Questioning Paul

Read today’s article, where you, in part, again defend Paul. Obviously, I have to come to read him very differently and would like to run something by you. Can you give me your thoughts on the following words of Paul, namely in Galatians 4:21-26 (and a bit beyond, in Galatians 5-1)?

“21 Tell me, you who want to be under law, do you not listen to the law? 22 For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the bondwoman and one by the free woman. 23 But the son by the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, and the son by the free woman through the promise. 24 This is allegorically speaking, for these women are two covenantsone proceeding from Mount Sinai bearing children WHO ARE TO BE SLAVES; she is Hagar. 25 Now this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children26 But the Jerusalem above is free; she is our mother. “

“It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery.” (Galatians 5-1)

Here Paul, although supposedly speaking figuratively, plainly says that the covenant on Mount Sinai produced slaves (even though the opposite actually happened there – Jews were freed from slavery there, becoming servants of G-d). According to Paul, Jews who are still bound by Torah and the Mosaic covenant are not the spiritual children, but the children of the flesh and are born not of Sarah, but of Hagar. Christians (primarily his Gentile audience), however, are Sarah’s true children, who are free. Following Torah as given on Mount Sinai, according to Paul, is a yoke of slavery from which Christ came to set humanity free (Galatians 5-1).

Would love to hear what you thought of the above. May be the billions of Christians over the many centuries didn’t misread Paul after all but received much of their view of Judaism from him?

-from a private email discussion

There’s a lot more to this conversation. For a little background, the person asking the above-quoted questions is a Jewish friend of mine who believes that Paul was anti-Torah and anti-Judaism.  He very gently but firmly is questioning my faith and our exchange, from my point of view, has reached something of an impasse. Not being a theologian or a historian, especially within the context of Messianic Judaism, I don’t always have all the convenient answers at my fingertips.

A “normative” (i.e. not Messianic) Jewish person has a wide variety of resources to draw from, such as Jews for Judaism, in questioning the validity of the “Christian texts,” while in response, all I’ve got is me.

For obvious reasons (obvious to my regular readership), I can’t really rely on traditional, Evangelical Christian apologetics, since I’m often a critic of Evangelical Christian theology.

To add a bit of dimension, where I “stalled” in the conversation, my friend questioned whether one could look at Paul’s letters in the same fashion as the writings of Moses. Moses received direct revelation from God while Paul was writing letters. Can his letters be elevated to the point of scripture inspired by the Holy Spirit? Moses knew he was recording the thoughts of God. Could Paul have imagined that his letters would also be included in canon?

In the body of believers, we tend to see deep theological meaning in Paul’s letters. Further, we (or at least I) believe that there are messages “encoded” within said-letters that are difficult to understand without a “Rabbinic” comprehension of the text. Scholars such as Mark Nanos and Roy Blizzard have written erudite works unpackaging the “hidden” meanings within Paul’s writing. But the Sages in more normative Judaism across the long centuries and into the modern era, reading the letters of Paul from a Rabbinic perspective, see nothing but a condemnation of Jewish people and Judaism in Paul’s writings. If Paul’s letters are so “Jewish” that most Christians don’t “get” Paul, why don’t most Jewish sages “get” Paul the way we do when peering through a Messianic Jewish lens?

The Jewish PaulIn line with the above, I’ve attempted to answer the “Hagar and Sarah” question with my own commentary based on Ariel Berkowitz’s paper A Torah-Positive Summary of Sha’ul’s Letter to the Galatians. However my explanation of more hidden meanings doesn’t seem to pass the “pshat test,” whereby the plain meaning of the text is still the primary meaning, even if there are other more hidden and even mystic meanings contained within.

Finally, many if not most of Paul’s letters were written to a primarily Gentile audience, with many or most of them having limited literacy (according to my source) and for those fresh out of paganism, virtually no apprehension of Judaism, Jewish thought, Hebrew idiom and word play, and Jewish symbolism. If Paul were writing to a bunch of Rabbis or other learned Jews, we could understand Paul crafting letters with great amounts of complicated theological detail, but wasn’t he trying to get his ideas across to mostly common Greek-speaking people?

It’s possible that no one can answer these questions or at least that no one will be willing to answer these questions on my blog, so I may continue to be stuck until subsequent investigation (which experience tells me could be months or years) helps me to understand where the answers lie (or, Heaven forbid, that there are no answers to give to my Jewish friend). I should say that my primary goal isn’t to “convert” him or otherwise convince him to become “Messianic.” My goal is to show why any intelligent and reasonable person could accept the writings in what the Church calls “the New Testament” as scripture at all and why we would go jumping through all of the hoops we have been in order to refactor Paul as pro-Torah and pro-Judaism after nearly two-thousand years of Church doctrine has been teaching the exact opposite?

I plan to put links to this blog post in the relevant groups in both Facebook and Google+. I’d like to encourage the readers there to post your responses here so my friend (and any other interested parties) can read them. If they’re “trapped” in closed groups on either of those social networking platforms, then they will not be available for my audience here.

Thank you.

16 thoughts on “Questioning Paul”

  1. I do not believe the questions asked are not simple or short answers, but I would like to humbly try and answer a few.

    First, I’d like to address the question that your friend asked “May be the billions of Christians over the many centuries didn’t misread Paul after all but received much of their view of Judaism from him?”

    I would tend to agree with one piece of his question, which is that many Christians do receive their view of Judaism by reading Paul’s letters. Unfortunately, I believe his letters are, indeed, misread.

    The allegory is meant to be just that. Paul clearly states it is an allegory. In order to fully understand Paul’s point, one must read the whole letter up to this point to follow his train of thought. Paul does not speak against Torah observance nor Judaism. He only uses Torah observance and circumcision (conversion) as negative terms as a means to justification of righteousness. If one continues with that mindset into the allegory, Paul is not calling those following the law slaves, but calling those following the law as a means for justification slaves to the law.

    Consider that Abraham was given a promise of heirs from God. Abraham and Sarah took it upon themselves (their own works) as an attempt to fulfill that promise. Instead of waiting on His timing, and trusting in that faith and believing, they chose to put their own works into the equation.

    In my humble opinion, the allegory is simply expanding on that concept by claiming righteousness is from the promise, represented by the free woman and New Jerusalem.

    The next question you ask is very curious. Can Paul’s letters be considered in the same light as Moses’ writing? Moses knew he was writing God’s words, but Paul was writing letters. I’ve never considered this idea before, but I the thought that comes to mind is that their writings are very different. Moses was writing God’s direct thoughts or words down. Paul is not introducing new thoughts or ideas, he always references back to the TaNaKh as proof of his writing. I would have to say that if Paul introduced any new commands or contradictory ideas that had not been previously written, then one would have to question the validity. Because he regularly goes back to the TaNaKh as his sources for arguments, the only real question is to consider whether his interpretation of the TaNaKh is accurate based on the revelation and illumination he was given from God.

    Why don’t Jewish sages “get” Paul’s letters? Perhaps because he uses radical verbiage to get his point across that it is easy to misread and misinterpret, as Peter warns (2 Peter 3:16). The debate is over the theology that salvation can be obtained without converting to Judaism. That is the radical theology that Paul introduced, which is hard for Jewish sages to accept (at least by my very limited understanding).

    What Christians have misunderstood is that Paul was speaking against Torah observance completely, which just doesn’t ring true if you look closely at his wording.

    Paul’s letters were always primary addressed to the Greek audience within synagogues, but there was certainly writing included towards the Jews and proselytes within the assembly.

  2. I’m a former Christian who’s converting to Judaism. I’m not messianic, but I do respect messianic’s beliefs, and have looked at the New Testament from the sympathetic perspective.

    Instinctually, I feel like Paul wasn’t “anti-Jew, anti-Torah” per se, but definitely was very critical of Judaism, and no secret where his loyalties lied. To be fair, this was not unlike the German Elightenment movement that started the Reform movement, but I can’t help but feel like Paul was being fairly aggressive with his criticism.

    However, if I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt, I can say that Paul wasn’t trying to preach to the Jews at all, and was afraid that the Gentiles would focus too much on looking and acting like Jews, but not actually living the meaning of Torah, or to put it differently, living the letter of The Law, not the spirit of The Law.

    Now, his comments on being slaves are sorta wibbly-wobbly, because one could interpret the concept of slavery differently. Hagar’s children were technically the Arabs, not the Jews; Jews and Muslims see themselves as slaves to Hashem, whereas Gentiles are slaves to the Idols of Money and Power, etc; or even that Jews are willing slaves to Torah, and Christians aren’t slaves to The Law, but deciples of Jesus.

    The truth simply is that one’s interpretation of Paul’s letters speaks more of the person reading the letters than the one who wrote them. Frankly, I don’t like Paul, I never did, and it’s one of the things that ultimately made me feel disconnected from Christianity, since I just didn’t agree with him. But I can certainly see where his teachings, when presented to Gentiles, were valid and relevant.

  3. Morgan, I agree that Paul was aggressive with his criticism. However, where we disagree, and to summarize my point into a single concept, is that Paul was not critical of Judaism or Torah observance, but only critical that Torah observance and/or converting to Judaism was the answer to righteousness (salvation).

    “The truth simply is that one’s interpretation of Paul’s letters speaks more of the person reading the letters than the one who wrote them.” – That is a very intriguing statement and one that I think I would agree with. Although, the problem we face today is that we are so far removed from the cultural relevance of Paul’s verbiage that regardless of which perspective we have, the best any of us can do today, is to try and put the pieces together as best as possible by going back to the same scripture that he referenced and start from there reading forward instead of reading Paul and working backwards.

  4. Terry said: Paul is not calling those following the law slaves, but calling those following the law as a means for justification slaves to the law.

    My general take on Galatians is that Paul was not being critical of the Torah or (of Jews) observing the mitzvot, but he was critical of Gentiles thinking that they had to convert to Judaism in order to be justified before God.

    Terry said: The next question you ask is very curious. Can Paul’s letters be considered in the same light as Moses’ writing? Moses knew he was writing God’s words, but Paul was writing letters. I’ve never considered this idea before, but I the thought that comes to mind is that their writings are very different.

    I think that question should be “required reading” for all Christians. We tend to take Paul’s epistles and view them in the same light as the writings of Moses and the Prophets, but as my friend points out, he was writing letters. Most likely, he never thought they’d end up as part of the Biblical canon. And yet, a letter I believe, can be just as inspired a piece of writing as anything else. I’m currently reviewing D.T. Lancaster’s “Hebrews” sermon series and there’s quite a lot going on (assuming Lancaster is correct) in those ten chapters, which Lancaster defines as primarily a sermon with only a bit of letter writing at the very end.

    Terry said: Paul’s letters were always primary addressed to the Greek audience within synagogues, but there was certainly writing included towards the Jews and proselytes within the assembly.

    It occurs to me that if Paul is communicating by writing letters, he assumes at least some of his audience is literate, otherwise there’d be no one on the receiving end who could actually read his missives. If the communities he was writing to (“Galatia” made up an entire region with multiple communities being contained therein) had any variance in literacy, then some primary reader, probably one of the people shepherding the community, would read and interpret the letter for the audience. Just my guess, though.

    Morgan, I appreciate you coming here and commenting on my blog. Thank you for sharing your perspective.

    Morgan said: Instinctually, I feel like Paul wasn’t “anti-Jew, anti-Torah” per se, but definitely was very critical of Judaism…

    I agree, though based more on instinct, that I don’t see Paul as against Torah or his own people. Paul said in his defense before Festus (Acts 25:8), “I have in no way committed an offense against the law of the Jews, or against the temple, or against the emperor,” so he directly denies in court under oath that he committed no offense against the Jewish people, the Temple, or the Torah.

    Morgan said: Now, his comments on being slaves are sorta wibbly-wobbly, because one could interpret the concept of slavery differently.

    And thereby hangs a tale, the very one we are addressing in this blog post.

  5. FYI, I noticed that most of the links I posted above were broken due to a WordPress bug that adds extra double-quote marks to my HTML. Fixed them so they should work now.

  6. While you’re invoking the views of Berkowitz and Lancaster, you might also invoke Mark Nanos whose views you also discussed not so long ago. In short, we may fairly easily agree that Christian interpreters have been misreading the Galatians letter for a long, long, time. Rav Shaul was clearly a Torah-observant Jew, and a Pharisee in his interpretive views of Torah whereby he felt entirely comfortable expressing certain concepts in midrashic form. His Galatian letter was addressed to a region in which the assemblies were populated virtually entirely by non-Jews; and any comments in his letter that seem addressed to Jews are part of the misunderstood reading or they were merely generically aware of the primary Jewish segment of the ecclesia that was not to be ignored. His Galatian target audience was specifically the non-Jews who were feeling social pressure to convert in order to resolve a legal problem that required all non-Jews in the Roman Empire to conform with official idolatrous ceremonial practices relating to the cult of the Emperor. Jews were exempt as a recognized non-Roman religion. Christian gentiles were not exempt and yet were required by the demands of faith in a Jewish Messiah to eschew idolatry (though later Christianity had a problem with that in how they came to view their “Christ” as part of a non-unitary godhead). Everything in the Galatian letter was directed against a mistaken “solution” to that specific background problem. Even if there were any Jews present in any of those assemblies, the letter could not apply to them because they did not suffer that problem and they certainly weren’t “becoming circumcised” (converting to Judaism) for the wrong reasons (because obviously they were already circumcised).

    So, yes, his non-Jewish Galatian messianists had a kind of freedom or exemption from legal obligation to the Torah; hence they were not legally bound by the Torah as are Jews (midrashically represented as the bondwoman Hagar). It is also a mistake to stretch the interpretation of midrash too far; as with any analogy it has limits. Being legally bound by Torah as Jews who accept the full yoke of the kingdom of heaven is not a negative state; but it would be so for the non-Jews whom Rav Shaul was addressing in Galatia. Thus the imagery in this midrash demonstrates that it clearly was not addressed to any sort of Jewish audience, who as the true children of Sarah would not take kindly to being compared with the children of Hagar and would not draw from it the same message that was meant for the Galatian gentiles. In this, as with many texts, context is critical to its proper understanding. Part of the traditional Christian misreading of this letter comes from mistakenly universalizing it out of its specifically-limited context. Trying to associate the bondwoman and the free one with different approaches to the notion of justification is misapplying the analogy, stretching it too far and wrenching it out of its context which is merely a reflection of the distinction we see in Acts 15.

    As for “Jewish sages” misreading this letter, I must point out that it is only in very recent times that academically-minded Jews have addressed these texts to investigate their Jewish and historical context. In earlier periods, rabbis merely reacted defensively against Christian interpretations of them that negatively impacted the Jewish community. It wouldn’t have occurred to them that they might successfully challenge the mistaken Christian interpretations with better ones, because it was extremely unlikely that Christians would have listened or been open to the notion that Jews could instruct Christians about what were presumed to be Christian scriptures.

  7. Seems like you just rendered a pretty good “in a nutshell” summary of Nanos’ “Galatians” book. I didn’t bring it up mainly because it’s not exactly “mass market reading” and it’s difficult (for me, anyway) to compress the main points of the book into consumable bits, though as I said, you did a pretty good job.

    Both normative Christians and Jews in modern times have certain vested interests in viewing Paul (ironically) in fundamentally the same way: a Jewish man who turned his back on his heritage, his people, and the Torah and used the teachings of Jesus to create a new religion called Christianity. The Church believes this is a natural outgrowth of the teachings of Jesus and most Jews think it’s an abomination and the origin of twenty centuries of abuse on the Jewish people up to and including the Holocaust.

    Messianic Judaism and its participants have been accused of trying to take the middle ground and make both sides fit together, somehow. This requires refactoring our understanding of Paul to reverse the image he’s had to bear for such a long time.

    But what if Messianic Judaism as a method of study isn’t a compromise but a course correction for both Jews and Gentiles. It’s sort of like we’re playing a game of “do-overs” where we get to got back, at least in terms of Biblical research, and start reading Paul over again, this time without all the nasty baggage he’s accumulated both in Christianity and in Judaism.

    The problem is, baggage has a tendency to cling.

    1. Now that’s a curious metaphor about clinging baggage. I’ve travelled through a number of airports, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen that happen. [:)] There are, of course, alternative analogies using more scatological terms to describe what sticks. Such may be more apt also to suggest the nature of the cleanup required.

      But you’re right about the need to stitch together some things that were torn apart centuries ago (after they will come back from the laundry, of course).

  8. @ Terry, That is how I am growing in my understanding. Apostle Paul is misunderstood by both camps, Jewish and Christian. PL, exactly, Paul’s audience is mostly gentile. In some of his letters he almost repeats the ten commandments: Don’t steal, obey your parents, don’t be covetous, no corrupt communication, etc. except there is no mention of keeping the Sabbath.
    I was raised Baptist, and in my adult pilgrimage attended a ‘Right division’ Bible Church ( ) My Baptist church said that is hyper-dispensationalism. Since I have acquired the internet and began listening to Arutz Sheva, Temple Institute , El Shaddai ministries, my understanding is beginning to see error in both camps. Salvation has always been by grace. It is not law in the Old, and grace in the New. Why do you think Yeshua said to Nicodemus you must be born again? Do you think the Queen of Sheba went back and practiced Judaism? I think she testified the G-d of Israel is the one and only true G-d. The Syrian leper Naaman, testified, “Behold, now I know that there is no G-d in all the earth but in Israel.” And the widow with the barrel of meal, “Now by this I know that thou art a man of G-d, and that the word of the L-rd in thy mouth is truth.”
    Do we see a difference between the gentile and Jew in Yeshua’s time? Yes. When the man that was healed of a legion of demons wanted to go with Jesus, he told him to go back to his people and tell them what G-d has done for him. However, Jewish people were told to go and show themselves to the priests.
    This is getting ‘long in the tooth’ and I am still growing in my understanding.
    Thank you

  9. I am late to the discussion, but would like to respond to the question, “Can Paul’s letters be considered in the same light as Moses’ writing?” In short, I think the answer is no. Jesus is the one given in the Greek text as a type of Moses, (Duet 18:15).

    As I understand, the Hebrew text has a hierarchy of authority beginning with Moses because “The LORD used to speak to Moses face to face, just as a man speaks to his friend,“ (Ex 33:11). The prophets received their revelations in dreams and visions, (Num 12:6-7). As a result, the words of Moses take priority over the words of the prophets, as Moses wrote, “Do not add to what I command you and do not subtract from it, but keep the commands of the LORD your God that I give you,” (Deut 4:2, 12:32).

    The Sages identified that the first book of prophecy began with Joshua telling the people, “ Be careful to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left, that you may be successful where ever you go,” (Josh 1:7). The last book of prophecy concludes with a similar statement from Malichi, “Remember the law of my servant Moses, the decrees and laws I gave him at Horeb for all Israel,” (Mal 4:4). The beginning and ending of the prophetic books are seen to frame the purpose of the prophets, to reminder, reinforce and clarify the teachings of Moses, but to not add or take away from the words of Moses.

    The pattern appears to repeat in the Greek text. Jesus is a type of Moses (Deut 18:15). The comparisons are numerous. In relation to the revelation from the Father, Jesus was from God, had seen the Father (John 6:46, 1:18), and came to reveal the Father, (John 14:9).

    As great as the apostle Paul was, his revelation was still elevated only to the level of the prophetic vision, (2 Cor 12:2), consistent with the prophecy of Joel quoted by Peter, “Your young men shall see visions, and you old men shall dream dreams,” (Acts 2:17). As Paul said of himself, “Now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully,” (1 Cor 13:12). Paul’s desired “face to face” knowledge was the level achieved by Moses and Jesus, but not Paul according to his own words.

    Gentiles tend to place a higher authority on the latest writings, biblical or historical, because we believe the most recent writings incorporate the latest findings. This is not the case with scripture. The greatest authority is derived from the closest proximity to the original source, “the ancient paths”, as Jeremiah said, (Jer 6:16). Without question, Moses is the closest to the original source in the Hebrew text and Jesus in the Greek text.

    When I was growing up, my mom believed that the words of Jesus in red were more authoritative than other words in the Greek text. I used to scoff at the idea because “All scripture is inspired by God,” (2 Tim 3:15). What I have come to appreciate is that my mother was right. Scripture holds degrees of inspiration based on the proximity of the author to the source, the Father.

    I do not completely understand the words of Paul. For example, I do not understand why the word “faith” occurs over 130 times in Paul’s letters, but less than 10 times in the entire Hebrew text. (I think the word “faithful” might be more appropriate in many cases.) The fact that Paul was speaking to a Gentile audience that was not under the same obligations as their Jewish brethren and who were coming out of a pagan society removed from a foundation in scripture probably provides a major part of the explanation as some have noted.

    What I do hold to is a framework that does not give the words of Paul authority over the words spoken by Jesus. Therefore, any interpretation that would invalidate or diminish a clear commandment from Jesus must be a problem with my understanding of Paul. The words of the apostles remain inspired, but their inspiration must be viewed within the framework of Jesus’ words. I know that might sound like heresy to some, but how can the words of one who saw “in a mirror dimly” be held above the words of One Who sits at the right hand of the Father?


  10. I wouldn’t want to count Paul out completely, Scott. He did have two visions of Jesus (Acts 9:1-9 and Acts 22:17-21) and had his own mystic experience where he was “caught up into the third heaven (2 Corinthians 12:2). I certainly think that establishes his cred as a prophet.

    BTW, thanks for reading and commenting on my blog.

  11. James, thanks for your thoughts. I do not mean to suggest that we count Paul out. I only suggest that we view his words with a balance perspective. In my own experience, the Church has historically elevated the words of Paul above all the other authors in the Greek and Hebrew texts. Jews would never elevate the words of any prophet above the words of Moses. In the same way, Gentile believers should hold Paul’s words in tension with the words of Jesus. James, Peter, and the other inspired authors of the Greek and Hebrew texts. I appreciate your blog and your insights.

  12. I tend to agree and I don’t see Paul imagining that his letters would ever equal the Torah let alone trump it. I do agree that historically, the Church has relied heavily on Paul in order to replace Israel with the Church. Unfortunately, Paul can be interpreted to do just that, although once you get into Paul, it becomes apparent that his intension was never to create a new religion called Christianity and use it to replace Judaism.

    I wrote this blog post primarily to respond to an email conversation I’ve had recently with a Jewish friend who is not Messianic (anymore) who was bringing into question the validity of Paul being included in canon. I think if we choose to encounter Paul honestly through his letters and as he’s depicted in Luke’s Acts of the Apostles, he is very challenging and difficult to comprehend at times. Even Peter said (2 Peter 3:15-16) said it was easy to twist Paul’s words.

    Small wonder that both Christianity and Judaism have done just that.

  13. Skip Moen also talks about employing rabbinic interpretation methods to understand Paul. He does this in, “Guardian Angel,” which turns Christian misogyny on its head.

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