It was some time last year that I began to have a major breakthrough in my personal understanding of the Apostle Paul. I think, like many of us, I became accustomed to him often not making sense; being willing to live as it were with the mysteries of God’s Word that I don’t understand. While this attitude sufficed for a long time, in the end, the nagging feeling of I-must-be-missing something big got hold of me.
I kept on reading the Apostle from time to time and the many iconic verses I had memorized from his letters even 20 years ago continued to inform and shape my life in significant ways. But in some very important way it can clearly be said that I did everything to avoid having to really deal with him.
If I had to characterize what my personal relationship with the man we now call the Apostle Paul was like, I would have to admit that it was strained to its limit. I did not understand the man and did not follow his seemingly contradictory and sometimes scandalous-to-my-mind logic. When I talked about him in public, and I usually did that on his text in Romans 11, I often quoted the Apostle Peter when referring to Paul’s writings in general. You may recall that Peter too found some things in Paul’s letters “hard to understand.” (2 Peter 3:16). But enough about the past. The good news is that this relationship of misunderstanding eventually came to an end and another much better and healthier relationship came to replace it. (I since published a short book entitled The Jewish Apostle Paul).
I owe this breakthrough to one particular scholar. His name is Mark Nanos. He is a religious Reform Jew and over the years has developed a great and abiding interest in the historical person we commonly call the Apostle Paul. He and I disagree on both who Jesus was and on whether or not Shaul Paulos was right about Jesus’ ideas; but do we agree almost completely on the kind of person he was, what was at the center of his theology and how that shaped every single surviving letter to the nations that Shaul Paulos authored. Which is a lot to ask from two Jews – to agree upon all that at once! But more about this a bit later.
Shema and henotheism
Almost a century ago philosophers of religion coined three important terms that, for the sake of clarity, help us distinguish between different kinds of ancient views of the divine. These terms are: monotheism, polytheism and henotheism. Monotheism is the belief that only one god exists. Polytheism holds that a plurality of gods exists (more than one god for sure). Henotheism, the view that most ancients held, states that while there are clearly other gods that exist (like in polytheism) only one of them reigns supreme. He is the God of gods and Lord of lords. It is in this henotheistic setting that we must understand most of what we read in both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament collection.
In the overwhelming majority of the world today, unlike in the world of the Bible, the issue at hand does not have to do with which particular interpretation of God should people follow (Judaism, Christianity or Islam). Instead, what was important to the ancients, since they believed that many gods existed; was which one (or ones) of hundreds of powerful heavenly beings (gods) should they serve with full devotion. Notice for example that the Ten Commandments (or Ten Words as they are now known in Jewish tradition) did not prohibit belief in the existence of other gods, instead they categorically ruled out joint or combined worship of any additional gods together with Israel’s deity, יהוה. This, on account of its extreme holiness. is the unpronounceable name Israel’s God. While the Hebrew Bible has no problem with assuming that other gods exist, for Israel there can be only one object (only One God) of their devotion.
This becomes very clear when the following examples out of hundreds of others are taken seriously:
You shall have no other gods before me (Ex. 20:3)
For Lord is the great God, and the great King above all gods (Ps. 95:3)
Worship Him, all you gods (Ps. 97:7)
“Who is like You among the gods, O Lord? Who is like You, majestic in holiness, Awesome in praises, working wonders? (Ex. 15:11)
It would not be an overstatement to say that in today’s Jewish tradition the Shema is not only very important, it is central. And as we will soon see, it was perhaps also unsurprisingly central for Shaul Paulos as well. In Deuteronomy 6:4 we read:
שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל יהוה אֱלֹהֵינוּ יהוה אֶחָד
The Hebrew is pronounced — Shema Yisrael, Adonai eloheinu, Adonai ehad (see my footnote about the non-pronunciation of יהוה).
“Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one!
Shema and other issues
Among the modern Christ-followers who find the Jewish Background of the New Testament of particular importance, it is a point often made that the Shema uses an interesting Hebrew word אחד (pronounced ahad) to communicate the idea of plural unity /united oneness instead of another Hebrew word יחיד (pronounced yahid) that could have been used. In opposition to ahad the word yahid communicates the idea of exclusive oneness. Therefore, it is argued that the idea found in the Shema is one of the early Hebrew Bible pointers to the later Christian doctrine of Trinity (or as some call it, or a close version of it – Tri-unity). This interpretation, whether correct or not, betrays a preoccupation with a modern theological problem that most Christ-followers at some point in some way struggle with understanding and accepting.
However, what must be kept in mind is that this problem was completely unknown to the Israelites at the time of Torah composition. It is not that the ancients from an Israelite tradition never considered the plurality of God being with God (for lack of better language). Of course, they did. Granted it was not Trinitarian (Father, Son and Holy Spirit), but binary (Father and Son) as in Daniel 7:9-14. After all there are many Rabbinic discussions involving the “angel Metatron.” He is the Rabbinic Jewish alternative to the Angel of the Lord in Christian tradition. His presence shows that discomfort with the problematic texts about God was alive and well at that time. Some texts even call Metatron – a second, or more accurately, “a lesser יהוה” (Lord/YHWH). Such is the case in 3 Enoch 12:1-5, while others show that Metatron was (also) sitting in Heaven. This was and remains a clear theological problem for Rabbinic Jewish theological constructs (Talmud, Haggiga 14b-15b).
All the texts referred to above are part of the religious Jewish imagination/discussion regarding what to do with the prophet Daniel that was being heavily used by Christians. Interestingly, the Book of Daniel was finally downgraded by rabbinic authorities (likely in response to the rapidly growing Christian movement) from its place in the “prophets” section of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament to the section of “writings” which is the third section of the Hebrew scriptures. This section, according to Rabbinic Judaism, was less important than either the Torah and the Prophets sections. We surmise this because the Septuagint (LXX) – the Jewish translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek that predates the third century birth of Rabbinic Judaism and the first century New Testament composition. The Septuagint in fact places the book of Daniel not in the “Writings” section, but in the “Prophets,” showing that Daniel was once considered more prominent.
Shema and Paul
There are a few separate questions that may be asked. How can the Shema be understood? What are our different interpretive options? But the question that should concern us most is not how the Shema could be legitimately understood, but rather how did Paul understand it.
Shaul Paulos saw the meaning of the Shema in the context of his understanding of God’s redemptive plan. As far as he was concerned, there were two major ideas packed into this very brief text:
- The idea of the covenantal uniqueness of Israel (The LORD is our God) and
- The idea of future unity between Israel and the Nations (The LORD is One).
From the discussion above, it is important to remember that in the time of Shaul Paulos, people did not live in the world of monotheism as we do today. Naturally, I mean those parts of our world that are most influenced by one of three Abrahamic traditions (Christianity, Judaism and Islam). Among ourselves, we may debate which path to this One God is true, or what religion presents this One God most accurately. For the ancients, our ideas of monotheism, however, would have sounded very strange and troubling.
Mark Nanos in his article Paul and the Jewish Tradition: The Ideology of the Shema, argues that the Shema was not only important but central to Paul’s understanding of the gospel. I suggest that we take this idea very seriously. Whether rightly or wrongly, the Apostle Paul understood the Shema as a combination of the uniqueness of Israel (The Lord is our God) and the future unity of Israel and the Nations (The Lord is One).
What is striking is that Paul was not alone in this thinking. There are good reasons to see Paul’s thinking as exactly the same as that of other Jews and that it would continue to be so as Jewish history continues to unfold.
Please, consider the following two sources that place the Apostle Shaul Paulos firmly within the Jewish matrix of thought regarding the matter.
One example is not very far removed from Paul’s own time, and one is quite considerably removed. Yet both of them understand Shema in almost exactly the same way as Paul did — both appealing to Zechariah 14:9:
“The Lord, our God,” over us (the children of Israel); “the Lord is one,” over all the creatures of the world. “The Lord, our God,” in this world; “the Lord is one, “in the world to come. As it is said, “The Lord will be king over all the earth. In that day will the Lord be one and His name one.” (Sifre on Deut. 6:4, Commentary written 3rd century CE)
“The Lord who is our God now, but not (yet) the God of the (other) nations is destined to be the One Lord, as it is said… ‘And the Lord shall be king over all the earth; on that day shall the Lord be One and His name One.’” (Rashi on Deut. 6:4, Commentary written in 11th century CE)
The only real difference (and it is a very significant one) that can be seen to exist between the Jews who authored the above-mentioned writings interpreting the Shema, and the Apostle Shaul Paulos, is this:
Shaul Paulos, and the entire first century Jewish Jesus movement, was convinced that the latter days — the time of the ingathering of the Nations to the God of Israel (that second part of the Shema) — had already begun. Not all Jews at that time saw it that way. To the question “has Messiah come?” most others responded: “Not yet”.
Like many Jews of his day, Paul thought apocalyptically (meaning he believed that the end of the ages had dawned). He did so in light of prophecy (this had been long anticipated). Non-Israelites in large numbers would now come to worship the God of Israel through Jesus, the Jewish Messiah (= Greek/Latin based “Christ”). This apocalyptic and prophetic perspective on the Shema is what caused Paul and the so-called “Jerusalem Council” (Acts 15) to argue against the status quo which was the conversion of those from among the Nations to become Jewish proselytes. Notice the Ruth Moabite paradigm in Ruth 1:16. This was so precisely because the Kingdom of God had already arrived and the new era of Nations turning to God had commenced. Gentiles, according to the Jerusalem council can and must, according to Paul, remain in the status of the Nations (1 Cor. 7:17), but commit themselves fully to the worship of the God of the Jews.
Note the Naaman paradigm in 2 Kings 5 vs. the Ruth paradigm of commitment to Israel’s God. In other words, they join the commonwealth of Israel as full first-class members of the Jewish God’s coalition without becoming Jews. One can even argue, as Mark Nanos does, that the groups we traditionally call “the Gentile Churches that Paul planted” were in fact Jewish groups made up of non-Jews who entered the Jewish coalition of those who followed Jesus as Messiah. Nanos argues that we must retain the adjective “Jewish” to describe various types of behavior either by Jews or non-Jews (i.e., the practice of Judaism, of a Jewish way of life in some way), while retaining the term “Jews” as a noun only for those who were either born to Jewish parents (Jews by birth) or took upon themselves the full responsibility of proselyte conversion (becoming full Jews by choice).
The Shema as the heart of Paul’s theology
We must ask a very important question. Why is it that Shaul Paulos, a practicing Jewish Pharisee, believed that Gentile God-fearers, while remaining part of the Jewish coalition, must in some important ways comply with a Jewish way of life (Judaism), but under no circumstances should they go through proselyte conversion? The reason is quite simple Shaul Paulos was convinced that his great God was no longer to be celebrated only as the God of Israel, but now, following the arrival of the awaited age that had begun with the resurrection of Jesus as Messiah, must be recognized as the God of the entire created order, the God of Israel and the God of the Nations as well! You will recall that he forcefully argues this point in this letter to the Romans 3:29-31:
…is God the God of Jews only? Is He not the God of the Nations also? Yes, of the Nations also, since indeed God who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith is ONE. Do we then nullify the Torah through faith? May it never be! On the contrary, we establish the Torah (the Law).
The Apostle Paul was convinced that the Shema implied the rule of Israel’s God over both Israel and the Nations. He justified both circumcised (Israel) and uncircumcised (the Nations) and therefore he is the God of them all! For Paul, the fact that the God of Israel is also the God of the Nations of the world proves, validates, and establishes the Torah. In order to understand his line of thinking, we must understand that Shaul Paulos uses circumcision as a code word for becoming a Jew in every way, while equating the Shema (also a codeword) with the entire concept of Torah.
Consider how persuasive the idea of the oneness of God is in Paul’s other letters as he deals with other themes. The Shema, according to Mark Nanos, is really the heart of Paul’s theology. For example, in his letter to the Ephesians 3:16-19 we read:
I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you (Christ-following non-Jews) with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people (Christ-following Jews), to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge – that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.
Or consider 1 Corinthians 8:4-6:
Therefore concerning the eating of things sacrificed to idols, we know that there is no such thing as an idol in the world, and that there is no God but one. For even if there are beings who are called gods whether in heaven or on earth, as indeed there are many gods and many lords, yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom are all things and we exist for Him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we exist through Him.
What is the Apostle’s point here? It is actually quite simple: The long-awaited time has arrived, the time when representatives from among the Nations/Peoples must worship Israel’s God alongside those from the nation/people of Israel in the same way as when they were sojourners with Israel (Lev.17-21). The “Jerusalem Council” confirmed this in Acts 15:28-29. Do take the time to compare these references and you will see that the Jerusalem council did not make a new ruling, they simply accepted the existing summary of the Leviticus laws for the Nations who were living as a part of Israel. This also explains why there were Jews gathered in Acts 15 and why there was no disagreement among them. This was a subject that had long been settled and accepted by all.
Jews too must continue to carry on just as they had done – worshiping the God of Israel as Jews without changing their status from Israel to becoming the Nations! There is only one sure and known way to worship God for both Israel and the Nations – faith in and obedience to Jesus the Jewish Messiah.
Paul’s vision was that together, as Jews and the Nations, they would establish the Torah – that is they would prove it right, therefore defending it against all of its enemies, both foreign and domestic. Paul was so serious about this that in all the congregations under his pastoral oversight he mandated, as an absolute rule, that one must remain in the same status in which he had been called to Messiah.
What is truly astounding today is that if in a modern public Christian assembly the speaker is to ask (as I did on many occasions) for a show of hands of people who know what this rule was; in an overwhelming number of cases the answers are completely wrong. Most Christ-followers today have never heard of this rule. It is, however, one of the keys to understanding this radical, but thoroughly Jewish Torah-observant man we call “the Apostle” Paul.
In 1 Cor. 7:17-20 he wrote:
Only, as the Lord has assigned to each one, as God has called each, in this manner let him walk. And so I direct in all the congregations. Was any man called circumcised? He is not to become uncircumcised. Has anyone been called in uncircumcision? He is not to be circumcised. Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but the keeping of the commandments of God (appropriate to him or herself and group). Each man must remain in that condition in which he was called.
Conversion to and away from the Jewish ancestral ways of life, i.e. “the circumcision” and “uncircumcision” (lit., “foreskinned”) is very well attested in Late Antiquity. People both joined the Jews (proselyte conversion) and some who were born Jews “unjoined” themselves by removing the signs of circumcision. Both practices were highly controversial and politicized. The Apostle Paul argued that this practice threatened something very important – the very word of God – the Torah. Two people groups remaining distinct, but together worshiping the same God is the most important thing in the process and is referred to in the above quoted text as “the keeping of the Commandments of God.”
The argument is as follows: If the non-Jews, who follow the Jewish Christ, go through proselyte conversion, therefore becoming “of the circumcision” or “Jews;” the God of Israel will never be recognized as the God of the entire world. Shaul Paulos came to believe that the time for the long-awaited joint worship of the One God by Israel and the Nations had finally arrived. This was the main difference between him and other Jews both in his time and those of the future.
 Henos theos in Greek basically means “one god”.
 I am using traditionally patriarchal language.
 In today’s Jewish tradition different kinds of Jews substitute the reading of the covenantal name of Israel’s God by different Hebrew words such HaShem, which literally means “the name” or “Adonai”, which means something like “my Lord” and “my Lord.” This is also used of the same Israelite God in the Hebrew Bible. Some still refer to the LORD or Lord, following the Christian tradition, while others insert a dash (-) into the word (for example L-rd, G-d). This serves to highlight an important difference between this use of the word and others.
 There is so much that can be said about how the Shema functions in Jewish society. You can pick up this study on your own, either parallel to reading this book, or at a later time.
 To be clear, this is how I personally understand and define the idea of Tri-unity/Trinity: The One God of Israel, eternally and mysteriously exists in three persons – the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Although Son and the Spirit are subordinate to the Father functionally (this is what is called Economic Trinity in systematic theology), they are equal to him in nature, power and glory (this is what is called Ontological Trinity). At the risk of being overly simplistic, it could be said that the Ontological Trinity deals with what God is, while the Economic Trinity deals with what God does and how God does it. While this is a later Christian systematic theological construct (2-3 century at the earliest), its roots are deep in both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. (You can see my more detailed arguments in my recent book “The Jewish Gospel of John: Discovering Jesus, King of All Israel”).
 As we will see when we get to the episode of Paul’s disagreement with Peter recorded in Galatians 2, the event described in Acts 10 and reported in Acts 15 was most likely in view here as well.