Paul and Judaism

John Polhill uses Paul’s testimony in Philippians 3:4-6 to describe Paul’s Jewish heritage.  In this passage Paul says he was “circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, and the Tribe of Benjamin, a ‘Hebrew of the Hebrews.’”  For some readers, this might seem to be a bit of a shock, Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles was born and raised a Jew, and never repudiated that heritage.  Even in Philippians Paul lists his accomplishments with a little bit of pride.

Paul’s claim in Philippians is that he is a proper Jew – circumcised on the eighth day indicates that he comes from a family that is keeping the Jewish traditions despite living in Tarsus.  It is possible that there were Diaspora Jews who did not keep this tradition or even did not circumcise their sons. The reference to being a member of Israel connects Paul to the covenant as a member of Abraham’s family.  Paul was not a Jew pretending to be a Greek, but rather a Jew who was well aware of his heritage as a child of Abraham.

Paul JewishThat Paul claims to be from the tribe of Benjamin is significant since not every Jew in the first century could claim to know they were from a particular tribe.  Paul’s Jewish name “Saul” is taken from the first king of Israel, from the tribe of Benjamin, and Paul’s teacher in Jerusalem, Gamaliel, was also from the tribe of Benjamin.

The phrase “Hebrew of the Hebrews” can be taken in several ways.  This phrase may mean that Paul was born of true Jewish blood, that there is no Gentile in his linage. It is sometimes suggested that Paul is referring to his ability to speak and read Hebrew. Not all Jews spoke the language, especially in the home.  If there is an increasing specificity in the list of descriptions, then perhaps Polhill is right and Paul is saying that he is from an extremely Jewish family, one that still speaks the language at home (Pollhill, PAHL, 26).

Paul is, in the words of J. B. Lightfoot, making a progressive argument.  A convert to Judaism may be circumcised, someone with some Gentile in his linage might claim a tribal affiliation, but Paul is a pure-bred true Jew!  Of course, in Philippians 3 Paul is clear that this heritage is of no value now that he is “in Christ,” but it seems obvious that Paul’s Jewish heritage is one of the major factors behind his successful evangelism.

In a recent book, Pamela Eisenbaum claims provocatively, Paul was not a Christian (Harper One, 2009). Her point is to read Paul in a Jewish context for the purpose of defusing anti-Judaistic interpretations of Paul.  As her book argues, Paul’s letters are only Christian because Christians chose to canonize them. According to Eisenbaum, there are not many distinctly “Christian” elements in the books, he is a Jew concerned with how other Jews understand a particular messianic claim (namely, that Jesus of Nazareth was the messiah).  On the one hand, I am not at all persuaded by the book (obviously Paul was a Christian!), but she does make the point well that Paul is not a Christian in the sense that a post-Reformation follower of Jesus is a Christian. I doubt Paul would fit in at a meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society or the Southern Baptist Convention.

Does Paul depart from his heritage?  In some ways his theology is certainly radical, but perhaps not as radical as often assumed.

10 thoughts on “Paul and Judaism

  1. Since Paul referred back to his Jewish heritage such as in Pilippians 3:4-6 or 1 Corinthians 15:8-12, it seems that his Jewish heritage was of importance to him. Paul continued to study Jewish law in Jerusalem; therefore it seems he was dedicated to the pursuit of Judaism (Polhill, 24). Although Paul had kept his heritage; he was “circumcised on the eighth day” and “in regard to the law, a Pharisee.” He does not count his heritage of importance in comparison to a relationship with Christ (Polhill, 25). I find it difficult to term how much Paul departs from his Jewish heritage. I think there is a case for both sides. An example of this can be found in Polhill’s excellent case that Paul had Timothy circumcised because he was a Jew, however, he did not require this of Gentiles in order to be saved. In this way, it seems that Paul departs from his Jewish heritage in that circumcision was no longer a requirement for salvation because of Jesus Christ. In Acts 9 when Paul experienced his call from God, he still remained a faithful Jew (54). His mind-set was changed, not his religious beliefs. Paul still believed in a Messiah, but he then realized that Christ was the Messiah and the prophecy had already been fulfilled. With this new realization, Paul’s mind-set would have changed to become a declarer of Christ. In this way, his theology would be radical since he believed Christ to be the Messiah, yet he still remained faithful to his Jewish background.

  2. I think it is safe to say that most of us would flippantly answer, “of course, Paul removed himself from his Jewish faith upon his conversion,” yet I hesitate to say that. Paul was indeed a man of great Christian faith, but he stressed the importance, like “lvinton” stated, of Timothy being circumcised and was quick to bring up his being a Pharisee and devote Jew before the Jewish leaders of the day.
    In the culture that Paul was immersed in, it was important that he was familiar with both the Jewish culture, as well as the Greco-Roman culture. God masterfully chose the person of whom he would use to reach the Gentiles (and Jews) with His redeeming message. I do not question Paul’s Christian faith or involvement there in, but do believe that Paul used his knowledge and prior Jewish faith to better explain the gospel to those he was ministering too, much of which were Jews. It allowed him to have a relatedness with those he was trying to build a relationship with, so as to lead them to Christ and the foot of the cross. It is also important to note that he did not stress Judaism to the Gentiles as this would have signaled his not being departed for Judaism. Paul’s Jewish heritage was still important to him and to his mission, yet it was not a part of his foundational belief in the work of Jesus Christ and his own salvation.

  3. I for one do not believe that Paul departed from his heritage. Paul cherished his Jewish heritage. Polhill even says, “Paul remained a Jew even as a Christian. He maintained Jewish practices, like taking a Nazarite vow and participating in the vows of others” (Polhill 26). I do believe that there were some instances that Paul had to leave his Jewish heritage to communicate with the Gentiles. For example, as what lvinton and kholstad98 stated, with Paul and Timothy and how Paul had Timothy circumcised, but he didn’t have the Gentiles circumcised. Even though Paul had that instance in Acts 19 Paul did say in Romans 9:1-5 that it was great agony seeing his fellow Jews not to accept the gospel. To me that show me that Paul still loves being Jewish yet he believes that Jesus was the messiah, and that he died for us.

  4. Eisenbaum makes a good point that we should read Paul in the context of his Jewish heritage, because although he believed Christ to be the Messiah, he did not abandon his Jewish heritage.Yet, he did not let that interfere with bringing the gospel to the Gentiles. In 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 we can see Paul’s emphasis on his Jewish heritage not getting in the way of his mission to bring the gospel to all people. Even as a Christian Jew, Paul kept his valued his heritage (Polhill, 26). In 1 Corinthians 16:8 we see that Paul still kept the Jewish festivals and had the mentality to first bring the gospel to his fellow Jews and then the Gentiles. Romans 9:1-5, we see that Paul was deeply hurt by the poor response to the gospel from the Jews. This reflects Paul’s heart and degree of connection with his Jewish heritage.

  5. I would argue that Paul maintained his Jewish heritage. He had no reason to do otherwise. Jewish culture was founded on the principles contained in the Old Testament. To abandon his heritage would be to reject the truths of the Old Testament, which would be unthinkable. What Paul did do was accept the changes made by the life and works of Jesus Christ. Because of Christ’s death on the cross, things like following the Law, circumcision, etc. are no longer necessary (Gal 5:18; 6:15) because Christ had fulfilled the Law(Matt 5:17). Paul was still Jewish, but some of the rules had just changed. Ultimately, though, Paul did not put his confidence in his heritage. Paul knew that his position as a Christian was worth more than any upbringing, and he considered everything else to be worthless compared to knowing Christ Jesus (Phil 3:7-11).

  6. “Paul remained a Jew even as a Christian” (Polhill 26). I think that describes how Paul dealt with the changes in lifestyle, and theology, and heritage in general. I think that Paul used his heritage to his advantage whenever needed. Just like was stated in the post about Paul’s three cultural influences, I would say that Paul used whatever means possible to share the Gospel. However, because he grew up a Jew, that one influence will never leave him, and is probably the most prevalent in defining his theology, and the way he viewed the world. However I think that the zeal Paul used in his pursuit of Christians followed him in, and through, his pursuit of Christianity. What i mean to say is that, after his conversion, he followed Jesus with the very same zeal, and passion, and devotion that he had in persecution. So, I would say that, while his Jewish background influenced almost everything about how he thought, he did not really deem it important. The most important thing for him was following Christ, and sharing what that means with anybody he could. So, I wouldn’t say that Paul revoked his Jewish heritage, but used it to his advantage when necessary while realizing that it no longer was most important in his life, because Christ had taken that place.

  7. Paul does not depart from his Jewish Heritage. Why would Paul have ever lost it? Maybe it is my continual lack of knowledge with this biblical subjects, that I want to give people the benefit of the doubt; but call me an optimist for wanting to say that through the progression of Paul’s life he became more and more capable of putting aspects of Jewish heritage away, and allowing Christ to reign indefinitely over who he was. It wasn’t the Judaism anymore that was most important, it was the grace of Jesus Christ that saved men. Maybe even through reserving some of his (Paul’s) Judaic practices outside of the company of Gentiles to further he still was thankful and appreciative of his heritage, rather than being consumed by it.

  8. taczhompson makes a good point by saying that Paul used his Jewish heritage as an advantage when needed, just like he did with both his Greek and Roman influence. I would not say he departed from his Jewish heritage, and there are many good examples above that do a good job proving that. However, there is one example that I can think of that I do not believe anyone has noted yet. In almost every city Paul visits on his missionary journeys, we cannot forget that he would always go to the Synagogues first, and preach his message there, and when he got tossed out or beaten up or stoned, then he would deliver his message to the Gentiles. Paul still had a Jew-first mentality even after his conversion. In Romans 1:16, Paul says that salvation is for the Jew first and then the Gentile.
    What I think we might see after Paul’s conversion is simply a shift in focus. Maybe we hear less about Paul’s boasting of being a “Hebrew of Hebrews” because we see him talking to Gentiles more, a group that would be much less impressed with his pureblood heritage. Paul has a full belt of tools, and he’s not going to use a screwdriver to drive home a nail.

  9. When we look at the passage found in Acts 21:37- 22:29, it is clearly understandable that Paul is intentional in letting the Jewish crowd before him know his Jewish heritage. All through his letters to the churches as well as the mission he embarks on (to be the apostle to the Gentiles that is) chronicled in the book of Acts, Paul’s zeal for God (Acts 22:3) as well as his devoutness to following Jewish standards is evident in this speech. Not only does he recount his Jewish heritage in this speech but instead there is a continuous trend in Paul’s behalf to bring up his Jewish heritage. Such as in verses Rom. 11:1, Phil. 3:5, 2 Cor. 11:22 and so on. Not to mention his unremitting synonymous phrases to explain who he is (quoted above), “people of Israel,” Tribe of Benjamin,” and “Hebrew of the Hebrews.”

    Nevertheless, what’s really imperative about Paul in found in 1st Corinthians 9:22 when he says, “…I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” Generally 1st Corinthians 9:19-23 captures the essence of his mission. So no. I do not believe that Paul ever departs from his heritage. Like Polhill quotes, “ He kept the Jewish festivals (1 Cor. 16:8). He maintained Jewish practices, like taking a Nazarite vow (Acts18:18) and participating in the vows of others (Acts 21:26)… For him, it was always, “first for the Jew, then for the Gentile (Rom. 1:16, 2:9-10) (Polhill 26).” In the end, Paul in his heart understood his heritage, but he also grasped the mission that God had bequeathed him with—apostle to the Gentiles. He needed to become all things to all men in order to achieve the mission of the Gospel.

  10. Without knowing more about her book, I would tend to agree with Eisenbaum when she asserts that Paul was not a Christian; saved to be sure, but perhaps not a Christian in the way we understand it. Paul never made any attempt to rename his Jewish faith. He wasn’t trying to start anything new. He was trying to explain how Christ was the fulfillment of something old. Paul himself says in Romans 11:17, “…and you, though a wild olive shoot, have been grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root, do not consider yourself to be superior to those other branches.” Gentiles are being “grafted” in to something that already exists rather than breaking away to start something different. “Christian” was a derisive term applied to the movement, and arguably did a lot of harm in the long run. It created an unnecessary dichotomy between the “two” religions. On one hand, having a separate term to distinguish the group that accepted Christ from the one that didn’t is needed, but at the same time fostered an attitude that says that Christianity is its own separate entity. Considering how much of Christianity is deeply Jewish and only makes sense once it is put back in a Jewish context is evidence of this. Most Christians are trying to make sense of the Bible though their own experience, and consequently understand it in a totally different way than a Jewish person would understand it simply because they are from that background. Our faith is intrinsically Jewish. For a Christian person to try to make sense of the Bible without understanding the more Jewish perspective from whence it came would be like a Gentile of Paul’s day attempting to make sense of Jesus without letting Paul explain it to them. Christianity is Jewish not Christian.

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