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Background - Part 3
Paul and the Faith of Israel

(Last updated 6/14/00)

Interpreting Paul's Difficult Writings
Paul and the "Curse of the Law"

To better understand the faith that Paul teaches, we need to go back to the time of the first century. Judaism was dominated by a group called the Pharisees, whose affairs and leadership were both supported by, and limited by, the Roman government. The first issue that must be addressed is the term "Pharisee" itself.

A modern dictionary (1) gives two definitions:

  1. A member of an ancient Jewish sect that emphasized strict interpretation and observance of the Mosaic law in both its oral and written form.
  2. A hypocritically self-righteous person.

Our modern western culture equates #1 above with #2. Pharisees are "the bad guys," and the beliefs they held were wrong too. After all, didn't Yeshua call them hypocrites, evil, sons of snakes, etc.? How do we reconcile this with the fact that twenty years into his ministry for Yeshua, Paul still identified himself as a Pharisee (Acts 23:6, 26:5). As a good Pharisee, Paul upheld and kept the Torah all of his life -- we see this throughout the book of Acts and in his letters.

When we read the "New Testament" in its proper Hebrew context, we find that Paul, (properly named Sha'ul), read, understood, taught, and wrote about the Scriptures and the Messiah from a Pharisaic Hebrew mindset. Paul was personally taught by Gamliel, who was himself a Pharisee and the head of the Sanhedrin. There is a real possibility that Paul was being prepared to take over the Sanhedrin's leadership. This would have made Paul the equivalent of "Chief Justice of the Supreme Court" of Israel.

Paul called himself a "Hebrew of Hebrews," a term that means he was not a Hellenistic Jew (Jews that had largely abandoned much of the Torah in order to be "more accepted" in the Greek/Roman culture they lived in). As we will see, Scripture shows that none of this changed when Paul became a believer.


Paul received his "marching orders" from the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15. This council was called to address the specific issue of Gentiles having to prove themselves through works of the Torah PRIOR to salvation (Acts 15:1). The Gospel was now going out to a very pagan Gentile world, and these new believers were coming directly into the faith of Israel through the Messiah.

No longer did they have to "come up through the ranks" of Judaism as Gentiles had before. This was a "new way" of doing things, but it was confirmed by God (Acts 15:8). It was difficult for many Jews to embrace this "instant acceptance of Gentiles," as these converted pagans knew nothing of Torah and they brought a lot of terrible practices with them.

Peter's comment (Acts 15:10) pointed out to those who wanted the gentiles "to become Jews first," that if God had commanded perfect Torah observance as a prerequisite to faith, then they all were in jeopardy, as none of them could keep it perfectly prior to faith. Nonetheless, once these gentiles accepted Yeshua, the Council in required them to immediately follow certain minimal Torah commands (Acts 15:20). This was done in order to fellowship with Jewish (and also other Gentile) believers who already knew and kept Torah.

The council gave these basic Torah commands with the understanding that these gentiles would learn more of Moses' Torah as they attended Synagogue/Temple. (This is the meaning of Acts 15:21.) If the gentiles did not follow the minimal commands of the council, they would have been thrown out of the Synagogues and not exposed to the continued reading and study of God's word.


In the book of Acts, Luke makes it clear that those of Israel who accepted the Messiah of Israel AND followed the Torah, were the "ecclesia" (meaning, "called out ones" and NOT "the Church") (2) Paul did not hold a different view. Scriputre shows that He himself kept Torah and spoke in favor of it:

He circumcised a man who had not yet been:

Acts 16:1-3 - Then came he to Derbe and Lystra: and, behold, a certain disciple was there, named Timotheus, the son of a certain woman, which was a Jewess, and believed; but his father was a Greek: Which was well reported of by the brethren that were at Lystra and Iconium. Him would Paul have to go forth with him; and took and circumcised him because of the Jews which were in those quarters: for they knew all that his father was a Greek.

He took a Torah vow:

Acts 18:18 - And Paul after this tarried there yet a good while, and then took his leave of the brethren, and sailed thence into Syria, and with him Priscilla and Aquila; having shorn his head in Cenchrea: for he had a vow.

He continued to follow the Levitical feast day of Unleavened Bread:

Acts 20:6 - And we sailed away from Philippi after the days of unleavened bread, and came unto them to Troas in five days; where we abode seven days.

He kept and encouraged others to keep Passover:

Cor. 5:8 - Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness; but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.

He continued to follow the Levitical feast day of Shavuot (Pentecost):

Acts 20:16 - For Paul had determined to sail by Ephesus, because he would not spend the time in Asia: for he hasted, if it were possible for him, to be at Jerusalem the day of Pentecost.

1 Corinthians 16:8 - But I will tarry at Ephesus until Pentecost.

He kept Yom Kippur (this is the fast mentioned in the following verse):

Acts 27:9 - Now when much time was spent, and when sailing was now dangerous, because the fast was now already past, Paul admonished them,

He proved he did not teach against Torah by taking a vow:

Acts 21:21-26 -And they are informed of thee, that thou teachest all the Jews which are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, saying that they ought not to circumcise their children, neither to walk after the customs. What is it therefore? the multitude must needs come together: for they will hear that thou art come. Do therefore this that we say to thee: We have four men which have a vow on them; Them take, and purify thyself with them, and be at charges with them, that they may shave their heads: and all may know that those things, whereof they were informed concerning thee, are nothing; but that thou thyself also walkest orderly, and keepest the law. As touching the Gentiles which believe, we have written and concluded that they observe no such thing, save only that they keep themselves from things offered to idols, and from blood, and from strangled, and from fornication. Then Paul took the men, and the next day purifying himself with them entered into the temple, to signify the accomplishment of the days of purification, until that an offering should be offered for every one of them.

He cited his continued Torah observance in his defense before a Roman governor:

Acts 24:14-17 - But this I confess unto thee, that after the way which they call heresy, so worship I the God of my fathers, believing all things which are written in the law and in the prophets: And have hope toward God, which they themselves also allow, that there shall be a resurrection of the dead, both of the just and unjust. And herein do I exercise myself, to have always a conscience void to offence toward God, and toward men. Now after many years I came to bring alms to my nation, and offerings.

And again to another Roman governor:

Acts 24:14-17 - While he answered for himself, Neither against the law of the Jews, neither against the temple, nor yet against Caesar, have I offended any thing at all.

And to a Jewish audience:

Acts 28:17 - And it came to pass, that after three days Paul called the chief of the Jews together: and when they were come together, he said unto them, Men and brethren, though I have committed nothing against the people, or customs of our fathers, yet was I delivered prisoner from Jerusalem into the hands of the Romans.


Paul taught others to keep Torah in the same way. An excellent example can be seen where he instructed Timothy to "rightly divide" the word of God. This means that there is a correct way to "sort out" Scripture. What is this way? This was to be done according to Torah, as Torah (including the rest of the Tenakh), are the Scriptures Paul wrote about to Timothy, saying:

2 Timothy 3:17 - And that from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.

There are several important teachings in these three verses:

  1. Timothy had the Scriptures Paul refers to, since he was a child. This did NOT include the "New Testament."
  2. God's plan of salvation in the "Old Testament" Scriptures was through faith. God has not changed.
  3. The "Old Testament" Scriptures were what was to be used by believers in Yeshua for; doctrine, reproof, correction and instruction in righteousness. How many people following Yeshua today teach about Him and what faith is, from the "Old Testament?" Paul told Timothy to do this.
  4. Works are inseparable from faith.
  5. With these "Old Testament" Scriptures, the man of God is thoroughly furnished. The "New Testament," though it is also inspired, does not contradict anything in the Torah/Tenakh. In fact the "New Testament" books must be interpreted in light of what the Torah already teaches - not the other way around.

Unfortunately, most people coming to faith today are first taught a church's particular theology regarding the "New Testament" (i.e., one not grounded in Torah) and then the "Old Testament" is interpreted for them according to their church's view of the "New Testament." This was not the method of the original Nazarene Messianic community.

To the first believers, the letters of the New Testament, though inspired, were not simply "more books of the Bible," to be read any way one pleased (i.e., ahead of a proper understanding of the Torah.) The epistles epistles of Paul, James, Peter and John were viewed as containing halachtic teachings -- explanations (often to gentiles) of how to follow Torah as a believer (or community of believers) in Messiah Yeshua.

Today, there is a "Jesus" that is preached almost exclusively from the New Testament. Did Paul and the other disciples preach Yeshua using the New Testament? Of course not -- all they had was the Tenakh. The Torah, which is the Word of God, came first, and nothing can contradict it or it is to be rejected.

We are saved by faith alone -- but this faith, according to the Hebrew Scriptures, (both "Old" and "New" Hebrew Testaments) is a trusting relationship that is inseparable from following God's word on how we are to live -- His Torah. Yeshua Himself is inseparable from the Torah, as He is its goal and fulfillment -- the "walking Torah." This teaching is consistent through the "New Testament" when interpreted correctly.

Paul himself says if you are a Gentile who has chosen to follow the Messiah -- you now have a relationship to the Torah of Israel - The Torah that holds the covenants of promise:

Ephesians 2:11-12 - Wherefore remember, that ye being in time past Gentiles in the flesh, who are called Uncircumcision by that which is called the Circumcision in the flesh made by hands; That at that time ye were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world:

  1. The American Heritage Dictionary, Second College Edition, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1985.
  2. The Unknown Paul - Essays on Luke-Acts and Early Christian History, Jacob Jervell, 1984, Augsburg Publishing House, Minneapolis, p. 41.

Interpreting Paul's Difficult Writings
Paul and the "Curse of the Law"