Paul’s Enemies

apostle-paul-dechampaigneWe’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.

But then … what did Paul intend? I think that Paul intended to condemn only those Jews who were not followers of Jesus. Yes, I think this was meant as a condemnation of nearly all Jews, then and now, because then and now, few people identify as both Jewish and followers of Jesus. So … yes: I think it’s fair to say that Paul’s intent in 1 Thessalonians was anti-Jewish. I think this is the right way to understand Paul. But Paul’s attitude needs to be seen in a larger context, because Paul was also highly critical of Gentiles. The best way to understand Paul is to see him as condemning a whole lot of people, not just Jews!

Let’s start with some basics.

Many recent scholars have recognized that a key to understanding Paul is through his mission as the “apostle to the Gentiles.” The old view that Paul was primarily an opponent of Jewish law, primarily a theologian of Christian grace in place of Jewish works, has given way to what I think is a better understanding: Paul understood that he had been given a commission from the resurrected Jesus to bring the Gospel message to non-Jews. The fact that Paul succeeded so well in this mission, that Christianity quickly became a predominantly Gentile religion, should not lead us to fail to appreciate how difficult Paul’s mission really was! Paul had to convince pagans that Jesus, a guy who had lived hundreds or thousands of miles away, and had been executed years ago by the Romans as a common criminal, was actually the long-sought Jewish messiah. More difficult: Paul had to convince these pagans that the identity of the Jewish messiah actually mattered to them, that a crucified man revered by a fraction of a small group of seemingly strange people on the eastern fringe of the Roman Empire was in reality the sole and exclusive savior of all people, and that belief in this savior was the only key to membership in the soon-to-be-established (probably, in Paul’s own lifetime) worldwide Kingdom of the Jewish G-d. Paul was required to preach this message to pagans who knew nothing about Judaism or the Jewish G-d, and would never have even heard an Old Testament story. How did Paul manage to persuade them, without performing miracles, without a New Testament to read from?

Here’s how he might have done it.

Let’s start with the Thessalonians. How did they see themselves before Paul’s arrival? Well, as Thessalonians, of course, and probably as Macedonians, and Greeks. They were also Romans, proud Romans. Thessalonica was the capital of the Roman province Macedonia, and had been granted the honor of civitas liberae condicionis (status of a free city) for being a faithful friend of Rome. Religiously, Thessalonians would have been expected to participate in the imperial cult. Thessalonica also contained a Serapeum, a temple dedicated to Egyptian gods like Isis and Osiris. Other Thessalonians may have been G-dfearers or some variety of “fuzzy” Jew, though as far as I can tell there is no evidence outside of the New Testament of any Jewish presence in Thessalonica in the first century.

How did Paul see Thessalonians – that is, Thessalonians who were not followers of Jesus, Thessalonians who were the target of his mission work? In 1 Thessalonians, Paul makes two mentions of how he would have regarded the Thessalonians before they joined his church: as idol worshippers (also see Romans 1:23-32), and as Gentiles. In a previous post, we’ve discussed the meaning of “Gentiles” in Paul’s letters: Paul used the Greek word ethne, meaning peoples, or nations. As we’ve discussed, this is about the most general thing one could say about someone else, the equivalent of saying that someone is from somewhere, having some unspecified ethnic and cultural background. It’s not far to imagine that, when Paul told his followers that they used to be “Gentiles,” he was in effect saying that they used to be generic nobodies. (Interestingly, the word “Gentile” derives from the Latin “gens,” a word also generally referring to “people” or “tribe,” and there’s one source on the net that looks at this Latin derivation and concluded that “Gentile” means a “non-something.”)

Oddly enough, Paul may have meant something similar when he referred to Gentile Thessalonians outside of his church as idol worshippers. In Hebrew, the word for “idol” is פֶּ֫סֶל (pesel), usually translated as “graven (carved) image.” In Hebrew, an idol is a “likeness,” an object, something one can make or set up. But Paul wrote his letters in Greek, not Hebrew, and the Greek word Paul used for “idol” is εἰδώλων (eidolon), a word commonly translated outside of the New Testament as “apparition,” “ghost” or “phantasm.” Paul chose to use a word for “idol” meaning not an object like a statue, but instead referring to a delusion, something that isn’t exactly real, something that isn’t really there.

Isn’t it strange? Paul’s description of the Thessalonians as Gentile idol worshippers can be understood as intentionally negating everything the Thessalonians thought they were – not Greeks, Romans, Macedonians worshipping their traditional gods, but nobodies worshipping nothing. This gives us a sense of the kind of power Paul’s words must have had to his audience. Those persuaded by Paul would have initially found themselves stripped of identity, negated bodily and spiritually.

And what would these Thessalonians have become, upon joining Paul’s church? Not Christians – remember, this word had not been invented in Paul’s time. In his epistle, Paul refers to the members of his Thessalonian church as “brothers and sisters beloved by G-d,” or just “brothers and sisters,” or “believers.” He also calls them something else, something very interesting: “imitators (or followers) of the churches of G-d in Christ Jesus that are in Judea.” Here, “imitators” is a translation of the Greek word μιμηταὶ (mimētai), a word Paul only uses in a favorable sense. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul urges his followers to be mimētai of G-d, and in 1 Corinthians Paul states that his followers should be mimētai of him just as he is a mimētai of Christ. Being a mimētai is clearly a good thing in Paul’s world, but so is being whatever it is that Paul thinks is worthy of imitation, including (in the case of 1 Thessalonians) the Jewish “churches of G-d in Christ Jesus.”

So it is important to note: Paul does have a few good things to say about Jews. Mostly, these good things are (as in 1 Thessalonians) limited to Jewish followers of Jesus. But elsewhere, Paul describes all Jews as having the “advantage” of being “entrusted with the oracles of G-d.” Paul says that non-Christian Jews hold “the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises,” that they have “a zeal for G-d,” that G-d has not rejected them, and eventually that “all Israel will be saved.” Even if we’re not sure exactly what Paul meant by all this, and even if we take at face value (as I think we should) all of Paul’s anti-Jewish statements, I think that non-Christian Jews are portrayed more favorably (or at least, less unfavorably) by Paul than non-Christian Gentiles.

Yes, whatever positive Paul might say about non-Christian Jews, he qualifies or elsewhere retracts. He acknowledges that the Jews “did strive for … righteousness,” but argues that they failed to obtain it. He praises the Jews for their zeal for G-d, then claims that “it is not based on knowledge.” G-d may not have “rejected” the Jews, but G-d is displeased by them, and the Jews have become the target of G-d’s wrath.  Ultimately, Paul is simply not a place to turn to look for nice things said about anyone – except for followers of Jesus (and sometimes not even them!), not unless you’re a member of one of Paul’s churches (and sometimes not even then!). It is for this reason that I must conclude that Paul did mean to condemn all Jews in 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16, Judean or not, fuzzy or not, with the sole exception of those Jews who had elected to follow Jesus.

But my primary point here is this: understood in the broader context of the entire epistle of First Thessalonians and Paul’s other writings, I don’t think that 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16 singles out the Jews for special condemnation. Paul also condemns non-Christian Gentiles, arguably with language that’s rougher than what he directed against Jews. We may regret today that Paul used this kind of language against anybody; we live today with the unfortunate consequences of much of this language. But as we’ll discuss in later posts, much of the language of other Jewish and Christian writers in Paul’s day was also sharp, and insulting.

So, yes: Paul’s writing was anti-Jewish. It was also anti-Thessalonian, anti-Ephesian, anti-Corinthian, anti-Galatian, anti-Philippian, even anti-Roman! Paul opposed everyone who opposed him, practically everyone who disagreed with him.

And yes: if we like, we can soften Paul’s harsh condemnation of the Jews with what we’ve discussed earlier, about Ioudaioi perhaps meaning “Judeans” instead of Jews, about Jewishness being a “fuzzy” category, and about how Paul’s followers were themselves a sort of “fuzzy” Jew. Hopefully, we no longer feel bound by Paul’s anti-Jewish statements to believe that the Christian message must be read anti-Jewishly, and if what I’ve already written can help us read Paul in a gentler sort of way, so much the better.

But at the same time, we must understand where the church’s historic anti-Jewishness came from. No matter what Paul may have intended, his anti-Jewish invective sowed seeds of what would later become a more particular and destructive brand of church anti-Judaism, once the church began to single out the Jews among all other peoples for special and fierce condemnation, while at the same time softening (or eliminating, or even reversing) Paul’s condemnation of non-Christian Gentiles. We will begin to see this change even in the Gospels … which we will examine here in upcoming posts.

In the meantime: it’s time for your comments. Do you agree that Paul meant to condemn all Jews who had not adopted his belief in Jesus? Do you agree that Paul’s criticism of non-Christian Gentiles is even harsher than that of non-Christian Jews? After all I’ve written here about fuzzy Gentiles and fuzzy Jews, do you think I’m right to conclude that there’s nothing particularly fuzzy about Paul’s condemnation of Jews in 1 Thessalonians? Discuss!

  • John Brantingham

    One of the reasons I gave up the Catholic faith and dogmatic Christianity in general was my distrust of Paul. It seemed to me that he took the spirit of Christ and perverted its intention so that something that was meant to be an all inclusive church was turned into exclusion. Jesus elevated the Samaritan, an outside. He showed us not to judge prostitutes. He taught us to love one another as ourselves. While Jesus tells us to attend the log in our own eyes before removing the mote in others, Paul tells us specifically and directly whom to hate.

    So, yes, I think Paul meant this as being a condemnation, basically that anyone who isn’t us is them, and they have to be guarded against.

    • lbehrendt

      John, great comment, and thanks for the insight.

      There is a Jewish tendency to read the NT through the lens of, “good Jesus, bad Paul” (and, sometimes, bad Gospel authors). I’m trying to fight that. I think that as the NT goes, Paul is relatively friendly to Jews. To others, probably not so much.

      Jesus did say in Luke 9:50, those not against us are for us. Then he says in Matthew 12:30 that “Whoever is not with me is against me.” So, isn’t some of what you don’t like in Paul also present in Jesus?

      • John Brantingham

        It might be. I could be wrong about this. The first quotation seems to be saying that as long as someone isn’t attacking us, we should not fear that person. The second one might be interpreted the same way, it could be. However, I don’t want to put too much spin on something Jesus said that I just disagree with. If Jesus said this, and he meant it the way it sounds, he was incorrect.

        In general though, I believe that Jesus is about inclusion rather than exclusion while with Paul I feel that he’s building up walls to create a kind of power for himself.

        • lbehrendt

          There is a sense that Paul was radically inclusionary. It is Paul who insisted that Gentiles could become members of the church without having to become Jews. It is not at all clear that Jesus felt the same way. See for example Matthew 15:24.

          It is interesting that the reaction here to Paul is so negative! Let’s see how Paul looks after we’ve examined other materials (including the Gospels) for anti-Judaism.

      • John Brantingham

        I also agree about the gospel authors. I’ve always tended toward John (not just because of my name).

  • Christine

    Sounds like an early spin doctor. It’s a pretty old speechwriting trick, demonizing some other group to make your own views look better. Paul-itics as usual. Yes, the capital c church of Rome used the words of Paul as an excuse for anti-Jewish rhetoric, encouraged those beliefs that led to incomprehensibly murderous actions, as some Christians now single out Old Testament writings to justify homophobia. History is written by the winners, including the winners at the Nicene Council who threw out a lot of baby Jesus’ bathwater when they exorcised ‘heretical’ scripture in favor of a hierarchy that elevated Paul and his teachings. If Jesus’ original followers had been around, would they have been saying, “THAT guy? Seriously? Who elected HIM spokesperson?”

    • lbehrendt

      Well Christine, lots of people rely on Paul for their condemnation of homosexuality. And, Nicaea did not address what books should be in the New Testament. Yes, a lot of people SAY that this is what happened in Nicaea, but it’s simply not the case — the first Church council to address this question was at Trent, in the 16th century! Of course, the question of which books the Catholic Church would include in its canon was settled well before Trent, and the content of much of the New Testament was settled before Nicaea as well, but there were disputes about the content of the New Testament well after Nicaea.

      And it IS interesting, that there was a group of Jewish Christians, the Ebionites, that survived at least into the 4th century, and rejected Paul as an arch heretic. There are a number of scholars who see in the New Testament a major conflict between Paul on the one hand, and Peter and James on the other. So, yes: it is possible that Jesus’ original followers DID disagree with Paul.

      But as for demonizing Jews … we’ll have the opportunity to address this problem quite literally, once we turn to the Gospel of John. I could not agree with you more here, and as this series goes on, we’ll talk about how Christians frequently demonized other Christians by accusing them of “Judaizing.”

      • Christine

        Staying tuned.

  • David

    Even if it’s Jews and Gentiles alike who earn Paul’s disdain, it’s Jews *alone* who 1) rejected one of their own, their King Messiah – i.e. they were God’s “chosen” and should’ve known better, and 2) are the ones who “killed” Jesus (directly or indirectly). And that’s the main justification, it seems to me, of Christian anti-Semitism.

    In terms of softening Paul’s message, as I said in a comment a few posts ago, my sense is that Paul held “the Jews” responsible for Jesus’ death in the same way that some Native Americans might reasonably blame “the white man” for their plight – even though they know there were certainly many whites who weren’t to blame. It’s a language that conveys bitterness and resentment, not precision.

    • David

      I should add that despite it being “merely” an emotional language, any language spoken about a “group” – no less in a transcendent, spiritual, metaphysical context, where that language could be applied to the same group 2000 years later – is by its nature *extremely dangerous* for reasons we know too well. So regardless of what Paul “meant”, it’s what his words sound like to the average Christian which matters most, if you catch my drift…

      • lbehrendt

        Drift caught. But it is my experience that problems raised by the text of Holy Scripture can be resolved for many only by addressing the text AS Holy Scripture. Yes, there are some who will seize on what they can find to justify the continuation of ancient hatred into the present day, but I think there are many more Christians looking for a basis in Scripture to discard some, most or all of this hatred.

        It is thus a part of dialogue to examine scripture to see how it had contributed to Jewish-Christian enmity AND to see if it might be understood to point in a better direction.

    • lbehrendt

      It is going to be a difficult matter to compare Paul’s condemnation of Jews to that of Gentiles, to see which was worse. Comparative condemnation is a tricky business. But I don’t think we can look to what followed Paul, the horrible impact of Christian anti-Judaism, and say that this impact proves that Paul singled out Jews for special and particularly damning condemnation. Paul condemned a lot of people! Just take a look at Paul here, where he wished that some of his fellow Jesus-followers would receive “the unkindest cut of all.” If you think that Paul’s condemnation of Jews is worse than that of Gentiles, you may be right, but this is not how I see it. From my standpoint, Paul may have accused Jews of making horrible mistakes in how they worshiped the true G-d, but I think it has to be worse to be accused of worshiping a delusion. At least the Jews were doing something right!

      You are quite right, the foundation of much of Christian anti-Judaism can be found in Paul. I am not trying to argue otherwise. I am saying that in Paul, the Jews are not alone in being condemned. This situation is about to change. We will encounter Christian writings soon where the Jews are condemned in isolation, and other writings where non-Jews are condemned for (supposedly) acting like Jews.

    • Robert

      Hi, David. Insorar as Paul himself was ‘Jewish’ the anaology with Native Americans and ‘the white man’ does not work quite so well. In 1 Thessalonians, Paul was not only upset with with the Judean authorities for executing Jesus, but also because they who opposed him (Paul) and tried to impede his sense of mission, which he saw as the true mission of Abrahamic Judaism. Knowing how self-centered and driven Paul could be, I suspect he was more upset by that. In 1 Corinthians, Paul excuses those rulers who killed Jesus as not knowing what they were doing.

  • Stephanie Barbé Hammer

    goodness gracious Paul is such a crabapple! He reminds me of that Woody Allen character who says he doesn’t want to be a member of any club that would have him as a member! Although, it’s not fair to compare Paul to that creepy director… seriously, thanks for this series of posts.

    • lbehrendt

      I think that line is from Groucho Marx. I am trying to think whether it’s fair to compare Paul to Groucho.

  • I’ve found your past few blog posts not only insightful but also very even-handed and fair in their treatment of Paul. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

    • lbehrendt


      Not much love so far in the comments for poor old Paul. I’m thinking about writing a blog post to defend him. (Just saying that should give the giggles to many people I know. I’ve never been known as a big Paul fan.)

  • dickjones1517

    Interesting material. The best answer though, comes simply by referring to Mt. 10:6, 15:24 and Acts 9:15. These passages indicate that Paul, in ALL of his letters, was speaking strictly to the diaspora/the dispersed, comprised mainly of the House of Israel Israelites and to a much lesser extent to the similarly dispersed from the House of Judah. 1. Mt. 10:6. [Christ speaking:] “But go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 2. Mt. 15:24. “But he [Christ] answered and said, ‘I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel.'” 3. Acts 9:15. But the Lord said unto him, [Ananias], Go thy way: for he [Paul] is a chosen vessel unto me, to bear my name before the Gentiles and kings, and the children of Israel.” Sadly, Gentiles or non-Israelites was NOT meant by Christ. Luke, the writer of Acts, writing in Greek, didn’t write Gentiles, naturally, he used the word for “nations” which is ethne. The Greek-into-English translators were misguided in piggybacking on Jerome’s Latin word for nations, gentilis, and turning it into an invented word, Gentiles. So what does “ethne” really mean? It means Israelites from the House of Israel. Paul was not in any sense writing to non-Israelites (Gentiles) although what he wrote applies to them as well.