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?