When I mentioned this article on Paul and Torah observance and the common claim that Paul “broke the law” to a Jewish friend of mine, he said simply, “Oh, like most Jews , then”.
This gets at the main contention in Karin Hedner Zetterholm’s article in the anthology Paul within Judaism. Her article is named “The Question of Assumptions: Torah Observance in the First Century”. The Paul-within-Judaism perspective denies that Paul was a non-observant Jew. But what do we assume being an observant Jew means?
Zetterholm spends quite a bit of space talking about how denominations and schools of Judaism today differ about what faithful Torah observance means. Most Jews bend the detailed requirements of the Torah to conform to more overarching Torah principles like the oneness of God, his faithfulness, and the principles of justice and love. Some Jews feel that flexibly interpreting the Torah is necessary precisely in order to preserve Jewish law.
Halakah is a Hebrew word that literally means “way”. It means the teachings, usually of rabbis, that guide Jews in keeping the Torah. Zetterholm says we have sparse information about halakah in the first century. From the stories we have about the two first century rabbis, Hillel and Shammai and their disciples, we can say that it was not uniform.
Paul’s advice in 1 Corinthians 8-10 is commonly used to show that Paul played fast and loose with Jewish law. Zetterholm thinks we should see these chapters as Paul’s rabbinic halakah directed at “Jesus-oriented gentiles” and not as a turning away from Jewish law.
The focal issue in these chapters is food. The problem for gentiles in the Jesus movement was similar to that of diaspora Jews. How can we live in a pagan society while staying faithful to the God of Israel? To keep participating in civil and family life with pagan friends and relatives was necessary and beneficial. But food was a problem. So what were Paul’s people supposed to do about food for sale in the market or offered in homes on social occasions?
Paul says not to participate in meals in a pagan worship context (1 Corinthians 8:4-13). This is not because the pagan gods worshiped have any reality and power. It is to accommodate “the weak”, who are those followers of Christ who still think of the gods as potent.
This is close to the rabbinic idea of mar’it ‘ain which states that people should hold back from acts that are permitted but unwise because they may lead a less well-instructed Jew to believe or act wrongly. She gives the modern example of a tofu cheeseburger. Eating such a cheeseburger would not really violate the ban on dairy cooked with meat, since there is no meat. However, if you were seen in public eating what appeared to be a cheeseburger you might inadvertently set a bad example.
So Paul gives a sophisticated halakah that you should not eat sacrificial meat in a temple or worship context. But if such meat is offered in a market or a home, you may presume it to be desacralized, a part of God’s bounty (10:25-26).
The point for Zetterholm is that Paul is not making the Jewish law void. He is applying an interpretation that was probably well within the range of the kinds of interpretation that would have been necessary for worshipers of Israel’s God living in Roman society.
She illustrates this with a number of later rabbinic interpretations. I will share one of them: The rabbi Gamliel visited a bathhouse that had a statue of the goddess Aphrodite. His rule was that “only what they (the pagans) treat as a deity is prohibited, but what they do not treat as a deity is permitted.” Since the pagans did not treat it as a god, he could see it as just a decoration.
This just gives one instance of what must have been a constant problem for both diaspora Jews and Paul’s gentile Christ-adherants. Just living in Roman society caused one to constantly run up against potential Torah violations. So the rabbis often interpreted the Torah in flexible ways.
In Palestine it may have been different and there may have been a stricter standard. The Qumran scrolls suggest this as does the call for separation from gentiles in the Book of Jubilees. There may have been people there who saw Paul as too lenient. But we should question the assumption that he had broken with Judaism.