Was Apostle Paul a Torah-observant Jew?

Among both clearly Pauline and the so-called “contested” letters attributed to the Apostle Paul, two particular letters define Paul’s vision for the Nations that follow the Jewish Christ as non-other – these are: the letter to the believers in Rome, and the letter Apostle Paul sent to the saints residing in the region called Galatia. We are presented in these two letters with two sharply different ideas set forth by Paul the Pharisee.

Usually Paul’s writings are quite easy to deal with. We simply harmonize the two letters as if they have one and the same context, presenting only one message to these very different recipient communities. We justify this by saying that Paul had only one teaching to give to people. While that may be true in one sense, after all Paul “preached Christ and him crucified”, it is certainly not true in another. Apostle Paul tailored his letters to the particular situations in which these communities found themselves, usually seeking to either cast a new vision or correct some wrong teaching or practice among them. This means he did not write one and the same thing to both of them. As we will see later, the Galatians and the Romans were in completely different circumstances and needed pastoral guidance from Paul that was particularly applicable to each of them.

The difficulty with understanding Paul’s (apparent) contradictions lay in the following: One letter is defending and affirming of the Jewish people (Letter to the Romans), while the other is seemingly disparaging of the Law (Torah) and covenantal identity of the Jewish People as such. So, in what follows, I will show why what Paul wrote to each congregation makes perfect sense in each case.

Was Apostle Paul a Torah-observant Jew?

We need to begin in a somewhat unusual place – the eyewitness account of Luke (Lucius), who documented much of Apostle Saul Paul’s life. The reason I say it is an unusual place to begin is because people normally go straight into Romans or Galatians, seeking to reconcile Paul’s words right there and then. However, I think this kind approach would be premature, because most of what Paul writes there does not have to do with his own practice regarding Torah, but how the Nations should live in worship of the same God that the faithful remnant of Israel continues to worship. In other words, whilst we know what Paul wrote to the Nations in Christ, we do not know from those letters what advice he would have given his fellow Jews. How Paul himself lived, interestingly enough (and perhaps predictably), is covered in more detail by Luke, to whom we now turn for this information.

We begin in Acts 21:17 when Paul arrived in Jerusalem with his co-workers in the Gospel, where they were warmly greeted by the Christ-following community. Once Paul and his crew had a chance to rest from their journey, the following day they attended a meeting with Yakob/Jacob (whom the English Bibles incorrectly continue to call James) and the elders of the Jerusalem congregation/s. Once the meet-and-greet time was over Paul began to relate his story about God’s amazing (and unexpected to most of them) work among the Nations through an unlikely medium – his own ministry (Acts. 21:18-19). Once the elders and Jacob, who seems to be the presiding elder among them, heard about this, they praised God with true sincerity, but then quickly turned to a matter that struck much closer to home – the rumors about Saul Paul, which they believed to be false. We read in Acts 21:20-21:

And when they heard it they began glorifying God; and they said to him, “You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed, and they are all zealous for the Torah; and they have been told about you, that you are teaching all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children nor to walk according to the customs.

It is important to remember that this is not the first time Paul met Jerusalem’s elders. He was there at the so-called “Jerusalem council” and joyfully accepted “the decree”, carrying the apostolic letter with its decisions (Acts 15-16) and implementing it among his congregations/churches. From the above text it is clear that there was one central accusation and two supporting ones. Each of these accusations had to do with the misinformation that, in his teachings, Paul applied to the Jews the same directives that he applied to the Nations.

Paul’s slanderers accused him of teaching the Jews to forsake the Torah, by means of 1) not circumcising their sons, and 2) departing from the Jewish ancestral ways. The core of the accusation was that Paul was allegedly instructing Jews to convert away from Judaism. As we have seen in previous sections of our study, the reverse was in fact the case. Just as Paul believed that the Nations must stay as the Nations, he was equally convinced that Jews must stay as Jews (refer back to the rule that he set up in all his congregations as per 1 Cor. 7:17).

Jacob, along with the elders, came up with a simple test that, if Paul passed publicly (which they were convinced he would), should silence all the lying tongues:

“What, then? They will certainly hear that you have come. Therefore do this that we tell you. We have four men who are under a vow; take them and purify yourself along with them, and pay their expenses so that they may shave their heads; and all will know that there is nothing to the things which they have been told about you, but that you yourself also walk orderly, keeping the Torah (Law). But concerning the Gentiles who have believed, we wrote, having decided that they should abstain from meat sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication.” (Acts 21:22-25)

Jacob and the elders were not confused. They knew exactly where the false rumors came from – they came from people who did not understand that the Jerusalem council clarified that the members of the Nations who came to worship Israel’s God are only under obligation to observe the requirements enjoined in the Torah upon the sojourners with Israel (Acts 15:22-29; Lev. 17-21). That decision never implied that the Jews in Christ should now be free to have a ham sandwich and enjoy some forbidden seafood. The elders understood this, and so did Paul.

Paul did exactly as Jacob suggested, affirming the very point Jacob made about him: that he “walk(s) orderly, keeping the Torah” (Acts 21:24). Even though Paul was not known to be “a flip-flopper” and always stood for that in which he firmly believed, we read in verse 26:

Then Paul took the men, and the next day, purifying himself along with them, went into the temple giving notice of the completion of the days of purification, until the sacrifice was offered for each one of them.

For any Jew by whom Paul might have been judged by his deeds, the case was settled. He himself did walk orderly, keeping the Torah, and therefore could not possibly be instructing his fellow Jews to do otherwise – but to the Nations who followed the Jewish Christ, he taught that they should follow the letter earlier authored by the elders and the apostles in Jerusalem. There was no inconsistency – that was the truth – pure and simple.

This article originally appeared on Jewish Studies Blog by Dr. Eli, April 7, 2016.