Scholars Take Up Paul's Cause

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Scholars Take Up Paul's Cause

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A new willingness is evident among scholars to admit that the traditional characterization of Paul as a rebel against the law is deeply flawed.

In his book Paul and the Jewish Law, Dutch Reformed scholar Peter Tomson identifies three common but erroneous ideas about the apostle to the gentiles.

The first mistaken assumption he mentions is that the center of Paul's thought is an attack on the Jewish religious practices of his day. The second assumption is that the law revealed through Moses no longer had any practical meaning for Paul in his everyday life. The third assumption is that to understand Paul one need not consult Jewish literature, but only Greek works.

Tomson explains that the first notion appears nowhere in literature before the Protestant Reformation. Thus for almost 1,500 years we find no evidence that Paul's writings were considered an attack on the law.

Of 1 Corinthians, for example, Tomson says it "is not only remarkable among Paul's letters for its 'legal' and 'Jewish' character, but it appears very much to reflect Paul's own thinking and was recognized as such in the early church" (Paul and the Jewish Law, p. 69). Later Tomson says this epistle is "a letter replete with practical instruction . . . The Law is affirmed as an authoritative source of practical teaching . . ." (p. 73).

David Wenham, an Oxford University professor, in his book about the relationship between Jesus and Paul (Paul: Follower of Jesus, or Founder of Christianity?), reveals a Paul at one with his Master. One of the book's reviewers says one of its most important contributions is in revealing that "the wedge often driven between Jesus and Paul is a figment of scholarly imagination."

Wenham assesses Paul's view of himself: "Paul saw himself as the slave of Jesus Christ, not the founder of Christianity. He was right to see himself in that way. The importance of this conclusion, if it is broadly correct, is great. It has implications for our understanding of the Gospel traditions, for our understanding of early Christianity, and for our understanding of Paul.

"If the primary text that Paul is expounding in his writings is the text of Jesus, then instead of reading Paul's letters in isolation from the Gospels, it will be important to read them in light of the Gospels-not falling into naive harmonization, but recognizing that Paul was above all motivated by a desire to follow Jesus" (p. 410).

For evidence of that desire of Paul to follow Jesus-the One who said, "Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill" (Matthew 5:17 Matthew 5:17Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill.
American King James Version×
)-we need only to read Romans 13:8-10 Romans 13:8-10 [8] Owe no man any thing, but to love one another: for he that loves another has fulfilled the law. [9] For this, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not kill, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, You shall not covet; and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. [10] Love works no ill to his neighbor: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.
American King James Version×
: "Owe no one anything except to love one another, for he who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, 'You shall not commit adultery,' 'You shall not murder,' 'You shall not steal,' 'You shall not bear false witness,' 'You shall not covet,' and if there is any other commandment, all are summed up in this saying, namely, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law."

Nothing in Paul's writings-about himself, Jesus Christ or the Church-justifies calling Paul a rebel. GN