Paul’s Identity as a Messianic Jew: A Necessity for a More Accurate Interpretation of His Letters

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I’ve been teaching on Romans at my local Messianic congregation in Minnesota. It’s a Pauline deep dive from a Messianic perspective: starting with the premise that Paul is a Jew who is Torah-observant and considers himself part of a global Judaism centered around the Jewish Messiah.

This premise – which I believe is evident in the New Testament – brings us to better, more sound interpretation of Paul’s letters, which are often difficult to understand.

For example, Paul’s statements on the Torah appear conflicting. Consider:

  • Negative: “The Torah came in so that sin might increase.”  (Rom 5)
  • Positive: “The Torah is holy, good, and righteous.” (Rom 7)

How we interpret each of these statements creates either a negative or positive view of the Torah in modern followers of Jesus. Does Paul see the Torah as good and useful for instruction? (And thus, shouldn’t we?) Or is it an obsolete document no longer to be followed?

Here’s where our premises – our theological assumptions – are important: Paul’s statements about the Torah are more accurately understood if we grasp his identity.

Much of Christianity views Paul as an ex-Jew who ditched his Hebrew name, converted and helped start a new gentile religion. If this is to be believed, we can read Paul’s statements on the Torah in the negative. It exacerbates: if Paul is negative on the Torah, then grace, favor, and righteousness are pitted in opposition to God’s law. This negative view has produced all kinds of anti-Judaism and even anti-Semitism within historical Christianity. I think Paul the Jew would be horrified.

I see things in a more positive light: Paul remained a faithful, Torah-observant Jew, but was changed forever upon finding Judaism’s Messiah. It changed his direction and plans for life. Surpassing Paul’s grandest hopes and dreams, this Jewish Messiah would bring the whole world to know the God of Israel; creating an enlarged commonwealth of Israel whose members are not just Jews, but people from all nations. Not by circumcision and conversion to Judaism – God required no such thing - but by trusting in the Jewish Messiah. Paul saw himself as an instrument in bringing the whole world to the Jewish God.

This premise, I argue, is a better premise for accurately understanding Paul’s statements on Torah, faith, works, justification, and grace.

And this has been my area of study and teaching at my local congregation for over a year, now on my 12th teaching on Romans. As a study guide, I’m using the excellent Romans for the Practical Messianic by Messianic apologetic J.K. McKee.

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Romans for the Practical Messianic engages with relevant Jewish and Christian scholarship, in addition to Messianic theologians like David Stern, Tim Hegg, Daniel Lancaster, and others. It takes a conservative Biblical stance while approaching the letter from the premise that Paul is a Torah-observant Jew.

Romans in Simple Terms

Putting a teaching together usually takes me 4-5 days. A helpful aide in all this is putting the text in question into my own words. I find that if I can put the text into my own words, it shows I am at least understanding the words on the page, if not the meaning behind them.

imageThe masterful teacher and physicist Richard Feynman once said, “What I cannot create, I do not understand.” My takeaway from that is, if I can’t explain something in simple terms, I don’t understand it.

I’m teaching on Romans 5 this Shabbat. Can I explain it in simple terms? Here’s my attempt. I leave you fine Kineti readers with Romans 5 in my own words:

God saw our simple trusting in Messiah, saw it was good, and set us right with Him. Because of this, we have shalom with God. This same trusting has caused us to enter into new divine favor. We bask in this favor! Shouting from the rooftops the hope we have in Him: the hope of eternal life by being raised from the dead.

We are glad even in suffering for the sake of Messiah's reputation. Suffering produces perseverance and endurance. The end result is character and hope. And all who hope in Him won't be disappointed! Even now, He's poured out His spirit on us, our hearts filled to overflowing.

Think back: we were evil people; helpless and blind to the things of God. Then, at the time appointed by God, Messiah forfeited His own life for us ungodly people. What righteousness! How rare it is that someone gives up his life to save even a righteous man. But God's greatness surpasses this still: showing how much He loves us by giving up His life even while we were evil! Messiah's work set us right with God, but above this, it saved us from God's wrath. His wrath would have been justified; after all, we were enemies of God by how we lived. But instead of wrath, God had a better plan in Messiah. His death caused us to have life, both today and in the age to come.

In the beginning, one man did wicked things and introduced evil into the world. With evil came its natural outcome: death. Now, all humanity is prone to the same: evil actions, and eventually death. How do we know what's evil and what's good? God defined this precisely in the Torah. What about before the Torah? Sin was still sin before then, but people didn't know. Thus, people still died, because it was still wickedness even before the Torah explained it.

Here’s the marvelous parallel: One man, Adam, did evil and it introduced death to all humanity. Now, one Man did something so grand and good, God's favor overflows onto the whole world. One man's evil action produced a death sentence for humanity, but Messiah's action produced an overflow of God's favor: life forever with Him. One man rebelled against God, and so God condemned him and all humanity. But one Man's righteousness caused billions to be set right with God.

God gave the Torah to amplify the reality of human evil and it's life-destroying outcome. But where sin became more apparent, God's forgiveness and favor multiplied. So while sin and death reign in humanity, God redeemed the situation by Messiah’s work. Before, sin and death. Now, favor and righteousness. This righteousness is so all-consuming, it overcomes even death itself: God will raise His people from the dead in that great day, and we will reign with Him.

Would the Torah Look Different If God Revealed It Today?

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The Torah was given 3500 years ago; it’s filled with things that are directed toward ancients. Things like:

  • Sacrifice: Hundreds of commandments regarding sacrificing animals, which hasn’t been done in 2000 years. Ancient cultures utilized blood sacrifice in idolatry, but today it’s virtually disappeared. And because the Temple isn’t standing, we can’t keep these commandments today even if we wanted to.
  • Agricultural prominence: The Biblical holidays coincide with agricultural events. Ancient Israel was almost entirely agricultural, but today agriculture makes up a tiny percentage of human work.
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  • Care for women: A judicial system providing care for women (e.g. levirate marriage, where a man is obligated to marry his dead brother’s widow). In ancient cultures, women were almost entirely dependent on their husbands to provide food and wellbeing. Today, thanks to education and cultural changes, women are able to provide for themselves independently of men.
  • Plural marriage: Polygamy and concubines were permitted, likely because women and infants so often died during childbirth. Multiple female sexual partners would ensure children, who would then take care of parents in old age. But today, thanks to modern medicine, mother and infant mortality is exceptionally rare.
  • Slavery: Torah legislates slavery to reduce its ills (e.g. “You shall not return an escaped slave to his master.”). Up until the 20th century, slavery was prevalent in virtually every culture. Today, it’s all but abolished.
  • Work: Lighting a fire on shabbat was forbidden, possibly because fires were often used for work purposes. Today, a fire can be started effortlessly with a press of a thumb or flick of a switch. Moreover, people have fires for non-work reasons.

This is just a sampling; there are dozens of other commandments that, while they were important in the context of ancient Israel, are far less important now.

In fact, we religious people don’t keep many of these commandments. Faithful Jews and Christians don’t practice levirate marriage today, for example; there’s no need.

The corollary is, the Torah doesn’t address modern problems. For example,

  • Automobiles: Is it permissible to drive a car on shabbat? Turning the ignition technically starts a fire inside a combustion engine, and starting a fire is prohibited on shabbat.
  • Medicine: Many medical pills use gelatin capsules, which is often made from animals the Torah forbids eating.
  • Food: Kosher laws don’t address certain animals unknown to ancient Israel (e.g. turkeys). Moreover, could pork be kosher if fed a clean diet, or did God give kosher laws for reasons besides health? And by extension, if kosher laws are solely for health, would God forbid modern kosher-but-unhealthy foods, like fast food? (And yes, there are kosher McDonalds in Israel.)
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    A kosher McDonalds in Israel
  • Restaurants: Modern restaurants have grills on which both kosher and non-kosher animals are cooked. Is it permissible to eat kosher food cooked on a grill which inevitably brought it into contact with non-kosher food?
  • Electricity: Does electricity fall under the “no fire on Shabbat” prohibition? Flipping a light switch is technically starting a spark, which is technically a fire.
  • Construction: Modern houses are built differently than in ancient times. The Torah requires that ancient houses be built with guardrails on the roof so as to prevent people falling off. Today, most homes are not built by the person living in them, and it’s a very rare event to have someone walking on your roof.
  • Clothing: The Torah prohibits wearing wool and linen together as a garment. But modern clothing is often made up of multiple pieces of clothing (shirt, undergarment, pants, socks, etc.) How does one apply this commandment today, when clothing is made up of many pieces of garments, and each garment may be made up of multiple kinds of cloth?
  • Garment corners: God commanded Israel to put fringes on the 4 corners of their garments. Modern garments don’t have 4 corners. Do we put the fringes on belt-loops? Or as an undergarment (tallit katan)? Or do we even need to wear them?

Since the Torah doesn’t address such questions, we’re left to do our best to apply them in principle. Orthodox Judaism defaults to the most stringent application: no, we cannot drive on shabbat. Meanwhile, leftist streams of Judaism and Christianity all but dissolve the Torah; replacing it with a humanistic whatever-feels-good morality.

In the Messianic movement, most of us take a more pragmatic walk: yes, wear tzitzit in whatever way you can, because the principle is remembering God’s commandments, not whether you have 4 corners on your garment. Yes, you can eat clean animals even if cooked at a non-kosher restaurant, because contamination is a reality of the world.

Is the Torah irrelevant?

Liberal and leftist streams of Judaism and Christianity look at all this and say, “All those laws were for a different time, and need not be kept today.”

This isn’t to say the Torah is irrelevant. The values of the Torah are eternal; codifying a divine moral system in which murder, rape, and cruelty is immoral, while legislating care and provision for widows, orphans, and the poor.

And this is true historically. The values of the Torah set the stage for Western civilization, and enabled further moral advancements. For example, it was British and American Christians who, informed by the Biblical value that all men are on equal standing before God, abolished slavery. The whole world followed suit, and here we are a few hundred years later and slavery has all but disappeared.

Would a 21st century Torah look different?

Since we’ve achieved moral advancements built atop the Torah would the Torah look differently if God revealed it today?

This question came to mind while watching Ben Shapiro, an Orthodox Jew and political conservative, engage in a discussion with an atheist at a secular university. Here’s the engagement in question:

Student: You had a great discussion with [atheist author] Sam Harris on your show about ignoring certain doctrinal texts, yet still believing in ideas like revelation.

Ben Shapiro: Yes.

Student: My question is, if you truly believe in the supernatural side of monotheism, why is it OK to perform, as you describe it, an “ongoing dialectic” – over time, pick and believe certain piece of doctrine, when you realize that the original parts were from an omniscient Being.

Ben Shapiro: So the answer that I gave Sam Harris, is that the omniscient Being, in this case God, gave us flawed human beings this book. This book was directed at a certain time and place. The people living 3000 years ago didn’t have the same education and values, the same evidence, the same scientific knowledge. They didn’t have the same 3000 years of development we’ve had since Sinai – and so God was speaking to a specific people at a specific time.

So a lot of the commandments are specifically directed at converting people away from more primitive practices to less primitive practices. To take an example, animal sacrifices. We now look at them and say that’s really primitive, pretty terrible. [Medieval Jewish sage] Maimonides puts this forth in 1100 [AD], this idea that there were pagan practices in which animals were slaughtered on behalf of pagan gods. And the idea was that you were appeasing these gods, and that these were use of animal sacrifices for perverse purposes. People weren’t willing to give up the perverse purposes at that time, and God knew that, so God converted the use of those purposes to the worship of Him.

[…]

Here’s the point. God didn’t just say to human beings, “Here’s the Law, I mean exactly what I say, forever, on these areas, without regard to what human beings are.” God injected an enzyme into human development. That enzyme, in my view, is revelation. And without that enzyme, there is no catalyst for Western civilization… Human beings using their reason and logic to apply eternal principles to new circumstances and new evidence over time.

The question the student poses is, if the Bible is from an omniscient God, why is it OK to not keep certain commandments?

Shapiro’s answer is that God gave the Bible to an ancient people with the understanding that people must interpret the Bible in new circumstances and evidence that would later arise. So while the principles of the Bible are eternal, circumstances may arise that change our application of those principles.

The principle to care for widows, orphans, the poor, women and children are eternal. But how we care for them looks different than 3500 years ago. (For example, we don’t leave the corners of our harvest fields for the poor, since many of us don’t have fields. Instead, we might give directly, or to charitable organizations that help the poor.)

The principle behind the commandment to create guardrails on the roof – to make homes safe for those in and around it – is eternal, but keeping it might look different in today’s culture.

Yes, a hypothetical 21st century Torah would look very different, but only in application. The eternal principles behind the application would remain the same.

Does this mean God changes? No; it means God gave an ancient people a law code – a civilizational document – for how to live good and upright lives. The principles behind this remain the same, even if applying those principles looks different 3500 years later.

Does this mean God wasn’t omniscient, or does this disprove divine authorship of the Torah? No; it means God was omniscient to the extent that He allowed human progress to shape the application of the eternal principles. God doesn’t assume we’re robots stuck in time, and it’s why the principles of the Bible remain relevant and applicable today.

Learn Hebrew the Fun Way with Duolingo

Today is my 200th consecutive day of Hebrew language lessons with Duolingo!

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Duolingo is a free mobile app and website, and it’s the best way to learn a language. I’ve tried in-person lessons, group studies, audio lessons, video lessons, subscriptions,...but I’ve learned more with Duolingo than all of them combined.

Duo gamifies learning; turning learning into a game and friendly weekly competition with a small group of people learning the same language as you. It’s actually fun. And super easy to do lessons: I usually just whip out my phone on my lunch break and do 5 or 10 minutes. Works as an app or just in your browser on the phone, tablet, and desktop. Super easy and even fun.

Interested in learning Hebrew with me? My Hebrew group on Duolingo has a few spots opened:

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