By Dr. Brad Young
It is common in Christian academic circles to debate whether or not Paul was the “second founder of Christianity” who converted from Judaism to start a new religion. I disagree with this view because I cannot accept the simplistic explanation that Jesus was a loyal Jew, faithful to his people, while Paul was a renegade who canceled the law and preached that the Israel of history had been replaced by the new, spiritual, Israel–the church.
Following the argument of Paul-as-renegade, some people also suggest that Paul invented the idea that the Gospel replaces a no-longer-valid Judaism and as such, Paul could be viewed as the first anti-Semite. I completely disagree. I think Paul was something very different–a remarkable and faithful Jew whose vision of unity between Jews and Gentiles stemmed directly from the Hebrew prophets.
We know from many scriptural sources that Paul valued his Jewish heritage. When writing of the Torah, Paul used the metaphor of an olive tree, symbolizing the Jewish people and their way of faithfully serving God, as providing nourishment for an engrafted branch, the non-Jews who had come to faith in God through Jesus the Messiah. This means that the root nourishes the branch. It certainly does not render Judaism invalid, and is therefore not “replacement theology,” also called supercessionism–the theology that Christianity has superceded Judaism, making it invalid. This ‘replacement theology’–a now-discredited idea that dominated church teaching through the centuries and spawned anti-Semitism–maintains that the Israel of the Hebrew scriptures has been replaced by the new Israel. God has revoked his covenants and promises to the Jewish people, and transferred them to the church.
It is true that supercessionism and anti-Semitism derive support from the teachings of Paul, but Paul himself was not anti-Semitic. He did not preach the abrogation of Torah or hatred for his people.
Many interpreters claim that after his Damascus Road experience, Paul stopped being a Jew or a Pharisee; he stopped observing the commandments. He left Judaism and became a Christian. I believe that this view is seriously mistaken. The Torah continued to have a practical meaning for Paul his entire life. In Galatians 5:3 the apostle declares, “I testify again to every man who receives circumcision that he is bound to keep the whole law.” Paul was circumcised–and he would have viewed himself as being bound to keep the whole Jewish law.
Scholars often view the center of Paul’s theology as a polemic against the Torah–that is, that Paul was somehow saying it’s futile to try to achieve salvation based on the works of the Torah. But a careful reading of Paul’s teachings refutes this idea. In Romans 3:31, Paul asks a question to clarify his position, “Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.” The preaching of faith does not cancel the Torah.
But the traditional interpretations, which have impacted modern English Bible translations, make it so. For instance, the RSV translates Romans 10:4 as, “For Christ is the end of the law, that every one who has faith may be justified.” As translated, this verse directly contradicts Romans 3:31. How can he uphold the law by the preaching of faith and at the same time bring about the “end” of the law for every one who believes? Here one should examine the translation of the word telos in Greek–which is translated to mean “end.” But the word really means “aim, goal, objective.” In Romans 10, Paul is talking about how non-Jews are justified by faith. They are to be included in the people of God. This is the “telos,” which is the true “goal or aim” of the Torah. The final objective is to bring all peoples into right relationship with God. So the law still has meaning, especially for a Jewish leader like Paul who lives his life according to halachah.
Paul’s opponents argued that Gentiles needed to convert to Judaism by being circumcised and obeying the whole Torah in order to be saved (Acts 15:1). Some teachers in Rome wanted to exclude them unless they first converted to Judaism by circumcision, baptism and sacrifice in the Temple ritual.
But in Romans 10, the apostle is arguing for the inclusion of the Gentiles. The Roman teachers were preaching a different Gospel, which Paul argued against in Galatians, Romans, and Acts 15. Paul wanted the Jewish followers of Jesus in Rome to accept fully the Gentiles coming to faith in Jesus. Paul maintained that the goal of the Torah is for all to be included on the basis of faith.
In Romans 9:4-5, Paul describes how non-Jews must honor and revere the God of Israel without arrogance or simplistic attitudes based on ignorance. He proclaims, “They are Israelites, and to them belong the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and of their race according to the flesh, is the Christ. God who is over all be blessed forever. Amen.” The apostle described these divine blessings given to his people in the present tense.
Romans 9, 10, and 11 are crucial for understanding how Paul viewed the people of God. Not only did he describe redemption in the present tense, emphasizing God’s continual connection to historic Israel, but he also declared that this divine call upon Israel is irrevocable (Rom. 11:29). In other words, God does not have to break his word to Israel to keep his promise to the church. Paul argues that because the majority of the Jewish people reject the claims Jesus made to be the Messiah, the way was prepared for non-Jews to hear the message and to receive Jesus by faith.
As a Pharisee, Paul’s center of theology was the Torah and the oral tradition that interpreted it. The Pharisees viewed the Torah as transcendent–with a higher meaning and purpose. This must be the way Paul read the prophets of Israel who foresaw a time when Gentiles would worship God. Compare, for instance, the perspective of the apocryphal Psalms of Solomon 17:26 and 30, “He will gather a holy people… And he will have the Gentiles serving him under his yoke.” This source, written near the time of Paul, shows the longing to see Gentiles come into a relationship with God as His people and serve Him. The Hebrew prophets envision that day in the future when the non-Jews will come to faith in the one God of Israel. Paul saw this being fulfilled in the proclamation of the message of faith among Gentile nations.
So Paul warned the Gentiles not to become arrogant in their attitude toward unbelieving Israel. They were to love the people of Israel and stand in awe and wonder at God’s mysterious plan. Here, the analogy of the Olive Tree is very significant. The wild branch has been engrafted into the tree, contrary to nature. The tree of Israel’s people and faith is what nourishes the branch. In Paul’s time, the arrogant attitude of non-Jewish believers was already a problem. For Paul, God was including the Gentiles while upholding his historic relationship with Israel. In Galatians 6:16, he pronounces a blessing of peace and mercy, first for the congregation that received his message and acted upon it and second upon the “Israel of God” which must refer to the Jewish people as in Rom. 9, 10 and 11.
When Paul wrote about the Israel of God, he was giving a blessing upon his own people, even though as a group they had not received his message concerning Jesus. Paul never canceled the eternal covenant God made with his people. Far from being an anti-Semite, Paul cherished his heritage but believed that Jesus was the fulfillment of Israel’s messianic hope.
Although this belief was not accepted by the majority of his people, their unbelief served a purpose in the divine plan. Non-Jews would come to faith in God through the preaching of Jesus. Clearly, in Rom. 9, 10 and 11, the apostle preached a message of engraftment rather than replacement.
No, Paul was not the author of supercessionism and did not teach that Judaism was invalid. He practiced his faith in loyalty to his understanding of Torah and his mission to reach the non-Jewish world with the Gospel message. Replacement theology does not originate with Paul. He was an apocalyptic visionary who longed to see both non-Jewish people and the people of Israel together serving God’s purpose.
Brad Young is Professor of Biblical Literature at Oral Roberts University and the founder of the Gospel Research Foundation (http://www.gospelresearch.org/), which is dedicated to the scholarly exploration and spiritual restoration of the Jewish roots of Christian faith. Dr. Young’s books include ‘Jesus the Jewish Theologian,’ ‘Paul the Jewish Theologian,’ and ‘Parables: Christian Interpretation and Jewish Tr