There is a short answer to this: yes, clearly Paul was Jewish.
Nothing we have in the historical record of any reliability would call this into question. Although he was from Tarsus (according to Acts), he was born to a Jewish family with a history of Pharisaism. Paul was Jewish before and after Jesus (Damascus Road experience). He continued to practice the Laws and customs of his people, at least to some extent.
Really, what people often want to know is a slightly different question: Did Paul remain Jewish after his transforming experience of the resurrected Jesus? Scholars disagree about how best to think about the nature of Paul’s Judaism after Jesus.
There are several approaches.
Paul’s Jewishness in Scholarship
This is a complex question that has been answered in numerous ways. First, no major school of thought (Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran/Reformed, New Perspective, Apocalyptic, New Perspective or Paul within Judaism) makes any claim that Paul forfeited his ethnic identity.
Clearly, such a thought would be ridiculous. Paul even lists his Jewish credentials on several occasions (Galatians 1, Philippians 3, etc.).
Sure, there may be some sort of odd conspiracy theories that float around about his identity, but no responsible scholar would every make this claim. How ethnicity is defined in the ancient world could be debated, but what “we mean” by this is that Paul remained essentially Jewish (at the bare minimum).
However, depending on one’s school of thought, his practice and self-identification with the application of his Jewishness to life, differs.
The “Traditional” Paul
For the “traditional Paul” (here, think of Catholic and Reformed views, although there are some differences that aren’t worth highlighting here), Paul experienced a clear “conversion” on the Damascus Road. Therefore, when Paul began following Christ, he preached that the Law was no longer needed as a measure for righteousness.
Christ is that righteousness perfected, and imputed on the status of every Christian. In other words, from this view (in a broad sense), the Law is about “merit-based” salvation but grace grants salvation based solely on the merits of Jesus Christ and his imputed righteousness, thus Christianity (salvation by grace) has superseded/replaced Judaism (“works righteousness”).
This view pins the Law against grace.
The New Perspective on Paul
For the New Perspective on Paul, which includes scholars such as E.P. Sanders, N.T. Wright, and James D.G. Dunn, Jewish practices such as circumcision and following dietary law were never meant as a means to earning salvation. This is a unfortunate misunderstanding about the beliefs of Judaism and the purposes of Second Temple practices.
Ancient Judaism was always a religion of grace, with the laws functioning as ways of belonging and remaining within the covenant (community) as a means of assurance–not earning. But the reason Paul preached against circumcision was because in Christ, the national-specific boundary markers (badges of membership) have been relativized for the sake of unity between Jews and Gentiles.
So, Jews who followed Jesus had greater flexibility with the Torah (in continuity with Ancient Judaism, not in discontinuity) to make it possible for gentiles to sit in unity with them under Christ.
In other words, being a member of God’s covenantal family through the Law was always experienced as grace for Jews, but with the coming of the faithful messiah, all Jewish specific boundary markers have been relativized in order to swing wide the doors for the graceful entry of the Gentiles, thus Christianity is in continuity with Judaism.
“Radical” New Perspective (Paul within Judaism)
A third approach comes broadly in what is called Paul within Judaism or the Radical New Perspective. Important scholars who have shaped this emerging school of thought include: Lloyd Gaston, John Gager, Stanley Stowers, Neil Elliott, Mark Nanos, and Pamela Eisenbaum.
They are in full agreement that the Torah (Law) was a gift of God’s grace. They also reject the idea of the “works righteousness” as the key issue Paul is addressing regarding Judaism.
This view is driven by Paul’s end time expectation that the nations would be gathered to worship Israel’s God, distinctly as “the nations” (thus, conversion to Judaism is a big problem for Paul, etc.).
Paul’s letters are viewed as written almost exclusively with the gentiles in mind, and so his negative rhetoric about the Law is directed solely at them. This is a key difference from the New Perspective which relativizes the Torah to the point where it seems that Jews are no longer in need of upholding much of it.
However, Paul within Judaism notes that the positive applications of the Torah are typically directed toward Jewish Jesus followers like Paul.
So, to summarize: Paul upheld the goodness of the Law and all of his negative rhetoric about Jewish practices was directed at his Gentile audience only, therefore non-Jewish followers of Jesus fulfill end times expectations that the nations would worship Israel’s God as distinct peoples (i.e. no circumcision, etc.). Thus, Christianity and Judaism are two distinct tracks into God’s covenantal family.
Nuances in Paul Within Judaism
There are nuances to how these tracks work out. Some say that Paul had nothing to preach to Judaism except that they should be glad that God had acted afresh in human history. In raising Jesus, God launched the end of the age that Pharisaic Judaism longed for.
Others, myself included, would note that Paul wanted all of his Jewish sisters and brothers to incorporate the way of the Messiah into their Torah observance.
This would mean a radical re-working of Torah (especially as it pertains to violence, since Jesus added “love your enemies” to the command to “love your neighbors”). That would not, however, mean the end of Torah obedience. God, in Jesus, had been faithful on behalf of all Israel.
In the end, Jesus will be the pathway to faithful Israel’s being included in the new creation (Romans 9-11), but there is no inherent criticism of Jewish practice, even for Jesus followers, unless of course someone isn’t Jewish. Paul clearly was Jewish, and from this view, remained a Pharisee who adapted his vision of Judaism to adapt to the way of Jesus.
So, was Paul really Jewish. Yes. Did he continue practicing all of the “religious” practices of his people? Depends on your school of thought. The New and Radical New Perspectives seem to have the best assessment of Second Temple Judaism as a religion of grace. Perhaps in a version or blend of these views we might get closer to the historical Jewishness of the Apostle Paul.
Learn More About Paul!
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Author: Kurt Willems
Kurt Willems is a pastor, author, and spiritual director. His first book, Echoing Hope: How the Humanity of Jesus Redeems our Pain, releases in March 2021. Kurt is also the host of the Theology Curator podcast. He has a master of divinity degree from Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary and a master of arts in comparative religion from the University of Washington.
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