Ephesus, theater

Paul’s Jewish Theology #1

Ephesus, theaterMaybe you love Paul, thinking he’s a great intellect or inspiring or both. Maybe you hate him, thinking he is what is wrong with Western religion.

If you’re Jewish, perhaps you heard he was the guy who declared Jewish customs obsolete. He is used by some Christian thinkers as Paul the anti-Moses. There is a sort of superiority complex behind much of this talk. Religious Jews, allegedly, are trapped in a physical religion of dead ritual and Paul came along to bring pure, spiritual faith.

If you have a background in Christian churches, perhaps you have other reasons Paul has been ruined for you. It may be the perception that Paul is a misogynist (a hater of women). He was apparently single, or at least no wife is ever mentioned. He wants women to be quiet (allegedly).

Or it may just be the way Paul is used in sermons. His writings, though small in volume, are the authoritative basis for the harsh “justification theory” gospel (Douglas Campbell’s term). In this gospel you are supposed to deduce that you are guilty, that God is real, and come to believe in a short list of doctrines about Jesus — all before you die, after which it is too late. If you don’t, God will banish you to a place of constant torment forever. And ever.

I will explain why I’m quite positive on Paul.

Paul, Jewish Teacher, Interpreter of Torah, Theologian

Paul isn’t who you’ve been told he is. For one thing, he’s rather brilliant. He’s sharper than your average diaspora Jew of his time. Compare him to another Jewish theologian of his day, Philo of Alexandria. Paul outshines him by several orders of magnitude. I’d have no problem putting his genius on the level of the best known among the sages of Israel and on par with many luminaries from the Greco-Roman world of his time. I don’t mean these praises to be empty and I don’t offer them in ignorance. I have some idea what I am claiming.

He is a Jewish teacher of Gentiles. If he were to be read that way, much of the confusion and Paul-hating would disappear.

When Paul reads the Torah, the foundational book of his Jewish people, he sees the main point as promise. He sees promise for all people, not just Jews.

When Paul saw Yeshua, speaking from heaven with blinding light, speaking with the divine voice and radiating the unique divine glory, his whole world changed. Paul saw that what Torah promised was being done in a way no one foresaw — in the Jewish Messiah who also, shockingly, was revealed to be divine. God had come among us, nearer than even in any stories of the Torah.

Where can we read the inner thought of Paul? Where can we see something more than his deliberations with specific congregations about disputes and problems? Where can we see the positive theology of Paul?

There is a place where Paul is laying out his beliefs in a positive manner. He has lain aside for this section of text argumentation with various ideological opponents. We can see the grandeur of Paul’s thought about God, the repair of the world, the mending of the human condition, the unforeseen greatness of Messiah, the real meaning of the appearance of the Christ/Messiah, the destiny of the sons and daughters of Adam, and the universal extent of God’s love and its effects.

The thing is, people have been emphasizing the wrong thing in Paul (justification by faith). People have erroneously declared it to be the center of his thought. And it has caused them to focus on the wrong chapters: Romans 1-4. They have failed to see that Romans 1-4 is a prosopopia — a dialogue with an opponent, who in this case is another Jewish teacher whose reading of Torah Paul finds second-rate. Many of the things people think Paul believes are actually either the ideas of his opponent or they are hypothetical extensions of his opponents unsound theology shown to lead to absurd conclusions.

What I just claimed, it is huge. I know. I didn’t believe it until I read Douglas Campbell, professor of New Testament at Duke University. His book, The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul (2009, Eerdmans), caused me to see things I can never un-see now.

I hear the skepticism. It’s okay. Let me approach this from the other side, saying it another way and perhaps so that you’ll be more open to the idea.

Suppose all that survived of Paul’s writings was one little fragment, a few chapters. What if that fragment was not Romans 1-4? What if it was Romans 5-8?

I will suggest that you would get a different idea about Paul. I will explain how you would see a mature, Jewish theology. I will show that this theology is remarkable well-rounded in spite of the brevity of these chapters.

You might be interested to know, the kind of material that is in Romans 5-8 has been thought by New Testament scholars to contradict some other things in Paul’s writing. The common idea that “justification by faith” is the center of Paul’s thought has been argued against for decades. If you insert the conditional, contractual understanding of God’s relationship to human beings into Paul’s theology, it results in a number of glaring contradictions with Paul’s Jewish theology.

Here is how this series will proceed. I will be restating the content from a section of Campbell’s book, The Deliverance of God (chapter 3, section 2.1, “The Soteriology Apparent in Romans 5-8”). It is, in my mind, a classic. Campbell wrote it for a rather professional audience of theology scholars. It deserves to be restated in simpler terms and made known to a broader audience, to be made more approachable.

I will then take a series of points from this restating of Campbell’s work and expand on them. I will choose points that are practical, worldview transforming, meaningful to people like me who can relate to Paul’s notion of the cosmos groaning with labor pains (Rom 8:22).

Okay, I haven’t proven anything yet. I’ve said a lot about where my thoughts came from. I’ve said where it will proceed. The proof is in the pudding, says a quaint English expression. I will do my best to show you Paul the Jewish teacher, interpreter of Torah, and inspiring theologian.


    1. I think Jesus applied it in ways subversive to his audience, finding more of a moral message and one that poked holes in people’s presumptions.

  1. I look forward to read your posts about Paul. I see Paul more as the Jewish teacher of Gentiles, no longer as grace vs. law or faith vs. works. I like the way you concentrate more on promise than condition. What I don´t understand yet is why you contrast Rom.1-4 with Rom 5-8, I don´t see a contradiction here. I understand Rom.1-4 is written in the form of dialogue with a real or fictional opponent, perhaps in some statements (about the evil Gentiles Rom.1?) he is paraphrasing his opponents. I think Paul is repudiating every sort of boasting against each other or against God by pointing out the guilt and neediness of all, Jews and Gentiles alike, and salvation of all through a work only God can do by sending Messiah as atonement for our sins.

  2. Derek, your two cents, does Paul taking so much time and ink to get an offering for the “poor” in Jerusalem from a bunch of mostly Gentile congregations have anything to do with all this?

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