A Thoroughly Jewish Gospel: Rethinking Paul’s Righteousness, Christ-faith, and Works of the Law from within Judaism

What does it mean to interpret Paul from within Judaism? To some extent, the answer to that question seems fairly obvious and self-evident: it means to look to the beliefs, practices, and worldview of the Judaism of Paul’s day as a basis for understanding what he writes in his epistles.

I would argue, however, that interpreting Paul from within Judaism means something else as well.[1] Since patristic times, Paul’s epistles have been read on the basis of the assumption that Paul’s faith in Christ led him to break with Judaism in order to adopt a faith that stood in opposition to Judaism and represented an alternative to it, namely, Christianity.[2] To interpret Paul from within Judaism is to reject that assumption in favor of its opposite: that Paul’s thought can be understood properly only if it is viewed as being in continuity with the Judaism of his day.[3]

In general terms, of course, there is no question that Paul’s thought lies within the realm of Second Temple Jewish beliefs. He repeatedly cites the Scriptures of Israel and alludes to all of the themes and ideas that lay at the heart of Jewish faith and life. In fact, most of what Paul writes is scarcely comprehensible unless it is read and interpreted from within the Judaism of his day.

In a number of passages, however, Paul makes affirmations that seem not only un-Jewish but at times perhaps even anti-Jewish. He writes, for example, that in Christ circumcision and uncircumcision are “nothing,” as if circumcision no longer had any significance.[4] He declares that all things are lawful and clean and that nothing is unclean in itself.[5] He tells his readers that they are not under law but under grace, as if the law were not itself an expression of God’s grace.[6] He even affirms that the law holds people in constraint and confinement and places them under a curse.[7] In the same contexts, he speaks of believers in Christ being discharged from the law and becoming dead to it, as if this were something good and necessary.[8]

More importantly, however, some of the ideas that are most central to Paul’s gospel seem to place Paul outside the realm of Second Temple Jewish thought. Chief among these is his insistence that it is through faith in Christ or Christ-faith rather than through the observance of works prescribed by the law that one attains righteousness, since “no one will be justified by works of the law.”[9] On the basis of this idea, he also maintains that by means of that faith uncircumcised gentiles who do not observe the Mosaic law become just as righteous and acceptable before God as those Jews who do.[10] Yet rather than assuming that such affirmations represent a break with Judaism or a rejection of Jewish beliefs, if we examine them on the basis of the assumption that they are in continuity with Second Temple Jewish thought so as to attempt to understand them from within the Judaism of Paul’s day, we obtain a very different reading of Paul.

 

Righteousness and the Works of the Law

If asked what was necessary to be justified or declared righteous by God, the vast majority of Jews would have responded that the answer was obvious: to be justified or declared righteous, one had to live righteously by practicing righteousness. To live righteously, however, was not understood in terms of living in sinless perfection, which was believed to be an impossibility for human beings. Rather, the righteous were those who were committed to living in conformity with God’s will and turned back to him in repentance when they sinned, seeking his forgiveness on the basis of that renewed commitment.[11]

Because God had made known his will most fully in the law or Torah, to live righteously was generally equated with observing the law’s commandments. In reality, however, these two things were not thought to be fully synonymous. Undoubtedly, because the practice of justice and righteousness lay at the heart of the commandments, those who obeyed those commandments by living in accordance with the justice and righteousness they prescribed were thought to be observing the law. They were righteous in that they were committed to the law’s core values, such as love for others, solidarity with those in need, and conduct in conformity with what was good, just, right, kind, and merciful.[12]

Many of the commandments of the Torah, however, contributed to the practice of justice and righteousness only indirectly.[13] Rather than being just, righteous, or good in themselves, the actions and behaviors that that these commandments prescribed were thought to promote a life of justice and righteousness by reinforcing certain beliefs, attitudes, and practices that contributed to righteous living. In order to understand this idea, a passage from the second-century BCE Letter of Aristeas is particularly helpful. There, referring to Moses, the author writes:

In his wisdom the legislator, in a comprehensive survey of each particular part, and being endowed by God for the knowledge of universal truths, surrounded us with unbroken palisades and iron walls to prevent our mixing with any of the other people in any matter, being thus kept pure in body and soul, preserved from false beliefs, and worshiping the only God omnipotent over all creation…. So, to prevent our being perverted by contact with others or by mixing with bad influences, he hedged us in on all sides with strict observances connected with meat and drink and touch and hearing and sight, after the manner of the Law. In general everything is similarly constituted in regard to natural reasoning, being governed by one supreme power, and in each particular everything has a profound reason for it, both the things from which we abstain in use and those of which we partake…. The fact is that everything has been solemnly set in order for unblemished investigation and amendment of life for the sake of righteousness…. [God] has thereby indicated that it is the solemn binding duty of those for whom the legislation has been established to practice righteousness and not to lord it over anyone in reliance upon their own strength, nor to deprive him of anything, but to govern their lives righteously…. The symbolism conveyed by these things compels us to make a distinction in the performance of all our acts, with righteousness as our aim…. I have therefore given a brief résumé of these matters, indicating further to you that all the regulations have been made with righteousness in mind, and that no ordinances have been made in Scripture without purpose or fancifully, but to the intent that through the whole of our lives we may also practice justice to all mankind in all our acts, remembering the all-sovereign God (Let. Aris. 139, 142-44, 147, 151, 168).[14]

Here we find repeatedly the idea that, in one way or another, everything that is commanded in the Mosaic law has the purpose of promoting justice and righteousness among God’s people.[15] Different commandments, however, are said to fulfill this purpose in different ways. According to the author of this letter, for example, many of the commandments regarding the distinctions between pure and impure had the purpose of preserving God’s people from idolatry by keeping them separate from other nations so that they might not fall into the immoral, unjust, and destructive behavior associated with the worship of their gods. The author also mentions commandments given to lead the people to examine their life and conduct so as to make whatever amendments were necessary. Such was thought to be the purpose of Yom Kippur. On that day, all of God’s people were to reflect on the life they were leading, identify that which needed to be corrected, and commit themselves anew to living righteously so as to implore God’s forgiveness on that basis. The sacrifices for sin offered on that day and throughout the year at other times fulfilled the same purpose, providing an opportunity for the people to reflect on their conduct and express in concrete, palpable ways their repentance and renewed commitment to living in accordance with God’s good will so as to seek and obtain his forgiveness.[16]

The author’s affirmation that the law ordained that God was not to be deprived of anything brings to mind the offering of first-fruits that was commanded in the law. Observance of this commandment helped promote gratitude to God for his gifts and reminded the offerers that all that they possessed belonged to God as sovereign Lord, as did their lives themselves, which were also his.[17] By bringing God’s people to recall and reflect on truths such as these, the law led them to submit to his will so as to live in accordance with the justice and righteousness that he prescribed in his law.

This passage also mentions the symbolism conveyed by many of the commandments. The circumcision of males, for example, was understood in these terms. It symbolized to the people that, as descendants of Abraham, they were to live righteously in the same way that he had.[18] For this reason, a number of passages from the Hebrew Scriptures insist that true circumcision is a matter of the heart and even claim that those who are circumcised physically but not spiritually are in a sense uncircumcised.[19] Paul himself affirms these ideas in Rom 2:25-29. The same type of symbolism was associated with the commandment to remove leaven from one’s home prior to celebrating Passover so as to eat of bread that is unleavened. When Paul tells the Corinthian believers that they are to cleanse out the old leaven of malice and evil in order to partake of the “unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (1 Cor 5:6-8), he is interpreting the Passover rites symbolically in the way that virtually all Jews were taught to do.

In other words, it was clear to Jews in antiquity, as it was to the author of the Letter of Aristeas, that many of the commandments of the Torah had been given to promote righteousness by reminding God’s people of certain fundamental truths, preserving them from idolatry and the injustices associated with it, reinforcing their identity as a holy people set apart for God, and continually bringing them to examine their way of life so as to correct anything that needed to be amended. Even though the practice of justice and righteousness could not simply be equated with the observance of commandments regarding things such as sacrifice, circumcision, festivals, holy days, and the distinctions between pure and impure, therefore, the observance of such commandments contributed and led to the practice of justice and righteousness indirectly.

For this reason, virtually all Jews in antiquity would have agreed that the mere literal or outward observance of such commandments did not in and of itself make anyone righteous. A Jewish man who had been circumcised, abstained from consuming the foods that the law declared unclean, observed the Sabbath and the Jewish festivals, and joined in the worship offered at the Jerusalem temple was not thought to be righteous simply because he participated in those rites and practices. On the contrary, no matter how meticulously he observed such commandments outwardly, if he persistently and willfully practiced evil, dishonesty, malice, injustice, and unrighteousness, he was not righteous and would not be regarded as such by God.

There are good reasons to suppose that when Paul speaks of the works of the law, he has in mind precisely things such as those just mentioned: circumcision, the observance of the distinctions regarding pure and impure, abstention from work on the Sabbath, and the celebration of Jewish festivals and holy days. These are in fact the practices that he mentions in the letters in which he refers to works of the law.[20] If that is the case, when Paul states that no one will be justified on the basis of works of the law, rather than rejecting Jewish thought, he is affirming something that virtually every Jew in antiquity knew and would have agreed with. While the observance of such commandments helped promote righteousness, the mere literal observance of those commandments did not in itself make anyone righteous in God’s sight. In other words, God did not declare anyone righteous simply because they rested on the Sabbath, refrained from eating pork, participated in the Passover celebration, and had been circumcised as an infant. Only those who practiced the justice and righteousness commanded in the law as they observed it were thought to be truly fulfilling it and to be accepted by God as righteous.

 

Justification and Christ-faith

In contrast to his claim that no one will be justified on the basis of such “works of the law,” at first glance Paul’s affirmation that it is by faith that people are justified might seem to run contrary to Jewish thought. As Paul insists in Romans 4, however, the Genesis account makes it clear that Abraham was justified merely by living out of faith prior to being circumcised and long before the giving of the Torah. Even though a life of faithful obedience to God was to take the form of observing the Torah now that it had been given to God’s people, strictly speaking what was thought to make one righteous was not simply the outward or literal observance of regulations and commandments but the faithfulness to God and total commitment to his good will of which such an observance was to be an expression. Understood in this sense, Paul’s affirmation that it is ultimately such faith or faithfulness that makes one righteous rather than the observance of commandments in and of itself independently of such faith or faithfulness would have been not only uncontroversial but widely-accepted among most of his Jewish peers.

Undoubtedly, most Jews would have found novel Paul’s proclamation that faith in God and faithfulness to him was now to take the form of faith in Christ or “Christ-faith” as well (pistis Christou).[21] Belief in the coming of a Christ or Messiah, however, was certainly Jewish, and thus there was nothing un-Jewish or anti-Jewish about Paul’s claim that Jesus was the promised Messiah and son of David. The idea that the Messiah would lead God’s people in righteousness and establish justice not only in Israel but among the nations as well was also well-grounded in the Hebrew Scriptures and Second Temple Jewish thought.[22] To identify Jesus as the Christ or Messiah, therefore, naturally involved ascribing to him such a task.

Throughout his epistles, it is precisely the practice of the core values of the law, such as justice, righteousness, love, truth, kindness, and solidarity with those in need that Paul associates with a life of faith in Jesus as the Messiah or “Christ-faith.”[23] For Paul, therefore, rather than standing in opposition to the Mosaic law or Judaism in general, as Israel’s Messiah and God’s Son Jesus represented the supreme embodiment of the type of justice and righteousness commanded in the law, not only because he had himself been committed to living out that justice and righteousness but also because he had dedicated his life to bringing about in others that justice and righteousness as well. Ultimately, it had been that commitment and dedication that had led to his death. Yet because not even the threat of the cross had been able to put an end to his faithfulness, obedience, commitment, and dedication to God’s will, it was not merely his life and teaching but in particular the love for others and commitment to righteousness that he had manifested in his death that had made it possible for others now to be brought to live in that same love and righteousness as members of his community of followers so as to be justified and saved from their sinful way of life, that is, from their sins. There was certainly nothing un-Jewish or anti-Jewish, therefore, about Paul’s insistence that it was through Jesus’ death or blood—that is, his faithfulness unto death to the messianic task given him—that he had made possible the justification and salvation of those who through faith came to identify with him as their Lord and Messiah.[24]

Most Jews, of course, would have found extremely odd the claim that Israel’s Messiah had been put to death on a cross only then to be raised by God and exalted to his right hand.[25] Yet following a tradition handed down to Paul that is evident throughout the other writings of the New Testament as well, Paul repeatedly stressed that what had taken place in relation to Jesus had been foretold in Israel’s Scriptures.[26] The countless references and citations from the Hebrew Scriptures that run throughout Paul’s epistles and the New Testament in general served to underscore the conviction that the gospel message regarding Christ proclaimed by Paul and others was fully in accordance with the Jewish faith as it was represented in Israel’s Scriptures rather than being contrary to it.

Jews, Gentiles, Christ-faith, and the Law within the Ekklēsia

According to Paul, the Scriptures of Israel had foretold not only what would happen to the Christ or Messiah but also what was now taking place through his ministry and that of others who had been sent out by Christ, namely, the spread throughout the world of a community made up of people who were committed to living in the same justice, righteousness, and love that Paul associated with Christ and Christ-faith.[27] The Greek term that Paul uses for this community or assembly is taken from the Greek translation of Israel’s Scriptures and thus would have been understood as a Jewish term as well: ekklēsia.[28] When non-Jews who heard Paul’s gospel began to renounce their idolatry and the immorality and injustice associated with it in order to come to faith in the God of Israel and live in justice and righteousness under Israel’s Messiah as their Lord, they were doing something that had been anticipated long beforehand in Israel’s Scriptures.[29] Neither these non-Jews nor the ekklēsia itself were understood as replacing or displacing Israel as God’s people, however, since the ekklēsia was a community that brought together in its midst gentiles and Jews so that they might live as one without erasing or negating their ethnic identities.[30]

Eventually, however, the question arose as to whether those non-Jews who came to live alongside Jews within the ekklēsia needed to submit fully to the Torah in order for there to be full fellowship between the two groups. While some advocated this idea, Paul rejected it categorically, yet he did so by appealing to ideas that were well-attested in the Hebrew Scriptures and Jewish tradition. There it was widely recognized that non-Jews or gentiles could live righteously merely by abandoning their worship of false gods and the immorality and injustice associated with that worship in order to serve the God of Israel alone.[31] Such gentiles could fulfill the basic moral principles regarding justice and righteousness commanded in the law without submitting to the type of commandments that distinguished Jews from gentiles, such as circumcision, celebration of the Jewish feasts and holy days, the offering of sacrifice at the Jewish temple, and the observance of the Jewish dietary laws. Gentile believers in Christ could therefore live a life of faith, faithfulness, and obedience to the God of Israel without observing such commandments in the same way that Abraham originally had, long before most of those commandments had been given. From Paul’s perspective, because the life of justice and righteousness that God desired to see in all could now be brought about independently of commandments of that type through adherence to the Messiah Jesus and everything that he represented—i.e., Christ-faith—, it was not only pointless but cruel to require gentile believers in Christ to submit to such commandments in order to live as one with Jews within the ekklēsia.[32]

For this reason, Paul insisted that those who came to form part of the ekklēsia were to remain in the same state as they had been in when they came to faith, whether circumcised or uncircumcised.[33] For some of the gentile believers in Christ to become circumcised would also imply that those who were circumcised and submitted fully to the Jewish law were more righteous and acceptable to God than those who did not or that they were to enjoy special privileges or a higher status within the community. Such an idea would destroy the unity, harmony, and fellowship that had existed within the ekklēsia as well as destroying the ekklēsia itself by splitting it into two groups, one of which would be considered superior to the other. However, if what led to the life of righteousness desired by God was not simply adherence to the Torah per se but adherence to Jesus and the type of love, justice, and righteousness associated with him as Lord, Messiah, and Son of God, then circumcision and submission to similar “works of the law” were not necessary for gentiles to be accepted as righteous by God and received as members of the ekklēsia. Through Christ-faith, even uncircumcised gentiles could come to have the “circumcision of the heart” of which the law and prophets spoke and thus be considered “the circumcision” in a sense.[34]

By no means, however, did such a claim lead to the conclusion that Jewish believers in Christ were no longer to practice circumcision and live in accordance with the commandments of the law in the same way that they had previously. On the contrary, as Paul insists, there was great profit in being a Jew and living as one.[35] Paul states explicitly that circumcision is good and of value rather than something to be rejected.[36] While it made no difference with regard to acceptance by God or membership within the community—in that sense it was “nothing”—, it continued to serve the same good purpose it always had of reminding Jews of their identity as Abraham’s children and thereby promoting faith in God and righteous living on their part.[37] For this reason, Paul even insists that Jewish believers in Christ are not to seek to remove the signs of their circumcision.[38]

According to Paul, therefore, even though the life of righteousness God desired to see in all was now brought about by the faith that he associated with Jesus as Messiah, the law remained holy and good and there were thus good reasons for Jewish believers in Christ to continue to observe it.[39] In addition to fulfilling the same good purposes that it had previously, such observance would give a positive witness to other Jews and would also serve to point both Jews and gentiles to Christ as the one through whom the law found its fulfillment. For example, if the sacrifice of the Passover lamb had pointed forward to Christ and his death as its fulfillment, as Paul states in 1 Cor 5:7, then it was important for Jewish believers in Christ to continue to celebrate Passover not only for the same reasons they had previously but also because by doing so they directed themselves and others to Christ as the one to whom the law had pointed. In this way, the observance of Passover continued to fulfill the purpose of promoting a life of justice and righteousness not only among Jews but among gentiles as well, since they too would be led to see in the traditional Passover celebration an anticipation of the new reality that God had always intended to bring about through Christ, independently of whether they joined with Jews in celebrating Passover in some way. For the same reasons, it was important for Jews to continue to practice circumcision, since the circumcision of the heart of which the Scriptures spoke was comprehensible only if physical circumcision continued to be practiced among Jews.[40]

Pauline scholars continue to debate whether the strict observance of certain commandments of the Mosaic law was at times relaxed in order for Jewish and non-Jewish believers to enjoy full fellowship with one another in the context of the ekklēsia.[41] To whatever extent this took place, however, such a practice would not necessarily have been considered un-Jewish or contrary to Judaism. In principle, once those gentiles had committed fully to living in accordance with the type of justice and righteousness that Paul associated with Christ, there was no reason why Jews who were committed to the same type of righteousness could not or should not have full fellowship with them. Because those gentiles had ceased to be idolaters and no longer practiced the immorality and injustice associated with idolatry, there was no danger that full fellowship with them would pervert those Jews who engaged in such fellowship or influence them to practice idolatry and injustice. In that case, there was no reason for Jews to remain confined, constrained, or hedged in behind the type of figurative palisades and walls mentioned in the Letter of Aristeas in relation to those gentiles who had come to faith in Christ so as to form part of the ekklēsia. In that sense and in that context, under certain circumstances some of the regulations regarding what was clean and unclean and what was lawful might be relaxed somewhat in order to allow for such fellowship, at least with regard to the manner in which some Jews interpreted those regulations. In addition, because it was now Christ and Christ-faith rather than the law per se that defined and regulated relationships between Jews and gentiles within the community, it could be said that by virtue of their Christ-faith those who belonged to the ekklēsia or body of Christ had been discharged from the law or had become dead to it so as no longer to be confined by it in the way they had previously.[42] Such an affirmation, however, would be seen as applying to life within the community rather than to the daily life of Jewish believers in Christ outside of the community.

Furthermore, the idea that at times it was necessary to set aside the observance of one commandment in order to observe another one that was more “weighty” was basic to Jewish thought.[43] Just as those who set aside a strict observance of the Sabbath in order to circumcise a child on the eighth day were not disregarding the law but fulfilling it, so also those who under certain circumstances relaxed the observance of certain commandments in order to make full fellowship with righteous gentiles possible could be regarded as fulfilling what the law commanded and anticipated rather than rejecting or violating it. In any case, because Christ-faith led one to live in the love, justice, and righteousness commanded in the law, there was a sense in which those who lived out of such faith could be regarded as “doers of the law” and as those who “do what the law requires,” independently of whether they were Jews who in general terms remained fully law-observant or uncircumcised gentiles who did not possess the Mosaic law or subject themselves to it in the same way that Jews did.[44]

*     *     *

            While there is certainly much more to be said on these questions, what we have seen here is sufficient to demonstrate that if we begin with the assumption that Paul’s thought is in continuity with the Judaism of his day when interpreting his epistles, what he writes becomes much more comprehensible than if we take as our starting-point the assumption that his thought stands in contrast or in opposition to Judaism. When we look within Judaism rather than outside of it for the background and ideas necessary to grasp Paul’s thought, it becomes clear that, even though some of the affirmations Paul makes would have sounded strange and novel to many of his fellow Jews, he understood the gospel he proclaimed to be thoroughly Jewish from beginning to end.

 

David A. Brondos

November 11, 2021

 

NOTES

[1] This article summarizes many of the main arguments of my book The Parting of the Gods: Paul and the Redefinition of Judaism (Mexico City: Theological Community of Mexico, 2021).

[2] E. P. Sanders’s conclusion to his argument that Paul’s “pattern of religion” is different from that of Palestinian Judaism is typical in this regard: “In short, this is what Paul finds wrong in Judaism: it is not Christianity” (Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion [Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977], p. 552). In his more recent work, Sanders has continued to make the same claim: “According to Paul’s argument in Rom. 10:1-4, what is wrong with the Jews is that they are not Christian; what is wrong with Judaism is that it does not accept Christianity” (Paul: The Apostle’s Life, Letters, and Thought [Minneapolis: Fortress, 2015], p. 681). On the problem of using the terms “Christian” and “Christianity” to refer to the thought of Paul, see especially Anders Runesson, “The Question of Terminology: The Architecture of Contemporary Discussions on Paul,” in Paul within Judaism: Restoring the First-Century Context to the Apostle, ed. Mark D. Nanos and Magnus Zetterholm (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2015), pp. 53-77 (59-68).

[3] When speaking of “Paul within Judaism,” of course, it must be remembered that in Paul’s day Judaism was not a monolithic entity but existed in many different forms, expressions, or currents. On this variety of “Judaisms,” see especially Lester L. Grabbe, An Introduction to First Century Judaism: Jewish Religion and History in the Second Temple Period (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1996), pp. 111-12; James D. G. Dunn, Jesus Remembered, Vol. 1 of Christianity in the Making (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), pp. 255-81.

[4] 1 Cor 7:19; Gal 5:6; 6:15.

[5] Rom 14:14, 20; 1 Cor 6:12; 10:23.

[6] Rom 6:14-15.

[7] Rom 7:6; Gal 3:10, 23.

[8] Rom 7:1-6; cf. Gal 2:19; 3:25.

[9] Gal 2:16; cf. Rom 3:20, 28.

[10] See Rom 3:21-30; 4:11; 5:17-21; 9:30–10:12; Gal 2:15-16; 3:6-8, 21-29.

[11] On these points, see Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism, pp. 137-38, 204-5; Kent L. Yinger, Paul, Judaism, and Judgment according to Deeds, SNTSMS 105 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), pp. 62, 181.

[12] On this understanding of righteousness in Second Temple Judaism and the core values that were thought to lie at the heart of the Torah, see especially E. P. Sanders, Judaism: Practice and Belief, 63 BCE–66 CE (Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1992), pp. 230-35, 257-60.

[13] On this point and what follows, see Brondos, The Parting of the Gods, pp. 52-65.

[14] Quotation taken from The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, Vol. 2: Expansions of the “Old Testament” and Legends, Wisdom and Philosophical Literature, Prayers, Psalms, and Odes, Fragments of Lost Judeo-Hellenistic Works, ed. James H. Charlesworth (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1983), pp. 22-24.

[15] Similar affirmations are made by Josephus (Ant. 16.2.3; Ag. Ap. 2.17-18), as well as by Philo, who stresses repeatedly the idea that commandments of the Torah with regard to sacrifice, purity, the Sabbath, and the Jewish festivals were given to promote piety, virtue, and righteousness; see, for example, Spec. Laws 1.257-65, 299-300; 2.60-65, 104-9, 145-60, 204.

[16] On this understanding of the significance of sacrifices for sin such as those presented on Yom Kippur, see Philo, Spec. Laws 1.193, 226-41, 283-95.

[17] This understanding of the offerings of first-fruits and sacrifices in general is also reflected in Let. Aris. 157-59, 170, as well as Philo, Spec. Laws 1.133-34, 171, 254; 2.174-75; Heir 113-14; Prelim. Studies 101.

[18] Philo interprets the significance of circumcision in this way; see Spec. Laws 1.8-10, 304-5; QG 3.46. On Philo’s understanding of the value of circumcision, see John J. Collins, “A Symbol of Otherness: Circumcision and Salvation in the First Century,” in “To See Ourselves as Others See Us”: Christians, Jews, “Others” in Late Antiquity, ed. Jacob Neusner and Ernest S. Frerichs, SPSH 9 (Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1985), pp. 163-86 (172-73). Mark Nanos captures well this understanding of circumcision: “The implied value is that by definition those who are circumcised should be different, set apart to behave according to the Guidelines (Torah) God has given to the people of the covenant God made with Israel that circumcision signifies. The value of circumcising flesh is not intrinsic but imputed, it is the value of setting apart one’s (usually, one’s male child’s) body, and thus whole being, to God. . . . (Reading Paul within Judaism, Vol. 1 of Collected Essays of Mark D. Nanos [Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2017], pp. 144-45).

[19] See Lev 26:41; Deut 30:6; Jer 4:4; 9:26; cf. Ezek 44:6-9.

[20] See Rom 2:25-29; 4:9-12; 14:2-6, 14-23; Gal 2:3; 4:9-10; 5:2-6. On this understanding of the phrase “works of the law,” see James D. G. Dunn, “Yet Once More—‘The Works of the Law’: A Response,” JSNT 46 (1992), pp. 99-117. Dunn, however, supposes that Paul objected to such works since they supposedly limited God’s grace to Israel (Jesus, Paul and the Law: Studies in Mark and Galatians [Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1990], pp. 11-12). In reality, Paul never rejects or criticizes such works or says that they are not to be observed among Jews or Jewish believers in Christ, but merely points out that in themselves they do not lead to justification. Mark Nanos has argued on the basis of Josephus’ use of the term ergon that Paul used it to refer primarily to the rite of circumcision (“The Question of Conceptualization: Qualifying Paul’s Position on Circumcision in Dialogue with Josephus’s Advisors to King Izates,” in Paul within Judaism: Restoring the First-Century Context to the Apostle, ed. Mark D. Nanos and Magnus Zetterholm [Minneapolis: Fortress, 2015], pp. 118, 123, 139).

[21] This is not the place to enter into a discussion of the meaning of the phrase pistis Christou in Paul’s epistles. As I indicate in The Parting of the Gods (pp. 256-260), however, I would agree with the growing number of interpreters who argue that Paul uses the phrase not merely to speak of faith in Christ or to Christ’s own faith or faithfulness, but in a general sense to refer to the faith that he associates with his belief in Jesus as the Christ or Messiah. So, for example, Francis Watson: “The ‘faith’ in question pertains to Christ, differentiating it from non-Christian varieties of faith while leaving the precise nature of that pertinence unspecified” (Paul and the Hermeneutics of Faith, 2nd ed. [London: Bloomsbury T & T Clark, 2016], pp. xliii-xliv). See also Watson, Paul, Judaism, and the Gentiles: Beyond the New Perspective (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), pp. 243-44; Ryan S. Schellenberg, “οἱ πιστεύοντες: An Early Christ-Group Self-Designation and Paul’s Rhetoric of Faith,” NTS 65 (2019), pp. 33-42 (40-41); Michael Wolter, Paul: An Outline of His Theology, trans. Robert L. Brawley (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2015), pp. 75-77; Benjamin Schliesser, “‘Christ-faith’ as an Eschatological Event (Galatians 3.23-26): A ‘Third View’ on Πίστις Χριστοῦ,” JSNT 38 (2016), pp. 277-300. For a summary of the debate on this question, see Matthew C. Easter, “The Pistis Christou Debate: Main Arguments and Responses in Summary,” CurBR 9 (2019), pp. 33-47.

[22] For the idea that David, the Davidic kings, and the Davidic Messiah in particular were to lead God’s people in righteousness and serve as God’s agents to establish justice and righteousness in the land or on the earth, see 1 Kgs 10:9; Ps 72:1-7; Isa 9:7; 11:1-5; Jer 21:12; 22:1-3; 23:5; 33:14-17; Ezek 34:11-24; 37:24-25; Luke 1:68-75. This idea is particularly stressed in the Psalms of Solomon: “He will gather a holy people whom he will lead in righteousness. . . . And he will be a righteous king over them, taught by God. There will be no unrighteousness among them in his days, for all shall be holy, and their king shall be the Lord Messiah. . . . Faithfully and righteously shepherding the Lord’s flock, he will not let any of them stumble in their pasture. He will lead them all in holiness. . . . Blessed are those born in those    days. . . (which will be) under the rod of discipline of the Lord Messiah, in the fear of his God, in wisdom of spirit, and of righteousness and of strength, to direct people in righteous acts. . . .” (Ps. Sol. 17:26, 32, 40-41; 18:6-8). On this idea in the Dead Sea Scrolls, see John J. Collins, “Teacher and Messiah? The One Who Will Teach Righteousness at the End of Days,” in The Community of the Renewed Covenant—The Notre Dame Symposium on the Dead Sea Scrolls, ed. E. Ulrich and J. Vanderkam (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1994), pp. 192-210. The notion that Israel’s Messiah will teach righteousness to the people is also stressed in the Isaiah Targum; see Bruce D. Chilton, The Glory of Israel: The Theology and Provenience of the Isaiah Targum, JSOTSup 23 (Sheffield: JSOT, 1982), pp. 97-102.

[23] See, for example, Rom 6:11-19; 10:6-10; 13:8-14; 14:7-19; 1 Cor 8:10-12; 10:24; 2 Cor 5:14-15, 21; Gal 2:20; 5:6, 22-24; 6:2; Phil 1:11; 2:1-8; 1 Thess 3:11-12.

[24] See Rom 3:24-25; 5:9, 18-19; 2 Cor 5:14-15, 21; Gal 1:3-4.

[25] See especially 1 Cor 1:18-25, where Paul cites Scripture to argue that the apparent foolishness of his proclamation regarding a crucified Messiah is entirely in line with what the Scriptures say about God.

[26] See Rom 3:20-21; 4:23-25; 10:5-11; 15:3-4, 8-12; 1 Cor 2:9-10; 10:1-11; 15:3-4; 2 Cor 3:7-16; Gal 3:22; 4:21-31.

[27] See Rom 8:35-36; 9:32-33; 10:14-21; 15:20-21; 16:25-26; Gal 3:8.

[28] On the background to the term ekklēsia and its use within Judaism, see Runesson, “The Question of Terminology,” pp. 68-76; James D. G. Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), pp. 537-38.

[29] On these expectations regarding the gentiles or nations, see Terence L. Donaldson, Paul and the Gentiles: Remapping the Apostle’s Convictional World (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997), pp. 69-74; Mark Nanos, The Mystery of Romans: The Jewish Context of Paul’s Letter (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996), pp. 8-63; Paula Fredriksen, “Judaism, the Circumcision of Gentiles, and Apocalyptic Hope: Another Look at Galatians 1 and 2,” JTS 42 (1991), pp. 532-64 (544-48).

[30] As Nanos observes, “Paul argues that these uncircumcised non-Jews were full and equal members of the family of God alongside of the Jewish members, indeed, equally children of Abraham and co-heirs of the promises made to him and his seed, and not simply welcome guests” (Reading Paul within Judaism, p. 131; cf. p. 35).

[31] On the category of “righteous gentiles” in Second Temple Judaism, see Fredriksen, “Judaism, the Circumcision of Gentiles, and Apocalyptic Hope,” pp. 533-43; Nanos, Mystery of Romans, pp. 50-56; Sanders, Judaism: Practice and Belief, pp. 267-70.

[32] Of course, this “cruelty” would have involved primarily obliging non-Jewish male believers in Christ to submit to the extremely painful rite of circumcision, yet the imposition of other practices and observances associated with the Torah would also have been onerous and burdensome for such gentiles, not because there was anything wrong with such practices and observances, but simply because non-Jews were not accustomed to them in the ways that Jews were from birth.

[33] See 1 Cor 7:17-20, 24.

[34] See Phil 3:3. Although gentile believers in Christ can be said to have the “circumcision of the heart,” however, this does not mean that in Paul’s thought they become Jews. As Nanos argues with regard to Paul’s words in Rom 2:25-29, rather than “attributing circumcision or Jewish ethnic identity to non-Jews,” Paul was merely claiming that Jewish circumcision is “undermined if not accompanied by circumcision of their heart” (“Question of Conceptualization,” p. 115 n17).

[35] See Rom 3:1-2; cf. Rom 9:4-5. Paul’s idea that Jews have an “advantage,” especially in that they possess the Scriptures (Rom 3:2), does not mean that they enjoy a higher status or greater righteousness than those gentiles who also live righteously. As Kathy Ehrensperger notes, “To have an advantage and to be superior are not identical” (“The Question of Gender: Relocating Paul in Relation to Judaism,” in Paul within Judaism: Restoring the First-Century Context to the Apostle, ed. Mark D. Nanos and Magnus Zetterholm [Minneapolis: Fortress, 2015], pp. 245-76 [273]).

[36] See Rom 2:25; 3:1-2.

[37] Paul’s affirmation in Gal 3:28  that in Christ there is no longer Jew nor gentile, slave nor free, male nor female should not be understood in the sense that such distinctions are to disappear entirely within the ekklēsia, since Paul himself continues to make such distinctions throughout his letters. Rather, his words should be understood in the sense that such distinctions are not to constitute a basis for unequal treatment, acceptance, or status within the community. As Mark Nanos observes with regard to Gal 3:28, “Paul cannot mean that these different identities no longer exist among Christ-followers. There are very real biological, cultural, and socio-economic differences that are not dissolved. Slaves are not by definition freed in these groups, and Jews do not become gentiles any more than gentiles become Jews” (Reading Paul within Judaism, p. 118). Similarly, Paul’s affirmation that circumcision is “nothing” should be understood, not in the sense that it is now meaningless, and much less in the sense that it is to be abolished among Jewish believers in Christ, but rather in the sense that it is not to constitute the grounds for any type of division, separation, discrimination, unequal status, or greater privilege within the ekklēsia.

[38] 1 Cor 7:18.

[39] Rom 3:31; 7:12, 16; 14:5-6.

[40] The idea that the law and perhaps its observance as well points both Jews and gentiles to Christ is suggested both in Gal 3:24, where Paul writes that the law has become a paidagōgos eis Christon for believers so that they may be justified by faith, and in Rom 3:21-22, where Paul affirms that the law and the prophets bear witness to the righteousness of God given through Jesus-Christ-faith to all who believe.

[41] This discussion centers on the interpretation of Paul’s words in Rom 14:1-21 and to some extent Gal 2:11-14 as well. The traditional position has been that Paul taught that both Jewish and gentile believers in Christ were no longer to observe the distinctions between clean (kosher) and unclean or common (koinos) when eating; so, for example, Arland J. Hultgren: “For Paul, the traditional distinction of ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ foods does not exist (cf. 1 Cor 10:25-27)” (Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Commentary [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011], p. 518). Recently, however, it has been argued that Jewish believers in Christ continued to observe the purity laws with regard to food when eating with gentile believers and that Paul is not addressing that question in either Rom 14:1-21 or Gal 2:11-14; see E. P. Sanders, Comparing Judaism and Christianity: Common Judaism, Paul, and the Inner and the Outer in Ancient Religion (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2016), pp. 287-308; Nanos, Romans, pp. 85-165; Mark Nanos, “What Was at Stake in Peter’s ‘Eating with Gentiles’ at Antioch?,” in The Galatians Debate: Contemporary Issues in Rhetorical and Historical Interpretation, ed. Mark D. Nanos (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2002), pp. 282-318.

[42] Rom 7:1-6; Gal 2:19.

[43] On this point, see especially Karin Hedner Zetterholm, “The Question of Assumptions: Torah Observance in the First Century,” in Paul within Judaism: Restoring the First-Century Context to the Apostle, ed. Mark D. Nanos and Magnus Zetterholm (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2015), pp. 79-103.

[44] See Rom 2:13-15. Because through Christ-faith these righteous gentiles were brought to live in accordance with the core principles of the law, strictly speaking Paul did not proclaim a “law-free gospel,” as Paula Fredriksen has stressed (Paul, pp. 109-11, 122). Rather than promoting any kind of disregard for the law, Paul’s gospel led those gentiles to conform to the justice and righteousness commanded in the law and thus to fulfill the law (see Rom 8:3-4; 13:8-10).



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