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.
Who was Jesus? It doesn’t much matter whether you’re a believing Christian, or Jewish, Muslim or anything else, everyone seems to have a good word to say about Jesus. But Paul? He’s the guy who defends slavery, bashes gays and sought to subjugate women. The title of a recent popular book among evangelicals says volumes: Jesus Have I Loved, But Paul? Author Scot McKnight says that this title captures something he’s observed in teaching early Christianity at a seminary college: “Students love the Jesus part of the class, but their eyes seem to glaze over when we move from Jesus to Paul.”
For many, Paul falls remarkably short of the standard set by Jesus. Here’s a list of some “common images” of Paul set forth in Jesus Have I Loved, But Paul?:
- Paul the angry Reformed theologian, who delights in the G-d who takes pleasure in sending huge numbers of people to hell.
- Paul the exclusivist, who undermines Jesus’ missional ministry of indiscriminate embrace.
- Paul the oppressor, who lends his apostolic credentials to narratives of enslavement and domination.
- Paul the judge, whose whole life is lived in contradiction to Jesus’s admonition against judging articulated in the Sermon on the Mount.
- Paul the imposer of order, who effectively squelched the Spirit-led worship and life that had characterized Jesus’s first followers.
To this, we might add the image of Paul the apostate Jew, who betrayed his people by setting up a false contrast between the grace of G-d represented by Jesus, and the harsh legalism supposedly characteristic of Torah and Judaism.
Granted … I am the one who devoted something like a month’s worth of posts to Paul’s anti-Jewish statements in 1 Thessalonians! My point there was to say, simply, that Paul did make anti-Jewish statements in 1 Thessalonians, and these statements cannot easily be limited so that they apply only to a small subset of Jews, but these statements must be seen in a larger context, because Paul also had bad (arguably, worse) things to say about non-Christian Gentiles. If I had wanted, I could have devoted many more posts to how Paul’s writings laid the groundwork for much of Christian anti-Judaism. Commenter David noted that in Paul we can find two pillars of anti-Judaism: the accusation that the Jews killed Jesus (and thus killed G-d), and the idea that the Jews stubbornly and blindly rejected their own promised and prophesized Messiah. To commenter David, I can add that other anti-Jewish elements can be found in Paul, such as the beginning of the Christian doctrine of supersessionism (the idea that the Church has replaced Israel and/or the Jews in G-d’s plan), and the division of the religious landscape between the good/spiritual/Christian and the bad/fleshly/Jewish.
But it’s time to give Paul a little love.
Paul needs to be understood on his own terms – not based on what he had to say relevant to present-day Jews, or LGBTQ people, or women, but on what he was trying to say and accomplish nearly 2,000 years ago. It is never going to be easy to step into the shoes of an ancient audience to ascertain the original meaning of an ancient figure … and Paul has proven over the years to be a particularly difficult guy to figure out. But if we make the effort, I think it will be obvious that the “common images” of Paul listed above miss the mark. Here, I will rely on the recent scholarly effort commonly known as the “New Perspective on Paul.” Based on this “New Perspective,” I see the heart of Paul’s doctrine as not being about anti-Judaism or anti-anything else, notwithstanding all of the “antis” we’ve linked to Paul. Instead, Paul is best understood in terms of his positive message, a message directed at providing Gentiles with salvation from the Jewish G-d.
The best place to begin Paul’s story is at the beginning, or at least “a” beginning, when Paul had a vision of the resurrected Jesus on the Damascus Road. This vision could not have been a “conversion experience,” as has sometimes been imagined, simply because there was nothing yet for Paul to convert to. Christianity at this point did not exist – the followers of Jesus in those early days were a Jewish sect. At most, Paul could have “converted” from being a Jewish Pharisee to being a Jewish Jesus follower – the rough equivalent in our day of a change in denomination. Moreover, even as Paul succeeded in bringing Gentiles into the Jesus movement, Paul himself remained Jewish.
So … if the “New Perspective on Paul” denies Paul the traditionally imagined conversion experience, exactly what did Paul experience on the Damascus Road? In simplest terms, Paul emerged from this experience with a sense of mission: he had been called to serve as Jesus’ apostle to the Gentiles.
To our ears, this mission may not sound like much. Christianity is primarily a Gentile religion – there are relatively few Christians today who also identify as Jews. Moreover, our present-day understanding of Jesus is as someone who focused on both Jews and Gentiles. So it might surprise you that most scholars today argue that Jesus (and his disciples during Jesus’ lifetime) pursued no mission to the Gentiles, and thought little about whether Gentiles would be saved at the end of time. In his landmark Jesus and Judaism, E.P. Sanders writes that “the tradition about Jesus had to be stretched in order to have him come into contact with Gentiles at all.” Sanders quotes a scholar from a prior generation, Joachim Jeremias: “If we leave out of account quotations, summaries, and allegorical interpretations of parables, we find that … the only solid evidence for Jesus’ activity among the Gentiles consists of the accounts of the two cases of healing at a distance … alongside of which the story of the Gadarene demoniac may perhaps be placed. That is all.” Jesus himself said that he “was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel,” he instructed his disciples not to minister to Gentiles, and he even refers to ministering to Gentiles as taking bread from children and tossing it to dogs. In the final analysis, Sanders concludes that Jesus probably adhered to the “common Jewish view” that in the last days “the Gentiles can be admitted to the kingdom [of G-d] on some condition or other,” but he sees no reason to “think that Jesus imparted to his disciples any view at all about the Gentiles and the kingdom.”
Sanders argues that after Jesus’ death, his followers came to understand that a mission to the Gentiles was “entirely appropriate,” a “logical extension” of their primary mission, but this primary mission was “to prepare Israel for the coming of the kingdom,” and the primary disciples (in particular, James and Peter) continued to concentrate on bringing their message to a Jewish audience. Moreover, this message itself was thoroughly Jewish, based on G-d’s promises to Israel in the Old Testament. This kingdom was to be on earth as it is in heaven, a “theocracy” (as N.T. Wright has described it) ruled from Jerusalem, the culmination of Jewish history, “the climax of the continuous story of Israel.”
From this “New Perspective,” we can see what a crummy job Paul was given! His “mission” was something of an afterthought, directed not to those who had been promised the kingdom (the Jews), but to those (the Gentiles) who Jesus had largely (or entirely) ignored. If Jews were to be the stars of this particular production, the Gentiles would at best be the audience, at best applauding the final act of this performance, at best allowed to rush the stage as the curtain fell – that is, if the Gentiles were not destined to end up as servants in this kingdom or destroyed by the kingdom. If Paul had been a more easy-going guy – more of a mensch and less of a hothead – he might have understood his mission in this more limited way. Perhaps he would have served as “dramaturge,” explaining to his uncomprehending Gentile audience the unfolding drama of the kingdom. Or perhaps Paul might have been bolder, seeking to convert his Gentile followers to Judaism.
But Paul was zealous, not menschy. And Paul somehow got it into his head that his non-Jewish followers should have equal standing with Jews in this Jewish kingdom. As Krister Stendahl put it, Paul came to understand his mission as:
… defending the rights of Gentile converts to be full and genuine heirs to the promises of G-d to Israel. Their rights were based solely on faith in Jesus Christ. This was Paul’s very special stance, and he defended it zealously against any compromise that required circumcision or the keeping of kosher food laws by Gentile Christians. As the Apostle to the Gentiles he defended this view as part and parcel of the special assignment and revelation that he had received directly from G-d.
In my next post, I’ll look at how the “New Perspective” understands the (zealous) way Paul carried out his mission. As you might anticipate, I’ll argue that some zealousness on Paul’s part was unavoidable, to be expected. But here, I’ll conclude with a final thought from Stendahl: Paul addressed his mission to Gentiles only. “In none of his writings does he give us information about what he thought to be proper in these matters for Jewish Christians. Himself a Jew, but with a special mission to the Gentiles, Paul is never heard to urge Jewish Christians to live like him in these respects.”
We need to keep this final thought in mind in evaluating Paul’s anti-Judaism.