What do you do with Paul?

For more on Paul, Jews, Gentiles, Torah, and gospel, please order Paul Didn’t Eat Pork here.

Paul is like a father to me. I understand why many people are obsessed with this traveling theologian-spokesperson for Yeshua to the Roman empire. His works were formative for me in my early years of study. I recognized an over-emphasis on Paul at a certain point in my theological life and moved into other areas with the same zeal I had approached Paul. I went through a wisdom literature phase (during which I wrote Proverbial Wisdom and Common Sense and which imbued me with a lifetime pursuit of the wisdom of Qohelet/Ecclesiastes). I went through a Torah-Pentateuch phase, which is now a continuing discipline in my life. I have been a love affair with prophetic literature (resulting in my book The World to Come and my plan to pursue PhD work in Ezekiel studies). I am insane, since this all sounds like plenty of Biblical literature already, but 2009 and 2010 are an extended season in the four gospels (hence my Yeshua in Context podcast, my upcoming book, Yeshua in Context, and a teaching series all this year at our synagogue).

With all of that, I admit, Paul has gotten shorter shrift in my thinking in recent years. Yet, I always read him with admiration, recognizing a master of theology and rhetoric, a brilliant thinker navigating what were in his time uncharted waters.

I’ve observed different ways people incorporate Paul into their thinking. I always enjoy thinking about categories and making lists (and creating inevitably simplistic generalizations).

This one seems like a good one for discussion. I’d like to know which of these positions have influenced a period of your life, if you locate yourself in one of these now, or if you’d like to challenge or tweak these categories as I present them.

In my early years, I was with the Southern Baptists, and Paul as the be-all, end-all, canon-within-the-canon of the Bible. The word canon is a good term from church history. It means the rule of faith. The Bible is the rule of faith for Christianity, so “canon” is a term most used for “the books that are sacred and which belong in the Bible to be our rule of faith.”

When I say that in my early setting, the Pauline letters were the canon-within-the-canon, I mean that every sermon, regardless what text it was from in the Bible, needed some Pauline verses to support it. I mean that all theological ideas in the Bible were suspect until affirmed in some way with Pauline verses. It was not sufficient to find a truth about God in Proverbs, Psalms, or Chronicles. If this truth was not confirmed by at least supporting ideas from Paul, the point of the sermon ran the risk of being “legalism” or “old covenant improperly applied.”

Since 90% of the sermons were directly from a Pauline text (I do not exaggerate), it was fairly easy to stick with Paul. Those who frequent the evangelical churches have heard a hundred times as much Ephesians, Philippians, and Romans as they have Genesis through Malachi. And a sermon series in Joshua is merely a cover for some Christological applications and references to Pauline theology.

Over the years, though not in my own synagogue, I have encountered the opposite tendency: “Messianics” who denied the validity of Paul as an apostle altogether. The reason is quite simple. Some people have made another notion supreme: the necessity of Torah-keeping for all followers of Yeshua (and along with this usually goes a belief in the pagan corruption of Christianity and numerous references to Constantine which are ill-researched and inflammatory).

The fact is, many are unable to reconcile the law-free teaching of Paul with their notion of Torah’s authority for all people. A few years ago, a popular teacher in the Ephraimite movement declared Hebrews illegitimate for similar reasons. So, one tack you can take is to say, “Christianity made a mistake; Paul was never a true apostle.”

In critical Christian scholarship (mostly prior to the New Perspective on Paul) and in Jewish writings about Paul, it has been customary to find the notion of Jesus the Jew and Paul the Christian who so changed the scope and aims of Yeshua-faith as to make it almost unrelated to what Jesus was all about. The Paul-is-the-founder-of-Christianity school still has many adherents, most of whom are not current in Pauline studies.

You also hear in this school of a great division in the early church between James and Peter on the one side and Paul on the other. James, as in chapter 2 of his epistle, believed that deeds prove a right status with God while Paul, as in chapter 3 of Romans, believed deeds to be not only irrelevant but even harmful to the righteous life (which was a life of contemplative piety, I guess).

In general, the New Perspective on Paul (which recognizes Paul as continuous with Judaism and not in opposition), the letters of Paul are seen to reflect a more robust gospel than the works-free, theoretical faith often preached in his name, that Paul opposed a salvation-by-Jewish-birth-or-conversion view and did not oppose works of righteousness, and that the faithfulness of Christ, not just faith in Christ, is often the subject of Paul’s meditations on how Jesus makes a difference for us in the final judgment. In general, the New Perspective sees Paul in continuity with Judaism and that Augustine and Luther’s ideas about Paul suffered some distortion from anachronistic misconceptions.

The New Perspective on Paul, broadly speaking, is not just something in the academy, but reflects a growing trend amongst Christian leaders, especially young ones, and practically speaking contributes to a more kingdom-focused, more actively involved in the world kind of faith.

This broad category overlaps with some others I will share further down.

In some circles there is a pro-Torah, historically misunderstood Paul, who was against converting Gentiles but who always is to be read as including all in Messiah, Jew and Gentile, in the category of Israel and under the obligation to keep Torah. Quite a few Messianic Jewish Musings readers locate themselves here. Since it is not my view, it is hard for me to write about it fairly.

To accomplish this reading of Paul, there are a few required decisions. Paul’s opposition is to circumcision in order to convert, but Paul nonetheless requires circumcision of Gentiles in Messiah. The difference is in why the Gentile is being circumcised. All passages which seem to speak against the Biblical calendar and Sabbath-keeping are to be read as speaking of Gentile, pagan celebrations. This Paul sees each and every follower of Messiah as included in Israel, so that there are now no distinctions between Jew and Gentile.

Finally, there are those, like me, who see Paul as the apostle to the Gentiles, who see his law-free instructions as being directed to Gentiles, who understand Paul’s practice as a Jew to be normative for Messianic Jews and his law-free instructions to be normative for Gentiles in Messiah. Call this the bilateral ecclesiology view of Paul. It is consistent with the New Perspective on Paul.

We have no problem reading Romans 14 as an explanation for Gentiles of God’s different way for the synagogue. We have no problem with Galatians as an anti-conversion letter written to protect the gospel to the Gentiles from the flase notion that God saves only Jews. We believe that some parts of Torah always have been only for Jews and that Paul practiced and recognized the distinction while affirming equality. While Paul’s pro-Torah stance is not clear from his letters to the Gentile churches, it is clear from his practice in Acts.

What have I left out? Where do you see yourself on this spectrum? What views have influenced you in the past? What would you add to my description of one or more of these categories?

About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
This entry was posted in Bible, messianic, Messianic Jewish, Messianic Judaism, Paul. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to What do you do with Paul?

  1. Hi Derek,

    The one the I grew up with and was preached every Sunday in my Church was the first one you mentioned. I must admit because Paul was always preached on I started not even listening to what was being said as it bored me. We have a saying here in Northern Ireland which says “familiarity breads contempt” and this was the way that I felt about Paul. But over the last number of years I have started reading him again and seeing him in a new light. I woulod now see Paul as a mixture of the New Perspective on Paul and your last point. The problem I have noticed among some Messianics (and notice I said some and not all) is that when it comes to Paul either they cast him aside or they keep having to say something like Paul said this but he really meant that. Granted many Christian interpretations of Paul are way off but so are some Messianics. What disturbed me the most was not only that some wanted Hebrews out of the Bible others even taught that all the letters of Paul and even the book of Acts should be put out. This is a total inversion of what Marcion tried to do in the 2nd century when he only included Luke and the letters in His bible. Just like Paul was the battleground of faith during the Reformation, I have noticed again that it is becoming another battleground among Messianic themselves and betwenn Messianics and Christians. Hopefuly this time it will be without the bloodshed!

    Thanks again Derek for your post.

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