WAS PAUL A CHRISTIAN?

 

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In answer to my question, Pamela Eisenbaum, of the Hebrew University and now a professor of biblical studies at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado, boldly states on the cover of her book (excerpted above): Paul was not a Christian. 

While my husband of blessed memory, Dwight A. Pryor – to whom, on this his 7th yartzeit, I dedicate this article – had a strong affinity with Paul, I wrestled with the apparent contradictions I found in the apostle’s letters. In particular, those that carried a strong Anti-Jewish and Anti-law, or Torah, slant. I simply decided to disregard any such problematic verses and appreciate the positive life and Torah affirming statements made by Paul. Then came the challenge!  I recently attended a four-part lecture series by Ryan Lambert,** entitled Paul Within Judaism – Rethinking the Jewish Apostle to the Gentiles. Ryan made a passionate appeal for the need to clarify our understanding of Paul in his Jewish identity and context and to gain greater clarity on the verses I was happy to dismiss. He also emphasized that we need to grasp WHY this was necessary, indeed vital in the continuing restoration and the unfolding of God’s redemptive purposes.

From Ryan’s introduction:

“WHY take the time to examine Paul in the context of Judaism? Because it is a critical component of the restoration of the Hebraic heritage. It’s the important paradigm shift for the multidirectional hermeneutic needed to gain a clearer perspective of the basis of Paul’s important mission and message. Christianity needs to be restored to its Jewish Roots and the Torah. This is not to say that the Church is ‘bad.’ It has done, and is doing, great good in the world, and it preserved the teachings of Yeshua. [However, at this point in history] the Church needs to be lovingly and respectfully challenged in regard to the Jewish identity of Paul.”

I believe, by now, that a good portion of the Church has woken up to the Jewish identity of Jesus and the Hebraic roots of the faith. Christians can embrace the Jewish Rabbi Jesus. However, the anti-Judaism roots run deep.  

In the 2nd Century, Church father Ignatius said, among other Anti-Semitic diatribe: 
“If we go on observing Judaism we admit we never received grace. It is monstrous to think of Jesus living as a Jew!”  Christian scholar and author, John Gager, comments: “In the rhetoric of Christian triumphalism there was no space for Judaism. Jews no longer had anything to offer.”
Martin Luther accused the Jewish people of being enemies of God – and he therefore made them his own enemies. In fact, Anti-Judaism can be traced throughout Church history…from Marcion, to Luther, to modern Christian scholars such as F.C. Bauer and Bultmann. Even the renowned and respected Bible teacher John MacArthur proclaims: “Judaism, in God’s eyes, is a dead issue, but the burial took a long time. It was a very difficult thing for the Jews (Paul, Peter, etc.) to sever their relations with Judaism.”
Pamela Eisenbaum comments: “The misreading of Paul was inexorably linked to the degraded conception of Judaism that so often led to the worst manifestations of Anti-Semitism.”

In the 1960’s a new interpretation arose, coined the ‘New Perspective’ on Jesus, Paul, and Judaism, through scholars such as J.D.G. Dunn, E.P. Saunders, Krister Stendahl, etc.. Their big contribution was to offer a different perspective on Judaism in Jesus’ time.

E.P.Saunders described a pattern of Jewish thinking he termed “covenantal nomism,” and pointed out that Jews did not keep the Torah and do mitzvoth in order to earn salvation and to see themselves as ‘righteous’, but rather because it was the way [given by God] to live in affirmation of their covenantal relationship with God. 

SO, how do we relocate Paul within Judaism? Here are salient points made by Ryan Lambert, with my comments at times interjected [in square brackets]:

  1. Re-examine the Damascus Road event, seen as Paul’s “Conversion” experience.

Stendahl points out that rather than being converted to a new religion, Paul was called to apostleship to the Gentiles. 
Galatians 1:15-16  “But when He [God] who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by His grace, was pleased to reveal His Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles,…”.

It was a Calling not a Conversion! Paul remained faithful to the God of Israel and to Judaism, and assumed other Jews would too. Objectors can point to Galatians 1:13, which references Paul’s “former manner of life” as a Jew,and see it as indicating he no longer lived that life. Scholar Dr. Mark Nanos responds: “Paul here refers to a certain way of living in Judaism that no longer characterises the way he lives Judaism now.” Previously, he persecuted Jews who followed Yeshua as being traitors to the faith. Now, with the revealing of Messiah, and the inclusion of gentiles into the Kingdom, he realized a great change had occurred – one that ushered in the ‘end of Days.’

2.   Paul’s so-called negative comments on Torah issues should not be universalized. They are highly situational in nature. E.g., Why did he seem to oppose circumcision?

Galatians 5:6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.”

[He expresses his concern regarding a situation that had arisen. Strict Jews had approached the new gentile believers and were forcing them to undergo circumcision as a sign of inclusion into the Jewish community. Paul, understandably, was angry and said: “…you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace” (Galatians 5:4b). And added: “I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves!” (Galatians 5:12).

In his letter to the Corinthians Paul says: “For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God” (1 Corinthians 7:19). He points out how strict, self-righteous Jews (the ‘circumcision party’) can make a show of keeping the commandments but their hearts are far from God. On the other hand the new gentile believers (the ‘uncircumcised party’) who have come into knowledge of their loving Father God through Yeshua, and now are learning and keeping the commandments in love, are those in true “new creation” covenant relationship with God. See also Romans 2:26-29). ]

Paula Fredrikson: “[Paul’s audience] were ex-pagan pagans – ex-pagan Gentiles. Like God-Fearers they would worship the God of Israel but preserve their own ethnicities and would not assume the bulk of the Jewish ancestral customs such as circumcision.”

Circumcision was not the end goal!  [New believers could not be coerced into the multi-faceted stream of Jewish life. Learning and understanding would come slowly.] Paul’s universal view of circumcision is expressed in Romans 3:1-2: “Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision?Much in every way.”

3.   We can ask the question: Was Paul a Liar for the Gospel?

We need to examine Paul’s “missionary strategy” on the basis of 1 Corinthians 9:19-23, which impacts how one understands Paul.

“For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak.I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.”

The standard Christian understanding is that “chameleon-like” activity is justifiable in missionizing. [Ryan related a story of how a Christian disguised himself as an Orthodox Jew and infiltrated a local Jewish community. He eventually ‘witnessed’ to some; then was hosted by a large Christian Church where he boasted about his hypocritical accomplishments and bad-mouthed the Jewish community. As awful as the behavior of the individual was, Ryan felt the justification, even applauding of his actions by the Christian congregation was worse.]

A Christian view is that Paul defines himself as Christ’s slave and is set free from the bonds of Judaism and can be a Jew to the Jews and a gentile to the gentiles. His inconsistent behaviour is justifiable. According to the traditional Jewish viewpoint, there is no way a Torah-observant, Judaism following person could do such things. He would be considered a “shmuck”!

From the Christian viewpoint one can understand that Paul is identified as not Jewish, not Gentile, but part of a third Christian race that is neither Jew nor Gentile. This seems delineated in: “Give no offense to Jews, or to Greeks, or to the church of God,” (1 Corinthians 10:32). Author Christian Soulen: “The Church sees itself as a special fellowship outside of the carnal categories of Jew or Gentile.” D.A. Carson, considered one of the leading Christian scholars at present, proclaims: “Paul occupied a third group and so, as far as law is concerned, he is prepared to move from that ground to be either a Jew or a Gentile, because his relationship to Torah is neither one nor the other.” 

The prevailing viewpoint, therefore, is that a Jewish believer’s relationship to God is not based on the Torah covenant or Mosaic Law. We may ask, then, what about the texts, for example, in Acts 21 and 28 and in his letters, that point to Paul as Torah-observant? 

[We may also recall the fact that Yeshua  himself remained Torah observant and lived according to the will of the Father.]

Paul’s adaptability was only in relation to his rhetoric, not his lifestyle. He emphasises in 1 Thessalonians 2:3 – “Nor are we trying to trick you!” Porphery, in the 3rd Century, said that if Paul was justified to ‘trick’ people then it was useless for him to proclaim: “I speak the truth in Christ, I do not lie!” (Romans 9:1).

Dr. David Rudolph, of King’s University, points out that to back the Christian claim that Paul did not remain Jewish, 1 Corinthians 19 is used as a hermeneutical starting point; “problem” texts are expected to come into line with it. If Paul only kept ‘the law’ as a means to an end, then it was fine to be a “cunning deceiver” for the sake of the gospel. Rudolph suggests that, rather, Paul’s flexibility in addressing his audience reflects Yeshua’s accommodation of different strata of people. He would dine with regular Jews, strict Jews, and tax collectors and sinners. So Paul exercised flexibility in relation to the strictness of Pharasaical halacha.

4. ‘Time’ played an important part in the urgency of Paul’s mission.

Another important consideration is what scholar and author Mark Nanos describes as a “chronometric” view of Paul. Paul believed that the End of the Age had broken in and that time was short! Paul believed that the entry of gentiles into God’s Kingdom proved that the God of Israel was the God of all people, not only those ethnically Jewish. It was therefore better for them to stay, culturally, where they were because Messiah would soon return and establish the Kingdom of God over all the earth. [This eschatological view was an essential element in Paul’s thinking.]

 

5. The problematic Romans 14 passage. Who is “weak” and who is “strong”?

Romans 14:1-2  “As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables.”

[In reference to this passage a friend and Christian pastor once remarked to Ryan, who also pastors a Messianic Jewish congregation, “This proves that Jewish and Torah ways were a less mature expression of spirituality and I hope all you Jewish believers will move to a New Testament Church.”] According to this Christian view, Jewish life, which is motivated by covenant responsibility and divine commandment, is portrayed as a sign of spiritual immaturity.

Dr. Mark Kinzer, in his book Post Mission Messianic Judaism holds that the Jewish believers were “weak” because they believed certain foods were ontologically (intrinsically) impure and therefore were impure for all. If non-kosher food is impure ontologically, then it’s impure for non-Jews too. Mark Nanos counters, however, that purity is not intrinsic, it’s imputed. God has spoken and it is so. Counter to the common assumption that both groups [the weak and the strong] are Christians, in his book The Mystery of Romans, Nanos understands the “weak” to be the non-Messianic Jews. The weak are ‘weak in faith’ because they do not yet realize that the promises of God have been fulfilled in Yeshua the Messiah. 

Romans, chapters  9 – 11, talks much about the dynamics between the non-Messianic Jews and the ‘new in faith’ Messianic Gentiles. Paul’s use of the word “brothers” does not require the Jews to be believers in Yeshua; they are “kinsmen in the flesh.” Nanos underscores the fact that Jews remained the historical community of the One God, whether they recognized Jesus Christ as the Messiah or not. The relationship between them, therefore, should be strong – as “brothers” [in worship of the One God]. Paul is pursuing the establishing of the Kingdom of God spoken of by the prophets. The inclusion of Gentiles was an indication of this coming to pass. Paul, therefore urges the Gentiles to have humility and selflessness in relation to the Jewish people in general.

Conclusion: What are the Practical Implications of this Rethinking of Paul?

The implications touch the heart of God’s Redemptive agenda. Rethinking Paul is the ‘tip of the spear’ to its advancement. Some apply to Jews and some to non-Jews.

1. Traditional Judaism.

  1. The real Paul belongs to Judaism. Jews, in general, if they think about Paul at all, usually consider him as the “real bad guy” who started Christianity and took Jews away from Judaism. Today, Jesus, at least, is considered a devout Jew who upheld Torah but Paul is seen as Anti-Torah. The real Paul , however, was on a mission to spread the heart and principles of Judaism to the nations. 
  2. Paul, within Judaism, is a Paul a Jew could have a family discussion with. He was monotheistic and looked to the Shemah as the basis of the One God for both Jews and Gentiles believers. They were now equals and could practice Judaism under the Messianic King.

2.  Christianity

  1. Christians should not try to convert Jews to Christianity. 
  2. The Church should encourage Jews, and Messianic Jews, to more deeply be Jews and follow Torah as our God-given constitution.
  3. The Church needs to acknowledge that Judaism has not been replaced by Christianity. The Torah-based structure of life is essential for the ongoing movement of the Redemption process.

3. Messianic Judaism

1. Messianic Judaism should not see itself as a ‘missionary’ enterprise. Historically, until now, Jews were “saved” and “Christianized” rather than remaining Jewish and Messianic – [“Father focussed, Yeshua centered, and Spirit inspired,” as Dwight used to say!]
2. Torah and Judaism still represent God’s “marching orders” for the Jewish people.

Note of interest: Pamela Eisenbaum points out that,”…it is virtually a historical certainty that people produced and promulgated texts using Paul’s name pseudonymously. …some of the letters attributed to Paul are ‘disputed’ and of dubious origin.”
The seven undisputed letters are: Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon. (Paul was not a Christian, p. 22)

  • Pamela Eisenbaum, Paul was not a Christian – The Original Message of a Misunderstood Apostle, Harper Collins, 2009
  • Ryan Lambert is a Messianic Jew based in Atlanta who is associated with the ministry of FFOZ. He is busy working on a book to be published on this topic.

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