The maligned Apostle

The notion that Jesus was a Torah-affirming sage who heavily drew on Jewish tradition is becoming increasingly popular.

the conversion311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
the conversion311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Thanks in no small measure to Jewish scholarship in Israel, an impressive portrait has emerged recently of Jesus as a Torah-affirming Jewish sage who operated confidently within Second Temple Jewish thought, drawing deeply on Judaism’s traditions and concepts. Increasingly, these insights are being incorporated into the mainstream churches.
Would that the same could be said regarding the Apostle Paul! With few exceptions, Jewish scholars and rabbis look upon him negatively – as a “convert” from Judaism to Christianity who forsook Israel and his Jewish heritage, and espoused an anti-Law polemic. Not coincidentally, this distorted image has been proffered by the Church since the fourth century.
Fortunately, the first serious reassessment of the “Protestant Paul” is presently underway by several evangelical scholars.
And it is needed. Consider, for example, the traditional misrepresentations of Paul’s relationship with the Law and Judaism.
As a devout Pharisee by his own testimony, Paul/Saul felt zeal for the Torah, and was confident of his righteous standing with respect to it (Philippians 3:5-6). Even after his encounter with the risen Jesus, he continued to identify himself as a Pharisee (Acts 23:6). He went out of his way to celebrate the Feasts (20:16), and insisted the Torah was “spiritual” and the commandments, “holy, just and good,” and that in which he delighted (Romans 7:12, 14, 22).
We should not be surprised that Paul has been misunderstood and maligned through the centuries. It was so from the beginning! Even Peter commented that “there are some things in [Paul’s writings] that are hard to understand” (2 Peter 3:16). A comment by James also is telling.
In Acts 21:20, James reported to Paul that in Jerusalem many “thousands of Jews” had come to faith in Jesus, and all continued to be “zealous for the Torah” (suggesting that Torah observance was normative for Jewish believers). They had heard (falsely) that Paul taught Jews to “forsake Moses and the customs” of Judaism, including circumcision (21:21).
James suggested a course of action to prove that this was a spurious charge, that Paul did in fact “live in observance of the Torah” (21:24). Paul complied, not out of compromise or duplicity, but because it was true; as a believer in Yeshua he continued in his calling as a Jew to keep the Law and the customs of his people. On three other occasions (Acts 24:14; 25:8; 28:17) he testifies to this significant but oft-neglected truth about himself.
Paul’s actions were consistent with his own “rule in all the churches” (1 Corinthians 7:17-20): namely, that Jewish believers should not “put on the foreskin” (i.e. disguise their circumcision), nor must Gentile believers become circumcised. More than a physical act is implied here. “Circumcision” in the Second Temple period was a shorthand way of referring to the whole package of Jewish identity and obligations.
In other words, he did not require Gentile believers to convert to Judaism (“be circumcised”), nor were Jewish believers – like Paul himself – to abdicate their Torah obligations. They each should remain in their respective callings (7:20).
This Pauline dictum is consistent with the Jerusalem Council’s famous “Apostolic Decree” of Acts 15 – in which the Apostles and church leaders ruled that Gentile believers should not be ordered to be circumcised and keep all the laws of Moses, i.e., to be treated as if they were proselytes to Judaism (15:5, 28-29).
What was not said at that historic Council, however, is equally important to note (as have scholars like Nanos and Wyschogrod). Never in the dispute was the issue raised about the Jews present not keeping all the Torah’s commands, or being released therefrom by virtue of their belief in Yeshua. It was an unchallenged assumption that Torah obligations were still in place for them all, including Paul.
When Church councils in subsequent centuries formally forbade Jewish believers from living as Jews, and required them at baptism to renounce “every rite and observance of the Jewish religion,” they effectively banned Paul of Tarsus from membership! We have suffered the consequences ever since.