Let’s take a break from the heavy topic of early Christian anti-Judaism, and focus instead on the equally heavy topic of divestment from Israel.
“Divestment” (or “disinvestment”) refers to the strategy of refusing to invest (or selling existing investments) in a government, industry or company for ethical or political reasons. It’s a kind of economic boycott, often based on the idea that money should be invested in a socially responsible way. Divestment is sometimes designed to pressure its target to change its policies; for example, divestment from South Africa was designed to end apartheid. In other cases, divestment is a form of protest or punishment: against Sudan, for example, for its involvement in the genocide in Darfur.
These days, the primary target for divestment is Israel, as a result (so it is said) of Israel’s military occupation of the Palestinian territories. Divestment is a hot topic for the moment, because last week the general convention of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) voted in favor of a measure to divest church funds from three corporations (Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions) that the church believes are profiting from the Israeli occupation. The Presbyterian measure also reaffirmed Israel’s right to exist, endorsed a “two state solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, called for interfaith dialogue, and recommended “positive investment” in endeavors that advance peace in the region.
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.