Paul and the Shema

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A close-up photo of the Shema inscription on the Knesset Menorah in Jerusalem. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

It was some time last year that I began to have a major breakthrough in my personal understanding of the Apostle Paul. I think like most of us I got used to Paul often not making sense. Don’t get me wrong, lots of things that Paul wrote I found understandable and inspirational, but then there was a large section of his writings that I kept on getting the nagging feeling that I was missing his point entirely.

When I talked about Paul in public I quoted Apostle Peter routinely. You may recall that Peter too found some things in Paul’s letters “hard to understand” (2 Peter 3:16).

I owe this breakthrough to the voices of several important scholars, but one in particular that stood out for me was Mark Nanos. The following is my summary of his brilliant argument together with added insights and applications of my own.

The Shema and Trinity/Tri-unity?

Among those modern Christ-followers that find the Jewish Background of the New Testament of particular importance, it is a point often made that – the famous “Shema” (Deut. 6:4) – Hear, oh Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One – uses a very interesting Hebrew word אחד (pronounced ahad) to communicate the idea of unity instead of another Hebrew word יחיד (pronounced yahid) that could have been used, had that the idea of exclusivity been at play. Therefore it is argued that the idea found in the Shema is one of the early Hebrew Bible pointers to the later Christian doctrine of Trinity (or as some call it, or a close version of it: Tri-unity).

Disclaimer: Just so that we are all clear, this is how I personally understand and define the idea of Tri-unity/Trinity: The One God of Israel, eternally and mysteriously exists in three persons – the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Although Son and the Spirit are subordinate to the Father functionally (this is what is called Economic Trinity in systematic theology), they are equal to him in nature, power and glory (this is what is called Ontological Trinity). At the risk of being overly simplistic, it could be said that the Ontological Trinity deals with what God is, while the Economic Trinity deals with what God does and how God does it. (By the way, whatever you think of this article, please, leave your brief feedback in the end!)

I of course am smart enough (and I hope the same about you) to recognize that, while this is as a later Christian systematic theological construct (2-3 century at the earliest), its roots go very deep in both Hebrew Bible and New Testament. (You can see my more detailed arguments in my recent book “The Jewish Gospel of John: Discovering Jesus, King of All Israel”.) Now that we got this out of the way (at least I hope so), I would like to talk to you about the true meaning of the Shema.

I think that the Shema, though as you saw above I have no trouble with Trinity/Tri-unity theologically, has nothing to do with the idea of plurality of Godhead whatsoever, instead it has to do with two other extremely important matters:

  1. The idea of covenantal uniqueness of Israel (The LORD is our God) and with,
  2. The idea of functional unity between Israel and the Nations (The LORD is One). I know, that so far I have not made much sense, but keep on reading I promise the fog will be lifted very soon.

The Shema in Apostle Paul and other Jewish Sages
Mark Nanos in his article Paul and the Jewish Tradition: The Ideology of the Shema, which you should read as soon as you are done with mine, argues that the Shema was not only important, but central to everything that Paul wrote about (take this idea very seriously).

Whether rightly or wrongly, Paul understood the Shema as a combination of the uniqueness of Israel (The Lord is our God) and functional unity (The Lord is One).

What is striking is that Paul was not alone in this thinking. There are good reasons to see Paul thinking in exactly the same ways as other Jews did and yet will. Please, consider the following two sources.

One is not very far removed from Paul’s time at all, and one much further removed from his time. They both understand the Shema in exactly the same way he did – both appealing to Zechariah 14:9:

“The Lord, our God,” over us (the children of Israel); “the Lord is one,” over all the creatures of the world. “The Lord, our God,” in this world; “the Lord is one, “in the world to come. As it is said, “The Lord will be king over all the earth. In that day will the Lord be one and His name one.” (Sifre on Deut. 6:4, Commentary written c. 3rd century CE)

The Lord who is our God now, but not (yet) the God of the (other) nations is destined to be the One Lord, as it is said… “And the Lord shall be king over all the earth; on that day shall the Lord be One and His name One.” (Rashi on Deut. 6:4, Commentary written in 11th century CE)

The only real difference that can be stated to exist between the Jews that authored the above-mentioned writings interpreting the Shema, and Apostle Paul, was this:

Apostle Paul and the entire first century Jewish Jesus movement was convinced that the latter days – the time of ingathering of the Nations to the God of Israel – had already begun, while other Jews did not see it that way.

Like many other Jews of his day, Paul thought apocalyptically (meaning he believed that the end of the ages had dawned) and he did so in light of prophecy (this had been long anticipated). Non-Israelites in large numbers would now come to worship the God of Israel through Yeshua (Jesus), the Jewish Christ. This apocalyptic and prophetic perspective on the Shema is what caused Paul and the so called “Jerusalem Council” (Acts 15) to argue against the status quo conversion of Nations to Judaism (Ruth the Moabite paradigm in Ruth 1:16). This was so precisely because the Kingdom of God had already arrived and the new era of Nations turning to God had commenced. Gentiles can (according to Jerusalem council) and must (according to Paul) stay in the status of the Nations (1 Cor. 7:17), but commit themselves fully to worship of the same God as the Jews do (Naaman Paradigm in 2 Kings 5 vs. Ruth Paradigm of commitment to Israel’s God, you should read more in Are There Still Jews and Greeks in Christ Jesus and consider taking the Jewish Background of New Testament online course).

The Shema as the heart of Paul’s theology
There are many places where Paul uses the idea of the Oneness of God to argue a point (“Make no mistake about it – that’s the idea of the Shema”). Here is a good example of why he thinks that his God cannot stay a tribal deity (God of Israel only), but must be recognized as the God of the entire world (the God of Israel and the God of the Nations as well!).

We read in his letter to the Romans 3:29-31:

“…is God the God of Jews only? Is He not the God of the Nations also? Yes, of the Nations also, since indeed God who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith is ONE. Do we then nullify the Torah through faith? May it never be! On the contrary, we establish the Torah (the Law).

And in his letter to the Ephesians 3:16-19:

I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you (Nations) with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people (Israel), to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge – that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.

Or consider 1 Corinthians 8:4-6:

Therefore concerning the eating of things sacrificed to idols, we know that there is no such thing as an idol in the world, and that there is no God but one. For even if there are being called gods whether in heaven or on earth, as indeed there are many gods and many lords,  yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom are all things and we exist for Him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we exist through Him.

What is Apostle Paul’s point here? It is actually quite simple: Nations must worship Israel’s God as Nations, just as they being sojourners with Israel (Lev.17-21) and “Jerusalem Council” has confirmed in Acts 15:28-29 (do take the time to compare and you will see that the Jerusalem council did not rule, but simply accepted the existing summary of the Leviticus laws for the Nations living as part of Israel).

Jews too must continue to carry on just like before – worshiping the God of Israel as Jews without switching their status from Israel to the Nations! There is one way to God for both (Israel and the Nations) – Christ Jesus. “There is one way to receive salvation for both – by grace through faith”, a group of Pharisees Paul represented argued. These are the words of Paul, the Jewish Pharisee, called to the service of the Jewish Christ (Phil.3:5, Gal.2:15-16).

Paul’s vision was that together as Jews and the Nations they will establish the Torah – that is prove it right against all of her/its enemies (those who devalue the Torah).  Paul was so serious about it that in all congregations under his pastoral oversite he has set it up as an absolute rule about staying in the same status in which you were called to Messiah.(1) What is absolute astounding today is that if in a modern public Christian assembly the speaker is to ask (as I did on a lot of occasions) for a show of hands of people that know what this rule was all about, in overwhelming amount of cases the answers are completely wrong. Most Christ-followers today have never heard about this rule, yet it is one of the keys to understanding this radical, but very Jewish man we call the Apostle Paul.

In the letter we today call 1 Cor. 7:17-20 he wrote:

Only, as the Lord has assigned to each one, as God has called each, in this manner let him walk. And so I direct in all the congregations.  Was any man called circumcised? He is not to become uncircumcised. Has anyone been called in uncircumcision? He is not to be circumcised.  Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but the keeping of the commandments of God. Each man must remain in that condition in which he was called.

Conversion to and away from the Jewish Ancestral ways of life, i.e. “the circumcision” and “uncircumcision” is very well attested in Late Antiquity. People did both joined the Jews (proselyte conversion) and being born Jews “unjoined” them by removing the signs of the circumcision. Both practices were highly controversial and politicized. Apostle Paul argued that this practice, one way or another, threatens something very important – the very word of God – Torah. Two people groups staying distinct, but together worshiping the same God, since the most important thing in the process in above quoted text is “the keeping of the Commandments of God”. In contrast to this in the next section Apostle Paul argued against keeping “the law of commandments of (Roman Public) ordinances” (Ephesians 2:11-22), that upheld the idea of segregation/discrimination of Jews and the Nations.

Part of the Commonwealth of Israel
This idea that the Pharisee Saul Paul, envisioned the end of discrimination but the continuation of distinction between Jews and the Nations seems to be contradicted sharply by his own argument in Ephesians 2 that now Gentiles in Jewish Christ became full citizens in the Commonwealth of Israel. But, my dear reader, there is no contradiction here at all. Just like in the modern Commonwealth (State) of Israel the Nations (Israeli Arabs and other minorities like Russians, Armenians, Druze, Chechens and Bedouins to name a few) can be (and most are) first-class citizens, so too the Nations in Paul’s apocalyptic view, now through the Messiah Yeshua, became members of the Commonwealth of Israel too! Apostle Paul wrote about it in his now famous passage in Ephesians 2:11-22 (yes, I do take this “contested” by New Testament scholarship letter as coming from Apostle Paul in spite of some differences with his other letters):

Therefore remember that formerly you, the Gentiles in the flesh, who are called “Uncircumcision” by those called “Circumcision,” performed in the flesh by human hands – that you were at that time separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world, but now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For He Himself is our peace, who made both one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, by abolishing in His flesh the enmity – the law of commandments in (Public Roman) ordinances, so that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, establishing peace, and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity… then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner (stone), in whom the whole building, being fitted together, is growing into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit.

In Colossians 2:11-15 he wrote:

In Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ; having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. …having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. When He had disarmed the rulers and authorities, He made a public display of them, having triumphed over them through Him. Therefore no one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day – things which are a shadow of what is to come; the body of which is Christ.

I opt here for a more consistent (with Paul’s overall argument) translation decision of where to end a sentence, since punctuation did not exist at the time of composition (compare my translation with NASB, of which mine is a variant). I also add in italics my own translation adjustment of the “ordinances” (τὸν νόμον τῶν ἐντολῶν ἐν δόγμασιν καταργήσας), one of the key meanings of which, is a “public” societal traditions (Eph.2:15). The same idea is present in in above-quoted Col. 2:14 (ἐξαλείψας τὸ καθ᾽ ἡμῶν χειρόγραφον τοῖς δόγμασιν ὃ ἦν ὑπεναντίον ἡμῖν). This “dogma” (δόγμα) in both Eph.2:15 and Col.2:14 is overcome and completely destroyed in the Jewish Christ through the Spirit of God. The Jews and the Nations are now finally free to deal with each other without discrimination and segregation. It is in fact are Roman (though not only) public societal norms of segregation and discrimination that were already destroyed by Christ through his death and subsequent resurrection.

Like you I feel overwhelmed by the grandeur of Paul’s vision for his God. We should continue to think about this issue. This is not a closed case:

Could it be that Paul envisioned One Torah for Jew and Gentile, but two sets of laws applicable to each group? Could it be that later “Muslims” and “Christians” were generally wrong (that there can be only one law for all people)? Could it be that “Judaism”, though in the minority, was actually right? There was one Torah for both (Jews and Gentiles), but two sets of laws appropriately applicable to both.


(1) See David Rudolf’s article “Paul’s Rule in All the Churches and Torah-Defined Ecclesiological Variegation”. Available at https://ejournals.bc.edu/ojs/index.php/scjr/article/download/1556/1409

This article originally appeared on Jewish Studies Blog by Dr. Eli, March 21, 2016.