Paul's Profound Identity as a Jew of His Day

By Philip A. Cunningham

Perhaps no single topic illustrates the recent change in Christian attitudes toward Judaism than the history of the interpretation of the New Testament letters of St. Paul.  For centuries, he was understood to have abandoned Judaism and converted to Christianity. He supposedly found the effort to earn salvation by obeying the commands of the Torah to be futile or unavailing, and therefore proclaimed the end of "the Law" for Jews and Gentiles alike.  However in recent decades biblical scholarship has begun to see Paul in a very different light, though widespread consensus about every aspect of his thought has yet to emerge.

Even in ancient times, another New Testament writer described Paul's letters as "hard to understand" (2 Peter 3:16).  Indeed, certain features of Paul's writings have always encouraged misinterpretation. There are several reasons for this:

1.    Textual Issues

It is widely agreed that not all the letters that the New Testament ascribes to Paul were actually written by him. Some were clearly composed decades after his death, especially 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus. Although equally deemed by Christians to be divinely inspired, differences in perspective found in these "deutero-Pauline" letters should not automatically be seen as reflecting Paul's own thinking. For example, the author of 1 Timothy 2:12 stated that he did "not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man. She must be quiet." But in Romans 16:1-7, a letter that no one doubts comes from Paul himself, he greets a number of women, giving titles to them that surely suggest a considerable degree of authority:  Phoebe is called a deacon of the church at Cenchreae (vs. 1), Prisca or Priscilla is named a "co-worker" who with her husband hosts a house-church (vv. 3-5), and Junia is called "outstanding among the apostles" (vs. 7) [note that in some manuscripts her name is changed to an otherwise unattested masculine name, Junias].  

In addition, some of the letters we have today may have originally been separate smaller ones. This is especially true of the letters to Corinth.

A further textual complication is that some of Paul's wording is occasionally ambiguous or hard to translate. For example, the Greek word nomos, usually rendered as "law," is not the best English equivalent of the Hebrew Torah or teaching (of Moses). As noted below, similar uncertainties arise with the Pauline phrases ergou nomou (works/workings of the law) and pistis iesou christou (faith in/faithfulness of Jesus Christ). Much depends on the translator's presuppositions.

2.    Paul's Writings Are Personal Correspondence

Paul wrote to address specific situations in early local churches that cannot be reconstructed with certainty today.  He often reacted to news or messages not in our possession, which makes it challenging to fully appreciate his replies.

Even though Paul was writing about particular local issues, many later interpreters felt they could construct a systematic "Pauline theology" on the basis of such "occasional" letters.  This is a risky venture since Paul sometimes wrote impulsively without carefully weighing his words (see Gal. 5:12, for example!).  The interpreters of later centuries also tended to discount the possibility that Paul may have developed his ideas from one letter to the next.

3.    Paul Argued in Jewish Categories

Although Paul described himself as "circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; ... as to righteousness under the Law, blameless" (Phil. 3:5,6b), over time his letters were predominantly studied by Gentile Christians. They naturally read them through the lens of their own identities as non-Jews.  In their mind's eye, Paul was a Christian, not a Jew. He lived as a Gentile and no longer followed the Jewish Torah. Their own experience of Christianity and Judaism as separate - even antithetical - communities was anachronistically projected back onto Paul himself. This habit was exacerbated by Paul's own pastoral habit of trying to speak to his primarily Gentile addressees on their own terms (see 1 Cor. 9: 19-23).

However, in Paul's time, the churches, many of which were thoroughly Jewish demographically, were part of the diverse world of late Second Temple Judaism.  The fact that the words "Christian" or "Christianity" had not yet come into use and never appear in Paul's letters is an important signal to readers that Paul's religious world is quite different from todays.

Which brings us to the pivotal question: did Paul think of himself as a former Jew who became "Christian" or as a Jew who had come to believe that the messianic age was dawning?  

The following very influential Pauline sentence is very relevant. It contains two uncertain terms.  "... we know that a person is justified not by the workings of the law but through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ" (Gal. 2:16).  The sentence has been taken by most Christians over time to mean that unless people believe in Christ as Lord and Son of God, they are not in right-relationship with God, no matter what commandments ("works") they follow.

However, the sentence could just as properly be rendered as: "we know that a person is justified not by the workings of the Law but through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ." This construal is based on the idea that the Torah affects people's standing before God in different ways. For Jews, Torah-observance is a mark of being in covenant with a saving God. The Torah's "workings" for Jews is to keep them focused on conforming to God's will as an elect people. But the Torah's "workings" for pagan Gentiles is to expose their sinfulness as damnable idolaters. Paul clearly was concerned about this because "the wrath of God is indeed being revealed from heaven against every impiety and wickedness ..." (Rom. 1:18 ff.). Paul felt that Gentiles could not escape divine judgment as Gentiles unless they began conducting themselves with the same faithfulness toward God that distinguished Jesus, "obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross!" (Phil. 2: 8).

Surely these are two very different ways of understanding Gal. 2:16. This illustrate that how a modern reader chooses to interpret it will be largely determined by whether they imagine that Paul has abandoned Judaism (the traditional option) or if he is seen as a Jew for whom Christ is central (the newer option).

This realization has led some modern scholars to observe that when Paul wrote about observance of the Torah, or even "the curse of the Law" (Gal. 3:10-13; referring to Dt. 27:26 - "Cursed be he who fails to fulfill any of the provisions of this law"), he seems to have been speaking more about the Law's significance for Gentiles-in-Christ and not about their meaning for Jews, as later Christian readers assumed.  Likewise, when he wrote Gal. 2:15, he may well have been citing a Jewish understanding about the Torah and the necessity of human  faithfulness toward God with which most of his Jewish contemporaries would have been comfortable.

In other words, Paul's letters are construed in radically different ways depending on whether his readers think of him as a Jewish apostate who forsook Judaism or as always a Jew though one who came to distinctive beliefs about Christ.

4.    Paul's Letters Were Regularly Interpreted to Address Later Controversies

If Paul really wrote out of his Jewish heritage, he was easily misunderstood when his letters were eventually read by Gentiles unfamiliar with his Jewish context. This includes the pharisaic, mystical, and apocalyptic features of his thought.

But the likelihood of misreading Paul was further increased by the practice of reading Paul in order to support later theological arguments. The most vivid example of this is probably the use to which Paul was put during the debates between Roman Catholics and Protestants during the Reformation of the 16th-century and beyond. Martin Luther likened Judaism to Roman Catholicism as both being religions based on the futile effort to earn God's favor, whereas his Reformed Christianity was similar to Paul as both perceiving the need to depend totally on God's mercy. Luther's Paul became the champion of "justification by faith" against all the rituals and practices of Roman Catholicism. Everything that Paul wrote was read as in opposition to Judaism and everything that Luther criticized about Roman Catholicism was projected onto Judaism: it was legalistic, loveless, filled with empty ritual, and corrupt. Luther's introspection about his own sinfulness was also projected onto Paul, now seen as despairing of the Law as unable to bring him to right relationship with God.

More recent biblical scholarship has questioned whether Paul was really filled with such existential angst and whether he would recognize himself in this portrayal.

All of these factors have come under close examination in the past few decades. A key move was the recognition that Judaism has never been a religion of "works righteousness," an effort to earn God's favor. A more accurate description of the Jewish tradition understands that Jews seek to follow the divine will as expressed in the Torah in gratitude for having been elected as people in covenant with the One God.

This has led to renewed study of Paul as remaining Jewish, and possibly Torah-observant, all his life.  In the new paradigm, his primary concern was the fate of Gentiles and their incorporation as Gentiles as full, equal members of churches with Jews.  His difference with more mainstream Jews was his conviction that in Christ the end of history and the time of the redemption of all things were at hand. He was baffled why his Jewish kinfolk didn't perceive this end-time framework, but at no point did he stop thinking of himself as Jewish. Nor did he entertain the possibility that God's promises to redeem all Israel would be in vain.

Further research into the Jewishness of Paul will no doubt continue in the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, those involved in the Christian-Jewish dialogue today might consider the fact that they are actually grappling with questions about the interfaith relationship that have not been seriously considered since the days of Paul himself.

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For further reading on Paul, see:

Magnus Zetterholm, Approaches to Paul: A Student's Guide to Recent Scholarship (Fortress Press, 2009).

John G. Gager, 'Paul, the Apostle of Judaism' in Paula Fredrikson & Adele Reinhartz, editors, Jesus, Judaism & Christian Anti-Judaism: Reading the New Testament after the Holocaust (Westminster John Knox Press, 2002)

Pamela Eisenbaum, Paul Was Not a Christian:  The Original Message of a Misunderstood Apostle (HarperOne, 2010).

Naomi Seidman, Faithful Renderings: Jewish-Christian Difference and the Politics of Translation
(University of Chicago Press, 2006)