3 Jan 2023

Unbearable Burden? Did Jews (Paul) Believe the Torah was a Burden?

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Exegesis, Forgiveness, Grace, Hebrew Bible, Jewish Backgrounds, Paul, Romans
Not the image of Torah in Scripture.

“Blessed is the one
    whose transgressions are forgiven,
    whose sins are covered.
Blessed is the one
    whose sin the Lord does not count against them
    and in whose spirit is no deceit.”
(Psalm 32.1-2)

If you, Lord, kept a record of sins,
    Lord, who could stand?
But with you there is forgiveness,
    so that we can, with reverence, serve you.”
(Psalm 130.3-4)

See all of Psalm 107.

A Problematic View: Historically and Theologically

I grew up, as I have mentioned several times, in a religious body that had (has?) a “love-hate” relationship with the “Old Testament.” I mean no disrespect to any of my fellow disciples, I held these views myself for a long time.

We in Churches of Christ often shared typical Protestant views of the Hebrew Bible and all things Jewish. The “Old Testament” was ritualistic, legalistic, and above all, a heavy burden. There were after all 613 commands that Jews had to keep precisely, perfectly, in order to be saved (that thrown around number has nothing to do with what is actually in the so-called OT however). The apostle Paul is quoted to support this view. Romans 7 is read as if Paul is this tortured human begging for God to do something to deliver him from the curse of the law!

There are fundamental flaws with this point of view. It ignores the Hebrew Bible itself, which we surely believe was given by the same Holy Spirit as any text in the “New Testament.”  It ignores vast swaths of Jewish literature from the times of Jesus.  It also ignores quit a bit of what Paul himself actually says.

But interestingly enough no one ever understood Romans 7 to have remotely this meaning until Augustine of Hippo got into a debate with Pelagius in the fifth century. A thousand years later, Martin Luther latched onto this reading of Romans and it has become canonical among Protestants.

But did Paul, and more specifically did Jews, imagine that “salvation” was gained by perfectly obeying 613 commands? Did they walk around thinking the Old Testament was a killer of life and joy. Did they have tortured consciences and sleep with one eye open at night because they knew Yahweh had not forgiven them.

The answer is no. And Paul did not either.

The 613 commandments that is often hurled around by ministers is a complete caricature of the Law of Moses and what the Hebrew Bible says. The vast majority of commands in the torah itself are only applicable on certain occasions and under certain conditions. Large segments, like in Leviticus, are given expressly for the priests, not the average “pew packer” Israelite.  And a large amount of these, again, only applied in the course of performing duties or while in the confines of the Tabernacle. 

The Law, and Moses himself, explicitly “reduces” the number of commands that are aimed at the “average” Israelite.  We find these in the “Ten Words” (Exodus 20/Deut 5) or in places like Deuteronomy 10 where we read, “And now, O Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you?” (Deut 10.12; see vv.12-22). Here Moses “reduces” the torah to essentially two things: circumcise your heart and love the aliens

The above view flies in the face of what Paul says elsewhere in Romans itself but his claims in Philippians and the evidence we have from the Hebrew Bible and myriads of other texts.

Paul does not consider the law a curse. In fact, the Pharisee who happens to be an apostle, says some stunning and often forgotten things about the “law.” 

What is the value of circumcision? Much in EVERY WAY” (Rom 3.1). That is a shocking text to many who only know Galatians 5.1-6 (context matters!).

Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law” (Rom 3.31).

So the law is holy … just … GOOD” (Rom 7.12). 

we know the law is SPIRITUAL” (Rom 7.14).

Like the author of 4 Maccabees, Paul confesses, “in my mind I delight in the law of God” (Rom 7.22). 

In Messiah, with the Spirit, we disciples of Jesus fulfill the “righteous requirement of the law” (Rom 8.4).

In Romans 9.4-5, Paul lists gifts of grace given to Israel: adoption, the glory, the covenantS [plural], the giving of the law, the worship [the temple liturgy], the promises, to them belong the patriarchs, and from them comes the Messiah. Not one of these is negative.  They are, to use language from Romans 3.1-2, the advantages of the Jews. Interestingly enough Paul uses the present active indicative here. These are, present tense, blessings of grace. Paul does not use past tense. 

In Romans 13.8-10, Paul cites representative commands from the Decalogue. “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not covet.” And in good Mosaic fashion “summarizes” the expectation of what the law is aiming at, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Paul is citing Exodus 20 and Leviticus 19.18). This is not substantially different than what Moses did in Deuteronomy 10.12-22 referenced above.

So, Paul explicitly names the “law” as a gift of grace (Rom 9.4). Paul, especially, when we bring in what Luke in Acts quotes from the lips of Paul, has a very positive view of the Law of Moses and even follows it. Paul believed Psalm 1, Psalm 19 and Psalm 119. It is easy to project upon the biblical text our own prejudices and problems. 

Reasoner has enriched us. In this work we are allowed to see how Christians for almost 2000 years have interpreted Romans. Of particular interest are the first five centuries. Many early Christians did not understand Romans the way Martin Luther and his legacy did. Good resource for serious wrestling and checking our own unexamined assumptions.

Did Paul or Jews Have a “Burden” Problem”?

The law of the Lord is perfect,
    reviving the soul;
the decrees of the Lord are sure,
    making wise the simple;
the precepts of the Lord are right,
    rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is clear,
    enlightening the eyes;
the fear of the Lord is pure,
    enduring forever;
the ordinances of the Lord are true
    and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold,
    even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey
    and drippings of the honeycomb
(Psalm 19.7-10)

This Psalm is not about Romans, Galatians or Ephesians, it predates any of the New Testament writings by half a millennia or more. It is about the “law.” 

When Paul, the Pharisee apostle, wanted to teach Gentiles that humans were saved by grace through faith he turns to a, seemingly, unlikely source for confirmation: The Hebrew Bible.  The Law of Moses in fact. And then the Psalms.  This move is outstanding Jewish methodology. Things have to be established by two or more witnesses and Paul brings in his two witnesses, the law and the Psalms.

Paul quotes from Psalm 31 (quoted at the head of this article). He could have quoted a dozen such texts from the Psalter. 

blessed are those whose iniquities are forgiven …
blessed is the one whose sin the Lord does not reckon
” (Rom 4.8).

The person is forgiven, and they know it. The ancient Israelite was saved by grace not works. The Israelite was in fact forgiven. If David was a singular exception in this blessing then the entire point Paul is making falls flat on its face. Paul’s claim is that the Law and the Psalms proclaim grace through faith.  And he had already cited Habakkuk 2.4 in 1.17. 

Far from having a “troubled conscience,” Krister Stendahl reminds us that no one read Paul that way until 500 years after he died for the Messiah.  Indeed, Stendahl writes, Paul had a “robust conscience.” We see this with clarity in his testimony in Philippians 3 where he says he was “as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” (The old NIV had, “legalistic righteousness” with no basis in the Greek text. A classic example of prejudice and projection of that prejudice upon the biblical text.).  Paul could view his walk in the torah as “blameless.” (Blameless is not a claim of sinlessness either in Paul nor the Psalms where we encounter such language regularly. Paul knew, as did every Israelite, that no one is ontologically “righteous” before God. Paul quotes Psalm 143.2 in Romans 3.20).

No one can read the Psalms (not only Psalms 1, 19 and 119) and imagine that Jews were unaware of grace, mercy and the astonishing freshness of being made new in relationship with Yahweh (Psalm 51 for example). I could further quote dozens of texts from the Hebrew Bible from Ex 34.6 to 1-2 Chronicles and everything in between.

The Witness of the Apocrypha

But I am going to quote texts we probably do not know. They come from the Apocrypha. Do these texts reveal a picture of a people being crushed under the weight of guilt or do they reveal a picture of people extremely grateful because they were conscious of the grace, mercy, goodness and love of God? I will let you decide.

The Wisdom of Solomon

Those who trust in him will understand truth,
and the faithful will abide with him in love,
because grace and mercy are upon his holy ones,
and he watches over his elect.” (3.9)

the people saw and did not understand,
or take such a thing to heart,
that God’s grace and mercy are with his elect,
and that he watches over his holy ones” (4.15)

O God of my ancestors and Lord of mercy” (9.1)

But you are merciful to all, for you can do all things,
and you do overlook people’s sins,
so that they may repent.
For you love all things that exist
and detest none of the things that you have made,
or you would not have made anything
if you had hated it …
You spare all things, for they are yours,
O Lord, you who love the living.” (11.21-26)

Although you are sovereign in strength,
you judge with mildness,
and with great forbearance you govern us …
and when we are judged we, we may
expect mercy” (12.18, 22b)

But you, our God, are kind and true,
patient, and ruling all things in mercy.
For even if we sin we are yours,
knowing your power … (15.1-2)


You who fear the Lord, wait for his mercy,
do not stray or else you may fall.
You who fear the Lord trust in him,
and your reward will not be lost.
You who fear the Lord, hope for good things,
for lasting joy and mercy.
Consider the generations of old and see:
has anyone ever trusted in the Lord and been disappointed?
Or has anyone persevered in the fear of the Lord
and been forsaken?
For the Lord is compassionate and merciful,
he forgives sins and saves in time of distress.”
(Sirach 2.7-11, The alert will notice the reference to the God Creed (Ex 34.6) in v.11).

Let us fall into the hands of the Lord
and not in the hands of humans,
For equal to his majesty is the mercy that he shows;
his works are in keeping with his name
(Sirach 2.18).


And now, O Lord God of Israel, who brought your people out of the land of Egypt with a mighty hand and with signs and wonders and outstretched arm, and made yourself a name that continues to this day,

“we have sinned,
we have been ungodly,
we have done wrong,
O Lord our God,
against all your ordinances …

“O Lord look down from your holy dwelling, and consider us, Incline your ear, O Lord, and hear; open your eyes, O Lord and see, for the dead are in Hades, whose spirit has been taken from their bodies, will not ascribe glory or justice to the Lord; but the person who is deeply grieved who walks bowed and feeble, with falling eyes and famished soul, will declare your glory and righteousness, O Lord.

“For it is not because of any righteous deeds of our ancestors or our kings that we bring before you our prayer for mercy, O Lord our God.”
(Baruch 2.11-19).

Prayer of Manasseh

Immeasurable and unsearchable is
your promised mercy,
for you are the Lord Most High,
of great compassion, long-suffering,
and very merciful,
and you relent at human suffering …
For the sins I have committed are
more numerous in number than the
sand of the sea;
my transgressions are multiplied,
O Lord they are multiplied!
I am not worthy to look up and see
the height of heaven …

And now I bend the knee of my heart,
imploring your kindness,
I have sinned, O Lord, I have sinned,
and I acknowledge my transgressions.
I earnestly implore you,
Forgive me, O Lord, Forgive me!

Do not destroy me with my transgressions …
Unworthy as I am, you will save me
according to your great mercy,
and I will praise you continually …”
(Prayer of Manasseh 1.7-15)

Wrapping Up

Many other texts can be cited. The Prayer of Azariah and Song of the Three Jews, the first 22 verses, is awash in these themes. Though there is no possibility even of sacrifices (for they are in a furnace in Babylon), God accepts “a contrite heart and a humble spirit as though it were a burnt offering of rams and bulls” for the Lord is the God of mercy.

When Paul taught salvation by grace through faith he grounded his doctrine explicitly in the Hebrew Scriptures. And in particular he cites the Law of Moses and the paradigmatic story of Abraham. He cites David. And he cites Habakkuk. The Law, the Prophets and the Psalms. The whole sweep of Israel’s scripture. The “law” was never a means by which Israelites could save themselves by works of Precision Obedience. The law was graciously given to people who had already been saved by Yahweh’s astonishing grace: Exodus Comes Before Sinai. A redeemed by grace Israel entered into a “covenant of love” (Deut 7.7-9, 11) and certainly had no “righteousness” to brag about (Deut 9.4-7).

Jews knew the God of Israel to be supremely a God of Hesed, faithfulness, and mercy. They knew the joy of forgiveness. If only today disciples of Jesus had the confidence in God’s grace as did the saint who cried out the Prayer of Manasseh.

Romans 7 is not talking about Paul’s personal experience. It is not talking about Luther’s vision of Christians being simultaneously sinners and saints. Paul may have considered himself to the “chief of sinners.” But it was not because of the Hebrew Bible and failure to please a “Technical God” with Precision Obedience (Paul and Moses agree there is no such thing) … but rather because he stood nearby while Stephen was beaten to death with rocks confessing the Jewish Messiah as he died. This did trouble Paul. 


See the following Related Articles

New or Renewed Perspective on the “Old Testament” (Pt 1)

Renewed Perspective on the “Old Testament” (Pt 2): Law and the Story of God’s Love

Renewed Perspective on the “Old Testament” (Pt 3): Happy are the Blameless

Renewed Perspective on the “Old Testament” (Pt 4): Blameless, What is It?

Romans is Not Galatians: Welcome to the Most Jewish Letter in the NT

Peter and the “Heavy Yoke:” Acts 15.10, Law of Moses or Pharisaic Oral Law?

2 Responses to “Unbearable Burden? Did Jews (Paul) Believe the Torah was a Burden?”

  1. JT Says:

    A very fine piece Bobby!

    History reveals that two of the theologians from yesteryear that you mentioned here, Augustine & Luther, in spite of their many positive contributions to “Christianity”, were in fact anti-Judaism. Some today would use the term anti-semitic. As I’ve read some of their writings, I’d just say they were anti-Jew, anti-Judaism. Many, many books have been written, in part touching on the damage of such anti-Jewish positions coming from men of God.

    Your treatment here of Paul and Torah is very helpful, Bobby. As you mentioned, the Law is Good. It is Spiritual. It is Perfect. If me thinks Paul in some passages has lead me to believe otherwise, surely it must be my misunderstanding of Paul rather than Paul speaking out of both sides of his mouth. I don’t believe Paul to be a liar. I don’t believe he was at any point “confused”. I don’t believe he resorted to deceit in order to “be all things to all men”. I know that Paul is at times difficult to understand! (Peter said so.) During a conversation with a brother, the brother at one point blurted out to me, “I don’t care what Paul said. Paul is wrong!” It was pretty much a conversation-ender.

    You are correct. Paul didn’t become a “Christian”; he was a practicing Messiah-believing Jewish man. He didn’t “give up” on Torahism later on in his life as some claim. No, he died for the sake of Jesus. Jesus IS the Word. God does not change. His word does not change. Paul did not have the authority to change the Word or to claim the Word had been changed. He did not. So, it must have been my wrong understanding in past years about what Paul meant.

    So, what’s the problem with faithfully observing the Ten Words? All ten of them….

    It is my humble position that today’s church needs to discover that one can (and should) obey the laws of God, because as you have written, Bobby, most of them, due to changes in circumstances, (not God changing his Word) are not able to be obeyed at this time.

    Besides, his laws and commands were never given for the purpose of attaining salvation or justification. BTW, that thread runs heavily through Paul’s writings. It’s about GRACE as you said, Bobby. Obeying God’s commands are what one does in demonstrating one’s love for God.

    Can’t remember if it was you Bobby but I remember someone recently saying, “Why do some preachers claim that the law was only for the Jews – never for “NT” Christians while they also claim Christians were freed from the Law?” How can “NT” Christians be freed from something that they were supposedly never subject to?

    Submitting to the Lord Jesus who submitted to his father, is submission by each of us to God the Father. Jesus’ fulfillment of the law (not the abolishment of it on the cross as some teach) was his perfect interpretation of the Word for us as to how to LIVE amongst each other and toward God! Why would we agree with the teachings of those who claim that Paul taught the laws of God have been ‘nailed to the cross’?



  2. JT Says:


    At the end of this blog you provided links to six articles you wrote in the past that are related to this one. I just finished re-reading them. What a magnificent compendium of information! And, such a time-saver for us. Even if you gathered everything you’ve read, literally, and plopped it down in front of me, I could never benefit in the same way as from reading your synopses.

    I’m guessing most of your readers here also would not be able take the time to secure and read all that you have in order to even approach having the opportunity to gain the kind understanding you have and do the writing you do. I hope others will invest some time and effort in the links you provided. Well worth it.

    So, thanks for your hard work in which your love of God and your brothers and sisters comes shining through!


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