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A “Law-Free” Apostle Paul?

October 27, 2016

For a brisk and characteristically incisive discussion, read Paula Fredriksen’s article that challenges the notion that the Apostle Paul forsook Torah-observance and discouraged others from The Torah as well:  “Why Should a ‘Law-Free’ Mission Mean a ‘Law-Free’ Apostle?” Journal of Biblical Literature 134 (2015): 637-50.  The article draws on and anticipates arguments in her forthcoming book, Paul, the Pagans’ Apostle (Yale University Press).

Fredriksen grants that Paul firmly believed that he was called to summon pagans to abandon their idolatry and to trust in Christ as the basis for their new relationship to the God of Israel and the multi-nation family of Abraham.  So, Paul vigorously opposed efforts to require his gentile converts to take on the sort of Torah-observance that would represent a proselyte conversion to Judaism.

Paul insisted that his former pagans who turned to God and Christ must remain gentiles, believing that this represented the fulfilment of biblical prophecies that the nations would come to the God of Israel . . . not as proselytes, but as the “nations,” “gentiles.”  So, to require a Torah-conversion of them would be to work against what Paul believed was the fulfilment of God’s eschatological will.  Moreover, to impose Torah-conversion on these pagans would effectively treat their trust in Christ (and so Christ himself) as an insufficient basis for a full relationship with God.  It would relativize Jesus, making their baptism simply a nice first step that required completion in a Torah-conversion.

But Fredriksen also rightly contends that Paul’s conviction about the basis on which his pagan converts should come to God is one thing, and how Paul saw his own relationship to Torah quite another.  Granted, when among his gentile converts, Paul no doubt had to take liberties in such matters as food, etc., as he seems to describe briefly (and rhetorically) in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23.  But the exigencies of his gentile mission don’t mean that he renounced Torah altogether, or that he threw off any responsibility to maintain his Jewish identity.

Subsequent Christian theologians (from the second century onward) have presumed otherwise, making Torah-observance serve as some kind of alternative (and inferior) form of religiousness to pit over against trust in Christ.  Indeed, even Jewish believers in Christ were condemned if they continued to observe Torah as incompatible with their commitment to Christ.  But, as Fredriksen cogently argues, this was all a misguided and fallacious adaptation of Paul’s arguments against gentile Torah-conversion.

Indeed, as Fredriksen contends, in requiring his pagan converts to abandon their ancestral gods (“idolatry”), Paul was enforcing the central requirement of Torah:  to serve the one God alone!

  1. It’s interesting what Paul states in 1Cor 9:20, though: – I myself am not under the law -. So Paul seems to be an example of a Jew who considers himself no (longer) under the law?

    • Lorenzo: But the question is what “under the law” (υπο νομον) means. It’s an expression used only by Paul in the NT, and in all uses appears to = to live under Torah as a regime of life in relation to God (Rom 6:14-15; Gal 4:4-5; 5:18; 1 Cor 9:20 (4x). But in Paul’s view, now that Christ has died and been raised it is no longer appropriate to treat Torah as the basis for one’s relationship with God. But, as in Gal 4:4, prior to that even Jesus was born and lived “under Torah.” So, not to be “under Torah” doesn’t = throwing it over or abandoning it altogether. Instead, “not under Torah” = treating Christ as the basis for one’s relationship with God. But Jewish believers (such as Paul) can continue to observe Torah, not as the basis of their “salvation” but as part of their particular ethnic responsibility.

      • Thank you! I was sure that things were a bit more complicated than they looked. I’m now trying to possibly drag a conclusion “ad usum Delphini”: Jews(-christians) believers like Paul could consider the Torah as not useful for “salvation” (which is now in Christ), but they continue to observe it for ethnic/religious distinctiveness and because it’s the gift of God’s love to the Jews people. Am I correct? Thank you again for your time.

      • Your summary seems to me to capture the point I was trying to make.

  2. Robert permalink

    “The issue in the Antioch incident in Gal 2 was whether Jewish believers should share a fellowship meal with pagan converts …”

    Larry, that was precisely my point from the beginning: “The biggest difficulty seems to have been table fellowship in general or the Lord’s meal specifically in mixed communities or with visitors from other communities. …”

  3. Robert permalink

    Hi, Larry. The biggest difficulty seems to have been table fellowship in general or the Lord’s meal specifically in mixed communities or with visitors from other communities. This seems obvious from Gal 2,11-14. It does seem as if Peter (and Cephas for a while) must have considered some Jewish communal eating practices nonbinding or irrelevant, at least in those communal situations.

    • ER, ah, Kephas is Peter, not two different people. And the problem in Antioch wasn’t dining practice practices, or what was on the table, but who was at the table, this particular table: To share the Jesus-meal, meant to treat all participants as fully co-religionists. And the “men from James” seem to have insisted that pagan converts weren’t fully converted if they didn’t also convert to Jewish Torah-observance.

      • Robert permalink

        Oops, sorry. I mistyped Peter when I meant to say Paul:

        It does seem as if Paul (and Cephas for a while) must have considered some Jewish communal eating practices nonbinding or irrelevant, at least in those communal situations.

        Note the text of Galatians regarding Cephas practices:

        “… he used to eat with the Gentiles. But after they [some people from James] came, he drew back and kept himself separate … But when I saw they were not acting consistently with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, …”

      • Robert: The incident in Antioch wasn’t over eating with “gentiles” in general, but specifically over sharing the fellowship meal with gentile converts to the Jesus-movement who had not also become Torah-proselytes. Initially, Peter is willing to do this. But under pressure from “men from James” shifts his practice. The issue isn’t whether Peter did or didn’t observe Torah, but whether gentile converts to the Jesus movement had to do so.

      • Robert permalink

        I understand that this was a key issue regarding Gentile converts, certainly, but Paul characterized his conflict with Cephas as having to do with a change in Cephas’ general behavior once the envoys of James arrived. Previously, according to Paul, Cephas was ‘behaving as a Gentile and not living as a Jew’ in the context of the Antioch community. That seems more general regarding Cephas’ behavior in the Antioch community than the specific issue of Gentile converts participating in the Lord’s meal with Jewish followers of Jesus.

      • Robert: We have a problem in knowing exactly what Paul meant in accusing Peter of “living gentileishly” (hyparchon ethnikos) in Gal 2:14. He doesn’t specify things, and it’s obviously a somewhat rhetorical phrase. But there’s no reason to impute some wholesale throwing over of Torah-observance or principled rejection of Torah as now totally passe. The full data of Paul’s letters makes it more complicated than that.

    • Robert permalink

      I completely agree and certainly never meant to imply such a false dichotomy. I do not think that Paul anywhere implies anything like a “wholesale throwing over of Torah-observance or principled rejection of Torah as now totally passe.” Not at all.

      But there’s a lot of room between such and limiting the issue to whether or not uncircumcised converts should be allowed to participate in the Lord’s meal with Jewish followers of the Jesus’ teachings. Somewhere in this middle ground, Paul is indeed focusing on Cephas’ actions in this communal context. While we do not know exactly the extent of Cephas’ behavior in the Antioch that Paul is referring to as ‘Cephas being gentileishly and not living in a Jewish manner’, it does sound like more than participating in a Gentile Lord’s supper.

      While I certainly cannot imagine that Paul (or Cephas) would endorse the idea of separate Lord’s meals for Jewish followers and Gentile followers of Jesus’ teachings, I can indeed imagine that Cephas and Paul both would see themselves as being all things to all people while residing in a mixed or largely Gentile community in Antioch.

      I suspect we are probably dealing with extra-biblical Pharisaic (fence around the law) regulations that more rigorously defined table fellowship and related issues surrounding interaction between Jews and Gentiles living outside of Judea or Israel. There’s lots of gray area here and differing approaches of various Jews at this time to this wide spectrum of issues.

      The men from James may indeed have been exposed to a Gentile community of Jesus’ followers for the first time during this visit and they may have been somewhat shocked and bewildered. It may be that Cephas was bending over backwards to make them feel more at home. It may even be that James wanted his envoys to experience something of the freedom that Cephas (and Paul) experienced in Gentile communities. There’s so much we cannot know about this encounter and how it was variously perceived by the multiple participants and onlookers. I wonder if Paul considered approaching Cephas privately before confronting him publicly.

      • OK. I think you’ve carried speculations into unhelpful heights. I repeat: The issue in the Antioch incident in Gal 2 was whether Jewish believers should share a fellowship meal with pagan converts, not about whether Jewish believers should continue to observe Torah as part of their ethnic obligation to God. Let’s let this one go.

  4. Julian permalink

    Prof. Hurtado,

    I’m curious what advice you think Paul would give to a present day Jew who came to believe that Jesus is the Messiah. Would he instruct him to continue to live as a Jew and keep Torah? Or would he advise him to give all that up and just join a church?

    • I suspect that he would expect them to live like Jewish believers in Jesus: i.e., maintaining their Jewish identity while also recognizing former pagans as fellow/eschatological members of the multi-nation family of Abraham in Christ.

  5. Dr H.,
    A similar argument is made by R. Rodriguez in his commentary on Romans, ‘if you call yourself a Jew.” The question for me, based on what Paul has written in his letters, is how does Paul view the relationship between the Torah and salvation in Christ. Can anyone be tied to the Torah, not just in practice like modern ‘messianic Jews’, but in a way where their salvation is dependent on Torah observance. As I read Paul, Torah observance no longer is the source or means of a relationship with God, that is now tied up in Jesus. Can a Jew practice his Faith in Jesus through the Torah, yes as long as he doesn’t bind others to this observance nor rely on Torah in addition to or instead of Jesus for his relationship with God.


  6. Which is also Justin Martyr’s position in Dial. Tryph. when it comes to Jewish Christians. No problems with their Torah observant life as long as they don’t try to foster it on Gentiles.

  7. I cannot exegete 1 Corinthians 9:20f any other way than to conclude that Paul did not consider himself as Torah-abiding. Paul points to a fundamental change with the “Law of Christ” here.

    “To the Jews I became as a Jew”
    “to those who are under the Law”
    “though not being myself under the Law”

    He specifically addresses Ἰουδαῖοι, clearly separating himself from Jewish Torah obedience. Jews as Jews and Gentiles as Gentiles. But Paul as Christ-follower!

    20 To the Jews I became as a Jew, so that I might win Jews; to those who are under the Law, as under the Law though not being myself under the Law, so that I might win those who are under the Law; 21 to those who are without law, as without law, though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ, so that I might win those who are without law. 22 To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak; I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some. 23 I do all things for the sake of the gospel, so that I may become a fellow partaker of it.

    • Well, Michael, I respect your difficulty, but I don’t share it, in understanding Paul. To be sure, there are changes from his Pharisaic past. He no longer regards Torah-observance as the boundary marker for the elect, but recognizes now that even Torah-observant Jews must now put faith in Jesus. But this does not involve renunciation of Torah-observance as an identifying marker of Jewishness. And, yes, in that his mission requires him to eat and live among pagans (“gentiles”), this also requires him to relax his own Torah-observance for the sake of that mission.
      But there is no basis I can see for some sort of principled denunciation or rejection of Torah as the Law of God, instructive and partially applicable to gentiles (e.g., idolatry), and proper for Jewish believers to continue practicing . . . so long as they don’t require it of gentile believers.

      • I should have included a salutation in my last comment.

        Dr. Hurtado, I think there are two separate matters here. What Paul himself practices, and what early Jewish Christians practiced (both with respect to Torah). If Dr. Fredriksen affirms the former — if that is the sense in which she intends a negative verdict concerning “law free Apostle” — I believe it would merit an objection. It is not clear to me that Paul himself kept Torah. And at its more meaningful and distinctive points (Sabbath, circumcision, dietary laws) he dismisses Torah, and not simply for gentiles, but Jews as well (Gal 2:14).

        Concerning your second-to-last paragraph, it seems that rather than the dilemma of Torah observance being a matter of second-century Christian polemics, a more carefully qualified explanation should include some discussion of non-Christian Jewish antagonism beginning from the synagogues (and as observed in the NT), as well as the Jewish War and later Jewish revolt of AD 132-135 as having a tragic hand in fundamentally altering Jewish faith to the detriment of both Judaism and early Jewish Christianity.

        I always enjoy your blog.


      • We’ll have to disagree about Paul’s attitude and personal practice. I see him as maintaining a strong sense of his Jewishness, and continuing to regard Torah as instructive and a valid expression of God’s will . . . but not/no longer the basis for “salvation”, for Jews or pagans.
        As for your last paragraph, yes, there were various developments, but it’s rather clear that a major one was the growing anti-Jewish attitude of a then-dominantly gentile church.

  8. David Rudolph’s book A Jew to the Jews, is an excellent argument to this effect, focusing on 1 Corinthians 9. It has just appeared in a new edition (for which I wrote a foreword).

  9. Larry,
    I think this thesis is basically right, I argue similarly in “An Anomalous Jew: Paul among Jews, Greeks, and Romans.”

    I think we have to differentiate between Paul’s convictions (that many of the Torah’s regulations were now non-binding or irrelevant, see Rom 14.14) and Paul’s practices (1 Cor 9.19-21) where he was flexible in this matter.

    Given that Paul brought Gentiles to faith in Israel’s one God, he taught them to spurn idolatry, to avoid temples, to abstain from sexual immorality, and disallowed intermarriage with pagans, he was in a sense making his converts to judaize, not just as far as circumcision.

    • Yes, Mike, I’m glad you agree. I would adjust your wording (and perhaps your meaning) in your 2nd paragraph to say that Paul regarded many Torah obligations as “now non-binding or irrelevant” for gentile believers. I’d guess that he likely approved Jewish believers observing Torah rather fully . . . so long as it didn’t prevent them from treating gentile believers as full co-religionists.

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