Paul in the Eye of the Storm
Hurricanes are the most powerful storms known to man. Ranging anywhere from 200 to 300 miles in diameter and packing winds of up to 150 miles per hour, they wreak havoc and hardship on whatever lies in their destructive path.
A consideration of the life and legacy of the Apostle Paul shows that this choice servant of Jesus Christ had his own personal hurricane. The storm of controversy surrounding Paul has continued unabated, especially within the Jewish community, ever since the man turned from being a persecutor of the Church to an “apostle of the Gentiles.”
BILLOWY STORM CLOUDS
There are two primary causes for Paul’s rejection by the Jewish community.
1. Paul is dismissed as being non-Jewish, both in his person and in his teaching. For the most part, Paul is seen as having been a neurotic, guilt-ridden Jew highly influenced by Greek philosophy and culture. Believed to have been suffering from malaria, hallucinations, and perhaps even epilepsy, Paul is considered shallow, unintelligible, and, based on his statement in 1 Corinthians 9:9, inhumane to animals.
Paul’s teachings were no better. He denigrated the institution of marriage and came up with the doctrine of original sin on his own—certainly not from any Jewish sources.
Paul’s views of Israel are also considered non-Jewish. He taught that Israel’s status as God’s Chosen People was permanently revoked because of their disobedience and that the new Israel is made up of believing Jews and Gentiles in Jesus.
The most vexing of all of Paul’s theological stances is his opinion of the Law. To the Jewish mind, Paul’s perception of the purpose of the Law is totally erroneous. Paul considered the Law a curse, bringing the awareness of sin. Conversely, the Jewish position is that the Law was lovingly given by God to “train Israel in moral holiness in order to make them all the more worthy in the eyes of the Holy One.”1 Paul also abrogated the Law. He felt that the Messiah’s arrival superseded the Law, but abolishing the Law made it easier for him to attract Gentile converts.
2. Paul, not Jesus, is considered the true founder of Christianity. The consequences of Paul’s efforts to establish his unique brand of Christianity were far-reaching and forceful. First, he effectively circumcised all Jewish components from Christianity, causing a separation between Jews and Christians that has lasted to this day. Second, by advocating that Jesus’ rejection by the Jews was predetermined, Paul sowed the seeds for centuries of Christian anti-Semitism. Third, by doing away with the Law, Paul opened the floodgates for licentiousness and the development of antinomian sects. Fourth, by stressing that in Christ “there is neither Greek nor Jew” (Col. 3:11), Paul created the means by which all distinctiveness of Jewish identity could be lost forever. Believing in Jesus opened a channel for absorption into the larger pagan community, thus forfeiting one’s unique identity as a Jew.
Is there anything about the Apostle Paul that the Jewish community can accept? Regarding his total doctrine, the Jewish response is a resounding no. Nevertheless, by helping to disseminate the Jewish Scriptures throughout the pagan world, Paul is sometimes seen by his Jewish critics as being at best someone who has helped prepare the way for the coming Messiah.
SURVEYING THE STORM
It is not within the scope of this article to evaluate every Jewish objection to the Apostle Paul, especially those that are primarily ad hominem in nature (such as questioning his mental and physical stability or his motives). Nor is it possible to go into depth regarding the misinterpretation of Paul by so many of his critics. Much of what they say about him and his teachings is inaccurate or simply untrue. It is important, however, to appraise some of the more serious challenges to Paul’s writings and teachings.
1. Paul’s teachings are not Jewish. Before writing off Paul because he appears to have been Hellenized, consider the fact that most of Judaism in Paul’s time, including that within the boundaries of the land of Israel, had been influenced by Greek culture to some degree. Also, others have shown that much of Paul’s theology was in line with common Jewish thought of his day, as well as that which came later.2
An example of this involves the doctrine of original sin, which Paul is accused of fathering. There is evidence, however, that other Jewish writers of Paul’s day also held to it (cp. 2 Esdras 3:21–22; 7:118). Even if the doctrine of original sin had been unique to Paul, the question becomes one of Paul’s authority. Did he receive direct revelation from God, as he claimed? If so, then not only would his view be the correct one, but he would not be responsible for creating it.
Paul is charged with having a malevolent opinion of marriage, in contrast to the view of Judaism. In 1 Corinthians 7, the passage often used to support this charge, Paul was not speaking ill of the institution of marriage. In fact, he stated that to be married is not a sin (7:28). But being unmarried may make it easier to “attend upon the Lord without distraction” (7:35). Jesus Himself taught that all human relationships are secondary in importance to being devoted to Him (Lk. 14:26). That notwithstanding, if Paul had had a low regard for marriage, he would not have compared the relationship between husband and wife with that of Christ and the Church (Eph. 5:22–33).
The indictment that Paul’s opinion of Israel is non-Jewish is often based on the perspective of Covenant Theology and not Dispensational Theology. Covenant Theology holds that the Church has replaced Israel, but Dispensational Theology does not. Paul made it clear that there is still an Israel to which God will one day fulfill His promises, an Israel that is still “beloved for the fathers’ sakes” (Rom. 11:28), an Israel that is separate from the Church and has not been rejected by God (Rom. 9–11; 1 Cor. 10:32).
The final condemnation of Paul’s teaching relates to the Law. It is said that Paul viewed the Law as a curse, whereas the Jews saw the Law as an opportunity to earn worthiness before God. It can be categorically stated, however, that Paul never referred to the Law itself as a curse. On the contrary, he flatly declared that “the law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good” (Rom. 7:12). Still, Paul strongly differed with the notion that man is able to keep the Law and earn merit with God. This may be the rabbinical view of the Law, but it is not the Old Testament view. Over and over, Paul reaffirmed from the Old Testament that no flesh could be justified before God by keeping the Law (Rom. 3:20, 28; Gal. 3:11, 21). The problem is not with the Law but with man. It is man’s sinful condition that prevents him from keeping the Law, thus bringing a curse upon himself (Rom. 7:8; Gal. 3:10). The purpose of the Law, therefore, was to make man aware of his sinfulness and lead him to Christ (Rom. 3:20; Gal. 3:24).
It is also inaccurate to accuse Paul of being non-Jewish because he claimed that the Law had been abrogated. Both biblical and rabbinical sources attested that the Mosaic Covenant would one day be superseded.3 Paul recognized that the Messiah had come in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, and in Him the Law had been fulfilled and brought to completion (Rom. 10:4). The righteousness of the Law is now being fulfilled in believers, “who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit” (Rom. 8:4).
2. Paul is the true founder of Christianity. This argument assumes that Christianity is merely another religious system and therefore something that can be founded or established. The Christian, however, considers Christianity to be something fulfilled rather than founded. It was not engineered by man but enacted by God. With or without Paul, the Christian faith would have grown and prospered because it was Jesus Himself who said, “I will build my church” (Mt. 16:18).
The accusation that Paul’s teachings produced negative repercussions is equally unsound. Paul did not cause a separation between Jews and Christians. On the contrary, it was “the law of commandments contained in ordinances” that provided “the middle wall of partition” between the two groups (Eph. 2:14–15).
Neither is Paul to blame for any historical, Church-sponsored anti-Semitism. He never countenanced a hatred of Jewish people, nor did he imply that it was the Church’s responsibility to be the instrument of divine judgment. Instead, Paul loved his brethren according to the flesh so much that he was willing to be “accursed from Christ” if it would provide their salvation (Rom. 9:3).
Paul’s teachings, furthermore, are not the root cause of antinomianism (Greek anti-, against, and nomos, law).
Although Paul was not under the Law, he considered himself “not without law to God, but under the law to Christ” (1 Cor. 9:21). He specifically instructed that freedom from the Law was not to be used as an opportunity for the flesh (Gal. 5:13). One cannot cite Paul’s teachings, therefore, as justification for living an immoral life.
Finally, when he stressed the equal standing of Jews and Gentiles within the body of Christ, did Paul set the stage for the eventual total effacement of Jewish identity? If a person defines his Jewish identity strictly by the Mosaic Law, then the answer would be yes. But that is not how the Bible distinguishes a Jewish person. Mere physical heritage or outward ritual does not constitute a true descendant of Israel (Rom. 2:28–29; 9:6–8). Biblically, a Jewish person’s identity is found in Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 5:17; Gal. 3:28; 6:15; Eph. 2:15; Phil. 3:3–14). By believing in Him, a Jewish person becomes a true child of Abraham, an heir according to the promise (Gal. 3:29). If, then, a Jewish believer (or a Gentile believer as well) is absorbed, it is not into the pagan community, as has been charged, but into the community of faith, the family of God (Heb. 12:23). What other identity would anyone ever need?
THE EYE OF THE STORM
Every hurricane has an eye. Encircled by swirling winds, this 20-mile-diameter space contains no rain, wind, or clouds. All is calm.
Where was Paul in the midst of his storms? He was right in the center—in the eye. How else could he have said, “We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; Persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed” (2 Cor. 4:8–9)? Paul had learned the wonderful lesson that to be anywhere with Jesus is to be always in the eye of the storm.
What would the Apostle Paul say today to the servant of God who is experiencing the same storms of slander, dishonor, and evil report (Rom. 3:8; 2 Cor. 6:8)? Most likely he would say, Stand firm in the eye of the stone, and say along with me, “I am not ashamed; for I know whom I have believed” (2 Tim. 1:12).
- The Babylonian Talmud, trans. under the editorship of Rabbi Dr. I. Epstein, et al., 18 vols. (London, The Soncino Press, 1938), Makkoth 23b.
- See W. D. Davis, Paul and Rabbinic Judaism: Some Rabbinic Elements in Pauline Theology (New York, NY: Harper & Row Publishers, 1948).
- See Hebrews 8:7; also Pirke die Rabbi Eliezer 46: Babylonian Talmud, Niddah 61b; Genesis Rabbah 98:9; Leviticus Rabbah 13.3.