What Kind of Jew was Paul?

In Philippians 3:4-6 Paul describes his Jewish heritage. In his own words, he was “circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, and the tribe of Benjamin, and a Hebrew of the Hebrews” (see this post on these verses in Philippians). In Galatians 1:13-14 Paul describes his “former life in Judaism” in which he “was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers.” Zeal for the traditions of the fathers often expressed itself in acts of violence, as it did in the Old Testament, Maccabean Revolt, and in the book of Acts.

It is therefore impossible to deny Paul was deeply committed to the Judaism of the Second Temple period. In Acts 22:3 Paul is associated with Gamaliel, an early rabbi mentioned in the Mishnah. The question we need to address as we begin to study the letters of Paul is how much changed after Paul encountered the risen Jesus. For example, he quotes the Old Testament extensively in his letters as Scripture. He uses these texts to support his distinctive teachings such as freedom from the Law for the Gentiles (the Sarah/Hagar allegory in Galatians 4) or for his understanding of justification by faith apart from the Law (Abraham in Genesis 15 in Romans 4). So what kind of Jew was Paul?

In Paul: A New Covenant Jew (Eerdmans, 2019), Pitre, Barber and Kincaid offer a convenient outline of four options for answering this question. First, some scholars would consider Paul a former Jew. This might be considered the “old perspective” on Paul in which Paul was converted from a Jew to a Christian. This conversion resulted Paul’s complete rejection of the Jewish law for both Jews and Gentiles. I once had a rather tense discussion with a pastor once how was convinced Paul no longer followed the Law after his conversion in Acts 9 and he firmly believed Paul was telling Jews who accepted Jesus as savior to stop following the Law. This is exactly the thing people in Jerusalem thought Paul was doing in Acts 21:21 and seems to ignore Paul’s statement in Acts 23:1 that he had fulfilled his duty to God in all good conscience. Yet Paul does consider his previous life rubbish (Phil 3:8) and he states he is not under the Law in 1 Corinthians 9:20.

Second, since Paul’s break with Judaism does not seem radical, some scholars would describe Paul as an eschatological Jew. This is a position associated with Albert Schweitzer, but more recently with E. P. Sanders, James Dunn and others loosely associated with the so-called New Perspective on Paul. In this view, God has acted decisively through the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus so that the old age (of the Law) has passed away and a new age (of the Spirit) has already begun. Paul frequently describes being in Christ as a new creation, “The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Cor 5:17). This two-age thinking is also found in Ephesians 1:21 where Paul says God raised Jesus from the dead and seated him in the heavenly places “in this age but also in the one to come” (although Pitre, Barber and Kincaid do not include this verse in their book). I want to return to this point in a later post, since the Apocalyptic Paul is a hot-topic right now.

Third, a minority of scholars consider Paul a Torah-observant Jews. Pitre, Barber and Kincaid cite Paula Eisenbaum’s Paul was Not a Christian, John Gager’s Reinventing Paul (Oxford, 2000), and several articles by Mark Nanos (many are now collected in the four volumes of Reading Paul within Judaism, Wipf & Stock, 2017). In this view Paul never converted to Christianity and remained loyal to the Law. In Romans 9:3-4 Paul can still refer to Jews as “his own people.” Paul does not refer to Christians, a category that did not yet exist when he was writing his letters, but to assemblies of Gentile believers. Since Paul wrote his letters to Gentiles, the explanation for any negative view of the Law is Paul’s belief that Gentiles are not required to keep the Law. Paul would tell the Jews to continue keeping the Law because it is their means of salvation. This observation sometimes leads to a two-ways of salvation, one for the Jews and another for the Gentiles.

Pitre, Barber and Kincaid offer a fourth way to describe Paul, he was a “New Covenant Jew” (the title of their book). After recognizing they stand on the foundation of N. T. Wright, Richard Hays, and Michael Gorman, they argue the heart of Paul’s gospel is that Jesus initiated the New Covenant expected in Jeremiah and the other prophets. This is clear in Paul’s self-description as a “minister of the new covenant” in 2 Corinthians 3:6. They develop a series of contrasts between the old covenant (written on stone, a ministry of death) and the new covenant (written on the heart, giving life). For Paul the Law was never sufficient to save (although this is not anti-law, p. 45). They see this view of Paul’s theology as a thoroughly Jewish explanation of what God is doing in the present age, and one that is consistent with the eschatological expectations of the prophets. To a certain extent, they have used the best elements of the other views.

Although I have some reservations about the implications Pitre, Barber and Kincaid draw regarding restoration of Israel and the end of the exile, their presentation provides a reasonable method for keeping the complex web of continuity and discontinuity with Judaism found in the Pauline letters.

So what kind of Jew was Paul? Which of these four views best fits the evidence? Even though we have read none of the Pauline letters in this series yet, how does one view (or another) help make sense of the Jewishness of Paul?

15 thoughts on “What Kind of Jew was Paul?

  1. Thanks for the review! Are you going to follow up with a post elaborating on the first sentence of your second-last paragraph? 🙂

  2. My reservations? Probably. Mostly the implication salvation for Gentiles fulfills the return-from-exile prophecies. I think they are arguing the exile is over with the crucifixion.

    • Thanks. Hmm. I would probably tend to agree with the authors on that topic, based on NT use of OT. But I’m glad I don’t have to solve that question with certainty, and certainly wouldn’t want the church to divide over it.

  3. Eschatological Paul would be the most coherent option for Paul. If I am understanding this correctly, the new age is that of forgiveness and grace through the power and conviction of the Holy Spirit. The old age being that of the Law. If there has been a change from the old to the new (2 Cor. 5:17) then it would seem Paul has turned from the Law. At the same time, he gives off the idea that he is still keeping the law in order to not let his words fall on closed hears, which are those who still vigorously follow the Law. Just as the new age brings freedom from the Law, there is a sense of responsibility to respect those whose convictions are not the same. For example, if there is a food which makes a brother stumble, do not present that or take part in it (1 Cor 8:13). If I was a member of the YMCA the daily workout would require interacting with the same group of people using the facilities that day. If I ended that membership, then my influence with those people may not be the same. It seems that Paul could be using this new freedom from the law as a way to reach those held under by the law. Thus, Paul would be able to reach both extremes of Jews and Gentiles.

    • Your analogy to the YMCA makes and interesting point. It brings to mind how Paul adapted to his surroundings in order to reach others for the gospel. Paul states in 1 Corinthians, “To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. 21 To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some” (9:20-22). This statement by Paul speaks about he has achieved some freedom from the actions of Christ so he is no longer tethered to the law. Rather, Christ has fulfilled the prophecies and purposes of the law which allows Paul and other Jews to now expand outside of the law in order to save those outside of Jewish customs. The comments made on respect for the law brings up a good point. Paul was born and raised in the Jewish tradition. This means Paul was able to keep the law with some sort of ease, unlike a new Jewish convert who was previously a gentile and pagan. Paul is no longer bound to the law out of requirement, however I do believe Paul continued to keep the law in order to reach the Jews. If Paul had decided to abandon the law all together, Jews in the synagogues would consider him mad, abandoning the faith, and would no longer accept him, his authority as a Jew and might even attempt to stone him more than they already have. Remaining to keep the law for Paul was necessary so he and his colleagues would still be accepted into Jewish gatherings so they could attempt to win others over for the sake of the Gospel. However, it is also important that Paul stressed that gentiles did not have to keep the law (besides some parts such as do not murder, steal, lie, etc.). Stressing this truth allows the Gospel to be more accepted by gentiles and pagans because they do not have to change every aspect of their identity. They can still look the same, eat the same, etc. but they can also fellowship and worship with the Jews as well.

      • The debate on Paul’s Jewish identity is very intriguing as the evidence seems to point in different directions. All four perspectives of Paul’s Jewish identity have enough evidence to make them questionable and therefore difficult in coming up with a conclusion. Not to mention Paul lived during a time filled with pagan religions and even separation within his Jewish heritage. However, after taking a deeper look at some of the letters Paul wrote I would say his Jewish identity is consistent with the “new covenant Jew” perspective. Reasons being that Paul puts the Law aside and places faithfulness in Jesus as the way for salvation (Longenecker, 98). A verse that speaks truth to this ideology is Galatians 5:22-25, where Paul lists the fruit of the spirit and then states “ against such things there is no law”. In my opinion, this verse goes hand in hand with Paul’s outlook as a new covenant Jew and falls in line with his statement as the minister of the new covenant. Another key verse relating to Paul’s perspective of a new covenant Jew is Gal 5:6 where Paul dismantles the law of circumcision and affirmed that faith in the Lord is more valuable than circumcision. Although my ideology might not be airtight, Im convinced Paul’s Jewish identify is in the closet relations with that of a new covenant Jew and an eschatological Jew.

  4. To be quite honest, I feel that there are some glaring issues (to my mind at least) with a couple of the views that Pitre, Barber, and Kincaid present. With the first view, for example, whereas I agree that Paul understands that Christians are no longer under the Law, Paul seems to have no issue with continuing to practice the Law (Acts 21:23-26).

    I am also not sure that I can agree with the third view. Paul is considered the Apostle to the Gentiles, but there were plenty of Jews in the cities that Paul wrote to as well. If Paul then was directing his negative views of the Law toward the gentile believers who did not have to practice the Law, why wouldn’t he have made clear that the Jews in those cities still should practice the Law? I guess I just do not see that clear distinction in Paul’s letters nor do I see why some letters were written exclusively to the believing gentile community in those cites instead of just writing a letter the whole community of believers in those cities.

    The last two views (second and fourth), however, do make some more sense to me. I think that it is rather clear that Paul understood the critical change following the death of Christ. Although, I do not see as much importance necessarily on whether you focus on the new age or the new covenant as both seem appropriate.

  5. To me the view that Paul was a “New Covenant Jew” makes the most sense. In “ A Brief Introduction to the New Perspective on Paul” Long explains that the traditional view on Paul assumed that the law referred to the whole law as laid out in Deuteronomy and the Old Testament whereas the new perspective believed that when Paul referred to the law he meant the boundary markers of 2nd temple Judaism such as food laws and circumcision. In other words, Paul did not reject the entire law given to Jews but rather didn’t require Gentiles to follow certain parts of the law such a circumcision. Paul’s gospel initiated the new covenant and outlined what God is doing in the present age, not rejecting the Jewish law but explaining in light of Jesus Christ as Savior. I don’t think that Jews ever believed that salvation was found through obeying the law. Paul didn’t need to reject everything about Judaism when he had his encounter with Jesus. Rather his understanding of Judaism was altered and clarified so that he could preach the gospel to Gentiles.

  6. The question of whether Paul remained as a Jew or abandoned such titles following his encounter with Christ is a hot topic within scholarship. With a range of perspectives varying from one polarity to another, however, as Long notes, one cannot question Paul’s strong commitment to second-temple Judaism. This proposition is promoted within Paul’s own admission in passages such as Philippians 3:4-6, where he states he was “circumcised on the eight-day” and was a “Hebrew of the Hebrews”. Furthermore, in Galatians 1:13-14, Paul describes that he was “advancing in Judaism beyond many of my age among my people” and was extremely zealous for the traditions of his fathers. This strong Jewish heritage and associations are only complimented by his relationship with Gamaliel, an early rabbi mentioned in the Mishna, which was described in Acts 22:3.
    Yet, this does not answer whether Paul remained within Judaism following his encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus. Following this encounter, as Paul writes his epistles, he often references the Old Testament to support his teachings, whether for justification by faith or the gentile’s freedom from the law. However, Paul does not simply convey opinions that placed him within the conventional Jewish paradigm of his day. Rather, we find controversial opinions and arguments from Paul which led to divisions in the early church, such as the gentiles not needing to follow Jewish food laws or circumcision practices.
    These truths and findings have led many scholars to promote many different and often diametrically opposite conclusions about Paul. One popular position, supported by Pitre, Barber, and Kincaid is the “old perspective” on Paul, which proposes that Paul was a former Jew who converted to Christianity. This conversion, as Long notes, led to him rejecting the law for both the Jews and Gentiles, favoring God’s grace and freedom as sufficient for both the Jewish and Gentile converts. Another view, supported by Albert Schweitzer and more recently E.P. Sanders, is the “new perspective”, which argues that the era of law has passed away because of the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, ushering in the new age of the spirit. Another perspective, albeit less popular, is the “Paul within Judaism” perspective, with argues that Paul remained a law-observant Jew and never converted to Christianity. A fourth perspective on the topic is the “New Covenant Jew” perspective, which emphasizes Paul’s ministry on the New Covenant promoted in Jeremiah 31. This position argues that Paul never viewed the law as sufficient to save and maintains a view of eschatology consistent with the view of the Old Testament Prophets.

  7. This is a debate to find out what kind of Jew was Paul? Philippians 3:4-6 talks about his Jewish heritage even though Christians thought Paul was a Hellenistic Jew and was born in Diaspora. Paul said in his own words, on the eighth day he was circumcised. He came from a family that keeps the Jewish traditions while living in Tarsus. There has been observation whether Paul is Greek or Jewish. He claims that he was a proper Jew. He bragged about his heritage being a member of the tribe of Benjamin, which Paul’s teacher is also from the tribe of Benjamin. In the phrase that Paul mentions about “Hebrews of the Hebrews” that he is born as a true Jewish blood. Paul was committed to Judaism of the Second Temple period and was educated by a Jewish teacher Gamaliel. In the third paragraph “A New Covenant Jew”, the authors give us options about Paul. Before Paul converted to a Christian, as a Jew he would follow the law. In Acts 9 Paul converted to Jesus Christ as his savior, he was telling Jews that those who accept Jesus should stop following the Jewish Law. It took a turn on Paul, in Acts 21 the Jews would spread accusations against that he fell from practice of the Law. Paul wanted Jews to stop being Jewish and wanted them to stop following the Law. Learning about Paul’s break with Judaism, the scholars pointed out that Paul is an eschatological Jew. In 2 Corinthian 5:17 mentions the old has passed away and the new is the creation. Paul was loyal to the law. I would consider Paul as a “New Covenant” even though he is Jewish by blood but he would follow Jesus.

  8. As we look into what kind of Jew Paul was, we have to recognize his upbringing and past. Before the conversion of Paul, we read that Paul was a son of a pharisee. “Now when Paul perceived that one part was Sadducees and the other Pharisees, he cried out in the council, “Brothers, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees” (Acts 23:6 ESV). As I look at who Paul is and what kind of Jew, he is the in your blog “What kind of Jew Paul” we read four pieces of evidence regarding which Jew Paul was. The one that seems to be the most accurate is that Paul was a new covenant Jew. In this argument there is a clear stance that the law is not sufficient to save. It is only by the new covenant in Christ Jesus that we have salvation. This argument aligns best with the writings of Paul. We read in Ephesians Paul time and time again discussing this new covenant. “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9 ESV). There is an obvious transition from Paul being a pharisee of pharisees to declaring the law has been fulfilled. Paul’s writings show the disregard of Jewish faith but still a product of Jewish culture. As I look at your blog, the most obvious choice regarding what type of Jew Pual was a new covenant Jew.

  9. Looking at how Paul was not your ordinary man, it is no surprise that he was no ordinary Jew. Paul didn’t put great importance. On the law when he became a Christian, which greatly upset other Jews. But Paul doing this was not to upset people it was to follow the instructions of the Lord. Paul does not ever deny his Jewish heritage but does not follow the practices of normal Judaism anymore because he does not consider himself a Jew.

  10. Paul was born of Pharisees and he was Pharisees. Paul was a devout Jew and a member of the tribe of Benjamin. ” In his own words, he was “circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, and the tribe of Benjamin, and a Hebrew of the Hebrews” Paul was committed to the Judaism of the Second Temple period and he hated christians. He believed that the law that he commited to was the law of God and he followed the law. But Paul later turned from the Law and he believed that he would be saved by grace throught faith. God’s grace has saved you because of your faith in Christ. In Ephesians 2: 8-9, “Your salvation doesn’t come from anything you do. It is God’s gift. 9 It is not based on anything you have done. No one can brag about earning it.”

  11. Hi, Kent
    It is true Paul was not an ordinary man and he was from a rich family and also son of Pharisee. He was an important Jew and also a Pharisee before he became a christian.

  12. Hi, Marc

    It is true Paul was grew up in a Jewish Pharisee family and he committed to the law. He obeyed the law and he followed the law. But later, he believed that he was saved by grace through faith.

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