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.
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!