Apostle Paul and his scripture twisting for Jesus
One of the many things which helped me come to repentance from idolatry, to leave Christianity and return to the faith of my fathers was my realization that the reason Christianity has been so anti-Torah and anti-Judaism for just about all of its history is not only because of some later antisemitic/anti-Judaic developments, but also because of Paul’s teachings and views, which make up almost a half of the New Testament. Few Christians realize that most of the Christian theology can be directly attributed to Paul and not to Jesus, a man Paul never knew in real life, whose teachings he is not interested in quoting and whose life and ministry, except for his birth, last supper, and death, he mostly ignores.
In his writing Paul makes many seemingly conflicting statements regarding “the Law”. His various pronouncements, praises and even condemnations of the Jewish Torah have puzzled and continue to puzzle theologians. For all the letters Paul left us, after almost two thousand years of study it’s still virtually impossible to satisfactory determine exactly where the man stood. No wonder the Christian theology has splintered into innumerable interpretations. More recently, however, there has sprang up a whole host of theological defenders of the apostle, New Testament scholars who form a loose movement known as the New Perspective on Paul. They seek to redeem Paul for Judaism, to show that he was misunderstood and misrepresented by the antinomian Christianity that developed soon after his death. While acknowledging that the Jesus-faith left its Jewish moorings, they insist that Paul himself remained a faithful Jew and played no direct role.
Paul, an author of confusion?
When I was still a Jesus-worshiper, I would read many books and papers of the New Perspective theologians enthusiastically, hoping that they would help me reinforce my faith in the New Testament, in Paul who wrote or influenced most of it, and, of course and most importantly, in Jesus. Even though I continued to cringe at many of Paul’s statements, I would comfort myself by thinking that this was only the result of my weak understanding of this “great hero of faith”. I would come to place great hope in the new generation of theologians, optimistic that they will be able explain everything that I somehow just couldn’t grasp. I wanted so much to believe that my religion was the true Judaism and my allegiance to Jesus as G-d and Messiah was both faithful to Torah and 100% Jewish .
Paul is the most prolific writer of the Christian scriptures, so it is only natural that understanding him is viewed as crucial to establishing correct Christian doctrine. To the believers in Christianity (and its Hebrew Roots and Messianic offshoots) this presents a serious challenge. Indeed, conflicting interpretations of his writings are frequently a cause of many contentious arguments and splits, especially among Protestants. His views on the Jewish Law (Torah) are especially puzzling. And little wonder – he can sound so vehemently anti-law in one passage and then he offers some words of praise to the law in another. This has led to much confusion among the faithful and as well those who simply want to understand exactly what the second most important figure of Christianity may have meant. Even the New Testament, in 2 Peter 3:16, in a letter most biblical scholars consider pseudepigraphical (i.e. not actually written by the “unlettered” fisherman of Acts), Apostle Peter warns fellow Christians that Paul’s writings are hard to understand and easy to distort. It’s quite ironic that both anti-Torah and pro-Torah camps of Christianity point to this same warning when arguing their case. However, beyond arguments about Paul’s own faithfulness as a Jew, one thing is plain to see for even a casual reader of Paul’s writings – the overall message of Paul to his disciples is that the faith in Christ has superseded the obedience to Torah, which Paul insisted could never justify anyone (Galatians 3:11).
Making Moses carry Jesus’ water
To support his claims, Paul makes what I have come to see and what many others have understood long before me as the most egregious twisting of the plain meaning of Torah. Paul takes the simple message of obedience to G-d’s instructions for righteous living and to the commands, which G-d said were not too hard or impossible to keep, and transforms it into righteousness by faith in the death and resurrection of man Jesus, the semi-divine Son of G-d. It’s a stark departure from the simple message of Torah and Judaism, a foreign message which neither the Torah nor the rest of the Hebrew Bible ever present to readers. In short, while the Hebrew scriptures never allude to any future messiah as a path to either forgiveness from sin or righteousness in G-d’s eyes, it’s the absolute thrust of Paul’s message and the version of the Good News he preached.
Let’s us now read one passage from Torah quoted by Paul and focus on its plain meaning. We will do this in order to understand how Paul transforms and contorts Torah in the service of the new religion based not on obedience to G-d but on faith in Christ:
Surely, this instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it. (Deuteronomy 30:11-14)
And now let’s take a look at how Paul takes this very same passage and absolutely twists it to mean the complete opposite of what the Torah both says AND means. Paul effortlessly guides his most likely illiterate and no-doubt Torah-ignorant Gentile audience into accepting his “magical” transformation of a simple message of walking in obedience to G-d’s commandment into his version of the new way to righteousness. The righteousness Paul teaches is one apart from obedience and faithfulness to G-d’s instructions for holy living, but rather one based on faith (and confession by mouth!) in a semi-divine man, the Christ Paul claimed to have met in a mystical vision:
Moses writes this about the righteousness that is by the law: “The person who does these things will live by them.” But the righteousness that is by faith says: “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’?” (that is, to bring Christ down) “or ‘Who will descend into the deep?’?” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? “The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart,” that is, the message concerning faith that we proclaim: If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved. As Scripture says, “Anyone who believes in him will never be put to shame.” For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”” (Romans 10:6-13)
Please note carefully the original biblical passage and compare it with Paul’s own additions and elaborations as he crafts his “midrash”. When G-d, through Moses, says “the instructions are not in heaven”, meaning they are now close to us, Paul instead redirects his readers back to heaven and says “to bring Christ down from heaven”. He turns the passage around completely. When G-d warns that the instructions from G-d are not beyond our reach (beyond the sea) and we have no need to have them brought to us by someone, Paul again does the 180. He would have us believe that what Torah really meant is that obedience was indeed beyond our reach and we do need someone to get it for us from both the heaven and the depths and that someone is Paul’s mystical Christ. Please note what Paul does here – he twists this verse to say that we can only have obedience through faith in a man-god Jesus coming down from heaven, dying and being raised from the dead. Think about it – is that what Moses really meant when he put down those words from G-d? Paul replaced the message of encouragement in Torah to obey G-d and just do His commandments with his preaching of Christ and righteousness through faith in Jesus. The G-d the L-rd of all mankind of the Hebrew Bible is transformed into the man “Jesus is L-rd”, now part of a verbal declaration of the new salvation formula. Paul asks his readers “what does it (Torah) say?”, but he supplies an answer found nowhere in that same Torah:
“The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart,” that is, the message concerning faith that WE proclaim: If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.
Exposing Paul’s blatant but overlooked (mis)use of the Hebrew scriptures to further his new religion centered on a deified man helped me better understand both the man and the faith he promoted. I have also come to realize that a good part of the blame for the nearly two millennia of Christian opposition to the Jewish people and the Torah given to them by G-d lies squarely at the feet of the Apostle.