The Apostle to the Nations

Paul’s message was for the Gentiles, not fellow Jews

Saint Paul Writing His Epistles, Valentin de Boulogne

Saint Paul Writing His Epistles, Valentin de Boulogne. Public Domain via Google Art Project

It is self-evident that Paul’s letters were addressed to Gentiles (note: all translations given in this article are my own):

“We received … apostleship for the obedience of trust among all the Gentiles … among whom are you, too.” (Romans 1:5–6)

“Flee from idolatry.” (1 Corinthians 10:14)

“Not knowing God, you once were enslaved to those who by nature were not gods.” (Galatians 4:8).

“For they report … how you turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God.” (1 Thessalonians 1:9)

Paul wrote to Gentiles, even proselytes (“If you call yourself a Jew…”; Romans 2:17), but not to Jews. It’s time to put away for good the notion that Paul wrote to everyone. His commission was to the Gentiles (Galatians 1:15–16), not to Jews: “James and Cephas and John … should be … for the circumcision” (Galatians 2:9). Paul knew there were multiple forms of the gospel (2 Corinthians 11:4; Galatians 1:6–8, 2:7).

Paul explained that successive covenants did not displace previous ones, employing a qal wahomer (lesser to greater) argument: “Even with a manmade covenant, no one annuls it or adds to it once it has been ratified” (Galatians 3:15). If this was true for human covenants, Paul was saying, it was even truer for divine ones. Paul historicized how Christ inaugurated this most recent covenant “on the night he was betrayed” (1 Corinthians 11:23f). Paul understood this covenant from two Jewish prophecies: Jeremiah (31:31–34) wrote of a new covenant wherein God’s law would be written on the hearts and minds of God’s people; and Ezekiel (36:24–28) explained how the law would be written by the spirit following baptism. Exegeting the scripture for his own day, Paul identified Gentiles (“from the nations”) as God’s people, too. They joined in association with their baptism into Christ’s death (Romans 6:3). For Jews, this covenant was in addition to—and not in place of—their covenants with Abraham and Moses. Reread Romans 1:16: “it is the power of God,” exemplified in, but not limited to, Paul’s gospel, that made “for deliverance to everyone who trusts, to the Jew first and then to the Greek.” Paul’s Gentile gospel was not intended for Jews. Though everyone sinned (Romans 3:23), Jews had provisions for atonement within the Torah. Gentiles required redemption from lives lived in idolatry. “Christ died for the ungodly” (Romans 5:6). Nowhere did Paul tell Jews to cease Temple worship, stop circumcising their male children, stop honoring the Sabbath, or stop eating kosher. Apologetics aside, the claim that Jesus (or his apostles) nullified or abbreviated the Torah is without historical foundation.

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Rather, Paul saw God’s law as applicable to everyone (Romans 2:13). The key is Romans 7:14: God’s law was spiritual and derived from heaven. The Torah was God’s law for Israel. But the Mosaic Torah condemned those outside the covenant (i.e., Gentiles, see Galatians 3:10). In the new covenant, the spirit would instruct God’s people, both Jew and Gentile, in appropriate and proper obedience to God’s law as it applied to each group. Gentiles, like Jews, must be obedient (Romans 15:18; Galatians 5:25) but not to Israel’s Torah (“instructions”). To be one in Christ was a mystical rather than cultural reality for Paul.

Nearly 20 times, Paul used the Greek words for “obey” or “obedience” with respect to Gentiles. Baptized Gentiles, clothed with Christ, are not freed from God’s law within their new covenant relationship (Galatians 3:28).

Those “under the law” (hupo nomon) were not Jews. “God sent his son … to redeem those under the law that we might receive adoption to sonship” (Galatians 4:4). Jews did not need adoption; Israel was already the child of God (Exodus 4:22; Romans 9:4). Gentiles required adoption. Paul’s use of the social plural “we” is a Greek literary device to rhetorically identify with his readers. He, as a faithful Jew, did not require adoption.

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In 1 Corinthians 9:20–21, Paul referred to three groups of people: Jews, those “under the law,” and those without the law. It is historically untenable that Paul “became” like each of these groups in the sense that he adapted his behavior to falsely appear as if he belonged to each. Was he an idolater one moment and Torah-observant the next? Paul was referring to his rhetorical approach: He spoke or wrote in terms and in ways that each group could understand. Changing his behavior in a chameleon-like manner, as Ben Witherington seems to imply in his article (“the Mosaic law was a blessed option for Paul that he kept for evangelistic purposes at times” [emphasis added]), was condemned as flattery in the Roman world. Who would listen to such a hypocrite?

Returning back to Corinthians, Paul did not deny his membership in the first group (Jews) but did deny belonging to the other two. Being “under the law” was not how Paul characterized his relationship to it. He was “in the law” (en nomos, see 1 Corinthians 9:21; Philemon 3:6). Those “under the law” were not Jews (with only one exception; see Galatians 4:4), nor were they among those without the law (group three). I’ve argued elsewhere that the best fit for those under the law were God-fearing Gentiles.i They had heard the law read in the synagogues—the histories of Josephus, the Book of Acts, and ancient inscriptions support this. This is who Paul was seeking there (and was sometimes punished for his socially divisive, Gentile-oriented message). These idolatrous God-fearers had chosen to observe certain works of God’s law but remained condemned by it. According to Paul, only obedience within a monotheistic covenant relationship could bring about the righteousness they sought.

Finally, Paul certainly expected Christ to return in his lifetime. First Thessalonians is definitive: “We who are left alive until the coming of the Lord will in no way precede those who have fallen asleep … then we, those who are left alive, together with them, will be caught up in clouds to meet the Lord in the air” (1 Thessalonians 4:15–17). The general resurrection had begun with Christ (1 Corinthians 15:20). Of course, no one knew the exact time that others would follow—Paul obviously didn’t. But he did expect to be there when they did.


David Christian Clausen is an adjunct lecturer in Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He wrote Meet Paul Again for the First Time (2021), and he maintains a blog on early Christianity.


i. See David Christian Clausen, Meet Paul Again for the First Time: Jewish Apostle of Pagan Redemption (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2021), pp. 63–67.

Related reading in Bible History Daily:

The Quest for the Historical Paul

Site-Seeing: Hiking in Paul’s Footsteps

Covenants in Context

Titus Flavius Josephus and the Prophet Jeremiah

All-Access members, read more in the BAS Library:

Paul’s Contradictions: Can they be resolved?
Paul and Judaism: Five Puzzles
Why Paul Went West: The differences between the Jewish diasporas
Paul: How he radically redefined marriage
Not a BAS Library or All-Access Member yet? Join today.

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