Commentary Magazine

Paul and Jewish Theology:
A New View of the Christian Apostle

In the whole history of the Christian Church there is probably no more fascinating and controversial figure than that of the great Apostle to the Gentiles. Saul of Tarsus, who was a Jew, became Paul, the Apostle of Jesus: the man most responsible for the spread of Christianity among the Gentiles, and for the rupture that divided Synagogue and Church. The same man who laid the theoretical foundations for Christian antinomianism, for the Christian rejection of the Jewish law, is also reported to have been a student of Rabban Gamaliel, a “Pharisee of the Pharisees.” Indeed, there is reason to believe that Paul, in his personal practice, remained an observant Jew to the end of his life. And—on the face of it an even greater paradox—Paul used the Torah itself to “prove” the “end of the Law.”

The facts about Paul to be gleaned from a superficial reading of the New Testament are straightforward enough. The Diaspora Jew, Saul of Tarsus, had come to Jerusalem to study the Torah. Soon he was a Pharisee of the strictest kind, zealous for the observance of the Law, and intolerant toward all deviationists. There is even a suggestion that he took part in the stoning of Stephen, the first Hellenistic-Jewish martyr of the young Church. Afterward he set off for Damascus as an emissary of the Jerusalem authorities, with the intention of inhibiting the Christian congregation there. But on the road to Damascus he had a vision of Jesus, saying to him: “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?”

This was the turning point in his life. He continued his journey to Damascus—but no longer as a persecutor of the Church. He became its most fiery apostle, Paul. And he turned his attention to the making of Gentile converts exempted from the observance of the Jewish Law. Prior to Paul’s preaching, becoming a Christian meant becoming a Law-abiding Jew who believed in Jesus as the Messiah; but now, according to Paul, one could become a Christian “believer” without, at the same time, being a practicing Jew. This novel approach seems to have involved Paul in a number of conflicts with the Jerusalem Church authorities, particularly with those who treasured the memory of their personal associations with Jesus and looked down upon this newcomer who had not even known Jesus personally. However, a compromise seems to have been reached. Paul was entrusted with the mission to the Gentiles, who thenceforth were not required to submit to the whole of the Jewish Law; meanwhile, the native Jewish Christians continued to be faithful to the Law of Moses. By and large, despite some inconsistencies and contradictions, this compromise appears to have worked out quite well.

In his missionary activities throughout the Mediterranean world, however, Paul was constantly dogged by “Judaizers”—by Christtians, that is to say, who urged that Paul’s converts fully observe the Law. Against them—and here was Paul’s most original contribution to the new faith—he maintained that, if salvation is through the Law, then Jesus had died in vain. The Law, he said, was merely a “schoolmaster leading unto Christ.” Its purpose was to bring man to the realization that, since all men are sinners, no man can be “justified” before God on the basis of his deeds. Because of man’s “weakness of the flesh,” even his best intentions must come to grief. Therefore, the great debt that man owes God could not possibly be paid by means of imperfect deeds, but only through the self-sacrifice of God’s own son who, as it were, took upon himself the “curse” of the Law on behalf of all men. It is faith in the Christ which reconciles us to God, Paul argued, and not the works of the Law. For a convert to Christianity, therefore, to accept circumcision—and, with it, the full yoke of the Law—would be tantamount to rejecting the saving act of the Christ. (How this affected the native Jewish believer in Jesus was not quite clear. In his own practice, Paul seems to have been far from completely emancipated from the demands of the Law.)

Paul evinced hardly any interest in the actual life and teachings of the historical Jesus of Nazareth. The “Christ” of whom he speaks is a divine being, whose death and resurrection are the crucial acts in the drama of salvation. The Jews, having rejected the Christ, have, in turn, been rejected by God—but not irrevocably so. The Church that Paul conceived was a Church of Gentiles and Jews—the “Israel of God,” or the “Israel of the spirit,” in contrast to the non-believing Jews or the “Israel of the flesh.” But even the latter, Paul believed, would, by virtue of the Messianic process, be cured of their blindness, and become again part of the “Israel of God.”



In assessing Paul’s historic role, scholars have been much troubled by the doubts surrounding the sources that tell us about him. How many of the Epistles traditionally attributed to him are genuine? How much credence can be given to the Book of Acts, which clearly reflects an early Christian attempt at “harmonizing” conflicting interpretations within the Church? How much of Paul’s thinking had its roots in his Hellenistic-Jewish background and how much in the pagan Hellenistic world in which the Jewish community was situated? How much of Paul’s thinking was influenced by his rabbinic training, if indeed (he had any such training? What was Paul’s relation to the so-called Judeo-Christian faction, and what do we really know about that faction? How much, indeed, do we know about the teachings of the Pharisees at the time of Paul?

In the light of all these perplexing questions of historical scholarship, it is not surprising that a tremendous literature on Paul has grown up in the last hundred years or so. The so-called Tübingen School of German scholars in the last century made much of the differences—glossed over, but not altogether obliterated, in the New Testament—between the teachings of the original disciples of Jesus and the doctrines of Paul. In true Hegelian fashion, members of this school depicted the rise of the Catholic Church as a dialectic process: thesis (Judeo-Christianity), antithesis (Paulinism), synthesis (the Church).

Other scholars have suggested that Paul was indebted to the mystery cults and to the form of dualism known as Gnosticism. Paul’s doctrine of the Savior has often been traced back to the mystery religions of the Hellenistic world, as have the sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist, which Paul stressed. (The similarity of these two sacraments to pagan rites was, indeed, recognized by the early Church Fathers.) A subject of continuing debate is the matter of Paul’s rabbinic training, which has been vigorously asserted by a number of scholars. Some of these apparently were motivated by their wish to saddle Rabbinic Judaism with the fanaticism and intolerance for which Paul was famous. Others have been struck by the parallels between certain rabbinic methods of Scripture exegesis and Paul’s manner of handling the Biblical text. On the other hand, there are scholars who point out just as vigorously that Paul quotes the Greek Bible, rather than the Hebrew Scriptures, and that he shows himself blatantly ignorant of some central doctrines of Rabbinic Judaism (such as the one about repentance). The resolution of this particular problem is complicated by the fact that the written sources of Pharisaic Rabbinic Judaism are later than Paul; nor is there as yet any unanimity among scholars about the precise nature of Judaism in the Hellenistic areas of the Roman world and its relation to the teachings of the sages in Palestine.



Hans-Joachim Schoeps in his recent book1 cites no less than 338 modern writers who have dealt in one form or another with these areas of scholarly controversy. But he moves on from an excellent 42-page summary of the present state of Pauline studies to his own view of Paul’s thought and its relation to Jewish theology.

Dr. Schoeps is a professor of Religionsund Geistesgeschichte (roughly: the history of religion and ideas) at the University of Erlangen in Germany, who previously contributed a number of important studies on the history of early Christianity. In these studies he concentrated on reconstructing the history of the Judeo-Christian segment of early Christianity, which was by-passed in the evolution of what was to become the Catholic Church. He paid particular attention to the so-called Clementine literature, a collection of various pseudepigraphical writings circulated in the early Church; within this literature, Schoeps attempted to isolate the original Judeo-Christian—and highly anti-Pauline—components. Though Schoeps never descends from the level of scholarly objectivity, one occasionally senses in his writings a high degree of empathy with the Judeo-Christians. Schoeps himself is a believing Jew, and in an article he contributed to this magazine some years ago,2 he shows his indebtedness to the teachings of Franz Rosenzweig.

The present work on Paul was actually begun twenty years ago, before Schoeps had embarked on his detailed studies of the Jewish Christians. But in the light of these studies, and his own new understanding of the positions against which Paul had to argue, he rewrote the book completely.

Schoeps now addresses himself to several related questions: What was there in Judaism that could have furnished Paul with the ingredients of his system? How were Paul’s teachings received by his Christian contemporaries and successors? How did Judaism react to them—either by way of direct polemics, or by formulating its own “counter-positions”? Schoeps comes to the conclusion that, with one decisive exception, the elements that went into the making of Paul’s theology were all Jewish elements. Paul was led out of the bounds of Judaism by the un-Jewish manner in which he regrouped these elements of his thought.

For example, the doctrine of vicarious suffering—the idea that the righteous suffer for the sake of the wicked in their generation—is a well-authenticated rabbinic doctrine. The merit of Isaac, bound on the altar on Moriah, is often invoked in Jewish liturgy. Rabbinic Judaism even knows of a dying (but not suffering) Messiah, as well as of a suffering (but not dying) one. According to Schoeps, Paul availed himself of all these ideas. Yet the particular configuration which these ideas assumed in Paul’s thinking led to a soteriology, a doctrine of a Savior, which Judaism could not accept—especially since Paul added one element which was not to be found in any Jewish source: the doctrine of the God-Man. This latter, says Schoeps, does not come even from the Hellenistic branches of Judaism, but from pagan Hellenism pure and simple.

“God-Men,” as intermediaries between deity and mankind, were nothing unusual in the world of antiquity. In Imperial Rome it was customary to claim divine paternity, and the cultic legends—especially those of Egypt dealing with Isis, Osiris, Attis, etc.—may well have furnished the pattern. But the notion of intermediaries remained completely unacceptable to Judaism in any of its manifestations, the Hellenistic as well as the Palestinian. Indeed, the Greek Bible is on occasion even more explicit in its rejection of intermediaries than the Hebrew. Isaiah 63:9, for example, which in the Hebrew reads, “In all their afflictions He was afflicted, and the angel of His presence saved them . . .” is rendered in the Greek as: “Not an ambassador, nor a messenger, but He Himself saved them. . . .” In Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho, the Hellenistic Jew, Trypho, is most antagonistic to the doctrine of the divine nature of the Christ. Such evidence makes it unlikely that, as has been argued, the doctrine of the “God-Man,” was received more sympathetically among the Hellenistic Jews than in Palestine.

On the question of the Jewish sources of Paul’s thought, Schoeps does not side with any one of the modern schools, each of which would derive everything from one single source: either from Jewish Hellenism, or from apocalyptic Judaism, or from Pharisaic Judaism. He presents, instead, a Paul nurtured by all of these sources. Thus, Paul’s notion of the Law as a more or less mechanical vehicle by which man achieves “justification” before God (rather than as a living sign of the Covenant between God and Israel) is clearly an idea of Hellenistic-Jewish vintage; it is foreshadowed both in the Septuagint Bible and in the writing of the Alexandrian philosopher Philo Judaeus. On the other hand, the idea that the Law is no longer operative in the Messianic Age stems from Rabbinic Judaism; Schoeps succeeds in demonstrating the perfect halachic (legal-exegetical) logic inherent in Paul’s view that the Law had to be rejected in the Messianic Age. The cogency of Paul’s argument would have had to be granted by the rabbis—provided they had accepted Paul’s basic premise: that the Messiah had, in fact, already come. This, of course, they neither did, nor could, accept. However, in the 17th century, when the followers of Sabbatai Zevi saw in him the Messiah, they, too—without any Christian and Paulinian influence—celebrated the advent of their Messiah to the accompaniment of antinomian excesses.



Schoeps’s marshaling of rabbinic materials—both as possible sources for Pauline thinking and as illustrations for the Jewish “counter-position”—is impressive, but, unfortunately, not always convincing. Much of Schoeps’s evidence rests on the assumption that rabbinic material, found in written form at a later time, was already extant orally in the days of Paul. To a certain degree such an assumption is justified, but one must proceed on it with a caution which is not always exercised in this book. Consider for example, Schoeps’s treatment of the Binding of Isaac. His contention is that the rabbinic views of the Binding of Isaac helped to shape Paul’s doctrine of Jesus’ sacrificial death.

It is true, as Schoeps points out, that, though the intended sacrifice of Isaac was never consummated, rabbinic literature treats the Binding of Isaac as if it had actually led to the sacrifice. We read in the Midrash that the ashes of Isaac rise up on the altar and make intercession on behalf of Israel. We also read that the merit of Isaac was responsible for the dividing of the Red Sea; and it is by Isaac’s merit, too, that the dead will ultimately be resurrected. These and many similar statements from rabbinic literature Schoeps had already lasted in a previous work, Aus Frühchristlicher Zeit (1950). What may be questioned, however, is whether any of this material antedates Paul, or whether it does not, in fact, represent some kind of Jewish reaction to that very concept, introduced into Christianity by Paul, of the sacrificial death of Jesus. The Binding of Isaac for the Jew would thus have become, mutatis mutandis, the Jewish counterpart to the Christian Calvary.

This speculation is strengthened by Schoeps’s treatment of the Jewish liturgical references to the Binding of Isaac. One of these, which he stresses particularly, occurs in the central section of the New Year’s liturgy, called zikhronot. Because the zikhronot section is mentioned in the Mishnah (compiled about 200 C.E.), Schoeps assumes that the prayer must have been known to the Apostle Paul. Even if we grant this assumption, the conclusions Schoeps draws from it do not necessarily follow.

When the Mishnah speaks of zikhronot, the reference is to the collection of Scripture verses which speak of God’s “remembering.” (The selection of these verses, incidentally, was still in a state of flux in the days of the Mishnah.) The Mishnah’s reference to zikhronot, however, does not include the framework of prayers which surrounds the Scripture verses in the latter-day Jewish liturgy. And these prayers are traditionally attributed to Rabh, a 3rd-century Babylonian teacher. Moreover, the very reference to the Binding of Isaac (“O remember the Binding of Isaac this day in mercy to his seed”), which is crucial to Schoeps’s argument, is, according to such an expert as the late Professor Ismar Elbogen, a later gloss even on Rabh’s prayer!

Still, it is possible that Paul was influenced by rabbinic views on the Binding of Isaac, although, as I have pointed out, it might with equal logic be argued that many such views, together with their liturgical formulations, represent a Jewish reaction to the very doctrine taught by Paul. It is, at any rate, a fact that many of the texts adduced as evidence by Schoeps are chronologically too late to justify his position.



Nevertheless, the major concern of Schoeps’s book is the Apostle Paul himself, rather than the possible sources from which he derived his training. It is here that Schoeps provides an emphasis all his own. The turning point in the life of Paul, according to his own testimony, was the revelatory experience “on the road to Damascus,” and we cannot understand either Paul or his thinking without taking that experience into account.

Paul was a zealot. Schoeps mentions the plausibility of the view (there can be no proof for it) that Paul, prior to his conversion, was a missionary preaching circumcision (and with it complete acceptance of the “yoke of the Torah”) to the “fearers of the Lord”—those Gentiles who, dissatisfied with paganism, had already attached themselves to the synagogues of the Diaspora without making an ultimate commitment to Judaism. Paul himself speaks of his having taken a part in the persecution of Christians. All this was to change radically after Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus. But can a modern scholar take that “experience” seriously? There is no dearth of literature offering medical, psychological, or even psychoanalytical explanations for his revelation, but the tendency of all such explanations is to explain it away.

Schoeps, on the other hand, is prepared to accept Paul’s subjective experience. Says he: “Of a theologian it is to be presupposed that he seeks to make his existence ‘contemporary’ with that of Paul . . . believes with Paul in his vision of the Son of God resurrected. Of the historian of religion it is to be expected that he recognize Paul’s faith in his vision of the Son of God when he encountered the crucified and translated Jesus of Nazareth. The historian should, in other words, believe in the reality of Paul’s belief. If he fails to do so . . . he will, foolishly, fail in the comprehension of an event which made history and which, according to Christian belief, is itself sacred history.”

In other words, Schoeps has taken Paul seriously, even where, as Schoeps points out, the Church itself has consistently misunderstood the great Apostle. This the Church had to do, because, in the first place, Paul’s polemic against the Law makes sense only to those who live under the Law—and not to pagans who became Christians. In the second place, Paul’s entire thinking, according to Schoeps, was dominated by the conviction that the Days of the Messiah had already begun, to be followed very shortly by the onset, with the Second Coming of Christ, of the ‘olam habba, the “World to Come.” This did not happen, however, and the Church had to make provision for a much longer duration of the present stage in the divine economy. So much so that, in some early Christian sources, Jesus and Paul appear as being merely re-interpreters and reformers of the law of Moses.

Actually, in the whole history of the Church, there were only two men who understood the full implications of the Pauline position; and even they could not have enlisted the Apostle’s wholehearted approval. One was the 2nd-century Gnostic Marcion. According to him, the Christian Gospel was wholly a Gospel of Love—to the absolute exclusion of the Law. He rejected the “Old Testament” completely. Its Creator God was to him only the God of Law, who had nothing in common with the God of Jesus Christ. This Jewish God constantly involved Himself in contradictions, and was fickle, ignorant, and despotic. Utterly different, in Marcion’s view, was the Supreme God whom Jesus came to reveal. His very purpose was to overthrow the Creator God. According to Marcion, it was Paul alone who understood this contrast between Law and Spirit; the Twelve Apostles were blinded to the truth by the remnants of Jewish influence. Of all the Gospels, Marcion accepted only that of Luke, and even so he prepared an expurgated version of it, omitting all “Jewish” passages. Paul himself, however, would never have countenanced the severance of the New Testament from the Old, or of the God of the one from the God of the other.

The second man who understood Paul was Martin Luther in the 16th century. “Faith alone justifies [sola fide],” he taught, “without works.” But, while Paul struggled with Judaism and Hellenism, Luther, fifteen centuries later, had to combat Romanism and Humanism. Thus there was considerable difference in the doctrines of “justification” which the two men elaborated. Moreover, Paul’s rejection of “justification through works” has to be understood within the context of his belief in the imminence of the Second Coming, an expectation which Luther no longer shared.



Yet the original incisive formulation of Pauline theology remains one to be reckoned with by Christian and Jew alike. The post-Emancipation Jew particularly is called upon to respond to the challenge of the Pauline position—his dichotomy between “faith” and “works,” and his insistence on an “either/or” choice between them.

When Paul formulated these views, he was not, according to Schoeps, giving a realistic appraisal of the Jewish position of his time, or at any rate of that of Palestinian Pharisaism; both it and the New Testament “Epistle of James” insisted on “both,” and could not imagine the one without the other. But there is, according to Schoeps, a level on which Paul’s challenge can be retranslated into a meaningful contemporary Jewish terminology. Talmudic and medieval Judaism tended to identify the Covenant with the detailed provisions of the Law. This is a position liberal Judaism no longer maintains. With Franz Rosenzweig, Schoeps insists that the Covenant comes before the Law, that the acceptance of the Covenant is a prerequisite for the acceptance of the commandments. It is here that Paul’s stress on “faith” becomes relevant (with a difference) to the modern Jew. “Only modern Judaism,” Schoeps argues, “can again bring a proper understanding to Paul’s concern, and thus know again about the Pauline tension between the works of the Law and faith. But it can know about it especially when it stands up to the strain of the tension, and does not, together with Paul, resolve the tension prematurely by excluding one of the two poles. The Jewish resolution of the tension does not come from Christ, but by relating both poles to God. The Jewish answer is the faith of Israel in God as the Creator of the World, the Revealer of the Torah, and the Redeemer of Israel and the whole of mankind—as the basis for the works of the Law. This faith comes before the carrying out of the commandments . . .”

By virtue of his just presentation of the Jewish and the Judeo-Christian “counter-positions,” as well as his objective discussion of the theological import of Paul’s teaching, and the permanent challenge it presents, Professor Schoeps has written a book on Paul which is different, and considerably more than a mere rehash of the conventional treatments by the “historical school.” Notwithstanding the criticism which can be made of his use of some Jewish sources, this book is a mine of information to Jewish and Christian readers about Paul’s position in early Christianity, his doctrine of the Law and his concept of redemptive history.




1Paulus-Die Theologie des Apostele im Lichte der jüdischen Religionsgeschichte (J. C. B. Mohr—Paul Siebeck), 324 pp.

2 “How Live by Jewish Law Today?” (January 1953)—Ed.

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