The Apostle Paul’s Background – Is He Jewish or Christian or ???

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)

  • Yosef

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Paul’s Writings and Life – Intro

The apostle Peter writes in 2 Pet. 3:16, “…there are some things in them that are hard to understand [in Paul’s letters], which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures.”  (ESV)  Peter wrote this for a good reason.  Paul’s writings are often hard to understand, especially when the ‘other Scriptures’ are ignored.  Those ‘other Scriptures’ that Peter is referring to are the Tanakh (the “old Testament”).  If one losses sight of who Paul was, and what he grew up with, and both the Jewish culture and the cultures Paul was working with, one can twist Paul’s words to mean just about anything.  This blog will attempt to set the record straight on quite a bit of what Paul wrote, but I’m not claiming I understand all either.  Thus comments are welcome and wanted!

There are a couple facts that one has to be able to accept before even beginning to undergo such an adventure.  The first fact has to do with the English translations of the Bible.

Translations are just that: translations.  They are not the originals.  Translating text from one language to another is difficult enough to do without changing meanings and thoughts.  It becomes harder when poetry and religious texts are involved.  And it is even harder when the originating culture’s world view is different then the target culture.  All of this comes together in our English translations, and on top of everything, the translators often have an agenda they either consciously or unconsciously promote.

Even worse is that Paul’s letters bridge several cultures.

Paul is a Hebrew, and the Hebrew language and culture is diametrically opposite to the Greek and Roman cultures. 

For one thing, Greek is very much about philosophy and thought, and Hebrew is more about action.  This, and other background info, will be brought up as the series progresses.

As for the translations themselves, the first thing to understand is that the titles over sections in the Bible are not actually there.  They are added by the translators to “help” people understand what is going on.  Often, though, the translators add their own bias to what they think is going on.

Turn your Bible to the book of Acts, chapter 9.  Most Bibles will have the title, “The Conversion of Saul” above the beginning of Acts 9:1.  And this is pretty much accepted as fact.  But it isn’t true.  Saul didn’t convert to anything.  Read the entire book of Acts closely.   Even at the end of the book he is stating how he continues being a Pharisee and living the Jewish traditions.  He didn’t convert.  He did, however, come to know Yeshua (Jesus) as the promised Messiah.

Neither did Paul suddenly change his name. 

Just about every Jew has a Hebrew name, and if born or living in a non-Jewish country, then they have a gentile name.  Consider Daniel, who was giving the name Beltshazzar, and Esther, whose real name is Hadassah.  It’s a long standing tradition.

To sum up, this series will be dealing with Paul and his teachings, keeping all in the context of the cultures and languages used.   There are some surprising, and even some humorous differences between the traditional Christian understandings and this view.

As always, this is meant to ignite a love for God’s word, and for us to grow closer to Him.

  • Yosef

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