Not a Jewish looking Paul in this unfortunate example of Christian art.

Paul Was Too Jewish for the Synagogue

Not a Jewish looking Paul in this unfortunate example of Christian art.

Not a Jewish looking Paul in this unfortunate example of Christian art.

This morning someone looking for an article I wrote in 2013 requested this, so I am posting it. I wrote “Paul Was Too Jewish for the Synagogue” after an unexpected adventure at SBL (Society of Biblical Literature) in November 2013. My young friend, David Matthews, and I were there catching all the papers we could in our main fields of interest (his = the Temple, mine = Isaiah). But we couldn’t resist a few “Paul and Judaism” sessions. And one of them was like a Rock Festival of Pure Pauline Goodness . . . a chance to hear Paula Fredriksen, Mark Nanos, Magnus Zetterholm, and Pamela Eisenbaum all in one room. It was one of the larger session rooms at SBL, probably with room for 400 people, and it was standing room only. Note, by contrast, the Isaiah sessions I attended rarely had more than thirty people.

Afterwards, the excitement was palpable, the air electric, as DM and I hit the alehouse to process it all. “Paul was too Jewish for the synagogue!” we said. The result? If more people could just understand Paul via the Radical New Perspective (which should neither be viewed as “radical” nor “new”) what a wonderful world this would be . . .

Our discussion began with me sketching out a diagram on a legal pad at the alehouse (a diagram now sadly lost). Picture the Greco-Roman city on one side and a beautiful synagogue building on the other. Paul’s Gentiles had a relationship to both sides and also pressures of belonging to both.

Think of Paul in a city like Pisidian Antioch or Thessalonica. He goes into the synagogue where he speaks to a mixed audience of Jews and Gentiles. What? Jews and Gentiles? You bet. The synagogues of the first century had something in common with modern Messianic Jewish congregations. (No, I don’t mean they played Paul Wilbur songs, I mean there was a significant Gentile presence in the Jewish service).

Paul spoke to the “men of Israel” (Jews) and “you who fear God” (Gentiles) and “sons of the family of Abraham” (converts to Judaism, a.k.a. proselytes, no longer counted as Gentiles). Typically the God-fearing Gentiles were so ready for a message that would bring them closer to God and Paul’s news was well-received as God hearing their prayers at last.

Now, at this point, I am going to just hit some high points in explaining how things worked in terms of the cultures and social pressures going on for these Jews, proselytes, God-fearing Gentiles, and those who made their way into the Yeshua movement that Paul was pioneering. The points I will briefly explain here are a combination of things heard in the session, especially from Paula Fredriksen’s talk, and our own synthesis of it all over some pints of dark wheat ale and food.

Paul and Judaism. The development of supersessionism in early Christianity. The seeming divide between Jewish and Christian belief today. A return to understanding the New Testament in its Jewish context, shedding the supersessionism and reading it once again as the work of Jewish apostles. Want more of that? Sign up for the MJ Musings Weekly Email here and also for the Daily D’var (readings in Torah and Gospel every day with commentary) here.

The Greco-Roman city was a family-based religious institution (said Fredriksen). What? A city was like a kind of church? Yes, and the gods were part of the family, like great uncles and great, great grandfathers and mothers.

The synagogues had a sort of liberal, “law-free” approach to welcoming Gentiles. Do as much or as little of Torah as you like. Honor the God of Israel, but you don’t have to leave off showing honor to the city gods. Come nearer to God and be among the righteous Gentiles who will enter into life in the age to come.

In fact, the Jews in the diaspora synagogues (meaning those outside the land of Israel) also took a somewhat liberal approach. They were exempt from full participation in the city festivals and emperor cult, but they compromised in various ways to be good neighbors. They would show honor in some ways to the gods, like nodding their head in respect whenever they passed a pagan temple. More importantly, they did not expect the God-fearing Gentiles in their midst to leave off their duties to the town gods.

Along comes Paul. He is a radical. He is too Jewish for the synagogue. The synagogue leaders complain to the city councils in the various places Paul went, “These men are turning the world upside down. They are proclaiming another king besides Caesar, Jesus!”

What is the biggest difference between Paul’s approach with Gentiles and the liberal, laid-back approach of the synagogues? Paul demands that Gentiles who enter into the congregation of Messiah Yeshua should abandon all honor to the gods. These are the last days. The Name of God will be one and the Lord will be king over all the earth (Zech 14:9). The Gentiles will be called by his Name (Amos 9:12). It is time to go up to the mountain of the house of the Lord and learn his ways (Isa 2:2-4). The eschaton (next age) is about to come with Yeshua’s return as the Divine Messiah who brings it all to pass.

And guess what the hardest thing about converting to Judaism was in Paul’s time. It wasn’t cutting the foreskin. Ancient people could deal with physical pain. It was abandoning the gods. Only proselytes did this, Gentiles who converted and became Jews. And there was a small trickle of proselytes compared to the plethora of God-fearing Gentiles. The synagogue did not actively encourage conversion or see it as necessary.

But Paul’s gospel was a kind of conversion, not making Gentiles into Jews, but bringing Gentiles into the covenant promises of Abraham, as citizens of Greater Israel but not Israelites, branches grafted into the Israel tree. And these Gentiles did not have to have their foreskins cut off, but they had to do something much harder — reject the family and city gods and become non-Romans.

Now they were left as a people with no recognizable identity in their world. They were not Jews and they were not Romans anymore. So what does Paul do in his letters — all of which are written to the Gentile movement and about its concerns? He shows them a new identity, one founded in Torah. They are not homeless and without a family in this world, but have come into a new family of Messiah through the promises to Abraham.

Problem is, after Paul, people absolutized the new “Christian” identity and forgot the identity of the first followers of Jesus, the Jewish disciples and apostles. Christianity demanded, after Paul’s time, that Jews should join the Gentile framework and cease to be Jews (except in ethnicity). Paul had through his teaching built a place for Gentiles but now, in an ironic turn, Christianity required Jews to convert and join this Gentile identity!

Furthermore, Paul’s intense excitement about the coming eschaton, the any-day return of Jesus, led him to insist that Gentiles should be “law-free” (meaning they did not need to keep Sabbath and food laws) and he forbade any further conversions as proselytes (though he did convert Timothy). So, because of the urgency of the time and the possibility of confusion (the notion existed that one had to act Jewishly to be accepted by God), Paul required Gentiles in his movement not to be too Jewish.

But after Paul, when the return of Jesus was not as quick as the early movement thought, some Jewish followers of Yeshua came up with a more moderate approach (the Didache, probably growing out of the same mixed Jewish-Gentile community that produced the Gospel of Matthew), a middle way. Now that it was well-established that God’s acceptance was not based on “works of the law,” it was acceptable for Gentiles to act Jewishly in mixed communities.

Paul was too Jewish for the synagogue. He turned the world upside down. And he caused great concern to the synagogues, fears of impending problems with the Greco-Roman population. Their liberal status-quo with Gentile adherents to the God of Israel had been working. They were good neighbors with the Greco-Roman city. But this crazy, end-times zealot who demanded that Gentiles forsake the city gods and worship one Lord other than Caesar, well, he was going to get the Jews in trouble by making them seem like bad neighbors. And Jewish blood would be spilt. Couldn’t Paul just be a little less like a Pharisee with his zeal for Torah and prophets?


  1. This was rather eye-opening! What I mean is this has caused me to see the large a gap in understanding of the era of Paul’s writings – what he was dealing with in the culture mix at that time! Things are clicking after reading this. Thank you.

  2. Since “law-free” is in quotes I’m guessing you’re obliging a common misconception re: Paul. He writes scroll after scroll of directives for Gentiles and all of them can be argued to be Torah-based. Since the Gentiles of the ekklesia were in common fellowship with Jewish Believers they would willingly share common food and calendar. Personally, I doubt the majority of Messiah Believing “G-dfearers” were less pious then their synagogal counterparts.

    1. Todd:

      “Law-free” means free from the parts of the Law that apply only to Israel (Sabbath, food laws, circumcision, tzitzit).

      As you have heard in “Paul and Judaism” sessions at SBL (sessions we both attended) God-fearers were allowed to participate in the Greco-Roman cult and the synagogues expected them to unless they converted.

  3. Ingrafted Gentiles in an Apocalyptic sect of Judaism 1st c. AD. In terms of their spiritual walk would you speculate that they continued to follow Romes’s calendar, the Biblical calendar or make up their own?

    1. Todd:

      I would guess the vast majority kept Rome’s calendar while mixing in some Jewish observances. Please tell me more about what point you want to make.

  4. My guess is many of them were as observant as their counterparts in the synagogue. Col 2:16 might be a good text to reference but it’s usually interpreted according to ones theology. Personally, I don’t think the ekklesia’s worship forms utilized Rome’s calendar.

  5. “Furthermore, Paul’s intense excitement about the coming eschaton, the any-day return of Jesus, led him to insist that Gentiles should be “law-free” (meaning they did not need to keep Sabbath and food laws) …….” What scriptures do you use to back up this claim? that they did not need to keep the Sabbath and food laws?? Thanks….

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