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?

7 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? 🙂

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  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.

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    • 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.

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  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.

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    • 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.

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      • 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.

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  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.

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