INTERPRETING PAUL'S DIFFICULT WRITINGS

Paul was a second Temple period Pharisee and expert Torah scholar and teacher. As we will see, many of his writings even draw from deep, mystical, Hebrew concepts about God.

People reading Paul's letters today face several challenges:

  1. They know little of (Paul's) Pharasaical understanding of Scripture.
  2. They know little of the Hebrew methods of interpretation and teaching that Paul used and which existed since before Paul's time (i.e., PARDES and the Rules of Hillel).
  3. They know little of the deeper mystical aspects of Paul's Hebrew theology. (Many of these will be discussed in our advanced Revelation study.)
  4. The Hebrew concepts Paul tries to convey are not carried over well into the Greek language. (i.e., to convey the idea of "legalistic following of the commandments away from faith," the phrase erga nomos, meaning "works of the Law," had to be "created" as such a concept did not exist in the Greek language at that time.)
  5. As much as Hebrew meaning is lost when Paul's thoughts were put into first century Koine Greek, they are further distorted when translated a second time, into modern English.
  6. In addition to 4 and 5 above, readers today come to Paul's letters with a bias instilled in them by their own theology. (i.e., they are already taught the idea that Paul taught "we're not under the Law" before they even begin "studying" his teachings.)

Peter taught that Paul was hard to understand, and that was before the some of the problems listed above came into being. Peter wrote that there would be those who would twist Paul's words to mean something incorrect. What kind of people would do that? Peter said these are lawless men (2 Peter 3:17). By "lawless," Peter did not mean people who were without Roman law. Lawless, in this religious context (understanding Paul's writings and other Scriptures correctly), refers to being without God's Law - the Torah. Peter is saying that those who twist Paul's writings are those who don't have (know/follow) Torah. They will approach these letters, in (often willful) ignorance, and incorrectly interpret them.

The "problem" that arises when studying Paul, is that although there are as many verses where he speaks highly of following Torah (as shown above) there are other places where he seems to teach differently. These are verses where Paul talks about things like, "the curse of the Law," or "not being under Law but grace."

A typical (and incorrect) reconciliation to this, is that whenever Paul is seen doing things that promote Torah observance, he was either trying to "keep the Jews happy," or he was "weak," falling back to his "old ways."

Another issue that causes problems interpreting Paul has to do with how his epistles are viewed, namely that:

  • They are generic all-purpose letters for anyone to glean personal meaning from, when in fact they were written to specific people addressing specific situations in their cultural and historical setting. Although much of what Scripture teaches can be applied to "current events," unless you first understand the specific situation the writer was addressing in the proper context, you cannot begin to apply it in any other way with any validity.
  • Where similar words are used in different letters, the same concepts are being spoken of, when in fact they could have little or nothing in common.

EXAMPLE 1:

There were in fact TWO prominent heresies that crept into the early Messianic community in Paul's time. One was the idea that gentiles had to become Jews first, taking on all the Torah before they could be saved. This was the first problem to arise, coming from the "Jewish camp," as they had received the message of Yeshua first. They were still holding on to traditional ideas concerning Gentile salvation. Most Christians are aware of this situation as it is thoroughly taught throughout Christianity, the proponents of which are usually called "Judaizers," although this term is also used in a prejudiced fashion for anyone wanting to bring anything Jewish into their faith.

What is generally not taught about is the false teaching that later arose from the "Gentile side of the aisle." This was the view that gentiles had no relationship to Torah after they were saved. The background to this problem was completely different than the other one as it had to do with the pagan culture most of the new Gentile converts (outside of Israel) were coming out of. The majority of people today have not studied first century history and are unaware that Gentiles coming to faith in Yeshua, (those not already involved with Synagogue/Temple Judaism), were coming directly out of an extremely anti-Semitic Roman society. As previously mentioned, this is critical to a proper understanding to the Scriptures (especially Paul's letters). Two books that address this subject well are, The Mystery of Romans, by Mark Nanos, and Jew and Gentile in the Ancient World, by Louis H. Feldman. (1)

Paul was facing two very different types of problems, and it is important to know which he is addressing in his letters. For example, his early letter of Galatians dealt very much with the former (Jewish) heresy, whereas Romans, was concerned primarily with the latter (Gentile) one. (2)

Three important rules of Bible interpretation are:

Grammatical/Literary Context
Historical Context
Cultural/Religious Context

The latter two of these are usually ignored in most Bible studies as you have to go outside of the Bible to get the information, something frowned upon in Christian study groups, under the well-meaning but ignorant assumption that you ONLY need Scripture to interpret Scripture.

As a test, what if a child began studying the New Testament and wanted to know what Rome, a centurion, and a legion, all meant? Could you explain these terms using only the Bible? Of course, not. You would have to turn to an encyclopedia or other extra-Biblical resource. If this is true for simple historical references, how much more true is it for ancient Hebrew spiritual concepts that Paul, Yeshua and others in the New Testament often cite?

God did give us the intellectual ability to search for true meaning and correctly interpret His Word (Acts 17:11; 2 Timothy 2:15). To say that one need "only rely on the Holy Spirit," for understanding of the text, is both foolish and unscriptural, as it implies that the Spirit could contradict God's intended meaning as conveyed by the author writing within His Hebrew culture.

We are to search and study, rightly dividing the Word (according to Torah) with God's Spirit. We are not to casually read and wait for some "personal enlightenment." This is how false teachings come about, how cults are formed and how people fall into grave sin without realizing it.

Returning to Paul's "opponents" in Galatians. These were recent Jewish converts who had an incorrect or incomplete view of faith/salvation. This is shown in several places including; 2:3-5; 3:1-4; 5:2-11 and 6:12-15. These people were telling new Galatian converts that you had to do certain things for salvation, other than trust in God through Yeshua. They were of the same faction mentioned in Acts chapter 15.

Note however, that these men also had an incorrect idea on what Paul was in fact teaching, accusing him of teaching against the Torah. (3) If ever Paul had the opportunity to show that we no longer had to follow the Torah, this was it -- However, Paul denied the charge that he taught against Torah in the strongest way possible, by taking a Nazarite vow (Acts 21:21-26). This involved him performing sacrifices and offerings (Numbers 6:1-21).

Paul's message to the Galatians is to remind them of the correct equation:

Torah-based faith + Nothing Else = Salvation

This is the same message Moses gave his people in his day.

Paul does discuss "lifestyle" at the end of this letter. In Galatians 5:16-22, Paul makes a comparison between "walking in the spirit" and "walking in the flesh." He defines those who walk in flesh in verses 19-21 (adulterers, fornicators, sorcerers, etc.) What do those all have in common? They are all transgressions of the Torah. They are violators of the "negative commandments" of the Torah.

Because modern interpretation of Scripture is founded on a Greek/western approach and not a Hebrew one, verse after verse in the "New Testament" are stripped from the original context in which the Torah-observant authors wrote them. In place of this, an anti-Torah "spin" has been placed on the Word of the God of Israel.

EXAMPLE 2:

There is a misconception held by many, including some in modern Jewry, that Yeshua may have supported Torah, but the apostle Paul -- well, he's the one that started the Christian religion by taking a stance against Law.

For example, Paul's rebuke of Peter, in the second chapter of Galatians, is traditionally viewed as a proof that "the Law" had ended for Jews who now followed the Messiah. After all, doesn't Paul criticize Peter for going back to his "old ways" (keeping kosher) just to placate certain Jews who don't realize he is now "not under the Law?"

The problem here is that the text shows that the issue is not one of the food being eaten. Peter was indeed eating with Gentile believers, however this is not "different" in that he was now eating non-kosher food. Rather, it was "different" because Jews generally did not sit and eat with Gentiles at that time. However, Peter was told by God that Gentiles were to be considered "clean." This was the meaning of of his dream in Acts chapter 10, which had nothing to do with eating unkosher food, as seen by Peter's responses in Acts 10:17, 28, 34, 11:3-17; 15:7-10.

Peter was rebuked by Paul because of his hypocrisy, as when he saw Jewish brethren approaching, he walked away from the Gentiles, treating them as if they were spiritual inferiors.

When Paul says to Peter that they "live" in the same way, he is not talking about their eating habits. Rather, Paul is saying they are "saved" in the same way. This is consistent with the theme of the rest of the letter -- that Jews and Gentiles are saved ("live") in the same way, by faith, not "works of Law." (4)

To interpret this section of Scripture to mean that "Paul now eats pork," and is telling Peter he should as well, is a result of the theological bias mentioned earlier. Nothing in Scripture shows that Paul or Peter stopped being Torah-observant Jews.

This bias does two things:

  • It incorrectly assumes that Paul is anti-Torah and teaches this way, and that what Paul is talking about in these verses is "no longer following the kosher laws" (which simply is not in the text).
  • It ignores the immediate and overall context of the letter, which is salvation by faith for both Jew and Gentile

As an Orthodox Rabbi, Paul taught that Torah was indeed for Gentiles -- not for salvation, but as the direction they should be encouraged to follow subsequent to coming to faith. (As mentioned, this was proclaimed by the Jerusalem council in Acts 15:21).

This is part of God's plan for the restoration of His unity through the faith of Israel, as although "God is One" (Hebrew: echad, from Deuteronomy 6:4), He is not yet One. This will occur at the end of days with the coming of Messiah (Zechariah 14:9). (5)

The view of God being echad as found in the Shema (see next section), is at the foundation of all of Paul's writings.

This belief teaches:

  • There is one God, here on earth, for the Jew and the Gentile (i.e., Romans 1:16).
  • There is one God in heaven, with but one revelation (Torah) from Him for all mankind (Exodus 12:48-49, Leviticus 24:22, Isaiah 56).
  • There is one God through history (Malachi 3:6, Hebrews 13:8). The path He has provided for us, is leading to the restoration of the unity of God and His creation. This will be brought together through Messiah, in the Millennium and the ensuing "World to Come" (Olam Haba), a concept that is foundational to the Judaism of Yeshua, Paul and today.

  1. The Mystery of Romans, Mark Nanos, 1996, Fortress Press, Minneapolis -- Jew & Gentile in the Ancient World, Louis H. Feldman, 1993, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.
  2. The Mystery of Romans, Mark Nanos, 1996, Fortress Press, Minneapolis. Nanos' award winning book (National Jewish Book Award for Jewish-Christian Relations), offers historical insight into the background of Paul's letter not found in any previous work. In it he reveals Paul's concern over the conduct of the Gentiles within the Roman congregation, with respect to them modifying their behavior in order not to offend unsaved Jews who were amidst them in their fellowship, which was still conducted under Synagogue authority.
  3. It may be hard to comprehend how Paul could be accused by other Jews, of teaching against the Torah, when he was preaching a pro-Torah message. However, this was not the only time in Jewish history that a great teacher was thus misrepresented. Moses Maimonides (1135-1204 CE), one of the most famous Jewish thinkers and Torah scholar of all time, was accused by his Jewish contemporaries as denying bodily resurrection. They made this claim even though Maimonides had written in his commentary on the Mishnah, Sanhedrin 10:1, that, "Bodily resurrection is one of the fundamentals of the Law of Moses; one who does not accept [resurrection] has no part in the religion, nor any connection to the Jewish people." Maimonides admits he didn't think anyone would take the source of such false teaching and accusation seriously, stating, "...we paid no attention thereto, saying that this individual's (opinion) is of no consequence, because no one can be so foolish as to find it so difficult to understand what we wrote (clearly in our composition). [Moses Maimonides' Treatise on Resurrection, translated and annotated by Fred Rosner, 1997, Jason Aronson Inc., Northval, NJ, foreward to the Second Edition, p. ix, 29-31.] Paul too, was shocked to hear that he was being accused of preaching against the truth of Torah, as seen by his comments in Romans 3:8. Peter, in his epistle, also warned, that people were twisting Paul's words. One has to wonder what Paul will one day have to say of those who teach that he thought Torah was not to be followed by believers in Yeshua!
  4. The Mystery of Romans, Mark Nanos, 1996, Fortress Press, Minneapolis, pp. 337-371, for a comprehensive discussion of these verses.
  5. A recently published book that deals with some of the essentials of the Shema and offers a well-rounded view of Jewish thought in this matter is; The Shema, Spirituality and Law in Judaism, by Orthodox scholar and Yeshiva University president, Norman Lamm (The Jewish Publication Society, Jerusalem, 1998.)

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