Paul’s Warnings Against “Hebrew Roots”

PaulThroughout his letters the Apostle Paul is engaged in the task of defining what it means to be a member of “the people of God” in light of the death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah of Israel. Paul does not describe “the Church” as a new entity that is separate and disconnected from “Israel” but rather as the very thing that Israel was destined to become!  

Jesus was the singular “seed of Abraham” and through Him all the blessings promised to Abraham are fulfilled and released to the world through the presentation of the Gospel message and the release of the Holy Spirit.  That is why Paul does not say, “Israel is the circumcision, but we are the uncircumcised.”  No, Paul simply says, “We are the circumcision!” (Phil. 3:3). For Paul there has been a re-definition of circumcision, “circumcision of the heart,” because of the triumph of the Messiah (Romans 2:29). Paul recognized that the death and resurrection of Jesus redefined what “circumcision” means and indeed what “Israel” means.  Now those who are “in Jesus” are in fact “Israel” (Romans 9:6).  Those not “in Jesus” are outside the newly revealed and newly defined covenantal borders of the “people of God.”

For Paul it was black and white. You were either a part of the Kingdom of God by faith in Jesus, or you were outside the Kingdom of God because you had rejected Jesus or had not yet heard or responded positively to the Gospel message.  The following commentary on Colossians 2 from the pages of N.T. Wright’s new book shows that Paul viewed much of the Old Covenant observances of the Jews as essentially pagan in nature and definitely outside of the Kingdom of God. Paul was sternly warning his readers against being seduced into the observances of the “old wineskin” of Old Covenant Judaism as practiced in the synagogues.

N. T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, 2013, Chapter 10, Section 4-iii-f (bold emphasis mine -P.G.)

Colossians 2

The main emphases of Colossians 2, I suggest, belong with, and only with, a coded description of the world of the synagogue. After the initial warning in verse 8, to which we shall return, Paul has three basic points to make.

First, those who belong to the king, the Messiah, are fulfilled in him, that is, in the one in whom ‘all the full measure of divinity has taken up bodily residence’ (verse 9). That, as we saw in the previous chapter, is temple-language. Jesus is the true Temple, and those who belong to him somehow share in that identity. Second, the Colossian Christians have already been ‘circumcised’ – but it is a new sort of ‘circumcision’, which involves not cutting off the foreskin but putting off ‘the body of the flesh’, the old solidarity of ‘fleshly’ identity. This has happened in baptism, in which they have died and been raised with the Messiah (verses 11-12). Third, the Torah, which had formerly stood against them because of their being ‘gentiles’, has nothing more to say against them, since God has dealt with that whole problem through the Messiah’s cross (verses 14-15). Once we cut through the complex language, these are the three things he wants to get across, and they are striking indeed: Temple, circumcision, Torah. This can only be a veiled warning against the attractions of the Jewish way of life.

The specific warnings which follow have the same basic DNA. Questions of food and drink, or specific holy days including Sabbaths, are much more likely to be part of a Jewish system than anything else (verses 16-19). Specific regulations about what may and may not be touched, tasted or even handled occur in many religious and social cultures and customs, but verses 20-23 go well with the general tenor of Diaspora Judaism, as many of the commentators already referred to have explored. And the echoes of Galatians and Romans at many points (e.g. the lining up in verse 8 of the stoicheia with the ‘traditions’ that might be enticing them, and the dying and rising in baptism) indicate further that we are in the right area…

…The case I have made before, and repeat here, is that Paul is doing again what he began to do in Galatians. He is describing the life of the synagogue as if it were, in effect, a form of paganism, enslaved to the stoicheia and to the kind of dietary and calendrical observances that went with that, and describing the Messiah’s people by contrast as those who had escaped that slavery through sharing in his death and resurrection…

…The key point here, apart from the focus of the basic argument on Temple, circumcision and Torah, is buried in verse 8. We have seen elsewhere that Paul, as part of his redefinition of election, is capable of using or even coining puns to make his point… My proposal is that he has here used a very rare word for a very precise purpose. ‘Watch out,’ he says, ‘that nobody uses philosophy … to take you captive.’ The word he uses for ‘take captive’ is sylagogein, here in the present participle sylagogen; it is the only occurrence of the word in all early Christian literature, and indeed one of only three surviving occurrences of the word from across the many centuries of ancient Greek. Paul had other words available to him if he wanted to say ‘take prisoner’ or ‘enslave’. Why would he choose such an unusual term here?


My proposal is to treat the word as an ironic pun on the Greek word synagoge… ‘Watch out,’ he might be saying, ‘that there isn’t anybody there who might “en-synagogue” you.’ … ho synagogon, as opposed to … ho sylagogon. Paul’s letters were of course designed to be read out loud, and phonetically the two are extremely close…

…Paul is consciously remolding the entire notion of election around the Messiah, and he is well aware of the extraordinary theological task he is undertaking. We should not be surprised if in the process he attempts also some mildly extraordinary verbal tasks, in order to embody, as well as to express, the revolution he sees taking place.


This revolution was the transition from the “old wineskin” of strict observance of the Old Covenant forms to the “new wineskin” of the New Covenant whose membership is based, not on “Temple, circumcision, and Torah-observance”, but on faith in the finished work of the Messiah, Jesus.

13 thoughts on “Paul’s Warnings Against “Hebrew Roots”

  1. Peter,
    I 100% agree with this post. I love NT Wright’s idea regarding the warning to not them “en-synagogue” you. That is quite a revelation.
    If you remember, I used NT Wright’s work heavily in writing the first chapter of Then His Voice Shook the Earth, regarding the reason for Paul’s journey to Arabia from Damascus after his conversion. This led, in my view, to Paul’s revelation of the mystery of the rapture and it’s connection with a final shaking of the earth at the last trumpet.


  2. The New Covenant is the Torah written in our hearts, a profound and simple teaching; To Love Father with all that defines us and to Love our Neighbor as yourself. As you live this out in your life, obedience and Holiness are a result of, not an obligation.


  3. I am not so quick to jump on the N.T. Wright bandwagon. I believe the so-called “new perspective” on Paul has some serious flaws and “justification by faith alone” is one of the main issues. In the traditional protestant perspective of Romans, Paul was understood to be arguing that Christians’ good works would not factor into their salvation, only their faith. According to the new perspective (advocated by Wright and others), Paul was questioning only observances such as circumcision and dietary laws, not good works in general. Thus, we get something disturbingly close to Roman Catholic theology where works play a role in justification.

    Here are some links:

    NT Wright vs. James White on Unbelievable radio show:
    Doug Wilson:


    Al Mohler:


  4. Question , if paul thought that the jewish traditions were enslaving then why does he say in
    acts 18 21 But bade them farewell, saying, I must by all means keep this feast that comes in Jerusalem
    acts 20 16 For Paul had decided to sail past Ephesus, so that he might not have to spend time in Asia, for he was hastening to be at Jerusalem, if possible, on the day of Pentecost
    and in
    1 cor 5 8 observes feast of unleaven bread
    1 thess 5 1 concerning times and seasons ……the word seasons
    is strongs g2540 and means the jewish holiday and connects it to the day of the lord ?????


  5. Jeff, it is obvious that Paul’s agenda made him eager to go to Jerusalem for that particular holiday. Paul went to show James and the other leaders at Jerusalem what the Lord had done among the Gentiles. (Acts 18:6). That was his plan. He received the Apostles’ judgement in Acts 21:25 in which the Law of Moses was abridged, “As touching the Gentiles which believe, we have written and concluded that they observe no such thing, save only that they keep themselves from things offered to idols, and from blood, and from strangled, and from fornication” (Acts 21:25). Yeah, Paul was pumped.

    Peter, I find the whole discourse over the word sylagogein a rather fascinating tidbit. Syl- “take away +verb stem and suffix -agog-ein. Sylagogein means “to seize, to carry off plunder, to take captive.” Synagogein is merely syn- “with, together” + noun stem and suffix -agog-ein. Synagogein thus means “to collect, unite, gather, go to a meeting, go to the synagogue.” The comparison of the two words is significant and rather interesting as a meditation.


  6. Jesus challenged the old ways because they Jews of the time had strayed from the Torah – the Torah is God’s Law and therefore, as I understand it, a duty of all believers in God and Jesus. Some of this article misses the point – the Jews at this time were not Torah observant – they had added all there own rules and were missing the point – the point being you obey the laws of God out of love of God and not out of duty to the law – hence the remark circumcision of the heart i.e. love of God is first and foremost and from this love we then obey God’s laws (b/c we want to b/c we love him). Jesus himself said he had not come to do away with the law and he also said he is the alpha and the omega – the beginning and the end – and in the beginning God set out his law.
    If we do away with the law, as many modern Christians do, we are essentially saying parts of the bible are only relevant to certain times and peoples – this relativism does not speak to the universal wisdom of God (as by definition, such a view contradicts any notion of universal truth) and leaves the door open I think to Christian theological relativism which is VERY dangerous.
    But Peter – love your work.


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