Paul Within Judaism

Timothy Gombis
Mark D. Nanos and Magnus Zetterholm (eds.), Paul Within Judaism: Restoring the First-Century Context to the Apostle. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015

It is nearly forty years since the publication of E. P. Sanders's Paul and Palestinian Judaism (1977) initiated a revolution in Pauline studies. Until that point Protestant interpreters read Paul to be critiquing Judaism for its works-righteousness, inveighing against its inherent legalism in Romans and Galatians and advocating justification by faith alone. On this view, people enjoy salvation only as a gift that they can receive and which cannot be earned. The Pauline gospel shone brightly against the dark backdrop of Judaism with its assumed obligation to earn salvation by the accumulation of merit through good works. Arguing against this, Sanders claimed that first-century Judaism was not a religion of works-righteousness but of grace. Jews enjoyed salvation by virtue of election and their law-observance simply maintained their covenant relationship with God. While Sanders's subsequent discussion of Paul left much to be desired, other interpreters, most notably James Dunn and N. T. Wright, drew upon his revised understanding of Judaism to lead a more than three decades-long reconsideration of Paul.

According to their "new perspective" Paul did not reject Judaism because of its works-righteousness but rather for its ethnocentrism. Jews had limited the scope of salvation to the ethnically Jewish and Paul opposes this with the gospel of salvation by grace through faith apart from "works of law." They note that in Romans and Galatians "works of law" indicates deeds done in observance of the Mosaic Law's commands that point to identity as a Jew. When Paul claims that a person is not justified by "works of the law" (Rom. 3:28; Gal. 2:16), therefore, he is arguing that one's ethnic identity is neither here nor there with regard to being justified before God. 

The present volume represents a yet newer perspective, one that maintains that the "new perspective" does not go far enough, since both "new" and "traditional" perspectives wrongly envision Paul as in some way opposing, dispensing with, or leaving Judaism. What unites the book's authors is the conviction that "Paul should be interpreted within Judaism" (p. 1). What "new" and "traditional" perspectives get wrong is that they both regard Paul as the founder of a new movement called "Christianity." Even if that term isn't used, interpreters often speak of Paul founding a "new religious movement" that is "built upon the conviction that there is something fundamentally, essentially 'wrong' with, and within, Judaism" (p. 5).

According to this "radical" or "Paul within Judaism" perspective (surely some marketing-minded people need to come up with something snappier) "the writing and community building of the apostle Paul took place within late Second Temple Judaism, within which he remained a representative after his change of conviction about Jesus being the Messiah (Christ)." Therefore, "the 'assemblies' that he founded, and to which he wrote" his letters, "were also developing their (sub)culture based upon their convictions about the meaning of Jesus for non-Jews as well as for Jews within Judaism" (p. 9). To imagine that Paul left Judaism to found a new religious movement--Christianity--is to do bad history. Our contributors "are committed to proposing, and seeking to answer, pre-Christian, and certainly pre-Augustinian/Protestant questions about Paul's concerns and those of his audiences and contemporaries, whether friend or foe" (p. 9). The result is a Paul who does not depart from or reject Judaism, but rather creates a reform movement within it.

Those who subscribe to this angle of approach maintain that New Testament scholarship is largely dominated by Christian dogmatic concerns and is insufficiently historical as it carries out its pursuits, shaped as it is by the split between Judaism and Christianity. "The binary ideas that Christianity has superseded Judaism and that Christian grace has replaced Jewish legalism, for example, appear to be essential aspects of most Christian theologies" (p. 34). The attempt here is to get back to a conception of Paul before "Christianity" developed. During the first Christian generation, prior to the mission of Paul, the "normal religious identity within this movement was a Jewish identity" (p. 50). While there was the expectation that gentiles would be included in the movement, there was disagreement about how that would take place. "Since all Jews within the movement continued to live like Jews, while recognizing Jesus as the Messiah, the conflicts reflected in Paul's letters were not about Jewish Torah observance for Jews" (p. 50). They were about how to include the nations in Israel's faith.

Essential to this perspective is the notion that Paul's letters are directed to non-Jewish followers of Jesus, including--and especially--his letters to the Roman and Galatian believers. His statements forbidding circumcision and life under the Mosaic Law, therefore, are wrongly understood when they are "universalized" to refer also to Jews who have come (or who will come) to believe in Jesus. Paul says little or nothing about Jewish believers relating to the Mosaic Law since it was his assumption that they would continue in faithful law-observance as followers of Jesus. Since Paul himself remained an observant Jew--and even this notion must be clarified, as Karin Hedner Zetterholm seeks to do--we ought not to think of him as an advocate of something called "Christianity." We may more faithfully speak of "Apostolic Judaism" (p. 67), since Paul thought about "the meaning of Jesus for non-Jews as well as for Jews within Judaism" (p. 9).

A number of the contributors make the case that Paul's apostleship to the gentiles should be understood in continuity with prophetic conceptions of the restoration of the nations. At the last day, Israel would be restored by God and would once again be a light to the nations, worshiping the God of Israel together with the gentiles. While the authors acknowledge the diversity of views in Second Temple Judaism about just how this would work out, they claim that Paul's relationship to Jewish followers of Jesus would have been understood within this larger vision. The implications of this are that non-Jewish Jesus-followers would worship the God of Israel in Christ and remain non-Israelites, while Jewish Jesus-followers like Paul would have remained law-observant. And a few of the authors would agree with the further claim that rather than being called "Christians," Paul's audiences "belong to a special group within Judaism consisting of Jews and non-Jews, rather than constituting an entirely new people, what came to be called by the church fathers a 'third race'" (p. 148).

This newer angle of approach to Paul can be seen in continuity with "new perspective" approaches in that it insists on a truly historical and objective analysis of the first-century situation. What gets lost in the competition between "perspectives" is that these labels are often unhelpful. There are endless varieties among interpreters both "traditional" and "new." And some from both perspectives have ways of articulating Paul's relationship to Judaism without abandoning it or finding something wrong with it. The editors may have overstated the differences between this approach and the new perspective in order to stake out some unique territory. This becomes evident in the response from Terence Donaldson, a "new perspective" interpreter who notes that there is much he finds among the essays with which he agrees. At the same time, to make a new contribution it is helpful to paint in somewhat broad strokes. 

Just to give a sense of the specifics of the volume, Mark Nanos introduces the essays and Magnus Zetterholm gives a brief history of the discussion, tracing the rise of the "new perspective" and how the "Paul within Judaism" perspective has gone beyond it. The rest of the essays are intended to back up the claim that Paul is best interpreted within Judaism. The editors include a response from Terence Donaldson, a "new perspective" interpreter, and it would have strengthened the volume to include a response perhaps from a representative of a "traditional perspective." 

This new angle of approach has helpfully highlighted that Paul was a first-century Jew in the Greco-Roman world. It also forces readers to reckon with the reality of how later theological categories of thought and the history of interpretation that so thoroughly shapes us reflects Paul's own understanding.  Surely this is something that must be kept in mind as we read Paul's texts.

Timothy Gombis is Associate Professor of New Testament at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary. His most recent publications include The Drama of Ephesians: Participating in the Triumph of God (IVP, 2010)