Summary 2: Paul was a Jew, Through and Through

Derek Ouellette —  February 1, 2010

Introduction / Summary 1

Last week in Summary 1 we took a glace through some of Pamela Eisenbaum’s arguments for how Paul became a Christian. And by “became” we don’t mean “converted”. We mean that the early church tradition “Christianized” Paul.

In this post we’ll explore some of Eisenbaum’s thoughts on “Paul the Jew”. But to do this we need to lay down some ground work.

Ground Work

The old view (or the traditional view) usually speaks of Paul and Judaism, Paul from Judaism, Paul against Judaism and so on. The idea being that Paul left Judaism and became a Christian. But a rival view gaining popularity today holds that Paul never really left Judaism, and that Judaism sees its fulfillment in Jesus the Messiah as the representative of Israel (Isaiah 42-55). According to this view, being a follower of Jesus for Paul meant embracing the climax of the covenant God established with Abraham back in Genesis 12, 15 and 17. This latter view is the one I have come to hold.

It is important to keep in mind while surveying Eisenbaum’s position that when she speaks of “Paul the Jew”, she does not mean the same thing as the latter view. The latter view holds that Christ is the climax of Gods covenant with Israel and the only way to salvation. For Eisenbaum Paul remained a committed Jew his whole life, believing that for a Jew the way to God continued to be through annual animal sacrifices, circumcision and the Torah.

What Did it Mean to be a Jew?

But what does it mean to say that Paul remained a Jew? For starters it means that Paul was an aniconic monotheist meaning that Paul believed in One true God. Monotheism, according to Eisenbaum, is the center of Paul’s theology, but for the Christian reader who might assume we’re talking about the One true God revealed in Jesus, I must qualify. Paul was a Jew through and through, and as a Jew Paul never would have tolerated the Christian notion that Jesus is God since Jews believed in aniconic (no image) monotheism. Note: Christ is not the center, God is.

Secondly, Paul had as high a view of Jewish Law and the Temple cult as any Jew in his day. Whether we’re speaking of circumcision, Torah or Temple Sacrifices, Paul’s view of these things remained perfectly intact after his supernatural encounter.

Third, while in Christianity it is taught that Judaism is a religion of “works” and Christianity, of “grace”, this works/grace dichotomy which Christians have struggled with ever since near the beginning was unheard of in Judaism and in Paul. Judaism was in fact a religion of “grace”, never in Paul’s time was it taught that one could be saved or justified by doing their own good deeds (works). Israel believed that God had elected them by His grace. “Works” in Judaism was conceived of as the natural response to Gods gracious election.

These three premises form the core of Paul’s convictions and the root from which all his other beliefs flow: a) Aniconic Monotheism, b) Torah, and c) Election.

Three questions quickly arise out of Pamela’s view of Paul:

  1. What changed after Paul’s encounter with Jesus?
  2. Why does Paul take a negative view of Torah (circumcision, works, Temple cult) in his writings?
  3. What place does Jesus have in Paul’s thought?

What Changed?

If Paul’s core convictions remained perfectly intact after his encounter with the Messiah then what changed?

Here is the crux of the whole argument; that Paul believed himself to have received a calling on the Damascus road, not a conversion!

Paul’s vision of the risen Jesus meant the end of the world was near. [p. 197]

As a Jew, Paul shared the belief that when the Messiah would come, as the prophets prophesied, it would herald the time of the ingathering of the nations. It was now time for the Gentile nations to join the family of Abraham [Gen 12:3]. So Paul saw himself as one who was “called” by God who “set him apart” for the purpose of bringing “the gospel” to the nations [Rom 1:1, Gal 1:15-16].

This is the single most important fact to keep in mind, for in this argument we see that Paul was most definitely not converted, but rather received a prophetic calling.

What About Paul’s Treatment of Torah?

There can be little doubt that Paul treats the Torah negatively (circumcision as those who “mutilate the flesh” which avails “nothing”. Justification by faith and not by Torah. Torah is good, but it produces death and so on). Or, if you prefer, he has a negative view of Torah’s ability to do anything good.

How can this be if Paul the Jew had the firm conviction that Torah is essential to a life in the covenant of God? That Torah provides the atonement for the sins of the Jewish people through sacrifices, circumcision and so on? How can it be both ways? Either we accept what he wrote in his letters and call him a “Christian” or we accept that he remained a Jew his whole life and find another way to interpret his letters.

As you might guess, Eisenbaum opted for the latter. Here is her interpretation.

Paul believed himself to be on a mission of delivering the good news that Gentiles can now come into the family of Abraham. This means that Paul’s letters are all directed towards a Gentile audience. Everything Paul said he said only to Gentiles and not to Jews. Note it this way:

  1. Gentiles: Justified by Jesus’ act of faithfulness to God.
  2. Gentiles: Sins atonement for by Jesus’ sacrifice.
  3. Gentiles: You do not need to become a “Jew” to belong in the family of God.
  4. Gentiles: You can join Abraham’s family by the faithfulness of Jesus (just as Israel was chosen because of the faithfulness of Abraham [Deut 7:7-9], and not because of their own faith).
  5. Gentiles: The Torah was given to Israel, but not to you. You have been given the Spirit.
  6. Gentiles: The Torah does not apply to you (i.e. circumcision, animal sacrifices and so on).

Notice the point: Paul directs all of these teachings to Gentiles only. They do not apply to Jews. Just as Temple sacrifices, circumcision, and Torah deeds apply to Jews, but not to Gentiles.

If it has not become clear already let me be blunt: This teaching is two-way salvation (from the Christian perspective). For the Jews salvation is through the Torah, for Gentiles it is through Christ.

To put it boldly, Jesus saves, but he only saves Gentiles. [p. 242]

What the Torah does for Jews, Jesus does for Gentiles. [p. 244]

This is the climax of Eisenbaums whole argument.

Why Jesus?

But we’re still left with one question: Why Jesus?

In Eisenbaum’s study of Justification she points out that “every instance in which the phrase “faith in Christ” (or its variants) appears in the undisputed letters it would be better translated “faithfulness of Christ” [p. 191].

Paul teaches – according to Eisenbaum – that Gentiles are justified in God’s eyes because of Jesus’ faithfulness to God. What faithfulness? The cross; that Jesus was obedient to God to the point of even death on a cross according to Philippians 2:6-8 and that this act of obedience has somehow atoned for the sins of the Gentile nations.

But still the question, why Jesus?, lingers. Equally to the point, why the cross?

Pamela’s fascinating answer to this question is most telling, especially from a Christian perspective. After quoting Philippians 2:5-8 she states:

This for Paul is what Jesus did to atone for the sins of Gentiles… It must remain something of a mystery exactly why Paul (and presumably other followers of Jesus) came to understand this particular act by this particular individual as able to achieve this profound reconciliation, but it is what Paul believed, and it is what he preached. [p. 241]

I will have much to say about this in the next post. Suffice it to say; I believe it is this perplexing mystery of Eisenbaum’s that makes her radical approach to Paul necessary. If she had made an effort to understand the reasons behind Paul’s belief in Jesus’ atoning death, it may render most of her work here either unnecessary or superfluous.

But major kudos must be given here also. I respect the fact that Eisbenbaum (at least here) presents what Paul and the other followers of Jesus undeniably taught even though she confesses how it baffles her mind as a great mystery. Who can argue that Paul or anyone else in early Christendom believed in the atoning death of Christ? Not even Eisenbaum will go there.

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Derek Ouellette

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a husband, new dad, speaker, writer, christian. see my profile here.
  • Josh

    These have been great summaries thus far Derek! It’s been really interesting to hear her perspective and your thoughts on it.

  • Derek Ouellette

    Thanks for following Josh. It’s a real pleasure!

  • Wallace Whitt

    It’s a bit confusing. Paul was jew, and jesus was jew too. What’s the problem with that?

  • Sara Andrews

    It is not important if Paul or even Jesus was a jewish. There are different kind of views on the life of Jesus and everybody interpreted the life of Jesus in a different way.
    Thank you for this article.