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.
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:
- 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?