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 …”
I love interfaith dialogue. It surprises, and that may be the best thing about it. Our 21st century methods of mass communication (in particular, the Internet) allow us to fine-tune the communications we receive to such an extent, we can largely avoid hearing anything we don’t want to hear. I find interfaith dialogue to be a good way to avoid this problem – in dialogue, either I’m talking to people I wouldn’t normally talk to, or I’m talking to people I’d normally talk to about things I would not normally discuss with them. Either way, it’s good.
I was surprised by the comments I received here on (what I thought would be) my last post on the Apostle Paul and anti-Judaism (I say the “apostle” Paul, because if you do Google searches about Paul and anti-Semitism, you receive a lot of hits about the politician Ron Paul). I thought I’d been critical of Paul in my post, but my criticism paled in comparison to what my commenters had to say! Paul emerged in the comments as a guy full of hate, a tricky “spin doctor,” a purveyor of language of bitterness and resentment. More surprising is that no one entered the discussion to defend Paul.
Perhaps I should not have been surprised. One of my favorite Christian authors, John Dominic Crossan, summarizes nicely how Paul is seen by his critics: Paul “was an apostate who betrayed Judaism,” or “he was an apostle who betrayed Jesus,” or he was both things at once. Both Jews and Christians are prone to look at early Christianity from the perspective that everything good about Christianity comes from Jesus, leaving Paul responsible for anything in early Christianity we don’t like. If nothing else, the over-simplicity of this perspective should arouse our suspicion.
We’ve spent three posts so far examining the anti-Judaism of what is probably the oldest document in the New Testament, Paul’s First Epistle to the Thessalonians. What did Paul mean when he said in 1 Thess 2:14-16 that the Ioudaioi (the Jews, the Judeans) were guilty of murdering Jesus and the prophets, and that they “displease G-d and are hostile to everyone”? In my first post, I looked closely at the text of Paul’s letter, and concluded that we can’t be sure who were the Ioudaioi referred to by Paul: it could have been all Jews, or some Jews, or Jews who lived in Judea, or maybe only those Jews who participated directly in the execution of Jesus. In my second post, I looked at who would have been considered Jewish in Jesus’ time, discovering that Jewishness back then was a “fuzzy” description, where many categories of people (including proselytes, apostates, diaspora Jews, Hellenizing Jews and G-dfearers) might have been considered Jewish, or not Jewish, or partially Jewish, or Jewish for some purposes and not others. In my third post, I considered the fuzzy identity of the members of Paul’s churches. While we commonly refer to Paul’s followers as “Gentiles,” they must have appeared at the time (to themselves and to others) to be a lot like Jews, as they engaged in Jewish activities such as worshiping the Jewish G-d and adopting the Jewish Bible as their own.
We have succeeded, so far, in problematizing what seemed like a simple condemnation: Paul said that the Jews were guilty of terrible crimes and had earned G-d’s wrath. But now we’re not sure which Jews were the target of Paul’s condemnation, or who was seen as Jewish back then, or even whether Paul’s own followers might have been numbered among the Ioudaioi that Paul seemingly accused of these crimes. All this is to make a simple point: Paul’s accusation may strike us today as resoundingly and thoroughly anti-Jewish, but that might not have been what he intended.
Over my last two posts here and here, I’ve considered the anti-Judaism in the earliest of Christian documents, Paul’s First Epistle to the Thessalonians. What exactly did Paul mean there when he said that the Ioudaioi (the Jews, or perhaps, the Judeans) were guilty of murdering Jesus and the prophets, and had thus earned G-d’s enmity? In my first post, I looked at the uncertainty in the meaning of the text: when Paul accused the Ioudaioi, did he mean to accuse Jews, or Judeans, and all Jews/Judeans, or just some Jews/Judeans? We reached no firm conclusions here. In my second post, I considered the inherent uncertainty (I called it “fuzziness”) in who would be classified as an Ioudaios. Following my teacher Josh Garroway, I concluded that Jewishness in the first century could be seen as a continuum, with those certainly Jewish on one end, those certainly Gentile on the other end, and a group with uncertain Jewish status (proselytes, apostates, diaspora Jews, Hellenizing Jews, G-dfearers) in the middle. Unfortunately, these posts did not tell us what we wanted to know about the nature and extent of Paul’s anti-Judaism. We’re still not sure who Paul meant to accuse and what he meant to accuse them of.
But so far, we’ve failed to give much consideration to Paul himself, and to the substance of his writing. It could be that 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16 is simply an isolated passage in Paul’s writing, motivated (as one commenter suggested) by his disappointment that his fellow Jews had largely rejected the Gospel message, but otherwise having little or nothing to do with Paul’s core message. I’m about to argue that Paul’s anti-Judaism is important to understanding Paul. But to make sense of Paul, we need to go back to our discussion from last time, to the idea that the classification of Ioudaios was a fuzzy thing in the first century.
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.
I’m about to tackle a series of posts here on Christian anti-Judaism and Jewish anti-Christianity. Neither are pleasant topics! But we are devoted here to interfaith discussion of topics at the Jewish-Christian intersection, including our shared histories. Sadly, much of this history is a history of animosity. We must understand this history in order to understand each other, and hopefully, move past this history into a new and friendlier era.
But before we get started … I want to try something new here. The purpose of this site is to encourage interfaith dialogue – encourage this dialogue generally, but also encourage that it take place right here, in the comments to my posts. We’ve had some good discussion here so far, but I want to see if we can do better. So in this post, and maybe in a few posts upcoming, I’ll suggest a topic for discussion in the comments. You can ignore my suggestion, and discuss anything related to my posts that comes to mind … but as my posts can be a bit esoteric, I’ll try to suggest more concrete discussion topics.
Today’s discussion topic: what do you think makes for a “good Jew”? What personal qualities do you associate with being a good Jew? If a Jew is striving to be a better Jew, what should the Jew get better at doing? Don’t be afraid to suggest qualities that might strike you as less than earth-shaking! In the recent Pew Study of Jewish Americans, 69% of Jews said that leading an ethical and moral life is an essential part of what it means to be Jewish. But 42% said that having a good sense of humor is essentially Jewish, and 14% said it is essentially Jewish to eat Jewish food, so obviously not everything that makes one a “good Jew” has to be deadly serious.