This is, I vow, the last piece I’m going to write about the apostle Paul for a looooooong time.
Initially, I took on Paul as part of an effort to explore the roots of Christian anti-Judaism. I devoted four posts (here, here, here and here) to outlining what I think is a simple position: Paul’s anti-Jewish statements in 1 Thessalonians were intended broadly, and meant to condemn all Jews who had not become followers of Jesus. But whatever negative Paul had to say about Jews, he had equally bad (probably worse) things to say about Gentiles who were not following Jesus. I think this is how we should understand Paul, as someone devoted to the Jesus movement, and critical to all those outside the movement.
In response, I received many comments decrying Paul for the critical side of his program. I think the comments are fair. Paul was an extreme character. Krister Stendahl described Paul’s extremes as follows in his book Final Account: “He was always the greatest: the greatest of sinners, the greatest of apostles, the greatest when it came to speaking in tongues, the greatest at having been persecuted. That is because he wasn’t married. Or perhaps that is why he wasn’t married. Nobody could stand him …”
In my last post, I looked at what is probably the earliest anti-Jewish statement in the New Testament, Paul’s diatribe in 1 Thessalonians that it’s the Ioudaioi (commonly translated as “Jews”, but possibly meaning “Judeans”) who killed Jesus, persecuted Paul’s followers and murdered the prophets, thus incurring G-d’s displeasure and earning G-d’s wrath. My question there, and here, is: who, exactly did Paul intend to accuse? Did Paul mean to be understood in the way many Christians historically have understood him, to condemn all Jews as being murderers and enemies of G-d? Or is it possible that Paul meant to make a different and more limited statement?
In the discussion following my last post, some of my readers made helpful suggestions on how Paul’s diatribe might be interpreted in a less anti-Jewish way. Following the version of 1 Thessalonians set forth in the New Living Translation of the New Testament, we discussed the possibility that Paul meant to condemn only those Jews directly involved in the death of Jesus and the prophets. But while it might have been possible to distinguish a segment of Jews who played (or did not play) a role in the death of Jesus, we were not able to identify in our discussion what subset of Jews might (or might not) be associated with prophet-killing. There’s no evidence in Tanach that any Jews killed prophets (we have one minor prophet reportedly killed by one King of Israel), but if Paul meant to condemn those Jews who had failed to heed the prophets … well, that would cover pretty much everyone.
Perhaps last time, we approached this question in the wrong way, as a problem in the translation of Paul’s epistle from the ancient Greek into modern English. We approached this question as if, if we lived in Paul’s day and spoke Paul’s Greek, we’d know exactly who Paul meant to condemn. But perhaps Paul’s accusation lacked this kind of clarity from the get-go. Perhaps Paul intended a “fuzzier” sort of accusation.
It is a funny thing about the history of Judaism and Christianity in antiquity: there’s been much written about this subject, but the direct supporting evidence is rather thin. For example, consider the question of whether Jesus of Nazareth was a real historical person. Despite the recent controversy surrounding Bart Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist? – Ehrman answers this question with an emphatic yes, Jesus did exist – there is precious little written about Jesus within 100 years of his death outside of Christian sources, and much of what was written is both disputed and tantalizingly brief. To be clear, there’s no doubt in my mind that Jesus really existed. But it’s unlikely that we’d know anything about Jesus if Christianity had not survived to create and perpetuate its own historical record.
When it comes to the history of first Century Christianity and Judaism, we never have as much information as we’d like. This is certainly the case when it comes to the topic of my last post here, the fiscus Judaicus tax imposed on Jews by the Roman Empire after the destruction of the second Temple in 70 C.E. The sad truth is, we know a lot less about this tax than we wish we knew.