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 (
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 (
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
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 (
- Stendahl, Krister. Final Account: Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1995.
- Fredriksen, Paula. From Jesus to Christ. Nota Bene ed. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2000.
- Meeks, Wayne A., and John T. Fitzgerald, eds. The Writings of St. Paul. 2nd ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 2007.