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.
Let’s conclude my long-running review of Chris Keith’s Jesus Against the Scribal Elite: The Origins of the Conflict. I won’t try to summarize everything I’ve written so far – you can read it in all of its wordy detail here, in parts one, two and three. But briefly: Keith argues that Jesus’ teaching in synagogue drew comparison to the Jewish scribes, because it generally fell to Jews who were scribal-literate to read and explain Torah in synagogue. But Jesus was not scribal-literate (according to Keith), and this raised questions about his ability and authority to teach in synagogue. This questioning eventually became pointed and hostile and grew into full-blown conflict, with the result that Jesus wound up on the “radar” of the Jewish authorities as a potential troublemaker. Keith is quick to point out that he is looking at the issues that first brought Jesus to the attention of the authorities, which are certainly not the same issues that precipitated Jesus’ execution. Or as Keith bluntly put it, Jesus was not crucified “because of confusion over scribal literacy and scribal authority.”
I’ve already posted that I don’t fully agree with Keith’s take on “the origins of the conflict.” Nevertheless, I’m enthusiastically positive about Keith’s subject matter and the way he approaches it. Why? Because the topic of “Jesus Against the Scribal Elite” addresses one of my big New Testament questions: what’s so terrible about being a scribe?