Paul’s View of the Law: Acts vs. the Letters

The articles in this series of Paul’s View of the Law (part of “The Law and the New Testament”) conclude with a short comparative study of the Pauline letters and the book of Acts. Commentators frequently note a number of differences and/or apparent discrepancies between the narratives (involving Paul) in the book of Acts and what he himself relates in the (undisputed) letters—in matters of chronology, the itinerary of the missionary journeys, and so forth. In such instances, critical scholars tend to give priority to the letters, regarding the information in the book of Acts as less reliable; traditional-conservative commentators, on the other hand, generally consider both Acts and the letters as authentic (and reliable), seeking to harmonize the two as far as possible. Perhaps the most well-known (and often-discussed) historical-critical issue involves the relationship between the so-called Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 and Paul’s narrative in Galatians 2. However, important differences have also been pointed out regarding the portrait of Paul painted in Acts, as compared with what he states himself in the letters, and especially in regard to his view of the Law (the subject of these articles). This may summarized by two related questions:

    1. Did Paul himself continue to observe the Old Testament/Jewish Law following his conversion? and
    2. Did he consider that Jewish believers were still obligated to observe the commands and regulations of the Law?

1. Did Paul continue to observe the Law?

Paul states on several occasions in his letters that, prior to coming to faith in Christ, he was most devout and scrupulous in matters of religion, including strict observance of the (written) Law, the Torah (Gal 1:13-14; Phil 3:4b-6, and Acts 22:3; 26:5). Did he continue to observe it so after his conversion? Many scholars today would say yes, and simply take for granted that he did. However, it must be observed that there is very little actual evidence of this in the letters; in fact, he never makes such a statement about himself, but it could be understood from two passages: 1 Cor 9:20 and Rom 3:31.

    • 1 Cor 9:20—”to the ones under the Law, (I came to be) as one under the Law”. This indicates that Paul voluntarily continued to observe the Law, at least when among his fellow Jews, in order to win them to Christ (cf. below).
    • Rom 3:31—”then do we make inactive/invalid the Law through th(is) trust (in Christ)? May it not come to be (so)! but (rather) we make the Law stand!” Many commentators today read this as if Paul is saying that he and his Jewish Christian co-workers continue to observe the Law. However, there is nothing in the context of the passage to indicate this; the emphasis in Romans 3, especially in vv. 21-31, is the declaration that Jews and Gentiles both are justified through faith, and not by works of the Law (i.e. observing the Law). For more on this passage, see the earlier note and discussion in this series.

By contrast, the following passages indicate that Paul, along with all believers, is free from the Law: 1 Cor 9:20-21; 2 Cor 3:6; Gal 5:11; 6:14; Rom 6:15; 7:6; Phil 3:3, 7-9.

In the book of Acts, there is somewhat more evidence that Paul continued to observe the Law. First, we have his statements generally to this effect, in Acts 24:14, 17-18 and 28:17 (?). We also see:

    • His presence in the Temple (Acts 21:26-27; 22:17-18; 24:17-18); along with other early believers in Jerusalem (Lk 24:53; Acts 2:46; 3:1ff; 5:21ff, 42; 21:22-27), Paul continued to frequent the Temple. However, it is not clear to what extent he participated in the sacrificial ritual; on only one occasion is he seen involved in ritual activity (21:26-27, cf. below).
    • His traveling to Jerusalem for the feasts, at least on several occasions (Acts 18:21 v.l.; 20:16); but note that Acts 20:6 indicates that Passover would have been observed away from Jerusalem.
    • Acts 18:18 refers to a vow (Nazirite?) he had taken, which presumably was done according to the regulations in the Law.

In none of these instances is it recorded that Paul was under obligation, or felt required, to observe the Torah. The most relevant passage is Acts 21:21-26 (cf. below); but even here, his involvement in the Temple ritual was done voluntarily, at the recommendation of James.

2. Did he consider that Jewish believers were still obligated to observe the Law?

Again, a good many commentators today would answer in the affirmative—while Gentiles were not required to observe the Old Testament Law, Jewish believers were still bound to do so. I find not the slightest indication of this in the letters, not even in the most positive references to the Law (Rom 3:1-2; 7:12-14 [cf. also 1 Tim 1:8]; Col 4:11, and, possibly, Rom 4:12; 1 Cor 7:19). As mentioned above, some commentators would read Rom 3:31 as though Paul believed that the Law continued to be binding (for Jewish believers), but I consider this a serious misunderstanding of the passage. The overwhelming number of references, indicating that the Law is no longer in force for believers in Christ, would seem to speak decisively against it—cf. 2 Cor 3:7-18; Gal 2:11-14ff, 19; the illustrations in Gal 3-4 (esp. 3:25, 28; 4:2, 5, 31); 5:1, 6, 13-14, 18; 6:15; Rom 2:28-29; 3:21ff; 6:14-15; 7:1-6; 8:2f; 10:4; Phil 3:3; Col 2:16-17; 3:11; Eph 2:15. There are, however, three passages in the book of Acts, which could suggest that Paul held the Torah to be binding for Jewish believers; each of these will be discussed in turn:

Acts 16:3—Paul had the half-Jewish Timothy circumcised, prior to his joining the mission effort. This has often been seen as contradicting Paul’s own teaching regarding circumcision in the letters (Gal 2:3; 5:2-3, 6, 11; 6:12-15; 1 Cor 7:18-19; Rom 2:28-29, also Phil 3:3; Col 2:11; 3:11; Eph 2:11), causing some critical scholars to question the historicity of the detail in Acts 16:3. Much depends on the reason why Timothy was circumcised; there are several possibilities:

    • Jews, including Jewish believers, were obligated to observe the Law, with circumcision being a central covenant obligation; according to later Jewish tradition (m. Kidd. 3:12), children from mixed marriages were still regarded as Jewish.
    • It was a practical measure, to avoid unnecessary hostility and opposition among Jews to the mission.
    • It is an example (and extension) of Paul’s missionary principle expressed in 1 Cor 9:19-23—of becoming like one under the Law in order to reach those who are under the Law.

There is nothing in the context of 16:1ff itself to indicate that Timothy was circumcised because he was required to do so, as would be suggested in the first view. The only reason given in the passage is that he was circumcised “through [i.e. because of] the Jews that were in those places”, which would seem to fit the second interpretation above. However, it is also possible that Paul was generally following the principle he would later express in 1 Cor 9:19-23; for more on this, see the conclusion below. One would like to think that Timothy willingly (and voluntarily) agreed to circumcision, though this is not indicated in the text.

Acts 16:4—In the next verse, we read that Paul delivered the decisions (do/gmata) from the ‘Jerusalem Council’ (Acts 15:19-31) to the believers in the cities of Pisidia and Lycaonia (i.e. Lystra, Derbe, Iconium, etc) in SE Asia Minor, which had been evangelized during the first Missionary journary (Acts 13-14). The letter from Jerusalem (15:23-29) is addressed to Antioch, Syria and Cilicia; Paul is extending it northward and westward in the region. There are two major critical issues involved here:

    1. Paul’s knowledge (and support) of the Jerusalem decrees. He never once refers to these in his letters, even on occasions when the decisions would have been relevant (1 Cor 8-10; Gal 2:11-14, etc; Rom 14; Col 2:16ff). In particular, the decisions appear to be directly on point with the very question Paul addresses in 1 Cor 8-10; if he knew of the decisions, and considered them to be authoritative (and binding) for Gentiles, it is rather strange that he does not refer to them. Many critical scholars consider the detail of Acts 16:4 to be inaccurate—e.g., note how in Acts 21:25 Paul appears to learn of the decrees then for the first time. More to the point, commentators have argued that the Paul of the letters would not have supported the decrees, especially with regard to the dietary restrictions placed on Gentiles (cf. issue #2).
    2. The relation of the decrees to the Torah. In Acts 15:21, James (the speaker) clearly connects the decisions of the Council with the fact that Moses (i.e. the Old Testament Law) is proclaimed and read in cities throughout the region, and followed by devout Jews (including Jewish believers). I have discussed this aspect of the Jerusalem decrees in some detail in a previous article. It is possible, but by no means certain, that, in observing the decrees, Gentile believers are thereby expected to follow the Torah in a limited sense. The emphasis is squarely on the idolatrous and immoral aspects of the pagan culture in which the Gentiles live—things which would also offend the religious and moral sensibilities of Jewish believers everywhere. I believe that the primary focus of the decrees is twofold: (1) as an authoritative exhortation for Gentiles to abstain from things associated with idolatry, and (2) as a way to ensure fellowship and unity between Jewish and Gentile believers.

The apparent discrepancy between Acts 16:4 and Paul’s failure to mention the Jerusalem decrees even once in the letters, can be explained one of several ways:

    • Paul was not aware of the decrees when he wrote his letters (contrary to Acts 16:4)
    • He did not consider (or would not have considered) the decrees authoritative and/or binding on Gentiles (again contrary to Acts 16:4)
    • The decrees had only a limited (regional) scope—the areas in Syria and Asia Minor surrounding Antioch—and were not considered binding for Gentile believers in territories further away
    • The decrees had only a limited scope, insofar as they related to places with large Jewish populations (such as the regions around Antioch)—in support of healthy relations between Jewish and Gentile believers—but were not necessarily binding on Gentile believers en masse.
    • The decrees were only binding for a time, eventually being abolished or superseded as circumstances dictated, or through “progressive revelation”; at the time of Paul’s writing, the decrees were no longer in force.

According to a strict, traditional-conservative (harmonistic) reading of the New Testament, only the 3rd and 4th interpretations above are viable options. A consistent and thorough analysis of Paul’s letters, taken by themselves, would, I think, lead one to adopt the 2nd interpretation. Overall, the last view is perhaps the simplest and most practical solution, but it is nowhere so stated in the New Testament, and would have to be assumed.

Acts 21:21-26—This is almost certainly the most direct (and controversial) passage in Acts related to Paul’s view of the Law. It must be examined in some detail:

  • The Context—At the conclusion of his (third) major missionary journey (18:23-21:16), Paul travels to Jerusalem, and is greeted by the believers there (vv. 17-19), including James and other leaders (elders) in the Church. Presumably he presented the collection of funds for the needy in the Jerusalem Church, which he had laboriously organized and gathered from the congregations in Greece and Macedonia (1 Cor 16:1-4; 2 Cor 8-9; Rom 15:25-28), and which is mentioned (it would seem) in Acts 24:17, but not here in chap. 21.
  • The Issue—James’ address to Paul is recorded in vv. 20b-25, in which the following points are made:
    • In Jerusalem there are many Jewish believers, who continue to be zealous in observing the Torah (v. 20b)
    • It is reported that Paul instructs Jews to forsake the Torah, and not to be circumcised, etc (v. 21)
    • It is assumed that: (a) this cannot be true, and (b) Paul himself continues to observe the Torah (v. 24b)
    • To prove this, James recommends that Paul take part in a purification ceremony (in the Temple) (v. 23-24a)
    • The Jerusalem decrees are also mentioned, indicating, at the very least, that Gentile believers honor and respect the customs of (observant) Jewish believers (v. 25)
  • Summary exposition—James effectively summarizes the controversies between Paul and Jewish believers, regarding his view of the Old Testament Law (as expressed in Galatians and Romans). Admittedly, nowhere in the letters does Paul say anything quite like the claim in verse 21, though the teaching that believers in Christ (Jew and Gentile alike) are “free” from the Law (cf. above) certainly could be characterized this way. It is perhaps such a (mis)representation that Paul combats, or attempts to avoid, in passages such as Gal 3:21ff; Rom 3:31; 7:7ff. Above, I have examined evidence regarding the extent to which Paul continued to observe the Law himself after coming to faith in Christ, such as James assumes here in v. 24b; the evidence is hardly conclusive, as I shall discuss again below. However, Paul does go along with James’ recommendation and participates in the purification ritual (vv. 26-27), at considerable personal expense it would seem, giving at least a general affirmation of his support for the position of observant Jewish believers. But based on what we have studied thus far in the letters, can we truly say, with James, that “all that of which was sounded down [i.e. reported] to them about you [i.e. Paul] is nothing”? What of the many potentially controversial passages regarding the Law, such as 2 Cor 3:7-18; Gal 2:11-14ff, 19; 3:25, 28; 4:2, 5, 31; 5:1, 6, 13-14, 18; 6:15; Rom 2:28-29; 3:21ff; 6:14-15; 7:1-6; 8:2f; 10:4; Phil 3:3; Col 2:16-17; 3:11, et al.?

Conclusion

A fair and unbiased view of the evidence, from both the letters and Acts, would have to affirm that Paul did continue to observe the Law, but only in a special and qualified sense. Ultimately, the clearest declaration of his own view of the matter comes from 1 Cor 9:20:

“And I came to be to the Jews as a Jew, (so) that I might gain Jews (for Christ), to the (one)s under (the) Law as (one) under (the) Law—not being under (the) Law (my)self—(so) that I might gain the (one)s under (the) Law (for Christ)”

Here he clearly states that:

    1. He observes the Law (i.e. is “under the Law”, u(po\ no/mon) for the purpose of winning Jews to Christ, and not because he is still obligated to observe it—indeed:
    2. He himself is not under the Law. It should be noted, that some manuscripts omit the phrase mh\ w*n au)to\$ u(po\ no/mon (“not being under the Law myself”), but it is present in a wide range of witnesses (including many of the “earliest and best” MSS), and is almost certainly original. While some commentators might dispute it, I regard this as a decisive statement that, along with all other believers in Christ (Jew and Gentile alike), Paul is no longer required to observe the commands and regulations of the Old Testament Law. Note also, in v. 21, that:
    3. He is not without the “Law of God” (cf. also Rom 7:22, 25), and identifies himself as now being under (lit. “in”) the “Law of Christ”. This (being “in Christ”) is an altogether new covenant, as he makes clear in 2 Cor 3:1-18.

The basic principle of freedom in Christ, which Paul consistently teaches (cf. Gal 2:4; 3:25, 28; 4:21-31; 5:1ff, 13; 1 Cor 9:19ff; 2 Cor 3:17; Rom 6:7ff; 7:2-6; 8:2ff, 21, etc), also means that believers—certainly Jewish believers—may continue to observe the Torah, and other Jewish customs, either voluntarily, or as a matter of personal conscience. There is a world of difference between “may observe” and “must observe”—I believe Paul would affirm the former, but definitely not the latter. All of the passages in the book of Acts examined above can be understood and interpreted as voluntary observance. In this sense, the claims reported about Paul (according to James) in Acts 21:21 are false; but there are actually two erroneous claims which ought to be rejected:

    • He teaches that Jewish believers must, or should, cease observing the Old Testament Law—false
    • He teaches that Jewish believers must continue (strict) observance of the Old Testament Law—likewise false

When it comes to Gentile believers, the situation is somewhat different; Paul, especially in Galatians, takes the more forceful position, that they should not observe the Torah, and speaks in the harshest terms regarding those who would influence them to do so. However, this must be understood in the historical (and rhetorical) context of the letter, and not turned into any sort of absolute rule to follow. Early Christianity was dominated by Jewish traditions and patterns of thought, and initial Gentile converts could easily be compelled to adopt Jewish religious practices as well. For the most part, this dynamic has long since disappeared from the Church, and there is little inherent danger in (Gentile) Christians today voluntarily adopting customs and practices set forth in the Torah. I will discuss this point again at the very conclusion of this series on The Law and the New Testament.