I recently had the opportunity to give an FFOZ presentation called “Re-Thinking Paul” in which I suggested five ways to consider reappraising Paul from a Messianic Jewish perspective.
Personally, I love Paul and I enjoy healthy and productive discussions about the apostle in which we wrestle with the nature of his relationship with Judaism and his Jewish identity as a follower of Yeshua. Here are five points to consider:
1. In common Jewish thinking, on one level, Jesus is okay but Paul is the real bad guy.
This is not to say that the Jewish community loves Jesus. Not by a long shot. But on one level, it is fairly well understood in the Jewish community that Jesus was a faithful Jew who practiced Judaism. Generally speaking, the Jewish community has rejected Jesus’ messianic claims.
Claiming to be the Messiah is not the worst thing that a Jew can do. We’ve had lots of false messiahs. In the mind of the Jewish community, however (for those who have dug into this topic), it is Paul who is the real bad guy. Paul is seen as the one who started this new religion called Christianity, which is severed and divorced from Judaism. Paul is the one who is the self-hating Jew who seems to loathe both the Torah and Judaism. Of course, I don’t believe that to be true about Paul. But I do believe that this is how many in the Jewish community perceive Paul. These assumptions are important for us to understand as we re-think and restore the image of Paul.
2. Paul was called, but he was not converted.
In standard Christian thinking, “Saul the Jew” became “Paul the Christian.” Paul “converted” from Judaism to Christianity. One time, I had a Christian pastor of a large church who knew that I was Jewish ask me, “So when were you converted?” In other words, he wanted to know when I left the synagogue and joined the church. After all, that’s what happened with Paul and that’s what happens when Jews get saved, right? I don’t think this was Paul’s vision. Paul was “called” to proclaim Yeshua as Messiah, Master, and King. But he did not convert to a new religion.
3. Paul never left Judaism
Thinking of “Paul within Judaism” represents a significant paradigm shift for many people who love Yeshua. But I think that’s where the biblical data leads us. Here are some facts:
- Paul had a reputation for being Torah-observant (Acts 21:24).
- Paul personally testified to the Jewish leaders of Rome that his life was characterized as being faithful to the customs of Judaism (Acts 28:17).
- Paul continued to identify as a Pharisee, even as a believer in Yeshua (Acts 23:6).
It is possible to read Paul as “doing the Jewish thing” in order to simply be a good missionary witness to his Jewish brethren. In other words, maybe Paul kept the Torah as a means to an end (in other words, he continued to act Jewish in order to get Jews saved into Christianity - although I don’t think this is what Paul meant in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23). Personally, I don’t think that’s the best way to read Paul. I think Paul continued to practice Judaism, with Yeshua as his Rabbi, because Paul knew that continued covenant fidelity as a Jew was central to God’s kingdom program for him specifically, and for all Jews in general.
4. Paul expected Jesus-following Jews and Gentiles to practice a Jesus-centered Judaism, while remaining distinct in their respective calling as Jews and Gentiles.
I don’t think Paul or the apostles had any conception that following Jesus meant that Jews or Gentiles would operate outside of Judaism and Jewish space. That’s a very controversial issue, I know. It was certainly a controversial idea in the Apostolic Era—at least the part about Gentiles coming into Jewish space without having to become Jewish. But I think that the vision of Jesus and the apostles and the prophets was that Jews and Gentiles would follow King Jesus and keep Torah as it applies to each group. At First Fruits of Zion, we call that “Messianic Judaism for All Nations.”
Paul’s rule in all the churches was for Jews and Gentiles to remain in the condition in which they were called (1 Corinthians 7:17-20). Jews remain as Jews and Gentiles remain as Gentiles and we follow our Messiah together. In a nutshell, I think that’s the decision that was handed down at the massively important Jerusalem Council in Acts 15. And the rest of the New Testament, in one sense, takes that Council decision and unpacks it for the new and predominantly Gentile “Jesus communities” that were emerging all over the Roman Empire.
5. Paul’s heart for Israel’s salvation was not rooted in “family interests.” It was rooted in his understanding that Israel was called by God to lead the nations to follow their King.
As a new Jewish believer in Yeshua, when I asked a respected Bible teacher why Paul seemed to be so determined for the Jewish people to embrace Jesus, this teacher responded to me by saying, “Paul never got over being a Jew.” Gee whiz. Really? And this person was a highly sought after Christian seminar teacher and was part of a denomination that is very supportive of Israel. So is that it? Did Paul continue to be passionate about Israel’s salvation because he couldn’t get over being a Jew? I don’t think so. I think Paul wanted Israel to embrace Yeshua because he knew that when that happened it would lead to blessings for the whole world (Romans 11:15).
God’s plan was for for Israel to be a leader among the nations (Deuteronomy 28:13; Zechariah 8:23). I understand that when we say such a thing, many have a reflex against any notion that God “favors” Israel or that he “loves Israel more.” But we’re not talking about favoritism or a greater love by God for Israel. God is not partial (Romans 2:11). God does have specific roles for individuals and nations. I think Paul understood that when Israel recognized her King, it would lead to a world-wide explosion that would lead to the kingdom on earth.
At First Fruits of Zion, we have a deep love and respect for the church. But we also believe that there are major misconceptions about Paul in particular that need to be challenged. The points above are the start of a conversation. We look forward to more opportunities to discuss these issues with our brothers and sisters in the Messiah.