A “Law-Free” Apostle Paul?
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!