Fuzzy Gentiles

fuzzyOver 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.

Let me briefly summarize this business about Jewish fuzziness. In my last post, I described and endorsed a “polythetic mode” for classifying who was an Ioudaios in the first century. This “polythetic” approach recognizes that there was no single feature or measure we can use to determine who was Jewish back then. Instead, Jewishness seems to have been based on a number of related traits, none of which was necessary or sufficient on its own to confer Jewish status. Instead, one would need to possess some unspecified combination of these traits to be considered Jewish. Those possessing all of these traits would be seen as definitely Jewish, and those possessing none of these traits would be seen as definitely Gentile, but those possessing some but not all of these traits might be seen as likely Jewish, probably Jewish, probably Gentile, likely Gentile, in a fuzzy continuum of Jewishness. The polythetic characteristics of Jewishness listed by Garroway in his book are:

  • Circumcision
  • Keeping kosher
  • Keeping the Sabbath
  • Observing Jewish holidays
  • Having a Jewish mother
  • Having a Jewish father
  • Birth or residence in Judea
  • Expressed relationship with the Jewish G-d
  • Knowledge of the Hebrew Bible
  • Familiarity with the Hebrew language
  • Membership or participation in a synagogue (or, I would add, in a recognizably Jewish community)
  • I would add, observance of Jewish law

My Christian readers may already be thinking: Jesus passes all twelve of these tests! This shows what I’ve said before: Jesus was a thorough-going, mainstream first century Palestinian Jew. But you may have noticed something else, something Garroway stresses in his book: Jesus’ early followers also satisfy a large number of these tests. Of course, Jesus’ Jewish followers would have passed most or all of these tests, but what’s really interesting is how many of these tests would have been satisfied by the early Gentile followers of Jesus. These Gentiles would have had an expressed relationship with the G-d of the Bible, and would have adopted the Hebrew Bible as their Holy Scripture (remember, the New Testament did not come into existence immediately upon Jesus’ death). Many of these early Jesus followers may have participated in a synagogue – even in the fourth century, John Chrysostom complained that synagogues were full of Christians on Shabbat and Jewish holidays. The members of Paul’s churches must have helped Paul raise money to send to Jerusalem, so even if these church members were not themselves Judean, they had a connection to Judea. Moreover, these Gentiles would have known at least a few words of Hebrew, such as “amen” and “hallelujah.”

In short: we can say that the early Christians were a kind of “fuzzy Jew.”

But wait: shouldn’t we say instead that the early Christians were Christians? Oddly enough, it’s almost certainly the case that the early Christians did not see themselves as such. I’m drawing here on Garroway’s book, but he’s far from the only scholar to point this out: Paul never used the terms “Christian” or “Christianity.” It is debatable when these terms first appeared; perhaps in Acts, perhaps in 1 Peter, but regardless, these terms do not appear on the scene until the late first century at earliest, well after Paul’s career had ended, and a good 60 years or so after Jesus’ crucifixion. I don’t see how Jesus’ earliest followers, or the members of Paul’s churches, could have thought of themselves as “Christian,” when the word had not yet come into existence.

Did the Gentile members of Paul’s churches think of themselves as Gentiles? Yes and no. By my count, Paul refers to “Gentiles” 22 times in his letters. Sometimes, Paul uses the word “Gentiles” to refer to pagans – “the things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons and not to G-d.” Sometimes, Paul uses the word “Gentiles” to refer to non-Jews who needed to hear his message – “he who worked through Peter making him an apostle to the circumcised also worked through me in sending me to the Gentiles.” In a few cases, Paul refers to Jesus’ non-Jewish followers as “Gentiles,” such as in Romans 1:13, where Paul expressed his desire to work with the church in Rome, as he had worked with “the rest of the Gentiles.” But on occasion, Paul refers to his followers as ex-Gentiles. “You know that when you were Gentiles,” Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12:2, “you were often misled by false gods that can’t even speak.” The clear meaning here is that Paul’s followers were once Gentiles but are Gentiles no longer! Elsewhere in 1 Corinthians, Paul urges his followers not to act like Gentiles. In Ephesians Paul insists that his followers “no longer live as the Gentiles do,” and in 1 Thessalonians 4:3-5 (the very text we’re considering, where Paul accused the Jews of killing Jesus and the prophets) Paul told his followers that it is “the will of G-d” that they abstain from the sexual immorality of “the Gentiles who do not know G-d.”

Per Paul, his followers were Gentiles, and they were not to act like Gentiles, and they were ex-Gentiles. They were “fuzzy” Gentiles, or if you prefer, “fuzzy” Jews.

Before going forward, I imagine that some of you may be wondering about the translation I’ve used of 1 Corinthians 12:2 and 1 Thessalonians 4:5. In some Bible translations (for example, the popular New International Version), Paul doesn’t mention “Gentiles” in 1 Thessalonians 4:5 – instead, he admonishes his charges not to act like “pagans.”  And in most translations of 1 Corinthians 12:2, Paul refers to his followers being ex-pagans, or ex-unbelievers, or ex-heathens. But when we check the original Greek, we see that the word Paul used in each case to describe the ex-status of his followers was ἔθνη (pronounced ethnē, like “ethnai”), which is almost always translated either as “Gentiles” or “the nations.” It is as if many New Testament translators wanted to insist that Paul’s followers remained 100% Gentile, so they translated ethne differently here than they did in the rest of the New Testament. I mean, Paul’s followers had to be Gentiles, right? If they weren’t Gentiles, what else could they have been?

By now you know Garroway’s answer, the answer I have adopted for myself. Paul’s followers (that is, those of Paul’s followers who were not born Jewish, and who were not Jewish proselytes) were fuzzy Gentiles. Meaning, they were also fuzzy Jews.

One final point to make here: in the New Testament, there is no such thing as a singular “Gentile.” There are only “Gentiles,” in the plural. In the New Testament, the “Gentiles” are not a specifically identified people – this word is used instead to indicate a lack of identification – the word means “the nations,” an undifferentiated un-Jewish mass. The contrast between Jew and Gentile is not like that between Jew and Greek, a contrast of two peoples, or ethnicities, or cultures. The contrast between Jew and Gentile is one between a specific and a general. In being fuzzily Gentile, Paul’s followers were moving towards particularity, in the rough direction of Jewish particularity. But exactly what kind of particularity was Paul aiming at? I think the answer to this question will tell us all we can know about Paul’s anti-Judaism in 1 Thessalonians, and I plan to address this in my next post.

In the meantime … discuss! Does the discussion here of Ioudaios and ethne help you better understand Paul, or do you think I’m missing a key component of the identity of the early Christians? Does ethne contribute to your understanding of the Jewish-Christian intersection, or the “parting of the ways” where Christianity separated from Judaism?

  • Christine

    I always thought of Gentile or goyim as a term used exclusively by Jews to differentiate “other,” as Muslims do with “unbeliever” or “infidel” and hundreds of different cultures say with hundreds of different words, “not People Like Us.” Since Greeks and Romans were specifically named and easier to pick out by dress and station, I presumed Paul was referring to other Semitic peoples with different or unfamiliar beliefs.

    It is not so clear to me that early Jesus-followers accepted one another regardless of background or, in the case of those converted to monotheism as a result of Paul’s sailing mission trips, embraced the Hebrew Bible or Jewish tradition. My New Living Translation emphasizes that the church in Thessalonica (functioning as a free city under Roman rule) had two distinct components: converts from the city’s sizable Jewish population and other “Gentile” Macedonians. Apparently, the local synagogue was incensed about the church’s proselytizing. My reading of the passage is that Paul is trying for some solidarity between new believers of different backgrounds by doing an “us vs. them,” exaggerated analogy to Judea.

    In I Thess 2:14-16, “And then, dear brothers and sisters, you suffered persecution from your own countrymen. In this way, you imitated the believers in God’s churches in Judea who, because of their belief in Christ Jesus, suffered from their own people, the Jews.
    For some of the Jews had killed their own prophets and some even killed the Lord Jesus. Now they have persecuted us and driven us out.”

    Paul knew the different schools of religious thought and the politics of the time — does he mention on his resume that he used to be one of those persecuting the early church? nope. — but, instead of referring to the Pharisees, took advantage of the Thessalonians’ likely ignorance of circumstances and said some of the Jews.

    Wait, did I just defend Paul? Was this a trick?

    • lbehrendt

      Christine, a few scattered reactions to your terrific comment:

      I decided to skip past the meaning of the Hebrew “goyim,” as I think Paul (as apostle to the Gentiles) chose language to be understood by his non-Jewish Greek speaking followers. You’re quite right, most (probably all) cultures have a word or words they use to designate outsiders, and in many cases the word is unflattering. For certain, Paul frequently used “Gentile” in an unflattering sense. My point is that “Gentile” (really, “Gentiles” – the word is strictly plural in Paul) is a generality, almost contentless. A person numbered among the “Gentiles” would be said to belong to the “nations,” without specifying (and perhaps, not really caring) which nation – it’s a bit like being a missing person. But I think you’re making a valuable point: the move from Gentile to Jew is not merely a move from general to particular – it’s also a move from outsider to insider.

      If you read Paul to care primarily about harmony between his Gentile church members, then you agree with Josh Garroway. He’ll be pleased to have another disciple! If the church membership in Thessalonica was a mixed group of Gentiles and Jews, I don’t see any evidence of that in Paul’s letter – he refers to how church members “turned to God from idols,” which is not something one would normally say to a Jewish Christian. Acts 17 does mention Paul focusing his attention on a synagogue in Thessalonica during the first 3 weeks of his presence there, where he made converts of “some” Jews and a “large number” of G-d-fearers. Some scholars see a considerable discrepancy between the history reported in 1 Thessalonians and that reported in Acts 17. But for what you’re saying, I think you’re right – it appears that Paul’s church in Thessalonica probably faced considerable synagogue opposition, and this goes some distance to explain why Paul’s language in 1 Thessalonians is particularly anti-Jewish.

      We talked about it in an earlier post – your New Living Translation is in the minority when it translates 1 Thess. 2:14-16 to refer to “some Jews.” There’s no qualifier in the Greek — it’s either “the Jews” or perhaps “the Judeans.” The translation “some Jews” can be defended only as an interpretation, one with a good ecumenical purpose, and perhaps it’s what Paul meant (not every Jew could have killed Jesus), but the usual translation “the Jews” fits better the plain language of the text.

      Finally, yes. It was a trick. Paul is an interesting character who occasionally deserves defending, though I’d prefer to trick others into doing this job for me!

      • Christine

        Great discussion. Easier for me to understand a spectrum of insider-ness, particularly in an operation that demanded street cred. I can imagine that Jews who signed on to Paul’s teaching, when asked to accept that ex-idoalators now counted as Jews-ish, would have found it hard to swallow.
        Just one more tiny question. ‘There’s no qualifier in the Greek — it’s either “the Jews” or perhaps “the Judeans.’
        So, in your reference to Acts 17 (‘where he made converts of “some” Jews ‘), what translation was that? Another trick?

        • lbehrendt

          Christine, I was a bit careless with my description of Acts 17:4. “Some” Jews? I’m confident about the “some,” less about the “Jews.” But “converts”? There are no “converts” in 17:4, though what there IS, is pretty interesting.

          Every translation of Acts 17:4 I can find refers to “some” of the Jews (including the New Living Translation), or “some” of them (which is the better literal translation), or in one case “certain” of them. See here for a number of examples. The Greek for the beginning of 17:4 is Καί τινες ἐξ αὐτῶν ἐπείσθησαν καὶ προσεκληρώθησαν τῷ Παύλῳ καὶ τῷ Σιλᾷ, which sounds like kai tines ex autōn epeisthēsan kai proseklērōthēsan tō Paulō kai tō Sila, and might literally be translated (word for word) as “And some of them were obedient and joined themselves to Paul and to Silas.” Now please understand, I can’t read Greek and I do not understand Greek, I just use online tools like this one. But there’s always something in the text that opens up when you look at the Greek. For example: who is the “them” who joined Paul? The “them” seems to go back to Acts 17:1 and 2’s reference to people in the Thessalonica synagogue “of the Jews,” but since we know that Gentiles and G-dfearers were also found in first century synagogues, the “them” in 17:4 may have been a mixed group of Jews and Gentiles. Perhaps more interesting is the word “epeisthēsan,” which could mean “were obedient,” or “became a follower of,” or “were persuaded,” or “had confidence,” or “believed,” or “agreed,” or just “listened to”. See here and here. Here is a place where actually having studied ancient Greek would be a great help! But it’s interesting. I casually chose the word “convert” to describe the epeisthēsan process, and that’s clearly wrong! In no sense does epeisthēsan mean to change from one thing to another.

          There is another discussion we could have, on the question of “Jews who signed on to Paul’s teaching.” Many scholars write that Acts portrays a general pattern: Paul first approaches a city’s synagogue, has some success there but faces varying amounts of Jewish opposition, at which point he turns to the Gentiles and has a better time of it. These scholars note that Paul’s actual letters do not evidence nearly the same interest in speaking to Jews. In his letters, Paul seems to take seriously his mission to be the apostle to the Gentiles. It’s only in Romans where I have a sense that Paul intends to address a mixed group of Jewish and Gentile Christians, and even there some scholars argue that the audience for Romans was purely Gentile. Per usual, I have Josh Garroway as a guide here, but Josh notes that the two times Paul expressly addressed the identity of his audience in Romans, he identifies them as Gentiles (1:13 and 11:13). If the audience for Romans is Gentile, then so much more so for his other epistles … and if Paul was attracting numbers of Jews to his churches, why doesn’t he ever talk to them in his letters?

          Aaah. One thing I love about dialogue, is how it opens up texts that otherwise remain stubbornly closed to me.

  • Stephanie Barbé Hammer

    fascinating, and oddly — this reading makes me feel even more comfortable being a convert to Judaism. 🙂

  • Chris Eyre

    Thanks for the Chrysostom quote – I hadn’t seen it, and it’s VERY interesting. This all seems to bear out Daniel Boyarin’s position in “Border Lines”.

    If I mentally substitute “pagans” for “gentiles”, I get a different picture (as “pagans” is these days a religious denominator whereas it used to be at least as much an in-out ethnic one). Come to think of it, I sometimes read “pagans” as something like “bunpkins” or “hayseeds”.

    Fuzzy language, fuzzy categories.

    • lbehrendt

      My memory of such things is hazy, but didn’t the ancient Greeks refer to non-Greeks as “barbarians”?

      As you point out, not just fuzzy language and categories, but fuzzy transitions!

  • “Fuzzy gentile” has been stuck in my mind ever since I read the title of this blog entry.

  • Robert

    Paul too was and remained a first century Jew. I’ve struggled with Paul over the years and every time I think I understand, and even appreciate him a little more, it is when I realize that he was being radically faithful to his Jewish heritage. Paul was certainly a different flavor of Jew in that he adopted a messianic fervor. Even the term ‘Christian’ cannot be properly understood outside of the Jewish matrix of someone who believes the Jewish messiah had come and, like most every prophet before him, spoke strong words against the (Jewish) establishment and suffered on account of it. Yet the prophet in the Jewish tradition that Jesus was compared to early on, before the destruction of the temple, was Jonah. The reluctant prophet to the Gentiles, the enemies. John the Baptizer, Jesus and Paul believed it was time that the Jewish God embraced all peoples everywhere, that finally the promise to Abraham was coming true, that all people would be blessed in Abraham, that God was able to raise up sons of Abraham even from these stones. Christianity is virtually meaningless apart from its Jewish roots. As the religions grew apart, both sides lost out, especially the Christians who no longer understood who they were.

    • Robert, a full understanding of Paul is well beyond my abilities. I’m just trying to understand Paul’s role in the history of Christian anti-Judaism. Yes, it can be strange to ask this question, given Paul’s own Judaism. Whatever Paul’s take on other Jews might have been, he seemed to embrace his own Judaism. For certain, much of Paul’s program flows from his Judaism — in particular, I think Paul is probably best understood in terms of Jewish apocalypticism, which drove his mission to bring Gentiles into the kingdom of G-d before a final judgment he saw as coming soon. But I think at times, Paul’s commitment to his mission to the Gentiles led him to take an anti-Jewish path, in the sense that I think Paul came to see a faith-based membership in the Kingdom as superior to membership based on even righteous and devout membership in the traditional covenants of Judaism.

      Granted, I don’t think my one-paragraph take on Paul is adequate to explain him. I’m not sure that Paul neatly fits into any single explanatory paradigm, no matter how lengthy! As for what you said above about Jesus, John the Baptist, Jonah, etc. — I’ve written on a few of these topics before, and I think I’ll leave a discussion of these matters to another time.

      • Robert

        Certainly Paul’s words, and even moreso those of the later gospel authors, were used in a vile and violent anti-Jewish manner. But I think Paul would argue against your characterization of him as anti-Jewish. I think he would claim that he understood and appreciated the heart of Judaism better than his critics. Who’s to say he’s wrong? There’s no Jewish pope to say definitively that Hillel is right and Shammai is wrong, despite various appeals to a voices from heaven or changing majorities in the Sanhedrin or other Jewish courts. Paul felt justified in criticizing his fellow Judean/Jews of his time precisely because he saw himself as Jewish as the best of them. The Jewish argument goes on, and thank G-d it does, because G-d cannot be named or defined.