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Paul the Apostle and Judaism

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Paul the Apostle and Judaism

Artist's depiction of Saint Paul Writing His Epistles, 16th century (Blaffer Foundation Collection, Houston, Texas). Most scholars think Paul actually dictated his letters to a secretary, such as Tertius named in Romans 16:22.

The relationship between Paul the Apostle and Second Temple Judaism continues to be the subject of much scholarly research, as it is thought that Paul played an important role in the relationship between Christianity and Judaism as a whole. Paul's influence on Christian thinking is said to be more significant than any other New Testament author.[1]

Some scholars see Paul (or Saul) as completely in line with 1st-century Judaism (a "Pharisee" and student of Gamaliel or as part of Hellenistic Judaism),[2] others see him as opposed to 1st-century Judaism (see Pauline passages supporting antinomianism and Marcionism), while the majority see him as somewhere in between these extremes, opposed to "Ritual Laws" (see for example Circumcision controversy in early Christianity) but in full agreement on "Divine Law". These views of Paul are paralleled by Christian views of the Old Covenant. See also Antithesis in the Bible and Christianity in the 1st century.

Jewish background

Mediterranean Basin geography relevant to Paul's life in the first century, stretching from Jerusalem in the lower-right to Rome in the upper-left.

The Book of Acts contains an account of Paul's travels and deeds, his conflicts with pagans and Jews, and his interactions with the original apostles. The value of the historical information in Acts, however, is challenged by a few. They believe that it was written from a perspective of reconciliation between Pauline Christianity and its opponents, so portrays Paul as a law-abiding Jew and omits his dispute with Peter, only briefly mentioning the split with Barnabas. Irenaeus in the 2nd century is the first of record to quote Acts, and he used it against Marcion who rejected the Hebrew Bible. See also Luke–Acts.

Greek background

Map of Alexander's empire, c. 334-323 BC, stretching east and south of Macedonia.

Hellenistic Judaism was a movement which existed in the Jewish diaspora and the Holy Land that sought to establish a Hebraic-Jewish religious tradition within the culture and language of Hellenism. The major literary product of the contact of Judaism and Hellenistic culture is the Septuagint (begun in the 3rd century BC). Major authors are Philo of Alexandria (died c.50 AD), Josephus (died c.100 AD), and some would claim also Paul.[3] The decline of Hellenistic Judaism in the 2nd century AD is obscure. It may be that it was marginalized by, absorbed into or became Early Christianity.

Recently, Talmudic scholar Daniel Boyarin has argued that Paul's theology of the spirit is more deeply rooted in Hellenistic Judaism than generally believed. In A Radical Jew, Boyarin argues that Paul the Apostle combined the life of Jesus with Greek philosophy to reinterpret the Hebrew Bible in terms of the Platonic opposition between the ideal (which is real) and the material (which is false).

Paul's persecution of Christians as a Jew

Prior to his belief in Jesus as the Messiah of Israel, Paul was a Pharisee who "violently persecuted" the followers of Jesus. Says Paul:

Paul also discusses his pre-conversion life in his letter to the Philippians:

Pillars of the Church

Paul made explicit in Galatians 1:7 that he did not discuss with the "Pillars of the Church" after he had received his revelation to be an apostle, that he saw no one except Cephas (Peter) and James, when he was in Jerusalem three years after the revelation and implies he did not explain his gospel to them until 14 years later in a subsequent trip to Jerusalem.

Since F.C. Baur, scholars have found evidence of conflict between the leaders of Early Christianity, for example James D. G. Dunn proposes that Peter was a "bridge-man" between the opposing views of Paul and James the Just.

Proselytizing among Jews

According to Acts, Paul began working along the traditional Jewish line of proselytizing in the various synagogues where the proselytes of the gate (a biblical term. For example, see Exodus 20:10) and the Jews met; and only because he failed to win the Jews to his views, encountering strong opposition and persecution from them, did he turn to the Gentile world after he had agreed at a convention with the apostles at Jerusalem to admit the Gentiles into the Church only as proselytes of the gate, that is, after their acceptance of the Noachian laws.[4]

In Galatians 1:17,18, Paul declares that, immediately after his conversion, he went away into Arabia, and again returned to Damascus. "Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas." In Acts, no mention is made of Paul's journey into Arabia; and the journey to Jerusalem is placed immediately after the notice of Paul's preaching in the synagogues. Hilgenfeld, Wendt, Weizäcker, Weiss, and others allege here a contradiction between the writer of the Acts and Paul.

R. Emden, in a remarkable apology for Christianity contained in his appendix to "Seder 'Olam" [5] gives it as his opinion that the original intention of Jesus, and especially of Paul, was to convert only the Gentiles to the seven moral laws of Noah and to let the Jews follow the Mosaic law — which explains the apparent contradictions in the New Testament regarding the laws of Moses and the Sabbath.

Circumcision controversy

Paul, who called himself "the apostle of the Gentiles",[6] sometimes attacked the practice of Religious male circumcision, perhaps as an entrance into the New Covenant of Jesus. In the case of Timothy, whose mother was a Jewess but whose father was a Greek, Paul personally circumcised him "because of the Jews". [7] Some believe that he appeared to praise its value in Romans 3:1-2, yet later in Romans 2 we see his point. In 1 Corinthians 9:20-23 he also disputes the value of circumcision.

Paul made his case to the Christians at Rome that circumcision no longer meant the physical, but a spiritual practice. And in that sense, he wrote: "Is any man called being circumcised? Let him not become uncircumcised" in 1 Corinthians 7:18—probably a reference to the practice of epispasm.[8] Paul was circumcised when he was "called." He added: "Is any called in uncircumcision? Let him not be circumcised", and went on to argue that circumcision didn't matter: "Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God's commands is what counts."

Later Paul more explicitly denounced the practice, rejecting and condemning those who promoted circumcision to Gentile converts. Paul warned that the advocates of circumcision were "false brothers". He accused Galatian converts who advocated circumcision of turning from the Spirit to the flesh: "Are you so foolish, that, whereas you began in the Spirit, you would now be made perfect by the flesh?" He accused advocates of circumcision of wanting to make a good showing in the flesh and of glorying or boasting of the flesh. Some believe Paul wrote the entire Epistle to the Galatians attacking circumcision, saying in chapter five: "If ye be circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing."

His attitude towards circumcision varies between his outright hostility to what he calls "mutilation" in Philippians 3:2-3 to praise in Romans 3:1-2 and his willingness that Timothy be circumcised, recorded in Acts 16:1-3 However, such apparent discrepancies have led to a degree of skepticism about the reliability of Acts.[9] Baur, Schwanbeck, De Wette, Davidson, Mayerhoff, Schleiermacher, Bleek, Krenkel, and others have opposed the authenticity of the Acts. An objection is drawn from the discrepancy between Acts 9:19-28 and Gal. 1:17-19.

The division between those who followed Mosaic law and were circumcised and those who were not circumcised was highlighted in his Epistle to the Galatians:

Views on Judaizers

Paul was critical of "Judaizers" within the Church. This conflict between Paul and his opponents may have been the reason for the Council of Jerusalem. Here James, Paul, and the other leaders of the Early Christian movement agreed that Gentile converts needed only to follow the "three exceptions", (counted by some as four) laws that roughly coincide with Judaism's Seven Laws of Noah said to be established by God for all humankind. This Apostolic Decree, still observed by the Orthodox Church, is similar to that adopted by Rabbinic Judaism, which teaches that Gentiles need only follow the Noachide Laws to be assured of a place in the World to Come. See also Noahidism and Dual-covenant theology.

Council of Jerusalem

Paul seems to have refused "to be tied down to particular patterns of behavior and practice." He does not engage in a dispute with those Corinthians who apparently feel quite free to eat anything offered to idols, never appealing or even mentioning the Jerusalem council. He rather attempts to persuade them by appealing to the care they should have for other believers who might not feel so free.

Paul himself described several meetings with the apostles in Jerusalem, though it is difficult to reconcile any of them fully with the account in Acts (see also Paul the Apostle#Council of Jerusalem). Paul claims he "went up again to Jerusalem" (i.e., not the first time) with Barnabas and Titus "in response to a revelation", in order to "lay before them the gospel proclaimed among the Gentiles", them being according to Paul "those who were supposed to be acknowledged leaders": James, Cephas and John. He describes this as a "private meeting" (not a public council) and notes that Titus, who was Greek, wasn't pressured to be circumcised. However, he refers to "false believers secretly brought in, who slipped in to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus, so that they might enslave us."

Paul claims the "pillars" of the Church[10] had no differences with him. On the contrary, they gave him the "right hand of fellowship", he bound for the mission to "the uncircumcised" and they to "the circumcised", requesting only that he remember the "poor". Whether this was the same meeting as that described in Acts is not universally agreed.

According to an article in the Jewish Encyclopedia, great as was the success of Barnabas and Paul in the heathen world, the authorities in Jerusalem insisted upon circumcision as the condition of admission of members into the church, until, on the initiative of Peter, and of James, the head of the Jerusalem church, it was agreed that acceptance of the Noachian Laws — namely, regarding avoidance of idolatry, fornication, and the eating of flesh cut from a living animal — should be demanded of the heathen desirous of entering the Church.[11]

Incident at Antioch

Rembrandt's Two old men disputing, 1628. This painting has been thought to depict Peter and Paul.[12]

Despite the agreement presumably achieved at the Council of Jerusalem as understood by Paul, Paul recounts how he later publicly confronted Peter, also called the "Incident at Antioch" over Peter's reluctance to share a meal with Gentile Christians in Antioch.[13]

Writing later of the incident, Paul recounts: "I opposed [Peter] to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong". Paul reports that he told Peter: "You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?" Paul also mentions that even Barnabas (his travelling companion and fellow apostle until that time) sided with Peter.[14]

The final outcome of the incident remains uncertain. The Catholic Encyclopedia states: "St. Paul's account of the incident leaves no doubt that St. Peter saw the justice of the rebuke."[15] In contrast, L. Michael White's From Jesus to Christianity states: "The blowup with Peter was a total failure of political bravado, and Paul soon left Antioch as persona non grata, never again to return."[16]

The primary source for the Incident at Antioch is Paul's letter to the Galatians.

Separation with Judaism

Before Paul's conversion, Christianity was part of Second Temple Judaism, in other words a Jewish sect of the time period, so-called Jewish Christianity, and thus, from a modern perspective, Gentiles that wished to fully join the movement were expected to convert to Judaism, which likely meant submission to adult male circumcision if they hadn't been as an infant, following the dietary restrictions of kashrut, and more (see 613 mitzvot for details). During the time period, there were also "partial converts", such as gate proselytes and Godfearers. Paul insisted that faith in Christ (see also Faith or Faithfulness) was sufficient for salvation and that the Torah did not bind Gentiles, the later view also being held by most Jews. The success of Paul's efforts as "Apostle to the Gentiles" sped up the split between Christianity and mainstream Judaism. Without Paul's campaign against the legalists who opposed him, Christianity may have remained a dissenting sect within Judaism,[17] for example see Noahidism.

Paul's theology of the gospel accelerated the separation of the messianic sect of Christians from Judaism, a development contrary to Paul's own intent. He wrote that faith in Christ was alone decisive in salvation for Jews and Gentiles alike, making the schism between the followers of Christ and mainstream Jews inevitable and permanent.

He successfully argued that Gentile converts did not need to follow Jewish customs, get circumcised, follow Jewish dietary restrictions, or otherwise observe Mosaic law, see also Antinomianism in the New Testament and Abrogation of Old Covenant laws. Nevertheless, in his Epistle to the Romans he insisted on the positive value of the Law (see also Pauline passages opposing antinomianism) in its divine form.[7] Since Paul's time, the polemical contrast that he made between the old and the new way of salvation has usually been weakened, with an emphasis on smooth development (Supersessionism) rather than stark contrast (Marcionism). See also New Perspective on Paul.

Persecution of Paul by Jews in Acts

Several passages in Acts describe Paul's missions to Asia Minor and the encounters he had with Diaspora Jews and with local gentile populations. In Acts 13-15, the Jews from Antioch and Iconium go so far as to follow Paul to other cities and to incite the crowds there to violence against him. Paul had already been stoned and left for dead once. In Philippi, a Roman colony, Roman magistrates beat and jailed Paul and his companions on behalf of the Gentiles. Clearly at this point, Paul and his companions were still considered to be Jews by those in Philippi who raised protests against them, despite Paul's attempts to tailor his teachings to his audience. Later, in nearby Thessalonica, the Jews again incited the crowds and pitted the Christians against the Roman authority.

Pauline Christianity

Pauline Christianity is a term used to refer to a branch of Early Christianity associated with the beliefs and doctrines espoused by Paul the Apostle through his writings. The term is generally considered a pejorative by some who believe it carries the implication that Christianity as it is known is a corruption of the original teachings of Jesus, as in the doctrine of the Great Apostasy.

The New Perspective on Paul

E. P. Sanders in 1977[18] reframed the context of Paul's theology to make law-keeping and good works a sign of being in the Covenant (marking out the Jews as the people of God) rather than deeds performed in order to accomplish salvation (so-called Legalism (theology)), a pattern of religion he termed "covenantal nomism." If Sanders' perspective is valid, the traditional Protestant understanding of the doctrine of justification (the "old perspective") may have needed rethinking, for the interpretive framework of Martin Luther was called into question.

Sanders' publications, such as Paul and Palestinian Judaism in 1977 and Paul, the Law, and the Jewish People in 1983, have since been taken up by Professor James Dunn who coined the phrase "The New Perspective on Paul"[19] and N.T. Wright,[20] Anglican Bishop of Durham. Wright, noting the apparent discrepancy between Romans and Galatians, the former being much more positive about the continuing covenantal relationship between God and his ancient people than the latter, contends that works are not insignificant and that Paul distinguishes between works which are signs of ethnic identity and those which are a sign of obedience to Christ.

Some contemporary scholars hold that the Lord's supper had its origins in a pagan context, where dinners to memorialize the dead were common and the Jewish prohibition against drinking blood (see also Taboo food and drink#Blood) did not prevail.[21] They conclude the "Lord's supper" that Paul describes probably originated in the Christian communities that he had founded in Asia Minor and Greece.[21]

Within the last three decades, a number of theologians have put forward other "new perspectives" on Paul's doctrine of justification, and even more specifically on what he says about justification by faith. According to Simon Gathercole, "Justification by faith" means God accepts Gentiles in addition to Jews, since both believe in God. Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, "For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law. Is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles too? Yes, of Gentiles too, since there is only one God, who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith". Faith is the central component of Paul's doctrine of justification — meaning that Gentiles don't need to become Israelites when they convert to Christianity, because God is not just the God of one nation, but Gentile and Jew alike.[22]

Messianic Jewish views

Messianics understand that Paul the Apostle (who is often referred to as Sha’ul, his Hebrew name) remained a Jewish Pharisee even as a believer until his death. This is based on Acts 23:6, detailing events after Paul's acceptance of Jesus as Messiah. "But when Paul perceived that the one part were Sadducees, and the other Pharisees, he cried out in the council, Men [and] brethren, I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee: of the hope and resurrection of the dead I am called in question."

Messianics cite the cutting off of Paul’s hair at Cenchrea because of a vow he had taken (Acts 18:18), references in passing to his observing the Jewish holidays (Acts 18:21; Acts 20:6; Acts 20:16), the frequent mistranslations of his writings in many Bibles, and his consistent good standing with his Rabbinic master Gamaliel , to show that he was wholly in continued observance of the laws and traditions of Judaism. Saint Paul according to Acts 21:17-29 and Acts 24:17-18 is recorded as observing Jewish laws of purification in the Temple in Jersusalem.

They maintain that Paul never set out to polarize the gospel between faith and righteous works, but that one is necessary to maintain the other.

See also


  1. ^ Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church ed. F.L. Lucas (Oxford) entry on Paul
  2. ^ The International standard Bible encyclopaedia (1915), Volume 4, page 2276 edited by James Orr
  3. ^ Jewish Encyclopedia: Saul of Tarsus: Not a Hebrew Scholar; a Hellenist
  4. ^ Jewish Encyclopedia article
  5. ^ pp. 32b-34b, Hamburg, 1752
  6. ^ Romans 11:13; 1 Timothy 2:7; 2 Timothy 1:11
  7. ^ a b McGarvey on Acts 16: "Yet we see him in the case before us, circumcising Timothy with his own hand, and this 'on account of certain Jews who were in those quarters.'"
  8. ^ "making themselves foreskins"; I Macc. i. 15; Josephus, "Ant." xii. 5, § 1; Assumptio Mosis, viii.; I Cor. vii. 18;, Tosef.; Talmud tractes Shabbat (Talmud) xv. 9; Yevamot 72a, b; Yerushalmi Peah i. 16b; Yevamot viii. 9a; [5]; Catholic Encyclopedia: Circumcision: "To this epispastic operation performed on the athletes to conceal the marks of circumcision St. Paul alludes, me epispastho ."
  9. ^ For example, see Catholic Encyclopedia (1907-1914): Acts of the Apostles: OBJECTIONS AGAINST THE AUTHENTICITY
  10. ^ Catholic Encyclopedia: St. James the Less: "Then we lose sight of James till St. Paul, three years after his conversion (A.D. 37), went up to Jerusalem. ... On the same occasion, the "pillars" of the Church, James, Peter, and John "gave to me (Paul) and Barnabas the right hands of fellowship; that we should go unto the Gentiles, and they unto the circumcision".
  11. ^ Jewish Encyclopedia: Gentiles: Gentiles May Not Be Taught the Torah
  12. ^ Perkin, Corrie (2006-02-25). "Oh! We've lent the Rembrandt". The Age (Fairfax). Retrieved 2010-04-29. 
  13. ^ Catholic Encyclopedia: Judaizers see section titled: "The Incident At Antioch"
  14. ^ Catholic Encyclopedia: Judaizers: "On their arrival Peter, who up to this had eaten with the Gentiles, "withdrew and separated himself, fearing them who were of the circumcision," and by his example drew with him not only the other Jews, but even Barnabas, Paul's fellow-labourer."
  15. ^ Catholic Encyclopedia St. Paul's account
  16. ^ White, L. Michael (2004). From Jesus to Christianity. HarperSanFrancisco. p. 170.  
  17. ^ Harris, Stephen L., Understanding the Bible. Palo Alto: Mayfield. 1985. p. 331
  18. ^ Paul and Palestinian Judaism 1977 SCM Press ISBN 0-8006-1899-8
  19. ^ J.D.G. Dunn's Manson Memorial Lecture (4.11.1982): 'The New Perspective on Paul' BJRL 65(1983), 95–122.
  20. ^ New Perspectives on Paul
  21. ^ a b Funk, Robert W. and the Jesus Seminar. The acts of Jesus: the search for the authentic deeds of Jesus. HarperSanFrancisco. 1998. p. 139-140.
  22. ^ Gathercole Simon, "What Did Paul Really Mean?" (Christianity Today, 2007)

External links

  • Jewish Encyclopedia: Saul of Tarsus
  • Jewish Encyclopedia: Antinomianism: Paulinism and Pharisaism
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