There has been much development in our understanding of Paul since Martin Luther reintroduced us to justification by faith five hundred years ago.
One of the major developments is something called the New Perspective on Paul. One of the aspects of the New Perspective is the idea that Paul is dealing more with identity markers within Judaism than describing the means of salvation. They key would be ecclesiology rather than soteriology.
While I don’t fully embrace the New Perspective, there are things about it that I like. I do agree that much of our understanding of first century Judaism does come through the lens of how how Luther saw his contemporary Roman Catholicism. I don’t think that first century Jews were near as legalistic as many Christians assume.
Although I’m open to some ideas from the New Perspective camp, I have more concerns about something called the Radical Perspective on Paul (RPP). You can get a nice introduction the RPP here.
The specific tenet of the RPP I would like to tackle here is the idea that Jews are saved through the Mosaic covenant. According to the RPP, Jesus is the means by which Gentiles are brought to God, but that the Jews do not require Jesus.
I understand the attractiveness of this. Unfortunately, the church has been involved in anti-semitism over the years. In our post-holocaust world, we need to be careful how we speak about Jewish people. None of us want to make statements that could lead to some of the horrible anti-semitic activity that has taken place throughout history.
Having said that, I would like to look at what the New Testament says. I will return to the charge of anti-semitism later. Does the New Testament teach that Jews are fine without Jesus and only Gentiles need to receive Jesus? What we find in Acts is that the church began very evangelistically and that evangelism was initially aimed only at Jews. When Gentiles eventually came in through the preaching of Peter to Cornelius (Acts 10), it took the church off guard. The assumption was that Jesus was only for Jews.
Another book to look at is Hebrews. Hebrews was likely written (not by Paul) to a group of Jewish Christians who were considering returning to traditional (non-Christian) Judaism. There are some pretty strong warnings in this letter about the consequences of that return. How does that fit if Jews are saved without Jesus?
You may be thinking that Luke and the author of Hebrews believed that Jews needed Jesus but Paul did not. I do believe that Acts has authentic historical statements about Paul. This would include the reports of his evangelistic model of preaching first at the synagogues and then moving to the Gentiles. Paul really wanted Jewish people to follow Jesus.
But is there any evidence of this in Paul’s letters for this? A natural reading of Romans 9-11 would suggest that Paul did see the Jews as needing Jesus. Here is one example:
Brothers and sisters, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved. For I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge. Since they did not know the righteousness of God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. Christ is the culmination of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes. (Romans 10:1-4, NIV)
Unless you came to this passage with the firm assumption that Paul could not have expected Jews to follow Jesus, I don’t know how you could interpret this in line with the RPP. Earlier in this letter, Paul makes this statement:
I speak the truth in Christ—I am not lying, my conscience confirms it through the Holy Spirit—I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people, those of my own race, (Romans 9:1-3, NIV)
This does not seem to suggest that Jesus could make a nice but optional part of the Jewish faith life. Paul saw this as so urgent that he would be willing to give up his own salvation if the rest of the Jews would follow Jesus.
So what if the New Testament teaches that Jews need Jesus? Isn’t that anti-semitic and therefore something that should be rejected?
The message of Romans is not that Gentiles are better than Jews but that Gentiles and Jews are on a level playing field, both needing Jesus. This would be anti-semitic if it taught that Jews had more need of Jesus because they were extra sinful, but that is not the case. Paul admits that God has done many great things through the Jews. But he still insists that they need Jesus.
If you want to learn more about RPP and other views of Paul, check out Kurt Willems The Paulcast. Kurt holds to the RPP and there are plenty of things that I disagree with him on, but his podcast does a great job of furthering the conversation.