Sha'ul at Last
By Jason Jordan
For many people there are parts of Rabbi Sha’ul’s letters that contain some challenging teachings. When sufficient study is not applied to these grey areas a believer can unconsciously open the door to theological error. Occasionally I encounter some Natsarim who have declared “no confidence” in Sha’ul’s writings as “Yah-breathed” and it is in response to these encounters that I include this chapter. My desire as I’m sure is also the desire of my heavenly Father, is that “the body” be equipped with a sharper understanding of this extraordinary Apostle’s teachings. Rabbi Sha’ul was an extremely intelligent, driven and adaptable Pharisee. He was denied sleep, starved, beaten, stoned, flogged, shipwrecked and imprisoned. Many of these travails came from bandits, his own countrymen, Gentiles and even fellow Natsarim. In the face of all this, his mind never loosened from the task at hand. From his first letter to his last, he remained a constant vessel for Elohim. The controversy surrounding some of his more intricate teachings should never be attributed to poor scholarship of the author, but a lack of spiritual maturity in the reader.
Whatever was Sha’ul Going on About?
Sha’ul’s expression ‘...rightly dividing the Word of truth’ in 2 Timothy 2:15 was relating to the three levels of understanding in the Scriptures called “PaRDeS.” This word is an acronym for pashat, which means the “simple meaning of Torah,” remez, which means “the implied meaning,” drash, which means the “allegorical meaning” and sod, which means “the hidden meaning.” This he learned in the school of Hillel. The Rabbi Hillel passed this practice of deciphering Torah on to his son Simeon, who later passed the mantle on to Gamaliel. Gamaliel was Sha’ul’s teacher according to Acts 22:3. Sha’ul’s letters and sayings were delivered in a learned Hebraic form of communication often utilising G’zerah Shavah, which means “equivalence of expressions.” This took the form of taking two beliefs with similar elements and presenting them in an analogy to make a point. To understand Sha’ul’s writings it has to be done by considering complete context, rather than isolating statements. This is called Davar hilmad me’anino, which means “explanation obtained from context” stemming from one of the seven rules of Hillel. Christianity comes undone when it approaches Sha’ul’s teachings by completely ignoring this fundamental method of understanding Scripture.
But even in Sha’ul’s day and well before Christianity, some parts of his epistles were considered hard to understand, sometimes suffering from misinterpretations and even willful manipulation. 2 Peter 15b-16; “…even as our beloved brother Shaul…has written to you; As also in all his letters, speaking in them of these things; in which some things are hard to understand, which they that are unlearned and unstable twist, as they do also the other Keetvay HaKadosh (whole of the Scriptures), to their own destruction.” These unlearned and unstable people extracted so many different spins on Rabbi Sha’ul’s writings that it gradually gave birth to sectarianism within the faith. 1 Corinthians 1:12-13; “For it has been declared to me about you, my Yisraelite brothers, by those who are of beit (house of) Chloe, that there are contentions and disputes among you. Now this I say, because some among you say, I am of Shaul; and I am of Apollos; and I am of Kepha (Peter); and I am of Moshiach. Is Moshiach divided? Was Shaul impaled for you? Or, were you immersed in the name of Shaul?” Now centuries later, the climate described in these verses is still alive and well.
The extent of these theological divides finally dawned on me one Shabbat, when a young Mormon gentleman, who had just attended our service, asked me with Bible in hand, “What do you guys believe?” This question astounded me, because what other response would have been more acceptable than, “We believe the whole contents of the Scriptures”? Unfortunately this is an all too frequent question asked between people who have accepted the religious teaching of movements who have amplified certain verses and avoided others.
Most of the so-called Bible believing Christian world has gotten this man’s national identity, religious affiliation, teaching and even his very name completely and utterly wrong. Who was this man that the world unwittingly calls a midget?
Let’s start by examining his name. The word “Paul” is a transliteration of the Latin word Paulos, from the Greek, paucus meaning “little” or literally “midget.” The name Paul was applied to him as a slur. It was not attributed to him around the time of his conversion nor was it given to him by the Almighty. It emerged after he had started preaching Yahshua as the Moshiach. Notice the inclusion of the phrase “also is called” in the first place this name appears in Scripture: "Then Sha’ul, who also is called Paul…” (Acts 13:9a). Grammatically we can tell that the initial name used in the sentence means that the majority of people still called him Sha’ul, but others commenced calling him Paulos. Many of his Jewish peers would have been angered by his conversion and the Natsarim were almost certainly weary of him due to his former role as their chief persecutor. “I persecuted this Way to the death, binding and delivering into prison both men and women” (Acts 22:3-4). Many people on both sides of the fence opposed him and the name “Little” reflected this disdain. There is no record of Rabbi Sha’ul’s rejection of the name, perhaps preferring to regard himself as small (or humble) before Elohim. His real Hebrew name Sha’ul (Saul) means “desire” or “ask for” as in “ask for Elohim.” There is little doubt that those who respected him would have not only continued to address him (after his conversion) as Sha’ul, but as Rabbi Sha’ul. Good Scripture translations now available continue to refer to him has Sha’ul even after Acts 13 and in other books of the Brit Chadashah (New Testament).
Of the twenty-one letters that make up the Brit Chadashah, Rabbi Sha'ul is attributed to having written fourteen of them. Thirteen books bear his name and the fourteenth book, Hebrews, is also attributed to him. Seven of the letters are accepted among Hebrew Scholars as if having been initially penned by Sha'ul's own hand. The others are thought to have been written by his closest talmidim (disciples) who, as was the custom among all Torah students, recorded many aspects of their teacher's life. Interestingly Sha'ul predominantly wrote to people who were already believers and who had a certain grasp of the Torah already.
Rabbi Sha’ul letters were compiled around the time of his second missionary journey. This is certainly true if we accept that he had to make contact with individual believers and communities before he wrote about them. His first letter was 1 Thessalonians, which is estimated to have been penned around 49 to 51CE and his latest letter is 2 Timothy, written around 67CE. 1&2 Timothy are believed to be his final letters for a number of reasons. They contain reference to his extensive travels, key events that occurred after the book of Acts and also tell of his own impending martyrdom. The wide array of books thought to be written by Sha’ul are: 1 & 2 Thessalonians, Galatians, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Romans, Hebrews, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, Ephesians, Titus and 1 & 2 Timothy.
Over the centuries countless volumes of material about Rabbi Sha’ul have amassed. Commentaries on his letters, biographical writings and articles that give deeper insights into his teachings and character have come from a myriad of Biblical, apocryphal and historical sources. With the amount of information that’s available one would think it impossible to be ignorant of what this man actually taught. But nothing can be further from the truth.
How His Letters Became Scripture
The ultra Orthodox ChaBaD movement preserves a tradition whereby a letter written by a Tzedek (Righteous One) to an individual or congregation is revered as sacred. Such a letter is usually placed in a special location with other sacred writings and reviewed regularly. This tradition, also observed by the early Natsarim Jews, played a large role in the preservation of Rabbi Sha’ul’s letters, enabling them to eventually be regarded as Scripture among the assemblies of the early Nazarene sect.
The Grace View
There are two dominant views of Rabbi Sha’ul’s ministry. The first view is that he taught salvation comes by grace alone (Ephesians 2:8-9). While this sounds true, it takes human effort to maintain obedience to YHWH’s commandments in order for unmerited power (grace) to bring on salvation. The “grace only” crowd tends to view diligent observance of YHWH’s commandments as an ongoing attempt to acquire salvation by human effort. Furthermore, this outlook encourages advocates to have a lukewarm attitude toward obedience because all sin is supposedly covered by grace. “The Paul taught grace” philosophy is also an anti-Torah teaching that is principally used to support replacement theology, which is a view that presents the “church” as a new and improved “spiritual” Israel. Advocates of this view consider commandment observance as legalism at best and Judaizing at worst, an act, considered by the church, as severing one’s connection to Messiah. This grace-fixated obedient-deficient teaching has been vigorously enforced by the Catholic Church either by way of the mailed fist (physical force) or the velvet glove (subtle manipulation). Early church father Marcion, later excommunicated by the Catholic Church, was the first to wrestle Rabbi Sha’ul’s letters completely away from truth by teaching that the Old Testament was superseded by the teachings of Jesus Christ and his only true Apostle - Paul. Marcion saw Christianity as being completely opposite to Judaism. He rejected the entire Old Testament and declared its G-d as a lesser entity than the Messiah of the New Testament. To sum up: this is a completely untruthful and unacceptable view that is fundamentally anti-semitic and presents a schizophrenic Creator.
The Heretical View
The second view is that Sha’ul was just a plain old heretic. In Judaism this is called “one who leads the nation astray.” The heretical view is usually held by Orthodox Judaism, although a Jew can hardly be blamed. Sha’ul is constantly represented by Christianity as a Torah-hating-grace-junkie who turned his back on the Jews and went to the Gentiles. Christianity, to a greater or lesser extent, teaches that Sha’ul actually became a Gentile after his conversion and subsequently went out to preach to Gentiles exclusively. He is described as having taught that flesh circumcision was done away with and that Torah observance was no longer a required mark of someone who possessed an upright relationship with the Creator. This is despite Sha’ul’s declaration; "What advantage then has the Yahudi (Jew)? Or, what profit is there in brit-milah (circumcision)? Much in every way!” (Romans 3:1) and his general view toward circumcision in; Romans 4:11; “And he (Abraham) received the sign of circumcision, a seal of righteousness of the faith…” Sha’ul only addresses an objection against adult male circumcision, and even then it was only objected to if an individual’s heart was not already circumcised (i.e., if that individual saw the act of circumcision as being solely contingent to his salvation). Sha’ul didn’t want masses of converts attempting to mutilate themselves; particularly the ones who could not easily receive circumcision. Circumcision was never meant as an instant accompaniment to conversion. If it ever occurred, it was determined in the Creator’s time, not the individual’s. After all, “circumcision of the heart” was a Torah teaching, not a so-called New Testament teaching (Deuteronomy 10:16).
The Correct View
The less well known view of Sha’ul is that he taught perfectly in line with the Torah and Messiah Yahshua’s words. Sure, most Christians will say that this is their view too, but upon questioning at length, you’ll eventually get the guts of the first view coated in the skin of this one. I remember debating with a Christian whilst I was still in church about the law. We were in the book of Romans when he read this verse out loud: “For sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not under the law but under grace” (Romans 6:14). There he ceased his reading and awaited my response. I looked down and noticed the Bible he and I had, had a break between verses 14 and 15. Between this break was the heading, “From Slaves of Sin to Slaves of God.” This was unusual for two reasons. Firstly, the text broke in a section that wasn’t the commencement of a new chapter as is painfully common in many modern Bible translations. Second, the next verse Romans 6:15 read: What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? Certainly not! The layout appeared to give the impression that verse 14 was the conclusion of the topic, yet the teaching continues straight on through to 15 and beyond. I then proceeded to read verse 15 to my Christian friend’s total dismay.
Rabbi Sha'ul was born in Tarsus, a capital city of Asia Minor (Acts 22:3). “He was ...circumcised the eighth day, of the race of Am-Yisrael (the Nation of Israel), of the tribe of Benyamin, an Ivri (Hebrew), son of an Ivri (Hebrew); regarding Torah, a Prush (Pharisee) an Israelite of the tribe of Benjamin, circumcised on the eighth day" (Philippians 3:5). There is reference to him having a sister with her own son in Acts 23:16 as well as other relatives in Romans 16:7, 11 & 12. Sha'ul was a citizen of Rome (Acts 22:25 & Acts 27-28). Because Asia Minor was a province of Cilicia, a city declared free by Rome, all native born there were entitled to citizenship.
Rabbi Sha'ul’s credentials were impeccable. He studied under the great Rabbi, Gamaliel. Acts 22:3; “I am indeed a man who am a Yahudi (Jew), born in Tarsus, a city in Cilikia (Cilicia), yet brought up in this city at the yeshiva of Gamliel, and taught according to the perfect manner of the Torah of the ahvot (fathers), and was zealous towards Elohim, as you all are this day.”
Rav Gamaliel was a very highly respected teacher of the Torah among the Jews. Acts 5:34; “Then stood up one in the Sanhedrin, a Prush (Pharisee), named Gamliel, an honored Torah teacher, held in the highest esteem among all the people of Yisrael, who commanded that the shlichim (apostles) be taken out of the chamber for a while.” Rav Gamaliel had gone on record as supporting the Natsarim faith. This information is documented in the Archko Volume , which also details his investigation into a 26-year-old Yahshua and his parent’s.
Natsarim Association with the Sanhedrin
Rav Yakkov HaTzaddik (James), Yahshua’s own brother, eventually became the president of the Sanhedrin. If Yahshua, a rabbi himself, had a problem with the existence of the Sanhedrin and rabbis in general, he failed to mention it, much less worn his own brother about becoming its president.
Rabbi Sha’ul was a Pharisee, even after his conversion. Acts 23:6a; But when Shaul perceived that the one part were Tzadukim (Sadducee), and the other Prushim (Pharisees), he cried out in the Sanhedrin, Men and brothers, I am a Prush (Pharisee), the son of a Prush (Pharisee): because of my tikvah (hope) in the resurrection of the dead – the meechayai hamaytiim – I am being questioned.”
Who Were the Pharisees?
Pharisee means “separated” and was the title of a role that represented a major school of thought that was alive and well in Sha’ul’s day. Many of Messiah Yahshua’s teachings were in line with Pharisaic thought. Yahshua’s criticisms of certain Pharisees were principally leveled at hypocritical lifestyles, puffiness, and focus on manmade traditions over Torah observance.
Pharisaism emerged during the Babylonian captivity. The first clearly visible party appeared on the scene during the Maccabee Revolt against the Greeks.
Rabbi Sha'ul’s first appearance in Scripture is as a delighted overseer to the martyrdom of Stephanos (Stephen) (Acts 7:57). Acts 8:1; “Sha’ul was there, giving approval to his death.” Stephanos whose Greek name means “crown,” was not the first martyr for the faith. The first martyr was Abel, the son of Adam. To say that Stephanos was the first “Christian” martyr assumes that every generation of martyred believers before Yahshua (even heathen converts) did not believe in a coming Messiah.
Rabbi Sha’ul was a sworn enemy to all followers of the living Torah (Yahshua) and played a lead role in persecuting them. He was also a devout Yahudi (Jew) (Acts 23:6) because the tribe of Judah had long since absorbed all Benjamites into its fold. Rabbi Sha’ul was responsible for bringing believers in Yahshua to court, where many of them were subsequently condemned as heretics and stoned. Acts 9:1-2; "Meanwhile, Sha'ul, still breathing murderous threats against the YHWH's talmidim (disciples) went to the Cohen Hagadol (High Priest) and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Dammesek, authorizing him to arrest any people he might find, whether men or women, who belonged to the way, and bring them back to Yerushalayim.”
Acts 8:3 gives a good account of the vigorous manner in which he performed his duties. “As for Shaul, he made havoc of the congregation of Yisrael, entering into every bayit (house), and seizing men and women, throwing them into prison.”
Make no mistake; prior to his conversion, Rabbi Sha’ul was, to a believer in Yahshua, public enemy number one. But what happened?
Struck Down and Made Blind
1 Corinthians 3:18; “Let no man deceive himself. If any man among Yisrael seems to be wise in the olam hazeh (world), let him become a natural fool, that he may be spiritually wise.”
On his way to Damascus Sha’ul underwent an extraordinarily terrifying experience. Like something out of an X-Files episode, he was enveloped by a bright aerial anomaly that struck him to the ground. In UFO circles his experience would have been registered as a close encounter of the third kind, sub-type F. This means Sha’ul witnessed a close range aerial phenomenon that delivered a completely comprehendible "intelligent communication.” Acts 9:3-6; “And as he journeyed, he came near Dameshek: and suddenly there shone all around him a light from the shamayim (heavens).” There are three separate accounts of his conversion within the Scriptures. They are:
• His description in Acts 9:1-20
• His account before the crowd in Yerushalaym (Acts 22:1-22)
• The testimony before King Agrippa II (Acts 26:1-24).
After Sha’ul’s encounter he was physically blinded. He remained in such a state for precisely three days, harking back to the duration of Jonah’s confinement in the belly of a great fish and the duration of Messiah Yahshua’s post crucifixion ministry in Sheol .
The Scriptural narrative of Sha’ul’s conversion unfolds like this: And he fell to the ground, and heard a voice saying to him, “Shaul, Shaul, why are you persecuting Me? And he said, Who are You, Master? And He said, I am Yahshua whom you are persecuting: it is hard for you to offer against Me this worthless resistance. And he trembling and astonished said, Master, what will You have me to do? And Yahshua said to him, Arise, and go into the city, and it shall be told to you what you must do.” (Acts 9:4-6)
Torah Observant Both Before and After
One frequently mistaken belief about Sha’ul is that he traded a Torah obedient lifestyle for a singular intellectual belief in the risen Messiah. Some Natsarim even had this view during his ministry. Knowing this, Yaakov HaTzaddik (James the righteous [Yahshua’s brother]), instructed him to assist with four men in the purification ritual of the Nazarite vow. Rabbi Sha’ul agreed to do this to show his fellow Jews of his devotion to Torah (Acts 21:20-24).
James was recognised as the leader of the Nazarenes who were both Torah observant and accepted Yahshua as Messiah. Early Church Father Jerome attests to their devotion to Torah in his own writings. “(They are) those who accept Messiah in such a way that they do not cease to observe the Old Law.” (Jerome; On. Is. 8:14).
Sha’ul’s only major transformation was that he came to accept Yahshua as the living inseparable manifestation of the living Torah. This caused his ministry to swing completely in favour of his former enemies. Prior to this he worked with inquisitional precision to see that the Torah was upheld whilst remaining ignorant of its identity in Yahshua. His insatiable energy for persecuting supposed heretics was redirected into appealing vigorously to his peers and converts. In each role, though one was completely off the mark, Torah served as the blueprint for his actions.
Question: Didn’t Sha’ul consider the Torah and all his training as “garbage” once he accepted Messiah? Philippians 5-9; “I was circumcised the eighth day, of the race of Am-Yisrael, of the tribe of Benyamin, an Ivri (Hebrew), son of an Ivri; regarding Torah, a Prush (Pharisee); Concerning zeal, persecuting the Renewed Yisraelite congregation; regarding the right conduct that is in the Torah, blameless. But what things were once gains for me; I counted lost for Moshiach. Yes doubtless, and I count all things to be lost for the better excellence of the chochmah (wisdom) of the Moshiach my Master: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them as garbage, that I may gain more of Moshiach, And be found in Him, not having my own tzedakah (righteousness), which is from the Torah, but that which is through the emunah (faith) of Moshiach, the tzedakah (righteousness) that is from YHWH by emunah (faith).”
Answer: No, he did not, but at the expense of losing his knowledge of Yahshua, yes he certainly did! To say otherwise means that following the letter of the law and his heritage was one means of salvation and accepting Yahshua was another.
After Sha’ul’s encounter with Yahshua he was led completely helpless into Damascus by those who were with him and was visited by a believer in Yahshua called Ananias. Note carefully Rabbi Sha’ul’s description of Ananias in Acts 22:12; “And one Chananyah (Ananias), a devout man following the Torah, having a tov (good) report among all the Yahudim (Jews) who dwelt there.”
Ananias heals Sha’ul’s blindness and began ministering to him. Acts 22:14-16; “And he said, ‘The Elohim of our ahvot (fathers) has chosen you, that you should know His will, and see that Tzadik-One (righteous-one), and should hear the voice from His mouth. For you shall be His witness to all men of what you have seen and heard. And now why do you delay? Arise, and be immersed, and wash away your sins, calling on the Name of YHWH.’”
The New Ministry of a Natsari Pharisee
Rabbi Sha’ul later departs to Arabia and commences preaching in support of the way that he formerly persecuted in local synagogues (Galatians 1:17). This causes trouble, which leads to him vacating the city by means of a basket lowered over a wall (Acts 9:23).
Rabbi Sha’ul supported himself during his travels by his own means (1 Corinthians 9:13-15). His principle form of income was derived from making tallitot (little tents) out of goat’s hair [aka prayer shawls (Acts 18:3)].
Three years from the time of his conversion, Rabbi Sha’ul goes to Jerusalem and meets Yaakov (James) and Kepha (Peter) (Galatians 1:13-24). He requests to join them, but is only accepted when another talmidim called Barnabas intercedes on his behalf. Because of Sha’ul’s reputation they were all understandably afraid of him (Acts 9:26-27).
Trouble seemed to follow him as he is sent back to Tarsus after having disputes with various goyim (gentiles). Fourteen years after his conversion, Sha’ul returns to Jerusalem, where Barnabas eventually finds him and has him brought to Antioch (Act 11:26). Antioch had become a refuge for believers after the death of Stephenos. One could only imagine the level of apprehension among believers there when they heard that Sha’ul was coming. It was here and at this time that followers were first called “cretins” (Christians).
Upon hearing of a famine in Judaea, Rabbi Sha’ul, Barnabas and another convert called Titus go there to render financial assistance from funds raised at Antioch.
Sha’ul testifies to have met a post-resurrected Yahshua, after Kepha (Cephus), the twelve (talmidim) and five hundred. 1 Corinthians 15:8; “And last of all He was seen by me also, ignorant and imperfectly trained as I was.” Of Yahshua’s original twelve talmidim, he only met and took counsel with Ya'akov (James, Yahshua's brother) and Kepha (Peter).
Rabbi Sha'ul died in Rome during the time of Emperor Nero's persecution. He remains the most debated and disagreed upon individual in the Scriptures both among not only Jews and Christians, but among many rival Christian denominations as well. Some Christian sects even venerate Sha’ul’s teachings above the Torah and say they follow him as if his teachings differ in some way. 1 Corinthian 3:4-7; “For while one says, I am of Shaul; and another, I am of Apollos; are you not still worldly? Who then is Shaul, and who is Apollos, but avadim (servants) through whom you believed, even as the Master YHWH gave to every man? I have planted, Apollos gave mayim (water); but YHWH gave the increased growth. So then neither is he that plants anything, neither he that gives mayim (water) anything; but YHWH who gives the increase.”
Rabbi Sha’ul was a man of conviction who honoured the various degrees of knowledge that the Almighty imparted to him. There has been much written about him. Some writers have said he was a tortured man who committed a transgression in his youth and disciplined his Evil Inclination. Others say he was of very short physical stature. Whatever the case, the Scriptures attest that he was a content man regardless of circumstance. Philippians 4:10-13; “But I had gilah (Joy) in YHWH greatly, that now recently your care and concern for me has been revived again; though you were concerned in the past, but you lacked the means. Not that I speak in respect of want: for I have learned, in whatever state I am in to be content. I know what it is to be poor, and I know what it is to be rich: I have gone through and experienced many things, both to be full and to be hungry, to have plenty and be in want. I have the strength to do all things through Moshiach who strengthens me.”
Who was Sha’ul? “…YHWH said…‘for he is a chosen vessel to Me, to bear My Name before the nations, and melechim (kings), and the children of Yisrael.’” (Acts 9:15)