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 1 Oct 2022]. Online:


Paula Fredrikson

Paula Fredriksen
Distinguished Visiting Professor, Hebrew University

Paula Fredriksen is the Aurelio Professor of Scripture emerita at Boston University, and Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem. She has authored seven books on Christian origins and on pagan-Jewish-Christian relations in the Roman empire and was a featured speaker in the PBS television special, From Jesus to Christ.

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 person who is not Jewish

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

13You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it.14I advanced in Judaism be ... View more

Rom 11:26-29

26And so all Israel will be saved; as it is written,
“Out of Zion will come the Deliverer;
he will banish ungodliness from Jacob.”27“And this is my covenant wit ... View more

Rom 15:8

8For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patri ... View more

Rom 15:16

16to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctif ... View more

1Cor 10

Warnings from Israel's History
1I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the s ... View more

Rom 7:22-24

22For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self,23but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin th ... View more

Rom 3:2

2Much, in every way. For in the first place the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God.

1Thess 1:9

9For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God,

Rom 9:3-5

3For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh.4They are Israelites, and ... View more

Rom 13:8-10

Love for One Another
8Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.9The commandments, “You shall not com ... View more

Rom 11:25-32

All Israel Will Be Saved
25So that you may not claim to be wiser than you are, brothers and sisters, I want you to understand this mystery: a hardening has come ... View more

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