In 2004, Pauline scholar Dr. Mark Nanos wrote a statement in his book Paul and Judaism. His writing was indicative of a trend in Pauline scholarship that has gained traction in the years since:
The investigation of Paul and Judaism has traditionally proceeded as if what was written was Paul or Judaism, with the understanding that these referents represent two different religious systems, but in the sense of Paul within or representing Judaism, even a Judaism, little work has been done to date. Interpreters do not write of Paul’s Judaism or the Judaism of Paul, and never of Judaism’s Paul.
I am thankful that since 2004, Dr. Nanos and others have written much to develop the idea of Paul within Judaism. Today, I am glad to be writing about “Paul’s Judaism.” This is progress! Yet, not everyone would agree.
For two thousand years, there has not been much debate among Christians and Jews regarding Paul and Judaism. Both groups widely and confidently affirm that Paul left Judaism in favor of Christianity. For Jews, historically speaking, Paul is largely seen as an ex-Jew who established Christianity to replace Judaism. Orthodox Jewish Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo says, “It was Paul of Tarsus, in the New Testament, who identified the problem and consequently sought to wage war on Halacha [Jewish law]…Paul claimed that because Judaism failed to recognize this basic fact, it actually failed as a religion altogether, and had nothing left to offer humankind.” Rabbi Cardozo’s statement is characteristic of how the Jewish people have assessed Paul since his time.
Ironically, though Christians and Jews disagree about Jesus’ messianic status, they agree that Jesus’ followers, led by Paul, severed their connection to Judaism in the generations following the time of Jesus. The popular and influential Christian pastor, teacher, and theologian John MacArthur says, “Paul was, yes, in every whit a Christian… but the transition takes time and old features of Judaism died slowly even in Paul’s life…Judaism in God’s eyes is a dead issue, but believe me, the burial took an awfully long time…You see, it was a very difficult thing for the Jews to sever their relationships with Judaism even though they came to Jesus Christ.” 
The above statements from Rabbi Cardozo and Dr. MacArthur are not isolated, fringe perspectives. Rather, they represent prevailing Jewish and Christian viewpoints that interpret Paul outside or against Judaism. This has led both religious communities to draw damaging conclusions about key biblical texts written about Paul and by Paul. The practical outcomes of these conclusions have included a long history of division and hostility between Christians and Jews. Changing the prevailing narrative about Paul’s relationship to Judaism is a critical component in advancing the kingdom of God today and in the future. In other words, we need to change the way we think about Paul because Paul practiced Judaism his entire life, and Paul expected the recipients and practitioners of his letters to practice Judaism as well. But what kind of Judaism?
The Judaism(s) of Paul’s Day and Ours
Judaism, both in Paul’s day and in ours, is not monolithic. In Paul’s day, Judaism had many forms and sub-groups. The Pharisees and Sadducees are well-known because of their prominence in the New Testament. The Judaism practiced by groups in the Dead Sea region, such as the Essenes, is highlighted in studies that feature the Dead Sea Scrolls. There were many other sub-groups of Judaism in Paul’s day.
In modern times, Judaism has a broad landscape as well. The major categories of Judaism today include Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist. Organizations like First Fruits of Zion are laboring toward the day when broader Judaism will acknowledge Messianic Judaism as a legitimate form of Judaism. Currently, that is not the case.
In establishing a taxonomy for Judaism, some have tried to make the case that Christianity is a form of Judaism. I do not agree with that viewpoint. Despite the vast differences within ancient and modern forms of Judaism, they all share the general conviction that Judaism is the Torah-based way of life for the Jewish people. Defining how a “Torah-based way of life” should be lived out varies widely from one Judaism to the next, but that basic idea is shared across both ancient and modern forms of Judaism.
Christianity, with all the beauty and good within it, does not share the conviction that the Torah defines the way of life for the people of God. There are exceptions, but generally speaking, Christianity developed based on an understanding of Paul and a reading of the rest of the Bible that values Torah observance as optional at best and dangerous at worse. However, this is not how things were at the beginning of the Jesus movement. I maintain that this was not how Paul lived; it was not what he emphasized, and it was not part of his vision for Jews or Gentiles who embraced Jesus as the Messiah. Paul, as a passionate emissary for Jesus, was dedicated to spreading Judaism for the whole world in light of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Nevertheless, Paul’s Judaism was and remains unique.
Paul’s Judaism = Revolutionary
Paul’s Judaism was and is a Jesus-centered Judaism for Israel and the nations. Paul expected his disciples, both Jewish and non-Jewish, to love and keep Judaism—as was appropriate for each group. For Jews in Paul’s day, Judaism was a way of life that was assumed. According to Paul’s Judaism, Gentile Christ-followers had an equal standing with the people of God within Jewish space, and it was a radical threat to the status quo of his day. Reintroducing Paul’s Judaism, not only as an idea but also as something with practical and modern ramifications for both Judaism and Christianity, is a radical threat to the status quo of ours.
The Apostle Paul’s Judaism was not only unique, it was also revolutionary. In Paul’s mind, the death and resurrection of Jesus meant that the end of the ages had broken in. We can conceptualize Paul’s Judaism as an “apostolic” or “end-times” Judaism. Because the end-times “age of the prophets” had broken in, Paul was convinced that the Gentiles now needed to abandon their native gods and embrace the good news about Israel’s God, Israel’s redeemer, and Israel’s standards of righteousness. In other words, we can think of Paul in terms of spreading a “Judaism for Gentiles.” But in the mind of the apostle, it was Judaism nonetheless.
Contrary to deeply rooted prevailing viewpoints, Paul had no objective to create a new, Torah-free religion that had been liberated from Judaism. Never did he imagine that the followers of Jesus would one day divorce themselves from the Torah, the Jewish people, and the land of Israel. In Paul’s mind, the Jesus movement was a sub-group of Judaism.
For Paul, Judaism was the Torah-based way of life that God had ordained for the Jewish people to flourish and fulfill their mission in the world. In light of the resurrection of Jesus and the inauguration of the Messianic Era of which prophets before him spoke, Paul emphasized that the time had come for Gentiles to leave paganism and enter into the realm of Judaism. Paul’s gospel’s fundamental key is that Gentiles should and must remain as Gentiles within this “Jesus-centered” Judaism.
If this idea is correct, and the real, historical Paul was a “Paul within Judaism,” then it represents a massive change in thinking that needs to occur for both Christians and Jews about how we understand Paul. Suppose our thinking and understanding of Paul and his letters undergoes a significant change. In that case, this will affect how his letters are applied, especially for those who embrace Paul’s apostolic authority. Such changes could serve as a catalyst for the kind of prophetic restoration for which Paul longed.
- Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo, Jewish Law as Rebellion (Jerusalem, Israel: Urim Publications, 2018), 117.
- Cited online: https://www.gty.org/library/sermons-library/1768/from-judaism-to-jesus-part-1--paul-in-transition