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 Jewish distinctives 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.