Paul And The Jewish Tradition: The Ideology Of The Shema

By Mark D. Nanos

Shema Israel, Adonai Elohenu, Adonai Echad:
“Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.”

The Shema Israel has arguably been the most important ideological claim of Judaism since early Israelite history. This call to listen to God is followed by the injunction to love God, that is, to be loyal and serve with all of the effort one can summon. This call includes both observance, and reflection, kavannah, the intention of the heart. It captures the very essence of Torah, the Teachings of God that Israel is, on behalf of all humankind, privileged, but also responsible, to listen to, and embody.

To this day, the Shema Israel is uttered in sacred prayer twice a day. Jewish children learn it as their first prayer, and Jews hope that it will be the last words on their lips. R. Akiva recited the Shema when executed by the Romans following the failed Second Revolt against Rome, understanding the commandment to loyalty “with all thy soul” to signify “even if He takes thy soul,” and the call to martyrdom continues in subsequent interpretive tradition….


What does all of this Jewish tradition about the oneness of God have to do with Paul? I submit that the Shema Israel is the central conviction of Paul’s theology.

He often refers to God’s oneness at critical points in arguments. It functions theologically and polemically. But he does not really explain the Shema as much as appeal to it, suggesting that for Paul the concept of God’s oneness functions at the ideological level. Its explanatory power is assumed to be self-evident. This is true not only for himself, but his arguments presume it to be the case for his audiences also. Yet that would not work for those unfamiliar with its propositional bases, or importance in Jewish communal life and liturgy.

In other words, while most interpreters of Paul and most discussions of a topic like “Paul and the Jewish tradition” would be concerned to show how Paul emerged from the Judaism of his time, they would do so from a conceptual framework in which Paul is no longer a representative of Judaism, but of a new religion, Christianity. Instead, I suggest that Paul practiced Judaism, and his groups represented a Jewish coalition upholding that the end of the ages had dawned, and thus, that the awaited day when members of the other nations would turn to Israel’s God as the one God of all humankind had arrived. He spoke for a Jewish subgroup that upheld faith in Christ, to be sure, but this was not a new religion, nor did he imagine that it would ever be one. He was a reformer, involved in the restoration of Israel, and the gathering of the nations initiated thereby…

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  1. Jane Z. Mazzola

    Reading Mark Nanos’ well thought out, detailed article @ Paul has helped my understanding of some of Paul’s more difficult passages of Romans. Also, the interesting comments here are enlightening. Much good fodder to consider!
    Thank you all.

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Not an easy read, but I am glad you did this. 🙂

  2. Esmarelda Adams

    Whenever I think about Paul, I see this man who was highly educated in Judaism, so when he converted to Father God, he left the community, for 3 years- to rethink the Gospel against the backdrop of Judaism, until he had clarity about the Gospel. So much so, that he knew way too much, and when he spoke, he forgot that nobody had the insight of relevant points, like him. He speaks like an adult to a child, not explaining from the beginning to the end, how he arrived at THIS answer, and now we have to figure the rationale out…. Not an easy task!

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      An interesting analogy.

  3. Paul Herman

    I agree that Paul practiced Judaism. And that he prevented non-Jews from converting to Judaism but to remain members of their own nations. I think God allowed that to happen to fulfill Zechariah 4:1-3, where the two olive trees feeding the golden lampstand represent the Jewish believers in Yeshua on one side and the non-Jewish believers in Jesus on the other side. Unfortunately, the sinfulness of man produced the religions of Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism with separate rigid doctrines.

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      I am glad we see things in a similar way.

  4. Robert Tan

    Did Paul understand “The Lord” in the verse as God, the Father, or the Lord Jesus Christ? Is it correct if Christians understand YHWH, the subject of the Shema verse, as the Lord Jesus Christ?

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      If to them he is one and the same then I personally do not see a problem. My opinion.

      1. Mary Yeh

        I just finished reading a comment by Oswald Chambers: “There is only one God for the Christian, and He is Jesus Christ.” I believe this.

        1. Paul Herman

          There is one God and his name is YHVH or Adonai and his is made up of three persons: the Father, the Son (Jesus) and the Holy Spirit. To say that Jesus is the only God is to deny the Trinity. Jesus is fully God, as well as the Father and the Holy Spirit, and the name Jesus the only name which one can be saved. So I hope this clears up the confusion.

  5. Jason Lee

    Thank you for your many insights and many things to yet think about. While the argument seems to be for Paul reforming within existing Judaism was he really succeeding to accomplish that? Didn’t most of his synagogue confrontations yield rejection? Certainly he would want Israel to wake up to their messiah and embrace this new covenant. But they largely didn’t so I don’t see how he could carry on with a message of “embrace Jesus but remain Jewish”. If Jesus is the perfect sacrifice, greater than the prophets, greater than the priests, and greater than the temple how can Paul preach for Jews to carry on without radical change?

    In the event that the Jewish elite deny Jesus’s message and fail to offer guidance, how does the Jewish population know how to embrace the old covenant and the new covenant? I thought much of Paul’s letters were a response to Jews who started to believe in Jesus but turned back to Judaism not wanting to give up their old covenant identity. Wasn’t it impossible for Jews to have one foot in the old covenant and one foot in the new? Isn’t Paul insync with Mark’s thought’s in Mark 9:17? You can’t poor new wine into an old wineskins? Wasn’t Paul calling Israel to not revert to Judaism when Jesus was their salvation?

    I’m sure Paul wanted to reform Judaism at its core but when its leaders rejected their messiah, wasn’t a third “group” inevitable? Even more, as gentiles began to convert and Jews became a small but critical fixture in sprouting churches, could one really argue that a massive body of gentiles instructed by a small numbers of Jews to be Judaism?

    Really just thinking out loud here. Regardless I appreciate the doctrinal insight associated with the Shema Israel, especially how the declaration of one God cleverly declares the God of the Jews is also the God of the nations. Alot of good insight I yet have to chew on. Thanks!

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      I welcome this kind of out loud thinking, Jason. Frankly, I am glad you are thinking about this in general and wish to voice your thoughts. I am familiar with the questions you ask. So let me make a couple of observations to fuel your thinking further. Not for the sake of argument, but for the sake of clarity. One of the problems of traditional interpretations of Paul are categories and terms in which he is cast. They do not belong to his time and do not reflect his reality. They come from much later time and cannot be used to explain him because they did not exist for him.

      The first category is Judaism. There was no such thing in his day. I know the NT translations use such term but even the concept of religion when applied to Jewish way of life. If we going to call it Judaism, then we have to say JudaismS. There was no one uniform and cohesive way. There were various varieties, sometimes very diverse. So you can’t reform what is not clearly outlined. Rather you start your own direction within then general framework and hope it has enough of a following to endure.

      The category of being Jewish vs. being Christian is another one. There was no such thing as Christian. There was Jewish (with all of the national and ancestral implications) and there was Pagan. In a way Christian was a new idea created for Gentiles who did not want to convert to Judaism, but still worship in the way Jews did and live in a similar manner of ethics. But no one knew what that was supposed to look like. So you see it is a false dichotomy that did not exist until many centuries after Paul. We cannot interpret Paul through the categories and ideas that did not exist.

      1. Jason Lee

        Thank you for the response. I only just started the “Jewish Background in the NT” class, and my head is yet spinning with what society looked like without the concept of a centralized Judaism framework. I’m going to have to re-read much in that light.

        It’s my understanding though that Hebrews, Galatians, and Romans were, in part, specifically speaking to a Reversion movement. New Jewish followers of Jesus were enticed to believe that Jesus’ salvation was not sufficient, and were returning to their original Jewish standard. In this context can we imagine Paul’s efforts as speaking to all JudaismS when he speaks or is it more appropriate to think this reversion was occurring in a specific subgroup of Judaism? Up to this point I imagined this as a more universal problem and Paul speaking to a universal Judaism. But now I wander if some of his messages were more localized and focused. Any thoughts?

        1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

          Dear Jason, keep working through the course. The answers about Galatians, Romans and etc will come soon enough (towards the end of the course). I know this is a new way to look at things. It takes some more background to start looking at things in a different light.

  6. James T. Mace

    I agree that Paul taught the ontologically unique divine status of Israel’s God, but I do not think you have shown this Pauline doctrine to be linked by Paul with the Shema. Moreover, I think that you have assumed a later Rabbinic, anti-Trinitarian interpretation of the Shema and retrojected that back onto Paul.

    In other words, I do not think the Shema of Moses is originally a statement of divine ontology but a covenantal affirmation that Israel would worship Yahweh alone: “Yahweh is our God, Yahweh ALONE.” This statement of sole devotion was reinterpreted by the Rabbis after rejecting the Messiah and the revelation of Trinitarianism in order to polemically oppose Christianity and prevent conversion of Jews. The Shema became for them: “The LORD our God, the LORD is ONE”; it has been transformed out of covenantal context into an abstract anti-Trinitarian theological assertion similar to the Shahada of Islam: “There is no god but Allah.” Both religious statements insist in the absolutely monadic nature of their deities.

    Thus, I think it a weak assertion to read into Paul’s monotheism a later misinterpretation of the Shema. The biblical God of Israel known by Paul is the Triune God, and the original covenantal Shema’s referent, “Yahweh,” is very different from the Rabbinistic and Islamic polemic conception of an absolute monad.

    1. Gloria E. Schroeder

      The author Mark Nanos states in his conclusion, page 22: “we can work together to bring about mutual respect, and thus, a level of much needed shalom arising from shared identity in the present age as fellow witnesses to the One

      That shared identity, was the real teachings of Jesus Christ, recognized by “thousands of believing Jews, all
      zealous for the Law.” (Acts 21:20) Paul’s supporting statement agrees, in Romans 2:12-16,
      ” ….For the hearers of law are not the ones righteous before God, but the doers of the Law will be declared
      righteous…..When the people of the nations, who do not have law, keep the law by nature, that will be the day
      God, through Christ Jesus, judges the secret things of mankind, according to the good news I declare.”

      The person called Jesus Christ, was born a Jewish man of Hebrew descent. His life was spent explaining
      the principles of Torah. For example quoting Deuteronomy 8:4 Jesus said, “Man must live not on bread alone
      but on every utterance coming forth from the mouth of God (sing. masc. noun) .”(Matthew 4:4) Jesus mentioned
      two things, Bread, and principles of Torah and Creative, natural law.

      Continuing, Matthew 6:11, Jesus said,” the leavened bread of us, substance in/ upon, give to us today.”
      (Diaglott, from Greek) What was this bread, Arton in Greek? 2000 years ago, it was made with flour, and liquid,
      left to catch the wild yeasts in the air, which ate the sugars, creating carbon dioxide to raise the loaves.
      Wild yeasts, a complete protein, were the same microbes that make us sick– fungus spores, virus and bacteria. The natural law of eating bread, was an explanation of the first oral vaccine, providing our immune system the identification of pathogens, rendered harmless by heat.

      Jesus told us in John 6:48 “I am the bread of life…..if anyone eats this bread, he will live forever….the bread of
      life I shall give is my flesh, in behalf of the world.” What was he saying? Animal sacrifices provided forgiveness
      according to law (Hebrews 9:22). Deleting animal sacrifces, “Christ died to bear the sins of many…”(Heb 9:28)
      Christians and Jews still today both support the sacrifice of animals, when natural creative law shows meat eating
      is the biggest cause of disease. {vegetarians (men and woman) have 50% lower plasma levels of unconjugated (cancerous) estrogens. Goldin BR. New Engl. J. Med. 307:1542-47, 1982}

      John identified holy persons, in Revelation 14:12, as those who “observe the Commandments of God and have faith
      in Jesus.” Paul said in Hebrews 10:1 “For since the Law has a shadow of the good thinks to come, but not the very
      substance of the things, men can never with the same sacrifices from year to year which they offer continually
      make those who approach perfect. (2) Otherwise, would the sacrifices not have stopped being offered…? David said
      “Sacrifice and offering you did not delight in… Burnt offering and sin offering you did not ask for.” (Ps. 40:6)
      Jesus Christ fulfilled the words of David.

      Jews and Christians shared identity based on Paul, John and King David, through Jesus Christ means everlasting life.

  7. megan

    Yes! Exactly.

  8. Gloria E. Schroeder

    Paul was a Jew. ‘Jesus’ was a Jew. Acts 21:20: “You behold, brother, how many thousands of believers there are among the Jews and they are all zealous for the Law.” Believers of what? Believers that God, the only true God, sent HIS Son to take the place of all sacrifices, allowing man to approach Heaven in Prayer (John 3:16). Jews today, continue to sacrifice animals, as sinners.

  9. Eli

    thank you! Good article! Good insight into the Shma prayer and the oneness of God – which is indeed the most important doctrine of Judaism for which they actually accuse and fight against Christians or at least Jews followers of Messiah ( claiming that they have violated this principle in the faith in Yeshua) It is a good research to show how the theology of Paul was actually entrenched in this fundamental doctrine!

  10. Chris Van Horn

    Yes, I think you did very well with this one! Paul was a very dedicated individual as well as a person with his own complications and that throne in his flesh. But he did everything he could, it was not his fault that he did not see what origins there was in Platonism and how it would be the polar opposite of the Value based Judgements that we rely on the Intercessor for. Or even the great Justice judgements of God! Let us all take a minute to remember Enoch Please!