Walking to the Temple

Book Review of Paul Within Judaism, “The Question of Terminology: The Architecture of Contemporary Discussions on Paul”

Over the last decade or so, more and more scholars of the New Testament have pointed to the need to re-think the terminology we use in our analyses as well as our teaching. Several terms have been asked to retire, as Paula Fredriksen has phrased it, and leave room for new words and expressions that may help us to better grasp what was going on in the first-century Mediterranean world, a time and culture very distant from our own.

Anders Runesson
from the beginning of his essay
“The Question of Terminology: The Architecture of Contemporary Discussions on Paul”
Paul within Judaism: Restoring the First-Century Context to the Apostle (Kindle Edition)

George Orwell’s famous novel 1984 demonstrates very well that when you control a people’s language, you control how they think. If a population has no word for “riot” or for “liberty,” they will be unlikely to be able to conceive of, let alone operationalize those ideas.

So the words we use in understanding Paul affect how we think of Paul, his writing, his teaching, and how we conceptualize our Christian faith. Even the term “Christian faith” summons particular thoughts and ideas that Paul may not have (and probably didn’t have) in his possession at any time in his life.

It is said that interpretation begins at translation, the words in English (or whatever other language) we use to translate Biblical Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. How we translate the Bible and what terms we use to express “Christian” ideas are part of what Runesson calls the “politics of translation.” This suggests that any attempt to disturb the status quo of how the Bible is translated now and what terms and phrases are included will encounter resistance. If you change the term “Paul the convert to Christianity” to “Paul the Jewish emissary to the Gentiles,” the accompanying image of Paul immediately and dramatically changes.

In his article, Runesson focuses on two terms in English used in Biblical translations: “Christians” (including “Christianity”) and “church.”

He further states:

It will be argued that “Christians,” “Christianity,” and “church” are politically powerful terms that are inadequate, anachronistic, and misleading when we read Paul…

These terms serve the needs of the 21st century church but in doing so, wholly misrepresent Paul the Apostle and everything he ever wrote or taught. Both modern Christianity and modern Judaism receive the same image of the Apostle from this mistaken illustration of Paul, and while the Church hails the story of a Jewish Pharisee who converted to Christianity and taught new disciples to replace the Law with Grace, Judaism reviles him for the same reasons.

In discussing “translating history,” Runesson asks if we are “colonizing the past or liberating the dead?” America is a colonial nation and as we know from our own history, and that of other such empires, one colonizes a “new world” and an indigenous people by subjugating what was there before and reforming it to resemble the colonizing nation and the colonizing people.

If we (Gentile Christianity) have done so with the past, with Paul, with the Bible, then we aren’t interpreting Paul in any accurate manner. Rather than employing exegesis, or taking our meaning of the Biblical text from the original context of that text, we are performing eisegesis or overwriting the text by inserting our own meaning anachronistically and erroneously.

Martin Luther

I mentioned in my previous review some of the historical events surrounding men like Augustine and Luther in terms of their probable motives for rewriting Paul’s history and they aren’t all pretty. In that review, you will recall, I quoted Magnus Zetterholm as saying that it is the Christian Church that must change, that must adjust how it chooses to understand Paul, to be more historically accurate and Biblically sustainable.

Runesson states:

New insights are thus dependent on our willingness to de-familiarize ourselves with the phenomena we seek to understand…

We think we know Paul. We think we know Jesus (Yeshua). We think we are intimately familiar with the late Second Temple period in Roman occupied Judea, not because we read the Bible, but because we listen to the prevailing Christian doctrine about the Bible as preached from the pulpit and taught in Sunday school class.

We don’t truly comprehend how alien that ancient world really was, how few historical facts have survived from that time and place. We want to believe that if Paul miraculously appeared in one of our Evangelical churches today, he would immediately feel at home and provide us with a sermon of unparalleled insight (assuming he spoke a language we understood). In fact, even if he understood our language, he would have absolutely no idea what was going on and probably wouldn’t even understand that we are the descendants of the Gentile disciples he taught.

We need to learn to experience Paul as someone we’ve never met. We need to learn about him from that view. We need to stop creating Paul in our own image and cease colonizing the ancient near east of the Apostolic Scriptures.

As Runesson puts it:

Reconstructing and translating history inevitably begins and ends with language. When we defamiliarize ourselves with texts and other artifacts, we engage in a process of decolonizing the past, liberating the dead from the bondage of our contemporary political identities.

This he calls the “reconstruction of silenced voices.”

So how are we going to change the “architecture of the conversation?”

Terminological edifices are built slowly over time and are not easily torn down. Now-unsustainable scholarly ideas from previous eras influence current discourses…

It might be easier for you to pick up your car with your bare hands and lift it over your head than it would be to change a Christian’s time-honored and “sacred” traditions about the words they/we use to describe Paul.

We need, therefore, to reconsider and discuss not only the conclusions we draw, but also the “architecture” within which we formulate them.

Terminology is pregnant with meaning that often goes unnoticed in the analytical process, which it nevertheless controls from within.

The minute we use a term or set of terms to describe an idea, we have shaped the meaning of that idea, even unknowingly, into something that might be completely foreign to the person who originated that concept.

When we talk about New Testament scholarship in general and Paul in particular, it has been the convention to say that one is studying (earliest) “Christianity” and/or (the early) “Christians.” Already at this point we have framed the shape and thus the likely outcome of the discussion…

new testamentEven the term “New Testament” as contrasted with another term, “Old Testament” creates a dichotomy that doesn’t necessarily exist. I’ve known intelligent, learned, well-read Christian clergy who actually believe the New Covenant (which we find in Jer. 31 and Ezek. 36) is actually synonymous with New Testament. I choose to think of the Bible as being divided into four basic parts: Torah, Prophets, Writings, and Apostolic Scriptures. None of those classifications is designed to divorce one part of the Bible from the other as the terms “Old Testament” and “New Testament” do. They simply classify different areas of emphasis for different sections of our Holy text. If we must “carve up” the Bible, let’s do it without setting one part in direct opposition to another.

Runesson asks if the earliest followers of Messiah would have recognized the “umbrella term” we’ve assigned to them: “Christianity” and their own identity as “Christians” as we comprehend the term today? Would they have understood that when they gathered to fellowship and to worship, they were going to “church?”

Christianity is a religion. But up until a couple of centuries ago or so, “religion” wasn’t a distinct entity that could be wholly separated from other societal functions. So to call the “religion” of Paul “Christianity” or even “Judaism,” as such, is to impose a modern concept on an ancient people. Although there was not one uniform practice of Judaism in the first century world (although according to Rabbi Carl Kinbar, there was a core Judaism that all branches of Judaism agreed upon and variations were then applied), if one was a Jew, one’s lifestyle included the mitzvot in devotion to God (apart from the periodic heretic or two).

Calling Paul a Christian and saying he practiced Christianity is totally anachronistic and forces modern Church concepts on an ancient Jewish Pharisee who saw himself quite differently.

Even acknowledging the existence of the Greek word “christianos” (translated into English as “Christian”) does not mean that how “christianos” was thought of and lived out nearly two-thousand years ago has very much or even anything to do with how Christians think of and live out their faith today. What would a modern Evangelical think if he took a trip in Mr. Peabody’s “Wayback Machine” and found himself in Paul’s “church” in Antioch? How would that Christian navigate through what would (in my mind) undoubtedly be a Jewish synagogue prayer service on Shabbat rather than a Sunday church fellowship?

The most natural point of departure for renewed terminological reflection around who Paul was and how he self-identified would be to speak not of “Paul the Christian” but of “Paul the Jew”; of Paul as someone who practiced “Judaism,” not “Christianity.”

Simply put, “Christianity” didn’t exist while Paul lived in the world. Paul taught about and wrote about and lived out a Judaism called “the Way,” and he applied it to his Gentile disciples as it was relevant to them as Gentiles. He himself was a Jew, a Pharisee, a devout Hebrew, dedicated to the mitzvot, the Temple, the Torah, and Hashem, God of his fathers.

If anyone else has a mind to put confidence in the flesh, I far more: circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless.

Philippians 3:4-6 (NASB)

And as Runesson says:

…that speaking of Paul as a Jew practicing a form of Judaism is a more historically plausible point of departure for interpreting his letters…

And given all that, how do we read and interpret Paul’s letters if we employ this drastically changed paradigm?

Actually, it’s harder than that.

This does not mean, of course, that we should understand “Jewish” in essentialist terms as ahistorically referring to specific characteristics completely untouched by time and culture.


…the observer needs to focus on how “a society understands and represents Jews at any given time and place…”

synagogueSo dropping Paul in a modern Orthodox Jewish synagogue on Shabbat might not be a particularly familiar experience for him either, though he’d have something more in common with the other Jews present than he would a Christian congregation.

We have to answer the question of what kind of Judaism Paul practiced. Only then can we gain a better understanding of what he was writing about in his letters. If we could only view them through his own interpretive lens or through the eyes of his immediate audience, what revelations would we see?

Runesson said that he and Mark Nanos have coined the term “Apostolic Judaism” to refer to the sort of Judaism Paul practiced and taught. How that Apostolic Judaism was lived out by Jews and by Gentiles is our mission of discovery.

Moving on to his discourse on the term “church,” Runesson brings up a point that I’ve written about on more than one occasion. The Old English word which eventually became “church” and originated in earlier Germanic languages wouldn’t be coined for many, many centuries after Paul penned letters mentioning the “Ekklesia” of Messiah. Translating the word “Ekklesia” as “Church” in our English Bibles is not only anachronistic, it is misleading and probably even dishonest.

Ekklesia, at least in Paul’s mind, was probably more closely associated to the Hebrew word “Kahal” than “Church”. It would be better, if we need to use an English word, to translate “Ekklesia” as “Assembly,” which more accurately maps to the first century Greek meaning of the term. Paul didn’t invent “Church,” either the word or the attendant concept. Later Christian Gentiles did that.

Paul never uses the word synagoge, but since ekklesia as a term was applied also to Jewish synagogue institutions at this time, it is instructive to compare how translators work with synagoge in relation to ekklesia.

In modern Bible translations and modern Christian thought, we have created a separate and opposing relationship between church and synagogue. Christians think of synagogue as the polar opposite and negative reflection of church. But this “anachronistic dividing line” is a manufactured artifact of later Church history and has nothing to do with Paul. Paul would have more closely associated Ekklesia and Synagoge in his thoughts than this thing called “church” which had no existence in his era.


Ekklesia occurs 114 times in the New Testament. The NRSV translates all but five of these with “church”…

What Runesson says next supports what I said above:

…the English translation “church” is inappropriate and misleading…

It is more accurate to say:

Paul’s use of ekklesia indicates that as the “apostle to the nations” he is inviting non-Jews to participate in specific Jewish institutional settings, where they may share with Jews the experience of living with the risen Messiah, of living “in Christ.”

Maybe that can be said to be true also of Gentiles who find themselves in fellowship within modern Messianic Jewish community. We are invited to share in a Jewish institutional setting while remaining Gentiles, and “share with Jews the experience of living with the risen Messiah.”

The Jewish PaulWe can dispense with colonizing the past and instead participate in giving a voice to the dead, letting them speak to us again, letting them…letting Paul use his own voice, or as close to it as we can manage.

Runesson concludes his essay with:

The terminology used by the sources themselves invites us to understand Paul as practicing and proclaiming a minority form of Judaism that existed in the first century. Such an invitation is, however, not the end of the research project; it is its very beginning.

I’ll continue my review soon.


16 thoughts on “Book Review of Paul Within Judaism, “The Question of Terminology: The Architecture of Contemporary Discussions on Paul””

  1. Outstanding…

    “The terminology used by the sources themselves invites us to understand Paul as practicing and proclaiming a minority form of Judaism that existed in the first century. Such an invitation is, however, not the end of the research project; it is its very beginning.”

    Deconstructing all our prevailing terminologies and our definition of those terminologies so that would give way to the “Paul’s voice” is absolutely correct, however, but then, what are the resources do we have that can help us deprogram all the nearly 2,000 disconnect?
    This might take ages and tons of efforts to make this happen. Oh man, I think if this is going to be implemented, I think it should be done in a national scale or maybe innumerable congregations involved in a lifetime project…

    And then injecting this new research into the Theology schools will also be big step… I just cannot imagine how this can work out.. Well, if Hashem wills it, I am sure it will be done effortlessly. But just imagining how this can be carried out is just jarring enough.

    Thank you james.. for such an wonderful post.
    I am just 30 year old bachelor but if I do get married one day, maybe to a Messianic Jew, I will task my children to this project.

  2. Chul said:

    however, but then, what are the resources do we have that can help us deprogram all the nearly 2,000 disconnect?
    This might take ages and tons of efforts to make this happen.

    Quite correct. However, those scholars who have contributed to the Nanos and Zetterholm volume are actively in the process of performing such research and making their findings available. Books like Introduction to Messianic Judaism, edited by David Rudolph and Joel Willitts, are great resources both for clergy and laypeople in the church.

    You might also be interested in reading Roy Blizzard’s book Mishnah and the Words of Jesus which compares Yeshua’s teachings with those of Rabbis from 200 BCE to 200 CE.

  3. James…THANK YOU for this excellent summary of Nanos’ latest work and highlighting the key thoughts and newly minted words that can give us voice to explain to our friends about the family (kahal) that God has been shaping for centuries…unfortunately, many of us HAD to experience the “false” before we could truly appreciate and recognize that which is TRUE.

    1. You’re quite welcome, Dee. Actually, although both Mark Nanos and Magnus Zetterholm contributed to the book, they are the editors and have included essays by a number of New Testament scholars, including Anders Runesson, who wrote the article I reviewed today.

      Biblical studies and research are ongoing processes and once we realize that our traditional understanding of Paul is severely flawed, we can go back and re-examine the Apostle within his own context, something that hasn’t occurred in a very long time. I’m excited to read more of the book and to write my subsequent reviews.

  4. Thank you James, I will try reading those two books.
    I hope there can be some translations for other languages of Mark Nanos and other relative scholars so that the people outside of the States can access these kinds of materials so as to tear down anti-semitism within the church also skewed view upon the scripture.

    I am actually living in Korea, where Messianic Movement just begun to unfold and this means that the materials that you can get your hands on is out of reach for many people including myself. Sadly, the RT’s coverage in the church is worldwide and it seems that there are just a handful of christians who are aware of this obnoxious theology, which obstructs our view upon the Scripture. On the other hand, I see a few pastors and other people who love Israel so much that they cleave to One-Law theology and go further down to hate the mainstream churches. Perhaps this can be the trials and errors that we have to go through. I myself have went through that and I think it is a lot more wiser for the people who were removed from their veils of the RT should really follow the steps of the people who continue to walk in this narrow path. In that sense, I am learning much from you James and other online friends of yours..Thank you

    Much Blessings,

    Chul Hwang

  5. This isn’t relevant to this particular review, but on his blog, New Testament scholar Larry Hurtado discusses the Engberg-Pedersen lecture ‘Paul and Stoicism’.

    Hurtado says in part:

    But I wonder if we aren’t missing something else. We don’t know, and (as Engberg-Pedersen granted) it’s unlikely that Paul had ever studied Stoicism or any of the writers connected with it. We do know, however, that Paul was a devout and intensive reader of his Jewish scriptures (the oodles of citations and allusions alone should make that clear). So, isn’t it actually a much more straightforward approach to consider similarities and connections between Paul’s use of “spirit” and the use of the term in those writings?

    Apparently, even at a very high scholarly level, there’s a continued attempt to rewrite Paul’s narrative relative to the Greek/Roman world around him. I think Dr. Hurtado is correct that Paul either didn’t study stoicism (why would he) or it didn’t influence his teachings since, after all, his cultural, historic, and lived context was as a Jew teaching a form of Judaism (“Apostolic Judaism” as Nanos and Runesson have coined the term) to the Gentiles around him.

    I just thought I’d provide the link to the full text of Dr. Hurtado’s blog post for reference in case anyone is interested.

  6. It’s fascinating to see how quickly scholars are moving against centuries of tradition. Like everyone else in this discussion, I’d love to see this move through the seminaries and descend into congregations.

    I will say that, while we’ve discussed how pastors “protect” their flock from thoughts like this, you haven’t even seen resistance until you see unsettled board members/deacons and church members/laity…

    Just as a sidenote – As exciting as this academic revolution is, I’m often almost as excited about how resources are being developed for the common churchgoer who wouldn’t really get academic articles. Things like Hayesod, the Six Elementary Principles book or the upcoming Didache release from FFOZ are great examples of worldview-defining materials. My only wish would be for a bible with succinct glosses on more difficult passages…

    1. There’s quite a bit of distance between the latest Biblical research and the pulpit, William. Pastors preach what they’re taught in seminary and seminaries teach more by what they’ve traditionally taught than by the latest papers published by scholars such as Hurtado, Dunn, Nanos, and Zetterholm. This is really tragic because it means the modern Church doesn’t have access (or doesn’t want to have access) to what I consider more historically and Biblical accurate information, particularly about Paul, whose teachings (as interpreted by Christian tradition) are the foundation of Christian theology. A number of these scholars publish books and articles aimed at the general public so you and I don’t have to be academics to understand what they’re saying. That, and materials published by outfits such as First Fruits of Zion, allow the average believer to explore more recent developments in understanding the Bible. This may lead, in some cases, to a grass roots movement in churches where it’s not the clergy preaching about Paul within Judaism, but the congregation that’s introducing this new information. The trick in this case is to have enough members of the congregation on board and have them be credible to their peers and the Pastoral staff. One lone person (and I speak from experience) entering a church that is very Fundamentalist, tradition-bound, and self-protective against any variable ideas, will never succeed.

      1. Basically, religion is not like science, that continually updates itself and welcomes progress. Religion requires stability and the trust of adherents. Fundamental religion views academia and scholarship with distrust, as well as it has an anti-intellectual bent. Evangelical pastors that are successful generally are talented communicators and socially astute, but likely wouldn’t even be able to understand scholarly work, much less be able to communicate it to their flock, and why should they?

        I believe this scholarship is arriving, “for such a time as this,” as well as those who would translate it for the layman. Now, people have an opportunity to choose to follow a different path that was heretofore closed to them, to choose to, “go up to Zion,” or to remain in ignorance and prejudice, resulting in joining those who are judged. Of course those in power who refuse to see are going to fight back. The idea of protecting one’s flock is not all bad, except that it becomes a paternalism that treats adults like children, protecting them from expanding their horizons and making their own decisions. As with the parables, meaning is hidden from the unworthy.

      2. Just to add that religious groups tend to cherry pick both with science and scholarship; they choose to use research that backs up their beliefs and practices, while censoring and demonizing that which repudiates it.

  7. There are at least two articles by Nanos or approaches of his to topics that look at what Paul is saying as related, in specific cases, to Greek thought [postulating that Paul had some knowledge of it]. I don’t want people to be shocked or confused if they encounter these. Nanos’ point is still that Paul is pro-Jewish, pro-Torah, etc.

    2009e: “Did Paul Observe Torah in Light of His Strategy ‘to Become Everything to Everyone’ (1 Corinthians 9:19-23)?” (Paper presented in the Pauline Epistles section of the Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting, New Orleans, Nov. 22)


    2009b: “Paul’s Relationship to Torah in Light of His Strategy ‘to Become Everything to Everyone’ (1 Corinthians 9:19-22)” (Paper to be presented for New Perspectives on Paul and the Jews: Interdisciplinary Academic Seminar, Katholieke Universiteit, Leuven, Belgium, Sept. 14-15)

    2009a:”When in Rome, Would the Paul of ‘All Things to All People’ (1 Cor 9:19-23) Do as the Romans Do?” (Paper to be presented for Paul and Pauline Literature, International Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, Rome, Italy, July 1)

    ‘Judaizers’? ‘Pagan’ Cults? Cynics?: Reconceptualizing the Concerns of Paul’s Audience from the Polemics in Philippians 3:2, 18-19” (Central States SBL, St. Louis, March 17, 2013)


    Paul’s Reversal of Jews Calling Gentiles ‘Dogs’ (Philippians 3:2): 1600 Years of an Ideological Tale Wagging an Exegetical Dog?” (Paper at Central States SBL, St. Louis, March 25, 2007. Title of lecture at University of Helsinki, Finland, May 14, 2007, and Gothenburg University, Sweden, May 22, 2007)

    [See his site, marknanos.com.]

  8. James and Chaya,

    There’s definitely a gap in religious scholarship’s relationship with the larger Christian church. As you mentioned, Chaya, it’s not like science. Though even with science there tends to be some resistance to large changes in thinking (quantum physics, for example, was not received well by the old guard at first).

    What I find interesting is the seminary structure. Often ideas are entertained in these environs that would be considered heresy elsewhere within the same denomination. For example, seminaries are often looked at with hostility by most evangelicals – out of touch and liberal. Growing up in the Assemblies of God, I definitely saw this dynamic. In other denominations seminary education is almost a requirement for a clergy position and this can, at least in theory, begin to erode some of those barriers.

    I guess this might seem to be starry-eyed individualism. I admit it’s probably limited at best. In my personal experience I have seen more success in the grass-roots process that you mentioned, James. Sometimes it just takes a few of the really hard workers in the church to make a startling impact on a conservative pastor. At least that’s what I’ve seen with two active older saints at a church nearby…

    1. Yes, the world of science is also replete with issues of funding, politics, social acceptance and protection of respected authorities. I don’t believe there is such a thing as pure science, and recently have been learning about how genetic research into the heritability of issues such as mental illness and drug addiction were quashed due to association with eugenics, and the unscientific, “blank slate,” narrative was foisted upon the public.

      Rarely will you see a religious leader admit he is wrong; I am purposefully saying, “he,” as women don’t seem to have as much of a problem with this.

      I am not familiar with what goes on in Christian seminaries, but assume that ideas that may be discussed, “inhouse,” might find the proponents being raked over the coals if they ever let this out to the rank and file. A large part of the evangelical demographic shuns seminary education, and I am aware that the various Pentecostal factions do not even have a seminary; just a bible college, and I am not sure they are accredited. Many evangelical pastors have little or no formal religious education, and perhaps the same with secular education.

  9. As you mentioned, the evangelical church is closed to modern scholarship, but the synagogue, outside Haredi, is open to it, and I have seen articles, such as a recent one by Rabbi Wolpe, that discuss the viewpoint of the first century Yeshua followers.

  10. I personally believe that we don’t love to be corrected particularly in regards to one’s belief as we love to be stable, sometimes worse, stagnant. However, if we are willing to love God than what the correction does to us momentarily (as that sting of moment of truth hurts a bit), that correction will sweep away all the misconception that we unknowingly absorbed. I don’t believe it’s merely a coincidence that the academia preoccupied with unveiling the moment of truth especially in regards to Paul are Jews.

    And as William and chaya indicated, the mutual distrust between the academia and religious institutions such as seminaries, synagogues, churches is severe, however, I think the conversation will come and hopefully the people will receive that correction. Maybe I am generalizing this way too easily and I don’t want to sound as if I got the solution to this, but I really think we need the prayers for this to happen and the actions along with it. Nevertheless, to be honest, I’ve compromised so much within the church that I went with the tide sometimes and believe me, G-D didn’t like me doing that.

    Furthermore, I think the capacity appreciate the difference in opinions and revealing the truth in love is much needed. Especially when our thoughts are in conflict with the other thoughts despite of the fact that
    our thoughts are correct and those of the counterpart are wrong, we tend to get emotional due to the trigger and that severely cripples sending the message across.

    I had the same experience as James did and I also agree James that the speaking up as one lone person doesn’t really help. What is more, our hashfakwa (our definition of belief) might not necessarily be harmonious with the others, as our opinions differ here as we speak. However, I don’t think we should let our difference overwhelm us and discourage us to peeling off the harmful(?) layers of onions. Or simply, maybe G-D might not reveal to the other fellow believers for the sake of safety. I don’t know. However, I seriously believe and I am very much convinced that Hashem would love us having this discussion and our endeavor to the truth. I also know we are not only believers with the mission.

    I hope my message didn’t nag anyone here or it could be just me being way too sensitive to the matter. May Hashem bless all you and keep you.

    P.S. Thank you James, Chaya and William and others for enlightening opinions. My English might be little rusty, however, I hope you can bear that. Love you all in the name of Yeshua


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