Paul and Judaism

In addition to the somewhat fanciful proposition that Paul invented Christianity there is a widespread view that Paul was anti-Judaism.  Certainly his own letters attest to his teaching that, with Jesus, Torah (the Jewish Mosaic Law) had been rendered obsolete.  The Law, Paul argued, was divinely given to Israel as a guide and teacher.  But it had a built-in statute of limitations: the era of law was only to last until the era of grace came to replace it.  No longer would “works according to the Law” effect salvation, but rather – now – only faith and grace, mediated by Jesus’ redeeming atonement on the cross.  Paul wrote to his Gentile converts that the Law was “dead” – not only for them, but for Jews and Jewish members of the Jesus movement.  Naturally, Jews who heard of this were outraged, and so were Jesus’ Jewish disciples, who, according to Luke/Acts, confronted Paul on this issue.

Yet Paul retained a certain love and respect, if not for Torah, then for the Jews as “God’s Chosen.”  He scolded his Gentile converts over their prideful attitude relative to being the new “Chosen.”  He reminded them that, since God does not break promises, God’s Jewish Elect were God’s eternally.  That being so, Paul argued, Gentiles must (with humility) see themselves not as an independent body, but as a branch that God was grafting onto the living tree of Israel.  Although Israel was being stubbornly slow to acknowledge the new order of things, still Israel was the original root and tree, with Gentile converts the newcomers to Yahweh’s ancient covenant.

Paul’s invalidation of Torah was a radical repudiation of Mosaic Judaism, one that Jesus’ Jewish followers could not countenance.  Their stamp of approval for Paul’s mission to the Gentiles was issued long before rumors came back to them that he was preaching that Torah was obsolete even for Jews.  When it was discovered, they challenged him, and rightly so, since Jesus himself had never repudiated Torah or gave the slightest hint that his ministry would in any way replace it.

And yet, as the research of scholars such as Alan Segal, Larry Hurtado, Morton Smith, Bruce Chilton, Robert Eisenman, Hugh Schonfield, James Charlesworth and others indicates, Paul’s teachings, especially his christological doctrines, are extremely Jewish.  Paul’s heavenly Christ is far less a cosmocrater borrowed from paganism as he is a familiar figure in Jewish mysticism, bearing strong affinities to the heavenly son of man and “the Kavod” (“God’s Glory” – God’s radiant form as perceivable by human beings) mentioned in Isaiah, Ezekiel and Daniel; God’s chief assisting angels Yahoel and Metatron who aare seated in heaven by God’s throne; the angel who bore God’s name and rendered God’s judgment; the pre-existent Messiah “unmanifest” after a brief earthly period of manifestation; the archetypal Sky Adam (Adam Kadmon), etc.  In fact, Paul’s christology in many respects is positively “Ebionite” – the Ebionites being famously regarded as Jewish Christians who plausibly preserved extremely primitive Hebraic elements from the Jesus movement’s earliest days.

So in Paul there are many paradoxes relative to his stance on Judaism and the Jewish Jesus movement. While he repudiated Torah, he expressed his mystical experience of “the risen living Jesus” in primarily Jewish ways.  Some scholars, defending Ebionite priority, find truth in Ebionite condemnation of Paul as “the Great Liar.”  Certainly this charge is true, because Paul, against the will of Jesus’ disciples, taught that Torah was invalid even for Jews.  However, in Paul’s own recorded disputes with Jesus’ Palestinian disciples, there is little  hint of a christological conflict.  There are fights over table fellowship with Gentiles, “clean” and “unclean” food, food that had been sacrificed to idols, circumcision, the application of the Law to Gentile converts.  But there seems to have been no major christological disagreement.  It would seem that Jesus’ Palestinian disciples and Paul were in agreement with the risen Jesus’ status as the One in heaven standing next to God’s throne, who like the angel Yahoel bore God’s name and executed God’s judgment, and who was God’s human form, the Kavod.  Therefore it would appear that Paul’s soteriology was unJewish, but his christology was firmly set in terms of Second Temple Jewish mysticism.


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