In 1 Corinthians 9:20-22, he wrote: To the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the law, as under the law, that I might win those who are under the law; to those who are without law, as without law (not being without law toward God, but under law toward Christ), that I might win those who are without law; to the weak I became as weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some."
Regarding this and other passages from Paul, anti-missionary author Beth Moshe says his writings "demonstrate the unreliability of the man who actually formulated the break away from Judaism by the early Church. . . . Now see who he is, by his own words. He admitted using trickery and deception to gain his ends." 1
First Corinthians 9:20-22 is a favorite passage for those interested in dismissing the gospel message through discrediting the gospel messenger. However, the anti-missionary analysis seems to reflect more eagerness to find fault than to find the meaning of the passage.
David Daube, a Jewish legal scholar, wrote The New Testament and Rabbinic Judaism to illuminate the Jewish background of the New Testament. He gives an entirely different perspective on Paul's writing in 1 Corinthians:
[This idea is] taken over by Paul from Jewish teaching on the subject: the idea that you must adopt the customs and mood of the person you wish to win over...
This attitude had formed part of Jewish missionary practice long before Paul. Two Talmudic illustrations of Hillel's work are relevant: he accepted into the fold a gentile who refused to acknowledge the oral Law, and he accepted another who refused to acknowledge any Law beyond the most fundamental ethical principle. ... At the decisive moment of conversion, he fell in with the notions of the applicant and declared himself satisfied with recognition of the written Law or a single, basic moral precept. ...
Both Jewish and Christian circles which were desirous of proselytes, in approaching heathens, deliberately stressed the precepts concerning decency and good manners at the expense of levitical and theological ones...
Paul, when he wrote the passage from 1 Corinthians quoted at the beginning, was drawing on a living element in Jewish religion.2
To paraphrase Daube, Paul was not a practitioner of deceit any more than other Jewish leaders who simply utilized good teaching techniques.
Teaching techniques and missionary zeal notwithstanding, we ought to approach the text itself with some fairness. The passage in no way suggests hiding one's own identity in order to trick others. "Being all things to all people" does not imply deception. Contrary to the spin that detractors attempt to put on this passage, Paul never said, "I told Jews I am Jewish and I told gentiles I am gentile and I would tell anybody anything if it would make them believe in Jesus."
"I became as" means that Paul adapted his demeanor, behavior and expression. When Paul spoke to people, whether they were Jewish, gentile, weak, strong or whatever, he purposed that they would not be hindered by feelings of inferiority or superiority. Paul was able to meet and speak to all people as equals no matter what their position. He always actually was what he appeared to be-on the level with the person to whom he was speaking.
Those familiar with Paul's teachings and high ethical standards see his willingness to relate to others within their own context as an act of graciousness. To him, being all things to all people meant putting others first and not insisting on one's own rights or preferences if doing so hindered others from hearing the message of Yeshua. It meant deferring to the needs of others. This is in keeping with Paul's teachings to the Philippians:
Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others. Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus.
The objections to Paul as a sinister figure who sowed seeds of hatred against his own people and distorted Jesus' teachings to include pagan myths do not seem to hold water. Yet there are other, more formidable objections to Yeshua's followers.
1. Anti-missionaries, or counter-missionaries as they sometimes prefer to be called, believe it is their responsibility to prevent Jewish people from believing in Jesus. Beth Moshe, Judaism's Truth Answers the Missionaries (New York: Bloch Publishing Company, 1987), p. 212.
2. David Daube, The New Testament and Rabbinic Judaism (Salem, NH: Ayer Company, Publishers, Inc., 1992), p. 336-341.
This article originally appeared in The Yeshua Challenge booklet.