And all who will behave in accordance with this rule, peace and mercy be on them, and on the Israel of God [Paul prays for peace and mercy on both Christ-believing Gentiles and Israel. Does any more need to be said to defend Paul against baseless accusations of his denunciation of Judaism? Of his supposed anti-Jewish behavior? Of his “law-free” gospel? And, finally, Paul is not saying that Christ-believing Gentiles become Israel and replace Jews. This line of thinking is found absolutely nowhere in the letters of Paul though it quickly arose in early Christianity, sometimes defended by misreading Paul.]

The Jewish Paul: A Running Commentary on Galatians (Part 4)

As I indicated in the previous blogs, this running commentary on Galatians is designed to help demonstrate that Paul remained an observant Jew throughout his life. He neither advocated the abandonment of Judaism or Torah for himself nor for any Jew, whether they believed that Jesus was the Messiah or not.

This section of Galatians can be quite dense and requires our full attention to how Paul used the tools of Greco-Roman rhetoric and always remained focused on his intended readers, that is, Gentiles. This section of the letter should leave no doubt that Paul was writing exclusively to Gentiles.

3:16 Now the promises [3:8] were spoken to Abraham and to his seed [Gen. 17:8]. Scripture does not say, “and to the seeds,” referring to many [nations], but “and to your seed,” referring to one [Christ], who is Christ [Some think that Paul is saying that only through Christ may one become an heir to the promises, i.e., excluding Jews. That is nonsense. Paul said the exact opposite earlier. He is making the point here that the promises concerning the nations are not made to the inhabitants of the nations individually or to their leaders but to one Jewish gatekeeper for the nations: Jesus Christ.]. 17 What I am saying is this: The law that came 430 years later does not cancel a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to invalidate the promise [Get what Paul is saying? One covenant does not invalidate a previous one.]. 18 For if the inheritance is based on the law, it is no longer based on the promise, but God graciously gave it to Abraham through the promise [Inheriting the benefits of the promise to Abraham concerning the nations does not require Gentiles to get circumcised and become Jews nor is it earned through Judaizing. It is a matter of grace (unearned blessing by God). Paul is not saying that Jews have been disinherited.].

3:19 Why then the law? [Paul begins using the rhetorical technique called the diatribe, an invented conversation between the author and an imaginary interlocutor. The questioner, a Gentile, asks: If inheritance is by the promise, why was the law necessary?] It was added [a covenant made after the one with Abraham] because of transgressions [i.e., human sinfulness], until the arrival of the seed to whom the promise had been made [the seed = Christ. Remember, Paul was writing to Gentiles about their salvation. He was not writing to Jews. Christian interpreters should not keep reading Paul as if he were making universal pronouncements.]. It [the law] was administered through angels by an intermediary [Exodus 3:2 makes it clear that Moses heard God’s voice through an angel. Many Jews believed that no one could come into immediate contact with God. Instead, one would encounter the Angel of the Lord or some other representative of God.]. 20 Now an intermediary implies more than one, but God is one [Paul made this hair-splitting distinction to assure his Galatian Gentiles that, whatever the angel’s intent was, God is fully capable of making the Torah apply however God chooses, whether it is to Jews or Gentiles.]. 21 Is the law therefore opposed to the promises of God? Absolutely not! [That is why Paul clarifies that the law is not antithetical to the promises: both Jew and Gentile must remain obedient. But the new covenant will write the law on the hearts (minds) of God’s people. They will obey as the Spirit directs.]. For if a law had been given that was able to give life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law [obedience to the law alone does not result in righteousness. Faith and obedience are both necessary ingredients. Gentiles who tried to pursue one without the other failed.]. 22 But the scripture imprisoned everything under sin [the law demonstrated how the world itself was under the power of evil forces (Sin). This is the standard apocalyptic view held by both Jesus and Paul.] so that the promise [Paul is specifically referring to the promise that included the nations] could be given [to redeem Gentiles from their enslavement to Sin] —because of the faithfulness of Jesus Christ—to those [Gentiles] who believe.

Continue reading “The Jewish Paul: A Running Commentary on Galatians (Part 4)”

The Passion of…Barabbas?

The springtime buds of Easter usually include a temporary bloom of articles and blog posts about the events of Passion Week. Television programs and movies recreate the story in dramatic fashion. And, despite the overwhelming number of retellings and analyses, I would like to add one of my own, from a somewhat different point of view.

Readers may find my reconstruction of the motivations behind the events surrounding the arrest, trial, and execution of Jesus to be somewhat speculative. But my hope is that it will stretch your minds as we imagine what took place during that fateful week. Before I begin my reconstruction of events, I want to lay out, from a historical perspective, which events from the gospel stories I consider historically likely and which I do not. These decisions are based on historical criteria that are well-established in New Testament research (the definitions for each appear at the end of this blog post).

It is a near certainty that Jesus was crucified (criterion of multiple attestation). Equally historical is the prefecture of Pontius Pilate (c. m. a.). He was ultimately responsible for sentencing Jesus to death. Likewise, Caiaphas was surely the sitting high priest (c. m. a.). I consider it probable that Jesus was crucified around one of the three pilgrimage festivals in Jerusalem since those were the only times Pilate would normally be present; otherwise he resided at Caesarea on the coast. I think it incredible, however, that Jesus was crucified either on the day of Passover (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) or even the day before (John) (criterion of contextual credibility). Pilate was shrewd as well as brutal. It is inconceivable that he would risk provoking a riot among the tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of Jewish pilgrims gathered in Jerusalem by ordering a bloody execution of a number of Jewish men on a nationalistic, high holy day. If Jesus was crucified around the time of Passover, it is more likely that Pilate waited to do so until after the week-long Feast of Unleavened Bread when the pilgrims would be departing and he himself was preparing to leave Jerusalem.

I consider it quite likely that a disciple of Jesus was involved in the conspiracy that led to Jesus’s arrest (criterion of dissimilarity). I also consider it likely that Peter, who was possibly detained for resisting the arresting party, was nevertheless released after feigning ignorance of Jesus (c. o. d.). It is highly unlikely that any convocation of the Sanhedrin occurred or that Jesus received any hearing before them of the type described in Matthew, Mark, and Luke (c. c. c.). The description of what happened in these gospels violates everything we know about the Sanhedrin and how it operated. Even the high priest would have been sequestered away for weeks to assure his ritual purity to be able to properly officiate at the Passover sacrifices. Caiaphas would hardly have risked coming into contact with a “blasphemer” (Mark 14:64; Matthew 26:65) as the gospels indicate. I do, however, consider likely some involvement by the high priest and some of other the chief priests in the plot to arrest Jesus (c. m. a.). Some scholars object to this notion but my reasons for accepting a modicum of involvement will become clear as we proceed. It also seems likely that Jesus was crucified along with some other Jews (c. m. a.) – how many is irrelevant although I consider the total number of three victims to be symbolic. Finally, although the evidence can go either way, I do consider the presence of the criminal (from the Roman point of view) Barabbas to be historical. Let’s consider that in more detail.

Continue reading “The Passion of…Barabbas?”

The Jewish Paul: A Running Commentary on Galatians (Part 3)

We continue here with Part 3 of my running commentary on Galatians, attempting to demonstrate that Paul remained an observant Jew throughout his life. He neither advocated the abandonment of Judaism or Torah for himself nor for any Jew, whether they believed that Jesus was the Messiah or not. We left off with Paul’s account of an earlier conversation with Cephas/Peter in Antioch. We pick up with Paul speaking directly to his Gentile readers in Galatia. He begins now to reiterate the content of his gospel message to Gentiles. This includes condemning as futile the effort of some Gentiles trying to achieve righteousness by acting Jewish, that is, by performing selective works (rules, laws, instructions) of the Torah. Paul also explains why Christ’s death is beneficial for Gentiles. [My comments in brackets in bold.]

Galatians 2:16 (cont.) And we [Paul uses the inclusive “we” – an example of a Greek rhetorical device known as pluralis societatis, the social plural. He does this a number of times in his letters to better identify with his audience in an effort to persuade them. It does not mean that he considers himself a Gentile.] have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we [Gentiles] may be made righteous by the faithfulness of Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be made righteous [This makes perfect sense only in a Gentile context. Jewish faith and obedience include Torah and to suggest that it does not is to misunderstand Paul. Paul professes that the Torah is holy, righteous, spiritual, and good (Rom. 7:12-16). Gentiles, however, must stop “Judaizing,” that is, trying to attain righteousness through selective obedience to Torah’s instructions. It is no longer necessary (nor was it ever effectual, according to Paul) now that Christ has come. Remember, Jews do not have to be “made righteous” or “justified.” Jews are, from infancy, members of a righteous covenant; their obligation is to maintain that righteous status through continuing faith and obedience. Gentile lives are characterized by sin and so they must be “made” righteous (justified) to begin with.]. 17 But if while seeking to be made righteous in Christ we ourselves have also been found to be sinners [Gentiles seeking to be made righteous through Torah discover that they were condemned as sinners by Torah], is Christ then one who encourages sin [What Paul is probably responding to here is the accusation by some (in Galatia?) that by being made righteous in Christ, without becoming Jews, Gentiles were ignoring God’s will as presented in Torah]? Absolutely not! 18 But if I build up again those things I once destroyed, I demonstrate that I am one who breaks God’s law [Paul is reaffirming, using inclusive language (he is not talking about himself), that if the Galatians go back to Judaizing and reject the righteousness made available to them through the faithfulness of Christ, they will be returning to their flawed notion that they can earn righteousness by following a few rules of Torah. Such a process will fail, demonstrating that they are, once again, nothing more than faithless sinners who do not properly live according to Torah]. 19 For through the law I died to the law so that I may live to God [by living according to the law as the Spirit has directed them (new covenant provision – see below), Gentiles are no longer condemned by the Torah as people who do not adequately live by it. The Spirit makes it possible for Gentiles to live in obedience without becoming Jews.].

Continue reading “The Jewish Paul: A Running Commentary on Galatians (Part 3)”

The Jewish Paul: A Running Commentary on Galatians (Part 2)

As I indicated in the previous blog, this running commentary on Galatians is designed to demonstrate that Paul remained an observant Jew throughout his life. He neither advocated the abandonment of Judaism or Torah for himself nor for any Jew, whether they believed that Jesus was the Messiah or not. When we left off, Paul had laid out his Jewish credentials and described his call to mission to his pagan converts in the Roman province of Galatia. He hinted that there was someone in Galatia preaching a “different gospel” from his. What that alternative gospel was, he hasn’t yet said. He has been more focused on validating his gospel as the result of divine revelation. We resume our commentary at 2:1 with Paul describing his interactions with the founding apostles of Jerusalem over the nature of Gentile membership in the Kingdom of God.

2:2 Then after fourteen years I went up to Jerusalem again with Barnabas [identified in Acts 4:36 as a Hellenist Jew], taking Titus [identified below as a Christ-believing Gentile] along too. 2 I went there because of a revelation [additional evidence that Paul was a mystic] and presented to them the gospel that I preach among the Gentiles [re-read this; his is one form of gospel; it is the one he preaches to Gentiles. It is not one that is preached (by others) to Jews. Thus, there are, as Paul will admit again below, multiple, valid gospels or “good news” messages]. But I did so only in a private meeting with the influential people, to make sure that I was not running—or had not run—in vain [now Paul seems to want apostolic – human – validation for his mission and gospel]. 3 Yet not even Titus, who was with me, was compelled to be circumcised, although he was a Greek [Paul wants to imply that the main topic of the meeting was whether or not Gentile believers in Christ should be circumcised. However, it remains unclear whether the subject of Gentile redemption from sin without circumcision was raised although such a claim became a hallmark of Paul’s gospel. That Titus was not required to be circumcised was hardly novel – many Gentiles attended Jewish synagogues in the Greco-Roman world without having to be circumcised. It did not imply that attending Gentiles were redeemed from their sins. How the “influential people” regarded uncircumcised Gentiles when it came to entering the Kingdom of God is left unsaid by Paul.]. 4 Now this matter arose because of the false brothers with false pretenses who slipped in unnoticed to spy on our freedom that we have in Christ Jesus, to make us slaves [We cannot tell whether the “false brothers” were simply Jews or Christ-believing Jews. Paul says that “this matter” arose – is it the matter of Titus’s circumcision or Gentile circumcision as a whole? And if the “false brothers” insisted on circumcision for Gentiles, then to what end? If it is redemption from sin, then the “false brothers” are likely saying what was obvious to most Jews: if a Gentile male wanted to be in right standing with the God of Israel, he must be circumcised, that is, become Jewish and obey the law. There is no indication here that Paul argued for righteousness for Gentiles absent circumcision. He only says that Titus was not required to be circumcised. What “freedom” did Paul and his people have in Christ that was being threatened by the false brothers? Freedom for Gentiles to join in Christ-believing Jewish gatherings? Neither the freedom to enter the kingdom or freedom from sin is mentioned as part of the argument. And what is the “slavery” that Paul insists the false brothers want to shackle them with? Is it the freedom of Jews and Gentiles to associate together in communion? Paul speaks elsewhere of Gentile slavery to sin (Rom. 7:14). If this is what he means here, then he is saying in the letter that his gospel redeems Gentiles from sin without circumcision. But he is not presenting that as the argument made at the meeting. Yet Paul deftly places this gospel idea alongside the “false brothers’” insistence on Gentile circumcision without ever connecting the two. In any event, Paul is not saying that by getting circumcised and converting to Judaism Gentiles become slaves to Torah.] 5 But we did not surrender to them even for a moment, in order that the truth of the gospel would remain with you [Surrender what? By portraying this meeting as a single-topic discussion – whether Gentiles must be circumcised or not – Paul is using the event to support his battle with the opposing teachers in Galatia who advocate circumcision for salvation. Unfortunately for us, he nowhere specifies what impact the false brothers’ insistence on circumcision had on his “truth of the gospel.”].

Continue reading “The Jewish Paul: A Running Commentary on Galatians (Part 2)”

The Jewish Paul: A Running Commentary on Galatians (Part 1)

The writings of the Apostle Paul are recognized by everyone as of major importance to the origins of Christianity yet his statements can often seem contradictory, confusing, and even impenetrable. This perceptual problem has existed since the earliest centuries of the church when educated Christian theologians wrestled with Paul’s letters often trying to untangle or reinterpret Paul’s meaning for a new generation. Much of this struggle with Paul’s writings, however, derives from a basic misunderstanding of Paul that has by now become common: as a frustrated Jew who came to understand how Judaism had not only failed him but was, in fact, a failed religion and how only Christianity could offer him salvation from his sins and freedom from the Law, a thing Judaism could never do.

After nearly two-thousand years, a growing number of scholars are rising up to challenge this Christian supersessionist model of Paul (supersessionist = the assertion that Christianity supersedes and replaces Judaism as God’s favored religion). These scholars come armed with a much fuller and more sympathetic understanding of first-century Judaism. They study intently how Jewish-pagan relations actually worked in the ancient Roman world. They are beginning to read Paul as he seems to understand himself: as an observant Jew accepting a calling to become a (or the) apostle to the Gentiles (non-Jews). Paul’s letters are, in fact, written to this very target audience: non-Jews. The issues he deals with in those letters concern Gentiles and the brand-new offer that he brings to them: to become justified (or, better = to be “made righteous”) before the God of Israel. They can be righteoused so that they, too, might share in the glorious benefits of the coming Kingdom (which Paul believed was due at any moment).

When reading Paul this way, with Judaism and not against it, many seeming inconsistencies and contradictions melt away. There is of course no way to completely understand anyone from remote antiquity whose thoughts are only revealed in a limited number of one-sided correspondences. Yet, it is amazing how well this approach makes intelligible and consistent so much of Paul’s thought. There is perhaps no better (or shorter) way to demonstrate how this works than to take up a very important letter, the one he wrote to the Gentiles in Galatia, and offer a reorienting, running commentary on it.

In the next series of blog posts, I will present the text of Galatians (generally following the New English Translation though modifying the translation where necessary based on an alternative reading of the Greek original) along with intertextual comments in bold and in brackets [] that will help readers come to know Paul as a Jewish apostle to the Gentiles, which is, after all, what he claimed to be. Nearly all of the text of the letter will be presented omitting only some biographical material in chapter 1 and some prayers and good wishes in the closing chapters. We will avoid none of the so-called “difficult” passages. However, one must read this commentary from the beginning in order to understand certain basic concepts that follow throughout the letter, concepts that, due to space limitations, will not be continually repeated throughout (though some will bear repeating).

So, open your minds, put aside everything you thought you knew about Paul, and follow along as the apostle to the Gentiles responds (rather angrily at times) to a problem that has arisen in his community of Gentile converts in the Roman province of Galatia. Some members of that community are accepting if not advocating a change in the way that Christ-believers practice their faith, a change Paul vigorously opposes.

The Letter to the Galatians

1:1 From Paul, an apostle (not from men, nor by human agency [Paul will explain below that he received his “gospel” from a revelation, not from human transmission], but by Jesus Christ and God the Father who raised him from the dead) 2 and all the brothers with me, to the churches of Galatia [it is vital for the proper reading of this letter to understand that these churches are composed of Gentiles – everything Paul says in this letter is directed to and about Gentiles – we will demonstrate this as we move along]. 3 Grace and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, 4 who gave himself for our [Paul uses the inclusive plural (“our,” “we”) many times in this letter in order to rhetorically identify himself with his audience using a common Greek rhetorical device known as pluralis societatis] sins [these are Gentile sins; until now, Gentiles had no access to atonement or redemption – Jews had been provided the means of atonement for sin since the reception of the Torah] to rescue us [inclusive language but meaning the Galatian Gentiles] from this present evil age [a Jewish apocalyptic view that demonic forces were currently in charge of the world] according to the will of our God and Father, 5 to whom be glory forever and ever! Amen.

1:6 I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you [this could refer to them deserting Paul or the Spirit which Paul says was active in their community] by the grace of Christ and are following a different gospel— 7 not that there really is another gospel [Paul initially admits that there are multiple gospels – he will say so again below – but then retracts the statement upon further reflection, perhaps to avoid giving his opponents any credence], but there are some who are disturbing you and wanting to distort the gospel of Christ [that is, the gospel Paul brought to them]. 8 But even if we (or an angel from heaven [Why an angel of heaven? Many apocalyptic Jews like Paul believed that angels influenced much of human and world activity. Some believed that angels were assigned to oversee the nations and watch over them (c.f. Acts 7:38, 53]) should preach a gospel [here he admits again that there were other gospels] contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be condemned to hell! 9 As we have said before, and now I say again, if anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received [from Paul], let him be condemned to hell! 10 Am I now trying to gain the approval of people, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a slave of Christ! [Paul’s audience understood that he was frequently persecuted for his teachings. He would not be so persecuted, he insists, if he taught a more popular gospel. How could it be more popular? Paul will say below that he once taught that Gentiles needed to be circumcised (essentially converting to Judaism) in order to be made righteous. Circumcision was part of what his opponents were advocating, though not, apparently, for full conversion to Judaism. They were advocating this, Paul insists, to line up better with current social expectations (pleasing people). Paul’s teaching counters social expectations: his Gentiles stop worshiping pagan gods in order to exclusively worship the God of Israel yet they do not convert to Judaism. Paul often uses slave language as he does here. Slavery was ubiquitous in the Roman world – the institution touched nearly every soul in some way.]

1:11 Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. 12 For I did not receive it or learn it from any human source; instead I received it by a revelation of Jesus Christ [In this way, Paul differentiates himself from those who walked with Jesus and taught a “good news” message to other Jews in Palestine. Paul insists that what he teaches did not originate with the historical Jesus or his apostles but came to him via divine revelation. This claim would leave Paul vulnerable to obvious skepticism.].

1:13 For you have heard of my former way of life in Judaism [It is important to read this passage as it is translated here which refers to Paul’s former way of expressing his Judaism. That is, by his zealous claim to understand Jewish faith and follow it better than other Jews. There were many forms and expressions of Judaism at this time. Paul is not saying that he once was a Jew and now he is not.], how I was savagely persecuting the church of God and trying to destroy it. 14 I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries in my nation, and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my ancestors [These words offer a small window into how Paul was expressing his Judaism – he was “advancing,” that is, in knowledge and understanding, more than other Jews that he knew. Paul was zealous, that is, he was forceful in decrying other forms of Judaism than his own. This included that form of Judaism which claimed that the crucified Jesus was the messiah and, most likely, their belief that Gentiles now had some means other than conversion of entering the coming kingdom.]. 15 But when the one who set me apart from birth and called me [Paul was called to a vocation, not “converted” to Christianity, in the same way that the prophets of old were commissioned – Isa. 49:1; Jer. 1:5] by his grace was pleased 16 to reveal his Son in me so that I could preach him among the Gentiles…. [Paul then goes on to say that he did not stop to confer with anyone but traveled about. Nothing in these lines suggests that Paul stopped being Jewish. He came to another understanding of Judaism which required him to stop persecuting at least one form of it, Jewish messianism focused on Jesus. This change came about, he says, as the result of revelation. Such claims identify Paul as an apocalyptic mystic, one who believed in a variety of cosmic beings, divine revelations, and portentous notions of a coming end to the age.]

Come back soon for Part 2!

Was Jesus Born on January 6?

Some ancient Christians thought so. In fact, other dates were considered as well.

A heretical Christian group (known as the Alogi) located in Asia Minor (modern Turkey) apparently dated Jesus’s birth on (what would for us be) either June 20 or May 21 (depending on the reading) in the year 9 CE. An unrelated group of Christian Gnostics in Egypt (followers of the Gnostic teacher Basilides) gave a similar date for Jesus’s birth: May 20. They also believed that Jesus’s baptism occurred on this same date exactly thirty years later.

Early Christian theologian and historian, Epiphanius of Salamis (315-403 CE), claimed that the May date was actually the date of Jesus’s conception rather than his actual birth. Was this what the heretical groups noted above originally intended? Epiphanius wrote that the actual date of Jesus’s birth was on January 6, a winter solstice date (when one of the Earth’s poles has its maximum tilt away from the Sun), and he cites a number of traditions to prove it. This date became known as Epiphany, which comes from the Greek word for “the appearing” as it is used in 2 Timothy 1:9-10:

He is the one who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not based on our works but on his own purpose and grace, granted to us in Christ Jesus before time began, but now made visible through the appearing (epiphaneias) of our Savior Christ Jesus. (1 Tim. 1:9-10 NET)

Thus, many early Christians thought that January 6 was the date that Jesus, the glory of God, appeared on earth and the same date that, thirty years later, the Spirit appeared to Jesus as a dove as it entered him during his baptism.

Another tradition understood that Mary’s pregnancy lasted “ten months less fourteen days and eight hours,” or, put another way, “nine months plus fifteen days and four hours.” Those Christians, counting backward from Jesus’s presumed birthdate of January 6, derived the date of Mary’s conception as March 20. Coincidentally, that would be the same date that they also believed Jesus was crucified. Therefore, some Christians claimed that Jesus both came into the womb of an earthly, human woman and left the earth as a human being on March 20.

Scholar Jack Finegan notes that the birth date of January 6 may have been chosen to supplant a popular, pagan religious ceremony dedicated to the goddess Kore that was held on that date in such locales as Egypt and Arabia. On the night of January 5 and the morning of January 6…

“The participants stay awake all night…making music to the idol with songs and flutes. In the early morning at cockcrow they descend by torchlight to a subterranean shrine and bring forth a wooden image, marked with the sign of a cross and a star of gold on hands, knees, and head. This image they carry in procession to musical accompaniment, and then return it to the crypt. They explain the meaning of the ceremony to the effect that in this hour this day Kore, the virgin, gave birth to the Aion.” (Handbook of Biblical Chronology, pg. 325)

December 25 was also a winter solstice date as well as the date of another pagan festival. It has equal claims on early tradition as being the date of Jesus’s birth, deriving from at least the second or third century. Unfortunately, December 25 has no greater claim to authenticity than January 6. Nevertheless, fourth-century theologian John Chrysostom defended this date by claiming that, since John the Baptist, in his view, was conceived between September 25 and October 1 (the Feast of Tabernacles), then Mary would have conceived Jesus six months later (Luke 1:26) in April. Nine months after that (counting inclusively), Jesus was born on December 25.

As many readers will already know, December 25 was the date of the pagan festival of Sol Invictus, the “Invincible Sun.” As Finegan points out:

“The cult of Deus Sol Invictus was still at its height in the time of Constantine and the portrait of the sun god was on the coins of the emperor, but with his rise to sole rule of the empire (A.D. 323-337) Constantine was free to accept Christianity openly. Thereafter his coins and inscriptions were no longer offensive to Christians and Dec 25 was freely the birthday of Christ, as attested in the Roman city calendar in A.D. 336.” (pg. 328)

Regardless of the date chosen, ancient Christians seemed to agree that Jesus was conceived in the spring (shepherds abiding in the fields?) and born in the mid-winter. Whether either of these choices are historically accurate is debatable. Each has a 1/365 chance of being right! The Feast of Epiphany is still celebrated in Christianity either as the day of the visitation of the Magi to Jesus’s crib (Western tradition) or the date on which Jesus was baptized (Eastern tradition). While most churches continue to celebrate Epiphany on January 6, others do so on January 1 or even January 19. Some call it Twelfth Night, Three Kings’ Day, or Little Christmas. Whether or not Jesus was born on this date, it remains a prominent festival in the Christian calendar.

Did Baby Jesus Go to Egypt?

As many readers know, there are two stories of Jesus’s birth and childhood in the New Testament. They are told in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke but the stories are quite different. Beyond the core themes shared by both authors (Mary becomes pregnant but not by Joseph; Jesus is born in Bethlehem) the stories feature differing details and emphases. It is the Gospel of Matthew, for example, that relates such unique narrative elements as the moving star, the arrival of the magi, the attempt by King Herod to execute the baby Jesus, and the family’s brief trip to Egypt to escape Herod’s wrath. Why Egypt? Is such a trip even historical? We may never know the answer to the second question but we can offer quite a bit of insight into why Jesus and his family might have been portrayed as going to Egypt.

The Gospel of Matthew is considered by many scholars to be the most “Jewish” gospel of the four New Testament gospels although others have debated this assessment. Either way, the author is unique in crediting so much of Jesus’s activity to the fulfillment of Jewish prophecy. Multiple times we encounter such explanations for the things Jesus does as taking “place to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet” (Matt. 21:4 NET). If we read the gospel with this in mind, we can assume that the author wanted Jesus’s trip to Egypt to fulfill a scriptural prophecy. In fact, the author is quite clear about this. He wrote, “In this way what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet was fulfilled: ‘I called my Son out of Egypt.’” (Matt. 2:15 NET). The “prophecy” in question is from the Book of Hosea (11:1 NET): “When Israel was a young man, I loved him like a son, and I summoned my son out of Egypt.”

The Gospel of Matthew is concerned not only with providing evidence that Jesus was God’s son in a unique way (Israel, too, is often characterized as God’s son in the Jewish scriptures) but that he is a new, updated Moses. Like Moses, Jesus was saved from a wrathful potentate who wanted to destroy Israelite/Jewish babies. Like Moses, Jesus/Israel comes out of Egypt (as Moses and Israel did in the Exodus). And like Israel itself which followed the patriarch (ancient father) Joseph, Jesus initially goes with his “father” Joseph into the land of Egypt.

It is a theological question, and thus a matter of faith, whether Jesus actually fulfilled all of the prophecies Matthew suggests or whether the author searched for prophesies in the scriptures in order to place them into the context of Jesus’s life. Was the prophecy about Egypt so important that Matthew felt compelled to write a story to show that Jesus fulfilled it? Or did Jesus actually go to Egypt and Matthew later found a prophecy that fit the circumstances?

Continue reading “Did Baby Jesus Go to Egypt?”

What is the New Covenant and Who is it with?

There is a presumption among many Christians today that the “new covenant,” one that supposedly came with the arrival of Jesus, was established between God and Christians. Is that what history tells us? If it does, then what does the new covenant entail? If it does not, then what is the new covenant and how did it come to be perceived as a Christian covenant? Let’s start our historical investigation with a bit about the terminology.

What is a covenant? The Hebrew term is beriyth (ber-REETH), the Greek is diathḗkē (dee-ath-AY-kay). Both refer to an alliance, settlement, pledge, treaty, arrangement, or agreement between two parties. The terms can also indicate a disposition or will, in other words, a testament. Thus, the Christian Old and New Testaments actually reflect a Christian belief in old (Jewish) and new (Christian) covenants. What is such a division meant to imply? Let’s begin to answer these questions by surveying each of the covenants enacted between God and humans that are recorded in the Bible.

The earliest covenant appears in Torah’s book of Genesis. There, God made a covenant with Noah (Gen. 6:18) which followed God’s instructions that Noah collect two of every species of living creature on earth and place them in the ark. God made this covenant not only with Noah but with his descendants and “with every living creature.” God agreed that “never again will all living things be wiped out by the waters of a flood” (Gen. 9:9-11). The sign of the ratification of this covenant was the rainbow. Note that this covenant is a “perpetual” covenant – that is, it has no end (Gen. 9:16).

The next covenant also appears in Genesis (ch. 17). This time it was made by God directly with Abraham but also applied to his future son Isaac as well as Abraham’s lineal descendants through him. In this covenant, God promised both land and people, that is the land of Israel and a multitude of descendants through Abraham’s wife Sarah. The sign of the ratification for this covenant was circumcision (Gen. 17:11-13). Note once again that this covenant is “perpetual”; it will have no end (Gen. 17:7, 19).

After a time, these covenant people, descendants of Abraham, found themselves enslaved in Egypt. Moses was chosen by God to liberate them and take them back to the land originally promised to Abraham and his descendants. Along the way, God gave the Torah, the “instructions,” to the covenant people through Moses. This Torah is also called the Book of the Covenant (Ex. 24:7). The sign of the ratification of this covenant was blood taken from a number of bulls which Moses took and splashed on the makeshift altar he constructed. In response, the covenant people chanted, “We are willing to do and obey all that the Lord has spoken” (Ex. 24:7). Moses then sprinkled the same blood on the people themselves saying, “This is the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words” (Ex. 24:8). An additional sign of this covenant was to be the keeping of the Sabbath (Ex. 31:13). Once again, this covenant is described as perpetual, that is, everlasting (Ex. 31:16). This newer covenant is between God and the covenant people (Ex. 34:27).

We should pause here and note that none of these covenants superseded or replaced previous ones. All remained valid. God is quoted as looking back and saying to Moses, “I will remember my covenant with Jacob and also my covenant with Isaac and also my covenant with Abraham and I will remember the land” (Lev. 26:42). After threatening punishment to those who might break the covenant, God assures Moses that God will always remember the covenant(s): “I will not reject them and abhor them to make a complete end of them, to break my covenant with them…I will remember for them the covenant with their ancestors whom I brought out of the land of Egypt” (Lev. 26:44-45). According to Deuteronomy, God “is a merciful God, he will not let you down or destroy you, for he cannot forget the covenant with your ancestors that he confirmed by oath to them” (Deut. 4:31). Remember: the covenants are perpetual. God keeps the “covenant faithfully with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations” (Deut. 7:9).

There is yet one additional covenant that should be mentioned. When King David replaced Saul as the leader of the twelve tribes, a covenant was made between God and the new king concerning his dynasty. David said “my dynasty is approved by God, for he has made a perpetual covenant with me, arranged in all its particulars and secured” (2 Sam. 23:5). The Psalms, supposedly written by David, add emphasis to the “particulars.” Psalm 89 quotes God as saying “I have made a covenant with my chosen one; I have made a promise on oath to David…I will give him an eternal dynasty, and make his throne as enduring as the skies above.” Note the perpetual nature of this covenant as well: “I will give you an eternal dynasty…I will always extend my loyal love to him, and my covenant with him is secure.”

Why have we spent so much time reviewing these Biblical covenants? We have done so to establish certain consistent features among them. First, covenants are between God and the Jewish people or their forerunners (the people of the covenant): Noah, Abraham, Moses, David. Second, the covenants are perpetual; they do not end. Neither do they supersede or replace earlier covenants. The covenant with David, for example, does not invalidate those made with Noah, Abraham, or Moses. Third, each succeeding covenant can be called “new” without impacting negatively on the one(s) that went before. They achieve different ends but work together to achieve a more complete arrangement between God and God’s covenant people.

The idea of yet another “new” covenant is broached by the mid-7th-century BCE prophet Jeremiah. It was during his lifetime that the Babylonians conquered the Kingdom of Judah, the southern kingdom of the land promised to Abraham that was formed when the twelve tribes broke apart following the kingship of Solomon. Eleven tribes combined to form the northern Kingdom of Israel, conquered in the 8th-century BCE by the Assyrians. One hundred and twenty-five years later, Jeremiah watched as the wealthy, educated leadership of Judah was taken into exile in Babylon. He saw how the Babylonians had destroyed Jerusalem and demolished the Temple originally built by Solomon. He bewailed what he considered the sinful (politically inadvisable) acts of the Judean leadership that he believed were now being punished by God. In that context he looked forward to yet another covenant, “a new covenant with the people of Israel and Judah” (Jer. 31:31). It would be issued differently from (but would not replace) the Mosaic covenant that he believed had been violated by the leaders. This new covenant would be made “with the whole nation of Israel after I plant them back in the land,” that is, when they returned from Babylon. With this covenant, God would put his Torah “within them and write it on their hearts and minds” (Jer. 31:33). In other words, God would “forgive their sin” and ensure that Torah would not be broken again. Just to be clear, Jeremiah quoted God as saying, “The Lord has made a promise to Israel…The descendants of Israel will not cease forever to be a nation in my sight…I will not reject all the descendants of Israel because of all that they have done. That could only happen if the heavens above could be measured” (Jer. 31:37), which of course they couldn’t be. In other words, the promises to Israel would never be forgotten.

That brings us to the first mention of the new covenant by a believer in the messiahship of Jesus: the apostle Paul. Yes, Paul. Paul’s letters are the earliest literature by a Christ-confessor yet discovered. They were written decades before the gospels.

Paul is often characterized as the “founder of Christianity,” and/or a “Jewish apostate” who found no absolution for his sins until the coming of Christ. This is all supersessionist nonsense and I have refuted these points in other posts. Paul was actually a faithful, observant Jew for his entire life, who, like all Jews, found forgiveness for his sins in the provisions of Torah. As an observant, Christ-confessing Jew, he brought to the pagan world what he believed was a divinely-instituted means by which Gentile sins could be redeemed enabling them to become children of God and be saved from the wrath that would soon accompany the end of the age. For now, let’s concentrate on Paul’s references to the new covenant.

Paul specifically mentions the new covenant twice. In 2 Corinthians 3:6 he speaks of himself and unnamed others as “servants of a new covenant not based on the letter but on the Spirit.” He adds that the “letter kills but the Spirit gives life.” It is important to understand that all of Paul’s letters are addressed to Gentiles and their particular needs in light of the coming “wrath” (Rom. 2:5; 1 Thess. 1:10, etc.). Much of Paul’s mission has been to correct the impression held by some Gentiles that merely by observing certain provisions of the Jewish Torah (“Judaizing”) they could be made righteous before God. As non-Jews, it is impossible to adequately follow Torah. Not only that, they did not have the proper faith (the faith of Abraham). Indeed, “the letter” of the law (written Torah) kills Gentiles.

Now that Christ has come and died to redeem their sins, Gentiles have a pathway to salvation. They can share in the faithfulness of Christ and obey the Torah as appropriate for them by the guidance of the Spirit (“the Spirit gives life”). How did this happen?

Paul believes that Christ announced the new covenant, the one prophesied by Jeremiah, that “writes” the Torah on people’s hearts and minds. In Paul’s view, the Spirit will now instruct everyone, Jew and Gentile, as to how best each group should obey Torah. Remember, Paul never invalidates the Torah in his letters (Rom. 7:12) and he demands obedience to elements of the Torah for his non-Jewish audiences (1 Cor. 5:11; 6:9-10; 2 Cor. 12:20-21; Gal. 5:19-21; Rom. 1:29-31; etc.). Paul’s formula for salvation for both groups is always: faith plus obedience equals salvation.

Paul refers to Jeremiah’s new covenant language again in Romans 11:27 directly quoting the prophet: “and this will be my covenant with them when I take away their sins.” Who is “them”? Note that this quotation of Jeremiah follows Paul’s declarative (and often ignored) statement: “And in this way all Israel will be saved.” Paul understood that the covenants are with the covenant people, not with non-Jews/Gentiles. The fact that Gentiles have now become eligible for redemption, as Paul proclaims, has nothing to do with their entering into a separate covenant with God. As Paul says earlier in Romans: “my fellow countrymen…are Israelites. To them belong the adoption as sons, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the temple worship, and the promises” (Rom. 9:3-4). Paul also understood that additional covenants did not invalidate previous ones (Gal. 3:15-17). This new covenant, proclaimed by Jeremiah, was interpreted by Paul, at least, as one that would begin at the dawn of the new age (not at the return of the Jewish leadership from Babylon as Jeremiah anticipated). Paul knows that this new covenant is, like all the others, between God and “the nation of Israel” (i.e., Jews) as Jeremiah said; it is not between God and pagans, former or otherwise. The effects of the new covenant may impact non-Jews but they are not signatories to it. As John 4:22 makes clear, “salvation comes from the Jews.”

A final word about the new covenant and Jesus. Paul claims to recite words that he says he “received from the Lord,” words that were said “on the night when he was betrayed” (1 Cor. 11:23). Paul quotes Christ as saying “this cup [of wine] is the new covenant in my blood” (1 Cor. 11:25). Remember the signs of ratification of the covenants we looked at above: rainbow, circumcision, blood (of the bulls), an everlasting dynasty. This sign is also blood, the blood of Jesus sprinkled on the cross and symbolized (sprinkled among the people, as it were) through the wine served at the Eucharist. It signified (for Paul and others) Jeremiah’s new covenant in which the Spirit would instruct the faithful about the requirements of Torah. In Paul’s hands, Jeremiah’s prophecy has been fulfilled eschatologically, another indication that the new age was dawning (this, as we saw, was not Jeremiah’s thinking). Paul’s “words of the Lord” were later picked up in three of the four gospels and located in the story of Jesus’s last supper (John never uses the word “covenant” and does not feature Paul’s “words of the Lord”).

In short, the new covenant, whatever else Christ-believing Jews said it was, whether Paul or the gospel writers, was never suggested to be an agreement between God and pagans or between God and Christ-believing Gentiles. It did not supersede or replace any previous covenant. All remained operative working together according to God’s plan. The covenants remain with Israel. The Jewish messiah, according to Paul, announced a new covenant with the Jewish faithful, some of whom were seated around him “on the night in which he was betrayed,” to be ratified in his blood. It announced the coming of the Spirit who would write the laws of God on the hearts and minds of those who love God. Paul believed that Gentiles could be among them.