Torah and New Testament, #2

The people of Israel was precious before the church arose,
and the law was marvelous before the gospel was elucidated.
But when the church arose and the gospel took precedence,
the model was made void, conceding its power to the reality . . .
The people was made void when Christ arose.
-Melito of Sardis, On Pascha.

For many, Melito’s words sum up the message of Paul. Christian scholarship in New Testament circles followed this line of reasoning with tragic consequences in World War II. There is a definite correspondence between this reading of Paul and the Holocaust. To anyone unaware of the sad contribution of Christian scholarship to the justifications of Naziism, I am sorry to be the bearer of bad news. Again, I recommend you read R. Kendall Soulen’s The God of Israel and Christian Theology. Or you might check Barry Horner, Future Israel, for some more Reformed and conservative Protestant commentary on the matter.

The gospel of Paul to the gentiles was tragically misunderstood (and still is in many quarters). The situation in Pauline studies today is much better. The “New Perspective” on Paul is much more amenable to a Jewish-friendly reading of Paul (although, some in the New Perspective category continue to say that for Paul Torah is obsolete).

I might sum the situation up this way: gentiles receiving the gospel in the first century were like those who come late to a conversation and miss an essential point. How did Paul’s message come to be mistaken for something it is not? How can we explain this unnecessary reading of Shaul the Pharisee?

First, for anyone fairly new to discussions of Paul and Judaism, here is a basic point that illustrates the problem. This is the Paul of Christian children’s literature. Recently on Facebook someone commented to me that they had just run across this very thing. It is the old chestnut about Paul versus Saul. The Sunday School version goes like this: Saul, a Jew, discovered Christ, converted, and got a new name: Paul the Christian.

Never mind that the New Testament provides dozens of examples that should prove otherwise to any reader. Never mind that Shimon (Simon) also had a Greek name, Peter. Never mind that in the Greco-Roman world Jews from the land of Israel frequently had both Hebrew-Aramaic names and Greek names (Honi-Onias, Yohanan-Markos, Silas-Silvanus, Joseph-Justus, etc.).

Paul has even been thought to have been of small stature physically, largely because his Greek name (Paulos) means little. But he would likely have been given both names, Shaul (Saul) and Paulos (Paul), as an infant. He may have been of normal or even large stature for all we know, at least as far as the evidence from his name is concerned.

Saul the Jew is also Paul the Pharisee. Paul the Christ-follow is also Saul the Christ-follower. But when his mission became the gentiles, his associations largely came to be in the Greco-Roman world where Paul was more familiar. He did not, like Abraham, have some sort of name change to mark a shift in his religious experience.

And now for the main question: how did Paul come to be so misunderstood as the inventor of a new religion, the anti-Torah apostle? Part of the problem is that an idea occurred to the church fathers which I doubt ever occurred to Paul or the Jewish apostles and first generation leaders: that the Jewish way of life should come to an end through faith in Yeshua.

Simply put: Paul did not have to say in his letters, “these instructions on way of life are specifically intended for gentiles” or “my fellow Jews in Messiah, keep the commandments and traditions.” The Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) did not have to deliberate about the status of the Law of Moses for Jewish adherents of Messiah. It was a given that Torah and Jewish life in Messiah were a unity.

Paul’s letters are instructions for the gentile churches. People will object: but there were some Jews in those congregations. That may be. But what Jewish practitioners did not need was a letter about a way of life. They already had a way of life. It was the gentiles who needed to learn a new way, forsaking Greco-Roman ideas in some cases concerning morality.

People will object: but Jew and gentile are one in Messiah. Well, so are men and women, husbands and wives. Unity does not eliminate diversity. The best unity, as in marriage, is unity in diversity. Maleness and femaleness are not eliminated any more than Jewish identity and the national or ethnic identity of non-Jewish peoples. Cappadocian Christians and diaspora Messianic Jews were in unity, but not uniformity.

Try reading Paul’s letter according to this paradigm. His instructions are not against Torah, but against the requirement that gentiles keep Jewish-specific commands as if this is the only way to be right with God.

Simply, Paul’s gospel includes this element: gentiles don’t have to live like Jews to be kosher to God.

In #3, examples of statements about Torah and Jewish identity in Paul and how they relate to the question.

This entry was posted in Bible, Gentiles, Gospel, Judaism, Judeo-Christian, messianic, Messianic Jewish, Messianic Judaism, Paul. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Torah and New Testament, #2

  1. James says:

    One of the points I was trying to make the other day on my blog (I won’t “push it” by posting another “spamming” link to the article) was that it was inevitable that the Gentile Christian church split off from the Messianic Jewish synagogue. I’m currently writing a series about personal significance and meaning, but I think communities need significance in their identity, too.

    As you so rightly point out Derek, part of Paul’s message was that Gentile disciples didn’t (and still don’t) have to take on the full yoke of Torah but, as we’ve seen in the modern MJ movement, particularly in OL/TH circles, there’s a problem with the non-Jewish believers somehow feeling like “second-hand citizens” under those circumstances. I think for the Gentile Christian communities of the post-Second Temple era to establish and maintain their own significance, and particularly since they didn’t depend on their Jewish mentors to learn the halachah of the day (since most of it didn’t apply to them), they found it necessary to separate from the Jews and the Jewish practices and establish a sort of “Gentile halachah” (some of which you’ve been quoting from).

    This resulted in a shift from “Jewish disciples keep the Mosaic covenant and Gentile disciples keep the Messianic covenant (for lack of a better term) because of the difference in meaning the Messiah has to Jew and Gentile” -to- “Jewish and Gentile disciples now keep the Messianic covenant which has replaced the Mosaic covenant because of everything the Messiah changed”. In other words, the Gentile Christians leveled the playing field, not only in terms of being “co-heirs” of God’s love but co-heirs of status and obligation. This plays out like a very early effort at religious political correctness. Everyone is “the same” and differences are considered non-PC.

    • Carl Kinbar says:

      “I’m currently writing a series about personal significance and meaning, but I think communities need significance in their identity, too.”

      So true, James. And the two are indelibly linked. Scripturally, believers are addressed as part of a covenant community. Reading the Bible as if it is addressed to disconnected individuals is a profound though common misunderstanding of God’s intent.

      • James says:

        The tremendous struggle the early Gentile disciples had was to find a way to integrate into an already well-established structure of worship and halachah that didn’t fully apply to them. Ultimately, they couldn’t establish a sustainable identity within the Messianic sect of normative Judaism resulting in the “birth” of early Gentile Christianity. This also helped preserve the Jewish identity of the post-second temple Jewish disciples, but ultimately, as the friction between the two groups increased, so did the emphasis on different identity markers in order that one group not be mistaken for the other.

        Now here we are again, 20 centuries later.

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  4. Yosef Ben Marques says:

    Derek I like one of your opinions stronger than all the others: “gentiles receiving the gospel in the first century were like those who come late to a conversation and miss an essential point”. They missed “the Jewish way of life (that never ) should come to an end through faith in Yeshua in their lives. Diversity is one think, but for me and many others we will follow Yeshua and the apostles way of life, not the man made diversity created after them.

    • Derek Leman says:


      Christianity has many traditions. That is what should happen when the gospel goes into many cultures. You look at them and say: “I don’t fit in there.” Right. You should not fit into them all.

      But instead you have chosen a back-to-the-Bible approach. There are a few problems with your thinking:
      (1) You’re not really back to the Bible. You simply have chosen a few things to emulate from biblical times.
      (2) The apostles said gentiles are not bound by the whole Torah.
      (3) You can’t meaningfully keep Torah separated from the community of Torah (Judaism).

      I understand a desire to bring back some biblical ways of living. I believe there is a way to do this for non-Jews, a Judeo-Christian tradition which respects Judaism and Christianity and looks to both for light and tradition. Now, if you try that, you might come up with something beautiful.

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