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Artist's depiction of Saint Paul Writing His Epistles, 16th century (Blaffer Foundation Collection, Houston, Texas). Most scholars think Paul actually dictated his letters to a secretary.

The relationship between Paul of Tarsus and Judaism continues to be the subject of much scholarly research, as it is thought that Paul played an important role in the relationship between Christianity and Judaism as a whole.

Some scholars see Paul (or Saul) as completely in line with first-century Judaism (a "Pharisee"), others see him as opposed to first-century Judaism (see Antinomianism in the New Testament and Marcionism), while still others see him as somewhere in between these two extremes, opposed to "Ritual Laws" (see for example Circumcision controversy in early Christianity) but in full agreement on "Divine Law". These views of Paul are paralleled by the views of Biblical law in Christianity. See also Expounding of the Law versus Antithesis of the Law and Christianity in the 1st century.

Jewish background

Mediterranean Basin geography relevant to Paul's life in the first century, stretching from Jerusalem in the lower-right to Rome in the upper-left.

The Book of Acts contains an account of Paul's travels and deeds, his conflicts with pagans and Jews, and his interactions with the original apostles. The value of the historical information in Acts, however, is widely challenged. It was written from a perspective of reconciliation between Pauline Christianity and its opponents, so portrays Paul as a law-abiding Jew and omits his dispute with Peter, only briefly mentioning the split with Barnabas.[1] Irenaeus is the first of record to quote Acts, and he used it against Marcion who rejected the Hebrew Bible, see also Luke-Acts.

Greek background

Map of Alexander's empire, c. 334-323 BC, stretching east and south of Macedonia.

Hellenistic Judaism was a movement which existed in the Jewish diaspora before the Siege of Jerusalem in 70 AD, that sought to establish a Hebraic-Jewish religious tradition within the culture and language of Hellenism. The major literary product of the contact of Judaism and Hellenistic culture is the Septuagint. Major authors are Philo of Alexandria, Josephus, and some would claim also Paul.[2]

Paul's persecution of Christians as a Jew

Prior to his belief in Yeshua (Jesus) as the Messiah of Israel, Paul was a Pharisee who "violently persecuted" the followers of Jesus. Says Paul:

You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors.
Paul's Letter to the Galatians 1:13-14

Paul also discusses his pre-conversion life in his letter to the Philippians:

If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.
Paul's Letter to the Philippians 3:4-6

Incident at Antioch

Peter and Paul, depicted in a 4th-century etching with their names in Latin and the Chi-Rho.

Despite the agreement achieved at the Council of Jerusalem as understood by Paul, Paul recounts how he later publicly confronted Peter, also called the "Incident at Antioch" over his reluctance to share a meal with Gentile Christians in Antioch.[3]

Writing later of the incident, Paul recounts: "I opposed [Peter] to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong". Paul reports that he told Peter: "You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?"[4] Paul also mentions that even Barnabas (his travelling companion and fellow apostle until that time) sided with Peter.[5]

The final outcome of the incident remains uncertain. The Catholic Encyclopedia states: "St. Paul's account of the incident leaves no doubt that St. Peter saw the justice of the rebuke."[6] In contrast, L. Michael White's From Jesus to Christianity states: "The blowup with Peter was a total failure of political bravado, and Paul soon left Antioch as persona non grata, never again to return."[7]

The primary source for the Incident at Antioch is Paul's letter to the Galatians.[8]

Circumcision controversy

Circumcision of Christ, sculpture in the Cathedral of Chartres.

Paul, who called himself Apostle to the Gentiles, sometimes attacked the practice of Religious male circumcision, perhaps as an entrance into the New Covenant of Jesus. In the case of Timothy, whose mother was Jewish Christian but whose father was Greek, Paul personally circumcised him "because of the [Judean] Jews" that were in town.[9][10]. He also appeared to praise its value in Romans 3:1-2,[11] in any case he himself stated that his teachings varied in 1 Corinthians 9:20-23.[12]

Paul argued that circumcision no longer meant the physical, but a spiritual practice in Romans 2:25-29.[13] And in that sense, he wrote: "Is any man called being circumcised? let him not become uncircumcised" in 1 Corinthians 7:18[14] - probably a reference to the practice of epispasm.[15] Paul was circumcised when he was "called." He added: "Is any called in uncircumcision? let him not be circumcised.", and went on to argue that circumcision didn't matter: "Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God's commands is what counts."[16]

Later Paul more explicitly denounced the practice, rejecting and condemning those who promoted circumcision to Gentile converts. Paul warned that the advocates of circumcision were "false brothers".[17] He accused Galatian converts who advocated circumcision of turning from the Spirit to the flesh: "Are you so foolish, that, whereas you began in the Spirit, you would now be made perfect by the flesh?"[18] He accused advocates of circumcision of wanting to make a good showing in the flesh[19] and of glorying or boasting of the flesh.[20] Some believe Paul wrote the entire Epistle to the Galatians attacking circumcision, saying in chapter five: "If ye be circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing."

His attitude towards circumcision varies between his outright hostility to what he calls "mutilation" in Philippians 3:2-3[21] to praise in Romans 3:1-2[22] and his willingness that Timothy be circumcised, recorded in Acts 16:1-3.[23] However, such apparent discrepancies have led to a degree of skepticism about the reliability of Acts.[24] Baur, Schwanbeck, De Wette, Davidson, Mayerhoff, Schleiermacher, Bleek, Krenkel, and others have opposed the authenticity of the Acts. An objection is drawn from the discrepancy between Acts 9:19-28[25] and Gal 1:17-19.[26]

The division between those who followed Mosaic law and were circumcised and those who were not circumcised was highlighted in his Epistle to the Galatians 2:7-9:

"On the contrary, when they saw that I had been entrusted with the gospel for the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been entrusted with the gospel for the circumcised (for he who worked through Peter making him an apostle to the circumcised also worked through me in sending me to the Gentiles), and when James and Cephas and John, who were acknowledged pillars, recognized the grace that had been given to me, they gave to Barnabas and me the right hand of fellowship, agreeing that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised." (NRSV)

The Catholic Encyclopedia: Judaizers[27] notes: "Paul, on the other hand, not only did not object to the observance of the Mosaic Law, as long as it did not interfere with the liberty of the Gentiles, but he conformed to its prescriptions when occasion required.[28] Thus he shortly after circumcised Timothy,[29] and he was in the very act of observing the Mosaic ritual when he was arrested at Jerusalem.[30]

Views on Judaizers

Paul was critical of "Judaizers" within the Church. This conflict between Saint Paul and his opponents was the reason for the Council of Jerusalem (see Acts 15:1-35[31]). Here James, Paul, and the other leaders of the Early Christian movement agreed that Gentile converts needed only to follow the "three exceptions" (Acts 15:20,29; counted by some as four), laws that roughly coincide with Judaism's Seven Laws of Noah said to be established by God for all humankind (see also Genesis 9:1-17[32]). This Apostolic Decree, still observed by the Orthodox Church, is similar to that adopted by Rabbinic Judaism, which teaches that Gentiles need only follow the Noachide Laws to be assured of a place in the World to Come. See also Noahidism and Dual-covenant theology.

Pillars of the Church

Paul made explicit in Galatians 1:7[33] that he did not discuss with the "Pillars of the Church" after he had received his revelation to be an apostle,[34] that he saw no one except Cephas (Peter) and James, when he was in Jerusalem three years after the revelation[35] and implies he did not explain his gospel to them until 14 years later[36] in a subsequent trip to Jerusalem.

Since F.C. Baur, scholars have found evidence of conflict between the leaders of Early Christianity, for example James D. G. Dunn proposes that Peter was a "bridge-man" between the opposing views of Paul and James the Just.[37]

Council of Jerusalem

Paul seems to have refused "to be tied down to particular patterns of behavior and practice."[{{fullurl:{{wikipedia:FULLPAGENAME}}}}#endnote_12] For example, see 1 Corinthians 9:20-23.[38] He does not engage in a dispute with those Corinthians who apparently feel quite free to eat anything offered to idols, never appealing or even mentioning the Jerusalem council. He rather attempts to persuade them by appealing to the care they should have for other believers who might not feel so free.

Paul himself described several meetings with the apostles in Jerusalem, though it is difficult to reconcile any of them fully with the account in Acts (see also Paul of Tarsus—Council of Jerusalem). Paul claims he "went up again to Jerusalem" (i.e., not the first time) with Barnabas and Titus "in response to a revelation", in order to "lay before them the gospel (he) proclaimed among the Gentiles";[39] them being according to Paul "those who were supposed to be acknowledged leaders":[40] James, Cephas and John. He describes this as a "private meeting" (not a public council) and notes that Titus, who was Greek, wasn't pressured to be circumcised.[41][{{fullurl:{{wikipedia:FULLPAGENAME}}}}#endnote_7] However, he refers to "false believers secretly brought in, who slipped in to spy on the freedom[{{fullurl:{{wikipedia:FULLPAGENAME}}}}#endnote_8] we have in Christ Jesus, so that they might enslave us."[42]

Paul claims the "pillars" of the Church[43] had no differences with him. On the contrary, they gave him the "right hand of fellowship", he bound for the mission to "the uncircumcised" and they to "the circumcised", requesting only that he remember the "poor"[{{fullurl:{{wikipedia:FULLPAGENAME}}}}#endnote_9]. Whether this was the same meeting as that described in Acts is not universally agreed.

According to an article in the Catholic Encyclopedia, Paul not only did not object to the observance of the Mosaic Law, as long as it did not interfere with the liberty of the Gentiles, but he conformed to its prescriptions when occasion required.[44] Thus he shortly after circumcised Timothy,[45] and he was in the very act of observing the Mosaic ritual when he was arrested at Jerusalem.[46]

According to an article in the Jewish Encyclopedia, great as was the success of Barnabas and Paul in the heathen world, the authorities in Jerusalem insisted upon circumcision as the condition of admission of members into the church, until, on the initiative of Peter, and of James, the head of the Jerusalem church, it was agreed that acceptance of the Noachian Laws — namely, regarding avoidance of idolatry, fornication, and the eating of flesh cut from a living animal — should be demanded of the heathen desirous of entering the Church.[47]

Proselytizing among Jews

According to Acts, Paul began working along the traditional Jewish line of proselytizing in the various synagogues where the proselytes of the gate [a biblical term, for example see Exodus 20:10[48]] and the Jews met; and only because he failed to win the Jews to his views, encountering strong opposition and persecution from them, did he turn to the Gentile world after he had agreed at a convention with the apostles at Jerusalem to admit the Gentiles into the Church only as proselytes of the gate, that is, after their acceptance of the Noachian laws.[49][50]

In the Epistle to the Galatians, i, 17, 18, St. Paul declares that, immediately after his conversion, he went away into Arabia, and again returned to Damascus. "Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas." In Acts no mention is made of St. Paul's journey into Arabia; and the journey to Jerusalem is placed immediately after the notice of Paul's preaching in the synagogues. Hilgenfeld, Wendt, Weizäcker, Weiss, and others allege here a contradiction between the writer of the Acts and St. Paul."[51]

R. Emden, in a remarkable apology for Christianity contained in his appendix to "Seder 'Olam" [52] gives it as his opinion that the original intention of Jesus, and especially of Paul, was to convert only the Gentiles to the seven moral laws of Noah and to let the Jews follow the Mosaic law — which explains the apparent contradictions in the New Testament regarding the laws of Moses and the Sabbath.

Separation with Judaism

Before Paul, Christianity was essentially a Jewish sect, so-called Jewish Christianity, and Gentiles that wished to join the movement were expected to convert to Judaism, submit to circumcision, follow the dietary restrictions of kashrut, and more, see also 613 mitzvot. Paul insisted that faith in Christ (see also Faith or Faithfulness) was sufficient for salvation and that the Torah did not bind Gentile Christians. The success of Paul's efforts sped up the split between Christianity and mainstream Judaism, see also List of events in early Christianity, even though Paul wanted no such split himself. Without Paul's campaign against the legalists who opposed him, Christianity may have remained a dissenting sect within Judaism,[53] for example see Noahidism.

Paul's theology of the gospel accelerated the separation of the messianic sect of Christians from Judaism, a development contrary to Paul's own intent. He wrote that faith in Christ was alone decisive in salvation for Jews and Gentiles alike, making the schism between the followers of Christ and mainstream Jews inevitable and permanent.

He successfully argued that Gentile converts did not need to become Jews, get circumcised, follow Jewish dietary restrictions, or otherwise observe Mosaic law, see also Antinomianism in the New Testament. Nevertheless, in Romans he insisted on the positive value of the Law, perhaps an attempt to demonstrate God's consistency. Since Paul's time, the polemical contrast that he made between the old and the new way of salvation has usually been weakened, with an emphasis on smooth development rather than stark contrast. See also New Perspective on Paul and Marcionism.

Persecution of Paul by Jews in Acts

Several passages in Acts describe St. Paul's missions to Asia Minor and the encounters he had with Diaspora Jews and with local gentile populations. In Acts chapters 13 through 15, the Jews from Antioch and Iconium go so far as to follow Paul to other cities and to incite the crowds there to violence against him. Paul had already been stoned and left for dead once.[54] In Philippi, a Roman colony, Roman magistrates beat and jailed Paul and his companions on behalf of the gentiles (Acts 16:19-40). Clearly at this point, Paul and his companions were still considered to be Jews by those in Philippi who raised protests against them, despite Paul's attempts to tailor his teachings to his audience.[55] Later, in Thessalonica, the Jews again incited the crowds and pitted the Christians against the Roman authority.[56]

Pauline Christianity

Pauline Christianity is a term used to refer to a branch of Early Christianity associated with the beliefs and doctrines espoused by Paul the Apostle through his writings. The term is generally considered a pejorative by traditionalist Christians as it carries the implication that Christianity as it is known is a corruption of the original teachings of Jesus, for example some allege a Great Apostasy.

The New Perspective on Paul

E. P. Sanders in 1977[57] reframed the context of Paul's theology to make law-keeping and good works a sign of being in the Covenant (marking out the Jews as the people of God) rather than deeds performed in order to accomplish salvation (so-called Legalism (theology)), a pattern of religion he termed "covenantal nomism." If Sanders' perspective is valid, the traditional Protestant understanding of the doctrine of justification (the "old perspective") may have needed rethinking, for the interpretive framework of Martin Luther was called into question.

Sanders' publications, such as Paul and Palestinian Judaism in 1977 and Paul, the Law, and the Jewish People in 1983, have since been taken up by Professor James Dunn who coined the phrase "The New Perspective on Paul"[58] and N.T. Wright,[59] Anglican Bishop of Durham. Wright, noting the apparent discrepancy between Romans and Galatians, the former being much more positive about the continuing covenantal relationship between God and his ancient people than the latter, contends that works are not insignificant[60] and that Paul distinguishes between works which are signs of ethnic identity and those which are a sign of obedience to Christ.

Some contemporary scholars hold that the Lord's supper had its origins in a pagan context, where dinners to memorialize the dead were common and the Jewish prohibition against drinking blood (see also Taboo food and drink#Blood) did not prevail.[61] They conclude the "Lord's supper" that Paul describes probably originated in the Christian communities that he had founded in Asia Minor and Greece.[61]

Within the last three decades, a number of theologians have put forward other "new perspectives" on Paul's doctrine of justification, and even more specifically on what he says about justification by faith. According to Gathercole Simon, "Justification by faith" means God accepts Gentiles in addition to Jews, since both believe in God. Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, "For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law. Is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles too? Yes, of Gentiles too, since there is only one God, who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith".[62] Faith is the central component of Paul's doctrine of justification — meaning that Gentiles don't need to become Israelites when they convert to Christianity, because God is not just the God of one nation, but Gentile and Jew alike.[63]

Messianic Jewish views

Messianics understand that Paul the Apostle (who is often referred to as Sha’ul, his Hebrew name) remained a Jewish Pharisee even as a believer until his death. This is based on Acts 23:6, detailing events after Paul's acceptance of Jesus as Messiah. "But when Paul perceived that the one part were Sadducees, and the other Pharisees, he cried out in the council, Men [and] brethren, I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee: of the hope and resurrection of the dead I am called in question."

Messianics cite the cutting off of Paul's hair at Cenchrea because of a vow he had taken (Acts 18:18), references in passing to him observing the Jewish holidays, the frequent mistranslations of his writings in many Bibles, and his consistent good standing with his Rabbinic master Gamaliel, to show that he was wholly in continued observance of the laws and traditions of Judaism

They maintain that Paul never set out to polarize the gospel between faith and righteous works, but that one is necessary to maintain the other.

See also


  1. 15:36-41
  2. Jewish Encyclopedia: Saul of Tarsus: Not a Hebrew Scholar; a Hellenist
  3. Catholic Encyclopedia: Judaizers see section titled: "The Incident At Antioch"
  4. (Galatians 2:11–14).
  5. Catholic Encyclopedia: Judaizers: "On their arrival Peter, who up to this had eaten with the Gentiles, "withdrew and separated himself, fearing them who were of the circumcision," and by his example drew with him not only the other Jews, but even Barnabas, Paul's fellow-labourer."
  6. Catholic Encyclopedia St. Paul's account
  7. White, L. Michael (2004). From Jesus to Christianity. HarperSanFrancisco. pp. 170. ISBN 0–06–052655–6. 
  8. 2:11-14
  9. Acts 16:1-3
  10. McGarvey on Acts 16: "Yet we see him in the case before us, circumcising Timothy with his own hand, and this 'on account of certain Jews who were in those quarters.'"
  11. Romans 3:1-2
  12. 1 Corinthians 9:20-23
  13. Romans 2:25-29
  14. 1 Corinthians 7:18
  15. "making themselves foreskins"; I Macc. i. 15; Josephus, "Ant." xii. 5, § 1; Assumptio Mosis, viii.; I Cor. vii. 18;, Tosef.; Talmud tractes [[Shabbat (Talmud)|]] xv. 9; Yevamot 72a, b; Yerushalmi Peah i. 16b; Yevamot viii. 9a; [1]; Catholic Encyclopedia: Circumcision: "To this epispastic operation performed on the athletes to conceal the marks of circumcision St. Paul alludes, me epispastho (1 Corinthians 7:18)."
  16. 1 Cor 7:19
  17. Gal 2:4
  18. Gal 3:3
  19. Gal 6:12
  20. Gal 3:13
  21. Philippians 3:2-3
  22. Romans 3:1-2
  23. Acts 16:1-3
  24. For example, see Catholic Encyclopedia (1907-1914): Acts of the Apostles: OBJECTIONS AGAINST THE AUTHENTICITY
  25. Acts 9:19-28
  26. Gal 1:17-19
  27. Catholic Encyclopedia: Judaizers
  28. 1 Corinthians 9:20
  29. Acts 16:1-3
  30. Acts 21:26
  31. Acts 15:1-35
  32. Genesis 9:1-17
  33. Galatians 1:7
  34. Gal 1:15-16
  35. Gal 1:18-24
  36. Gal 2:1-2
  37. "The Canon Debate," McDonald & Sanders editors, 2002, chapter 32, page 577, by James D. G. Dunn: "For Peter was probably in fact and effect the bridge-man (pontifex maximus!) who did more than any other to hold together the diversity of first-century Christianity. James the brother of Jesus and Paul, the two other most prominent leading figures in first-century Christianity, were too much identified with their respective "brands" of Christianity, at least in the eyes of Christians at the opposite ends of this particular spectrum. But Peter, as shown particularly by the Antioch episode in Gal 2, had both a care to hold firm to his Jewish heritage, which Paul lacked, and an openness to the demands of developing Christianity, which James lacked. John might have served as such a figure of the center holding together the extremes, but if the writings linked with his name are at all indicative of his own stance he was too much of an individualist to provide such a rallying point. Others could link the developing new religion more firmly to its founding events and to Jesus himself. But none of them, including the rest of the twelve, seem to have played any role of continuing significance for the whole sweep of Christianity—though James the brother of John might have proved an exception had he been spared." [Italics original]
  38. 1 Corinthians 9:20-23
  39. Galatians 2:2
  40. Galatians 2:6
  41. Galatians 2:3
  42. Galatians 2:4
  43. Catholic Encyclopedia: St. James the Less: "Then we lose sight of James till St. Paul, three years after his conversion (A.D. 37), went up to Jerusalem. ... On the same occasion, the "pillars" of the Church, James, Peter, and John "gave to me (Paul) and Barnabas the right hands of fellowship; that we should go unto the Gentiles, and they unto the circumcision" (Galatians 2:9)."
  44. 1Corinthians 9:20
  45. Acts 16:1–3
  46. Acts 21:26
  47. Jewish Encyclopedia: Gentiles: Gentiles May Not Be Taught the Torah
  48. Exodus 20:10
  49. Acts 15:1–31
  50. Jewish Encyclopedia article
  51. Note that the Catholic Encyclopedia considers the authenticity of Acts to be a "well-proved truth" but nonetheless notes that other scholars disagree.
  52. pp. 32b-34b, Hamburg, 1752
  53. Harris, Stephen L., Understanding the Bible. Palo Alto: Mayfield. 1985. p. 331
  54. Acts 14:19
  55. 1 Cor 9:20-23
  56. Acts 17:6-8
  57. Paul and Palestinian Judaism 1977 SCM Press ISBN 0–8006–1899–8
  58. J.D.G. Dunn's Manson Memorial Lecture (4.11.1982): 'The New Perspective on Paul' BJRL 65(1983), 95–122.
  59. New Perspectives on Paul
  60. Romans 2:13
  61. 61.0 61.1 Funk, Robert W. and the Jesus Seminar. The acts of Jesus: the search for the authentic deeds of Jesus. HarperSanFrancisco. 1998. p. 139-140.
  62. Romans 3:28-30
  63. Gathercole Simon, "What Did Paul Really Mean?" (Christianity Today, 2007)

External links