The Apostle Paul Revisited: Paul’s Argument with Jesus, Part III
This is the third in a series comparing the words of Yeshua and Paul regarding the Law (Torah) of God.
The Very Jewish Paul
Was Paul hopelessly confused on the question of the Law of God? No, not at all. The confusion comes when we attempt to view him as a man who walked away from Judaism after he met Yeshua on the road to Damascus. That is not true. Paul remained an observant Jew until the end of his life, as we know from his own words:
But Paul said, “I am a Jew from Tarsus, in Cilicia, a citizen of no mean city; and I implore you, permit me to speak to the people.” (Acts 21:39 NKJV, emphasis added)
But when Paul perceived that one part were Sadducees and the other Pharisees, he cried out in the council, “Men and brethren, I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee; concerning the hope and resurrection of the dead I am being judged!” (Acts 23:6 NKJV, emphasis added)
But this I confess to you, that according to the Way which they call a sect, so I worship the God of my fathers, believing all things which are written in the Law and in the Prophets. (Acts 24:14 NKJV, emphasis added)
When he had come, the Jews who had come down from Jerusalem stood about and laid many serious complaints against Paul, which they could not prove, while he answered for himself, “Neither against the law of the Jews, nor against the temple, nor against Caesar have I offended in anything at all.” But Festus, wanting to do the Jews a favor, answered Paul and said, “Are you willing to go up to Jerusalem and there be judged before me concerning these things?” So Paul said, “I stand at Caesar’s judgment seat, where I ought to be judged. To the Jews I have done no wrong, as you very well know. For if I am an offender, or have committed anything deserving of death, I do not object to dying; but if there is nothing in these things of which these men accuse me, no one can deliver me to them. I appeal to Caesar.” (Acts 25:7-11 NKJV, emphasis added)
And it came to pass after three days that Paul called the leaders of the Jews together. So when they had come together, he said to them: “Men and brethren, though I have done nothing against our people or the customs of our fathers, yet I was delivered as a prisoner from Jerusalem into the hands of the Romans, who, when they had examined me, wanted to let me go, because there was no cause for putting me to death.” (Acts 28:17-18 NKJV, emphasis added)
Most of these passages are from Paul’s trials before the Jews in Jerusalem and the Romans in Caesarea. The last reference is from his meeting with the Jews of Rome prior to his trial before Caesar. Notice that Acts 25:7 says the Jews who accused Paul could not prove any of their accusations, which means that Paul must have been telling the truth when he claimed to be innocent of wrongdoing both against the laws of Rome and of the Jews. There is further testimony to his innocence from another of his judges, King Agrippa:
When he had said these things, the king stood up, as well as the governor and Bernice and those who sat with them; and when they had gone aside, they talked among themselves, saying, “This man is doing nothing deserving of death or chains.” Then Agrippa said to Festus, “This man might have been set free if he had not appealed to Caesar.” (Acts 26:30-32 NKJV)
We can add to this Paul’s own description of himself as a “Hebrew of Hebrews” and a Pharisee in Philippians 3:4-6, as well as the multiple references in Acts to Paul’s custom of observing Sabbath and the Feasts of the Lord. With all of this testimony, the only logical conclusion is that Paul did indeed observe Torah even after his acknowledgement of Yeshua as Messiah, and that he taught others, both Jews and Gentiles, to do the same in the context of their faith in Yeshua. Once we have that understanding, it becomes possible to make sense out of Paul’s writings.
Between Two Worlds
As the book of Acts reveals, Paul and the other early believers lived in a world divided between Jews and everyone else. Paul was highly skilled in moving between the two societies, as we see from his ability to leverage his Roman citizenship to good advantage on more than one occasion (Acts 16:35-38, 22:22-29, 25:1-12). In truth that division between Jews and Gentiles has been the case wherever Jews have lived since the Babylonian Captivity. It is true even today. Jews understand that they have the oracles of God and that connection to God and blessing from Him come through keeping Torah (God’s commandments). They understand as well that they, as God’s chosen people, have a mandate to pray for the nations and open the way for others to connect to God. However, they also recognize a need to keep separate from the world and maintain a measure of distance so that they can attain and retain the righteousness and holiness God expects of them. That is why, from the Jewish perspective, Jews have largely kept to themselves over the centuries, mixing with Gentiles only as necessary.
I am, of course, generalizing here. It is difficult to summarize in a few sentences the experience of a nation scattered over two and a half millennia into every corner of the world, while simultaneously divided into distinct sects and factions which vary considerably in the amount of interaction they have with non-Jews. Some remain as separate as possible from Gentiles, while others assimilate quite easily. Nevertheless, it is safe to say that Jews have always, in all places, considered themselves distinct from their non-Jewish neighbors, a consideration their Gentile neighbors share.
It might be fair to say that a prime motivation in the Jewish community has always been to avoid stirring up trouble with the more numerous and more powerful Gentiles. Jews find a way to cooperate and get along, taking care not to violate Torah in the process, so that the Gentiles have no occasion to take action against the community. That reality is poignantly portrayed in the classic Broadway play Fiddler On The Roof. Reb Tevye, the longsuffering milkman who guides us through the play, opens the shows with a description of Jewish life in the Russian village of Anatevka:
“A fiddler on the roof. Sounds crazy, no? But here, in our little village of Anatevka, you might say every one of us is a fiddler on the roof – trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune, without breaking his neck. It isn’t easy. You may ask, why do we stay up there if it’s so dangerous? Well, we stay because Anatevka is our home. And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word: Tradition!”
Tevye’s explanation was as true in the First Century when Rome dominated the world as it is in our day when the transnational culture descended from Rome dominates the globe. Jews had a special status: sometimes protected, sometimes tolerated, often persecuted, but always special. Reb Tevye’s characterization of that status in Fiddler On The Roof applied as much to First Century Rome as to Twentieth Century Russia: “We don’t bother them, and so far, they don’t bother us.”
Religious Reality in First Century Judea
This understanding of the context of Jewish life in the Roman world goes a long way in explaining why High Priest Caiaphas said this about Yeshua:
And one of them, Caiaphas, being high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all, nor do you consider that it is expedient for us that one man should die for the people, and not that the whole nation should perish.” (John 11:49-50 NKJV)
The advent of Messiah Yeshua upset this finely-balanced system. Caiaphas and his predecessors had labored for generations to build a religious and political system that kept the Romans and other non-Jewish overlords satisfied while simultaneously maintaining control over the Jewish people and retaining their place as the society’s leaders. What had evolved by the First Century was an elaborate religious-political system with the Temple in Jerusalem at its heart. Even the most corrupt, secularized Jews (such as King Herod and his dynasty as well as High Priest Caiaphas) understood that their security rested in their positions as leaders of God’s chosen people. Consequently, they maintained a façade of righteousness based on Torah, but with the intent of keeping the masses in check rather than living as God intended.
It is not fair to say that all Jews and Jewish leaders were corrupt, shallow, and self-seeking. We have abundant example from Scripture of righteous men and women who sincerely loved God and His Word and lived accordingly. They include Zacharias and Elizabeth, parents of John the Baptist, Mary and Joseph, parents of Yeshua, Anna the prophetess and Simeon the prophet who blessed Yeshua on the day He was presented as an infant at the Temple, Nicodemas and Joseph of Arimathea, members of the Sandhedrin, and many more. However, what confused them, and what still confuses us to this day, is the difference between the Torah as God delivered it through Moses, and the man-made traditions that had grown up around it.
It was with these traditions that Yeshua and His apostles took issue. The traditions go by different names, such as the “Oral Law”, Talmud, or halacha, meaning the legal judgments of Judaism that define the way Torah is applied in everyday life. Although these traditions contain much wisdom, they also contain much error which adds to and takes away from the commandments of the Lord. The treatment of Sabbath provides perhaps the best example. God’s commandments about Sabbath are few and straightforward:
- Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. (Exodus 20:8, Deuteronomy 5:12)
- Assemble in a holy convocation on the Sabbath. (Leviticus 23:1-3)
- Observe Sabbath as a perpetual covenant and a sign between God and His people forever. (Exodus 31:16-17)
- Rest; do no work on the Sabbath. (Exodus 20:9, Exodus 34:21, Deuteronomy 5:13-14)
- Give everyone and every animal the day off. Do not allow anyone in your family, any of your servants, any foreigner among you, or any of your animals to do any work on Sabbath. (Exodus 20:10, Deuteronomy 5:13-14)
- Do not kindle any fire on Sabbath (connected with doing work). (Exodus 35:3)
In essence, the entire Sabbath commandment is that everyone is to take the day off and rest, while remembering their Creator and assembling for that purpose during the day. Jewish tradition by the First Century had encumbered these simple commandments with hundreds of additional “laws”, or man-made doctrines, which obscured God’s intent of Sabbath. In Yeshua’s day the crushing burden of man-made Sabbath regulations prevented Jews from walking more than a short distance (a “Sabbath day’s journey”), healing the sick, or picking and eating heads of grain growing along the road. To this day such traditions persist in observant Jewish communities, carrying over to the ridiculous such as “Sabbath elevators” that continuously run so no one has to “kindle a flame” by pressing the button for a particular floor.
It was these man-made burdens of the Oral Law, or Talmud, that caused Yeshua such anger at the Jewish leadership of His day. In confrontations such as those recorded in Mark 7:1-23 and Matthew 23, Yeshua berated the scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees for holding on to these man-made doctrines and disregarding the commandments of God. He was not proclaiming an end to the Law of God, but rather acquainted Jews with their lack of understanding of the Law. In other words, Yeshua explained to them what Scripture actually said, and then showed them where their practices departed from Scripture. Some, like Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea, and the disciples, received this message and adjusted their lives accordingly. Others, like Caiaphas and most of the Sanhedrin (Council), rejected Yeshua’s message and engineered His execution because He threatened to upset the established order.
Part IV will resolve the argument by examining the question of salvation, which was the true issue of the day for both Yeshua and Paul.