Was Paul a devoutly Torah-centered Jew?

  • Clarifying the question

    Was Paul a Torah-centered Jew? Or, as sometimes framed, rather than being a more syncretistic Hellenized Jew of the diaspora, was Paul more “Palestinian”?

  • NT Historians

    • IVP Dictionary of Paul and His Letters: “In recent years a significant change has taken place in Pauline scholarship. …[Prior scholars felt Paul was] a Hellenized Jew of the Diaspora… Today, however, NT scholarship finds more and more evidence for the Jewishness of Paul’s life and thought.” [William Stenger, “Jew, Paul the” Eds. Hawthorne et. al. (IVP, 1993), 503.]
“Yes, after all…
  • Paul was a notoriously zealous Pharisee

    Paul was widely known among locals as a zealous Pharisaic Jew.

    After all…

    • Gal 1:14 — “I was advancing in Judaism beyond… contemporaries… zealous”1
    • Acts 23 — “[to Jews] My brothers, I am a Pharisee, descended from Pharisees”2
    • Acts 26 — ”all Jews know… willing to testify… [I was a] Pharisee… strictest”3
    1. Galatians 1:14 — and I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries among my countrymen, being more extremely zealous for my ancestral traditions.
    2. Acts 23:6 — Then Paul, knowing that some of them were Sadducees and the others Pharisees, called out in the Sanhedrin, “My brothers, I am a Pharisee, descended from Pharisees. I
    3. Acts 26:4-5 — “So then, all Jews know my manner of life from my youth up, which from the beginning was spent among my own nation and at Jerusalem; 5 since they have known about me for a long time, if they are willing to testify, that I lived as a Pharisee according to the strictest sect of our religion.
  • Paul was raised by Torah-centered parents

    Paul's parents were devout Hebrew-speaking Jews.

    Some reasons to agree include:

    • Paul's parents were from Gaschala.1
    • Paul boasts he was “a Hebrew born of Hebrews”.2
    • Paul lived near Syria.3
    • Paul “descended from Pharisees”4
    1. Paul’s parents being from Gischala is relevant because Gischala is in Galilee (Judea). So, “Paul could very well have spoken Hebrew or Aramaic in his home.” [Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, 504.]
    2. Paul boasted that he was “a Hebrew born of Hebrews” (Phil 3:5). This is relevant because he was deliberately here contrasting himself with the Hellenistic Greek-speaking Jews (See Longnecker, Paul, Apostle of Liberty, 22.); cf. 2 Corinthians 11:22, where he compares his qualifications to those of other Jews or Jewish Christians. Relatedly, Paul sees Jews as his brethren: • In Rom 9:2-3, he shows love for Jews, “my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh”
      • In Rom 11:13-14, he contrasts Gentiles with Jews, “my fellow countrymen”
    3. Paul lived in Tarsus in Cilicia, which is near Syria (Acts 9:11, 21:39, 22:3). This is relevant because, unlike the language of Alexandrian and Egyptian Jews, “Syria later produced an Aramaic literature.” [Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, 504.]
    4. Acts 23 — “I am a Pharisee, descended from Pharisees”
  • Paul was a higher-ranking Jew

    ![Paul as a high-ranking Jew] Paul enjoyed a high standing among other prominent Jewish leaders. Right?

    After all…

    • Paul could expect (and recieve) the high priest’s personal endorsement.1
    • Paul could be commissioned by chief priests to persecute Christians.2
    1. Acts 9:1-3 — “Now Saul [i.e. Paul], still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest, and asked for letters from him to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, both men and women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.”
    2. Acts 26:9-12 — “So then, I thought to myself that I had to do many things hostile to the name of Jesus of Nazareth. And this is just what I did in Jerusalem; not only did I lock up many of the saints in prisons, having received authority from the chief priests, but also when they were being put to death I cast my vote against them. And as I punished them often in all the synagogues, I tried to force them to blaspheme; and being furiously enraged at them, I kept pursuing them even to foreign cities. ‘While so engaged as I was journeying to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests,”
  • Paul was formally trained in Judaism under Gamaliel


    After all…

    • Acts 22:3-5 — “a Jew,… educated under Gamaliel, strictly according to the Law, being zealous.”2
    • Paul displays the exegetical tendencies of a highly trained Jew.3
    1. Gamaliel was the son (or grandson) of Hillel, who helped develop key exegetical methods to facilitate Torah study and applying Pentateuchal laws in a contemporary society fending off Hellenization (cf. t. Sanh. 7.11; ‘Abot R. Nat. [A]37). Several scholars doubt whether Paul studied directly under Gamaliel. It is worth nothing, however, that even if they were right Gamaliel would have strongly influenced Paul since Gamaliel's influence impinged on the practice of every Pharisee. (See Bruce Chilton, Rabbi Paul: An Intellectual Biography (Doubleday, 2004), 35.)
    2. See:

      Acts 22:3-5 — “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city, educated under Gamaliel, strictly according to the law of our fathers, being zealous for God just as you all are today. I persecuted this Way to the death, binding and putting both men and women into prisons, as also the high priest and all the Council of the elders can testify. From them I also received letters to the brethren, and started off for Damascus in order to bring even those who were there to Jerusalem as prisoners to be punished.”

    3. E.g. in Romans 9:6-29,

      “Paul utilizes Hebrew Scripture, midrashic techniques and the exegetical tradition of his day […they] yielded a highly sophisticated composition. It cannot have been the product of an uneducated mind. If he was not trained by Gamaliel, he was taught by some other Jewish master. In any case, it seems clear that Paul received a formal education in the Judaism of the time.” [“Jew, Paul the” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, Eds. Hawthorne et. al. (IVP, 1993), 505-506.]

  • As a Christian, Paul’s perspective remained Jewish

    Even while Christian, Paul’s categories of thinking flow from a Jewish background.1

    We know this because,…

    • Paul was rigidly monotheistic.2
    • Paul framed his commision as a Jewish prophetic calling.3
    • Paul framed his mission to Gentiles as Jewish prophecy fulfillment.4
    • Paul felt humanity exists as “Jews and Gentiles”.5
    • Paul calls himself a Jew (still).6
    • Paul accepted Jewish floggings for Jews.7
    • Paul circumcized Timothy.
    • Paul says converts “turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God”.8
    • Paul says we are all children of Abraham.9
    1. Larry Hurtado: “it is clear that the very Jewish categories of Abrahamic promise, covenant, the purposes of God giving the Torah, and other matters as well, all continued to be of vital meaning and importance for Paul.” [Lord Jesus Christ (Eerdmans, 2003), 89.]
    2. Note: This was unique to Judaism in that time and place (Roman Empire).
    3. E.g. Gal 1:15, echoing Isa 49:1.
    4. E.g. Rom 15:21, quoting Isa 52:15.
    5. E.g. Rom 1:16; 9:24; 1 Cor 1:22-25; 10:32.

      Larry Hurtado: “It is clear that even in his role as apostle to the Gentiles Paul's motives and conceptions were heavily indebted to biblical and Jewish categories.” [Lord Jesus Christ (Eerdmans, 2003), 87.]
      Terence Donaldson: “Paul conceives of himself as apostle not to an undifferentiated mass of humanity in general, but to the Gentiles in particular; such a self-conception betrays an underlying view of reality in which the distinction between Jew and non-Jew is fundamental” [Paul and the Gentiles (Fortress, 1997), 182.]

    6. E.g., Rom 9:1-5; Gal 2:15.
    7. Larry Hurtado: “Perhaps the most gripping indication of Paul's continuing commitment to his Jewishness was his readiness to undergo repeated synagogue floggings, which could be given only to a Jew who submitted to the punishment, and which he describes as inflicted for unspecified charges arising from his apostolic activities (2 Cor. 11:24). [Lord Jesus Christ (Eerdmans, 2003), 88.]
    8. 1 Thes 1:9, which was a very Jewish outlook.
    9. Gal 3:28-29 — “are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to promise”
“No, after all…
  • Paul identified with the “mystery religions”