Paul and Judaism by Paula Fredriksen

For more than 19 centuries, Paul was understood as the champion of Gentile Christianity over and against Judaism. But when modern scholars began to appreciate the vigorous variety of late Second Temple Judaism—and the implications of Paul’s apocalyptic commitments (which allowed for no extended future)—perspectives shifted. Interpretations now run the gamut from Paul against Judaism, to Paul and Judaism, to Paul within Judaism. Where does Paul stand?

Paul initially fought the Jesus movement, but he then joined it (Gal 1:13-24). In so doing, did he leave his ancestral religion, Judaism, for something else? Did Paul “convert”? Not in any usual sense of the word. The most singular Jewish practice—the exclusive worship of Israel’s god—remained the touchstone of Paul’s “Gentile” gospel. Christ, Paul taught, had come to fulfill God’s “irrevocable” promises to Israel as preserved in Jewish Scripture (Rom 11:26-29; see also Rom 15:8). Paul saw his mission to Gentiles through the analogy of working in Jerusalem’s temple (Rom 15:16). All of the building blocks of Paul’s gospel are quarried from Jewish tradition.

When Paul speaks against circumcision, he speaks against circumcision for Gentiles (Letter to the Galatians). When Paul speaks against sacrifice, he speaks against sacrifices to Gentile gods (1Cor 10). When Paul speaks of “justification” apart from the Law, he speaks to and for Gentiles (Letter to the Galatians). When Paul speaks about “the law of sin” and death, he contrasts it specifically with the Law of God, by which he means the Torah (Rom 7:22-24). Only the Jewish Scriptures are God’s “oracles” (Rom 3:2); only Israel’s is a “living and true God” (1Thess 1:9). His “kindred according to the flesh” are God’s “children”; the temple, the covenants, the Law, and the sacrifices (weakly translated as “worship” in the New Revised Standard Version) are all marks of the Jewish people’s God-given special status (Rom 9:3-5). All of these elements constitute Torah.

Paul does insist that Gentiles-in-Christ do not need to “become” Jews (that is, for men, to circumcise, as he says in his letter to the Galatians). But he also insists that baptized Gentiles must assume a singularly Jewish public behavior: they must not worship pagan gods any longer. Depending on the point he pursues, in brief, Paul says both that Gentiles are “free” from the Law and that they must live according to its requirements (see especially Rom 13:8-10).

But why would Paul still live as a Jew if he worked with and for Gentiles? Jews in general did not hold non-Jews responsible for upholding Jewish custom. And Jewish apocalyptic traditions actually looked forward to Gentiles entering the kingdom of God as Gentiles. Paul’s “Law-free” mission was thus, from both of these perspectives, a traditionally Jewish message. The point is this: a Law-free Gentile mission gives us no reason in itself to assume that Paul himself was also Law-free. His teaching Gentiles that they did not have to live according to the Law tells us nothing about his own level of observance. And, as we have seen, the Gentile mission was not exactly Law-free either.

The Gentiles’ inclusion in the Jesus movement was one more proof, for Paul, that God was about to accomplish the “mystery” of Israel’s salvation (Rom 11:25-32). It was only long after his lifetime that Christianity developed into a culture that was in principle non-Jewish, even anti-Jewish. But in his own generation—which Paul was convinced was history’s last generation—the Jesus movement was yet one more variety of late Second Temple Judaism.

Paula Fredriksen, "Paul and Judaism", n.p. [cited 25 Feb 2018]. Online:


Paula Fredrikson

Paula Fredriksen
Professor, Hebrew University

Paula Fredriksen, Aurelio Professor of Scripture emerita at Boston University, now teaches at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Paul features prominently in her books about Jesus (From Jesus to Christ, 1988/2000; Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews, 1999) and about Augustine (Augustine and the Jews: A Christian Defense of Jews and Judaism, 2010). In Sin: The Early History of an Idea (2012), she compares the ways in which Jesus and Paul speak about sin, forgiveness, and redemption.

The religion and culture of Jews. It emerged as the descendant of ancient Israelite Religion, and is characterized by monotheism and an adherence to the laws present in the Written Torah (the Bible) and the Oral Torah (Talmudic/Rabbinic tradition).

(verb) To change one's beliefs, practices, and self-identity to those of a religion. (noun) One who has changed his or her beliefs, practices, and self-identity to those of a religion.

A gospel is an account that describes the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

A program of good works—or the calling to such a program—performed by a person or organization.

a 1989 scholarly translation of the Bible that included new textual data from the Dead Sea Scrolls, modern English idiom, and more gender-neutral terminology

(n.) One who adheres to traditional or polytheistic religious and spiritual belief and practice systems; sometimes used to refer broadly to anyone who does not adhere to biblical monotheism.

The structure built in Jerusalem in 516 B.C.E. on the site of the Temple of Solomon, destroyed by the Babylonians seventy years prior. The Second Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E. by the Romans responding to Jewish rebellion.

Gal 1:13-24

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Rom 11:26-29

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Rom 15:8

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Rom 15:16

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1Cor 10

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Rom 7:22-24

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Rom 3:2

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1Thess 1:9

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Rom 9:3-5

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Rom 13:8-10

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Rom 11:25-32

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