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Paul, “Judaizers” and Jews

February 13, 2013

Yesterday, I attended an interesting seminar-presentation entitled “A Muslim Reads Galatians,” by Dr. Shabbir Akhtar (St Stephen’s, Oxford).  He is engaged in writing a commentary on Paul’s epistle to the Galatians for a forthcoming series.  Although, unfortunately, little time in the seminar was actually spent on Galatians (he spent most of the time giving personal background, and his wider perspectives on Paul, the NT, et alia), it was clear that he has approached the subject with considerable preparation, thought, seriousness, and respect for Paul.  Indeed, commendably, it seemed that he has acquired some Koine Greek (which, some readers will recall from the animated blog-discussions in Autumn 2011, some folk don’t think necessary for PhDs in NT), and also demonstrated an acquaintance with a number of scholarly studies on Paul and Galatians. 

In the course of the presentation, he drew contrasts between the more negative and even caustic references to “the circumcision party”, “Judaizers” and the Torah in Galatians (and also Philippians), and the more positive references to “Israel” and the Jewish people in Romans (esp. chaps. 9-11).  But, of course, as I pointed out in the ensuing discussion, in Galatians (and Philippians too) Paul seems to be critical of fellow Jewish Christians, not because they were Jews, but because they were apparently seeking to impose Torah-observance (including male-circumcision) on Paul’s (former pagan) converts as an additional requirement for full recognition as co-religionists with them.  It was this “Judaizing” stance, i.e., the view that baptized pagans had to become Jewish, that Paul opposed, and his opponents (I repeat) were Jewish believers in Jesus.  So, because their stance seemed to Paul to call into question the sufficiency of Jesus, and because it also represented to him an interference in his gentile-mission (the terms of which he believed he had received directly from God), he went at the matter with full force (and in places some serious vituperation).

But in Romans (esp. 9-11), his subject is the Jewish people and their future in God’s redemptive plan, an altogether different subject.  So, in this setting there is no vituperation, and, instead, Paul holds out that astonishing and yet confident hope for the eventual redemptive “fullness” of “all Israel”.  This isn’t a change in his view, or a contradiction, but a different issue.  (I should add that Akhtar readily agreed.)

Especially non-Jewish readers of Paul need to be sensitive to the specifics of Paul’s letters.  Each is shaped very much by the specific situation(s) being addressed.  Paul was a flexible thinker, and seems to have been able to hold together ideas and convictions that can appear to be in tension with one another.  (Indeed, it seems rather clear that subsequent Christianity found it much more difficult to maintain these tensions, and tended to slide off in one direction or another.)  But I don’t think he was (at least in his own mind) contradictory or confused. 

Paul’s only critique of the Torah (Jewish Law) was when some fellow Jewish believers tried to impose it as an additional requirment for salvation upon his pagan converts.  He had no problem with fellow Jews observing Torah, Jewish Christians included, so long as they didn’t try to impose full Torah-observance upon baptized pagans.  He certainly seems to have insisted that Jews as well as pagans must recognize Jesus as God’s Son/Messiah, and held that Jewish failure to do so was a kind of unbelief and “hardening”.  But he also believed that God would ultimately deliver fellow Jews from this stance (Romans 11:25-32), showing “mercy” to all, both pagans and Jews.

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9 Comments
  1. David permalink

    Hello,

    You wrote: “He had no problem with fellow Jews observing Torah, Jewish Christians included, so long as they didn’t try to impose full Torah-observance upon baptized pagans.”

    Response: Paul said God’s commands should be kept (1 Cor. 7:19), speaking to the church at Corinth, which presumably included a fair number of baptized pagans.

    So, it seems Paul DID expect baptized pagans to grow in obedience to God’s commands. And, since God’s commands are contained in the written Torah of Moses (1 Ki. 2:3), it would appear that Paul expected baptized pagans to grow in obedience to the written Torah of Moses.

    Do we agree?

    Thank you.
    David

    • David: As I indicated in my posting, Paul’s letters are occasional pieces and directed to the specific issues in the churches addressed. So, you have to compare all that he wrote, and not simply take one verse (such as you appear to do in citing 1 Cor 7:19 out of context), ignoring all else. Yes, when Paul felt that his converts weren’t taking seriously enough the need to conform their lives to God, he urged obedience to God’s commands, and could even cite specific passages from Torah (e.g., 1 Cor 9:8-12). But in other places he certainly also objected strenuously to any attempt to make Torah-observance an additional condition-of-salvation for his pagan converts, as esp. in Galatians, where this was the issue. Paul seems to have seen in the Torah both commands that remained valid expressions of divine will for behaviour, as well as other commands that served to mark off the Jewish people (e.g., food laws, circumcision, sabbath). The latter he did not require of his pagan converts. Most importantly, Paul consistently insisted that Jesus’ death and resurrection provided the sufficient basis for salvation, making a regime of Torah-observance obsolete, as a basis of relationship with God.

      • David permalink

        Thank you for your answer.

        We agree that Paul consistently insisted that Jesus’ death and resurrection provided the sufficient basis for salvation, making a regime of Torah-observance obsolete, as a basis of initiating a relationship with God.

        Nevertheless, it appears (at least to me) that a Pauline conception of Torah-observance (on the part of both Jewish and pagan believers) for the purpose of ongoing growth in sanctified behavioral maturity is confirmed by dozens of considerations, including:

        1. Paul obeyed Torah (Ac. 24:14; Ac. 28:17) and expected baptized pagans to imitate that obedience (1 Cor. 11:1; Php. 4:9).

        2. Sin (for Paul) was Torah-disobedience (Ro. 3:20; Ro. 7:7). Paul taught against sin (e.g., Ro. 6:15). Thus, Paul taught Torah-obedience.

        3. At Ro. 10:8 Paul favorably (without opposition) cites a passage (Dt. 30:14) which is found in a context (Dt. 30) that commands faithful Torah-obedience.

        4. Paul’s gospel upholds (not nullifies) the law (Ro. 3:31), so surely he would expect baptized pagans to grow in obedience to (not nullification of) the law.

        5. Paul viewed lawlessness as a bad thing (Ro. 6:19), so surely he would expect baptized pagans to grow in sanctified obedience to the law.

        6. Paul viewed the mind of the flesh as something that is opposed to Torah-obedience (Ro. 8:7), so the contrasted mind set on the Spirit (Ro. 8:6) must be subjected to Torah-obedience.

        7. Paul taught that one should cling to good (Ro. 12:9), and he taught that the law is good (Ro. 7:12). So, we infer Paul taught Torah-obedience.

        8. Paul taught that Gentiles share in the spiritual things of the Jews (Ro. 15:27), and the law is a spiritual thing (Ro. 7:14) of the Jews (Ro. 9:4). So, Paul viewed Gentiles as fellow Torah-obedient participants in covenant with God.

        9. Paul viewed Gentiles as no longer excluded from Israel or from the (Torah-laden) covenants (Eph. 2:11-13). So Paul expected Gentiles to grow in Torah-obedience.

        10. Paul viewed Jesus as initiating the New Covenant (1 Cor. 11:25) in which Torah is written upon one’s heart (cf. Jer. 31:33). So Paul expected all believers to grow in obedience to Torah.

        So, it appears that Paul WOULD expect baptized pagans to grow in sanctified maturity to the point where they eventually obey food laws, infant circumcision, and Sabbath.

        And unless I’ve misread you, I see no evidence to support your apparent assertion that Paul viewed Sabbath or food laws (or even infant circumcision) as for the purpose of marking off (or distinguishing) the Jewish people from baptized pagan believers.

        Finally, adult male Gentile convert circumcision is not required in the law, so that explains why Paul could expect baptized Gentiles to obey Torah (1 Cor. 7:19), and in the same breath, express opposition to adult male Gentile convert circumcision (1 Cor. 7:19-20).

        What do you think?

        Thank you for sharing!

        David

      • David: I’ve printed in full your comment so that you and other readers can see the nature of your reasoning, which is entirely inferential and assumption-laden. You provide no text in Paul where he commands obedience to the Torah by his converts. That’s significant. All you can show (which I’ve already observed myself) is that (1) Paul regarded Torah as a valid historical revelation of God, and that (2) he continued to draw upon Torah for behavioral guidance in some matters. This latter is likely what Paul meant by “the just requirement of the Law” to be “fulfilled in us who walk, not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit [of God]” (Rom 8:4). So, yes, there was in Paul’s view a certain symmetry between Torah and believers’ proper behavior, but it was limited to this “just requirement”, not the whole of Torah (including those commands specific/particular to Israel, such as sabbath, male-circumcision, food laws, clothing laws, etc.). Check out Paul’s urgent argument in Galatians 3:1–5:6, where Paul contrasts the former regime of Torah-obervance with the Christ-clothed existence that now is the divine regime, and warns his pagan converts against being “subject to the Law” (4:21). Likewise, in Rom 7:4-6, Paul portrays his readers as having “died to the Law through the body of Christ so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised . . . that we might bear fruit for God”.
        As for male circumcision, Paul’s Jewish-Christian opponents (whom he calls “the circumcision party”) certainly did hold that pagan males should be circumcised as the proper expression of their full commitment to the God of Israel and his requirements. Paul held that this would constitute making Christ insufficient for them, and so regarded it as completely wrong-headed.
        I think we’ve aired this sufficiently.

  2. Professor Hurtado,

    If, as you say, “Paul’s only critique of the Torah (Jewish Law) was when some fellow Jewish believers tried to impose it as an additional requirment for salvation upon his pagan converts,” what are we to make of a passage like 2 Corinthians 3.1-11, where Paul speaks of the law given to Moses on Sinai as a “ministry of death” and, while attributing a certain “glory” to that old “ministry,” declares that it is a “glory now set side?” (v. 7)

    I took a semester-long course on Galatians last year, which looked closely at that epistle and its relation to Paul’s other passages concerning the Torah. I confess I am still unable to square Paul’s extremely negative language about the Torah in that letter and in 2 Cor 3 with the idea that he could have seen any further positive function for the Law in the lives of Jesus-followers, whether Jews or Gentiles. The best sense I can make of Paul’s comments in Galatians, Romans, and elsewhere is that he acknowledged the place of the Law in God’s plan of salvation but thought that its importance was consigned to a past stage of salvation history, overshadowed by “faith in/the faithfulness of” Christ as the definitive marker of salvation.

    • Evan: See my response to “David”. Paul seems to me to have regarded Torah as obsolete as a basis for relationship with God, Jesus now being that for all. But he continued to regard Torah as a valid revelation for its (past) purpose, and some individual commands as remaining valid expectations for behavior of believers.

  3. ‘But in Romans (esp. 9-11), his subject is the Jewish people and their future in God’s redemptive plan, an altogether different subject. So, in this setting there is no vituperation, and, instead, Paul holds out that astonishing and yet confident hope for the eventual redemptive “fullness” of “all Israel”.’

    You are absolutely correct.

    How could Paul have had any vituperation towards the Jewish people?

    What they lacked had been somebody to preach to them. Paul writes in Romans 10 ‘ But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him?’ (NRSV)

    There is not a trace of vituperation there, although Paul then reveals that not all Jews have accepted the message he and his fellow Christians preach about Jesus.

  4. Dylan permalink

    Larry,
    Just a point of clarification: who exactly didn’t think it wasn’t necessary to have Greek for a PhD in NT? Because I do not recall that point be argued and I fear you might be unfairly misrepresenting your scholarly opponents.
    Regards,
    Dylan

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