A Jew to the Jews: Jewish Contours of Pauline Flexibility in 1 Corinthians 9:19–23

David J. Rudolph Mohr Siebeck, Tubingen July 15, 2011
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It is generally maintained that in 1 Corinthians 9:19–23 Paul described himself as a Jew who no longer observed the Mosaic Law. In David Rudolph’s terminology, Paul was not a Torah-observant Jew. Rudolph, director of the School of Jewish Studies at Messianic Jewish Theological Institute (Los Angeles) and scholar-in-residence at the MJTI Center for Jewish-Christian relations, revisits this issue and argues that the traditional case is not so solid as is commonly assumed. This book is an updated version of the author’s doctoral dissertation submitted to the University of Cambridge in 2007. It is a well-researched contribution to the literature on 1 Corinthians and Paul’s Jewish identity. The book’s primary purpose “is to demonstrate that scholars overstate their case when they use 1 Cor 9:19–23 as incontrovertible evidence that Paul was not Torah observant” (p. 18). In addition, Rudolph desires to show “how one might understand 1 Cor 9:19–23 as the words of a law-abiding Jew” (p. 18).

After a helpful and informative introduction, Rudolph’s book can be divided into two parts. First, chapters 2–4 critique arguments used to support the traditional position. Second, chapter 5 is the author’s own interpretation of the passage. As already stated, Rudolph’s main aim is to critique the traditional view. His proposal is secondary. He maintains that “even if one does not accept [his] proposed interpretation of 1 Corinthians 9:19–23, the primary thrust of the monograph—the reassessment of the traditional view in chapters 2, 3 and 4—still stands” (p. 18); the passage “does not preclude a Torah-observant Paul” (p. 18).

Critique of the traditional position begins in chapter 2 with a comprehensive examination of passages from Paul and Acts that are often claimed to support the traditional position that Paul was not a Torah-observant Jew. First Rudolph deals with passages that seem to suggest Paul viewed Jewishness as unimportant. He discusses the view that Paul had Timothy circumcised in order to win Jews to the cause of Christ (pp. 23–27). Rudolph suggests that “because/on account of the Jews” (Acts 16:3) “does not mean the act of circumcision was an expedient, but that the timing of the circumcision was an expedient” (p. 27, italics original). The best time to circumcise this mixed Jew-Gentile was before visiting Lystra, his home region, thus “opening hearts” to Paul’s message (p. 27). Paul did not have Timothy undergo a relatively meaningless act for the purpose of his message. Rather, Paul had him circumcised “to confirm a pre-existing covenant identity” (p. 26, italics original), which ultimately would have the same results; however, the value placed on circumcision is different. Further in this chapter Rudolph considers Romans 14; 1 Corinthians 7:19; 10:32; Galatians 1:13; 2:14; 3:28; 5:6; 6:15; and Philippians 3:8 and attempts to show that these do not necessarily demand a conclusion that Paul was not Torah-observant. Second, Rudolph discusses approaches to Acts 21:17–26.

His arguments against the traditional readings are persuasive to a point. However, to demonstrate that these passages do not demand the traditional interpretation is not quite the same as disproving it. In fact, the sheer number of passages discussed weaken his overall case. Although many of Rudolph’s interpretations permit a Torah-observant Paul, one could still see the passages as supporting some type of expediency for ministry without demanding Torah commitment.

In this chapter, Rudolph also includes a section that deals with the nature of the food laws. He argues that based on Romans 14, one cannot maintain that Paul believed that Jewish Christians who observed Jewish dietary and calendar law were “weak in faith” (pp. 35–44). Rather, the “weak” are “over-sensitive” on these types of issues (p. 36). One reason for this is a distinction he finds in Judaism between viewing certain foods as ontologically unclean versus having imputed uncleanliness through the Word of God (pp. 37–42). He argues that the latter is the case, that prohibited foods are not intrinsically bad but only bad because God has proclaimed them so. His evidence is post New Testament and related to well-educated Jews. He notes that well-educated ultra-orthodox Jews understood this and could eat some prohibited foods in certain situations (e.g., p. 38). Paul is understood to have this same type of knowledge and this allowed him as a Torah-observant Jew to eat with Gentiles without breaking any laws. The “weak” do not understand this and see such foods as ontologically bad and must avoid them. Paul hoped to instruct them on this. 

This is an interesting insight and a reminder of the diversity of ancient Judaism; however, there are two problems with its application for the New Testament. First, the evidence is late. This does not mean that it cannot reflect practices and ideas going back to the first century; however, serious caution is needed. Second, the preciseness of the distinction may be difficult to grasp. Since this was primarily a distinction made by educated Jews, one wonders if the average Jew would have understood it. In fact, this is more than just educated Jews but very well-educated Jews. Evidence from the Gospels suggests that educated Pharisees made some strict distinctions about these laws, and none of this evidence seems to point to the precision demanded here. Further, one would think such a distinction should be clearly explained to avoid misunderstanding. In other words, Paul must change the common, uneducated thinking about this issue—a task not easily accomplished but if attempted demands detailed explanation. Finally, there does seem to be a shift to more precision in Jewish thinking after the Jewish wars of the first and second centuries. Such concerns would be natural given the changes in Judaism demanded by the loss of much of their cultural and religious experience. It is difficult to see the precise distinctions made here without explicit evidence from the time of Jesus and Paul. This chapter is informative and thought-provoking even if one does not fully agree with the conclusions.

Chapter 3 considers the entire context (1 Cor 8:1–11:1) and whether or not Paul permitted the eating of meat sacrificed to idols. Essentially, Rudolph argues that Paul forbade knowledgeable eating of idol meat. This is in part based on the distinction made in chapter 2 between ontological and imputed uncleanliness of certain foods (pp. 93–96). Meat is not bad in itself, but once recognized as associated with idolatry, it was viewed as unclean. Further, he mentions that later Christians generally interpreted this passage as forbidding knowledgeable eating of idol meat (p. 96). This is another very interesting chapter. It is helpful to acknowledge the diversity of first-century Judaism, but without any proof from the period directly, it is difficult to give later evidence as much weight as Rudolph does here. Much changed after the destruction of the temple and the Jewish wars. This issue could have been one. Yet even if some held to a more permissive view of such things, how likely is it that Paul, a first-century Pharisee, would have made this distinction?

The final chapter on the critique of the traditional view focuses on the wider social context. Rudolph looks at examples of “accommodation settings” in the ancient world and finds some similarities with situations in which Jews needed to adapt in order to associate with other Jews.

In chapter 5, Rudolph makes his case for reading 1 Corinthians 9:19–23 as describing a Torah-observant Paul. Here among other things Rudolph emphasizes reading this passage in view of adaptation among Jewish groups and Paul’s understanding of imitating Christ. Paul followed Jesus, who accommodated various types of Jewish sensibilities. Thus, in the end, “I am not under the Law” actually means “I am not under a strict interpretation of the law” (pp. 201–2).

Chapter 6 is a brief conclusion that summarizes the work. The volume ends with an extensive bibliography and three indexes (ancient sources, authors, and subject).

In general this is a well-argued book. Nevertheless, Rudolph’s arguments have not overturned the notion that Paul’s principle of living like those to whom he was ministering involved abandoning a commitment to Torah-observance in some contexts. However, Rudolph has demonstrated that Paul valued his heritage, and the traditional viewpoint must account for this and not assume too quickly that Paul departed from Jewish practices.

Also, Rudolph has suggested Paul’s practice as presented by the traditional view could not succeed because such inconsistency would be seen as “unprincipled and devious” (pp. 12–13); however, this is too simplistic a conclusion. First, Rudolph’s own position which has Paul basically accommodating within Judaism could be charged with the same offense. Granted, the distinction between Jewish groups was much smaller than between Jew and Gentile. However, despite the example of Pharisee accommodation, certainly some Jews would have found this problematic in practice (as the Gospels record for Jesus). Second, although not an identical example, Herod Agrippa, who as a ruler was loved by the Jews, seems to have lived like a devout Jew in Israel but did much elsewhere that would not be consistent with a strict observance of Judaism.

Rudolph’s task is an important one. He notes that this passage is often used as a “hermeneutical centre” or “starting-point” for interpretation (p. 13; see also, p. 18). This is correct. Many evangelistic efforts use this passage to help shape their thinking and strategy for evangelism. For this reason, this volume will be helpful to those interested in evangelism as well as those interested in Jewish-Christian issues and biblical studies. Additionally, if Rudolph is correct that Paul remained a Torah-observant Jew, it seems to demand adjustments in understanding the Gospel and the role of the Law, especially in the life of Jewish believers. The traditional approach, however, seems to account more accurately for the uniqueness of the church and the New Testament language about the fulfillment of the Law. Paul is clear (and Rudolph agrees) that Gentiles are not required to be Torah observant. It would make a significant difference if a portion of the Church had a different relationship to the Law than the rest.

This book is not primarily attempting to present a new interpretation of the passage under consideration. Rather, it is carefully looking at the traditional view and exposing weaknesses. To some extent this can be done to many positions in biblical studies. It is much easier to expose problems than offer solutions. Nevertheless, Rudolph does argue that a Torah-observant Paul is compatible with this passage. As noted above, even if this proposal is not accepted, it does not affect the main contribution of this monograph, a critique of the traditional view. This critique, however, does not overturn it. Rudolph has done a thorough job of considering the strengths and weaknesses of the traditional view of this passage. He also knows the limits of his work. Instead of overreaching, Rudolph realistically presents his evidence. Nevertheless, one cannot help but wonder how Rudolph’s own proposal would stand up to the same scrutiny. This book is thought-provoking and should cause readers to reexamine their own position. Rudolph should be commended for this.

—Joseph D. Fantin

April 1, 2014
 

Biblotheca Sacra

This review appeared in the Apr-Jun 2014 vol. 171 no. 2 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.

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