What About Paul?
Is he Friend or Foe?

    “Love has great patience [and] is [still] kind; love is not envious.    
    Love is not boastful; [it] is not arrogant.
    It does not act unbecomingly, does not demand [things] for oneself, 
    is not [easily] irritated, does not keep a count of wrongs [done],
    is not glad when [another is] hurt [by injustices], 
    but is delighted along with others when the truth [comes to light].
    It puts up with whatever [it needs to], has faith in all kinds [of people], 
    expects [the best in] every [situation], [and] perseveres [through] anything.
    Love never fails…” (1 Cor. 13:4-8a)

This beloved poem has graced not just many a wedding program, but the lips of many who aspire to live up to its high ideals. But some would like to remove it and many things like it from the pages of Holy Scripture. Paul, the author of these beautiful lyrics, has been getting a bad rap—even hate speech—among many who are trying to get back to a more original Hebraic view of Yeshua.  

And this is understandable; on first glance he appears to say some things that denigrate the Torah that Yeshua upheld. But some are dead set on “canceling” him like speakers on university campuses who don’t parrot the party line. They want him written out of the history of Messianic faith. Is this really warranted? Should his reputation be toppled like the statues of eminent slaveholders?

Or should we give him a fair hearing and try to hear what he was really saying? For he himself said he had “done nothing against the [Hebrew] people or the customs of our fathers.” (Acts 28:17) If that was how he thought, should we not give him the benefit of the doubt and try to listen more closely to what he was trying to communicate? As Nicodemus asked, “Does our law condemn a man before it hears him out?” (Yochanan. 7:51)

What is at Issue?

The doctrine of Paul that is most disputed is “righteousness apart from the works of the Law”, which has many corollaries like “faith without works” (supposedly), “the letter versus the spirit”, and grace as contrasted with being “under the Torah”.

The book of Acts records rumors that arose during his lifetime that he had not only said that Gentiles are not obligated to take on the yoke of the whole Torah, but that he even discouraged Jews living in the diaspora from following such Torah requirements as circumcision. (Acts 21:21) If true, this would be a serious charge and would indeed put him at odds with the prophets (notably Isaiah 8:20 and Mal’akhi 4:4) and Yeshua himself (Mat. 5:17ff). But was he understood properly?

Where the rub comes is in determining just who held the views Paul was questioning, especially in his epistles to the Galatians and the Corinthians. Was it James and Yeshua’s first apostles, or someone else?

Who Were the Essenes at Qumran?

Most see the Qumran community as Tzadoqite priests who left the Temple in protest of Sadducean abuses. Scholar Robert Eisenmann, who knows the Dead Sea Scrolls better than almost anyone else and did much to liberate them for the general public’s access, has the unique view that they can instead be identified with the followers of James the brother of Yeshua, possibly due to the common idea that John the Baptizer appears to have had connections to that group, and of course Yeshua cooperated with him. 

Because of such an identification, some fellow Messianic believers have felt obligated to take on all of that community’s rules, including their canon (which includes some helpful scrolls but whose status as infallible is questionable, such as Yasher, which is endorsed to some extent by Joshua and 2 Samuel, but has stories such as Judah’s bringing an entire army against Joseph in Egypt, which strike me more as fanciful than as having the same tone or tenor as the miracles in Scripture). From others, like Jubilees, sprang their highly-unusual calendar, which makes practical sense in isolation, but ignores the actual new moon and puts them out of synch with all others who are trying to follow a Biblical festival schedule.

But this identification is far from certain, especially when Dr. Eisenmann posits that Paul and James remained lifelong enemies. As we shall see, this is contrary to the book of Acts’ account. He and others point to contemporary writings like the Pseudo-Clementine epistles and other Ebionite documents in addition to the Dead Sea Scrolls to uphold a theory that Paul was at odds with the other apostles for much longer than the brief dialectics in the book of Acts would lead us to believe. Galatians, they say, is a direct attack on James and his views, and James’ words about “faith without works” being “dead” in his own epistle are a very specific rebuttal to Paul.

I have met Dr. Eisenmann and want to be charitable toward him. I pray he will understand the things he now scoffs at as an outsider looking in at Yeshua’s community. If he has not experienced the wonders Paul describes, how can he critique them accurately? He considers Acts, which is written as an eyewitness account, to be a cobbling together of legends from various Jewish sources which were then deliberately turned in an anti-Semitic direction. His tomes are replete with speculation based on words that suggest related themes and similar-sounding names, but to me, as a linguist, the connections between persons he identifies with one another seem loose and often anachronistic.

I am grateful for the primary sources he helped to make available, but I cannot accept his interpretation that the when the Damascus Document and Peshers found at Qumran talk about a “liar” and a “wicked priest” who oppose a certain “teacher of righteousness”, the former refer to Paul and the latter is James. How could they? No Benjamite was a priest. These writings seem rather to stem from the days when the Hasmoneans took over both the kingdom and the priesthood, about two centuries before Yeshua’s public ministry, or possibly a little later when the Temple intrigues seen also in the New Testament were gaining an even stronger foothold. If any priest opposed James it was the one who finally ordered him killed, and Paul had nothing to do with him, at least not after his change of heart on the road to Damascus. (Jeffrey Bütz has a more balanced treatment of James and Paul in The Brother of Jesus.)

The Ebionites’ writings do have to be taken seriously, as they were some of the earliest believers in Yeshua and had a much more Jewish viewpoint. But they are not infallible, many being based on polemics. And are they one and the same with the Essenes, who predated Yeshua’s community? Allies they may have been at some point, as Yeshua seems to have had Essene friends who let him use their donkey and upper room, but this does not mean they were identical.

If they were not, then we have no more obligation to be like the Essenes than like the Pharisees (which Nicodemus was and which Paul remained, even if neither considered this his primary identity after meeting Yeshua). Their rules may be worthwhile as a voluntary discipline, like any other, but I have seen people who follow this path get so angry at Paul that they curse him and anyone who accepts any of his doctrine; this is not the direction the revival of Hebraic understanding should take us.

The inhabitants of Qumran (an Arabic name for this place that predated Arab inhabitants in this region by centuries) called their settlement Dameseq (Damascus), as evidenced in the eponymous Document found there. It seems to have been one of several code-names they used to stay “under the radar”. But this leads some to suggest that this (rather than the better-known Damascus, now the capital of Syria) is where Paul was going to search for believers in Acts 9. I have serious doubts, since Paul was directed to a particular street in that city. I’ve been to Qumran four times and it was a very small settlement, hardly capable of boasting even one street needing to be distinguished from others. But even if we grant that, it would not mean the whole community there were followers of Messiah; if they were, Paul would have attacked all of them, not just searched for some with the help of sympathetic synagogue leaders there.

So if the whole of Qumran cannot be equated with a “proto-Christian” Ebionite group, then believers in Yeshua need not share all of their views, though if they were truly the heirs of the Tzadoqites that Ezekiel blessed, they are at least worthy of consideration.

Did Paul Really Hate James?

James was a vegetarian by Hegesippus’ account, but some say this is because the Qumran sect was, and then make the logical leap to Yeshua’s zealous protest in the Temple being not about merchandising things meant to be holy, but about slaughtering animals in general and even against eating them at all, and they tie this to Paul’s description of “weaker brothers” eating only vegetables to set Paul and James further at odds. (Rom. 14; 1 Cor. 8. What was in fact at issue there was eating meat offered to idols, an idea on which Paul seems to have even changed his mind between his two mentions of the topic, so as to cause fewer schisms and to safeguard the consciences of those who were all too aware of the demons behind the idols—in whose worship we of course want to have no part.)

But as Michael Ohman of the Olive Branch Fellowship in the U.K. has pointed out, Paul expressed no animosity toward the other apostles in Galatians 1; he did have a controversy with someone who (by the apostles’ own description) was NOT sent by them, even if others with similar motives later “came from James” on a different occasion. (Gal. 2:4, 12; Acts 15:24) We must not conflate the two, but read carefully; every word matters.

It may very well be that, when he wrote “Faith without works is dead”, James was answering some of Paul’s followers who carried his words further than he himself did, or that he was just counterbalancing Paul’s words about Abraham’s faith counting as righteousness before he did any “works” of obedience (including circumcision) by pointing out considerations Paul might have missed. Both angles are needed; faith and works are like two wings of a bird, without either of which all it could do is fly in circles.

But Paul went well beyond mere civility to potential opponents and even made himself accountable to Kefa/Peter and Yaaqov/James. (Galatians 2:2) To see it as a hateful statement when he said, “They added nothing to me” (2:6) requires the assumption that this can only be read within a framework of hostility. Ohman says it is quite plausible to read him not as denigrating the value of the other apostles’ words, but only as saying that they were “OK” with what he presented as his plan in regard to the Gentiles and would not try to alter it with any other considerations that he did not already have in mind.

Did Peter Hate Paul?

Dr. Eisenmann calls Peter “anti-Semitic”, especially in regard to his public speeches in Acts, though Peter, like Paul, was Jewish as well. Neither is more anti-Semitic than any of the prophets who address Israel’s or Judah’s sins from an internecine standpoint. Would we be anti-Semitic to call out George Soros for collaborating with the Nazis to betray his own people, simply because he is a Jew? Then who is to criticize when it is needed? Peter was reprimanding particular Jews or groups of them for specific atrocities; it was no across-the-board rejection.
We clearly do want to separate ourselves from anything that is pagan. But is that what Paul’s words are? He himself is the one who told us that those who worship idols are actually worshipping the demons that are behind them, and he wanted his protégés to have no fellowship with such things. (1 Cor. 10:20) He was clearly not in favor of incorporating paganism into a “new religion” that some claim he invented!

Certainly Christians have misconstrued some of the words of the Renewed Covenant. But who hasn’t heard the Talmudic story of how a voice from heaven vouched for an interpretation put forward by Rabbi Eliezer (whom many think was a believer in Yeshua), but by truncating “You shall not incline after a majority to turn justice aside” (Ex. 23:2) into just “Incline after the majority!”, and wresting the verse “It [the Word of YHWH] is not in heaven” (Deut. 30:12) from its context, the rest of the rabbis claimed that YHWH had given them the right to override His own words—and that He found it to be both amusing and pleasing? (Baba Metzia 59b) Something is far from right about that; it goes beyond chutzpah and borders on blasphemy, yet rabbinic Judaism bases its right to “update” Torah on that. So just because something is Jewish does not always make it a better viewpoint.

When Paul became fed up by many Jews’ by-and-large rejection of the Gospel he had described as “for the Jew first” (Rom. 1:16), he said, in essence, “We wanted to—we had to—give you the message first, but because you do not appreciate it, we are turning our focus to Gentiles who are eager to receive it.” (Acts 13:46; compare Mat. 21:43) This is not anti-Semitism, but judgment of people who should have known better because of all the revelation that had been given to them for millennia. Again, it was not across the board, as the apostles pointed out that thousands of Jews did believe in Yeshua. (Acts 21:20)

But “Gentiles” by what definition? The lost tribes were the only Gentiles some Jews at that time even considered fully human. They had become Gentiles by choice. (Hos. 7:8) In A.D. 46—which is right at this time—the doubling (Jer. 16:18) of Ezekiel’s 390-year sentence (Ez. 4:5) came to an end, and soon those whose ancestors chose to mix with the nations became people whom Paul started calling “former Gentiles”, for now they were no longer estranged from the covenant. (Eph. 2:11; cf. Hos. 8:12)

The Pseudo-Clementine writings (Recognitions and Homilies) purport to include letters from Peter to James, and one of them refers to “the man who is my enemy”, an unnamed person influential among some Gentiles who was guilty of “certain lawless and trifling preaching”. Many assume he is talking about Paul. But in a letter from Peter that is commonly accepted as non-pseudepigraphal, he refers to Paul as “our beloved brother”. (2 Peter 3:15) This immediately casts suspicion on such an identification, especially when the same book later has Clement telling James about “the wicked one who withstood him” (Peter) with a description of him that sounds nothing like Paul.

Another commentator on this document (identified only as “R.”) cites a conflated quotation from two of Yeshua’s statements in the same context as an example of “the loose method of Scripture citation characteristic of the Clementine literature”, so the author is probably called “pseudo-Clement” for good reason. There is much of value as in any collection of sermons, but they do not have the ring of inerrant Scripture. These letters depict Peter as the opposite extreme from anti-Semitic, for there he tells Clement not to let any Gentile see his letter. Again, this contradicts Peter’s growing openness to Gentiles as depicted in Acts, and leans toward a Gnostic-type theology of initiation into the mysteries only for a very limited inner circle of Jews.

This seems to be a “pseudo-Peter” too. If it contradicts what is commonly accepted as “holy writ”, which depiction of Peter’s relationship with Paul should we consider the more genuine?

This, of course, begs the question of who has the right to judge canonicity. But even if men did put their fingers into the pot, don’t we believe in YHWH’s sovereignty? What got into the canon is apparently what YHWH wanted to survive--for the long haul and for the majority of believers, at least. While “All things work together for good” does not mean that everything that occurs is necessarily good in itself, still it suggests that YHWH makes the final outcome a positive one: “[Even] the wrath of men will praise You, and the remainder of wrath You will restrain.” (Psalm 76:10)

Other books that were not chosen for the common canon may give us particular, important directions for specific problems. (70 of them are said in 4th Esdras to be reserved for the end of this age, when more specific wisdom is needed, and that could well be the case.) But what we know as the Renewed Covenant has been more practical for the long age we have had to wait for the culmination of the Kingdom to come, while we have been scattered and unable to return very fully to Torah as we are being graciously permitted to do today. He knew that at times the Torah alone would be too intense if it was our only focus, so He mercifully allowed us to prioritize these writings that not only explain its underlying attitudes more overtly, but tell us of what YHWH did behind the scenes to provide us with the power we need to carry them out, and specific ways to access it. A few examples from Paul himself:

We…do not stop praying … that you might be filled with the ability to discern what He desires, with every [kind of] wisdom and spiritual understanding, to walk in a manner worthy of the Master into everything that pleases [Him], bringing forth fruit in every good work and [continually] adding to [your] knowledge of Elohim, being energized with every [kind of] ability [to change], according to the dominion [that completes] His honor, into every [kind of steadfast] endurance and patience—with joy—giving thanks to the Father, Who has qualified us to share [a portion] of the inheritance [assigned to] the holy ones…” (Colossians 1:9-12)

Since you have been raised together with the Messiah, seek out the things that are above, where Messiah is seated at the right hand of Elohim. Direct your minds [to] things above, not [to] the things on the earth, since you have died in regard to [them], and your life has been concealed with Messiah within Elohim. Whenever Messiah, your life, is made manifest, then your true value will also be manifested with him… Do not lie to one another, since you have divested yourself of the old humanity with its practices, and have put on the new—the one being changed step-by-step through experiential knowledge to align with the One who is creating it…” (Col. 3:1-4, 9-10)

What We Would Stand to Lose

Dr. James Tabor (another personal friend who has done much for my family over the years), in his book Paul and Jesus, takes a more minimalist view, seeing Paul’s writings as having influenced the Gospel accounts and Acts, which he sees as later than they themselves imply they were written, and as altered from what Yeshua probably originally said. He sees Paul preaching a “different Gospel” than Yeshua and the other apostles. He takes some of Paul’s letters at face value, but considers others pseudepigraphic (written by someone else later in Paul’s name either out of admiration for Paul or to push an agenda). But to uphold this conflict, he is forced to conclude that Luke was putting a “spin” on his writings when he knew that in fact some of what he was writing was untrue. He sees the details of differing Gospel accounts as “irreconcilable”, thinking they were not actually eyewitness accounts but compiled later after some theological dogmas seemed to demand the need for them to say what they said rather than being truly directed by YHWH’s hand and the honest reporting/vetting techniques Luke claims to employ.

This may sound provocative and intriguing, but step back and look where such a critical view of the texts would take us: If we cannot take the Bible at face value, when it is the book of the highest moral stature anywhere, what then can we trust? How then can we know anything for certain? And if we cannot, how can we be motivated to give our lives for more than mere pragmatic goals? How can we speak definitively and authoritatively against the many “winds of doctrine” that are rampant today?

Worse still, such seeds of doubt would destroy the faith of many, for if we cannot trust these writings in regard to earthly history, how could we trust them in regard to more important spiritual facts they discuss that are much less proveable, but just as necessary, if not more so? (See John 3:12.)

If Paul was a deliberate liar, we should not give space or time to any of his words. But think of what other words we would then be without, at least in a form spelled out so clearly:

All things work together for good to them who love YHWH and are called according to His purpose.” (Rom. 8:28) Could we live with this in doubt?

My empowering is sufficient for you, for My strength is best accomplished through [your] weakness.” (2 Cor. 12:9) Could we do without this being true? And then there is this:

Being confident… that He who has begun a good work in you will bring it to completion.” (Philippians 1:6) How could we persevere if we were not sure this was so?

And what person who is experiencing the oppression of “this present evil age” (Galatians 1:4) would want to be without the tremendous hope that comes from Paul’s words, “The sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the [weight of] glory that is to be revealed in us”? (Romans 8:18)

And these are just the tip of the iceberg. What would discarding them leave us lacking?

Without Paul, we would be left with very little interpretation of what the events in Yeshua’s life and death actually mean for us—their deeper significance, on the sod (unseen, concealed) or, as Dr. Tabor would say, cosmic level, in which we are “called…out of darkness and transferred…to the kingdom of His dear Son”. (Col. 1:13) Yochanan (John) gives us some, touching on this new birth as well, but he often seems cryptic, at least to those unfamiliar with the Jewish wisdom literature genre such as Philo’s works.

Without Paul, we would lose explanatory passages that tell us who we are after this spiritual rebirth:

I have been crucified with the Messiah; nevertheless I live, yet not I, but Messiah lives in me, and the life I now live in the flesh I live by the faithfulness of the Son of Elohim, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20)

If anyone is in the Messiah, he is a new creation: old things have passed away; indeed, all things have become new!” (2 Cor. 5:17)

You are not in the flesh, but in the spirit, if indeed the Spirit of Elohim dwells in you.” (Romans 8:9)

No one elucidates our positional sanctification in as much depth as Paul does. “The flesh versus the spirit” is a dichotomy Yeshua spoke about, but did not explain; only Paul went into great detail about the interplay between the two and how to let the latter overcome the former. (Rom. 8:13; Gal. 5:16ff)

If, then, you are risen with Messiah, seek the things above…for you have died, and your life is hidden with Messiah in YHWH.” (Col. 2:2-3)

Paul alone details, as Norman Grubb put it, “how total our transference is from the first Adam’s family to the last Adam’s, by the radicalness of Messiah’s once-for-all death to sin and aliveness to God”:

"If by one man’s offense death reigned by one; much more, they who receive abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness shall reign in life by one, Yeshua the Messiah.” (Romans 5:17)

Without Paul, we would have very little information about the meaning of Yeshua’s resurrection or the nature of our coming physical resurrection, and no direct reference to Messiah being the firstfruits thereof (1 Cor. 15), which makes overt what the Hebrew calendar previously hinted at.

Without Paul, the Renewed Covenant would not include a direct command (addressed to Gentiles!) to continue to keep YHWH’s feasts (1 Cor. 5:8), without which Renewed Covenant believers might think they had an excuse to consider them unnecessary today.

And there are promises that only show up explicitly in Paul’s writings (being only implied elsewhere):

"Be anxious about nothing, but in everything, with prayer and petition, let your requests be made known to YHWH, and the peace that surpasses understanding will guard your hearts and minds through Messiah Yeshua." (Philippians 4:6-7)

"Elohim is able to make all empowerment overflow to you, so that always having all sufficiency in all things, we may abound unto every good work." (2 Cor. 9:8)

And the list could go on. This is too much to lose! There is just no parallel in anyone but Yeshua’s input into the Renewed Covenant. Other writers (like Kefa/Peter and Yochanan/John) say things that agree with and confirm these truths, but they are much more terse, with far less explanation, written more as a backdrop for the practical commands that logically follow once we grasp their significance.

Some say, “These things were only attributed to Paul; they were actually written by someone else.” That could be the case, I suppose, but this far removed in history, how would we know who? To what purpose bring it up, then? What difference would it make, if the words are true? Then why waste time speculating when we could be living them out?

Why would we think Paul could not have written some of the letters that bear his name? And of course the Gospels of Mark and Luke are influenced by Paul, because they were written by men he knew personally. Why would we think they were products of a much later time? It is most often because of a disbelief in the miraculous that textual critics argue for a late date (as they do with the prophets, who “of course” could only predict things accurately after the fact!) They think no one so early in time could be so advanced or know where things were headed. It is just one more corollary of the evolution theorem that advancement always comes later, not earlier, in time. The facts say otherwise, since the fall initiated the law of entropy—that things fall apart rather than becoming more orderly, unless acted on by something that restores order, which is exactly what redemption history is all about.

My point is that such treasures should not be rashly thrown in the rubbish heap. If such things were not true, this would be the cruelest form of tantalizing, building up false hope in us. We would be the poorest and most scammed of people—or to borrow a phrase from Paul himself, “of all people most to be pitied”! (1 Cor. 15:19) But Paul does not seem to be of that kind of character.

In Defense of Paul

YHWH will judge His own servants. (Rom. 14:4)  We should be careful about accusing someone who so often put his life in danger for the Messiah’s mission. That is exactly how the apostles against whom some would try to pit him actually described his track record. (Acts 15:26) They were in favor of him, so who are we to cast them as hating each other? Do you really think you are a higher-caliber scholar than Paul, the top student of Gamliel? Do you really think someone of his stature did not know what he was talking about?

Paul’s own words should answer many accusations that are being leveled against him. After all, who can explain a person’s motives better than himself? Many years after his encounter with Yeshua, he still called himself a Pharisee. (Acts 23:6) So any critique he has of what today is called “Judaism” would be as an insider rather than a hostile attacker. That should keep us from over-interpreting things he said.

His companion Barnabas was a Levite, so he would have also kept him in line with the Torah—the Levites’ job. We are told YHWH Himself made them a team, endorsed by the Antioch congregation (Acts 13:2), which was under the apostles’ oversight. (Acts 11:22) That they were sent on a mission (15:25) makes them apostles at least in a “lower case” sense, but Paul claims Yeshua himself sent him as well.

Near the end of his life, he was convinced that he had done the right thing—“fought a good fight, finished the course, kept the faith” (2 Tim. 4:7)

It is my deep desire and my eager hope that I not be put to shame in anything, but that with perfect boldness, as always, so that his honor may be seen in my body whether I live or die…” (Philippians 1:20) “Forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to the things up ahead, I press on toward the target for the prize of the high calling of YHWH in Messiah Yeshua.” (Phil. 3:13-14)

This does not sound like a man who was deceitful and wanted to subvert or derail the true faith of his ancestors. YHWH had just done something new, as Isaiah said He would (43:19), and Paul was enthralled with the magnitude of its ramifications, which amplified the mercy and vividly illustrated the compassion and power He had always spoken of in the earlier Scriptures, in ways that directly impact each of us.

Dr. Tabor’s emphasis is on contrasting the Gospels’ portrayals of Yeshua with Paul’s; I see them as complementary, two sides of the same coin, one dealing with facts on the ground, the other with what was going on behind the scene and its significance for us, which is not always obvious on the surface.

What seem at first to be contradictions often turn up the deepest insights into YHWH’s paradoxical ways, if we take the time to search out how they can indeed fit together.

Keys to Understanding Paul

The way Paul phrased things might sometimes have lent itself to being misconstrued, but he was writing to particular audiences who knew the exact context he was talking about, since he was responding to issues that had come up in their own congregations. Some of his comments were clearly “venting” his frustration with those who did not “get” what he was trying to say, and he probably did not expect other people to read his mail. He was as flawed as our patriarchs, but we do not define them—or King David—by their worst moments; we remember them for the great strides they did make, and considering the conditions he lived in compared to what we have today, I cannot think of anyone short of Yeshua who worked harder or sacrificed more to fulfill the vision of extending the Kingdom to the nations than Paul.

To be misconstrued, one’s words must also be able to be properly construed. I.e., it is not the writings themselves that are spurious, but men’s (mostly Gentile) interpretations of them.

Kefa (Peter) gave us the key: “…our beloved brother Paul has written to you according to the wisdom granted to him…in all his letters, in which there are some hard-to-understand things which unlearned and unstable [people] twist, as they do to the rest of the writings, to their own ruin. This being the case, you, beloved, [being] aware of these things in advance, be on guard lest you, too, be carried away by the erroneous thinking of those who break through restraints [to gratify their lusts] and fall from your position of stability.” (2 Peter 3:15-17)

Indeed, by the second century, Paul’s descriptions of the deeper significance of Messiah’s body and blood were already being taken in the direction of physical transubstantiation rather than understood in terms of the genetics of the Second Adam’s restored human race. In a less-scientific age, that might be more easily forgiven had Marcion not also twisted his words about the limited power of the Torah into the idea that the “God of the Old Testament” was totally different from the one of the New, and was in fact evil! Peter forewarned us that Paul’s words would be abused. Why did we not therefore forearm ourselves with the mindset to resist the temptation to think he himself had ill intent?

Peter should know; his own words too were twisted far beyond recognition. Reading Acts 10 as if it is saying YHWH told Peter he should not consider any food unclean, when Peter himself explained the meaning of the vision which the succeeding events showed him was about men, not animals (for he knew what it could not mean, since he knew what YHWH had already said), is just shoddy hermeneutics at best and “unlearned, unstable twisting” at worst.

That should be all we need to put this controversy that is again rearing its ugly head to rest.

Paul said, “The Torah is holy, and the commandment [is] holy and just and good.” (Romans 7:12) This is the touchstone of how we must interpret Paul if we are to not make him contradict himself. He was speaking about different contexts and did not feel it necessary to say, “I don’t mean this in that other way it could be interpreted or the way I used it over there”, because his other writings, and those that came before them and are the test of everyone’s doctrine put limits on how we can take what he said:

To the Torah and to the testimony! If they do not speak in agreement with these, … there is no light in them.” (Isaiah 8:20) The internal consistency of Scripture is how we determine what Paul’s words cannot mean: Read Paul with the assumption that his writings have to harmonize with Torah, and you will avoid twisting them, for that is what he himself said about his ministry. When his accusers “laid many and grievous complaints against Paul, which they could not prove, he answered for himself, ‘Neither in regard to the law of the Jews nor the temple, nor [even] against Caesar, have I committed any violation at all… To the Jews have I done no wrong.” (Acts 25:8-10)

Paul may overstate things at times to make a point, as most teachers do. We can see he was well aware of this when in 2 Corinthians he adds, “I am speaking like a madman!” to show that some of his words should not be taken too seriously; he was answering ridiculous claims in kind. (Ps. 18:26; Prov. 26:5)

Yeshua and Paul did not see what they were saying as in any way contradicting the revelation from YHWH that had come before them. So, in looking at their words from a perspective of 20 centuries later, we must be the ones missing something, for any real inconsistencies would have been worked out early on and explained more clearly; apparently to people still living in that context, explaining away any discrepancies did not seem necessary. So we must surmise that the distinctions he made were intended to remain intact along with what came before them. What appear at first to be contradictions are flags to make us look more closely at the nuances of the relationships between two equally-valid truths.
When we realize what Paul actually IS saying, we see that it is absolutely amazing.

What He Did Mean

Different uses of the term “law” (nomos) throughout Paul’s writings cause some of the confusion—but we do the same thing today. Here is a classic passage where he uses the same word in numerous ways: “I find then a law, that, when I would do good, evil is present with me. For I delight in the law of YHWH after the inward man, but I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members.” (Rom. 7:21-23) What he said next--“the law of the spirit of life in Messiah has set me free from the law of sin an death” (Rom. 8:2)--could be paralleled with a modern saying such as, “The law of aerodynamics has set me free from the law of gravity.” Both laws remain in effect and active, but one can supersede the other without cancelling it.

But one phrase that Paul uses in a negative sense over and over is “under the law”, contrasting it with being “led by the spirit”. (Romans 6:14-15; Gal. 4:21; 5:18) He distinguishes “works of the law” from faith (Rom. 9:32; Gal. 2:16; 3:2-10)—a dichotomy the Hebrew scriptures never seem to make. What are we who, like David, love YHWH’s Torah (instruction) to make of that?

Avi Ben Mordechai (in Galatians: A Torah-Based Commentary) has shown that this phrase “works of the law” (ma’aseh haTorah) had a specific meaning in his day that Paul assumes his readers are familiar with: “In Pharisaic context, a ma’aseh or ‘work’ was the action of a rabbi or sage that justified the practical manner in which a tradition should be observed…precedents or role models on how to behave when the so-called ‘oral law’ may be unclear.” He quotes Nehemiah Gordon, a Karaite Jew who said that “to do according to the ma’asim of the rabbis means to accept man-made laws” In Galatians 3:10, Paul seems to contrast those who put themselves under these man-made rules with those who “abide by all things written in the book of the Torah”. In other words, men’s additions to the Torah as opposed to the Torah itself that YHWH actually gave. That changes our perspective completely, doesn’t it?

One of the Dead Sea Scrolls called “4QMMT” (the 4Q identifies it as from cave 4 at Qumran) uses the terminology “works of the law” to denote a particular body of halachic rulings (which translator Florentino Garcia Martinez says distinguish the Qumran halachah—that is, their way of “walking out” the Torah—from that of other forms of contemporary Judaism). It is introduced with the line, “We have written to you some works of the Law [“Miqsat Maasey Torah”; that’s the MMT part] which we think are good for you and your people…” (Fragment 2) They are explanations of how this community thought Torah should be practiced. It is essentially an Essene equivalent of the Mishnah, though much shorter.

So for Paul to question the “works of the Torah” does not mean he was denigrating the Torah itself, which could very well be interpreted in many ways other than this particular one.

Recognizing this, we know that when Paul speaks of circumcision being of no value or even something contradicting Messiah, he cannot be speaking of the command that we know YHWH gave in the Torah. Instead he is using a literary form called a metonymy—a “figure of speech where a thing or concept is referred to indirectly by the name of something closely associated with it”, just as we might call business executives “suits”. “Circumcision” at that time was a shorthand for what today we would call “conversion to Judaism”. They did not have such terminology in his day, just as he did not have a separate Greek word for what we call “legalism”, so he had to resort to creative ways to talk about using the Torah for something that was not its purpose—for there are things it can do and things it cannot do.

Just as Moshe could bring Israel up to the banks of the Jordan and no further, needing Joshua to do the rest, even so “Moshe” (which Yeshua used as shorthand for the Torah that Moshe wrote) can only take us so far, and the latter Joshua (Y’hoshua, of which Yeshua is a shortened version) must take us the rest of the way: “What the Torah could not do, weakened as it was by the flesh, YHWH [did] by sending His own Son…” (Rom. 8:3) I.e., the Torah cannot do some parts of what YHWH wants done. That does not mean it is in any sense worthless. As Paul said, “The Torah is holy, and the commandment [is] holy and just and good... We know that the law is spiritual: but I am carnal, sold under sin.” (Rom. 7:12-14)

What it can do, Paul shows here: “Through the Torah comes the knowledge of sin.” (Romans 3:20) It sets the standard. It tells us what sin is, and can help us avoid it in many cases, but does not solve the root problem. We need something else for that.

The Torah’s place is to deal in a just and balanced way with the non-ideals that come up because we live in a fallen world, making life in a less-than-perfect context as smooth as it can be. The Gospel, on the other hand, addresses ultimate forgiveness (even where a death sentence has to take place on the bodily level since in some areas legal pardon would not maintain the deterrent potential criminals need) and an entrance into the age to come when “righteousness will be permanently at home” (2 Peter 3:13) and these principles will be the norm rather than the exception. There is no contradiction between the Torah and the Gospel. They deal with different, though complementary, realms.

Therefore, as Solomon told us, we should “take hold of the one and not let go of the other, because the one who reveres Elohim will come out with them both.” (Eccles. 7:18) Yeshua put it this way: “Every scribe who is discipled into the Kingdom of Heaven is like the ruler of a household who brings out from his storehouse [treasures both] new and old.” (Mat. 13:52) He also told the Pharisees (P’rushim), “You tithe mint and dill and all kinds of herbs, yet skip over judgment and the love of Elohim: these you ought to have done without leaving the other undone.” (Luke 11:42)

Thus he made it obvious which was the cart and which was the horse. I think this is what Paul was driving at when he made the distinction between the “letter” and the “spirit of the Torah”—the motives and attitude that underlie each of YHWH’s commands. Paul tells us how we carry the Torah over from the very specific settings described in the “letter” to the universal application of the “spirit” of the Torah. (Rom. 2:29; 7:6; 2 Cor. 3:6) But this is why he insisted on being “freed from”—i.e., not tied to the individual examples given in the Torah (the letter), because if you put the letter first, it “kills” (2 Cor. 3:6), for we have to force a “square peg” into a situation where the particular example doesn’t fit.

In contrast, the spirit makes the letter come alive when we understand the purpose behind it, which does fit every situation (but in different ways) and like David we rejoice at the amazing wisdom YHWH built into His commands. The original apostles agreed; they kept the requirements for Gentiles coming into the faith to a minimum (just enough to let them sit at the same table as the Jews) until they learned, week by week, what else Moshe had said, so that they could take on more as they let the spotlight focus on each individual concept long enough to understand what it meant and became excited about how revolutionary and life-saving it was. (Acts 15:19-21) And to this Paul was in full agreement.

I regard Messianic Jewish interpretation as especially worthy of consideration, because they have a much-less-diluted dose of both covenants. An Israeli believer in Yeshua, Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg (in The Jewish Apostle Paul) took as the key to Paul’s philosophy his question, “Is He the Elohim of the Jews alone?” (Rom. 3:29) Paul, rather, recognized that the prophetic age in which “YHWH [would] be King over all the earth” (Zech. 14:9) had already begun, which is why he did not want Gentiles to convert to Judaism any longer. If they did, YHWH would not be the Elohim of all nations, but only of Israel.

I would only add that there is a third category that Paul alluded to: “former Gentiles”, (Eph. 2:11-12) those “grafted back into their own olive tree” (Romans 11:24) He doesn’t come right out and say that these are the lost sheep of the House of Israel, but the very next verse uses code words that make it clear: “When the fullness of the Gentiles comes in…” (Rom. 11:25) This is a direct allusion to Genesis 48:19, which defines the “fullness of the Gentiles” (melo’ ha-Goyim) as descendants of Ephraim in particular. And when he says, “Once you were far off” (a phrase Daniel 9:7 used of a different part of “all Israel” than just the Jews), there is no question. Those returning to the covenant they were once part of may have fuller obligations to the Torah than the Gentiles who are mercifully allowed to benefit from their association with Israel just because YHWH loves them too and wants to include them. (Isaiah 49:6)

So what did he mean by “Sin shall not have dominion over you, because you are not under law, but under grace”? (Romans 6:14) Grace is not antithetical to “law”, but is the additional impetus to accomplish what the “law” is driving at, as we see in John 1:17: “The law was given by the hand of Moshe; grace and truth came through Yeshua the Messiah.” (There is no “but” between the two phrases; that was added by translators.) This sounds somewhat vague, though; a clearer rendering of “grace and truth” as used here is “empowering favor and the actual accomplishment”—the ability to carry out the instruction and bring it to fulfillment, not just struggle under our own natural power in hopes of pleasing YHWH.

That is extremely good news: He has not just told us what needs to be done but given us the ability to do it, not just in a weak, striving minimal way, but as “more than conquerors” (Rom. 8:37) because “it is YHWH who is at work within you, helping you [not only] want to do what He desires, but to [actually] carry it out.” (Phil. 2:13) Even where he says our salvation is “not of works”, he follows it immediately with “because we are His work of art, creatively shaped through the Messiah Yeshua, [founded] on good works that YHWH has prepared beforehand for us to walk in.” (Eph. 2:9-10) I.e., we don’t have to figure out how to please Him on our own, by trial and error; He already has a path tailored to the unique way He created each of us!

This is the sense in which Paul meant we are “discharged from the law”. (Rom. 7:6) He was quite clear that he did not mean to become lawless, do anything contrary to it, or stop doing the kind of good it exemplifies, but that we are turned loose to carry out its principles in settings the “letter” does not directly address, but that fit the same “spirit” its specifics provide concrete examples of. It is a step toward something even more complete. He says it is like graduating from being under a tutor into full recognition of adulthood. (Gal. 3:24-25) We don’t despise the tutor who taught us what we needed to know to grow up; his teaching remains valid, but it brought us to something even greater which does not obliterate but subsumes what came before—a more direct relationship with the One who gave the Torah from the outside, which enables us to meet the outer command with an inner strength that matches it and resonates with it, and thus makes it work in a way that the command alone cannot do. (Rom. 8:3)

Yeshua said something similar: “I no longer call you servants, because the servant no longer knows what his master is doing; I have called you friends.” (Yoch. 15:15) Norman Grubb opined, “Our freedom, Paul says, is total freedom from any other claimant”– even the Torah, if placed as the central focus. It is a tool, but it still takes second place to the One who gave it, and should not stand between us and Him. It is a matter of priority: does the relationship come first, or the details?

The Fruits of Each Viewpoint

Yeshua said, “You shall know them by their fruit.” (Mat. 7:16) Does a controversy of this sort produce beauty, or anger and hate? Some people like to find any reason to be contrary and start arguments, creating reasons for antipathy where there does not need to be any.

Attitude is half of what makes or breaks us. Paul’s counsel was, “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is worthy of having and embracing, whatever is admirable, if there is any [moral] excellence or anything praise[worthy], think about these things.” (Philippians 4:8) Focusing on the other side will only make our already-short lives bitter too.

Yeshua said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of Elohim.” (Mat. 5:9) Luke, a master peacemaker, understood this well, so he did his best to portray the different factions in as unified a light as possible, knowing that an uncharitable approach would only fan the flames into greater polarization. “Divide and conquer” is the oldest tactic among the strategies of war.

Did Luke, as some accuse him, “smooth over” what was a real fight? Possibly, but isn’t the amicable outcome the part of the history we want to preserve most prominently when a past argument, however heated it may have become at one time, is resolved? If “all’s well that ends well”, shouldn’t we forgive as Yeshua said? Don’t we want the vitriol to pass away once the points have been made and the hands finally shaken? For they were. As Paul himself said, “Love…is not [easily] irritated, does not keep count of wrongs [done], is not glad when [another is] hurt, but is delighted… when the truth [comes to light].” (1 Cor. 13:5-7) Do we want to become that kind of people, or those who divide brothers?

In the final analysis, Paul, James, and Peter came out in agreement. And so must we, or, in Randy Stonehill’s words, haSatan will “eat [us] for dessert”.

Yes, “our fathers have inherited lies” (Jer. 16:19), but our real enemy has alternate lies; do we just want to go from one type of lie to another? We have to unite against the real threat, not “kill our own allies”.

As the prospect of reuniting Israel becomes a real possibility, it is more important than ever to unite based on time-tested truth, not scattered speculations and winds of uncertain doctrine. Why should we alienate the half of Israel that has been sustained by Paul’s words for so many centuries? That is not conducive to “breaking down the wall that divided us”. (Eph. 2:14) Paul may have been short-sighted and not anticipated the direction some of his words would be taken. But can we, whose achievements have been far smaller, forgive whatever mistakes he made, for the sake of the unity and the greater fruitfulness it makes possible, and appreciate the magnificent truths he was trying to communicate?

If Paul truly hated James, he would be suspect indeed. Lacking the very love he spoke about in 1 Cor. 13 would render his arguments worthless, by his very own description in the poetry with which we opened: “If I understand all mysteries and all knowledge, …but do not have love, I am nothing…” But he then said, “Love… has faith in all kinds [of people, and] expects [the best in] every [situation].” (1 Cor. 13)

Can we turn this back on the one who wrote it, and believe the best and not the worst about him, if there is a reasonable doubt? I certainly want to be that kind of person!