Was Paul a Judaizer? “Of course not!” most will reflexively answer. For two thousand years, New Testament Bible teaching and Jewish history have developed an instinctive reaction to confidently categorize Judaism and Judaizing as things that Paul opposed.
Are these instincts and reflexes consistent with Paul and his apostolic vision? Is there a more nuanced answer to the question, “Was Paul a Judaizer?”
A substantial exploration of the nature of Paul’s Judaizing is beyond the scope of this blog post. I will be developing this concept more in a forthcoming book in which I will present the idea that the kingdom of God will be delayed and hindered so long as Paul is understood by both Christians and Jews as outside of or against Judaism. Understanding Paul inside (or within) Judaism and as a certain kind of Judaizer represents a massive and needed shift to advance the kingdom of God today. For now, you can also watch my related lecture, “The Unifying Judaizer,” delivered at Malchut 2020.
Let’s get back to the question, “Was Paul a Judaizer?” My answer is yes. In fact, I agree with my colleague Daniel Lancaster’s statement that “Paul was the biggest Judaizer of all time!” But Paul was a certain kind of Judaizer and it is not the kind that most people have in mind. By using the term “Judaizing,” I am not arguing that Paul intended Gentiles to go through proselyte conversion to become Jews. I am also not suggesting that Paul encouraged Gentiles to act in ways that the Torah and Judaism identify as commandments that specifically mark and delineate the Jewish people. On a theological and practical level, I am working within a framework that seeks to protect both Jewish and Gentile identities—as both are essential within the kingdom of God.  Thus, the term “Judaizing” can refer to the incorrect idea of trying to get Yeshua-following Gentiles to become Jews in order to have a full and equal standing with Jews in the kingdom of God. Paul opposed that idea forcefully. His gospel emphasized that “in Messiah,” Gentiles have a fully justified standing, as Gentiles, because they are “in Christ.”
Despite prevailing assumptions and usage, “Judaizing” can also refer positively to adopting or promoting a Jewish way of life, or Jewish worldview, that revolves around the God of Israel, the Torah of Israel, and the people of Israel. That is the kind of “Judaizing” that Paul dedicated his life to for members of the nations. In that sense, Paul was a Judaizer and his apostolic mission can be understood as calling the nations to convert to Judaism. So am I saying that Paul called Gentiles to convert to Judaism? My answer to this question is yes and no—because it depends on what we mean by conversion. This is one of the most important nuances in understanding Paul and his letters.
Clearly, Paul was against conversion on one level. He was against Yeshua-following Gentiles going through proselyte conversion and becoming nationally Jewish (i.e., part of “national Israel”). Rather, Paul instructed that they should remain members of the nations.  But becoming a Jew (a member of the nation of Israel) and practicing Judaism, or living “Jewishly,” are separate matters.
Based on Paul’s letters and instructions for his Gentile audience, he was unambiguously calling for the conversion of the nations from paganism and into a form of Judaism. Mark Nanos puts it this way:
Paul’s opposition to these non-Jews undertaking proselyte conversion to become Jews ethnically … should not be mistaken as opposition to these non-Jews beginning to observe Judaism, which he actually promotes. His letters consist precisely of instruction in the Jewish way of life for non-Jews who turn to Israel’s God as the one true God of all the nations; he enculturates them into God’s Guidance (Torah) without bringing them under Torah technically, since they do not become Jews/Israel. They are non-Jews who are learning, by Paul’s instructions, to practice Judaism. 
According to Dr. Nanos, Paul was not calling Gentiles to become Jews. However, he was calling them to practice a form of Judaism. Paul’s Judaism was a Judaism that was Messianic, apostolic,  apocalyptic, eschatological, Spirit-infused, or, we might even say, kingdom Judaism. One of my favorite ways of articulating Paul’s Judaism is to envision that Paul was advancing a Yeshua-centered Judaism. 
However we term Paul’s Judaism, it included an unprecedented phenomenon. In response to his gospel, former pagans now worshiped the God of Israel alone and stood with the nation of Israel with the fundamental caveat that Gentiles did not, and could not, become Israel.  In Paul’s mind, the fruit of his ministry among Gentiles within Judaism would clearly indicate that Yeshua is the Messiah and that the end of the ages that the prophets had spoken of had now broken in.
Paul was “Judaizing,” or “promoting Judaism” or a Jew-ish way of life, in order to bring about the kingdom unity that the prophets had spoken of between Israel and the nations. In the kingdom vision of the prophets, the nations would embrace the God of Israel, the Davidic King of Israel, and the righteous standards of Israel (aka “Torah”). In Paul’s “end of the ages” Judaism, the realities that the prophets had spoken of were beginning to unfold, in that Israel and the nations were worshiping God under one banner while maintaining their unique differences. In this sense, Paul was indeed a Judaizer!
- Daniel made this statement in his lecture, “Distinction Theology and Diversity in the Communities of Yeshua,” delivered at Malchut 2019 in Atlanta. The statement also appeared in a paper with the same title in Messiah Journal 134 (2019): 31-39.
- This is implied in Romans 3:29, where Paul says, “Is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also.”
- See Paul’s “rule” in 1 Corinthians 7:17-20.
- Mark Nanos, “Paul’s Non-Jews Do Not Become ‘Jews,’ But Do They Become ‘Jewish’? Reading Romans 2:25-29 Within Judaism, Alongside Josephus,” Journal of the Jesus Movement in Its Jewish Setting (JJMJS) 1 (2014): 51
- Anders Runesson suggests that the term “apostolic Judaism” would be applicable to the early Jesus movement, including with respect to Paul and his communities. See his article “The Question of Terminology: The Architecture of Contemporary Discussions on Paul” in Mark D. Nanos and Magnus Zetterholm, eds., Paul within Judaism: Restoring the First-Century Context to the Apostle (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2015), 67-68.
- The term “Yeshua-centered Judaism” is included in my synagogue’s vision statement, which can be found at tikvatdavid.org/vision. This is one indication that the ideas articulated in this article have concrete expressions in current times.
- This statement does not dismiss the possibility that Paul had a limited place for conversion in his thinking. Rather, the emphasis here is that Paul’s general rule was that Gentiles cannot convert to become Jews, because such a practice undermines realities that characterize the Messianic Era, which he was convinced had started. To gain a sense of the landscape of the topic of conversion within Messianic Judaism, see Richard Harvey’s paper at https://www.kesherjournal.com/article/the-conversion-of-non-jews-to-messianic-judaism-a-test-case-of-membership-and-identity-in-a-new-religious-movement/
- I first observed Dr. Mark Nanos inserting a hyphen in “Jew-ish,” thus creating an adjectival sense in relation to Gentiles. Dr. Nanos also speaks similarly of “Jewish-ish Gentiles.”
- Looking to Messianic times, Isaiah 2:2-4 envisions the nations going to Jerusalem to learn Torah, and Zechariah 8:23 envisions the nations grasping “the robe of a Jew, saying, ‘Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.’”