It is common in Christian academic circles to debate whether or not Paul was the "second founder of Christianity" who converted from Judaism to start a new religion. I disagree with this view because I cannot accept the simplistic explanation that Jesus was a loyal Jew, faithful to his people, while Paul was a renegade who canceled the law and preached that the Israel of history had been replaced by the new, spiritual, Israel--the church. Following the argument of Paul-as-renegade, some people also suggest that Paul invented the idea that the Gospel replaces a no-longer-valid Judaism and as such, Paul could be viewed as the first anti-Semite. I completely disagree. I think Paul was something very different--a remarkable and faithful Jew whose vision of unity between Jews and Gentiles stemmed directly from the Hebrew prophets. We know from many scriptural sources that Paul valued his Jewish heritage. When writing of the Torah, Paul used the metaphor of an olive tree, symbolizing the Jewish people and their way of faithfully serving God, as providing nourishment for an engrafted branch, the non-Jews who had come to faith in God through Jesus the Messiah. This means that the root nourishes the branch. It certainly does not render Judaism invalid, and is therefore not "replacement theology," also called supercessionism--the theology that Christianity has superceded Judaism, making it invalid. This 'replacement theology'--a now-discredited idea that dominated church teaching through the centuries and spawned anti-Semitism--maintains that the Israel of the Hebrew scriptures has been replaced by the new Israel. God has revoked his covenants and promises to the Jewish people, and transferred them to the church. It is true that supercessionism and anti-Semitism derive support from the teachings of Paul, but Paul himself was not anti-Semitic. He did not preach the abrogation of Torah or hatred for his people. Many interpreters claim that after his Damascus Road experience, Paul stopped being a Jew or a Pharisee; he stopped observing the commandments. He left Judaism and became a Christian. I believe that this view is seriously mistaken. The Torah continued to have a practical meaning for Paul his entire life. In Galatians 5:3 the apostle declares, "I testify again to every man who receives circumcision that he is bound to keep the whole law." Paul was circumcised--and he would have viewed himself as being bound to keep the whole Jewish law.
Paul wanted Jews who believed in Jesus to keep the Torah and remain faithful to their traditions. He himself continued to observe Torah. (As just one example, it is absurd to think that after Damascus, Paul immediately wanted to eat all the non-kosher foods he had abstained from during his lifetime!) But Paul did not want non-Jews who believed in Jesus to be circumcised or to keep all the ceremonial laws and behave like Jews. Paul believed that to have a group imitate you, especially when they cannot do it properly, is to rob you of your identity. Non-Jews pretending to be Jews would undermine Paul's Jewish identity, which was very precious to him. Scholars often view the center of Paul's theology as a polemic against the Torah--that is, that Paul was somehow saying it's futile to try to achieve salvation based on the works of the Torah. But a careful reading of Paul's teachings refutes this idea. In Romans 3:31, Paul asks a question to clarify his position, "Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law." The preaching of faith does not cancel the Torah. But the traditional interpretations, which have impacted modern English Bible translations, make it so. For instance, the RSV translates Romans 10:4 as, "For Christ is the end of the law, that every one who has faith may be justified." As translated, this verse directly contradicts Romans 3:31. How can he uphold the law by the preaching of faith and at the same time bring about the "end" of the law for every one who believes? Here one should examine the translation of the word telos in Greek--which is translated to mean "end." But the word really means "aim, goal, objective." In Romans 10, Paul is talking about how non-Jews are justified by faith. They are to be included in the people of God. This is the "telos," which is the true "goal or aim" of the Torah. The final objective is to bring all peoples into right relationship with God. So the law still has meaning, especially for a Jewish leader like Paul who lives his life according to halachah. Paul's opponents argued that Gentiles needed to convert to Judaism by being circumcised and obeying the whole Torah in order to be saved (Acts 15:1). Some teachers in Rome wanted to exclude them unless they first converted to Judaism by circumcision, baptism and sacrifice in the Temple ritual.

But in Romans 10, the apostle is arguing for the inclusion of the Gentiles. The Roman teachers were preaching a different Gospel, which Paul argued against in Galatians, Romans, and Acts 15. Paul wanted the Jewish followers of Jesus in Rome toaccept fully the Gentiles coming to faith in Jesus. Paul maintained that the goal of the Torah is for all to be included on the basis of faith.

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus