Was the apostle Paul Jewish or Christian? If you go by the section headings in your Bible, it is clearly stated that Paul converted [to Christianity]. But did he? Did he ever quit being a Pharisee or a Jew? Also, what was Paul’s general attitude towards the Law of God?
Before we jump into Paul’s letters, we need to get a quick overview of who he was. Most people know that he was a Pharisee (he calls himself the Pharisee of Pharisees). Consider these two scriptures:
“Brothers [he is addressing the Jewish council], I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees. It is with respect to the hope and resurrection of the dead that I am on trial.” Acts 22:6 (ESV)
“Brothers [he is addressing fellow Jews in Rome] though I had done nothing against our people or the customs of our fathers…” Acts 28:17 (ESV)
Near the end of his life he is maintaining that he is still both a Pharisee and following the customs of his people. He also makes the very important comment that highlights what is behind the hatred towards him: his hope and belief in the resurrection of the dead.
In other words, he was still Jewish, but believed God had raised Yeshua (Jesus) from the dead and through him, everyone has this hope, as given forth in the scriptures (which was only the Tanakh, or “Old Testament”, at that time.)
A couple more scriptures:
“…stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us…” 2.Thess. 2:15 (ESV)
“Now I commend you because you…maintain the traditions…” 1.Corinthians 11:2 (ESV)
Not only did Paul remain Jewish, he even taught Gentiles some of the traditions!
[A quick side comment. Paul did not change his name from “Saul” to “Paul”. He was born in a Gentile city and, even today, a Jew born outside of Israel will have both a Hebrew name and a Gentile name. Paul simply started using his Gentile name as he realized his main focus was to be Gentiles.]
Did Paul have a negative view of “the Law”? Here are a couple scriptures to remember:
“…but the doers of the law will be justified.” Romans 2:13 (ESV)
“So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.” Romans 7:12 (ESV)
The point of all the scriptures that I have shared is to show a broad overview of Paul. I’m not trying to form a theology with these quotes. If, as many Christians claim, Paul renounced Judaism and the Law, then he must have been a schizophrenic, and I certainly would not want to give heed to his writings in that case. But he isn’t schizophrenic, and his words are relevant, challenging, and at times hard to understand. We need to understand this background of Paul to be able to understand all his writings.
Here is a last thought about Paul. Of all the people God could have chosen as an apostle to the Gentiles, God chose a highly educated Pharisee! Have you ever asked, ‘why?’ Why didn’t God choose someone like a fisherman or tax collector, as many of the other apostles were? Because God knew that the person going to the gentiles would need a solid understanding of the Law in order to counter all the weird ideas that the Gentiles would bring in, as well as countering false ideas that other Jews would bring in.
And we need to remember that above all else: Paul had to address a wide-ranging, often eclectic set of views, opinions, traditions, and mind-sets. He did this well, but, in the words of the apostle Peter, “There are some things in them [Paul’s writings] that are hard to understand…” 2.Peter.3:16 (ESV)
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