The Pauline Epistles: What They Really Are- Introduction

The Epistles are the letters found in the New Covenant that were written by the Jewish Apostles to the communities of believers in Yeshua, the Messiah. Most were written to Gentile converts to this new sect of Judaism, called “The Way” (much later redesignated as Christianity), as well as the Jewish believers in Messiah who worshipped with them. The two exceptions are “Hebrews” and “Jude”, which were written exclusively to Jewish believers.

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The purpose of these letters was to help these neophyte believers maintain a proper form of worship and to keep them walking a straight line on the path to salvation by reinforcing the lessons they were first given and help them to overcome external forces that were weakening their faith and obedience to God’s commandments.

The purpose of this study is to remove these letters from the heavenly realm which Christianity has placed them into, and bring them back down to earth, where they belong, by demonstrating they are not God-breathed scripture on the same spiritual level as the Torah or the writings of the Prophets; rather, I intend to show that they are nothing more than managerial instructions to communities who were losing their way along the path to salvation through outside influences, as well as inter-personal issues within the congregations (there were no “churches” at that time).

Yes, they did refer to God-breathed scripture, but referring to scripture does not make something scripture, itself.

Of the 21 Epistles, it has traditionally been believed that 13 of them were written by Shaul (Paul), but recently scholars believe he only wrote 7 of them (Romans, Galatians, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Philemon, Philippians, and 1 Thessalonians.) The remaining epistles accredited to Shaul are believed to be (what is called) “pseudo-Pauline” letters, with some written by an unknown author, and others (maybe) by a secretary of Shaul with his input or based on notes he may have made.

With regard to these epistles, especially the ones written by Shaul, as we go through them you need to understand that the proper way to interpret these messages is to take all things in their proper context, validate them hermeneutically with the rest of the Bible, and use the proper cultural understanding of the words, phrases, and idioms prevalent at that time.

Shaul was a Pharisee, a “Jews’ Jew”, and he never converted to any other religion or belief system than the one he was trained to know by his mentor, the great Rabbi Gamaliel. The only thing that changed with Shaul on his way to Damascus, when he received a vision of the Messiah (Acts 9), was that he stopped rejecting Yeshua as the Messiah and believed he was, truly, the anointed one of God who’s coming was announced in the Tanakh. From that time on, his purpose for living changed from persecuting followers of Yeshua to making more of them.

When Shaul wrote his letters, he used what I call “Jewish Logic”. Being Jewish, myself, I am very familiar with the way we debate a point, and we see this very clearly and often in the way Shaul writes his letters. I often recommend that the best way to understand what he is saying is with each paragraph, read the first couple of sentences and then the last couple of sentences, and ignore the middle. He tends to expound a little more than most people can follow, and if you stick with the first and last couple of sentences in each paragraph, you will probably get the gist of his meaning much easier.

You see, a Jew will never tell you what something is until he has told you everything it is not. For example, explaining that robbing people is wrong:

If not a law, then I could take what I wanted to at will, and there would be no sin to what I did. I could be forgiven for doing so, since it is not against a law. I could even be congratulated for being a good robber.
But there is a law, so I can’t rob people.

Why not just say robbery is against the law?

Another factor is that Shaul knew what he was trying to “sell” (yes, like it or not, missionary work is a sales job) was a difficult product to push to his chosen market. To the Jews, at least they already were living (for the most part) a Torah observant lifestyle, so to them all he had to do was prove that Yeshua was the Messiah, the one that every Jew was waiting to arrive.

But, with the Gentiles, it was a totally different story.

They were living a hedonistic, drunken, and sexually perverse lifestyle, i.e., having a really good time, and that was how they worshiped their pagan gods. Now, here comes this little Jewish tent maker from Tarsus, and he is telling them to give up all the fun they’re having and live a righteous life of self-control so that when they die, they will be rewarded with eternal life and joy.

Okay, the eternal part sounds like something I would want, but giving up what I have been enjoying all my life for the unsubstantiated promise of an afterlife? From an invisible God? Who sent a son who isn’t even here?

I was in Sales for a long time, and you can take it from me- that’s a tough sell!

So, what he did (as we will see when we analyze these letters) was to bring these pagans along a path to righteousness slowly- a step at a time. The letter written to the neophyte believers (Acts 15) clearly indicates that the Elders in Jerusalem agreed to this process, in that they only required four things as an immediate change in lifestyle and worship, stating that the laws of Moses would be heard in the synagogue every Shabbat. Unquestionably, they were expecting that the Gentiles accepting Yeshua as their Messiah would, eventually, be living a Jewish lifestyle.

As we examine the letters Shaul sent to the different communities of believers (what we would call in Hebrew a Kehillat), we will see this pattern over and over, which is (I believe) one of the main reasons that they have been so terribly misunderstood. By the end of the First Century, when the leaders of what had become Christianity were almost exclusively Gentile, they could not properly interpret Shaul’s meaning. They mistook his negative side of the argument as his conclusion, which will become easier for you to understand as we go through this teaching.

Besides this, there were political influences that made these Gentile believers afraid to be associated with the Jewish population, which was a major factor in their separating themselves from a “Jewish” form of worship. But that is for another study.

We will take a look at each letter in detail and the order in which they appear in the New Covenant. We will discuss who wrote it, to whom it was written, and what the writer wanted it to accomplish.

My source document for the information regarding who wrote the letters, when, and to whom is the “Quest Study Bible” (NIV version) and Wikipedia; any other reference material I may use will be annotated in the lesson.

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That’s it for now, so until next time: l’hitraot and Baruch HaShem!

Did Shaul Overstep His Authority?

In the first letter Shaul (Paul) wrote to the Corinthians, in Chapter 8 he talks about the eating of meat that has been offered to idols. He says, outright, that it is fine to eat that meat without sinning.

But the letter the Elders in Jerusalem had written to the Gentile believers (Acts 15) strictly forbade that very thing, so did Shaul overstep his authority?

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My question is: did Shaul really say eating meat sacrificed to idols was not a sin?

Let’s take this in the proper context, meaning we have to review the entire chapter.

Shaul starts off by stating not all believers have the proper knowledge, even though they may think they do. As for the gods and lords that the pagan’s worship, Shaul says that we who know God (and thus, God knows us) know, for certain, that these false gods don’t really exist, and as such, anything sacrificed to them is not affected by them. Therefore, when eating meat that has been sacrificed to an idol, a knowledgeable believer knows that there is nothing different about that meat. This is why, in 1 Corinthians 8:8, Shaul says that food will not improve or hurt our relationship with God; since sin is the thing that separates us from God, it seems that Shaul is saying to eat food sacrificed to an idol is not a sin.

He goes on to say that what we must realize is to those weak in spiritual maturity, if they see us eating meat in the temple of an idol, they will become confused and we might, in our knowledge that this is not going to affect our relationship with God, cause them to stumble into sin and think that it is fine to eat food sacrificed to idols, which is, in fact, sinful and was forbidden by the Elders in Jerusalem.

In the end, which is always where Shaul finally makes sense, he tells the Corinthians that as far as he is concerned, to prevent his doing anything that might weaken (even more) those who are spiritually naive and might think eating meat sacrificed to idols is not a sin, he would rather not eat meat, at all!

My feeling is that Shaul would never eat meat sacrificed to an idol, or even enter their temple, but he failed to state, clearly, that he was speaking hypothetically.

Essentially, his point is that even if a person has the spiritual maturity and faith to know false gods have no power on anything, especially food, and therefore what has been sacrificed to something that doesn’t exist is no different than what it was before it was sacrificed. However, he goes on to say that whatever we do, we shouldn’t allow our superior knowledge of God to interfere or confuse those with less knowledge and understanding, so even though we know that food sacrificed to idols is not affected by them, we shouldn’t allow this understanding to cause anyone with less knowledge to become confused and possibly stumble into sin.

I believe his point is that it is not so much what is done, but a person’s conscience and emotional state about doing that thing that is important. In other words, if something we do that seems wrong (but we know it isn’t) may cause another to think it is OK and end up sinning or feeling bad about themselves, we haven’t built them up in love but rather caused them trouble, so it is best that we just don’t do that thing, at all.

Geeze, even though I know what he meant, and am trying to get it across in a way anyone can understand, it still comes out confusing!

I guess the easiest thing to do, and this is especially important when we are dealing with the Pauline Epistles, is to remember that Shaul talks in a round-about way, using Jewish Logic, which is confusing- sometimes, even to us Jews.

Jewish Logic is my own term, and I define it this way: A Jew will not tell you what anything is until he has told you everything it is not.

In my opinion, Shaul DID overstep his authority here and should have simply answered the question about eating meat sacrificed to idols with a stern: Don’t do it! But, being a Pharisee, and Jewish, he had to go through his diatribe about even though some know better than others, we shouldn’t do anything that might confuse a spiritually weaker person.

The take-away for today is this: yeah, we know there are many false gods out there, and some people still worship them, but even though we know they are non-existent, we shouldn’t have anything to do them because it sets a bad example.

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That’s it for today, so l’hitraot and Baruch HaShem!