It is conventional academic opinion today that the apostle Paul was an authentic, committed Jew, before and after his conversion on the Damascus road. The tenor of the reception that other Jews of his time gave him is, however, striking -- literally. He himself recounts in a letter that, "Five times I have at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I have been beaten with rods; once I was stoned" (2 Cor. 11:24-25). Maybe he wasn't such a faithful or authentic Jew after all. After his conversion, Paul was in the habit of insistently trumpeting his Jewish credentials. He told a crowd of Jews gathered against him, "I am a Jew, born at Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, educated according to the strict manner of the law of our fathers, being zealous for God as you all are this day" (Acts 22:3). As the author of Acts mentions twice, the Jews were momentarily impressed and silenced when Paul addressed them in the holy tongue, Hebrew. In his letters he often boasts of his grasp of the highest levels of Jewish learning: "I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers" (Gal 1:14). The emphasis on his own Jewish authenticity is so insistent that you start to wonder. Consider the apostle's boast that his family came from the tribe of Benjamin. This is hard to believe simply because sometime after the return from the Babylonian exile in 536 BCE such tribal distinctions were lost.
Then there is the doubtful assertion that he knew Hebrew. When he cites the Bible, it is evident that he was consulting the Greek translation, the Septuagint, which does not always adhere to an accurate rendering of the original meaning. If Paul was not sufficiently fluent to read the Bible in Hebrew, then the notion that he was ever a student of the great Gamaliel is called into question. Gamaliel was not a children's Sunday school teacher, but rather the leading sage of his day. Anyone who had studied "at his feet" would by definition also be among the foremost Jewish scholars. That such a person would be able to understand the Bible in its original language should go without saying. But what really outraged so many Jews is that he presented himself as an exponent of their faith, when what he really sought to do was hollow out the accepted meaning of the Hebrew Scriptures, replacing it with a new religion. And what if he succeeded? The urgency of the Jews' distress with him can be explained by reflecting on the Jewish belief that when Jews turn away from God's commandments, the whole community will suffer. Yet for Paul, keeping "the law" -- meaning the whole Torah, including things like keeping kosher and observing Jewish holy days such as Passover, not just the Ten Commandments - was at best optional, possibly even a sign that you had missed the point in your new relationship with Christ. In defending his position on the subject, Paul wrote, "Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law" (Rom. 3:31). But he "upheld" the commandments only in the sense that he believed they had played a useful BUT negative purpose. "If it had not been for the law, I should not have known sin," he wrote. Since he held that it was impossible to fulfill the Torah's commands, the law merely served to make obvious man's inherent sinfulness. Thus he pointed to the need for an alternative mode of achieving salvation: belief in Christ.
Again and again, addressing Christians of Jewish and non-Jewish background, he granted full liberty from the law. "Now we are discharged from the law, dead to that which held us captive" (Rom. 7:6). Christ was "the end of the law" (Rom. 10:4). The opinion current among scholars today, that Paul did not wish to dissuade Jews from keeping the commandments, is thus untenable. From no one's perspective were Gentiles ever "captive" to "the Law," so this could only refer to Jews, who are now "discharged," as one might be discharged from military service. Any discharged soldier who kept showing up for duty every morning in uniform would have to be an eccentric, or a nut. It's pretty clear Paul was saying the commandments were now at an "end" for everyone, including Jews. He presented his ideas as if they were necessitated by the internal logic of the Pentateuch and the prophets. However in the Hebrew Bible, there is no escape clause, no honorable "discharge." How did he reach the conclusions about the Bible that he did? As scholars have observed, Paul began with the assumption that salvation can be found only through faith in Christ, and reasoned from there.He reasoned his way to the belief that Torah-observance was a curse: "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law" (Gal. 3:13). It held the Jews "captive." He described the anguish of trying to keep the commandments: "For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do" (Rom. 7:19). Besides contradicting what Scripture itself said about the accessibility of the Torah - "it is not hidden from you and it is not distant. It is not in heaven, ...nor is it across the sea" -- Paul's attitude would have struck committed Jews as an alien distortion of the experience of observing the commandments. It could only come from the mouth or pen of a person who had never really experienced the life of Torah.
How would a Jew know that anyone who described keeping the commandments as a hardship had never really tried keeping them? In part because the Biblical books speak so ecstatically about Torah, known to Paul as "the Law," about its observance and contemplation. It is illuminating to consider the apostle's depiction of being held "captive" by the "curse" of "the law" in light of Psalm 119: "I will be preoccupied with Your commandments that I love, and I will lift my hands to Your commandments, which I love, and I will discuss Your statutes.. Had your Torah not been my preoccupation, then I would have perished in my affliction.. O how I love Your Torah! All day long it is my conversation.. Therefore I have loved your commandments more than gold, even more than fine gold.. There is abundant peace to the lovers of your Torah." In Paul's day and in our own, Torah-observance looks radically different to those who have only read about it in books than it does to those who have experienced it at first hand. It is no "curse," but rather God's ultimate gift - a source of spiritual refreshment and enlightenment.

One can well see why certain members of the Jewish communities he visited would take umbrage at him, a faker and a subversive, maybe even motivating some hotheads to take action--probably in informal vigilante fashion, rather than as deputies of the official Jewish juridical system--whipping, beating, and stoning him. In seeking to turn Jews away from their traditional relationship with God, a relationship whose grammar was the commandments, Paul was not exactly your nice Jewish boy, but rather a Jew who had decisively left the path of Judaism.

more from beliefnet and our partners
Close Ad