Perspectives on Paul
Blaine Robison, M.A.
Published 1 September 2015; Revised 16 January 2021
Scripture: Unless otherwise indicated Scripture quotations are taken from the Messianic Jewish Family Bible: Tree of Life Version, © 2014 by Messianic Jewish Family Bible Society. Click here for Abbreviations of Bible Versions.
Sources: Bibliographic data for scholarly publications cited may be found at the end of the article. References to Josephus, the first century Jewish historian, are from The Works of Flavius Josephus (c. 75-99 A.D.) trans. William Whiston (1737); online. References to tractates of the Talmud are from the Soncino Babylonian Talmud (1948); online. Click here for Talmud Abbreviations.
Terminology: In order to emphasize the Jewish nature of the apostolic canon and its central figure I use the terms Tanakh (Old Testament), Besekh (New Testament), Yeshua (Jesus), and Messiah (Christ).
Historical Christian Perspective
John G. Gager, Professor of Religion at Princeton University, summarizes the long-held assumptions about Paul in Christianity from the time of the church fathers (4-5), still the cornerstone of Catholic and Reformed Christianity and a continuing influence within certain segments of Evangelical Christianity.
· Paul converted from Judaism to Christianity, or founded Christianity.
· His role as apostle to the Gentiles caused him to turn against his former life.
· As a Christian apostle he repudiated the Law of Moses, the Torah, and circumcision, not just for Gentiles, but for Jews as well.
· The Law had never been intended by God as the path to salvation, for Gentiles or Jews.
· The Jews, having turned their back on Jesus as their Messiah, had now been rejected by God as a disobedient people and been replaced by Gentiles as the new people of God. Israel had stumbled and failed by virtue of its refusal to accept Paul's evangelistic message.
· Paul thus stands as the father of Christian anti-Judaism, the theologian of the rejection-replacement view.
Paul has been viewed as the preeminent Christian theologian. The assumed anti-Judaism or anti-Israel theology is based on select prooftexts (e.g., Rom 3:20; 9:31; 11:28; Gal 3:10-11; 6:15) while passages supportive of Torah, Judaism and Israel are either ignored, minimized or rejected outright (e.g., Rom 3:1, 31; 7:7, 12; 9:4; 11:1-2, 26; Gal 3:21). The above assumptions comprise an elaborate Christian mythology that has excused antisemitic practices in the history of Christianity, fostered biblical interpretations alien to the cultural setting of Yeshua and the apostles, and sought to deprive Israel its covenantal rights to the promised Land.
Jewish Perspective on Paul
As Daniel Langton describes in his article "Paul in Jewish Thought," Jewish interest in Paul is essentially a modern phenomenon (JANT 585-587). Jews have generally regarded Paul as a kind of self-hating Jew and as the "real" founder of the Christian religion. He has been held responsible for Christianity's traditional antagonism toward the Law. Rabbinic literature never mentions Paul by name, but there are some suggestive references. For example,
"He that profanes things sacred and contemns the festivals; he who causes his neighbor to blush in public, and annuls the covenant of Abraham our father, and acts barefacedly against the Torah, even though he is possessed of Torah and good deeds, he has no share in the world to come." (Avot 3:12)
"This man … estranged himself from circumcision and the commandments of the Torah." (Ruth Rabbah Petikha 3, quoted in JANT 585).
"There is also the mention of a disciple of Gamaliel who scoffed at his teaching and exhibited impertinence in matters of learning." (Shabbat 30b).
All of these texts postdate A.D. 200 and reflect the teaching of church fathers rather than independent knowledge of Paul himself.
Paul does not feature in Medieval Jewish refutations of Christianity, in spite of his importance in Christian theology. The premodern Jewish conception of Paul had him portrayed as the creator of such "non-Jewish" teachings as the Trinity, the atoning death of Christ, celibacy, the Christian calendar and antinomianism (anti-Torah). In modern times the viewpoint of Paul in Jewish scholarship varies widely. Some Jewish scholars have been influenced by German Christian liberalism so that the article "Saul of Tarsus" in the Jewish Encyclopedia (1901-1916) attributes Paul's teaching to Gnosticism and Hellenistic mystery religions.
The Jewish philosopher Martin Buber (1878-1965), prominent in interfaith relations, contrasted the Jewish faith (Heb. emunah) of Yeshua, that implied a relationship of trust in God, with the faith (Grk. pistis) of Paul, a Christian faith of propositional belief. On the other hand, the Chief Rabbi of the United Synagogue in the United Kingdom slandered Paul in his 1993 book One People? Tradition, Modernity and Jewish Unity by describing him as,
"the architect of a Christian theology which deemed that the covenant between God and his people was now broken. … Pauline theology demonstrates to the full how remote from and catastrophic to Judaism is the doctrine of a second choice, a new election. No doctrine has cost more Jewish lives." (JANT 586)
A more temperate approach has been taken by David Flusser (1917-2000), Professor of Early Christianity and Second Temple Judaism at Hebrew University. In an Encyclopedia Judaica article "Paul of Tarsus," Flusser affirmed the basic facts of Paul's Jewish parentage and education, his association with the Pharisees, zealous persecution of Christians and Luke's accounts of Paul's journeys. Paul's vision of Yeshua caused him to convert to Christianity and "conversion meant for him liberation from the yoke of Jewish Law. The new covenant of Christianity was freedom from the law." On the other hand, Flusser acknowledged that Paul showed a "positive attitude toward the Jews themselves" and that Paul "was certain that the election of Israel was not abrogated."
Unfortunately the Jewish viewpoint has largely been influenced by the historic teaching of Christianity that Paul viewed the Law as an oppressive yoke and true freedom from that yoke was accomplished by the Messiah's redemption. Only a few modern Jewish scholars are willing to consider Paul as an authentic Jew in his identity as a follower of Yeshua. As some Christian scholars have begun to question the historic viewpoint (see the next section), some Jewish scholars, such as Mark Nanos (JANT 551-554), have gone so far as to acknowledge that Paul was a Torah-observant Jew and that he expected other Jewish followers of Yeshua to do likewise. Generally speaking, however, the negative attitudes among Jews toward Paul can be traced to the fact that they believed historic Christian teaching about Paul and failed to actually read Paul's words.
New Perspective on Paul (Christian)
The "New-Perspective on Paul," a term coined by James D.G. Dunn in 1982, is a movement closely connected with a surge of recent scholarly interest in studying the Bible in the context of other ancient texts, and the use of social-scientific methods to understand ancient culture. One of the first voices of this perspective to challenge the historic assumptions about Paul was W.D. Davies who interpreted Paul within the framework of his Pharisee theology (Paul and Rabbinic Judaism: Some Rabbinic Elements in Pauline Theology, 1948).
Not until the 1960s did this conviction take hold and a number of Christian scholars embraced the "new perspective." Representatives of this viewpoint include Krister Stendahl (Paul Among Jews and Gentiles, 1977), E. P. Sanders (Paul and Palestinian Judaism, 1977), Stanley K. Stowers (Rereading Romans: Justice, Jews and Gentiles, 1994), N.T. Wright (What Saint Paul Really Said, 1997) and John Gager (Reinventing Paul, 2000).
Gager summarizes the general principles of the New Perspective on Paul as:
· Paul did not change religions or invent a new religion.
· Paul did not repudiate the Torah and circumcision.
· Paul did not teach God’s rejection of the Jews.
· Paul did not invent replacement theology.
Paul as a Pharisee was influenced by the conservative Judaism of his party and this attitude carries over into his writings. In addition, New Perspective advocates prefer "Jesus-movement" to Christianity. Unfortunately, the New Perspective has embraced a concept totally foreign to Paul, that he did not expect Jews to find their salvation through Yeshua, dubbed Two Covenant Theology (Gager 10). A Protestant ecumenical group called The Christian Scholars Group on Christian-Jewish Relations, whose members include Lutherans, Methodist and Episcopalians, published this viewpoint in a paper titled "A Sacred Obligation: Rethinking Christian Faith in Relation to Judaism and the Jewish People."
Jewish Roots Perspective
Increasing in popularity among many Evangelicals is an interest in the Jewish roots of the Christian faith and the Jewish cultural background of the apostolic writings as Edith Schaeffer declared in her popular book, Christianity is Jewish (1977). Recognizing the Jewish context of the New Testament and relevance of early Jewish literature, as well as the Talmud, on the teaching of Yeshua and the apostles is not a brand-new development. I will mention the following notable Christian commentators.
John Lightfoot (1602-1675), an English churchman and Vice Chancellor of Cambridge University, was a rabbinical scholar. He wrote commentaries on Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, Romans and 1 Corinthians. The title of each commentary was prefaced with the phrase "Hebrew and Talmudical Exercitations Upon." His completed commentaries were eventually published in one set titled A Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmud and Hebraica (4 vols., 1859). Lightfoot's commentary is available online.
Following Lightfoot with a similar approach to Scripture was John Gill (1697-1771). Gill was an English Baptist pastor, biblical scholar, theologian and prolific author. He learned Hebrew at an early age and developed an abiding love of the Hebrew language. In 1748 he published A Collection of Sermons and Tracts, which included "A Dissertation Concerning the Antiquity of the Hebrew Language, Letters, Vowel-Points and Accents." Most significant is his Exposition of the Entire Bible (Online), considered Gill's magnum opus. Gill's commentary is full of references to early Jewish and Talmudic literature.
Another invaluable commentator is Alfred Edersheim (1825-1889), a Jewish convert to Christianity. In his youth he was trained in the Talmud and Torah at a Hebrew school. After being ordained to Christian ministry he served as a missionary and pastor. He became a prolific author and many of his works were devoted to the Jewish cultural background of the New Testament. Perhaps his most well known work is his commentary, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (1883), available online.
In the same vein German scholars Hermann L. Strack (1848–1922) and Paul Billerbeck (1853–1932) produced the Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmud and Midrash (German, 1926). The commentary demonstrates the Jewish rabbinic origin of most of Yeshua's sayings. Strack was a professor of Oriental languages at the University of Berlin and was recognized as a leading non-Jewish scholar in the field of Bible and Talmud, and Hebrew and Aramaic linguistics. Strack served as an expert in German courts on a number of cases with antisemitic overtones in which he defended Judaism. Indeed, he took a courageous stand against growing German antisemitism that set the stage for the Holocaust. He was also active in the Protestant missionary movement among Jews in Europe and Israel.
Paul Billerbeck (1853–1932), born to Jewish parents in Prussia, was a Lutheran minister and scholar of Judaism. Billerbeck's participation in Strack's Commentary commenced in 1906 when Strack encouraged Billerbeck to compile and expand commentary material of John Lightfoot and other 18th century commentators for a new German commentary on the New Testament using rabbinical literature. The commentary set has only recently been made available in English (Lexham Press, 2013).
Many Christian scholars now recognize that Paul was faithful to his Jewish heritage while crossing cultural barriers to proclaim the good news of the Messiah. He upheld the Torah as God's baseline for ethics and morality, while insisting that traditions so important to Jews not be a requirement for Gentile practice. Evangelicals with the Jewish roots perspective agree with the basic principles of the New Perspective, but do not accept Two-Covenant Theology. The following works are invaluable for study.
· Ron Moseley, Yeshua: A Guide to the Real Jesus and the Original Church (1996).
· Risto Santala, The Messiah in the New Testament in the Light of Rabbinical Writings (1992). Available online.
· Risto Santala, Paul: The Man and the Teacher in the Light of Jewish Sources (1995). Available online.
· Marvin R. Wilson, Our Father Abraham: Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith. (1989).
· Brad H. Young, Jesus the Jewish Theologian (1995).
· Brad H. Young, Paul the Jewish Theologian (1997).
Messianic Jewish Perspective
Within the Messianic Jewish movement is the view of Paul as a Messianic Pharisee, a Torah-observant rabbi and emissary of the Jewish Messiah. They too recognize the granting of freedom to Gentiles with regard to Jewish traditions and customs. The following Messianic Jewish works are highly recommended:
· David Friedman, They Loved the Torah. Lederer Books, 2001.
· Dan Juster, Jewish Roots: Understanding Your Jewish Faith. Rev. ed. Destiny Image Publishers, 2013.
· Rabbi Itzhak Shapira, The Return of the Kosher Pig: The Divine Messiah in Jewish Thought. Lederer Books, 2013.
· David Stern, Jewish New Testament Commentary. Jewish New Testament Publications, 1996.
· David Stern, Messianic Judaism: A Modern Movement with an Ancient Past. Lederer Books, 2007.
Like Evangelicals of the Jewish Roots Perspective, Messianic Jews reject Two-Covenant Theology. Rather, the New Covenant enacted by Yeshua on the ground of his atoning death makes possible the fulfillment of Old Covenant expectations. Such is the promise expressed by Jeremiah (31:31-33; 32:37-40) and Ezekiel (11:19-20; 36:24-27). The traditional Christian viewpoint generally engages in historical revisionism to imagine Paul as a Catholic or Protestant separated from his Jewish heritage. For Paul to be so totally reinvented has done incalculable harm to the witness of Christianity. Paul was willing to be accursed if it would make possible the salvation of his own people the Jews (Rom 9:1-3). Such pathos is not the expression of Christianity. Tragically, Christianity treated the Jewish people as accursed.
Important to gaining a proper perspective of the great apostle is to hear what he said about himself and what Yeshua and his peers said about him.
"This one is to me a vessel of choice to bear my name before nations, and both kings and sons of Israel; 16 for I will show to him how much it is necessary for him to suffer in behalf of My name." (Acts 9:15-16 BR)
"I indeed, a man, am a Jew, a Tarsian of Cilicia, a citizen not of an insignificant city." (Acts 21:39 BR)
"I am a man, a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, moreover having been brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, having been instructed according to the strictness of the law of the fathers, being a zealot of God, just as you all are today." (Acts 22:3 BR)
"Brothers, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees! I am on trial because of the hope of the resurrection of the dead!" (Acts 23:6 TLV)
"But this I confess to you, that according to the Way (which they call a sect), I worship the God of our fathers, believing everything written in the Torah and the Prophets." (Acts 24:14 TLV)
"Brothers, although I had done nothing against our people or the customs of our fathers, I was delivered as a prisoner from Jerusalem into the hands of the Romans." (Acts 28:17 TLV)
"Paul, a servant of Messiah Yeshua, a called apostle, having been set apart for the good news of God" (Rom 1:1 BR).
"For we are the circumcision, those worshipping in the Spirit of God and boasting in Messiah Yeshua and not having put confidence in the flesh, 4 although I have confidence also in the flesh. If any other thinks to put confidence in the flesh, I more: 5 circumcision the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; according to Torah, a Pharisee; 6 according to zeal, persecuting the congregation; according to righteousness which is in Torah, having become blameless. 7 But what things were gains to me, these I have considered to be loss for the sake of Messiah. 8 But truly, therefore, I am indeed considering all things a loss for the sake of the surpassing knowledge of Messiah Yeshua my Lord, for the sake of whom I have lost all things and consider as garbage in order that I might gain Messiah." (Php 3:3-8 BR)
"I thank Messiah Yeshua our Lord, who has strengthened me, because He considered me faithful, appointing me to service— 13 even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a violent man. Yet I was shown mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, 14 and the grace of our Lord overflowed with the faith and love that are in Messiah Yeshua. 15 Trustworthy is the saying and deserving of complete acceptance: "Messiah Yeshua came into the world to save sinners"—of whom I am foremost. 16 Yet for this reason I was shown mercy—so that in me as the foremost, Messiah Yeshua might demonstrate His complete patience, as an example for those about to put their trust in Him for eternal life." (1Tim 1:12-16 TLV)
"The God of our fathers has appointed you to know His will and to see the Righteous One and to hear the voice out of His mouth. 15 For you will be a witness for Him to all men of what you have seen and heard." (Acts 22:14-15 BR)
Jacob (aka "James)
"You see, brother, how many myriads there are among the Jewish people who have believed—and they are all zealous for the Torah. 21 They have been told about you—that you teach all the Jewish people among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or to walk according to the customs. 22 What’s to be done then? No doubt they will hear that you have come. 23 So do what we tell you. We have four men who have a vow on themselves. 24 Take them, and purify yourself along with them and pay their expenses, so that they may shave their heads. That way, all will realize there is nothing to the things they have been told about you, but that you yourself walk in an orderly manner, keeping the Torah." (Acts 21:20-24 TLV)
"15 Bear in mind that the patience of our Lord means salvation—just as our dearly loved brother Paul also wrote to you with the wisdom given to him. 16 He speaks about these matters in all of his letters. Some things in them are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist (as they also do with the rest of the Scriptures)—to their own destruction." (2Pet 3:15-16 TLV)
Afterword on Terminology
Throughout this web article I use the terms "apostle" and "shaliach" interchangeably. The English word "apostle" translates the Greek apostolos. David Stern prefers to translate apostolos in his Complete Jewish Bible with "emissary" because as a Messianic Jew "apostle" sounds too "churchy" (38). Other Messianic Jewish versions also avoid the use of "apostle." The World Messianic Bible (aka "HNV") and the Tree of Life Version also use "emissary," but Daniel Gruber chose to use "ambassador" in his Messianic Writings. The Orthodox Jewish Bible chose the modern Hebrew term shliach. Of interest is that Stern decided against shaliach because he thought it would make Diaspora Jews think of an Israeli sent to encourage immigration to Israel, but I believe this amounts to overthinking the issue.
It's worth considering that it was Jewish translators of the Septuagint (LXX) who chose to use apostolos and invested it with new meaning. Christianity did not invent the word. I don't believe the terms "ambassador" and "emissary," given their breadth of meaning in the English language, accomplish the purpose of making the title sound any more Jewish than "apostle." The English spelling of "apostle" came from the Latin apostolus, which in Middle English became apostol. Even though Paul the Jewish Pharisee had a Hebrew name (Sha'ul) he was not embarrassed to be known by his Latin name.
In case someone might say that "apostle" is too Christian, I would point out that even the term "Christian" was the invention of Barnabas and Paul. See my web article The First Christians. In my view there is no need to invent a new Jewish vocabulary to replace the one appropriated by Christianity from first century Judaism. As for spelling I derived the form of shaliach from Stern, which is also used in the DNTT article on apostolos (1:128). Santala spells the term as sheliach (8). The Hebrew pointing in Jastrow's Dictionary yields the base form of the noun as shaluach.
DNTT: Dictionary of New Testament Theology, 3 vols., ed. Colin Brown. Zondervan Pub. House, 1975.
Gager: John G. Gager, Reinventing Paul. Oxford University Press, 2000.
JANT: Jewish Annotated New Testament, eds. Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Brettler. Oxford University Press, 2011.
Jastrow: Marcus Jastrow, Dictionary of Targumim, Talmud and Midrashic Literature. G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1903, 1926. Online.
Stern: David Stern, Jewish New Testament Commentary. Jewish New Testament Publications, 1996.
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