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Paul and Judaism

Paul conceived of his mission to Gentiles as entirely consistent with God’s promises to Israel.

The Apostle Paul
Apostle Paul

For more than 19 centuries, Paul was understood as the champion of Gentile Christianity over and against Judaism. But when modern scholars began to appreciate the vigorous variety of late Second Temple Judaism—and the implications of Paul’s apocalyptic commitments (which allowed for no extended future)—perspectives shifted. Interpretations now run the gamut from Paul against Judaism, to Paul and Judaism, to Paul within Judaism. Where does Paul stand?

Paul initially fought the Jesus movement, but he then joined it (Gal 1:13-24). In so doing, did he leave his ancestral religion, Judaism, for something else? Did Paul “convert”? Not in any usual sense of the word. The most singular Jewish practice—the exclusive worship of Israel’s god—remained the touchstone of Paul’s “Gentile” gospel. Christ, Paul taught, had come to fulfill God’s “irrevocable” promises to Israel as preserved in Jewish Scripture (Rom 11:26-29; see also Rom 15:8). Paul saw his mission to Gentiles through the analogy of working in Jerusalem’s temple (Rom 15:16). All of the building blocks of Paul’s gospel are quarried from Jewish tradition.

When Paul speaks against circumcision, he speaks against circumcision for Gentiles (Letter to the Galatians). When Paul speaks against sacrifice, he speaks against sacrifices to Gentile gods (1Cor 10). When Paul speaks of “justification” apart from the Law, he speaks to and for Gentiles (Letter to the Galatians). When Paul speaks about “the law of sin” and death, he contrasts it specifically with the Law of God, by which he means the Torah (Rom 7:22-24). Only the Jewish Scriptures are God’s “oracles” (Rom 3:2); only Israel’s is a “living and true God” (1Thess 1:9). His “kindred according to the flesh” are God’s “children”; the temple, the covenants, the Law, and the sacrifices (weakly translated as “worship” in the New Revised Standard Version) are all marks of the Jewish people’s God-given special status (Rom 9:3-5). All of these elements constitute Torah.

Paul does insist that Gentiles-in-Christ do not need to “become” Jews (that is, for men, to circumcise, as he says in his letter to the Galatians). But he also insists that baptized Gentiles must assume a singularly Jewish public behavior: they must not worship pagan gods any longer. Depending on the point he pursues, in brief, Paul says both that Gentiles are “free” from the Law and that they must live according to its requirements (see especially Rom 13:8-10).

But why would Paul still live as a Jew if he worked with and for Gentiles? Jews in general did not hold non-Jews responsible for upholding Jewish custom. And Jewish apocalyptic traditions actually looked forward to Gentiles entering the kingdom of God as Gentiles. Paul’s “Law-free” mission was thus, from both of these perspectives, a traditionally Jewish message. The point is this: a Law-free Gentile mission gives us no reason in itself to assume that Paul himself was also Law-free. His teaching Gentiles that they did not have to live according to the Law tells us nothing about his own level of observance. And, as we have seen, the Gentile mission was not exactly Law-free either.

The Gentiles’ inclusion in the Jesus movement was one more proof, for Paul, that God was about to accomplish the “mystery” of Israel’s salvation (Rom 11:25-32). It was only long after his lifetime that Christianity developed into a culture that was in principle non-Jewish, even anti-Jewish. But in his own generation—which Paul was convinced was history’s last generation—the Jesus movement was yet one more variety of late Second Temple Judaism.

  • Paula Fredriksen is the Aurelio Professor of Scripture emerita at Boston University, and Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem. She has authored seven books on Christian origins and on pagan-Jewish-Christian relations in the Roman empire and was a featured speaker in the PBS television special, From Jesus to Christ.