Paul’s Jewish Culture: Philippians 3:5
If we underestimate the influence Paul’s Jewish heritage had on him, we’re very likely to miss the heart of his theology. We can see how important this heritage was to him in several ways. On the one hand, the New Testament record makes it plain that Paul was very self-conscious of his Jewish heritage before he became a Christian. His own description of his youth before his conversion reveals that he was firmly committed to Judaism. For example, in Philippians 3:5 Paul claimed to have been:
… circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee (Philippians 3:5).
Paul was a religious conservative, fully dedicated to preserving and pursuing Israel’s traditions. Consider how he described himself in Galatians 1:14:
I was advancing in Judaism beyond many Jews of my own age and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers (Galatians 1:14).
In fact, before his conversion Paul’s zeal for Judaism was so great that he violently persecuted the Christian church as a Jewish heresy. Beyond this, Paul was highly educated in the traditions of Judaism. According to Acts 22:3, he had even been a student of one of the most famous rabbis in Jerusalem, Rabbi Gamaliel. Far from being an ignorant fanatic, Paul was highly trained and sophisticated in his understanding of Jewish theology and Scripture.
Paul’s Jewish culture was not simply important to him before he became a Christian; he also remained deeply indebted to this same heritage after his conversion. For instance, even as a Christian he continued to observe many Jewish customs. As he said in 1 Corinthians 9:20:
To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (1 Corinthians 9:20).
The New Testament records many times when Paul the Christian carefully followed the traditions of his fathers. Even after the Jews had severely persecuted Paul because of his faith in Christ, Paul’s ethnic identity and loyalty were so strong that he still wanted desperately to save them. For example, in Romans 9:2-5 he wrote:
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 brothers, those of my own race, the people of Israel. Theirs is the adoption as sons; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises. Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of Christ, who is God over all, forever praised (Romans 9:2-5).