Paul and the New Covenant

Why Paul preached to both Jew and Gentile

Apostle Paul, Rembrandt van Rijn. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Apostle Paul, Rembrandt van Rijn. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

David Clausen’s article, “Five Myths About the Apostle Paul,” in the Summer 2023 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, strikes some familiar and correct notes about the apostle to the Gentiles, but also makes some mistakes along the way. Although it is certainly true that Paul did not simply abandon Judaism to found Christianity, and equally correct to say that there was no “Christianity” in the modern sense in Paul’s day (two points discussed by Clausen under his “Myth 1: Paul abandoned Judaism for Christianity”), this is not the whole story. Here, in response to Clausen, I provide some additional thoughts on Paul and his teachings, focusing especially on the fact that Paul was indeed writing to both Jewish and Gentile followers of Christ. In addition, since Paul believed he was proclaiming the “Word of God” (as he says in one of his earliest letters, 1 Thessalonians 2:13) and not the words of human beings, his letters were intended to address not just his immediate audience, but also Christian believers in different situations, settings, and times.

First, Clausen ignores Paul’s very clear covenant theology, in which he says that the Mosaic covenant was only temporary and that Christ came to inaugurate a new covenant, not to simply renew the Mosaic covenant. In Galatians 4:4, Paul is perfectly clear about this: “But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship (italics mine).” (Note: all translations given in this article are my own.) Notice the “we” here. Christ came to redeem those under the Mosaic law so that “we” Jews (as well as Gentiles) might receive adoption as sons. In other words, both Jews and Gentiles needed redemption.

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You can say Paul was a messianic Jew of sorts, but if you read 1 Corinthians 9:20–21 carefully, it becomes clear just how odd it would be for someone born a Jew in the first century to say:

To the Jews, I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law, I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the Mosaic law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law, I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law.

In other words, keeping the Mosaic law was a blessed option for Paul that he kept for evangelistic purposes at times. But he is quite clear that the law he is actually under is the “law of Christ” or, put another way, the law of the new covenant. This new covenant included: 1) the teachings of Jesus, including portions of the Mosaic law that Jesus reaffirmed for his disciples; and 2) the apostolic teachings of Paul, Peter, and James based on the teachings of Jesus and also the reaffirmed portions of the Mosaic law.

Simply trying to shoehorn Paul into early Judaism while ignoring or dismissing some of his radical teaching (and the radical reaction to those teachings by some early Jews—see, for example, 2 Corinthians 11:24: “Five times I received from the Jews the 40 lashes minus one”) does not work. He evangelized both Jews and Gentiles and was prepared to say, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature [or a new creation]” (2 Corinthians 5:17). Indeed, as he says in Romans 1:16, the redemptive gospel that comes through Christ is “for the Jew first, and also the Gentile.” Similarly, when Paul says in Romans 3:23 “all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory,” he means all.

Second, Clausen further claims that Paul’s letters were only addressed to Gentiles. This is incorrect, as any fair reading of Romans, Galatians, and 1 and 2 Corinthians shows. The letter to the Romans was clearly addressed partially to Jews (Romans 1–3), as was Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians (8–10). Yes, Paul was mainly evangelizing Gentiles, but he began his work in synagogue after synagogue because his message about Christ was intended first for Jews and then for Gentiles. After all, from Paul’s view, Jesus was in the first place the Jewish messiah.

Finally, Clausen makes the same mistake as the early biblical scholar Albert Schweitzer, who argued that Paul thought (and taught) that Jesus was definitely coming back within the lifetime of the earliest Christ followers. Paul, in fact, says no such thing. He believed Christ would come like a thief in the night at an unknown time, which, yes, could be soon, but it also could be later. Indeed, one of Schweitzer’s classic mistakes comes from his reading of 1 Corinthians 7:29–31. Paul does not say “the time is short”; rather, using a nautical metaphor applied to sails that are being folded up, he says “the time has been shortened.” Shortened by what?—The Christ event that has already happened and inaugurated the eschatological age. This is why Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7:31, “the form of this world is already passing away.” For Paul, the coming of Christ and the resurrection of Jesus inaugurated the end times, and there is no predicting how long that may last. The only certainty is that Christ will return suddenly, so the disciples must live with detachment from the things of this world (1 Corinthians 7).

To end on a point of agreement, however, I completely agree with Clausen that the meaning of Paul’s letters is not self-evident (see Clausen’s “Myth 5”). Even the author of 2 Peter recognized that “there are some things in Paul’s letters difficult to understand” (2 Peter 3:16). Amen to that!


Ben Witherington III is the Amos Professor of New Testament for Doctoral Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky and Professor Emeritus at St. Andrews University, Scotland.

Related Reading in Bible History Daily:

The Quest for the Historical Paul

Site-Seeing: Hiking in Paul’s Footsteps

Paul’s First Missionary Journey through Perga and Pisidian Antioch

Paul and Sacred Prostitution in Corinth

The Apostle Paul in Arabia

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