The misconception about Paul with the longest historical pedigree is that he was anti-Jewish. Many imagine that after his Damascus Road experience, Paul immediately rejected Judaism and embraced Christianity. They assume that in the first century these were two clearly distinguishable religions. Before his encounter with Christ, the thinking goes, Paul was wrapped up in a legalistic pursuit of salvation and was teaching others a similar philosophy. So great was his passion that he persecuted the Christians who taught salvation by grace through faith. After his conversion, everything changed. He embraced God’s gracious salvation by faith in Christ and rejected the system of dead rituals bound up in Judaism. Paul left Judaism, therefore, and turned to Christianity.
“The Paul We Think We Know” (originally published 7-22-2011)
Someone posted this on Facebook today and as I was reading it, I wanted to jump up out of my chair and scream YES! YES! Someone finally GETS IT!
OK, I’m not really that emphatic in my behavior but it does excite me that someone writing for a traditional Christian publication understands what I understand and what I’ve been trying to communicate in the church I attend for nearly a year.
Let’s cut to the chase. What does Gombis really think about Paul and more importantly, Paul’s struggle to integrate non-Jewish disciples into a Jewish religious stream?
The problem in the early church, therefore, was not the temptation toward legalistic works righteousness. They faced the communal challenge of incorporating non-Jewish converts into the historically Jewish people of God. First-century Judaism didn’t have a legalism problem; it had an ethnocentrism problem. The first followers of Jesus were all Jewish, and had difficulty imagining that the God of Israel who sent Jesus Christ as their Savior could possibly save non-Jews without requiring them to convert to Judaism. This is the issue in Acts 15, when Christian Jews from Judea urged the Gentiles in Antioch, “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1).
While the early church leaders decided in theory that non-Jewish believers in Jesus were not required to become Jews (Acts 15:13-21), many churches struggled with the practical challenges of becoming healthy multiethnic communities. Paul, as pastor and theologian, addresses these challenges by claiming that “no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law” (Rom. 3:20). This is not a condemnation of Judaism as inherently legalistic, but an affirmation that God does not justify a person merely because he is ethnically Jewish. Jews and non-Jews approach God on equal terms when it comes to salvation (emph. mine). All have sinned and all stand in need of God’s redeeming grace in Christ (Rom. 3:23-24). Therefore all who are in Christ are equal siblings in God’s new family (Gal. 3:26-28).
The “in theory” comment seems to relate to the ongoing struggle to integrate, with anything approaching seamlessness, Jewish and Gentile disciples within a single religious and social framework, but I’ll return to that issue in a moment. The main point here is that Paul did not reject Judaism for Christianity, supported continued Judaism and Torah observance for Jews, and identified the primary problem among Jewish believers and their difficulty in accepting Gentle disciples not as legalism but ethnocentrism. Many of the believing and non-believing Jews could not accept Gentiles as equal participants of a Jewish religious branch without requiring that they convert to Judaism. After all, whoever heard of Jews and Goyim being equal in the sight of God? Gombis already quoted this verse, but it should be repeated.
Some men came down from Judea and began teaching the brethren, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.”
–Acts 15:1 (NASB)
This was the core problem Paul faced in his mission to the Gentiles and it would always haunt him. It was the cause of most of his major problems with the various Jewish communities in Israel and the diaspora. He would never see a day when this conflict was ultimately resolved and the echo of his struggle still rings in our ears. That is, if we’ll actually let ourselves listen.
But what about Paul, Judaism, and his relationship with Jewish disciples?
A second reason why we cannot envision Paul as anti-Jewish is that even after his conversion, Paul remained a Jew. He did not imagine that he was inventing a new religion, nor did he leave Judaism to join the Christian church. At the end of his third missionary journey, Paul arrived in Jerusalem and, at the suggestion of James, went through purification rituals at the temple (Acts 21:23-26). Paul saw no contradiction at all between his commitment to Christ and his faithful participation in Jewish practices. Explaining his ministry before a variety of audiences, Paul emphasized his Jewish identity and claimed to be acting in faithfulness to the God of Israel. Before the Jewish Council in Jerusalem, he declared, “My brothers, I am a Pharisee, descended from Pharisees. I stand on trial because of the hope of the resurrection of the dead!” (Acts 23:6, emphasis added). And to King Agrippa, he again claims to be a Pharisee whose hope is in the promises of God to Israel (Acts 26:4-6).
Third, Paul never calls upon Jews to reject Judaism. Instead, he exhorts them to recognize Jesus as their Messiah and welcome his non-Jewish followers as siblings in God’s new family. We get a glimpse of his preaching to Jews in Acts 17:1-3: “When Paul and his companions had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a Jewish synagogue. As was his custom, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Messiah had to suffer and rise from the dead. ‘This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Messiah,’ he said.”
The Paul of the New Testament, therefore, is not anti-Jewish. He was faithful both to the Scriptures and to his Jewish heritage. He preached Jesus as the promised Messiah of Israel, but was insistent that salvation in Christ was not limited to ethnic Jews. According to his gospel, all Jews needed to receive Jesus as Messiah, and all followers of Jesus—Jewish and non-Jewish—needed to embrace one another as siblings in God’s global family in Christ.
I’m stunned that this is being published in an online Christian venue. I’m absolutely shocked. I’m pleased beyond wonder. Paul never stopped being a Jew, never stopped Jewish observances, and absolutely never, ever encouraged any Jew to abandon Jewish practice, lifestyle, and faith. Turning to Messiah is a completely Jewish act and does not require the slightest deviation from Jewish Torah observance.
But what about “in theory?”
Gombis isn’t suggesting that in theory, the Gentiles became Jews either by formal conversation (which Paul opposed) or in action but not name by observing the mitzvot in a manner identical to the Jewish disciples. The author is only acknowledging what I have been saying all along: that in principle, the requirement was to unite Jewish and Gentile disciples of the Master within a multiethnic, multinational framework where all could share in the grace and salvation of God without anyone being compelled to surrender their unique and individual national and ethnic identity. In practice, this was never accomplished and ultimately, both populations pursued wildly different trajectories. Their struggles are what we see in the Messianic Jewish and Hebrew Roots movements today.
Earlier, I posted my review of the First Fruits of Zion television series episode Raising Disciples. This is particularly relevant to today’s “extra meditation” because we encounter the topic of disciples as imitators. What did Paul say to the Gentile disciples he was raising up about imitating their Master?
In 1 Corinthians 11:1, he told them to “be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ.” but we don’t know what they are supposed to imitate. My suggestion is that the manner of Jewish and Gentile imitation is not identical across the board, since it would obliterate Jewish and Gentile distinction in the body of disciples and thus eliminate the problem of Gentile integration. If Jewish and Gentile disciples were identical and homogenous, the basis for schism would have been severely blunted if not done away with entirely.
However, it was a given that Jewish disciples were intended to continue Jewish practice according to Gombis and the legal decision rendered by James and the Council was that the Gentiles had no identical obligation. By common association, the Gentile disciples might have acted very similarly to their Jewish counterparts, at least to an outside observer, but there remained a difference in obligation between the Jewish and non-Jewish disciples within the body of Messiah.
That probably isn’t a very satisfying answer, but I’m still thrilled that a Christian online magazine is promoting a view of Paul that is so close to my own. Now if I could just send this link to every church Pastor in the country with a note saying “READ THIS!” and if they’d keep an open mind while doing so, I’d consider it a step forward.
Interestingly enough, today is Hoshana Rabbah, the traditional day of judgment for the nations of the world. How will God and Israel judge us if we do not learn to see Paul and the Messiah in the manner Timothy Gombis suggests?