For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.
–1 Corinthians 9:19-23
What then is to be done? They will certainly hear that you have come. Do therefore what we tell you. We have four men who are under a vow; take these men and purify yourself along with them and pay their expenses, so that they may shave their heads. Thus all will know that there is nothing in what they have been told about you, but that you yourself also live in observance of the law.
In one of the conversations I’ve had with Pastor Randy at my church, we discussed the activities of Paul as recorded by Luke in Acts 21. Included in some of the questions Pastor brought up was whether or not Paul was being disingenuous by offering to pay the vow price for four men at the Temple to avoid criticism from other Jews (see the quote from Acts 21 above) and that Paul had replaced this devotion for the Torah and for the Temple with faith in Jesus Christ. Interestingly enough, according to D. Thomas Lancaster in his commentary on Acts 21:15-22:30 (see First Fruits of Zion’s Torah Club Volume 6 Chronicles of the Apostles reading for Torah Portion Shemini [“Eighth”] for details), this is exactly what most Christian commentators believe.
Paul’s participation in the sacrificial services proved to the Jerusalem believers that he was not an apostate. Ironically, many Christian interpreters would consider participation in the Temple sacrifice as apostasy from Christ. They excuse Paul’s backsliding into Judaism on the basis that he was pressured into the ceremony by James and the elders. Moreover, Paul himself said, “I have become all things to all men so that I may by all means save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22).
-Lancaster, pg 684
The quote above from 1 Corinthians 9 seems particularly damning, but I want to mention something else first. In order to believe the traditional Christian interpretation of Paul’s participation in the Temple sacrifice, we have to believe that Paul is a terrible liar and hypocrite and we have to believe that James and the Council of Apostles of Christ not only condoned his dishonesty, but actively encouraged him in it.
If these are the sorts of people responsible for writing much of our New Testament, what does that say about the foundations of the Christian faith? Did God really entrust the establishment and dissemination of the Gospel of Jesus to not only flawed human beings (and all the writers of the Bible were imperfect), but deliberately dishonest, hypocritical liars? Do the ends justify the means? Should we emulate the apostles by also lying in order to win a few souls for Christ?
Assuming he’s not also lying in the following quotes, Paul defends himself before his Jewish accusers and the Romans:
Paul argued in his defense, “Neither against the law of the Jews, nor against the temple, nor against Caesar have I committed any offense.”
After three days he called together the local leaders of the Jews, and when they had gathered, he said to them, “Brothers, though I had done nothing against our people or the customs of our fathers, yet I was delivered as a prisoner from Jerusalem into the hands of the Romans.
But then what are we to make of Paul’s own words to the church in Corinth in his first letter to them? What is Paul saying?
According to Lancaster’s commentary (pp 684-6), Paul was saying that he was merely crafting his message for different audiences, not that he was changing his overall behavior, especially in relation to Torah observance. When Paul said “to the Jews I became as a Jew,” it could hardly mean he “became a Jew” since he was already Jewish by birth (although some modern Jews believe Paul was born a Gentile and converted to Judaism). Lancaster states that in Paul saying this, he “only means that, when among Jewish people, he employed that common ground to his advantage” since he “shared with them a common cultural and historical heritage.”
I don’t have a problem believing this. My wife sometimes tells me that Jews today have a particular way of thinking and conceptualizing their world and that communication between Jews takes on a different “flavor” than between a Jew and a Gentile. It is likely that Paul would have presented his language and message within a heavily Jewish ethnic, cultural, national, and religious framework when sharing the good news of Messiah to an exclusively Jewish audience.
But what about when Paul said, “To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law”? First of all, he already said he “became a Jew” so why add the redundancy (supposedly) of saying that he “became as one under the law?” Isn’t he saying the same thing twice and worse, isn’t he saying that he acted like someone under the law but actually wasn’t under the law? Isn’t that clearly being a hypocrite?
Lancaster answers those questions by saying that those “under the law” were not born-Jews but Gentile converts to Judaism or proselytes. That answers the question of why he wasn’t “under the law” if it means he’s not a convert to Judaism (a Gentile proselyte who chose place himself under Torah observance by converting). That seems a little weak, even to me, and I wish Lancaster had cited some sources to back up his claim. Apparently, this is his personal opinion but it does tend to solve why Paul engaged in “redundant language.”
On the other hand, he could have been referring to God-fearing Gentiles who were not proselytes (or who were considering conversion but had not yet made a commitment) but who voluntarily chose Torah observance. We see an example of such a person in Izates bar Monobaz who was a disciple of a Jewish merchant named Ananias and who, because of his royal position, was discouraged by Ananias from converting to Judaism. Izates vowed to observe all of the Torah mitzvot as the Jews do and later on, converted to Judaism, as did his mother Helena of Adiabene.
I also have to wonder about Cornelius, the Roman Centurion, who Peter encountered in Acts 10. In verses 3 and 30, Cornelius is seen or relates that he was praying at the ninth hour, or about 3 p.m. which is the set time for the mincha prayers in Judaism. Although the text doesn’t make it explicit, Peter and his Jewish companions stayed a number of days in the Roman’s household (see verse 48) and so they all must have eaten meals together. Unless you believe (and I don’t) that Peter’s vision (see verses 9-33) convinced him and his Jewish companions to permanently forego kosher foods, then, since there was a synagogue and thus a Jewish population in the largely Gentile community of Caesarea, it is likely that kosher food was available.
Just how many of the laws of Torah did Cornelius adhere to in his life as a God-fearer? We can’t possibly know, but it’s at least compelling to consider the idea that he may have kept a good many of them, as his position in the Roman military allowed.
Returning to Paul’s “those under the law” statement, Paul says he is not like them “under the law” but becomes like them. If Lancaster is right and they are converts, then of course, Paul doesn’t become a convert to Judaism and thus his statement is accurate. He can communicate to them in a way that they would understand in crafting his message specifically for converts (or Torah keeping God-fearers), though.
And what of “those outside the law” (1 Corinthians 9:21)? Lancaster defines them as Gentile God-fearers who do not live by the standards of Torah. If Paul becomes like them though, doesn’t that mean he puts away his Torah observance and eats ham sandwiches and shrimp scampi right alongside them at the lunch counter? Again, Lancaster refutes this and says that, “is not to say he ate forbidden foods or unclean meats, but wherever he had room to budge, he did so.” Lancaster goes on to say (pg 685):
Paul explained that he himself is not “outside of the law,” that is to say that he was not a Gentile God-fearer. Instead, he was under the “Torah of Messiah.” He remained legally Jewish in Messiah, but he bent where he could bend and flexed what he could flex in order to win those who were not Jewish.
Again, that seems a little thin, and again, Lancaster appears to be relying on his own interpretation and does not cite other authorities to back up his claim.
Traditional Christianity would probably jump all over these verses to illustrate that Paul was a behavioral chameleon and that Torah observance meant absolutely nothing to him unless he was talking to fellow Jews. Otherwise, he was under the “law of Christ,” which is to say “grace,” rather than the “Torah of Moses” or the traditional observances of the non-believing Jews.
Is there any other way to understand all this, particularly Paul’s behavior with Gentiles?
The only other way I can think of, and I’m no expert, is to say that Paul, like any good communicator, was able to craft the same message differently for different audiences. I’m a professional writer and that’s exactly what I do when constructing technical information about a software product for technical vs. lay audiences. The Gospels are largely thought to relate more or less the same information to different audiences, with Matthew written to Jews and Luke written to Greeks.
Even in ancient days, Jewish and Greek thought and conceptualization of ideas and actions was fundamentally different, and information about the same events and thoughts had to be constructed in different ways.
That’s how I would read Paul’s “chameleon” statements.
But that’s just me.
However, I also know this about Paul:
But I have made no use of any of these rights, nor am I writing these things to secure any such provision. For I would rather die than have anyone deprive me of my ground for boasting. For if I preach the gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting. For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!
–1 Corinthians 9:15-16
I believe Paul. I believe he’d rather die than compromise his principles. I believe that he was devoted to the Messiah and to the truth of the Gospel. In fact, Paul ultimately did die for his faith, as did Peter, and the other apostles except arguably John. Like the other apostles, Jesus hand-picked Paul for his task and added to that, he did so as a supernatural event, well after Christ’s ascension to glory at the right hand of the Father. If God knows all things, it would be unlikely that such a man as Paul would have been selected if it was known that he was going to fail spectacularly as a liar and a hypocrite.
Yes, all men of God have failed. Abraham failed. Jacob failed. Moses failed. David failed. But not one of them failed in their mission for God. They failed in many human ways, but each successfully carried out the work that God gave them to do. Abraham failed when he lied about calling Sarah is sister (although arguably as his cousin, she could be called his “sister”), but he succeeded in having overwhelming faith in God and in the binding of Isaac. Jacob failed in his many acts of deceit, but he succeeded in fathering and raising the beginnings of the twelve tribes. Moses failed by desecrating God in front of the people when he struck the rock twice, which cost him his entry into Israel, but he succeeded in leading the Jewish nation in the wilderness for forty years as a shepherd leads and protects his flock. David failed with Bathsheba, but succeeded in conquering the Land and vanquishing Israel’s foes as her King.
Paul no doubt failed in many human ways too, but he succeeded in integrity, honesty, and courage, even in the face of death, many times defying opponents for the sake of his gospel and promoting Gentile inclusion in the Way of the Messiah.
If Paul was a liar and a hypocrite, then he only claimed to be serving Jesus. He couldn’t have been a real apostle and disciple. No one behaves so badly and yet serves a God of truth and justice.
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’
If Paul is the man who most Christian commentators (and most Jewish ones as well) believe him to be, then he was a “worker of lawlessness” literally, and a liar, and a hypocrite. If he was all of those things, then his epistles are a sham and we cannot trust them or their writer. If we can’t trust Paul, then most of the New Testament is unreliable. If that’s true, we Christians are in a horrible bind and we have to believe the modern Jews in saying that Paul took the basic teachings of Jesus and perverted them into an anti-Judaic religion, preaching hate of Jews, of the Temple, of the Torah, and of Israel.
That’s not the Paul I know. I’m sorry if you believe otherwise.