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If I could go back in time, I’d love to be a fly on the wall to hear how the Jewish believers in the church at Rome heard Paul’s words in his letter to them. (Actually, if I really could go back in time I’d first make a pit stop along the way so I could win the Power Ball Jackpot, but I digress.)

Here we have Paul writing a letter to a church he had neither founded nor even visited and that had a significant Jewish population. And he says things like the following:

  • Gentiles (a.k.a. Greeks) may be sinners, but Jews are no better off in God’s eyes, since they are the ones who have God’s gift of Torah but don’t do what it says.
  • Jews and Gentiles are in the same boat as far as God is concerned because both are enslaved to the power of sin, both equally fall short of God’s glory, and both equally need Jesus, not Torah, to defeat that power.
  • This decentering of Torah to allow Gentiles to become equal partners with Jews in Israel’s story, though appearing to be an unexpected move, has actually been God’s plan all along, beginning with Abraham.
  • Neither circumcision nor maintaining food laws, both of which are commandments to Israel, remain necessary for God’s people–either Jews or Gentiles–in view of Christ’s death and resurrection.
  • Those whose conscience tells them that they need to maintain food laws may continue to do so, but rather than being praised as obeying Scripture, these believers are “weak” in their faith as opposed to those who are “strong,” i.e., those who understand that no foods are unclean.
  • Neither the weak nor the strong are to judge each other, for love and unity among the people of God take priority over whether Israel’s ancient practices continue to be maintained.

I hope one day we find a long lost letter written back to Paul by these Jewish believers. It might go something like this:

Dear Paul,

We read your letter with great interest, and it sparked no little amount of commotion among your fellow Jews.

Have you lost your mind?

We believe in Jesus as you do, and like you we are still scratching our heads a bit about why our messiah came in humility and weakness, even dying a criminal’s death, and then was raised. You’ve actually helped us quite a bit on those things, especially early on in your letter, and we much appreciate it.

But Paul, you’re Jewish. You’re one of us. Do you really think that the God of our fathers would simply reverse course and expect us to figure out that Jesus the Galilean brought an end to our ancient traditions–especially given how (according to the stories we heard) Jesus himself never said any of what you’re saying here?

We’ve never met, though your reputation precedes you. We believe that you are an apostle, but do you really think we should just take your word for it that all that we’ve known is now, at best, an add-on and at worst a hindrance to true faith in the God of our fathers? 

And we appreciate how fervently and creatively you cite scripture to support your point, but don’t you think you took your creative readings of scripture a bit too far? Was obedience to Torah really never central to the Lord’s overall plan? We’ve read our scripture cover to cover many times and we can’t find where God even hints at that idea.

Your reading of the story of our father Abraham to marginalize Torah-keeping is way over the top, and your handling of the Psalms and the Prophets to show how the Lord has always “elected” Gentiles is…well…you might as well say that there is really no advantage at all to being a Jew–like we’re one big mistake.

You try to get out of that implication a couple of times in your letter. You sense the dilemma, but frankly, you don’t do a very good job of talking your way out of it.  

And then toward the end of your letter, when you talk about clean and unclean foods (which seems to be the real point of your letter), you call “weak” those who have the courage and faithfulness amid our pagan culture to maintain God’s holy laws, given by him to Moses on Mt. Sinai, and you call others “strong” for not doing so.

So, what’s up with that?

Paul, we cannot stress this enough: you can’t just pick and choose what parts of scripture you think are worth holding on to.

After all, if everyone did that, there’d be chaos. And where does it end, Paul? Once you start denying one part of scripture, there is no logical reason not to deny anything else. And then what happens to the authority of scripture?

You can’t do this sort of thing with God’s word and you can’t claim that God is telling you to deny what God had told us from ancient days up to now.

We respect you as our brother, Paul, but when you finally pay us a visit, which we do hope will happen in the not-too-distant future, we would like to sit down with you and hear from you more clearly your reasoning process in all of this–exactly how Jesus’s death and resurrection, which we firmly believe, leads you to draw the conclusion that God is turning his back on the very traditions he commanded.

So, those are our main concerns. If in the meantime you decide to write back, could you please work on writing shorter sentences, and maybe not breaking off in mid-sentence to follow another train of thought? That would help us a lot.

We would also appreciate it you used certain keywords a bit more consistently–like faith, righteousness, and law. We see some ambiguity here and it’s already caused us no end of debate.

Most sincerely,

Your brothers and sisters in the faith,

fellow children of our father Abraham, according to the flesh

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.