It’s easy to miss the Jewish brilliance of Paul. It’s common not to regard him as a Jewish thinker at all. He no doubt had much more to say than we will ever know in our lifetime, given the limitations of the Pauline writing we possess. But there are glimpses of more. And it is possible to think like Paul, to carry his thoughts further, to do the same kind of reading and imagining he did.
Paul shared with other Jews the belief that Torah was not an end in itself. Even the Pharisees who seemed so fixated on the laws, who increased holiness by bringing the purity of the temple into the home, were doing this in the belief that Messiah would come. The monastic extremists known as the Essenes had their own radical beliefs about several messiahs and an end times transformation of the world. Paul said, “Messiah is the end of Torah that all who believe may be justified” (Rom 10:4).
We should not think Jews believed the Bible to be closed, cut off, as if nothing would ever change. It is not as if the common Jewish belief was in a Judaism that essentially ended with Moses and his prophetic interpreters. God would bring something much more than Mount Sinai and the six hundred and thirteen commandments.
Torah spoke of something beyond itself. It contained a mustard seed that would grow into a great mountain. In the few letters of Paul and in the limited range of topics Paul covers in them we see something of his views on the matter.
It would be a great privilege to sit at the table with Paul and others and see more of his genius mind at work in the topic. Perhaps over some wine and bread on a Sabbath evening the discussion with Paul would turn to messianic revelations in Torah. I believe there was much more for Paul to say than what we find in his letters. Atonement and incarnation are foreshadowed in powerful ways in Torah, but Paul’s letters barely address them. We may imagine their absence in his letters did not mean neglect in Paul’s teaching. Rather, the letters should be seen as only a tiny window into the teaching world of Paul.
This is a part of a larger chapter in my upcoming book (Paul, the Jewish Teacher of Gentiles) on “Paul and Judaism.” I believe that Paul is a Jewish genius, not a Christianizer who turned his back on his ancestral religion. For more sneak peeks at my writings and news and other extras sign up here for the MJ Musings Weekly Email List.
Still, given the limitation of knowing Paul primarily through some letters he wrote to address problems and repair breaches in congregations, what sort of views do we see about Torah pointing beyond itself?
One promising topic is Abraham.
At times in his letters Paul applies truths from the Torah to the specific situation of his Gentile addressees. Paul is a Jewish teacher of Gentiles, but not just any Gentiles. These readers of his letters have had some education in Torah. They have in many cases been attached to synagogues as God-fearers. They have heard Jewish teachers before. To be convincing, Paul must accomplish two things at once in the sections where he applies Torah to their situation. He must out-teach the other Jewish teachers with regard to Torah and he must show that Gentiles do not need to join Israel by conversion (through circumcision).
There are a number of ways the Torah points beyond itself. Paul could talk about a variety of themes and show how Yeshua brings what Torah was pointing to. If we had that hypothetical wine and bread with Paul, he might converse about the mysteries of the temple. God told Israel the purpose of the sanctuary was to dwell in their midst. His stated desire was to walk with them and for Israel to walk with him. But instead of being near, God is hidden, shut off from the people behind the veil in the Holy of Holies. There is a limit to God’s desired nearness and this cannot be the ultimate plan. What would God do next, beyond temple, to make himself nearer to his people?
Or Paul might talk about God’s visible manifestations in the Hebrew Bible. God shows himself in various forms, such as fire in a cloud or even as a human being, and in different degrees of intensity. Moses was known for desiring to experience more potent manifestations. How close will God approach in appearing to people? Torah, Paul might say, implies he could and would get much closer. It is not beyond possibility that he might approach as close as becoming one of us.
Paul does not bring up these themes and relate them to Yeshua in his letters. We should not expect Paul’s letters to contain a very wide range of his teachings. None of his letters are intended to be a survey of things believers needed to know. They are all addressed to pressing issues and problems with some basic directions of a practical nature. Still, there is one theme in Torah, a theme in which Torah points beyond itself, that fit well with Paul’s audience and the problems they faced.
That theme — used in two important places by Paul — is the promise to Abraham. Paul calls this promise “the Gospel beforehand” (Gal. 3:8). He notes that the thing about Abraham which pleased God was faith (both Romans 4 and Galatians 3). He points out that Abraham was uncircumcised, just like Paul’s Gentile audience, at the time the promise was made (Rom 4:10-11). He derives a significant point from Abraham being called “father of a multitude of nations” (nations is the same word as Gentiles in Hebrew). If Abraham is a father of Gentiles, and is the one through whom “all the nations” (Gentiles) will be blessed, then Paul’s believing Gentile audience can regard themselves as children of Abraham (Gal. 3:7; Rom 4:11-12).
The promise God made to Abraham points beyond the Torah to a blessing which the laws given at Mount Sinai do not provide. Paul does not fail to drive home this point. Mount Sinai was four hundred and thirty years after the Abrahamic promise (Gal 3:17). Mount Sinai does not annul or even add to the promise (Gal 3:15). It is about something other than the promise.
Paul is saying something dramatic and entirely within Jewish thought. Other Jewish groups also looked for something beyond Torah to come. They awaited the messianic blessings of the last days and believed Israel needed redemption. Paul identified that redemption and messianic blessing as coming through Yeshua. But ironically, even though most Jewish groups were looking for an end times promise of blessing, the way they taught Gentiles was backwards. Gentiles, they claimed, needed to take on the commandments of Mount Sinai in order to be part of God’s blessings. While Jews were looking for something greater than Sinai, they sent Gentiles back to the thundering mountain as if Israel alone would receive God’s blessing.
Not so, says Paul. What is good for the Jew all the more so for the Gentile. Jews themselves, Paul makes clear, did not think their redemption would come as a direct result of keeping Torah commandments. Commandment-keeping was never the promise of Torah, but the national way of life of Israel given through Torah. Torah itself is clear that the promise is not for Israel only. Disagreements about Yeshua notwithstanding, the Jewish teachers of Gentiles in Paul’s times were shoddy interpreters of the very Torah they claimed to have mastered.
When God brings blessing to the earth, it will be for Abraham’s descendants and also for all the families of the earth. If we learn anything from Abraham’s personal example, it is that faith is the way to please God. If Yeshua is truly from God, and if the claims of the early believers about Yeshua’s heavenly enthronement are real, then the blessing has already been revealed.
It might be easy to miss the genius of Paul’s readings of Torah. If we think of him as the first great Christian teacher, we might think Paul is somehow Christianizing Abraham. In fact, sometimes Christian thinkers have imagined that Abraham foresaw Jesus in some way. That is not Paul’s point at all. Rather, the Abrahamic promise leads the Jewish reader of Torah to expect something which never came to pass in Torah itself. Paul is ready to say to Jews and Gentiles alike: the new thing has now appeared to us and it is not what we expected. What would God have us all do now that he has brought the signs of redemption near? He would have us be like Abraham, people of faith who see and believe. Anyone who has any different advice is not really following Torah at all.