Marco Dente, Saint Paul holding a sword and a book, c. 1515–27 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1953)

Of all conversion stories, St. Paul’s is surely the most famous. As a zealous Pharisee, Saul was a tortured soul persecuting his fellow Jews for their dangerous faith in a failed Messiah. Starting in Jerusalem, this band of messianic Jews proclaimed a message that was catching like a plague. And just as with plagues inflicted on Israel in the past, God’s people needed a righteous man to rise up and put an end to it. Once disciplined, these wayward Jews would come to see the light. They would give up their nonsense about a crucified King; they would return to strict observance of God’s Law; and God’s punishment of his people would come to an end.

But on the road to Damascus, God stopped Saul in his tracks. He blinded him with heavenly light. He indicted him for his murderous ways. And he appointed him an apostle to the gentiles. Within days Saul was baptized and preaching the good news that God raised Jesus from the dead. Naturally, he gave up the Law of Moses, since Jesus had fulfilled the Torah and thereby rendered its observance optional, negligible, even obsolete. What mattered now was faith, a posture of receptivity and trust in God’s promises available not only to Saul’s fellow Jews but to non-Jews as well. Saul took this message across the Roman Empire, effectively founding the Church as we know it: predominantly gentile, faith-centered, and Law-free.

This is how Saul became Paul—how the persecuting Pharisee gave up Judaism for Christianity. Except that it isn’t, at least not in key respects.

In his new book, A Jewish Paul: The Messiah’s Herald to the Gentiles, Matthew Thiessen presents the case against this standard story and offers an alternative. He isn’t the first to do so. For the past several decades, scholars of the New Testament have labored to qualify, nuance, and sometimes reject the portrait of Paul presumed in both popular culture and church pulpits. Such scholars have been especially eager to correct the portrait of Paul as the prototypical self-hating Jew: bitter and resentful toward the Law, hateful and vicious toward fellow Jews, and the chief promoter of a new religion that understood itself as replacing Judaism—that infamous anachronism built on bizarre commands, works righteousness, and ethnic chauvinism.

Needless to say, this image of Paul is a problem. The problem is at once moral, theological, exegetical, and historical. Misreading Paul isn’t a victimless crime. For centuries, Jews have suffered the consequences of gentile Christian prejudice and violence. Christians cannot do without Paul. But for that very reason, we need to get him right. Thiessen’s aim is to “make Paul weird again”—for all readers, but in particular for gentile believers in Christ.


In his opening chapter, Thiessen lays out four major views on Paul. The first is the traditional Protestant reading associated with Martin Luther, John Calvin, and the traditions that flow from them. In substantial agreement with the so-called conversion story recounted above, the Protestant view sees legalism as the problem Paul is opposing. Rather than earn or merit our salvation by good works of any kind, we are saved by grace alone through faith in Christ. On this view, Judaism, Israel, and the Law of Moses are superseded by Christianity, the Church, and the Gospel of Jesus.

The second view, sometimes called “the new perspective on Paul,” is associated with N. T. Wright and James D. G. Dunn. It seeks to correct the traditional Protestant line by locating Paul within the socio-religious world of the first century. Paul wasn’t correcting “works-based righteousness” with the grace-alone “imputed righteousness” of Reformed doctrine. His enemy wasn’t legalism but ethnocentrism. “Grace, not race” is the oft-quoted (if unfortunate) maxim here. Paul’s opponents wanted gentiles to become Jews—to be circumcised and observe Torah—as a condition for following Jesus as Messiah. Paul answered that it is Christ’s death and resurrection, not observance of the Law of Moses, that puts a person in right relationship with God and with God’s people. Those Jews who opposed this message were clinging to ethnic privilege and ancestral custom when they should have been welcoming the nations into God’s embrace.

The third view is often called “apocalyptic” and is represented by scholars like J. Louis Martyn and Ernst Käsemann. This approach stresses radical discontinuity. God has done an utterly new thing in the coming of Jesus Christ: an “apocalypse,” a revelation, an unveiling, an absolutely unexpected and singular divine action without precedent or peer. The person and work of Christ is thus an unqualified sovereign judgment on every human order (including the Torah) and every human people (including Israel). Such apocalypticism can even imply that the death and resurrection of Jesus is so great a catastrophe for all religious systems that the God revealed by it is a new God; that the “Law of God” is opposed to God; and that terms like “covenant” and “election” have been dissolved in the acid of Christ’s revelation. At its best, this view emphasizes the astonishing miracle of God’s power to save through Jesus. At its worst, it sounds like Marcionism, the oldest and most pernicious heresy in Christian history.

Misreading Paul isn’t a victimless crime. For centuries, Jews have suffered the consequences of gentile Christian prejudice and violence.

Thiessen has no interest in rejecting any of these perspectives wholesale. All of them have something to teach us; each offers insight into Paul. But they are all incomplete, having erred at a crucial point. This point is the Torah or, more broadly, the relationship of Paul to the faith, the flesh, and the calling of the Jewish people—what we call “Judaism.” The fourth perspective Thiessen wants us to consider goes by many names, most commonly “Paul within Judaism.” In other words, Paul never left Judaism, since “Paul found nothing wrong with Judaism,” as Thiessen writes. He never abandoned the Law. He never converted from one religion to another. Whatever changed his life, whatever he saw on the road to Damascus, didn’t turn him against his people, their scriptures, or their God. These remained the same, albeit understood in the new light of the risen Lord. What had changed was the world Paul was living in, or rather the time on the clock. Given the hour and what God had done through Jesus, Paul had work to do.


The danger of all innovation in biblical scholarship is an overweening hubris. Somehow, after thousands of years, Professor Smith discovers the one true way to interpret the Bible. Happily, that is not what Thiessen is up to. His proposal is not the latest academic fad. On the contrary, he argues that his way of reading Paul is the oldest on record. He’s simply following the lead of St. Luke.

Recall that Luke wrote not only the third gospel but a sequel, the Acts of the Apostles, which records the work of the apostles in the three decades following Jesus’ resurrection. The second half of Acts is dedicated largely to the many journeys and trials of Paul. Whether Luke wrote in AD 62 or 122, whether he knew Paul personally, whether Acts is historically reliable—Luke is unquestionably the first to chronicle the life, ministry, and teaching of the apostle. More to the point, it is the only such chronicle to be canonized as authoritative by the Church. It precedes Paul’s letters in the New Testament, just as they in turn precede letters from those sainted “pillars” of the faith: James, Peter, and John. This canonical sandwich, as it were, binds Paul to his brother apostles and governs how we understand him.

In Acts, no Jewish follower of Jesus ever forsakes the Law, including Paul. There is even a climactic moment about three-quarters of the way through the narrative when Paul comes to Jerusalem and meets with James, the head of the community there. James reports to Paul that people are smearing his name with rumors and slander. Fellow Jewish believers in Jesus who are zealous for Torah “have been told about you that you teach all the Jews who are among the gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or observe the customs.” James then gives Paul instructions to undergo a rite of purification at the temple, so that “all will know that there is nothing in what they have been told about you but that you yourself live in observance of the Law.” Paul doesn’t even speak in reply. He simply obeys.

At this point the reader has a choice to make. Is Luke lying? If not, is Paul lying? Both would seem intolerable options. But if neither Luke nor Paul is acting dishonestly, then the only possibility is that Paul continued to observe the Law as an apostle of Christ, that this was widely known (thus Luke’s report), and that all appearances to the contrary have to do with misunderstandings, rumors, and Paul’s inability to be clear on the matter in his own writing. As Thiessen observes, the first commentary on Paul’s letters is also preserved in the canon. It reads: “There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures.” Thus, the first hermeneutical rule for approaching Paul’s letters is provided by the Bible itself: they are “hard to understand” on their own. We need help. Thiessen suggests Luke should be our guide.

Paul’s argument, instead, is that ritual Law observance is meant only for Jews, not for gentiles.


Here, then, is a summary of Thiessen’s account of Paul by way of Luke. After seeing Jesus with his own eyes, Paul realized that God had not only acted differently than he had expected but in a different sequence. The Messiah came from heaven, shared our flesh and blood, died, and rose again. Instead of resurrection coming at the end of history for all people, it erupted in the middle of history for one man. As a consequence, instead of gentiles leaving behind their idols to worship the one true God of Israel only at history’s end, they were being invited, through Jesus, to do so now. God had dealt with sins on Good Friday and wrought redemption for all on Easter Sunday. Because the God of the Jews is creator of all, this salvation extends to the nations, just as God had promised centuries earlier through the prophets. The time was ripe, therefore, for heralds of the Messiah to take the Good News to gentiles.

But how should gentiles respond? This was a contentious question in the early messianic community. It was a given that Jewish believers would continue in their former way of life: eat kosher, observe the sabbath, circumcise their baby boys on the eighth day. This, after all, was commanded of them by God through Torah, which Jesus himself obeyed and taught with authority as a rabbi. But what should gentiles who put their trust in Jesus do?

One answer was to be circumcised and keep the Law. How else could one join God’s people? The book of Genesis makes it perfectly clear that to belong to God one must belong to God’s covenant with Abraham, and that all the sons of Abraham must be circumcised. Thiessen argues that, although Paul once agreed with this line of reasoning, he came to regard it as faulty in two ways. First, God’s plan wasn’t to make gentiles into Jews (or Jews into gentiles) but to unite gentiles to Jews so that, as he wrote to the Romans, “together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Second, Paul saw that circumcision alone couldn’t make a gentile into a child of Abraham. It was, in Thiessen’s phrase, “cosmetic surgery.” It resulted in superficial resemblance to Abraham, but no more.

Yet Paul did not reject the premise: gentiles needed to become Abraham’s children if they were going to benefit from God’s promises to Abraham. There is no salvation outside the family of Abraham, who are and remain the chosen people of God. Paul concluded that when a gentile confesses faith in Jesus as Messiah and is clothed with him in baptism, she receives in herself the Messiah’s own Spirit (or pneuma). This Spirit is Jesus himself living inside the believer. Moreover, this Spirit is the one Holy Spirit of God the Father and of his only Son. It is, in short, the Spirit of “sonship” or “adoption,” as Paul puts it. This is no mere cosmetic surgery. It is, in Thiessen’s potent phrase, “pneumatic gene therapy.” The Spirit of Jesus—who is the “seed” of both Abraham and David—rewrites one’s spiritual DNA, so to speak. The baptized believing gentile is thereby adopted, through Jesus, as a child of both Abraham and God. She is grafted onto the family tree not by nature but by grace. As an unearned and unconditioned gift of pure love, God welcomes and incorporates the nations into the lineage of Abraham through Christ’s own Spirit, poured out from heaven following his resurrection and ascension.

Now think back to Paul’s ostensibly negative statements about circumcision and the Law of Moses. He isn’t suggesting that he and other Jewish followers of Jesus have abandoned or should disregard the commands of Torah. After all, where did gentile believers even get the idea that they should keep the Law? From the apostles and preachers who observed it! Paul’s argument, instead, is that ritual Law observance is meant only for Jews, not for gentiles.

This is why he can go so far as to say that Christ will be of no benefit to a gentile believer who gets circumcised—that when a gentile submits to the yoke of Torah it is as though Christ died for nothing. Such a gentile thinks he needs “Christ plus Torah” to be right with God, to be part of Abraham’s family. He has thereby rejected the sufficiency of Christ for his justification. The point is a vital one: Jewish followers of Jesus don’t keep Torah because it sets them right with God. They do so because it is God’s will for their form of life as Abraham’s children “according to the flesh.” How else could Christ’s corporate body consist of identifiable Jews and gentiles? If Jews forsook their biological lineage, ceased circumcising their boys, and gave up Torah, the effect would be to eradicate Jewish identity and practice within a single generation.

Tragically, however, exactly this self-erasure is what the Church has all too often expected of Jewish believers. Hence the deep and abiding suspicion of Jews and Judaism toward mainstream Christianity. It seems to represent the conscious destruction of anything exclusively Jewish within the Church. Its flattened universalism appears to require the elimination of difference as such, especially the difference between Jew and gentile.

“I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew.” These words of Paul are the lodestar for any Christian reckoning with the teaching of the apostle and the status of the Jewish people in relation to the Gospel of Jesus. For this reason, Matthew Thiessen has done us all a great service with his new book. It is concise, clearly written, historically informed, hermeneutically sensitive, and accessible to a wide range of readers. In my view it is the most readable, the most straightforward, and (perhaps most helpfully) the least polemical presentation of the “Paul within Judaism” school of scholarship.

As Thiessen admits, he does not answer every question or interpret every relevant verse. And he doesn’t think that anyone who disagrees with his perspective must be anti-Jewish. The truth matters, and if a scholar honestly believes that Paul ceased to keep Torah or harbored antipathy toward his fellow Jews, then she should say so and say why. Nevertheless, Thiessen’s book should push gentile Christians to reconsider their inherited view of Paul. He was indeed the great envoy of Christ to the nations. But first and always he was a Jew, just like the Lord he served. We forget this at our peril.

A Jewish Paul
The Messiah’s Herald to the Gentile
Matthew Thiessen
Baker Publishing Group
$24.99 | 208 pp.

Brad East is associate professor of theology at Abilene Christian University in Abilene, Texas.

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Published in the February 2024 issue: View Contents
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