Some excerpts from my book Understanding Paul
In order to grasp the confusion surrounding the understanding of Paul, let us begin by examining five verses as they appear in the King James Version.
Ye see then how that by works a man is justified,
and not by faith only.
Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin.
(For not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified.)
Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the
law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.
For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: for it is written, Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them.
OK so we are justified by works and not by faith only, but by deeds of the law no flesh shall be justified, but doers of the law are justified, yet a man is not justified by works of the law however those who are of the works of the law are under a curse but we are cursed if we don't keep the law either. Oy vey!
There is no wonder people have a problem understanding Paul.
When you have finished reading this book you will understand that all of the above statements are true and they do not actually contradict each other.
In this book I will show that the NT itself tells us that Paul's teachings were hard to understand, misunderstood and twisted even in his time. We will look at what Paul actually said and seeking to understand what he really meant. We will look at some commonly misunderstood passages including Gal. 4:21-5:2 and apply Jewish Hermeneutics to see what this passage is actually saying (you may be surprised). In the end we will show that Paul was actually a powerful Torah advocate.
Paul is greatly misunderstood as having taught that the Torah is not for today. I have met a great many in the Torah Observance movement who feel uncomfortable with his writings.
This reaction is nothing new. The Ebionites, an ancient sect of Jewish believers in Messiah who broke off from the Nazarenes around 70 C.E. rejected Paul’s writings for this very reason. The ancient writer Eusebius says of them:
These, indeed, thought… that all the epistles of the
apostles ought to be rejected, calling him [Paul] an
apostate from the law…
(Eccl. Hist. 3:27:4)
This belief that Yeshua may not have abolished the Torah, but that Paul did, has been propagated since ancient times. The "Toldot Yeshu" for example, an ancient hostile Rabbinic parody on the Gospels and Acts, accuses Paul of contradicting Yeshua on this very issue:
…Paul erred in his writing when he said to you,
Be not circumcised: for Yeshua was circumcised.
Moreover Yeshua said, “I am not come to diminish
a single word of the Torah of Moses, not even one
letter; but to fulfill all his words. And this is your
reproach which Paul laid on you…”
(Toldot Yeshu 7:3-5 see also 6:16-41)
At least one modern Dispensationalist, Maurice Johnson, taught that the Messiah did not abolish the Torah, but that Paul did several years after the fact. He writes:
Apparently God allowed this system of Jewish
ordinances to be practiced about thirty years after
Christ fulfilled it because in His patience, God only
gradually showed the Jews how it was that His
program was changing.... Thus it was that after
God had slowly led the Christians out of Jewish
religion He had Paul finally write these glorious,
(Saved by "Dry" Baptism!; a pamphlet by
Maurice Johnson; pp. 9-10)
Kefa warns us in the Scriptures that Paul's writings are difficult to understand. He warns us saying:
...in which are some things hard to understand, which those who are untaught and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures.
Paul knew that his teachings were being twisted; he mentions this in Romans, saying:
And why not say, "Let us do evil that good may come"? -- as we are slanderously reported and as some affirm that we say." (Rom. 3:8)
Paul elaborates on this slanderous twist of his teachings, saying:
What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? Certainly not!.."
What then? Shall we sin because we are not under the Torah but under grace? Certainly not!"
So then, Paul was misunderstood as teaching that because we are under grace, we need not observe the Torah.
Upon his visit to Jerusalem in Acts 21 Paul was confronted with this slanderous twist of his teachings. He was told:
You see, brother, how many thousands of Jews there are who believe, and they are all zealous for the Torah; but they have been informed about you that you teach all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, saying that they ought not to circumcise their children nor to walk according to the customs.
In order to prove that this was nothing more than slander, Paul takes the nazarite vow and goes to make offerings (sacrifices) at the Temple (Acts 21:22-26 & Num. 6:13-21) demonstrating that he himself kept the Torah (Acts 21:24). Paul did and said many things to prove that he both kept and taught the Torah. He:
* circumcised Timothy (Acts 16:1-3)
* took the nazarite vow (Acts 18:18; 21:17-26)
* taught and observed the Jewish holy days such as:
* Passover (Acts 20:6; 1Cor. 5:6-8; 11:17-34)
* Shavuot (Pentecost) (Acts 20:16; 1Cor. 16:8)
* fasting on Yom Kippur (Acts 27:9)
* and even performed animal sacrifices in the Temple
(Acts 21:17-26/Num. 6:13-21; Acts 24:17-18)
Among his more notable statements on the subject are:
* "Neither against the Jewish Torah,
nor against the Temple, nor against Caesar
have I offended in anything at all." (Acts 25:8)
* "I have done nothing against our people or the customs of our fathers." (Acts 28:17)
* "...the Torah is holy and the commandment is holy and just and good." (Rom. 7:12)
* "Do we then nullify the Torah through faith?
May it never be! On the contrary, we maintain the Torah." (Rom. 3:31).
Was Paul a Hypocrite?
Being confronted with the various acts and statements of Paul, which support the Torah, many of the "Torah is not for today" teachers accuse Paul of being hypocritical. Charles Ryrie, for example, footnotes Acts 21:24 in his Ryrie Study Bible calling Paul a "middle of the road Christian" for performing such acts. Another writer, M.A. DeHaan wrote an entire book entitled "Five Blunders of Paul" which characterizes these acts as "blunders." "These teachers of lawlessness" credit Paul as the champion of their doctrine, and then condemn him for not teaching their doctrine. If Paul was really a hypocrite, could he honestly have condemned hypocrisy so fervently (see Gal. 2:11-15)? Consider some of the following in his own words:
For do I now persuade men, or Eloah?
Or do I seek to please men?
For if I still pleased men,
I would not be a servant of the Messiah.
For you yourselves know, brothers,
that our coming to you was not in vain.
But even after we had suffered before
and were spitefully treated in Philippi, as you know, we were bold in our Elohim to speak to you the Good News of Elohim in much conflict. For our exhortation did not come from deceit or uncleanness, nor was it in guile. But as we have been approved by Elohim to be entrusted with the Good News, even so we speak, not as pleasing men, but Elohim who tests our hearts. For neither at any time did we use flattering words, as you know, nor a cloak for covetousness-- Elohim is witness.
If Paul was a hypocrite, he must have been one of the slickest con men in history!
A Ringleader of the Nazarenes
In Acts 24:5 Paul is accused in the Aramaic of being “a leader of the teaching of the Nazarenes” and in the Greek of being “a ringleader of the Sect of the Nazarenes” and in Acts 24:14 Paul admits that this was true.
The first believers in Yeshua were this Jewish sect known as "Nazarenes" or in Hebrew "Netzarim". The "church father" Jerome (4th Cent.) described these Nazarenes as those "...who accept Messiah in such a way that they do not cease to observe the old Law." (Jerome; On. Is. 8:14). The fourth century "church father" Epiphanius gives a more detailed description:
But these sectarians... did not call themselves Christians--but "Nazarenes," ... However they are simply complete Jews. They use not only the New Testament but the Old Testament as well, as the Jews do... They have no different ideas, but confess everything exactly as the Law proclaims it and in the Jewish fashion-- except for their belief in Messiah, if you please! For they acknowledge both the resurrection of the dead and the divine creation of all things, and declare that Elohim is one, and that his son is Y'shua the Messiah. They are trained to a nicety in Hebrew. For among them the entire Law, the Prophets, and the... Writings... are read in Hebrew, as they surely are by the Jews. They are different from the Jews, and different from Christians, only in the following. They disagree with Jews because they have come to faith in Messiah; but since they are still fettered by the Law--circumcision, the Sabbath, and the rest-- they are not in accord with Christians.... they are nothing but Jews.... They have the Goodnews according to Matthew in its entirety in Hebrew. For it is clear that they still preserve this, in the Hebrew alphabet, as it was originally written.
(Epiphanius; Panarion 29)
Ebionites Rejected Paul
Paul, though a leader of the Nazarenes was rejected by the Ebionites when they split-ff from the Nazarenes in 70 C.E., as we read in the “Church Fathers”:
But [the Ebionites] use only the Gospel which is
according to Matthew, and repudiate the Apostle
Paul, calling him an apostate from the law.
(Irenaeus; Against Heresies; 1:26:2)
These, indeed, thought… that all the epistles of the
apostles ought to be rejected, calling him [Paul] an
apostate from the law…
(Eccl. Hist. 3:27:4)
The Ebionites viewed Paul as an apostate from the law. In fact from the very beginning Paul the Pharisee had been an outspoken critic of the hard-liner Essene elements which eventually re-emerged as the Ebionite movement. Among these were the ritual hyper-purity issues of the “Works of the Law” as laid out in MMT.
The Nazarene Commentary on Isaiah
While Paul was rejected by the Ebionites, he was venerated by his fellow Nazarenes. The Nazarenes even saw Paul as haven been spoken of by the Prophet Isaiah. As we reed in the Nazarene commentary on Is. 9:1-4 (8:23-93 in Jewish versions) as cited by Jerome:
The Nazarenes, whose opinion I have set forth above,
try to explain this passage in the following way:
When Messiah came and his proclaiming shone out,
the land of Zebulon and Naphtali first of all were
freed from the errors of the Scribes and Pharisees
and he shook off their shoulders the very heavy yoke
of the Jewish traditions. Later, however, the proclaiming became more dominant, that means the proclaiming was multiplied, through the Goodnews of the emissary Paul who was the least of all the emissaries. And the goodnews of Messiah shone to the most distant tribes and the way of the whole sea. Finally the whole world, which earlier walked
or sat in darkness and was imprisoned in the bonds of idolatry and death, has seen the clear light of the goodnews.
(Note: The "Jewish traditions" in the context of this commentary refer to Rabbinic Halachah of the fourth century CE with which the Nazarenes took issue.)
Now Isaiah 9:1-4 refers to "Galilee of the GOYIM (nations/Gentiles)" but identifies these "Gentiles" as the inhabitants of "the land of Zebulon and Naphtali". Here the House of Israel is being identified as "Gentiles". There are at least two other places in Scripture where the word "Gentile" is used to describe Ephraim (the House of Israel). One of these is Gen. 48:19 where (in the Hebrew) Ephraim is told his descendents will become "a multitude of nations (GOYIM; Gentiles)" (compare Rom. 11:25 where the same phrase is translated in the KJV as "fullness of the gentiles"). The other case is in Rom. 9:24 which refers to "Jews" and "Gentiles" but then goes on (in Rom. 9:25-26) to quote Hosea (Hos. 2:23; 1:10) to identify them which the "Children of Judah" and "the Children of Israel" (Hosea 1:10-11; 2:23).
The Nazarene Commentary on Isaiah understands "you have multiplied the nation" (Is. 9:3) to refer to Paul "the proclaiming was multiplied, through the Goodnews of the emissary Paul... to the most distant tribes". Therefore the ancient Nazarenes understood the "Gentiles" to whom Paul primarily directed his message with the Ephraimite "Gentiles" of Isaiah 9:1-4 and with "the most distant tribes".
This comment in the Nazarene Commentary on Isaiah makes it clear that the Ancient Sect of Nazarene Judaism held that Paul was an emissary to the Ephraimites.
Paul the Pharisee
In Acts 22:30 Paul is brought before “The Chief priests and all the leaders of Jerusalem” a group made up of Pharisees and Sadducees. Paul professes something very important, something which many Christian commentators wish to sweep under the rug. Paul declares “I am a Pharisee, the son of Pharisees” (Acts 23:6). Paul, who never described himself as a “Christian” (in fact Paul never even used the word “Christian”). Instead Paul continually identifies himself as Jewish (Acts 21:39; 22:3) and on this occasion (around 60 C.E. just about three years before his death) he clearly declares "I am a Pharisee" (Acts 23:6).
By declaring himself to be a Pharisee, Paul was declaring that he held the defining elements of Pharisaic Judaism. As we stated earlier, unlike the Sadducees, the Pharisees maintained a belief in the afterlife. As Josephus writes:
…the Pharisees… believe that souls have an immortal rigor in them, and that under the earth there will be rewards or punishments, according as they have lived virtuously or viciously in this life; and the latter are to be detained in an everlasting prison, but that the former shall have power to revive and live again; on account of which doctrines they are able greatly to persuade the body of the people;
(Josephus; Ant. 18:1:3)
As mentioned earlier, the Pharisees also maintained a belief in the traditions handed down by their forefathers. As Josephus writes:
…the Pharisees have delivered to the people a great
many observances by succession from their fathers,
which are not written in the law of Moses; …
(Josephus; Ant. 13:10:6)
The second century Nazarene writer Gish’fa (Heggissipus) made use in his writings of these oral traditions. Eusebius writes of him:
And he quotes some passages from The Gospel according to the Hebrews and from ‘The Syriac’, and some particulars from the Hebrew tongue, showing that he was … from the Hebrews, and he mentions other matters as taken from the oral tradition
of the Jews.”
(Eccl. Hist. 4:22)
In Acts 22:3 Paul declares:
…I was educated in this city at the feet of Gamaliel
and was instructed perfectly in the Torah of our
The Aramaic word for “perfectly” here is ty)rymg a form of the Aramaic word )rmg Gemara. It is interesting that the word Gemara came to be used to describe the larger part of the Talmud. The core of the Talmud is the Mishna. The Mishna was complied around 250 CE by Rabbi Y’hudah Ha Nasi from earlier oral and/or written traditions. It cites the opinions or Rabbis and teachers who lived in the generation immediately following Ezra and Nehemiah, up until the time of its composition. The rest of the Talmud was compiled around 500 CE and consists of the Mishna written in Hebrew and the commentary to the Mishna, known as the Gemara, surrounding it in Aramaic.
Who was this Gamilel? Gamliel was the grandson of Hillel and in his day he served as Nasi of the Pharisaic Sanhedrin. Many of his ethical teachings are to be found in the Mishna in Tractate Avot (Sayings of the Fathers). It is amazing to realize that these teachings of Gamilel are the very things Paul was learning as a talmid (student) of Gamliel. These are some of the very teachings which shaped Paul. Had Paul not become a Nazarene, he might well have become one of the Pharisaic authorities whose opinions we read in the Mishna.
Paul’s teaching was based on the founding basis for Phariseeism as taught be Antigones of Soko:
Antigones of Soko received [Torah] from Simeon the Righteous.
He used to say, “Be not like servants who serve their master
for the sake of wages, but be like servants who serve their
master with no thought of a wage – and let the fear
of Heaven be upon you.”
Paul and the Essene Society
In Acts we read about Paul just before he became a believer in Messiah:
Now Shaul was yet full of the threat and anger of
murder against the talmidim of our Adon. And he
asked for letters from the Chief Cohen to give to
Darm’suk (Damascus) to the synagogues, that if he
should find any who follow in this way, men or
women, he might bind and bring them to
Now why word Shaul want to go to Damascus to pursue the followers of Yeshua? As we learned in chapter one, the first followers of Yeshua were from the Essenes. We also learned that Essene Judaism was born in Damascus and that its followers, like the Nazarenes, called their movement “the Way”.
Now while on his way to Damascus Paul encounters the resurrected Yeshua and himself becomes a believer in Yeshua as the Messiah (Acts 9:3-7). AS instructed by Yeshua, Paul enters Damascus and makes contact with the followers of Yeshua there (Acts 9:8-19). In his letter to the Galatians Paul describes these events as follows:
And I did not go to Yerushaliyim to the emissaries
who were before me, but I went to Arabia and again
returned to Darm’suk (Damascus), and after three
years, I went to Yerushalayim to seek Kefa and
remained with him fifteen days.
Why did Paul remain for three years in Damascus? Because it took three years to be fully admitted into the Essene community. As Josephus writes:
But now if any one has a mind to come over to their sect, he is not immediately admitted, but he is prescribed the same method of living which they use for a year, while he continues excluded'; and they give him also a small hatchet, and the fore-mentioned girdle, and the white garment. And when he has given evidence, during that time, that he can observe their continence, he approaches nearer to their way of living, and is made a partaker of the waters of purification; yet is he not even now admitted to live with them; for after this demonstration of his fortitude, his temper is tried two more years; and if he appear to be worthy, they then admit him into their society.
Paul went through the entire process of learning the ins and outs of Essene Judaism. These studies also shaped Paul’s thinking. There are several Parallels between Paul’s teachings and the Essene teachings at Qumran.
However Paul also contrasts Qumran theology. His commentary on Hab. 2:4 (in Gal. 3:11, Rom. 1:17 & Heb. 10:37-38 see my Hebrews Commentary on this passage) seems to be a rebuttal to that of the Qumran community (1QpHab 8, 1-3). In fact Paul’s epistle to the Hebrews seems aimed at those with an Essene background, a point we will explore in a future chapter.
Works of the Law and Under the Law
Much of the confusion about Paul's teachings on the Torah involves two scripture phrases, which appear in the New Testament only in Paul's writings (in Rom. Gal. & 1Cor.). These two phrases are "works of the law" and "under the law", each of which appears 10 times in the Scriptures.
The first of these phrases, "works of the law", is best understood through its usage in Gal. 2:16. Here Paul writes:
knowing that a man is not justified by works of the law but by faith in Yeshua the Messiah,
even we have believed in Messiah Yeshua,
that we might be justified by faith in Messiah
and not by the works of the law;
for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified.
Paul uses this phrase to describe a false method of justification which is diametrically opposed to "faith in the Messiah". To Paul "works of the law" is not an obsolete Old Testament system, but a heresy that has never been true.
The term "works of the Torah" has shown up as a technical theological term used in a document in the Dead Sea Scrolls called MMT which says:
Now we have written to you some of the
works of the law, those which we determined
would be beneficial for you...
And it will be reckoned to you as righteousness,
in that you have done what is right and good before Him...
(4QMMT (4Q394-399) Section C lines 26b-31)
The second of these phrases is "under the law". This phrase may best be understood from its usage in Rom. 6:14, "For sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not under the law but under grace." Paul, therefore, sees "under grace" and "under the law" as diametrically opposed, one cannot be both. The truth is that since we have always been under grace (see Gen. 6:8; Ex. 33:12, 17; Judges 6:17f; Jer. 31:2) we have never been "under the law". This is because the Torah was created for man, man was not created for the Torah (see Mk. 2:27). "Under the law" then, is not an obsolete Old Testament system, but a false teaching, which was never true.
There can be no doubt that Paul sees "works of the law" and "under the law" as categorically bad, yet Paul calls the Torah itself "holy, just and good" (Rom. 7:12), certainly Paul does not use these phrases to refer to the Torah itself.
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