Paul: The Man at the Intersection

Many Bible scholars agree that the apostle Paul has been seriously misconstrued. But while they have worked to return him to his first-century context, they still wrestle with the implications. Who was the real Paul, and what was his message?

An old proverb says that “a lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on,” and George Bernard Shaw reflected that “false knowledge” is “more dangerous than ignorance.”

If these observations are accurate, can we afford to trust anything we are taught or told without further inquiry? In today’s world, where education and information are more readily at our fingertips, we are empowered to revisit the truth of a matter and to prove the validity of ideas for ourselves. Surprisingly, many long-held and long-taught ideas and conceptions are being identified as completely false.

That’s what a number of Bible scholars have been discovering in recent years with reference to the apostle Paul. Paul has long been held up as the real father of Christianity, sometimes as the founder of a new religion, and especially as someone who cast off his Hebraic heritage to become free of the “Old Testament” law. But is that really an accurate portrayal of his belief and practice?

A New Perspective

What academics began to uncover in their “new perspective on Paul” is that the long-promoted view within the Christian world is simply false—that when we return the apostle to the cultural and historical setting of the first-century Roman world, reading what he said and looking closely at what he was doing, the Paul that emerges bears little resemblance to the most prevalent Christian image of him, an image that is nevertheless still being promoted today.

The term new perspective regarding Paul dates to a 1983 article by James Dunn in reference to the work of E.P. Sanders. More than 30 years on, this “new” perspective is already getting quite old; even before 1983, some theologians and scholars were alluding to a disconnect in modern Christian thinking when it came to Paul and the law of God. For example, in the 1970s C.E.B. Cranfield’s commentary on the book of Romans emphasized that for Paul, the keeping of God’s law was not a moribund relic of the past but a continuing requirement, and that the ability to keep it had only been made possible in the first century through God’s gift of the Holy Spirit.

In his 1990 work, Paul and the Jewish Law, Dutch Reform scholar Peter Tomson identified a common tripartite error inherent in the received ideas about Paul as the apostle to the gentiles. These included the assumption that Paul’s message was an attack on the Jewish law; that for Paul the law no longer had any practical meaning in everyday life; and that to understand Paul it isn’t necessary to consult Jewish literature but only Greek gentile works. As Tomson made clear, each of these long-held ideas has proven to be inaccurate.

It could be thought that what has been said of faith is inconsistent with the law and calls it in question. Such a reading of the situation Paul emphatically rejects. The truth is rather that, rightly understood, the law supports and confirms the doctrine of faith.”

C.E.B. Cranfield, The Epistle to the Romans 1–8 

Such false ideas had crept into Christian thinking down through the centuries. Influential figures from church history such as Marcion, Constantine, Chrysostom and Luther, most of whom were openly anti-Semitic, had sought to erase all links to the Hebraic basis of the first-century church.

What the new perspective provided, then, was a fresh opportunity to form an accurate view of Paul and to return to the facts of the Bible. Who was the real Paul?

Intersecting Paths

The man Saul, who would become the apostle Paul, was born in Tarsus, a Greek-speaking city of the Roman Empire in the region of Cilicia (on the southeast coast of Turkey today).

Tarsus lay at the junction of important trade routes traversing mountains, coastal plains and the sea. Influences on the city were both eastern and western, Greek and Roman, Jewish and pagan. The city as a central point of conjunction, or intersection, between apparent extremes is a fitting metaphor for the life of Paul. For example, he was born as both a Roman citizen and a Hellenistic Jew of the tribe of Benjamin. Highly educated, he was well versed in Greek philosophy and literature; yet he also excelled in Judaism, studying under the renowned rabbi Gamaliel at Jerusalem.

From the beginning, then, Saul was developing a very well-informed mind at the intersection of his Hebraic heritage and the thinking associated with the nations around him. For all that, he was not yet Paul the apostle. For Paul to step forward, a change had to occur within Saul himself—a change of heart and mind. It would be so radical, so absolute, that “Saul” would be gone forever. But did that mean that he would turn his back on his Hebraic heritage as some have maintained?

The zeal of Saul for the teachings of his Jewish forbears had led him to become a violent persecutor of those who adhered to the teachings of Jesus Christ, followers of what the Bible simply calls “the Way” (Acts 9:2). Paul later remarked, “I persecuted this way,” binding people and committing them to prison (Acts 22:4). Like most of the Jews of his day, he had known that a messiah was prophesied to arise from among them, but initially he could not recognize Christ as that individual. That key aspect was a piece of the puzzle not yet in place in Saul’s understanding.

The significant change that would need to occur in Saul’s heart and mind would begin on the road to Damascus. The event is famous, much romanticized and even distorted by Renaissance and Baroque artists such as Tintoretto and Caravaggio in their embellished visions of the account. Such traditional depictions of Saul’s encounter with Christ often show him wearing a Roman tunic or even medieval garb as opposed to the sort of clothing typically worn by first-century Jewish men; they also usually show him either on horseback or lying helpless on the road, having been knocked off a horse. The biblical account makes no reference to a horse; in fact, much more likely is that he and his companions were on foot, as the account says simply that Saul “fell to the ground” and the others all “stood speechless” and then “led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus” (Acts 9:3–4, 7–8).

Christian tradition further falsifies the event when it maintains that the Jewish Saul was struck down, only to arise as the “Christian” Paul, a man supposedly free of God’s law, who like Shakespeare’s Shylock was forced into a humiliating renunciation of his Jewish heritage on the basis that it equated to inherent error.

[Paul] is often enough described simply as a ‘Christian.’ . . . And what he is engaged in must be characterized as a new religious movement because it is built upon the conviction that there is something fundamentally, essentially ‘wrong’ with, and within, Judaism.”

Mark D. Nanos and Magnus Zetterholm (eds.), Paul Within Judaism: Restoring the First-Century Context to the Apostle

One of the disturbing factors here is that this is upheld not as an account of a human being whose actions and attitudes of persecution and violence were in need of change, but to further the idea that his fundamental identity as an Israelite and his desire to obey the law of God were wrong. In this regard it helps to remember that Christ Himself was a Jew, who said: “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill” (Matthew 5:17). Further, Paul himself said, “Do we then make void the law through faith? Certainly not! On the contrary, we establish the law” (Romans 3:31, emphasis added).

In an interview with Vision, Robert Sloan, president of Houston Baptist University, said that cutting Jewishness off from Jesus and from Pauline theology is not only “untrue historically” but also “has dangerous implications.” In fact, Sloan added, “I certainly think that Paul could have said with the psalmist, ‘I delight in the law of the Lord, in the law I meditate day and night.’”

But for all his zeal, Saul hadn’t recognized God nor his own personal sin, because God had not yet chosen to open his eyes and reveal Himself to him. When He did, God had Saul’s attention. Saul was literally blinded by the light, but Scripture tells us that he was taken into the city, where after three days his sight was restored; then he was submerged in the waters of baptism and received the Holy Spirit. The process of baptism, thanks to Christ’s ultimate sacrifice, could wash away the sins of the old Saul. The Holy Spirit would allow the mind of Christ to fulfill “the righteous requirement of the law” (Romans 8:4) in Paul. If Paul had renounced his Hebraic heritage, then advocating taking on the mind of law-keeping Jesus the Jew would be a strange way to show it.

Paul the Hebrew

It is facts of this kind that scholars and authors have begun to engage with in order to strip away the false Christian conception that Paul threw off his Jewish heritage. Sloan makes it clear that Paul was “not the founder of Christianity,” an astonishing revelation to many, perhaps.

In Paul: The Mind of the Apostle, English writer A.N. Wilson says that “if Paul was ‘converted’ ‘from’ something ‘to’ something else, it certainly was not ‘from’ Judaism ‘to’ ‘Christianity.’ Paul continued to be a Jew to his dying day.” Wilson also points out that the term Christian appears only once in the whole of the New Testament in a sense that could be argued—albeit unconvincingly—to be nonpejorative, a fact that suggests an externally applied label.

The idea that Paul threw off his Hebraic heritage is simply illogical and negates the words of the apostle himself. For example, he validated and upheld his Hebrew status in unimpeachable terms: “circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews; concerning the law, a Pharisee” (Philippians 3:5). Once he received the Holy Spirit, his understanding grew to the point where he knew that fulfilling the ritual of circumcision was not what was important. Rather, he could affirm that “keeping the commandments of God is what matters” (1 Corinthians 7:19).

Paul was writing his letters from within Judaism, not Christianity, even if that is not the way that his letters have been read since at least some point in the second century.”

Mark D. Nanos and Magnus Zetterholm (eds.), Paul Within Judaism: Restoring the First-Century Context to the Apostle

At issue was not his earlier efforts to keep the law but the fact that he lacked the Holy Spirit, the mind of Christ, which would allow him to keep it more fully. The Holy Spirit was being made available to all whom God would call; Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female, as Paul said, could come into the same mind, into obedience to the eternal law—not of Israel, not of the Jews, but of God—and into a relationship with Him. Sloan told Vision, “I think theologically Paul does say that the law can be fulfilled in those who possess the Spirit.”

Sloan is among current academics who recognize the need to take the new perspective on Paul further. Scholarly works such as the 2015 collection of essays edited by Mark Nanos and Magnus Zetterholm, titled Paul Within Judaism: Restoring the First-Century Context to the Apostle, do just that. Their shared conviction “that Paul should be interpreted within Judaism” has led them to study the apostle in “his most probable first-century context.”

But while the scrupulous work of scholars to cut through the errors and get back to the truth is commendable, their updated perspective has not brought about the seismic change it would seem to demand.

The Real Paul

Paul’s own writings indicate that he was operating at yet another intersection, trying to be “all things to all men”—not to bring them into his own self-generated religious views but, as a “bondservant of Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 9:22; Romans 1:1), to exhort both Jew and non-Jew to keep the full intent of God’s eternal law.

As such, it is no surprise that we find Paul keeping the law, and with deepened significance. He wrote to Jewish and gentile believers at Corinth, “Let us keep the feast [of Unleavened Bread], not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (1 Corinthians 5:8). In other words, just as Israel had been told to put leaven out of their homes once a year, so the deeper significance was now also to put sin out of one’s life and replace it with the unleavened (humble, sinless) actions of a mind led by God, for which the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is essential. Keeping these annual holy days, Paul said, would remind them of these things.

According to Paul, Christ is “our Passover” (verse 7), the ultimate sacrificial Lamb that covered sin once and for all, just as ancient Israel had foreshadowed by sacrificing actual lambs. When it was time to keep God’s feast of Pentecost, commemorating the day when God granted access to the Holy Spirit, a traveling Paul would hurry on to Jerusalem to observe it (Acts 20:16). When it was the Sabbath, he actively sought to observe the day with others of like mind (Acts 16:13). He taught that everyone who was called by God should do the same (“let us keep the feast”), an instruction that many scholars still struggle with.

Paul’s ministry took him far and wide. Whenever he arrived at a new place, he went first to the local synagogue to preach the gospel of Christ to those who already knew about the law of God. The synagogues included a broad spectrum of society—not just Jews but proselytes, gentile God-fearers, interested pagans and, on one occasion, most of the residents of an entire city. Paul, the man at the intersection, also taught in marketplaces where everybody was to be found. He preached the gospel to the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers in Athens, and directly to the pagan idolaters on the Areopagus (the Hill of Ares, or Mars’ Hill; see Acts 17:22–34). In Ephesus he was protected from a riotous mob, who had become enraged by his teaching that gods made with hands were not gods at all (see Acts 19:23–34).

The commission that Paul received from Jesus Christ was not to throw away the law of Christ’s Father, from whom it had ultimately come. As Paul said, he didn’t know what sin was until he knew there was a law that defined it (Romans 7:7). Then he found that, like everyone, he was guilty of much sin (defined as lawlessness or law-breaking; 1 John 3:4). Paul’s message to his varied audiences, then, was not freedom from the law but true freedom through the law—freedom from sin and its death penalty through repentance, baptism and receipt of the Holy Spirit (Romans 6:20–23; Acts 17:30; 19:1–8).

Martin Luther realized one day that he couldn’t be legalistic, and so instead of legalism now we have freedom. Instead of judgment we have love. Instead of rules we have grace. Of course, all this is the traditional way we’ve read those texts, and it’s just not right.”

Robert Sloan, Vision Interview (November 2014)

The eternal and immutable law of God still stands, like the proverbial elephant in the room, as it has since the beginning of human existence. The intention was always for all of the human race to keep it, no matter who they were or which road they came in on. Israel had previously been invited to do so and had in fact been set apart to exemplify the benefits of that law to neighboring nations, but they had failed to faithfully keep it. Through Christ, then, the opportunity to repent, receive the Holy Spirit, and undergo a needed change of heart and mind was going to be offered to all humanity. As Paul wrote in Romans 8:4, it was now possible for anyone with the mind of Christ to fulfill “the righteous requirement” of the eternal law of God, as Christ Himself had already done. Christ interrupted the pattern of perpetual human failure since Eden. The apostle Paul, though in prison, in beatings, in shipwrecks and in all manner of peril at the hands of human beings, could constantly rejoice in that fact.

As Paul strove to imitate Christ’s obedience to His Father (1 Corinthians 11:1; John 15:10), so each of us as children made in the image of God will be invited to return to the Father, who never went away, and who stands at the intersection waiting patiently to draw all of His children to Himself.