We see St. Paul telling the Corinthians in 1 Cor 9:20-21 (NRSVCE):

To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law.

Elsewhere, he also says:

... If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee. (Phil 3:4-5)

One wonders as to why St. Paul says that he is not under the law as such, when he is proud of his Jewish ancestry. Moreover, the Pharisees were known for their scrupulosity in abiding with the law. My question therefore is: According to Catholicism, why did St. Paul treat himself as a seasoned Jew and a Pharisee who was not under the law?

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    For a Protestant Reformed answer to a related question see hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/questions/40135/… Jun 14 at 5:53
  • Perhaps oversimplifying, I like to think that according to Paul's philosophy regarding the Law, under the Law, a good Jew "obeys the Law and lives," but under the new covenant in Jesus's blood, the order is reversed. Instead of "obey the Law and live," Paul "lived--or received new life, regeneration, becoming a new creation by God--and then obeyed the Law. In Romans Paul tells us clearly that after conversion and the new birth, "the just requirement of the Law is fulfilled IN US, who walk not according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit" (8:4 NASB). Jun 16 at 11:26

I consulted the Encyclopedia of Theology, a Concise Sacramentum Mundi edited by Karl Rahner, and found a section headed ‘The Law in Paul’. Herein is found the answer to your question, and I now simply quote the relevant parts (with all emphases mine):

“Paul and Judaism see the law as an independent theological entity: according to the claim of those who submit to it, it is an independent way of salvation, in competition with faith in Jesus Christ.

While Paul leaves untouched the social conception of the law upheld in Judaism, the salvific function of the law becomes a problem for his theology… the law as a way of salvation must be excluded. Salvation consists in the justice of God, i.e., in the fulfilment of the promises made to the patriarchs. Whereas in Judaism justice is achieved by the fulfilment of the law, Paul goes back to the close connection of justice with faith in Gen 15:6 (Abraham) and, with the help of scriptural proofs, is able to show that the promises, and therefore their fulfilment also, are linked to this justification by faith. The law, therefore, as a way of salvation is excluded because those who observe it hope thereby to achieve righteousness, whereas Scripture demonstrates that righteousness is linked with faith. Law and faith (in Jesus Christ) are made exclusive alternatives. Paul goes on to demonstrate that man could never have obtained righteousness by the way of the law, for no one (as Paul postulates) can fulfil it completely (Rom 3:20-30; Gal 3:10; 5:3; cf. 6:13). Hence all men come under the curse which is the penalty threatened in Deut 27:26. But Jesus alone can free man from this curse, for in him is promised the opposite of the curse, the blessing for all peoples already promised to Abraham…

From the time of Adam until Christ the power if sin prevailed, activating the sphere of the sarx, and bringing the sinful works of the flesh to light (von Dulmen), so that the power of sin signified both the sinful act itself and also the state of bondage to sin, while law assisted sin to gain power and life (1 Cor 15:56). For with the advent of the law all became guilty of transgression. In contrast to sin, however, law is only destructive in its effects and function, not by nature. Sin avails of the law in order to kill. The law is the catalyst which reveals the ruinous and hopeless state of man. But when the curse of the law is concentrated upon Jesus he endures the penalty of death, and thereby sets aside the demand of the law. For this reason, and also because the law is no longer used to demonstrate the presence of sin, Christ is the end of the law

At present the law only has a part to play in bringing out the obstinacy of the unbelieving section of Israel, which opens the way for the Gentiles to be taken into the community (Rom 9:11).” Klaus Berger, pp 828-829 (1981 edition)

That is why Paul did not boast in his Jewish heritage, but boasted in Christ and how faith in this risen saviour had set Paul free from bondage to the law, to be free in Christ. Paul exquisitely shows from the Hebrew scriptures how the law was a shadow pointing to Christ, the reality, so that both Jews and Gentiles putting faith in the finished work of Christ on the cross could have the chains of bondage (to sin and death – sarx ) smashed ( Col 2:13-232). That is why Paul said that he would preach nothing but Christ crucified, as the end of the law (1 Cor 1:23 & 2:2). His point was that all things must lead to the risen Christ, and the law served that purpose for those who did not see the preaching of the cross as ‘foolishness’ but as the power of God unto salvation (1 Cor 1:18, Eph 3:8).


Answer Summary

I believe this answer is applicable to both Protestants and Catholics and the answer is rather obvious when examining the larger contexts of both passages that:

  • As a Christian he no longer put himself under the law because he considered righteousness from God based on faith is of surpassing value: resurrection from the dead.
  • In the 1 Corinthians passage, he put himself under the law only behaviorally, for evangelistic purpose.
  • In the Philippian passage, he highlighted his Jewish standing as blameless under the law only to show his credential against the false teachers.

Supporting Explanation

Why Paul rejected righteousness under the law

To answer this question, we need to consider the larger context: Phil 3:1-14. In v 6 we read the curious phrase "as to righteousness under the law, blameless" implying that Paul could still qualify as righteous via the OT law. So why did he regard his law-based righteousness as "rubbish" (v 8) and chose to be righteous based on faith (v 9) even though it means he had to suffer for Jesus's sake (v 10)? The Catholic Jesuit America web article The "Surpassing Value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord" explained the reason, which simply what Paul mentioned in v 10-11: sharing Christ's power of his resurrection and to attain the resurrection from the dead. Having faith in Christ means to be his slave (v 12), forgetting his past identity as a Pharisee (v 13), and pressing on for the heavenly prize (v 14).

1 Cor 9:19-23

In 1 Cor 9:19-23 the clue is in the preceding verse 19: "For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them." We also need to see the verses in the larger context of 1 Cor 8:1-11:1 about Food Offered to Idols. In Chapter 9 he offered himself as an example of giving up something for the spiritual edification of others. Although as a Christian Paul was free from food laws, he didn't insist on this freedom when preaching the Gospel to Jews who were still under the law, and thus only ate kosher food in their company (one can imagine sharing the gospel over a meal). Instead he behaviorally put himself temporarily under the law so not to offend Jews in order to win Jewish converts, although in his heart he affirmed his freedom from the law under Christ.

Phil 3:4-5

In the Philippian passage, again, we also need to consider the larger context (Phil 3:1-11): a warning about the "evil workers", of those who "mutilate the flesh" (verse 2). It's a warning to the Philippian church, of teachers who require Christians to circumcise themselves. It is similar to Paul's warning to the Galatian church. Like freedom in Christ mentioned in the 1 Cor 8-11:1 passage, Paul taught the Philippian church that they were free from the circumcision law. As a circumcised law-abiding Pharisee since birth, Paul was saying in vv 3-6 that he was more qualified in law-based righteousness than the false teachers. But the later vv 8-9 makes it clear that he was actually no longer proud of his blameless under the law, regarding it as "rubbish". He only mentioned it in vv 4-5 as rhetoric to show the Philippians that he has more standing under the law compared to the false teachers.


This is Pauls gospel not the teachings of Jesus. He had NO authority at the time and often contradicts himself. At best he was a messenger of Jesus disciples.

Pauls Gospel (anything goes – as evident from 1 Cor 9:20-21) A few of many examples;

“In the day when God shall judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ according to my gospel.” – Romans 2:16

“Now to him that is of power to stablish you according to my gospel, and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery, which was kept secret since the world began…” – Romans 16:25

“According to the grace of God which is given unto me, as a wise masterbuilder, I have laid the foundation, and another buildeth thereon.” – 1 Corinthians 3:10

“Remember that Jesus Christ of the seed of David was raised from the dead according to my gospel:” – 2 Timothy 2:8

2 Timothy 1:11 And of this gospel I was appointed a herald and an apostle and a teacher.

Jesus never came to change the laws

Matthew 5:17-20 – 17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. [Matthew 5:17-20 ESV]

Genesis 17:10-12 - 10 This is My covenant, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: every male among you shall be circumcised. 11 And you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin, and it shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you. 12 And every male among you who is eight days old shall be circumcised throughout your generations, including a slave who is born in the house or who is bought with money from any foreigner, who is not of your descendants.

John 7:19-22 - “Did Moses not give you the Law, and yet none of you carries out the Law? Why are you seeking to kill Me?” 20 The crowd answered, “You have a demon! Who is seeking to kill You?” 21 Jesus answered them, “I did one deed, and you all are astonished. 22 For this reason Moses has given you circumcision (not that it is from Moses, but from the fathers), and even on a Sabbath you circumcise a man.

James 2:20-24 - 20 You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? 21 Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. 23 And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend. 24 You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.

James 2:8-11 - If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbour as yourself,” you are doing right. But if you show favouritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. For he who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker.

Revelation 2:14-16 - 14 Nevertheless, I have a few things against you: There are some among you who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin so that they ate food sacrificed to idols and committed sexual immorality. 15 Likewise, you also have those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans. 16 Repent therefore! Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth.

Revelation 2:20 - 20 Nevertheless, I have this against you: You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet. By her teaching she misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols.

Acts 21:21 They have been informed that you teach all the Jews who live among the Gentiles to turn away from Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or live according to our customs.

Acts 21:25-26 - 25 As for the Gentile believers, we have written to them our decision that they should abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality.” 26 The next day Paul took the men and purified himself along with them. Then he went to the temple to give notice of the date when the days of purification would end and the offering would be made for each of them.

(clearly above - Paul doing what he is told – he is not a decision maker)

Luke 16:17 It is easier for heaven and earth to disappear than for the least stroke of a pen to drop out of the Law.

Deuteronomy 13:5 - 5 That prophet or dreamer must be put to death for inciting rebellion against the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt and redeemed you from the land of slavery. That prophet or dreamer tried to turn you from the way the LORD your God commanded you to follow. You must purge the evil from among you.

Jesus says only 1 teacher

Matthew 23:8–12 8 But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. 9 And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. 10 Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ. 11 The greatest among you shall be your servant. 12 Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted. Matthew 23:15 - 15 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are.

  • @KorvinStarmast Paul mentions his Gospels the point is its his teachings and he has changed the teachings of Jesus. Acts 21:17-26 he is not the leader, doing what he is told. Acts 15:7 Peter was chosen by the Holy Spirit to be the Apostle to the Gentiles, Paul never raised any objects nor did he raise any objections when Matthias was chosen as the 12th Apostle. Damascus - pure contradictions with no eye witness account only what he says. Outside of Acts and Pauls epistles he is briefly mentioned once, he is self-praising. Jun 18 at 9:34
  • @KorvinStarmast 1 Timothy 2:7 7 And for this purpose I was appointed a herald and an apostle— I am telling the truth, I am not lying —and a true and faithful teacher of the Gentiles. (he wasn't an apostle, Peter was chosen to teach the Gentiles and Jesus says only 1 teacher. These men (Ebionites), moreover, thought that it was necessary to reject all the epistles of the apostle [Paul], whom they called an apostate from the law — Eusebius 325 AD. Gospel of Barnabas says similar about Paul. The internet is full of his contradictions and lies - have a read if you want to know the truth Jun 18 at 9:37
  • @KorvinStarmast wasn't meant in that way, apologies for not wording things better. Jun 21 at 9:05
  • No worries, I wasn't being the most charitable there. Comment gone. Jun 21 at 12:23

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