By: Terrance Callan
The letters of Paul frequently refer to the Law and the Jewish people, but it is not easy to understand what he is saying about them. This difficulty arises largely because Paul wrote letters. Each letter is half of a conversation which can be understood only by reconstructing the other half, mainly on the basis of the letter itself. There is always more than one way to do this. And taken together, Paul’s letters do not constitute a systematic presentation of his thought; rather, they are halves of a series of conversations with different groups at different times. These must be synthesized by the interpreter, and again there is more than one way to do this.
Despite, or perhaps partly because of, this difficulty, understanding what Paul says about the Law and the Jewish people has always fascinated readers of his letters. And this has become a principal focus of Pauline scholarship in recent years. Thus far (as we will see) various interpretations have been proposed, and none has been universally acknowledged as satisfactory However, there is widespread agreement among scholars on certain points.
One point which now seems clear to most scholars is that Paul rarely speaks directly about non-Christian Jewish people in his letters. Paul’s letters were written to Christian communities that were largely made up of Gentile converts to Christianity, though they also included Jewish converts to Christianity (at least in some cases). And when Paul speaks about the Law and the Jewish people in his letters, he generally does so in an attempt to persuade his Gentile converts to Christianity not to take up Jewish practices. The suggestion that they should adopt Jewish practices has come from other Christians, either Jewish converts to Christianity or Gentile converts who themselves have adopted Jewish practices. Thus, what Paul says about the Law and the Jewish people is a contribution to a discussion which is occurring within the Christian Church. This Church is composed of both Jewish and Gentile converts to Christianity, and it is split over the question of how far it is appropriate for Gentile Christians to keep the Jewish Law. Paul is aligned with those who say that Gentile Christians should not keep the Jewish Law, and against those who argue the contrary. This position may have implications for non-Christian Jews, but is not directly concerned with them.
Another way of putting this is that Paul’s letters derive from a very different context than the one in which we read them today. Today the Christian Church is almost exclusively Gentile, and the question of whether or not Gentile Christians should keep the Jewish Law is hardly a live one. We spontaneously read Paul’s letters as though they speak directly to our situation in which the Gentile Christian Church and the Jewish people face one another as separate entities with a long and troubled history of mutual interaction. The single most important thing for us to realize in trying tc understand what Paul says about the Law and the Jewish people is that his situation was very different from ours. He himself is a Jewish Christian; the Church of his day was made up of Jews and Gentiles; and he tries to resolve a question which we have laid to rest (partly because of Paul’s efforts).
Paul on the Jewish People
Although it is true that in general Paul does not speak directly about non-Christian Jewish people, there are at least two passages in his letters where he does speak directly about them.
1. Romans 9–11
The most important of these passages is Romans 9–11. In his Letter to the Romans, Paul concludes a lengthy argument that Gentile Christians should not keep the Jewish Law by speaking about non-Christian Jews One reason for this may be that the Christian community in Rome seems to have included a sizeable number of Jewish Christians.
Paul begins this section with an expression of his anguish at the fact that many of his fellow Jews have not believed in Christ. (Some understand this anguish as caused by something other than not believing in Christ, as we will see below). He says, “For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen by race” (9:3). But as he continues his discussion, it becomes clear that the biggest problem which their unbelief raises for him is the possibility that “the word of God [has] failed” (9:6), i.e., that God has not succeeded in saving the people of Israel by sending Jesus as Messiah. Paul then goes on to argue that the unbelief of some Jews need not mean that the saving plan of God has failed. The history of Israel shows that God has always chosen some and rejected others (9:6-29); God could now have chosen those Jews who believed in Jesus and rejected those who did not. This leads Paul into a discussion of why some Jews have not believed in Jesus (9:30–10:21). He attributes their unbelief to a failure to understand God’s purposes. He says, “I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but it is not enlightened” (10:2).
Paul now returns to the possibility he himself had earlier suggested, i.e., that God has rejected those Jews who did not believe in Jesus. At this point Paul emphatically rejects this suggestion. “I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means!” (11:1). This makes it clear that the earlier argument was incomplete. It would be possible to show that the unbelief of some Jews did not mean the failure of God’s plan of salvation by supposing that God had rejected them. However, this is not Paul’s actual solution to the problem. His actual solution is that the unbelief of some Jews was part of God’s plan. Mysteriously, God intended this in order to extend salvation to the Gentiles; and after the salvation of the Gentiles has been accomplished, all Jews will also be saved. Because of this, Gentile Christians should not consider themselves better than non-Christian Jews. (This concern also surfaces in Eph 2:11-22). As Paul says, “Lest you be wise in your own conceits, I want you to understand this mystery, brethren: a hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of the Gentiles come in, and so all Israel will be saved” (Rom 11:25-26). This is Paul’s definitive statement about non-Christian Jews. Because “the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable,” (11: 29) God will surely save all Jews, those who have believed in Jesus and those who have not.
2. 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16
The other passage in which Paul speaks directly about non-Christian Jewish people presents a somewhat different picture. In this passage Paul says that the Thessalonian Christians have become imitators of the Christian Churches in Judea. They have imitated them in accepting the Gospel which Paul preached as the word of God (cf. 2:13) and in remaining faithful to it despite opposition from their countrymen (v. 14). Paul then comments on the non-Christian Jews who opposed the Christians in Judea, saying that they “killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out, and displease God and oppose all men by hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles that they may be saved—so as always to fill up the measure of their sins. But God’s wrath has come upon them at last” (vv. 15-16).
This is a very different perspective on non-Christian Jews than the one we find in Romans 9–11. It even includes elements which later contributed to Christian anti-Judaism, notably the accusation that the Jews killed Jesus. Mainly because of the tension between this passage and Romans 9–11, many scholars propose that 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16 was not originally part of Paul’s Letter to the Thessalonians, but was added later by someone else. Another possibility is that Paul changed his mind in the course of time. 1 Thessalonians is the earliest letter of Paul which has survived; Romans is one of the latest. Paul’s view of non-Christian Jews might have changed between the composition of 1 Thessalonians and the composition of Romans.
However, it is important to realize that the tension between Romans 9–11 and 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16 is not as great as it might first seem to us. Although Paul ordinarily uses the word Ioudaios to mean members of the Jewish people wherever they live, in this context he uses the word more restrictively. He is comparing the treatment which the Thessalonian Christians have received from their countrymen with the treatment which the Churches of God in Judea have received from the Ioudaioi. It is clear that Ioudaioi here means primarily Judeans, not all Jews everywhere.
Further, the meaning of the sentence which the Revised Standard Version translates, “God’s wrath has come upon them at last,” would be more accurately reflected by the paraphrase, “The wrath (of the last day) has drawn near to them in the end.” It is true that this sentence literally says that wrath has already come upon them. But Paul also refers to this wrath in 1 Thessalonians 1:10; 5:9; and in these passages it seems clear that this wrath still lies in the future. However, with the arrival of the Messiah, the last day has begun to dawn, and Paul can say that both the righteousness and the wrath of God have been revealed (Rom 1:17-18). What this means is that the coming of the Messiah has now made it clear that acceptance of the Messiah means righteousness before God, and that non-acceptance of the Messiah leaves one liable to wrath. In this sense wrath has drawn near to the Judeans who opposed the Gospel.
In his discussion of non-Christian Jews in Romans 9–11, Paul considers the possibility that God makes use of them to show forth wrath (9:22). As we have seen, he ultimately rejects this possibility in Romans 9–11. Perhaps a similar clarification is taken for granted in 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16, but is left unspoken because Paul is not mainly concerned here with the situation of non-Christian Jews. However we interpret 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16, we must remember that Romans 9–11 is Paul’s final statement on this matter and should take precedence over 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16 in any reconstruction of what Paul says about the Jewish people.
Paul on the Jewish Law
Although Paul rarely speaks directly about non-Christian Jewish people, he often discusses the Jewish Law. One of the main themes of his letters is that Gentile Christians should not keep the Jewish Law. This is the principal argument of Paul’s Letters to the Galatians and Romans, and an important element of his Letter to the Philippians. We also find this theme in the Letter to the Colossians, which may not have been written by Paul.
It seems quite likely that Paul’s argument that Gentile Christians should not keep the Jewish Law would reveal Paul’s view of the Law, and perhaps indirectly of non-Christian Jewish people. However, we must keep two things clearly in mind. The first is that Paul discusses explicitly only the case of Gentile Christians and the Law. He never says clearly whether or not Jewish Christians should keep the Law, and certainly never addresses the issue of non-Christian Jews and the Law. This means that we do not have Paul’s complete view of the Law, but can only infer it with some caution from his argument that Gentile Christians should not keep the Law.
The second thing we must keep in mind is that the reason why Paul believes that Gentile Christians should not keep the Jewish Law is not entirely clear. In fact it is currently among the topics most debated by scholars. One reason for this unclarity is that in addition to arguing that Gentile Christians should not keep the Law, Paul can also speak favorably about keeping the Law (e.g., Gal 5:14; Rom 13:8-10). Another reason for this unclarity is that Paul presents different arguments in support of his contention that Gentile Christians should not keep the Law. Unless Paul’s view of the Law is inconsistent, only some of these arguments express the reason why Paul believes Gentile Christians should not keep the Law; the others are supporting arguments. The way we construe Paul’s argument determines to a great extent what implications we will see in it for a view of the Law and of non-Christian Jewish people. Recent scholarly discussion has produced at least five different ways in which we may understand Paul’s argument that Gentile Christians should not keep the Jewish Law.
1. The Qualitative Interpretation
Many have understood Paul’s argument that Gentile Christians should not keep the Jewish Law as based on the inherent character of the Law. The very existence of a religious law seems to imply that human beings can achieve righteousness, and so qualify for salvation, by their efforts to keep the Law. Paul, however, thought that righteousness was possible only as a gift from God. Thus there was no place for any effort to achieve righteousness, or for the Law which would guide such efforts. Paul seems to express this sort of critique of the Law when he refers to himself as “not having a righteousness of my own, based on law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith” (Phil 3:9).
If this is Paul’s basic reason for arguing that Gentile Christians should not keep the Jewish Law, then he obviously finds the Law itself deficient, at least in the sense that human beings inevitably misuse it. And it hardly seems that Paul could view positively those Jews who try to keep the Law, whether they are Christian or non-Christian. When the Law is regarded in this way, anyone who tries to keep it seems to have misunderstood God’s will in a fundamental way.
Until recent times this has been the dominant understanding of Paul’s argument that Gentile Christians should not keep the Jewish Law. It is still espoused by influential scholars such as E. Kasemann. In itself this understanding of Paul’s argument makes sense, and there clearly are passages in Paul’s letters which seem to support it. However, for two reasons many scholars today consider it unlikely that this interpretation goes to the heart of Paul’s argument. First, as E. P. Sanders has argued at length, first-century Jews did not regard the Law as a means by which they could be righteous before God by their own unaided effort. In Jewish thinking keeping the Law was combined with reliance on God. Of course, there probably were individual Jews who tended toward self-reliance, but this was not characteristic of the Jewish people as such.
Even if this is so, it is possible that Paul came to see the Law as intrinsically connected with self-reliance. However, most of those who have interpreted Paul’s objection to the law along these lines, have supposed that self-reliance was characteristic of Judaism in Paul’s day. If it was not, we must explain in some way how Paul came to this understanding. This understanding itself is not the ultimate basis of Paul’s argument.
Second, even if Paul does criticize the Law as an instrument of self-reliance, this does not seem to be his most prominent concern about the Law. As K. Stendahl has argued, Paul is more concerned about the way the Law affects Gentile participation in God’s salvation of Israel. Other interpretations of Paul’s argument that Gentile Christians should not keep the Jewish Law do greater justice to this concern.
2. The Quantitative Interpretation
Another common interpretation of Paul’s argument that Gentile Christians should not keep the Jewish Law sees it as based on the view that it is impossible to keep the whole Law. Since one cannot keep the entire Law, an attempt to do so is certain to be unsuccessful and thus to result in one’s being liable to punishment for failing to keep the Law. Paul seems to express this understanding of the Law when he says: “For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law and do them’” (Gal 3:10).
Like the qualitative interpretation, the quantitative interpretation of Paul’s argument that Gentile Christians should not keep the Jewish Law implies that the Law is inevitably deficient whenever human beings actually try to keep it. Because reliance on the Law can only lead to condemnation, it seems that Paul could only view negatively those Jews who try to keep it, whether Christian or non-Christian.
This interpretation of Paul’s argument that Gentile Christians should not keep the Jewish Law is often combined with other interpretations. For example, H. Hübner understands Paul’s argument in Galatians as quantitative, and his argument in Romans as qualitative. However, many scholars today doubt that this interpretation goes to the heart of Paul’s argument, and for the same reasons that doubt has arisen about the qualitative interpretation. Neither does justice to Paul’s concern for the participation of Gentiles in God’s salvation of Israel, and neither reflects the understanding of the Law current in Paul’s day. Moreover, not only is the view that it is impossible to keep the whole Law not a common view among first-century Jews, even Paul does not maintain it consistently. In Philippians 3:6 he describes himself in these words: “as to righteousness under the law blameless.”
3. The Retrospective Interpretation
Because of the problems with the qualitative and quantitative interpretations, others have proposed a very different understanding of Paul’s argument that Gentile Christians should not keep the Jewish Law. E. P. Sanders has proposed that Paul’s argument is not based on a problem with the Law, but rather on the implications of faith in Jesus. In other words, before he became a follower of Jesus, Paul saw no problem with keeping the Law. But after he became a follower of Jesus, his faith in Jesus implied that it was not appropriate for Gentile Christians to keep the Law. Paul believed that Jesus had been sent by God to save all, Gentiles as well as Jews. But the very sending of Jesus implied that the Law could not lead to salvation; if the Law could provide salvation, the mission of Jesus was unnecessary. Thus there was no reason for Gentile Christians to keep the Law, and attempting to keep it would seem to imply doubt about the sufficiency of faith in Jesus. Paul expresses this view when he says, “if justification were through the law, then Christ died to no purpose” (Gal 2:21).
According to Sanders, then, becoming a follower of Jesus led Paul to conclude that the Law was not necessary for salvation. But this required him either to argue that the Law was not from God (something he could not do as a Jew) or to explain why God gave the Law. And Paul explains that God did not give the Law so that people might keep it and be righteous before God. God gave the Law, knowing that people could not keep it, in order to prepare them to accept salvation through the mission of Jesus (see Gal 3:19-25; Rom 5:20-21).
Thus Sanders argues that Paul does not reject the Law because of qualitative or quantitative problems. But having rejected the Law because of the implications of faith in Jesus, Paul supports this by retrospectively viewing the Law as deficient. Paul begins with the conclusion he wants to reach and develops a variety of arguments for that conclusion. The center of Paul’s thought about the Law is the incompatibility of the Law and faith in Jesus. Everything else Paul says about the Law supports this. Scholars who interpret Paul along these lines differ concerning the degree to which Paul’s view of the Law is consistent. Paul’s explanations of the purpose of the Law do not seem fully consistent, nor do his positive and negative statements about the Law. Sanders considers Paul’s position coherent, though unsystematic; H. Räisänen argues that Paul is simply inconsistent.
If we understand Paul’s argument that Gentile Christians should not keep the Jewish Law as based on the implications of faith in Jesus, then it is possible that Paul finds nothing wrong with the Law at all. It could not bring salvation, but within its limits, it may be entirely good. And this would mean that Paul could regard positively the Jews who try to keep the Law. Because salvation comes from faith in Jesus and not from keeping the Law, Paul would regard non-Christian Jews as missing something essential. But he might have no problem with Jewish Christians who both keep the Law and believe in Jesus.
It is true that according to this view Paul sees the Law as having a negative purpose, and this in turn might have negative implications for his view of those who keep the Law. But if Paul’s explanations of the purpose of the Law are supporting arguments, and not the center of Paul’s thought about the Law, it is easy to suppose that they are limited, partial statements about the character of the Law, which would be supplemented by other perspectives if Paul were giving a full account of the Law and not trying to dissuade Gentile Christians from keeping it.
4. The Sociological Interpretation
J. D. G. Dunn has argued that the retrospective interpretation (and presumably others as well) finds Paul’s treatment of the Law inconsistent because it does not take sufficient account of the social function of the Law. Dunn argues that keeping the Law, and especially circumcision and the food laws, served the social function of establishing the identity of the Jewish people and marking the boundary between them and other groups. But Paul believes that God is God of all, Jew and Gentile, and that Jesus was sent to save all. To require Gentile Christians to keep the Jewish Law is to require them to become Jews, implying that God is God of Jews only. To avoid this implication Gentile Christians must not keep the Jewish Law, thereby becoming Jews. Paul expresses this view when he says, “Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one; and he will justify the circumcised on the ground of their faith and the uncircumcised through their faith” (Rom 3:29-30). But if Paul objects to the Law only as something which divides Jew and Gentile, he can still affirm the need to keep the Law. Both Jew and Gentile must keep the Law, but in such a way that it is not a barrier between them. In practice this means that circumcision and the food laws must be seen as matters of indifference. In this way Dunn reconciles Paul’s positive and negative statements about the Law and argues that his treatment of the Law is consistent.
This understanding of Paul’s argument that Gentile Christians should not keep the Jewish Law implies that Paul rejects only part of the Law, i.e., circumcision and the food laws, and is favorable toward the rest. If so, it seems that he would regard positively all who tried to keep the latter part of the Law, both Jew and Gentile. But he would regard negatively all who thought it was important to circumcise and keep the food laws. This would include most Jewish Christians and non-Christian Jews.
Although Sanders himself is aware that Paul finds the Law incompatible with faith in Jesus because of the inclusion of Gentiles in the Christian community, Dunn has emphasized this point and developed it in a helpful way. However, it seems unlikely to me that Paul is arguing only that Gentile Christians should not be circumcised and keep the food laws. It seems most likely that Paul, like other Jews, regards the Law as a unity which must be kept in its entirety. In arguing that Gentile Christians should not keep the Law, he argues that no part of it is binding on them. Of course, this means that there is at least some tension between Paul’s positive and negative statements about the Law.
5. The Restrictive Interpretation
All of the previously discussed interpretations of Paul’s argument that Gentile Christians should not keep the Jewish Law imply an understanding of the Law and a view of those who keep it which is negative in some degree. Recently however, L. Gaston, followed by J. Gager, has proposed that Paul’s discussion of the Law is exclusively concerned with the relationship of the Law to Gentile Christians and says nothing about the Law in itself, or about those who keep it. No single passage expresses this view directly, but Gaston and Gager argue that it underlies everything that Paul says about the Law. When understood in this way, Paul’s argument is compatible with the view that Jews are saved through the Law. This provides a simple explanation of Paul’s positive statements about the Law. According to this view, Paul’s only critique of non-Christian Jews is directed against their refusal to accept that God is saving Gentiles through Jesus apart from the Jewish Law. In Romans 9–11 Paul is concerned with this refusal and not with lack of faith in Jesus.
Obviously, this way of understanding Paul’s argument that Gentile Christians should not keep the Jewish Law is the most attractive in its implications (or rather, lack of them) for Paul’s view of the Law and the Jewish people. Understood in this way Paul says nothing negative about the Law in itself, and there would be no reason to suppose that he regards negatively the Jewish people who try to keep it. Paul is exclusively concerned with the way God has chosen to save Gentiles. All Jews need do is acknowledge that God is saving Gentiles in this way.
This proposal is revolutionary, and it is so new that scholars have only begun to evaluate it. It takes very seriously something which is beyond doubt—Paul is arguing that Gentile Christians should not keep the Jewish Law. But it maintains that this argument has no implications for a view of the Law or of the Jewish people. This is far from certain.
All five of these ways of understanding Paul’s argument that Gentile Christians should not keep the Jewish Law have contemporary adherents. Scholarly discussion has not yet produced any consensus on this matter, and such consensus may never develop. The biggest unresolved question is whether or not the last interpretation will prove satisfactory. At present the retrospective interpretation is probably the most widely held. This is partly because of the influence of Sanders but also because Sanders articulated a view which had been emerging from the work of various other scholars, such as W. D. Davies, J. Munck, H. J. Schoeps, K. Stendahl and N. A. Dahl.
As may already be obvious, I also find the retrospective interpretation most satisfying. But I am inclined to combine the qualitative, quantitative, and sociological interpretations with it, seeing the retrospective interpretation as fundamental to the others. As I have pointed out above, the sociological interpretation, properly qualified, can be seen as an elaboration of the retrospective interpretation. Further, although Sanders does not do so, the qualitative and quantitative interpretations can be combined with the retrospective interpretation by seeing them as arguments to which Paul appeals in support of the retrospective interpretation, explaining how the Law leads to sin rather than to righteousness.
The only one of the interpretations for which I cannot find a place is the restrictive interpretation. Because of its important implications it must be scrutinized carefully by scholars. And perhaps it will finally be proved the best interpretation, or at least the equal of any other. However, at present it does not seem as satisfying as my modification of the retrospective interpretation, for the reasons which follow.
Although Paul makes the argument in order to convince Gentile Christians that they should not keep the Jewish Law, arguing that if the Law were the source of Justification, then Christ died in vain seems to imply the insufficiency of the Law not only for Gentile Christians but also for Jews. And when Paul supports this view by arguing that the Law could not lead to righteousness, this too seems to imply the insufficiency of the Law for Jews.
At least some of this can be read restrictively as Gaston and Gager propose. But if Paul intended this, we must ask why he did not say so explicitly. At least part of the reason that Gentile Christians were drawn to keeping the Jewish Law is that not keeping It seemed equivalent to disobeying God. To have explained clearly that the Law was God’s will for Jews, but that God had established a different means of salvation for Gentiles would surely have been helpful.
The part of Paul’s discussion of the Law which is hardest to interpret restrictively is his explanation of the purpose of the Law. While Paul uses this to support the argument that Gentile Christians should not keep the Law, its direct application would be to Jews. On any interpretation Paul does not think that Gentiles should ever keep the Law. Thus its purpose could only be accomplished in those who kept it, i.e., Jews. And this purpose, as Paul sees it, was to serve as a negative preparation for the coming of Christ.
Even though Paul never directly expresses such a view, it seems very likely to me that Paul regarded the Law itself as deficient and would have been critical of Jews who relied on it alone; in Paul’s view the Law was intended to lead to faith in Jesus. If this is so, however, it must be qualified in three ways. First, it is clear that Paul did not think Gentile Christians should keep the Jewish Law, but it is not clear that Paul thought Jewish Christians should stop keeping the Law. If they adopted Paul’s perspective, they could not suppose that righteousness came from keeping the Law. But if they regarded righteousness as deriving from faith, it is not clear that Paul would have objected to their keeping the Law. They might have done so as a way of preserving their identity as the people of Israel, which Paul would surely have seen as a good. Likewise, Paul would have made no argument that non-Christian Jews should cease keeping the Law, only that they should accept Jesus as the Messiah.
Second, Paul is critical of the Law and of non-Christian Jews because he himself is a follower of Jesus. His criticism of the Law does not arise from an analysis of the Law in itself, and his critique of non-Christian Jews has nothing to do with the way they keep the Law. Before Paul became a follower of Jesus he saw nothing wrong with the Law or Jews; on the contrary, he regarded the Law as God’s will for the human race and Jews as uniquely privileged to possess it. What caused him to view this somewhat differently was becoming a follower of Jesus. This means that what Paul implies about the Law and the Jewish people will seem very strange to anyone who does not share his faith in Jesus or at least perceive that this is Paul’s starting point. What Paul says about the Law and the Jewish people is not objective analysis, but an analysis from the perspective of faith in Jesus. Its truth depends entirely on the truth of that faith.
Third, although Paul may have been critical of non-Christian Jews, we must remember that this criticism was limited. As we can see from Romans 9–11, Paul thought that God’s faithfulness to Israel was unconditional. Even if part of Israel rejected God’s plan by not accepting Jesus as the Messiah, God did not reject them in return. In the end God’ s promise to save Israel will be kept.
It is critically important not to read Paul as if he were a representative of what we today call Christianity and speaking about what we today call Judaism. Paul was a Jew who came to believe that Jesus was the fulfillment of God’ s promises to Israel and who thought that this fulfillment was open to Gentiles as Gentiles. This faith led Paul to a radical reinterpretation of what it meant to be a Jew. And this in turn made Paul critical of those who did not share his new view of what it meant to be a Jew. In my opinion both of these emerge indirectly, by implication, as Paul argues that Gentile Christians should not keep the Jewish Law.
Later history makes this implicit view of Paul’s look like anti-Judaism. Now Christianity and Judaism regard one another as separate religions and Paul is understood as speaking for Christianity against Judaism. But in his own context Paul is involved, with other Jews, in a disagreement concerning the true nature of Judaism. Earlier I said that Paul’s letters were a contribution to a conversation occurring within the Christian Church. But they were simultaneously a contribution to a discussion within Judaism because in the first century the two groups overlapped. Many first-century Christians, including Paul himself, were Jews. And it was initially Jewish Christians who differed as to whether or not Gentile Christians were obliged to keep the Law. Those who said Gentile Christians must keep the Law did so because they understood Judaism in the same way non-Christian Jews did. Those, like Paul, who argued that Gentile Christians should not keep the Law did so on the basis of a new understanding of Judaism.
Such differences over the nature of Judaism have arisen again and again in the history of the Jewish people (and in the history of most other groups). In the time of the prophet Jeremiah there was a division among the prophets as to whether God would give Judah into the hands of the Babylonians or would save Judah from them (Jer 27–28). In the time of the Maccabean revolution there were Jews who wished to embrace Hellenistic culture and others who saw this as incompatible with faithfulness to God (1 Macc 1; 2 Macc 4). At the present time Reformed and Orthodox Jews differ over the true nature of Judaism.
Seeing Paul as a Jew who came to a new understanding of Judaism probably does not make his views any more congenial to twentieth-century Jews than they were to those 1st century Jews who disagreed with him But it does give a more satisfactory sense of what is involved as Paul takes his position. And we must always remember that Paul continued to regard the Jews who disagreed with him as the people of God and held that God’s promises to them were irrevocable.
The foregoing is heavily indebted to the treatment of Paul by George Smiga in Pain and Polemic: The Problem of Anti-Judaism in the New Testament, soon to be published by Paulist Press.
For a brief description of the process by which Christianity became a religion separate from Judaism, showing the place of Paul in that development, see T. Callan, Forgetting the Root: The Emergence of Christianity From Judaism (New York: Paulist, 1986).
Books mentioned in the foregoing discussion:
Dahl, N. A., Studies in Paul (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1977).
Davies, W. D., Paul and Rabbinic Judaism (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1948).
Dunn, J.D.G., Jesus. Paul and the Law: Studies in Mark and Galatians (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1990).
Gager, J., The Origins of Anti-Semitism (New York: Oxford, 1983).
Gaston, L., Paul and the Torah (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1987).
Hübner, H., Law in Paul’s Thought trans. by J.C.G. Greig (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1984).
Käsemann, E., Commentary on Romans trans. by G. W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980).
Munck, J. Paul and the Salvation of Mankind trans. by F. Clarke (London: SCM, 1959).
Räisänen, H., Paul and the Law (Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr [Paul Siebeck], 1987).
Sanders, E. P. Paul and Palestinian Judaism (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977).
———, Paul, the Law and the Jewish People (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1983).
Schoeps, H. J., Paul: The Theology of the Apostle in the Light of Jewish Religious History trans. by H. Knight (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1961).
Stendahl, K., Paul Among Jews and Gentiles (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1976).
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
1. Why are Paul’s exact thoughts about the Torah difficult to ascertain? Why did he rarely refer to non-Christian Jews? How is the social context of Paul’s addressees different from our own?
2. What fundamental point about the Jewish people does Paul make in Romans 9–11? Why might his thoughts be important to the modern Church as it seeks to reform its supersesslonist past?
3. What are five scholarly approaches to Paul’s ideas about the Jewish Law, the Torah? Which of these seems to be the most reasonable to you? Why? What are the possible effects of these various approaches on one’s attitude toward modern Jews and Judaism?
4. How has this essay impacted on your own understanding of the Apostle Paul?