Wrestling With Paul

by Rebecca Bynum (August 2009)


Saul of Tarsus, the first Century Jewish Pharisee who became the Apostle Paul after his experience on the Damascus road, is arguably one of the most influential men in history. It was Paul’s interpretation of the fact of Jesus’ life and, most especially, the fact of his death, which formed the basis of the Christian message and allowed it to spread in the gentile world even as it was stifled in its birthplace, the Jewish world. It is ironic that Paul’s effort to place Jesus within the framework of Jewish theology, and thus make Jesus acceptable to Jews, was the very thing that exacerbated the theological split between Christianity and Judaism that continues to this day, with all its terrible consequences.

Much of Paul’s conception of Jesus, and his shaping of Christian doctrine, hinges on his portrayal of him as the Jewish Messiah. In the first Century, the Jewish world was very much alive with the expectation that a Deliverer would soon appear. At that time, it was fervently hoped by all believing Jews that a descendent of David would come to restore his throne, throw off Roman suzerainty, restore Jewish national glory and make Jerusalem a “city on the hill” that would become an example and provide leadership to the entire world forever after. There was also the idea that the Messiah would usher in a new age, one in which Jewish Law and even death itself would be transcended. This concept is especially evident in Paul’s portrayal of Jesus as the “new Adam.”


Paul interpreted Jesus as the Messiah who transcended death and thereby provided a bridge to eternal life, a restoration of Adam’s immortal state before the Fall, and naturally, the greatest longing of humanity. Jesus was also portrayed by Paul as the perfect sacrifice for the appeasement of God, thus rendering the sacrificial system of Judaism obsolete. As to the expected temporal deliverance of the Jewish nation, Paul interpreted those events as postponed until Jesus’ promised return, which he, and most early Christians, were convinced was imminent. This contributed to the urgency and vehemence of Paul’s efforts to convince the Jewish community that Jesus was the Messiah.

As explained in a remarkable little book by Richard L. Rubenstein, My Brother Paul, the Apostle never stopped thinking of himself as a believing Jew and was respectful of tradition even as he preached the radical overthrow of the Law because that overthrow was itself a part of the rabbinic Messianic lore.

Rubenstein is careful to portray Paul as a man of his day, who lived at a time when Jewish religious fervor was high and the people sought Messianic deliverance of the nation as well as the individual. Then, it was sincerely believed that “the sins of the father are visited on the sons” and that the Jewish people were suffering under Roman rule as payment for the sins of their ancestors. They believed that mankind as a whole suffered death as payment for Adam’s transgressions. The message of John the Baptist, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand!”[1] resonated with a people who believed that if every individual were purified, the nation as a whole would find miraculous deliverance and a new age would dawn as prophesied.

And in the days of these kings shall the God of heaven set up a kingdom, which shall never be destroyed: and the kingdom shall not be left to other people, but it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand for ever.

“I saw in the night visions, and, behold, one like the Son of man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of days, and they brought him near before him.

“And there was given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all people, nations, and languages, should serve him: his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed.”

Naturally, at the time there were various interpretations concerning the expected coming of the Messiah and the Messianic age as there were about other religious matters. According to Dr. Rubenstein,

“In Paul’s time the Jewish world was divided into a number of sects, each of which claimed that it alone was faithful to God’s word as revealed in Sacred Writ. Today, the heirs of the Pharisees have won the spiritual battle within Judaism; their interpretation of Judaism is regarded as authentic and normative. The Pharisees were already exceedingly powerful and influential in Paul’s day, but they were by no means unchallenged. Then, rejection of Pharisaism was not equivalent to rejection of Judaism. Other groups, including the followers of Jesus, considered themselves loyal and faithful Israelites, although they offered competing interpretations of God’s covenant with Israel. Paul offered one such interpretation.”

Though Jesus referred to himself by the name “Son of Man,” which was associated with Daniel’s Messianic prophesies, he never referred to himself explicitly as the Messiah. Nor did he make any move whatsoever during his lifetime to create a political organization in order to restore the throne of David. And even though Jesus used the term “kingdom of God” and prayed, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” the term Messiah in the traditional Jewish sense could only mean one who actually effected the establishment of a political, as well as spiritual, reign. Therefore, Jesus could not have been the Messiah.

It is possible, however, that eventually he might have been accepted as a prophet by the Jewish people had it not been for Paul’s insistence on their acceptance of Jesus as Messiah and all that then applied to the Messianic age which he insisted had dawned – especially the abrogation both of the Law and of the established system of sacrifice.

“Even in his radical reinterpretation of Scripture,” writes Rubenstein, “Paul was indebted to his rabbinic teachers. His belief that Scripture could only be understood in the light of the Messiah’s career was in some respects derived from the rabbinic doctrine of the twofold Law. According to the Pharisees, the true meaning of the written text of Scripture could only be apprehended in the light of their own interpretive traditions, which they designated as the oral Law. They insisted that the written and the oral Law were completely in harmony. However, they were frequently at odds with the Sadducees, who contended that the written text alone yielded an authoritative understanding of God’s will. Thus the Sadducees rejected the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead because they saw no evidence for it in Scripture. In contrast, the Pharisees interpreted the Law by means of their oral traditions so that it yielded the doctrine of resurrection…When Paul contrasted the letter and the Spirit of the Law (II Cor. 3:6), he was pursuing an interpretive strategy that had been suggested by his rabbinic teachers.

“By interpreting Scripture in the light of their own experience, the Pharisees made it a living document for their community while preserving a sense of continuity with the past. This is exactly what Paul, the former Pharisee, did in the light of his own experience. Paul’s vision of the risen Christ became the prism through which all of life took on new meaning. He never asserted, “I reject the Law and the covenant because of Jesus Christ.” The sacred traditions of his people never ceased to be divinely inspired for the Apostle. His problem was that of harmonizing a tradition he regarded as holy with his own experience. Things would have been very different had Paul really thought of himself as an apostate or believed that he was creating a new religion. He did what any other religious Jew at the time might have done had he been similarly affected. Admittedly, Paul’s experience involved so radical an alteration in his spiritual cosmos that the new meanings he ascribed to Scripture seemed to his former peers and their successors to be a total rejection of Israel’s sacred traditions.”[5]

Rubenstein’s interpretation of Paul is expressly psychological and specifically Freudian. He sympathizes with Paul’s rejection of the Law because he himself struggled with maintaining a minute compliance, and in trying to achieve the “correct relationship with God,” experienced nothing but frustration.

The fundamental issue at hand is actually the nature of God. If God is capricious in his wrath, and after all, the crime of Adam seems very slight in comparison with his punishment (along with the punishment of all mankind), coupled with the idea that one cannot know which rules God values over others, it is therefore important that all the laws be followed lest one break a seemingly minor law which results in a breach in relations that cannot be repaired. In this view, man is forever in suspense as to his standing with his heavenly Father.

In the traditional Jewish view, God is indeed man’s father, but a father who seems to delight in infanticide and this concept makes it very difficult for man to trust, much less to love God, even though it is commanded him to “love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength.”[6]

Rubenstein, along with Freud, contends there is an unconscious desire on the part of man to kill God the father in order to usurp his position, to become God, in other words. This certainly seems to be born out in the modern world with the rise of science along with the the death of God as the seeming key to man’s growing omnipotence. Perhaps the view of man as parricide is the psychological mirror to the idea of God as infanticide.

Rubenstein asserts that the fundamental problem for Paul, as for all men, is how to achieve the correct relationship with his Creator. Rubenstein explains that since it is impossible for man to truly identify with God, who became utterly transcendent with the fall of Adam, the Jewish answer is to obey God’s Law as the only known method of fulfilling his will. Rubenstein surmises that Paul solved this problem by identification with Christ, the perfect, obedient son. Rubenstein views the consuming of bread and wine, symbols of the body and blood of Christ, as evidence of this need for primal identification. In this light, he also asserts that baptism may be viewed as symbolic of death and rebirth as a new member of the Christian brotherhood, again identifying with Jesus’s death and resurrection. Paul seemed to have been of this opinion. Originally, this spiritual brotherhood was visualized as the body of Christ with Jesus as its head, but of course as time went on, the church and its teachings became the head. Thus the Church, in effect, replaced the “kingdom of heaven” in Jesus’s teaching.

In accordance with Messianic prophesy, Paul envisioned the kingdom of heaven as an earthly estate. He proposed that Christ, as the new Adam, would remove the original curse of post-Adamic man, mortality, and there would be a bodily resurrection of the dead on earth. Here it is important to remember the earth-centered cosmology of the time. Earth was conceived as the literal center of creation – the only stage whereon the cosmic drama could unfold. And as Christianity gradually transcended and absorbed the cult of Mithras which was popular in the Roman world at the time, it also absorbed the Zoroastrian concept of Good and Evil being locked in mortal combat. This undoubtedly shaped and influenced the apocalyptic ideas that became attached to the awaited return of Christ.

If we examine the concept of the “kingdom of heaven” that Jesus actually taught, however, we come away with a very different perception. Jesus seemed to propose the kingdom as a state of awareness that could be entered into now. Never did he say, “the kingdom of heaven will be like,” rather said he, “the kingdom of heaven is like…” He described the conditions for entrance: to “become as a little child,” that is, to accept one’s relation to God as his child, and to be “poor in spirit,” to be humble. Jesus’s life may be understood as that of a man supremely conscious of his relationship with God and he taught that this acceptance of man’s supreme relationship with God is what transforms life into the “kingdom of heaven.”

Jesus illustrated the kingdom of heaven as an overwhelming awareness of its supreme value – the value of knowing and experiencing one’s true relationship with God. In his parables, he describes the obtaining of this great value as worth the sacrifice of all else (the treasure hidden in the field, the pearl of great price). This experience of one’s relationship with God transforms all else, (the leaven in the meal, the salt of the earth). It bestows the ability to separate value from non-value (the wheat and the chaff; the sorting of the fish). It is a value that grows of its own accord (the mustard seed); and is a gift that is bestowed rather than earned (the work in the vineyard, the prodigal son).

This relationship with God, taught Jesus, is one to be accepted through faith, rather than achieved through obedience, and in this Jesus may be seen as radically re-interpreting the Law, but not necessarily overturning it. When arguing with the Pharisees or Sadducees over some minor infraction of the Law, Jesus always framed his argument in terms of value.

“What man shall there be among you, that shall have one sheep, and if it fall into a pit on the Sabbath day, will he not lay hold on it, and lift it out? How much then is a man better than a sheep? Wherefore it is lawful to do well on the Sabbath days.”

“Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man; but that which cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man…For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies: These are the things which defile a man: but to eat with unwashen hands defileth not a man.”[8]

“Ye fools and blind: for whether is greater, the gold, or the temple that sanctifieth the gold?”

“Cleanse first that which is within the cup and platter, that the outside of them may be clean also.”

Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel.”[11]

“Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.”[12]

When viewed in this light, the work of Jesus falls much more in line with the traditional Jewish idea of a prophet than that of the Messiah. Jesus enlarged the concept of God and clarified man’s relationship with him. He did not, however, fulfill the temporal mission of the Messiah and therefore it is right and correct that the Jewish people, in accordance with their traditional understanding of who the Messiah is and what he will achieve, should reject Jesus as such.

One need not accept the Messianic concept of Jesus in order to devote oneself to his teaching or even to accept him as divine. In this way, Christians may one day accept the Jewish rejection of Jesus as the Messiah without resentment and with complete understanding. And Jews may someday re-evaluate the life of Jesus and how his teaching fits in with that of the prophets without the pressure to accept him as the Messiah. (See also The Prophets, New English Review, January 2009.)

Following in Richard Rubenstein’s footsteps, let us extend our sympathy and understanding to Paul, but let us also admit he may have been wrong; that the kingdom of heaven may not be a future earthly estate, but a present spiritual one, to be entered into by humility and grace. Then the “old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.”[13]

[1] Matthew 3:2 King James Version

[2] Daniel 2:44, King James version

[3] Daniel 7:13-14 King James version

[4] Rubenstein, Richard L. My Brother Paul, Harper Torchbooks, Harper and Row, 1972, pgs. 116-117

[5] Rubenstein, Richard L. My Brother Paul, Harper Torchbooks, Harper and Row, 1972, pgs. 117-118

[6] Mark 12:30 King James Version

[7] Matthew 12:11-12 King James version

[8] Matthew 15: 11, 19-20 King James version

[9] Matthew 23:17 King James version

[10] Matthew 23:26 King James version

[11] Matthew 23:24 King James version

[12] Mathew 5:17 King James version

[13] Corinthians 5:17 King James version

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Rebecca Bynum contributes regularly to The Iconoclast, our Community Blog. Click here to see all her contributions, on which comments are welcome.


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