Paul and the Gentile Problem

This post is part of an ongoing series on Paul and Pneuma, Justin and Judaism.

The status of the Gentiles within the Jesus Movement seems to have become a topic of concern soon after the death and resurrection appearances of Jesus in the mid-30’s CE. By the time Paul began his missionary work, likely in the late 40’s, at least two perspectives on the “Gentile Problem” (if Gentiles could belong to the Jesus community) had congealed. The first option was that Gentiles had to become religious Jews[1] in order to be saved. Paul’s opponents in Galatia seem to have held this view (Gal. 1:6-3:14), which was apparently a fairly common Jewish perspective on what God-Fearers had to do in order to become Jews.[2] The second perspective on the “Gentile Problem” argued that Gentiles and Jews alike could belong to the movement. In this view, “Through the death and resurrection of Christ, the God of Israel has called the gentiles to be his people…. [The] gentiles have been adopted as sons and made into a laos of the God of Israel, a position previously occupied by the Israelites alone.”[3] In years past, some (primarily Protestant) scholars believed a third perspective existed, namely, that the Gentiles had supplanted the Jews as the People of God.[4] As we will see below, this view incorrectly read later Christian arguments back into the earliest years of the Jesus Movement.

Most modern scholarship rightly affirms Paul’s location within the second perspective: both Jews and Gentile could belong to the Jesus Movement. Exactly how this worked, however, has been open to considerable debate. For years, the so-called “Lutheran View” of Paul dominated Biblical Studies, claiming that Jesus did away with Judaism qua Judaism and replaced the Jewish Law with a faith-centered Law of Christ. In this view, Jesus Followers—Jews and Gentiles alike—were freed from the shackles of rote legalism and the burden of the Jewish old covenant. In recent decades, however, this perspective has been challenged by the New Perspective on Paul. New Perspective scholars such as E.P. Sanders, Krister Stendhal, James Dunn, and N.T. Wright argue that the failure of Israel centered on its ethnocentrism and that the Christian innovation extended the people of God category to Gentiles as well.[5] In this view, Paul’s statement in Gal 3:28 was paradigmatic: there is no longer Jew or Greek in Christ, for ethnic identity has been done away with. The New Perspective on Paul has not convinced everyone, least of all those belonging to the Paul within Judaism school of thought. For this viewpoint ethnic identity remains—Jews and Gentiles were separate peoples as they had been since the time of Abraham—but these differences are surpassed by the Christ event, which makes Gentiles “descendants of Abraham, adopted sons of God and coheirs with Christ.”[6] Jesus makes possible Gentile inclusion and Judaism rightly understood[7] still grants access to God.

This series proceeds on the basis of the Paul within Judaism perspective. To flesh out this viewpoint further, being in-Christ does not negate ethnic identity, for Paul can still use terminology of Ioudaioi and ethnoi meaningfully in his letters.[8] Kinship and ethnicity are not merely metaphorical but instead constitute fundamental identity characteristics which impact one’s status before God. Christ Followers are always simultaneously ethnic—Roman, Greek, or Jewish—and their salvation must be articulated in terms of their identity, not apart from it.[9] This is why circumcision became such a sticking point for Paul and the early Church, for it inappropriately blurred Jewish and Gentile identity.[10] Indeed, the only correct way to establish veritable identity in the people of God comes through Christ, who brings Gentiles into the genealogy of Abraham and faithful relationship with God.[11] In the letters of Paul, the Christ event inaugurated the inclusion of the Gentiles within the People of God, though not at the expense of Israel. Faithfulness to Christ means faithfulness to God and—if you are a Jew—faithfulness to the covenant of Israel. This concept of the boundaries of the Jesus community would not be translated into the thinking of many later Christians.


[1] For an outline of the history and parameters of Jews and Judaism in Late Antiquity, see Lee I. Levine, “Jewish Identities in Antiquity: An Introductory Essay” in Jewish Identities in Antiquity: Studies in Memory of Menahem Stern (ed. L.I. Levine and D.R. Schwartz, Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2009).

[2] Matthew Thiessen, Paul and the Gentile Problem (Oxford: OUP, 2016), 115.

[3] Caroline Johnson Hodge, If Sons, Then Heirs: A Study of Kinship and Ethnicity in the Letters of Paul (Oxford: OUP, 2007), 3.

[4] Johnson Hodge, 7. Joel Willitts, “Paul and Jewish Christians in the Second Century” in Paul and the Second Century (ed. M.F. Bird and J.R. Dodson, LNTS 412, London: Bloomsbury, 2011), 140, 167. Building from F.C. Baur, this school often posited a radical divergence between Jewish Christianity and Pauline Christianity, a dichotomy in which to be a Jewish Christian was to be anti-Paul and (by extension) anti-grace.

[5] E.P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977). Krister Stendhal, Paul Among Jews and Gentiles and Other Essays (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1979). James D.G. Dunn, The New Perspective on Paul (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008). N.T. Wright, Paul: In Fresh Perspective (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005).

[6] Johnson Hodge, 5. Caroline Johnson Hodge, “Apostle to the Gentiles: Constructions of Paul’s Identity,” Biblical Interpretation 13.3 (2005): 276. Lloyd Gaston, Paul and the Torah (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1987), 23f. William S. Campbell, “Gentile Identity and Transformation in Christ According to Paul” in The Making of Christianity: Conflicts, Contacts, and Constructions: Essays in Honor of Bengt Holmberg (ed. M. Zetterholm and S. Byrskog, Winona Lake, I.N.: Eisenbrauns, 2012), 38-9. (here and throughout: don’t separate secondary sources by periods – use commas or semi-colons)

[7] The Messiah has come!

[8] Gal. 2.15, Rom. 11.1-2, 26. Johnson Hodge 4, 9, 43. Johnson Hodge, “Apostle,” 271. See also Gal. 1.16, 2.7-9; Rom. 1.5-6, 13, 11.13, 15.1-6. “Followers of Christ are not a new creation in the sense that their past is entirely annulled or negated, and that there are multiple identities in Christ.” See William S. Campbell, Paul and the Creation of Christian Identity (London: T&T Clark, 2008), 14.

[9] Johnson Hodge, 9.

[10] Gal. 5.2-15. Rom. 2.25-29. Mark D. Nanos, The Mystery of Romans: The Jewish Context of Paul’s Letter (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996), 337-71. Mark D. Nanos, The Irony of Galatians: Paul’s Letter in First-Century Context (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2002), 152-4.

[11] Johnson Hodge, 5, 151. Campbell, “Gentile Identity,” 38-9.

Published by Jacob J. Prahlow

Husband of Hayley. Dad of Bree and Judah. Lead pastor at Arise Church. MATS from Saint Louis University, MA from Wake Forest University, BA from Valparaiso University. Theologian and writer here and at Conciliar Post. Find me on social at @pastorjakestl

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