Paul’s Jewish Heritage (Philippians 3:4-6)

Was Paul a Jew? Most Christians think of Paul as Christian,and probably one who believes just like they do. This is a mistake: one of the most important starting points for the study of Paul is the simple recognition that Paul was a Hellenistic Jew who was born in the Diaspora, yet received training in Jerusalem from the prominent teacher Gamaliel.  While this seems to be a rather obvious observation, scholarship has drifted between two poles, Paul the Greek and Paul the Jew. By describing Paul as a “Hellenistic Jew who was born in the Diaspora,” I hope to avoid either extreme.

Paul’s claim in Philippians 3:4-6 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 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 also boasts about his heritage as a member of the tribe of Benjamin. This 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” in Philippians 3:4-6 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 Paul is claiming to have come from a conservative Jewish family who maintained their distinctive Jewish pracices even though they lived in Tarsus, far from Jerusalem.

As J. B. Lightfoot once observed, Paul is making a progressive argument. A convert to Judaism may be circumcised. A few proselytes might claim a tribal affiliation, but Paul is a pure-bred true Jew! Paul is clear this heritage is of no value now that he is “in Christ,” but it seems obvious Paul’s Jewish heritage is one of the major factors behind his successful evangelism.

Pamela Eisenbaum provocatively titled here 2009 book Paul was not a Christian (Harper One, 2009). She argues Paul is best understood in a Jewish context. 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.

But Paul is certainly cannot be described as a traditional Jewish teacher following in the footsteps of his mentor Gamaliel. By following Jesus, Paul in some sense departs from Second Temple Judaism as we know it. Ye how far does Paul depart from his heritage? In some ways his theology is certainly radical, but perhaps not as radical as often assumed.

7 thoughts on “Paul’s Jewish Heritage (Philippians 3:4-6)

  1. It is interesting that Paul is so diverse. He is a devoted Jew in adherence to the Torah, he has Roman citizenship and he speaks multiple languages. He demonstrated his devoutness to the Law when he was persecuting Christians. I think people really looked at him as a true Jewish example. With that kind of zeal, I think it brings more light to his “Hebrew of Hebrews” statement. Meaning, he followed every command in the law with all his heart. In the Philippians passage verses 4-6, Paul is literally bragging about who and what he had done over his life. However, he says a blunt statement after bragging about his repertoire, he says, “But what things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ. Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ” (Phil. 3:7-8).
    All in all, Paul concluded that he could literally brag about being the best and most devoted Jew, as well as being a part of the tribe of Benjamin, but he said none of that even matters when it comes to knowing Jesus Christ. Everything is cow dung in comparison. It would be silly to think Paul wasn’t a Christian after making a statement like that.

  2. Its an interesting claim Pamela makes..However, I disagree as well. We cannot view Paul as we do other Christians today such as Billy Graham or Martin Luther King Jr or anyone else. Paul lived in a very particular time, in a very particular culture that is very different from ours. We cannot put Paul into our time period like many do with Jesus, making him the way we culturally want him to be (politically, etc.). There were not very many Christians in his day, but Jews were still very prevalent. This made his ministry so effective and relatable because of his background. I think he writes phrases such as “Hebrew of Hebrews” or Jew of Jews to give validity to his testimony. He has been at both ends and sees the light and knowing where he comes from makes his testimony more powerful and real. By recognizing the worth of his Jewish heritage makes his testimony even more powerful because he knows he is nothing without Christ. His background gives him the ability to have a diverse audience of both Jews and Gentiles. He can relate to the Jews because he once was one, and his transformation is a powerful message to the gentiles.

  3. It is very interesting to see the transformation that Paul made in the process of his life. Before encountering the risen Christ he is seen putting His followers to death and touching them. Paul was a very devoted and educated Jewish man and we see that example of him throughout Scripture. Yet when we see the transformation of Paul becoming a follower of Christ he fully enthralls himself in that belief. It doesn’t look like there is a steady pattern of Paul’s life (a happy-medium) so to speak; I feel as though Paul was a radical on both ends. After making a dedication to Christ, Paul didn’t kill those who didn’t believe in Christ but he sure did make it known that if they didn’t follow Him they would perish (to put it nicely). The radicalism that Paul brought to the table was in some way a good thing, because without it we wouldn’t have a Pauline way of thinking. In Scripture there is ministry / missionary work we can take from Paul and use for our own personal growth.

    I wouldn’t say Paul departed from his heritage rather he departed from the “old” Paul that destroyed lives. When becoming a follower of Christ I believe Paul was convicted and started to love others so much it drove him to be radical in a different aspect. I am assuming that not every aspect of Paul’s life was recorded so we can’t be so sure what he did and didn’t change down to tooth and nail. Reading Scripture I can understand why those would think he totally departed from his heritage because he was no longer following his duties that he was given and a lot of things he was taught in a religious sense.

  4. Other than Philippians 3:4-6 containing a description of Paul, I had never given much thought to it or broken it down to evaluate what each description actually meant. I would not say that I just thought of Paul as a Christian though. After his experience on the road to Damascus, I certainly thought of him as a Christian in the sense that he was a follower of Christ, however, as Saul, I always thought of him as a Pharisee and a Jew. It seems to me that whenever there is a debate between two extremes, choosing the option that fits in between the two is generally the best option, and describing Paul as a “Hellenistic Jew who was born in the Diaspora” is that option in this case. Paul seems somewhat proud of his heritage and almost boastful as he describes his circumcision, the tribe he came from, his zeal, and his righteousness. I had never considered his knowledge of which tribe he was descended from as significant, however, it makes sense because the Jews were scattered and as many of them adapted to living in the Diaspora, it was of lesser importance to know what tribe they came from. I would be inclined to think that “Hebrew of Hebrews” refers to Paul’s lineage being entirely Jewish and having no Gentile blood. I find it very interesting that in the following verses in Philippians 3 Paul talks about how all of that is now a loss because of knowing Christ. Those are all things that I am sure Paul was very proud of, and that he placed his identity in, however, in Christ, none of those things really mattered. They were all gains to the outside world, but to the Christian, they did not help gain salvation, they did not make one a better follower of Christ, they did not give one higher standing or more respect. I always wonder if Paul struggled with releasing those things and accepting that they no longer mattered. I wonder if Paul ever wanted to go back to counting those as gains instead of as losses?

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