Who is a true Jew according to Apostle Paul?

Apostle Paul Preaching on the Ruins, Giovanni Paolo Pannini (1744) (Wikimedia Commons)

In his letter to the Romans Apostle Paul spoke of true Jews and Jews who are not really Jews. Take these things into consideration as you ponder what that means. Imagine yourself a follower of the Jewish Messiah in Rome. Can you see yourself and others like you being under tremendous pressure from your family and other governmental/patriotic forces that would naturally push you to disassociate from the Jews? I think the answer must be given in the affirmative – but that is not all!

Not only were the Gentiles who followed Christ in Rome pressured to disassociate from the “Jewish community”, but the mainstream Jewish community also, were not happy with their allegiance to Jesus. And there was a very important political and social reason for that – the Roman Godfearers served as a buffer zone between Jews and Romans for decades. They were the most powerful advocates for religious freedom of the Jews within the Roman Empire – they were indeed the buffer zone the Jews badly needed. But now things were changing rapidly. Roman citizens were now joining this new Jewish movement of Jesus by the thousands, and that threatened to change the status quo in Roman-Jewish relationships, putting into grave danger the otherwise comfortable political climate achieved between Jewish leadership and the Roman authorities. An Empire-wide movement of non-Jews following Jewish Jesus was politically unacceptable to both the Roman government and the Jewish leadership that lived under its firm, but more or less benevolent, reign. Both opponents hated it for the same reason – it was bound to change the status quo.

As you continue to place yourself, through the medium of God-given human imagination, into the shoes of the first century Roman followers of Jesus, you can now see that both Jewish and Roman opposition would pose some real challenges to your faith and practice. The affinity for Israel and the Jews in Rome, unlike in Galatia, simply did not make sense. “It was wildly counter-intuitive and fully unproductive”, thought the Roman Christ-followers. Apostle Paul, however, sought to advocate for his people according to the flesh (Israel/Jews) and convince the Roman Christ-followers that, in spite of governmental opposition to the Jews in general, and in spite of Jewish leadership that was able to influence the majority of other Jews in opposition to the Messiahship of Jesus, their participation in this spiritual “Jewish coalition” was very well justified and needed.

Not every Jew is a true Jew

I have chosen to deal here with two key texts from the letter of Romans that will help us to see the simple arguments Apostle Paul directed to dissuade the Roman Christ-followers from ways that would sabotage the cosmic plan of God for redemption of both Jews and the Nations through their unity in Messiah.

In Romans 1-2, Paul goes through a series of arguments where he talks about both the Jews and the Nations being in the same predicament with the effects of sin in their one broken world. In Romans 2 he confronts the believers in Rome who act in judgmental ways against their Jewish (weaker) brethren who have not come to believe in the Jewish Christ, as they themselves rightfully did (2:1-4). He spares no words or emotion to show how the wrong behavior of some anti-Jewish followers of Christ in Rome, will surely be visited by the judgment of God. God’s justice, like everything else, applies to both Jews and Greeks alike. Here is how Paul put it in Romans 2:5-11:

Because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, who will render to each person according to his deeds: to those who by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life; but to those who are selfishly ambitious and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, wrath and indignation.  There will be tribulation and distress for every soul of man who does evil, of the Jew first and also of the Greek, but glory and honor and peace to everyone who does good, to the Jew first and also to the Greek, for there is no partiality with God.

Paul continues his Pharisaic Shema-centered argument about God being the God of both Israel and the Nations, who not only visits wrath and judgement upon the wickedness of the covenant-breaking Jews (as the Romans seem to think), but will surely do the same upon those of the Nations as well. We read Paul’s points in 2:12-16:

For all who have sinned without the Torah will also perish without the Torah, and all who have sinned under the Torah will be judged by the Torah; for not the hearers of the Torah  are just before God, but the doers of the Torah will be justified. For when Nations who do not have the Torah do instinctively the things of the Torah, these, not having the Torah, are a Torah to themselves, in that they show the work of the Torah written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them, on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge the secrets of men through Christ Jesus.

Apostle Paul, using his powerful rhetorical arguments, is seeking to convince the Romans of this simple fact – not everyone who claims to be a Jew is truly so before God. He will repeat the same argument later in Romans 9, where he will argue that not all descendants of Israel constitute the true Israel. His argument is not how most Christians today understand it – i.e. “The real Jews today are the Christians”, and “Jews are no longer truly Jews”. Paul argues quite the opposite. He argues for the enduring validity of Jewish identity, because he sees (much like the prophets did) that Israel has always consisted of “the faithful remnant” and “the rest”. Not all those who claimed to be Jews (born as such) were really Jews, neither were all who claimed to be Israel are truly such.

He exhorts the Romans believers who embraced Jewish belief in Christ to think this matter through with him. “Think about it”, says the great Apostle in Romans 2:17-25:

But if you bear the name “Jew” and rely upon the Torah and boast in God,  and know His will and approve the things that are essential, being instructed out of the Torah,  and are confident that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness,  a corrector of the foolish, a teacher of the immature, having in the Torah the embodiment of knowledge and of the truth,  you, therefore, who teach another, do you not teach yourself? You who preach that one shall not steal, do you steal? You who say that one should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples?  You who boast in the Torah, through your breaking the Torah, do you dishonor God?  For “the name of God is blasphemed among the Nations because of you,” just as it is written.

His point here is that Jews who disobey the Torah should not be viewed by Roman Christ-followers as realJews. The argument is simple – don’t take the “bad apples” and build your anti-Jewish theology on them. Look at other kinds of Jews as well, especially the Christ-following and Torah-obedient Jews around you. They are much more deserving to be called true Jews.

Apostle Paul will continue to argue that, if a Jew does not walk orderly according to the Torah, he is no different than someone who is uncircumcised. Although ages separate Apostle Paul and Mark Twain, and the two did not even write on the same topics, a great quote by the famous American writer comes to mind. He said, “The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man that can’t read them”. That is, in essence, Paul’s point here as well. A Jew who does not live according to the spirit and letter of the Torah (rejects the essence of his identity) is simply not a Jew at all, and certainly should not be considered as such by the Roman Christ-followers. Romans who argue against the Jews because those they have in mind, do evil, don’t believe in their own Christ, and persecute Gentiles who do through the machinery of the Roman Government should not put them together with Jews who behave honorably.

…indeed (his) circumcision is of value if you practice the Torah; but if you are a transgressor of the Torah, your circumcision has become uncircumcision. So if the uncircumcised man keeps the requirements of the Torah, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? And he who is physically uncircumcised, if he keeps the Torah, will he not judge you who though having the letter and circumcision are a transgressor of the Torah? For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh.  But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God. (Rom. 2:25-29)

The upshot of this quote (Rom. 2:25-29) is quite simple: A true Jew according to Apostle Paul is one who has both the circumcision of the flesh and the circumcision of the heart, commanded in Deut 10:16. Not of the flesh only and conversely not of the heart only! Both are needed simultaneously. The members of the Nations, if obedient to all the Torah requirements designed for non-Israelites, are considered just as righteous as Jews obedient to their covenant before God.

Why is it important not to claim that, in Christ, “Gentiles become spiritual Jews”? Simply because this is not true and this is not what happens. The Gentiles in Christ whose hearts are circumcised become “spiritual non-Jews” who worship Israel’s God alongside with the Jews as the Nations! This is a high calling indeed. There is none that can be higher, actually. Paul is very serious about the Nations and Israel worshiping God together, but not changing identity of the Nations and turning them into Israel. The Shema is at stake. The Torah must be proven right, God is not the God of the Jews only, but the God of the entire world.

This article originally appeared on Jewish Studies Blog by Dr. Eli, April 26, 2016, and reposted with permission.

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One of Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg's greatest passions is building of bridges of trust, respect and understanding between Christians and Jews, overcoming centuries of difficult, but almost always joined history. He strongly believes that both Hebrew Bible and the New Testament scriptures have much to teach both communities. Outside of his expertise in the ancient languages (Biblical Hebrew, Koine Greek, Syriac and Old Church Slovanic), he has a command of three other modern languages (English, Russian and Hebrew).