The Apostle Paul: Interpreter of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles

How does a Christian know what Jesus wants of us? From a traditional Church perspective, the answer is easy. Read the New Testament, that is the Apostolic Scriptures.

So primarily, Christians study the words of Jesus as recorded by four Jewish guys (I’m being way overly simplistic here regarding the source materials of the Gospels) Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, the “Acts of the Apostles,” which is mainly about the life of the Jewish Apostle to the Gentiles, Paul, as recorded by the aforementioned, Luke, and a whole bunch of letters generally attributed to the aforementioned Paul.

But arguably, Jesus taught almost exclusively or exclusively to Jewish audiences. The Gospel of Matthew is definitely written to Jews, while Luke’s Gospel may well have been intended for a wider audience. According to some sources, Acts may have been composed as part of Paul’s legal defense when he appeared before Caesar in Rome (as possibly was Luke’s Gospel), and we have to assume that most or all of Paul’s letters were addressing his Gentile students, although he may have had messages for particular Jewish people or communities as well.

MessiahHere’s one startling thought that occurred to me. For the most part, we can’t really depend on the actual, quoted words of Jesus or Rav Yeshua as a guide to worship and devotion for the non-Jewish disciple.

Why not?

Remember, I said that Jesus primarily or exclusively taught Jews about the true interpretation of Torah and performance of the mitzvot. He was a Jewish teacher teaching Jewish students about the Jewish mitzvot. What does that have to do with non-Jews?

In yesterday’s blog post about the Roman Centurion Cornelius, I mentioned that Marc Turnage in his presentation defined circumcision as the dividing line as to whether or not a person is Jewish, and thus, whether or not a person is obligated to the Torah mitzvot.

Of course, it’s not just circumcision, but a bris (brit milah) performed on a male, either on the eighth day of life for a boy born to Jewish parents, or as part of the proselyte rite undergone by a male Gentile converting to Judaism.

So if Jesus is a Jew teaching Torah to Jews and is not presupposing Gentiles reading his recorded words (let alone trying to act them out), we can’t always rely upon a red-letter edition of the Bible to be the Gentile Christian’s sole guide to a life of holiness.

So what can we do?

What did the vast majority of non-Jews in the diaspora do when they heard the good news of Rav Yeshua? For that matter, who did they hear those words from?

As far as the Apostolic Scriptures are concerned, most of the time, they interacted with the man who Yeshua specifically appointed (in Acts 9) to be the special emissary to the Gentiles, the man known as Saul of Tarsus but who most Christians call the Apostle Paul.

The Jewish PaulPaul had the responsibility of interpreting Jewish teaching so it would apply to non-Jewish lives. That’s no easy task. Well, it might not have been too much of a chore if his audience were Gentile God-fearers who had already spent a lot of time in the synagogue hearing Jewish teachings (see Acts 13:13-43 for example). But he may have fought quite an uphill battle when addressing pagan Gentiles who only knew their own mythology (such as in Acts 14:8-18).

So get this. Paul didn’t teach the Gospel message to the Gentiles in exactly the same way as Jesus taught it to the Jews (which may be why Paul called it “my Gospel” in Romans 2:16, 16:25-27 and in other epistles). Why? Because the Jewish message had to be interpreted and adapted by Paul so it would not only make sense to non-Jewish audiences, but fit their particular legal status in Jewish community. This is really important, since Jews are named subjects of the New Covenant (Jeremiah 31; Ezekiel 36) and Gentiles are not!

From that, we have to understand that the “admission” process must be different for Jews than Gentile initiates. Jews are born into the covenants, all of them, whether they want to be or not. Gentiles are born into no covenant with God at all except perhaps the Noahide covenant (Genesis 9). Our entry, so to speak, must be via a different process with different criteria involved.

I often wonder if this is why more traditional Jewish people don’t mind what Jesus taught so much, but most of them absolutely loathe Paul. Paul, when interpreted through traditional Christian and Jewish lenses, seems not to be teaching Judaism at all, but rather, creating a new religion. For modern observant Jews, this makes Paul a traitor to the Jewish people, and an advocate to the elimination of Judaism (and Jews, even in Paul’s day, also believed this of him — see Acts 21 starting at verse 15).

Ironically, many Christians believe the same thing, that Paul threw Judaism under a bus and replaced it with Christianity, but in this case, that’s considered part of God’s plan and not the ultimate insult to God and the Jewish people (more’s the pity).

bibleNo, I’m not saying that we non-Jews shouldn’t read the Gospels. We really need to get to know our Rav and what he taught. However, we cannot always assume we can apply each and every lesson he taught to Jews about the Torah to ourselves as non-Jews without some interpretation, anymore than we can assume to apply what and how Moses taught the Torah to the Children of Israel to the Church today.

That’s why it is so important to understand Paul correctly, such as they way he is rendered in the Nanos and Zetterholm volume Paul within Judaism: Restoring the First-Century Context to the Apostle.

Although the Apostolic Scriptures record that it was sometimes difficult to teach the Jewish people about the good news of Rav Yeshua, it would have been extremely difficult to get that across to Gentile pagans who lacked a Jewish educational and lived context. That’s why the Apostle to the Gentiles had to be highly educated, multi-lingual and multi-cultural, both a Jew and a Roman citizen. He had to be thoroughly Jewish and yet be able to “talk the talk,” as such, of non-Jewish peoples who lived in a wide variety of religious, cultural, and social venues.

That’s why the job was so hard and required such a unique individual.

But this is (in my opinion) why we modern non-Jewish disciples of the Rav, cannot simply imitate modern Jewish worship practices and performance of the mitzvot and say we understand the teachings of Yeshua and how to respond to them. That’s as erroneous as modern Christians in their churches today saying that Jesus did away with the Law for the Jew and that everyone, including born Jews, must abandon Judaism, Torah, and Talmud and become goyishe Christians in order to be reconciled with God.

WaitingSo how did Paul interpret Jesus for the Gentile? We may never have a solid answer, but I’m convinced that we’ll never get anywhere near that answer unless we’re willing to ask the question.

Ultimately, it may not be as complex as most folks who are “Judaicly aware” imagine. In fact, it might not be that different from what most traditional Christians do now, apart from a specific attitude toward the centrality of Israel (rather than the Church) in God’s plan of redemption.

Please keep in mind that everything I’ve just written I pretty much composed off the cuff. It’s not the result of an exhaustive review of the Bible and associated scholarly literature. If anything, it’s the result of my imagination and a number of years of reading, writing, listening, and learning. I still think the message has merit.

4 thoughts on “The Apostle Paul: Interpreter of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles”

  1. A somewhat related observation.

    There is this tendency that I see arise again and again, wherein Paul is treated as “Moses to the Gentiles.” But the translation is never complete. People are wont, it seems, when we critique Paul to say, “how dare you confute the chosen of G-d to deliver the message to the nations as did Moses to his people!” dovetailing on something PL said previously.

    It’s as though people often forget that Moses was a deeply flawed character himself, striker of the rock, neglecting circumcision to the threat of death, murderer of the Egyptian, hot-tempered, failed revolutionary, all calling into question his motives and if there was bleedover into his delivery. Many sages have suspected that Moses’ fits of pique set a spiritual tenor for his people, leaving him sequestered at the Transjordan buried with his wisdom and his people newly soused in distrust for hegemony before the time of the Judges.

    Having it both ways, Paul, “Moses to the Gentiles,” seems to retain Teflon to similar criticisms when it comes to the Gospel.

    Do you ever spot this Paul-rosy tint or is it just me?

  2. I came to a realisation a few months ago that something was wrong with how the law is viewed. Law (national law included) has certain inherent attributes. For example, All law is by contract. Someone creates a set of rules and another agrees to it.

    At the time of Sinai God made a covenant with the people, set out in a book. That covenant in the book included ten commandments that God had also written on stone. That book was sprinkled with blood along with the people as they agreed to the terms. As time went by they disregarded the covenant they had made until in 800bc God released 9 tribes from the covenant and scattered them throughout the nations. Two hundred years later God released the rest of Israel off to babylon. Before they left Babylon God gave them a new covenant that would take seventy sevens/jubilee weeks to complete, with attributes that had to be completed. After 70 years in babylon God called any who would come back to the covenanted land to come. A few Israelites from all 12 tribes returned to Jerusalem and after finding a copy of the book of the law they rededicated themselves back to God and rebuilt Jerusalem thus initiating the new (Dan 9) covenant.

    Later Jesus turned up and Israel failed to complete the Daniel 9 covenant.

    But the interesting thing was Jesus’ association to the law.
    The law says all those in Israel over 20 must give a temple tax:
    Exo 30:14-16 All who cross over, those twenty years old or more. . . The rich are not to give more than a half shekel (+two-drachma) and the poor are not to give less when you make the offering to the LORD to atone for your lives. Receive the atonement money from the Israelites and use it FOR THE SERVICE OF THE TENT OF MEETING. . .

    Jesus asked Peter who do the authorities take this temple tax from:
    Mat 17:24 After Jesus and his disciples arrived in Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma tax came to Peter and asked, “DOESN’T YOUR TEACHER PAY THE TEMPLE TAX?”
    Mat 17:25 “Yes, he does,” he replied. . . Jesus was the first to speak. . . From whom do the kings of the earth collect duty and taxes–from their own sons or from others?”
    Mat 17:26 “From others,” Peter answered. “THEN THE SONS ARE EXEMPT,” Jesus said to him.

    The temple tax was a requirement of the Law.

    However, Jesus makes it clear that He as a SON OF GOD is EXEMPT from the Law.

    But by nailing Jesus to the cross Israel again released themselves from that covenant also. When the seventy sevens/jubilee weeks were completed this release opened the door to the gentiles.

    But God himself did not make any covenant himself with the gentiles. God stepped back and gave all authority in Heaven and Earth to His Son Jesus and Jesus made a new covenant. This covenant didn’t have anything to do with the covenant that God had made with Israel earlier. This covenant was an extension of the Promises to Abraham and was based on Love, mercy and Faith and was open to all 12 tribes of Israel and the Gentiles. That was the new covenant’s focus.

    But remember at the time that God had contracted with Israel in Sinai, with the rules within the book, God also wrote a Law on Stone. Paul shows that it was this particular law that brought death.

    2Co 3:7 Now if the ministry that brought death, WHICH WAS ENGRAVED IN LETTERS ON STONE, came with glory,
    2Co 3:13 We are not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face …
    2Co 3:14 … to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. It has not been removed, BECAUSE ONLY IN CHRIST IS IT TAKEN AWAY.

    In no way is Paul saying this particular Law is done away with. Paul is showing that the true meaning of the law is ever present in our hearts through Christ being in us.

    Rom 7:7 What shall we say, then? Is the law sin? Certainly not! INDEED I WOULD NOT HAVE KNOWN WHAT SIN WAS EXCEPT THROUGH THE LAW. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, “DO NOT COVET.”

    Do not covet is from the law on the stone.

    No-one is contracted to this law but this law shows us what God himself identifies sin as. But as we are not contracted to this law we are able to place Love, mercy and Faith as the glasses used to view this law. Thus the Spirit of the law.

    Anyway, that’s just my off the cuff thoughts.


  3. I find that Pauline Christianty is far different than Pauline discussions of becoming of Disciple of Yeshua, who was a Hillelite Pharisee for the most part, as Shaul was, having been taught by Hillel’s grandson, Gamaliel. Indeed, Shaul did ask people to keep the traditions he had shown them, and to follow him, Shaul, as he followed Yeshua.

    Christians that adore the message they hear preached in Christian Churches that misuse Shaul’s writings by them being taken out of context, or indeed by missing much of Shaul’s sarcastic attacks on the Shammaite Pharisees who were Believers in Yeshua, but were of the ‘Circumcision’ party, adore that message because they are only getting about half the information they need to understand, and do not become good Bereans to study the Scriptures of Paul’s times…the Tanakh, nor will they investigate what fully observant Messianic Jews have to say on the subject. It is a pity that the Christian Church has only about half the information they need to become God Fearers, much less Disciples of Yeshua. They need the Talmud as well if only for the discussions of many of these things by the Hillelite Pharisees that mostly survived the Shammaite Pharisees, who were mostly out of power in Judea, and mostly dead as well by AD 70.

    There have been times when Christians I have known in the past seemed to reverence Shaul’s teachings above Yeshua’s teachings, not realizing that they were both teaching Hillelite Pharisaic Judaism, while both fought vehemently against the School of Shammai in Phariseeism and the Eighteen Edicts the School of Shammai was propagating in about 8 AD, since they were so obviously against any contact with Gentiles, and indeed, anyone who they did not feel was as righteous at they were, and would make those same Shammaite Pharisees unclean. It is they that Yeshua disagreed with, calling them vipers and what not.

    What is not seen clearly by many reading the Pauline Letters is that Shaul was telling Jews how to be better Jews in the Hillelite Pharisaic manner with their trust in Yeshua, and Gentiles to do all that a Ger Toshav does with their Trust in Yeshua, but in terms they could understand as Greeks, and not by the following of all of SInai Covenant. There is so much information that we Gentiles are not being taught before we go out to teach others that horrible mistakes are made even with those that simply want to be like the Jesus they are taught about in their Churches. Unfortunately, the word pistus does not translate well to modern day Christians, who are caught up in the belief and faith portion of a good Christian (Sola Fidelis, Sola Gratias), without the doing part of the Believing and Faithing portion of the mitsvot within the Torah that do apply to a good Messianic Gentile.

    Nearly all of the misunderstood stuff in the writings of Shaul tend to be in his speaking about Shammanite Pharisaical Jews, who were the ones who required circumcision to be saved, wouldn’t even speak to Gentiles lest they become unclean, and so forth. The 18 Edicts that the Shammaite Pharisees were attempting to force on the entire Jewish People was the heavy yoke that was being placed on the Jewish people, and what Yeshua was so distinctly against, and Shaul as well.

    But do most Christians actually sit and read large portions of Shaul’s letters, and compare them to the Gospels and the Tanakh? I think they live on snippets of text given out of context by their Pastors, and are thus terrible misled.

  4. @Drake: Paul as “Moses to the Gentiles,” eh? I’d never thought of him in those terms but now that you mention it, I can see how a lot of Christians might have that idea. One major difference is that Hashem chose Moses from among his own people Israel (though he was rised apart from them) to save them, while Paul was sent out of his own Jewish people to preach the good news to the Gentiles. There is some overlap in that both Moses and Paul had “bi-cultural” experiences, but their targets were opposite, with Moses operating within Israel and Paul operating outside of it (but never leaving Israel or being a Jew).

    No one in the Bible is perfect, and some of God’s strongest leaders and teachers were incredibly flawed. Consider David and his affair with Bathsheba which resulted in the murder of Uriah. Not only is David called “a man after God’s own heart,” but Bathsheba is merited with being the mother of Solomon, the heir to David’s throne and the King who build the Temple of Hashem in Jerusalem.

    So yes, Paul had his “rough spots” just like any other God-appointed teacher and prophet in Israel. But his mission was unique. God almost always had sent judges, teachers, and prophets to Israel with the message of repentance. With Paul, Hashem extended His plan of redemption forward toward New Covenant times in preparation of Messiah’s return.

    All the Church has to hang on to is Paul, which is probably one of the reasons why Christians so revere him. Christianity also sees Paul as their founder, the man who preached against the Torah, the Temple, and Judaism, which is another reason Christians appreciate Paul for “bringing them out from under the Law” (and also the reason why Paul is generally reviled in Judaism).

    Paul has been misunderstood by almost everyone, which is why I think books such as the one edited by Nanos and Zetterholm are so important.

    @Vic Man: First of all, thank you for visiting my blog, reading my content, and commmenting. I appreciate it.

    However, if you’re suggesting that God annulled His covenant with the House of Judah and the House of Israel, I must disagree. The New Covenant (Jeremiah 31; Ezekiel 36) does not replace the Sinai covenant or any of the other previous covenants. Covenants are additive and if anything, the New Covenant language augments the Sinai covennant. Even Jesus said he didn’t come to change anything in the law but to uphold and reaffirm it (Matthew 5:17-20).

    Jesus came the first time to illustrate that the promises of the New Covenant were true and as such, to usher the very beginnings of the covenant promises into our world. However, those promises will not be completely fulfilled until his second coming. In the meantime, we non-Jews, through God’s grace and mercy, have the opportunity, not to be obligated to the Sinai covenant and the Torah of Moses, but to benefit from some of the promises of the New Covenant, such as the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, the promise of the resurrection, and a place in the world to come, the Messianic Kingdom of God on Earth.

    God promised repeatedly that he would redeem all of Israel (see Romans 11:25-27 for example) and through Messiah, He will. Once Messiah redeems Israel and ascends his throne, he will also redeem the remnant of the nations, that is, believing Gentiles, and together, we will be King Messiah’s subjects prospering in an era of peace and tranquility.

    I don’t see how you believe Jesus as the Son of God, is exempt from the Torah mitzvot since he kept them all flawlessly. Plus, post-ascension, we see the Jewish believers continuing to obey the mitzvot (Acts 10; Acts 21 for example) while not requiring the Gentile believers to do so (Acts 15, the Epistle to the Galatians).

    I don’t expect you to agree with me, which is fine. The world of religious blogging is full of differing theological and doctrinal opinions. You might want to have a look at my multi-part review of this lecture series on the New Covenant in order to understand my perspective in more detail (and to keep me from repeating what I’ve already written).

    The New Covenant is a very wonderful thing, but it’s not what we’ve been taught in church.

    @Questor: I agree that there is a lot of misunderstanding of the central messages of both Yeshua and Paul relative to Christianity. As I mentioned to Drake above, the Church think Paul “invented” the Christianity they know (however, that didn’t happen until the time of the Church fathers after Paul had died), and they lump the teachings of Paul and Jesus together as if they were both addressing the same audience: the Gentiles.

    However as I said in my blog post, Yeshua and Paul had two different audiences and two differing though overlapping goals. Rav Yeshua had to send Paul to the Gentiles because, with only the Gospels (which hadn’t been written yet), assuming any Gentiles became disciples of the Messiah, they would probably have believed it was necessary to convert to Judaism in order to follow Yeshua.

    Paul had to interpret and craft a message that encapsulated the Torah as interpreted by Yeshua and adapt all that so it would apply to a Gentile population who would never be required to convert to Judaism and observe the majority of the mitzvot, or at least those portions that specifically identify one as a Jew.

    But Christian misunderstanding, based on centuries of hermenutic tradition, have left the Church believing that every single word in the entire Bible, even those portions that only directly address Israel, are meant for them/us as well. That’s why having a “Judaicly aware” perspective makes Bible study so much more interesting and challenging.

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