Response to “Might the Lutheran Paul Aim to Keep the Law?” by Jon C. Olson

[1] There is a puzzle for readers in the title of John C. Olson’s article, “Might the Lutheran Paul Aim to Keep the Law?” Would it matter if the ‘Lutheran Paul’ kept the Jewish Law as Christ’s missionary among the Gentiles if the ‘non-Lutheran Paul’ did? And who is this ‘Lutheran Paul’? The conclusion of Olson’s article reveals why the distinction is crucial to the author and to ethics.

… I have argued for the possibility that the Lutheran Paul, as characterized by Westerholm, might aim to observe the Law and, practically speaking, keep the Jewish Sabbath and dietary laws even among Gentiles. With further assumptions, this implies disavowal of supersessionism, room among Christ-believing Jews for Jewish ritual practices today, and for the ‘Third Use’ of the Law by all Christians through imitating Jesus’ Torah-based practices. (Olson, para. 28)

[2] Olson’s concern with the last twenty-five years of critical work on Paul’s identity as a Christ-believing hellenistic, diasporan Jew is its potential to shift the Lutheran paradigm of the proper boundaries of Christian praxis for Jews. Olson notes that this desire was expressed in the papers of the 2014 Helsinki consultation on “Continuity in the Body of the Messiah”. Christ-believing Jews wish “to express election and covenant-based Torah practice in the church” as part of their Christian witness (Olson, para. 24).

[3] Such commitment to God’s earlier and continuing covenant is not foreign to Paul’s thinking about Jews, “… to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the Law, the worship and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah (Rom 9:4-5)”. Would or could the Pharisaic, diasporan Paul have kept the Law while an apostle to the Gentiles? What would be the criterion for keeping the Law?

[4] Given that other 16th century Protestant traditions accepted ‘guidance and instruction’ as part of the use of God’s eternal Law for Christians,[1] Olson is solely interested in whether new research on Paul might invert the values of Lutherans who previously accepted Luther’s insistence that there can be no ‘Third Use’ of the Law for any Christians. Without this game-changer, the author believes, there is a continuing hindrance for Christ-believing Jews to use the Law for ‘guidance and instruction’, especially for dietary and Sabbath practices.[2]

[5] Luther maintained that Paul’s epistles showed that Paul employed only two “commanding” uses of God’s eternal Law for Christians. The ‘First Use’ was ‘restraining civil evil’ and the ‘Second Use’ was ‘confronting humanity with God’s unmet demands’. For Luther, studying Paul led him to conclude that God’s Promises throughout Scripture could not be found in the Law.[3] It is the Gospel that announces what God has done for us; it is God’s forgiveness and grace. ‘Instruction and guidance’, which is the overarching meaning of Torah) must be assigned a place with the Law, because they cannot save (Olson, para. 13, 14).

[6] Methodological considerations

Olson, by making his query answerable only in terms of the ‘Lutheran Paul’, will find his results tempered by the difference in values and approaches between 16th and 21st century exegesis. First, scholars recognize that the language of the ‘uses of the Law’ and the Reformation debates around it are not inherent in Pauline language. Need the ‘Third Use of the Law’ be the point on which the ‘Lutheran Paul’ rises or falls?

[7] Second, Luther read Paul as if the Jewish and Christian canon were complete at the time of Paul’s writing. Luther named eleven epistles as having Pauline authorship since Paul was identified as the author in the greetings. Luther included the following epistles as Pauline: Romans, 1, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians and Philemon, but also Colossians, Ephesians, 2 Thessalonians, 1, 2 Timothy and Titus. Among biblical scholars today, five of these last six are now commonly understood as not written by Paul, but pseudonymous works so identified to honor the founder of the Pauline mission and to help Christ-believing Gentiles find the epistles important to their new commitment.[4] The sixth epistle, Colossians, is still disputed.[5] The result of accepting a more assuredly Pauline corpus occasions the setting aside of some epistles Luther used that downplayed Paul’s transforming charismatic experiences with God, his certainty of a near end time (eschatology) and his preference for extended typological patterning of the experiences of Jews and Gentiles.[6]

[8] Third, when Luther identified ‘justification by faith through grace” as the center of the Gospel, he relied heavily on Galatians and Romans. However, Paul did not employ ‘justification”, ‘righteousness’ or ‘forgiveness’ in most of his letters to his Gentile communities.[7] Would that mean that Paul used none of his vast training in Pharisaic Judaism to speak to Gentiles about the one God he brought to them? It seems unlikely. Paul was fully rooted in Hellenistic diasporan Judaism. Any Scripture Paul quoted or alluded to represented Torah for him, the ‘teachings and guidance’ of God for the chosen people now shared with the Gentiles. Newer biblical scholars have used a more literary and less vocabulary-based method of exegesis to re-root Paul in hellenistic diasporan Judaism. Consider Paul’s statement of the ‘story’ of the Gentiles conversion in 1 Thessalonians. It is typical of the stories of conversion in the rest of Paul’s letters to the Christ-believing Gentiles.

For we know brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you, because our messages of the Gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of persons we proved to be among you for your sake. And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place your faith in God has become known, so we have no need to speak about it. For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, –Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming (1Thess.1:4-10).

[9] ‘Hearing the word’, ‘receiving the power of the Holy Spirit’, ‘turning from idolatry’, ‘obeying the living God’, ‘acknowledging wrath as judgment’, ‘knowing it is Christ who saves them’ and ‘the nearing end-time (eschatology)’ are Pauline memes, most of which are common also in the Torah traditions of hellenistic diasporan Judaism. The two memes that seem particularly Gentile for Paul out of this list are the imitation and example language as well as the connection of ‘receiving with joy and receiving in suffering’[8] If so, then the task before us may not be to free the ‘Lutheran Paul’ from his bondage to the ‘Third Use’ of the Law, but to take seriously all of Paul’s missionary ways and all of his Jewish, Gentile, Cynic, Stoic, Philonic, mystic and apocalyptic rhetoric in an urban setting. To that end, I will focus my response on Olson’s use of Tomson’s biblical work and suggest some other means to the ends Olson cares about.

[10] New views of hellenistic Palestinian Judaism and hellenistic Pharisaic diasporan Judaism

Prior to fifty years ago, the ethos of hellenistic Palestinian Judaism during Jesus’ life was largely read by Christian scholars as if its convictions, crises, and means of approaching God were also the norm for the world of diasporan Judaism.[9] The New Testament was read as if there was one ‘Judaism’, situated in Palestine, in a Greek-speaking, idol-worshipping, tax-demanding Greco-Roman Empire. All Jews were imagined to be under the leadership structures of biblical Judaism, represented by 1) the Jerusalem Temple with priests and Levites (Sadducean in perspective), 2) a continuing Jewish kingship (the Idumean Jew Herod imposed by Rome), and 3) Pharisaic synagogues developed for preaching and teaching the aggadah (exegesis, narrative, mysticism and philosophy in Torah) and the halaka (community and familial practice of the Law adapted to the political realities in Palestine). In tension with these groups and with Rome, to various degrees were, 4) the Messianic socially disengaged apocalyptists (“Essenes”), 5) the Messianic volatile apocalyptists (guerilla fighters and “Zealots” who modeled themselves on the young King David’s war with Saul)[10] and 7) the Messianic Galilean apocalyptic Jesus Movement. Despite the differences in values these groups had concerning God, the sources of evil and blessedness, future Messiah(s), the nature of religious authority and the vocation of believers before God, they all regarded the Temple in Jerusalem as the sole site where a Jew could sacrifice for purposes of confession, of thanksgiving for healing, and of acknowledgement of restoration to purity after menstruation or childbirth.[11] In addition, they all honored the whole Law, while determining that the “present evil world” might occasion a stress on some halaka and not on others.[12]

[11] In the last twenty-five years, research on hellenistic diasporan Judaism’s faith-communities has shown how little of the Temple-engaging life of hellenistic Palestinian Jews applied to the urban Hellenism of diasporan Jewry. The merchant Jews who moved out of Palestine or the Jewish slaves forcibly removed from it to Gentile majority cities in the Greco-Roman Empire were too far from the Temple for any regular access to priest-approved sacrifice for recovering a right-relationship with God in situations of absolution, healing or purity.

[12] As the pharisaic movement journeyed into the Diaspora, they, through their teachings of the written and oral Law, became shapers of the diasporan synagogue, whose life of faith for immigrant Jews was necessarily separate from the Temple. The synagogue, as a place to praise God, hear preaching, and hear teaching about ‘the way to walk with God’ (halaka) became vital for the community’s maintaining their identity as Jews in a foreign land, in a way not as necessary in Palestine. Still, the Pharisees did not have the authority of priests or kings to declare righteousness, forgive sin, or lead the people as if it were a nation. Pharisees, like Paul, in their synagogues and schools were committed to working out adaptive solutions to living as righteous Jews in a fully Gentile world, despite having no access to Temple purity. So, ‘walking with God,’ (halaka), became more central as a visible means of identifying as a Jew, not simply as a Pharisee. Keeping the Law meant staying in a right-relationship with the gracious Holy One in an unwelcoming religious environment.[13] Urban Gentile cities were simply not the place where Jews could pursue a vocation of works righteousness; purity in a Gentile setting was impossible. The Law could not be followed as it was in Palestine.

[13] Peter J. Tomson, the author of “Paul and the Jewish Law: Halaka in the Letters of the Apostle Paul to the Gentiles”[14] adds to the summary portrait above by creating a means to address Olson’s question about hellenistic Jewish diasporan life. He defines and characterizes halaka in early Christian documents to find out whether Paul employed halaka in any way, be it positive or negative. Halaka, to quote Tomson is: “…the tradition of formulated rules of conduct regulating life”[15] in Judaism. These traditions, originally oral, go back to the building of the Second Temple in the sixth and fifth century BCE. They developed in schools of scholars in dialog and disagreement with each other for the benefit of communities of Jews in different contexts, often in the exile.[16] This suggests that the issues behind circumcision among the Gentiles in Galatia had more to do with keeping Jewish identity than boasting in works righteousness.

[14] The recognition that the rules of conduct were formulated by different communities and schools confirms for Tomson that the Jewish oral law was not a unity in the Hellenistic period. Often there were differing interpretations of the written (biblical) Law as well. The two main perspectives, that of Hillel and Shammai and their followers, are recorded in a dialogic format in the Talmud. Shammai’s followers held the more conservative view that Gentile males must be circumcised to become part of Judaism. This perspective seems akin to that of the ‘party of James’, the Lord’s brother in Galatians 2:11-14.[17] As a result, Paul’s rhetorical arguments and the “anathema” set out by Paul at the positions of his opponents might represent several more pharisaic views that were retained in early Christianity by Christ-believing Jews. What is clear is that the contested language in Paul’s phrase, “the Law” refers solely to the biblical written Law, which would be the common core for all the disputants.

[15] Tomson first characterizes three general modes of the possible presence of halaka in early Christian literature. There could be, 1) halaka reflected in behavior or speech of Jews within a narrative; 2) halaka cited in support of a hortatory argument; and 3) halaka quoted in a work based on the premise that Law observance is obsolete (in Christ).[18] In Paul’s letters, mode (1) is dominant in a remarkable way and mode (3), Paul proclaiming the full obsolescence of the Law is not present.

[16] Tomson cites many examples, but one is crucial. At Galatians 5:3, Paul wrote, “Once again I testify to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obliged to obey the whole Law.” This very statement, including, “I testify,” is found in written form in two ancient Hellenistic Jewish traditions concerning Gentiles, Mishnah Eduyot (mEd 1:3; 2:1; 3) and in Tosefta Demai (tDem 2:5) as part of the exhortation to proselytes. Paul’s argument at Gal. 5:3 uses a quote from written halaka to preserve the Gentile male’s freedom not to be circumcised. It provides insight into the position of his opponents, who may represent the more conservative Shammai’s school position. Tomson concludes that in the Pauline corpus, Paul did not argue for the obsolescence of the Law for Jewish-Christians, nor for its necessity for Gentiles.[19] This position is akin to a Hillelite tradition of halaka which had a proverbial openness to Gentiles.[20]

[17] A second example confirms Paul’s employment of halaka in fully Gentile settings. In I Cor. 8-10, Paul’s approach to the freedom to eat particular food with Gentiles is another identifiable halakic tradition from the school of Hillel. As the Gentiles, according to a Hillelite halaka, cannot attain to Jewish cleanliness or purity because they have not been given the Law, keeping kosher is unnecessary for Jews at a Gentile meal.[21] Tomson considers that Paul may have formulated his own halaka for Gentiles in the rule defining a free behavior for Christ-believing Gentiles when there is food “undesignated” as to whether it was offered to idols. It would even be possible for Gentiles to eat with other Gentiles where food had been offered to idols, if there were no brother or sister of weak consciousness (about their freedom in Christ) who would be scandalized. In that case, Paul declares that he would never eat meat, designated or undesignated, if it would harm one for whom Christ died (1 Cor 8:13). As a Pharisee, studying, debating and formulating halaka was well within Paul’s training. Tomson concludes that Paul had a fundamentally positive relationship to halaka.[22]

[18] Conclusions

Tomson’s work shows very clearly how much the Apostle Paul in his writings to Gentile congregations functioned within the rigorous training of his hellenistic Pharisaic diasporan tradition. That training provided wonderful understanding and facility with Torah and a written debate style fully informed by Gentile and Jewish rhetoric. But Paul did not boast in his heritage or his errors: whether circumcision, zeal, persecution of the church or blameless righteousness under the Law (Phil 3:4-6).

Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I consider everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord (Gal 3:7-8).[19] By opposing the possible Sabbath and dietary practice of Paul among Gentiles (“the Lutheran Paul might try to keep the Law” [Olson, para. 12]), to Luther’s analysis of Galatians and Romans on the ‘Third Use’ of the Law, Olson poses a question unanswerable on historical and ethical grounds. How could two heroes of the faith grant a blessing across centuries?

[20] Without the blessing of Luther or Paul, how might Olson’s desire for halaka for Christ-believing Jews come about? I suggest Paul has already answered the “how” in Romans 12:1-2. Paul, after rhetorically dismantling the inherent boastfulness of Gentile identity and Jewish identity by detailed citations of their past failings before God, addressed together all members of this Roman Christ-believing Jewish and Gentile congregation:.

I appeal to you, therefore, brothers and sisters, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable (Greek: well-pleasing) to God, which is your spiritual worship, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect (Greek: whole, complete).

[21] Paul believed that in the community of Christ-believing Jews and Christ-believing Gentiles, decisions were made in discernment together, not separately. The model presented is ‘a living sacrifice’, which was also the model of Christ’s life that Paul presented to the Philippians (2:1-18). Presenting your bodies as a living sacrifice is a holy thing the believers can do by the power of the Holy Spirit and is well-pleasing to God. By the preaching of the word with power and Spirit, all members of this mixed congregation received the message that God declared Jesus to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead (Rom 1:4). As a result, the ethical model for Christ-believing people, be they former pagans Jews, Sikhs, or Muslim, is:

In humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself, and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a Cross (Phil 2:1-8).[23]

[22] Therefore, public discernment in the congregation’s worship is the model for Christ-believing Jews and Christ-believing Gentiles to determine joint practices, not separate practices. According to Paul, [24] each one would bring a psalm, a hymn, a prophecy, tongues and/or an interpretation of tongues[25]. Together, the spirits could be tested. Since Christ-believing Jews would bring all the blessings into which they were circumcised or baptized (Rom 9), [26] there would be much of Jewish practice that might enter the full assembly of Christians. The discernment would need to be, how does this halaka express obedience to Christ? It should not be how do we separately remind ourselves of the covenant with Israel or our life as Gentiles, etc. Assuredly, the church has done much already. Baptism and Eucharist, reading Scripture aloud—all these are shaped by Jewish obedience and renewed by a Jewish Jesus.

[23] One means to read the Jew and Gentile experience before God as similar stories of blessing from God, compromised by human evil and recovered by God, is to note the typological parallels Paul draws between his Pharisaic life, the Gentiles and the hellenistic Jews. The most common meme that Paul uses for all three, is idolatry. Let us consider experiences that Paul talks about as parallel.

[24] Paul (Gal 1:13-24; Phil 3:2-16): Paul received good gifts from God including circumcision, the Law, the prophets, Pharisaism and zeal for God. He made idols of them and they controlled his life through Law observance. Boasting ensued, which separated Paul from non-Jews and non-Pharisees. Thus, he could not perceive that Jesus, hanging on the Cross was God’s Son. Paul saw in Jesus a Law criminal and so his former access to God was blocked by idolatry. Then God revealed his Son to Paul. Paul, who had been scandalized by Jesus, when confronted with God’s intervention, found justification belonged as before to the heir (Jesus) and heirs of Abraham by faith.

[25] The Gentiles (Rom 1:18-32; 1Cor 1:18-31): The pagan Gentiles had received God’s good gift of creation, including wisdom, society and an appreciation for humanness. They made physical idols of God’s creatures, and through human wisdom also made the human male the sum of creation instead of God. The idols in turn controlled the Gentiles’ lives through immorality and human wisdom. Boasting ensued that separated them from others they conquered, enslaved and abused. Thus they could not perceive that Jesus hanging on the Cross was God’s Son. They perceived Jesus as a weakling for choosing to die for others. Their former access to God was blocked by their idolatry. Then the living God revealed his Son to the Gentiles through Paul’s and others’ mission with word, power and Spirit. Those rejecting Jesus, faced with God’s intervention in their lives, found reconciliation and creation renewed to its proper sphere before God.[27]

[26] The hellenistic diasporan Jews (Gal 3:15-4:12; Rom 2:17-3:31; 1Cor 15:1-11): The Jews received the good gift of the prophets and the Law as a pedagogue, which is not a judge, but an intermediary to God. The Jews made a legal idol of the Law while in exile to separate themselves from others. The legal idol in turn controlled their lives by hyper- attention to the Law and made them blind to God’s commitment to be revealed again, as the prophets prophesied. Boasting ensued that separated them from other nations or persons they could define as unable to keep the Law. Thus they could not perceive that Jesus hanging on the Cross was God’s Son. Jesus could not be a sign of God’s new revelation since he broke the Sabbath law, judged the leaders on their understanding of the Law and caused an uproar with the Empire. Then the living God revealed his resurrected Son to Cephas, the disciples and 500 other followers and they carried the message on. These Hellenized, who denied a sign from God, confronted by God’s intervention, found the Law renewed to be pedagogue again in light of Christ.

[27] A comparison of the typological parallels of these three stories shows that just as the Creation is restored to its rightful place after the Gentiles’ idolatry of it was broken in Christ, so too was the Law restored to its rightful place as pedagogue after its idolatry was broken through Christ. That may be the best place to start praying and praising the Holy One and Jesus the Son among Christ-believing Jews and Christ-believing Gentiles.


[1] These other Protestants as well as Jewish scholars and secular academics would represent the ‘non Lutheran Paul’ for Olson. They do not start from Luther’s view of justification or the ‘Third Use’ of the Law.

[2] The prohibition on the ‘Third Use’ of the Law has become understood as a Lutheran position on the Law; Luther would have wanted it to be for all Christians.

[3] Stephen Westerholm, Perspectives Old and New on Paul, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004) 27-29.

[4] David L. Barr, New Testament Story, (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Co., 1995) 71. Similarly, the Gospels were not named for their authors; they have Jesus the Christ prominently in their title or early verses.

[5] Colossian’s values differ from the seven assured Pauline letters in grammar, vocabulary, the heavenly role of Christ, eschatology and the understanding of the Law. The inclusion of a homiletic version of the Aristotelian household code constraining wives, slaves (and children) works against Paul’s proposal about the egalitarian relation of husbands and wives in 1 Cor 7;11:1-16 and the understanding of ‘a slave as a brother of Christ’ in Philemon and Galatians 6:15.

[6] Gal 1:1, 11-12; 1Cor 10:1-22; 1Thess 1:13-16.

[7] ‘Justification’ and ‘righteousness’ are common in Galatians and Romans where Paul is addressing communities of faith that are confronted by the nexus of Christ-believing Gentiles and Christ-believing Jews. The first letter to the Corinthians has a few non-polemic references to ‘justification’ or ‘righteousness’. 2 Corinthians has two non-polemic references, Philippians, one reference, and Philemon none, despite the issue surrounding Onesimus being fully about the Law.

[8] Daniel Patte, Paul’s Faith and the Power of the Gospel, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1983) 132-138.

[9] The material below is able presented in Tomson’s and Westerholm’s work. For the general reader, I thought it best to expand Olson’s discussion.

[10] See Richard A. Horsley, Bandits, Prophets and Messiahs, (London: T. and T. Clark, 1999).

[11] See Jesus’ command to the lepers, “Go and show yourselves to the priests” (Luke 17:14) for acknowledgement of healing. The list of groups also excludes Jews in Samaria, Egypt and Africa.

[12] “Thou shall not kill seems to be the mitzvah most misshapen by the Roman Empire’s occupation. Essenes wrote about killing Jews, Jewish guerilla movements did so, Herod murdered family members. Sadduceans, prophets and Jesus movement members were slain, all before the Jewish war.

[13] See Jack Lightstone, Commerce of the Sacred: Mediation of the Divine in the Greco-Roman Diaspora, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006).

[14] (Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 1990).

[15] ‘Rule’ is a tough word for Americans, but it takes it shape from Scripture. As in Genesis 1:16, the word “rule” means “order”. “…the greater light to rule (order) the day and the lesser light to rule (order) the night.” Thus, ‘ordering one’s conduct for God and God’s people’ retains the positive intent of halaka as a means to bless God and accomplish what God desires, the Holy One who has taken the believer into the covenant with Israel.

[16] Tomson, Paul, 19.

[17] See Travis Herford, Pirke Aboth, The Ethics of the Talmud: The Sayings of the Fathers, (1962).

[18] Tomson, 260.

[19] 260-262.

[20] 266.

[21] 228.

[22] 263.

[23] If all are to consider others as better than themselves, supercessionism is excluded.

[24] Patte, Paul’s Faith, 232-296.

[25] Everyone brings these witnesses for public strengthening. 1 Cor 14:36 is Paul’s response to another letter from the congregation (v. 34-35) that wishes to silence the women by “the Law”. None of the 613 mitzvoth speak to this situation.

[26] Women are baptized in Judaism, not circumcised. This symbol for Christians superceded circumcision as it was inclusive.

[27] Reconciliation is the word for the right-relation between god and Gentiles because Gentiles do not have the Law to be justified.

Robin D. Mattison

Robin D. Mattison is a retired professor of New Testament at The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia.