Justification and the New Perspective on Paul – Part 2: How Saul Influenced Paul

Many theologians and exegetes in the past have tried to detach Paul from his Jewish identity and his worldview as a first century Jew. In the last post on this topic, we saw how the Reformers had largely misrepresented and mischaracterized first century Judaism as a religion of works-righteousness, legalism, and “pulling oneself by his bootstraps”. With the idea of “covenantal nomism” being a more likely representation of what Jews of this time, the question comes to mind: how did Saul influence Paul? In other words, what did Paul retain from his past life in Judaism once he encountered Jesus the Messiah, and what did he leave behind, if anything at all?

So how did Saul influence Paul? Paul writes autobiographically in Galatians 1:13-14:

For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers.

The important thing is to note here is 1) Saul’s zeal and 2) the traditions of his fathers. For what was Saul zealous? What were the traditions about for which he was so zealous? It is obvious here that Paul was not detached from his Judaism. And I submit to you that Saul’s zeal was not lost in his conversion, but rather, reframed by the revelation of Jesus as Israel’s true Messiah.

It is important to note that Saul was not simply an ordinary Jew. N.T. Wright notes that the ‘zeal’ that Paul used to describe his former life puts him very firmly on the map of a particular type of first-century Judaism[1]. Zeal, in the old perspective, is usually seen as a legalistic pride in one’s own righteousness gained through works. However, Paul associates his former zeal with violence against the church. This implies that Saul was a Jewish sect called the Shammaite Pharisee, a sect that was known as the strictest sect of them all[2].

The Shammaite Pharisees were strict in their interpretation of the law and their in expectations of how fellow Jews should live in accordance with it. This sect was extremely political as well, looking forward to Israel’s liberation from the oppressive Roman government. It wasn’t good enough that they had religious freedom, but they believed that the Torah “demanded that Israel be free from the Gentile yoke, free to serve God in peace, calling no one master except YHWH, the one true God, himself.”[3] This is what Paul mean by zeal, and elsewhere notes that it was a zeal not according to knowledge (Romans 10:2). Saul’s zeal drove him to eliminate, by death if necessary , anything or anyone that opposed this vision (think of the zealots, such as Simon). Consequently, this included Christians.

Saul lived in a very apocalyptic framework. N.T. Wright notes that Saul “believed passionately that the great prophetic promises had not yet been fulfilled”.[4] Passages like Daniel 2, 7, and 9 were in the center of his framework, looking forward to a kingdom that had yet to come. In context, these verses were about Babylon, but Jews of that time had no problem substituting “Babylon” with “Rome”.[5]

Saul believed in the three major tenets of Jewish theology at the period: monotheism, election, and eschatology. In other words, there is one true God; Israel is the chosen people of this one true God; and there is one (near coming) future world in which Israel’s God will reign supreme, defeat evil, and rescue his people. Saul, along with the rest of the Shammaite Pharisees, was eager to bring into actualizations the realities of this prophecy, as they saw themselves in the climax of Israel’s grand story.

So what was Saul’s vision and agenda? First, he had great zeal for the God of Israel and the Torah. This is not a moralistic or legalistic zeal, but a desire to see God honored, which meant ridding the world of all forms of unfaithfulness to the Torah. Secondly, Saul was passionate about his fellow Jews (along with himself) keeping the Torah so that this would presently mark out and set apart those who be vindicated when God’s kingdom came in the future. Third, he passionately tried to initiate and hasten this future event by forcing Jews to keep the Torah, even if this meant using violence.

Note, that this portrait of Saul is not the same as the one painted of Saul in the Reformation. He was usually thought of as a “proto-Pelagian”, because of the mischaracterization of both Judaism and Pharisaism at the time. Saul was not concerned with “how to be saved”, “how to get to heaven”, or “how one enters into relationship with God”. He was focused on the role he and Israel, God’s chosen people, played in this apocalyptic, on-going narrative. This carried over into his Christian theology.

In fact, the very thing that Saul had been trying to accomplish, ushering this new apocalyptic kingdom of God, Paul realized that this had been accomplished, albeit in a very different and unexpected manner, in Jesus the Messiah. “This one true God had done for Jesus of Nazareth, in the middle of time, what Saul had thought he was going to do for Israel at the end of time.”[6] Paul now had experienced Jesus and his worldview was not lost, but, rather, redefined. “Saul had imagined that YHWH would vindicate Israel after her suffering at the hand of the pagans. Instead, he had vindicated Jesus after his suffering at the hand of pagans.”[7]

Paul was caught in the “now, not yet” era. The kingdom had been established, sin and death had been defeated, and God had revealed. But these things were accomplished in an extremely different manner than Saul had imagined. Paul, just like Saul, had a zeal to get the pagan world to know the one true God of Israel. And now, Jesus had revealed that God in a completely different light. It was with this perspective that Paul wrote on justification and all of the other topics that he dealt with. And it is with this framework in mind that we will look at what Paul really meant by righteousness in the next post.

[Originally posted the Collaborative Theology tumblr page]



[1]: “What St Paul Really Said” by N.T. Wright, p. 26

[2]: Ibid.

[3]: Ibid., p. 27

[4]: Ibid., p. 30

[5]: As noted in 4 Ezra

[6]: “What St Paul Really Said” by N.T. Wright, p. 36

[7]: Ibid.


3 thoughts on “Justification and the New Perspective on Paul – Part 2: How Saul Influenced Paul

  1. It doesn’t take much to disconnect Paul from his supposed “Jewish” roots, since there was no Paul. Well, there may have been some kind of historical Paul or Sau lof Tarsus, but whatever he really thought and taught is lost to us. Paul as we know him from the epistles, and even to some extent from the Acts, is Marcion the Gnostic heretic of 120 AD – 140 AD. Marcion wrote the first draft of the Pauline epistles; the Catholic church cleaned them up a bit and then wrote Acts to trick us into accepting them. The historical Paul — if there was one — may have been a Jew, but the epistular Paul was a Gentile, or rather successive group of Gentiles — Marcion and the Catholic editors who cleaned up his work.

    1. Paul’s writings are too Jewish in nature to not have been written by a Jew! Of course, everything is radically redefined with Jesus Christ, but his Jewish-ness remains.

      1. “Paul’s writings are too Jewish in nature to not have been written by a Jew”

        Nope. That’s certainly as far from the truth as you can get. The author(s) have some very very BASIC knowledge of the Old Testament from having read the Septuagint. But there is nothing there that is “Jewish” — its all just a very clearly Gentile (mis)interpretation of the Old Testament via the Greek LXX.

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