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Interpreting Paul

Learning About Paul

Saul and Stephen

Saul's Conversion?

Saul or Paul?

Paul's Self-ID

Paul & the Synagogue

the Day after Sabbath

Paul & the Festivals

Paul and the Synagogue

      When we think of Paul and the early believers, we tend to think of them being a separate group from the synagogue, and at odds with it. Actually, the biblical evidence shows that Paul and the early believers were part of the synagogue and accepted by them, more or less, for the bulk of the first century. (The Gentile believers, however, were never considered more than guests; this was the issue in Galatians.)

      In the early part of Paul's life, before his encounter with the vision of Jesus, he was hunting for believers in "the Way" to take to prison. And where did he expect to find them? In the synagogues of Damascus! (Acts 9:2) The believers were participating in the synagogues with all the other Jews. He just had to identify which ones were followers of "the Way".

      This is corroborated by the epistle of James, written about this time. Writing to Jewish believers, he says (2:2), "If a man comes into your synagogue...". Many translations try to hide this and make it seem like a meeting of believers, but the original language indicates that it was a synagogue. This is another evidence that the believers continued to be part of the synagogue.

      It is instructive to notice Paul's actions as he travelled in the Diaspora. In chapters 13-18 of Acts Paul travels to many cities. Typically he will go into the local synagogue on the Sabbath to worship. They will frequently invite him to speak, as a visiting rabbi. Then he will present his case that Jesus is the Messiah. Some will agree, some will disagree. On only two occasions was the disagreement so strong that he took his teaching somewhere else.

      A good example is the first synagogue ministry of the first journey, in Pisidian Antioch (13:14ff). After the Bible readings, they were invited to speak. Paul gave a brief history of the Jews, jumping from David to Jesus. As they were leaving the synagogue, they were invited to speak further on the next Sabbath. Many of the Jews talked to Paul afterwards, and he urged them to "continue" in the grace of God. There is no noticeable dissension at this point. Paul's message is different, but it's very Jewish and at home in the synagogue.

      The trouble comes the next week when the synagogue is packed out with Gentiles who want to hear what Paul is saying. The problem isn't with Paul's message, it's that he's inviting Gentiles to share in it. So despite the protests of some Jews, Paul preaches to the Gentiles in the synagogue, who take the news throughout the region. The dissenting Jews influence the city leaders to pressure Paul and his party to leave town.

      A couple more examples are illustrative. In Philippi there was not an organized synagogue, just a place of prayer by the river. After casting a spirit out of a slave girl, Paul and Silas were arrested. The accusation was that they "are Jews,... advocating customs unlawful for us Romans to accept or practice." (16:20-21) One wonders what it was about Paul that identified him as a Jew, and what Jewish customs was he advocating.

      In Acts 18:19 at the end of his second journey, Paul arrived in Ephesus. He taught in the synagogue, was well received, and promised to return. As Paul returned to Antioch, his new followers, along with Priscilla and Aquila, continued to worship in the synagogue. Months or years later, when Paul returned to Ephesus (without Silas), he went again to the synagogue and taught for three months before the opposition got significant. It is only at this point that he set up an alternate synagogue location in the school of Tyrannus.

      Even after Paul moved his teaching out of the synagogue, he had constant interaction with the Jewish community. He lectured daily for two years, with the result that all the Jews in the area, as well as the Greeks, heard the word. Jews were trying to imitate his methods for casting out spirits, especially the family of Sceva, a Jewish priest. It's likely that Paul continued to worship in the local synagogue, although not to teach. The riot that ultimately occurred in Ephesus was because Judaism was gaining such strength, reinforced by Paul's teaching, that the local idol-makers were feeling threatened. It is obvious from the account that the idol-makers are opposing the Jews.

      We also need to notice the account in Acts 15. Many Gentiles were responding to Paul's message and turning to God. The question arose of whether they should undergo the ritual conversion to Judaism. After some discussion it was agreed that God was accepting Gentile followers as Gentiles. But in order for these Gentiles to learn God's ways, James pointed out that "Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath" (15:21). These Gentiles were to get their spiritual training in the synagogues on the Sabbath. In order that they may do that, James sets out four stipulations that would allow the Gentiles to interact with Jews and be welcome in the synagogues.

      One final example, in II Corinthians 11:24 Paul mentions that five times he received from the Jews thirty-nine lashes. It must be noted that this is a synagogue punishment, described in the Oral Torah. For Paul to have received it repeatedly indicates that he kept himself under the authority of the synagogue throughout his life. If he had at any point decided to divorce himself from the synagogue, he would no longer have been subject to synagogue discipline. The fact that he was shows that he considered himself a Jew and a synagogue member throughout his life.

the Day after Sabbath

Paul and the Festivals

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You reject all who stray from your decrees, for their deceitfulness is in vain.
Psalm 119 :118