John Gager’s thoughtful essay on “Paul’s Contradictions,” BR 14:06, raises important questions about how we ought to understand Paul’s thought. It makes good sense to moderns to suggest that Paul might have believed that there were two different ways of salvation, even two different peoples of God, and that what applied to one group did not necessarily apply to the other. In a religiously pluralistic age, this sort of argument makes life much easier for all of us who would like nothing better than to see anti-Semitism erased once and for all from the face of the earth. But unfortunately, dialogue between Jews and Christians on these issues cannot be based on these sorts of arguments because, however noble or well intentioned, they misrepresent Paul in crucial ways.
At the start, we must state as clearly as possible that of course Paul did not see the Mosaic Law as a bad thing or as somehow not being a revelation from God. Gager’s quotations, especially from Romans 7–11, make this apparent. The issue then is not whether Paul might have been anti-Law, because he wasn’t. Rather, the issue is how Paul viewed the Law’s role in the larger picture of salvation history. And what Paul says as clearly as he can in Galatians 3–4, in 2 Corinthians 3 and even in Romans is that the Law, though a very good thing, has been eclipsed by the revelation of God in Jesus Christ and must now be seen as obsolescent:
Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the Law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the Law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.
For Paul, the new covenant in Christ is the fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant, and like the earlier covenant, it is available to all because Abraham had both Jewish and gentile heirs. Paul views the Mosaic covenant as an interim solution for God’s people, and he believes that the covenant’s day has passed. In Galatians 4, Paul likens the Mosaic covenant to a minor’s guardian who plays an important role—but only until the youth comes of age. But as Galatians 4:4 says, when the fullness of time had come, God sent “forth his Son…born under the Law to redeem those who 041were under the Law.” Paul can only be referring to persons like himself, namely Jews. In other words, whether we agree with him or not, Paul believes Jesus is indeed the savior of Jews as well as gentiles. He believes that Jews need to be redeemed from the Law, not because the Law is a bad thing, but because it cannot save fallen human beings; it cannot make them new creatures. As Paul puts it: “For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the Law…Since God is one…he will justify the circumcised on the ground of faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith” (Romans 3:28–30).
Paul does not believe that Jews will be justified one way and gentiles another: He believes they will both be justified by a saving faith in the one Messiah 042for both Jews and gentiles, Jesus of Nazareth.
We must make no mistake: In Romans 9:5, when Paul says the Messiah comes from Israel, he means the Messiah anticipated by Jews as their redeemer, whom he believes has now come in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Paul never refers to anyone other than Jesus as “the Christ.” As Paul says in Romans 1:16–17, the good news (that is, the gospel about Jesus) is the power of salvation “for everyone who has faith to the Jew first and also to the Gentiles.” Such statements cannot be dismissed simply as rhetorical flourishes intended solely for gentiles to make them feel they have equal standing with Jews before God.
Whether we are happy with such arguments or not, this is what Paul said and believed about Jesus. It is ironic that while recent Jewish interpreters of Paul, such as Alan Segal and Daniel Boyarin, have recognized the radical nature of Paul’s arguments, gentile interpreters, including Krister Stendahl, Lloyd Gaston and John Gager, have tried to exonerate Paul. In the wake of heinous anti-Semitic acts in this century, it is understandable why some in the Christian tradition would want to expunge the notion that Paul was claiming that salvation for Jews is to be found in Jesus and in company with his followers. But, alas, to argue this way is not to allow Paul to be the difficult fellow he in fact was. It ought to be a rule in dealing with scriptural texts that any time they make us very uncomfortable and we are tempted to deny them, expunge them or explain them away, that is precisely when we need to listen to them even more carefully and avoid dismissing them. Perhaps the problem lies with our assumptions rather than with the ancient texts.
Throughout his letters, Paul makes it clear that he believes that the people of God are not just Jews alone or just gentiles alone (for Paul did not believe gentiles had displaced Jews as God’s people), but rather Jews and gentiles united in Christ: “There is no longer Jew or Greek…for all of you are one in Christ” (Galatians 3:28). This is why he consistently uses the Greek Old Testament term for God’s community—the ekklesia—to describe the unity of Jews and gentiles in Christ. So, while it is true that Paul was especially the apostle to gentiles and that he primarily addressed gentiles, it is clear that he did not think his arguments applied only to gentiles. A text like 2 Corinthians 11:24–25, which describes Paul being flogged by the synagogue leaders, makes it quite apparent that Paul presented his gospel in the synagogues because he believed that his message about salvation in Jesus was intended for the Jew first, as well as for the gentile. In Paul’s view, there has always been only one God and one people of God and one means of salvation throughout the successive covenants God has inaugurated in salvation history.
Gager is right to emphasize Paul’s eschatological orientation. Paul believed the eschatological age had come, inaugurated by the coming of Jesus as the Messiah of both Jews and gentiles. It is clear in Romans 9–11 (especially Romans 11) that Paul thought that one day Jews and gentiles would indeed be united in Christ. In the meantime, Paul believed that both Jews and gentiles needed to hear the gospel since all had sinned, all had fallen short of God’s vision for humankind. While one may fault Paul for having such views, it is special pleading, based on a selective reading of a few texts, to say he did not believe these things.
I agree with those who say Paul is not anti-Semitic, just as I agree that some of Paul’s teaching has been used—and is still being used—in anti-Semitic ways. However, neither the abuse of Pauline texts nor the misuse of his ideas negates what he said about Jesus the Jew as the world’s savior. The belief that the Jewish Messiah had already come and that he was Jesus, the one redeemer for all humankind, is not an anti-Semitic idea. Indeed, Paul would insist it is the very fulfillment of the promises God made in the Hebrew Scriptures to Abraham and others. Thus, Gager’s argument is not merely with modern interpreters of Paul, but with the apostle himself.
Paul believed it was time to lay down the Law and to take up the gospel, not because no good or grace could be found in the Law, but because the good and grace found in Christ was greater still. Paul the Pharisee had previously viewed salvation history through the lens of the Law, but since Damascus road, he viewed it through the prism of the gospel.
Whether we agree or disagree with Paul, we must allow him to have his say.
For a fuller discussion of these issues, see Ben Witherington’s Grace in Galatia (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998) and The Paul Quest: The Renewed Search for the Jew of Tarsus (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998).
Did Paul preach the gospel of Jesus Christ for Christians alone—as John Gager recently proposed in BR? Or was his message intended for both Jews and Christians?