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    Paul and Judaism – Ask the Rabbi

    Q. Is it true that Christianity was founded by Paul after his break from Judaism?

    Depiction of Paul by Bartolomeo Montagna, 1482

    Depiction of Paul by Bartolomeo Montagna, 1482

    A. The general view is that Paul was a Jew who turned against his people, rejected Judaism and claimed that God had rejected the Jews.

    Paul Johnson argues in his History of Christianity that Paul was “the first and greatest Christian personality”, who “moved right across the religious conspectus, from strict legalism to a complete repudiation of the law – the first Christian to do so”. Johnson adds that “Paul’s gospel… could be seen to be alien to traditional Jewish thinking of any tendency even though it contained Jewish elements.” This makes Paul a former Jew now speaking of Judaism from without, who has become an enemy of Judaism and a harsh critic of Jewish law.

    Another scholar, Hyman Maccoby, does not even concede that Paul was a former Jew. He believes that Paul, despite his own claims, was not a Pharisee, lacked an extensive knowledge of Judaism, may not even have been Jewish, and was probably “a Hellenistic adventurer, on the fringes of Judaism”.

    Most scholars do not go so far, but, like Marvin Wilson, see in him both continuity and discontinuity with Judaism. Paul himself sometimes praises Judaism and says he delights in the Jewish law (Rom. 7:22), yet he also says a change has happened in his life and he is different from “when I was still a practising Jew” (Gal. 1:13). This is one of many inconsistencies which, added to Paul’s love of sweeping statements, is a problem for the scholar.

    Paul quotes the Torah some eighty times. But the more he becomes a follower of Jesus, the more negative he is towards the law. He believes the commandments – whilst not in themselves sinful – have created sin: without the law against coveting one might never have known what it was to covet.

    He thinks Jews observe the law not out of love of God but for the sake of a reward, to be “justified”, whatever that means, in the sight of the Almighty. Rather than Moses who brought the law to Israel, Paul prefers Abraham, who “had faith in the Lord” – though the verse about Abraham’s faith probably refers to the patriarch’s fidelity, not his faith in the theological sense.

    Paul is an orator, not a teacher. He is addressing an audience. But which audience? Sometimes it is his fellow-Jews, and if he criticises them it is “in club”; he is a follower of Jesus but not an outsider.

    Jewish scholarship, of course, rejects his criticisms and takes issue with him on many counts. Not for one moment can it accept his claim that through the Torah Jews try to bribe their way into God’s favour, nor agree that the law is a barrier to communion with the Divine.

    Other speeches and letters are addressed to gentile audiences. But not all the Jesus group of the time agreed with him that gentiles could become Christians without being Jewish first. The Judaisers said the way to Christianity had to be through Judaism – circumcision, kashrut, etc.; but this view was not for Paul, and his negativity about circumcision not only reassured gentiles apprehensive about the operation but was also a retort to the Judaisers. He said that if gentiles adopted some commandments they had to adopt the whole Torah, and this might not overcome the human tendency to sin.

    The parting of the ways between Judaism and Christianity was not necessarily something Paul expected, even though he facilitated it. Nor would he necessarily have foreseen the anti-Judaism that became endemic in Christianity.

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