Paul, Reconsidered

st._paul_the_apostleI 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.

  • Jade

    Jesus told His followers to “go and make disciples of ALL nations.” It is true Jesus limited His earthly ministry to the people of Israel, but in the Gospels, He stated that it is AFTER He dies and is risen that He will draw “All peoples and nations to Himself.”

    • lbehrendt

      Jade, thank you for your comment. You’re right, it would have been clearer above if I’d stated that during Jesus’ lifetime, Jesus and his disciples pursued no Gentile mission.

      I think you are quoting from Matthew 28:19 (“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations”) and John 12:32 (“And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself”). Good quotes! But the first is the Gospel’s report of a saying of the resurrected Jesus, and the second is a report of what Jesus said he would do after his resurrection, so I think neither quote contradicts Sanders and Jeremias. Do you agree?

      My point is not to drive a wedge between Jesus and Gentiles. My point is to give Paul the credit I think he’s due, for forging a path between Jesus and Gentiles. Of course, for believing Christians, the credit belongs to the Holy Spirit working through Paul, correct? And this is all G-d’s plan from the beginning.

      It is my goal here to speak in the language of interfaith dialogue, which is a language that I hope you will always find respectful, even when it is not the language that you yourself might use. When I slip up, let me know! And please, continue to participate here. I value your voice.

      • Jade

        If you read the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman, Jesus tells her that there will come a time where people, whether Jew or Samaritan (mixed Gentile), will no longer worship at a particular temple, but rather worship God in “spirit and Truth.” So basically we have a Jesus who indeed has given some thought about “Gentiles and the Kingdom” and the nature of it. Here, He also offered the woman what He called “living water” and Jesus along with His disciples stayed in that Samaritan village for two days. So if one takes this story to be an accurate portrayal of an event during Jesus’ ministry, then one would disagree with Sanders and Jeremias.

        Also, I don’t understand the people who describe Jesus as “indiscriminate” yet believe Him calling the Canaanite woman a “dog” demonstrated that His ministry had a particular focus to the people of Israel only. Yet these same people will call Paul an “exclusivist” yet didn’t he write “therefore there is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female for all are one in Christ?” If anything, Paul simply didn’t desire Gentiles to convert to his Judaism. The Judaism that he himself continued to practice and a Judaism where he continued to view himself as a pharisee for the rest of his life. He believed that indeed a Gentile could be a disciple of Jesus, but they didn’t have to mimic Jewish Christians in particular to do so. All they needed to do was follow the universal teachings of Jesus and that would suffice. It’s similar to the notion of “noahide” laws.

        I find it strange how so many people have this hatred for Paul. I understand some of the things he wrote may have left a bad taste in some peoples’ mouths, yet there is a ton of beauty in his epistles as well,
        especially how he emphasizes LOVE above everything. I think we should view Paul as a complex man with very complex ideas that he himself wrestled with.

        • lbehrendt

          Jade, I wrote what I wrote here to achieve a kind of balance between appreciating Paul and problematizing what he wrote. As I said, interfaith dialogue is a chance to listen to voices you wouldn’t otherwise hear. It is an opportunity to better understand people you don’t currently understand. Paul has said things that have hurt a lot of people — whether this was Paul’s intent, that’s hard to say, but the injury is there regardless, and it’s part of the picture we have to recognize in this kind of dialogue. I get that the hatred of Paul seems strange to you — as I wrote, I am surprised by it too. It’s important that we listen, and get it, and engage in discussion, with the intent to be understood. It’s great that dialogue contains the possibility of coming to new mutual understandings. But sometimes, dialogue is about exploring differences, and that’s good too.

          When Paul says “neither Jew nor Greek” (or, depending on your translation, “Jew nor Gentile”) in Galatians 3:28, that may be heard differently by you than it is by a Jew like me — for me, it threatens the loss of my identity and my faith. It is part of my goal here to understand Paul in a sympathetic way, but also to understand how others have understood him, and it’s unfortunately the case that Paul has been understood as justifying horrible acts of anti-Judaism that have caused immense suffering and harm. I have no desire to perpetuate this understanding, especially if (and to the extent) that the understanding is a misunderstanding. Neither can I sweep the understanding under the rug.

          More coming on what I think Paul said and meant, but I think that you and I are at least on the same page here.

          As for the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:1-42) … great point! I’d have to go back to Sanders, but my guess is that he doesn’t consider that story to be historical. Reading the story carefully, note that John has to explain what Jesus is doing in Samaria — he “had to go there” to get from Judea to his desired destination in Galilee. Samaria was not Jesus’ desired destination. The text emphasizes that Jews don’t normally encounter Samaritans. The text itself suggests that Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman was accidental. So, even if you disagree with Sanders about whether this story really happened, I think that much of Sanders’ point (and Jeremias’ point) remains.

          The text also emphasizes what I might call the “fuzzy” Jewishness of the Samaritans, who recognize Jacob as their father and are waiting for the coming of the Messiah — certainly, the Samaritans are not classic pagan idol-worshiping Gentiles. Instead, the Samaritans were very close to the Jews in religious belief. We understand that they were monotheists who worshiped YHWH, who traced their ancestry to Abraham and followed their version of the Torah, believing it given by G-d to Moses. One big difference between the Samaritans and the Jews is that the Samaritans believed that the proper place for G-d’s Temple was Mount Gerizim, not Jerusalem.

          So when Jesus says the following …

          “a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. G-d is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.” (John 4:21-24)

          … I think we can say two things. First, Jesus is proclaiming the superiority of Judaism over Samaritanism. Second, it’s not clear that Gentiles are included in the “true worshipers” referred to here by Jesus. The idea seems to be to get the worship of G-d off the two mountains of the Jews and the Samaritans. Clearly, Jesus does seem to be saying that the Jews and the Samaritans will stop worshiping YHWH on their respective mountains, but he doesn’t mention the practices of Gentiles in general, or that of any other people except these two competing peoples. Perhaps by implication, Jesus is saying something that goes beyond Judea and Samaria, but then, I think the same can be said for much of what Jesus said elsewhere to his almost exclusively Jewish audience.

          As I’ve said earlier, I have no desire to drive a wedge between Gentiles and Jesus. My point here remains to appreciate the role played here by Paul.

  • Chris Eyre

    I should have posted in reply to your previous piece. No matter.

    Had you caught me 20 years ago, I’d probably have taken the view that I followed Jesus, and not the religion of Paulianity. However, a lot of discussion and study has happened since then, and I’ve arrived at my own “New Perspective on Paul” largely independently of the official version, though I’ve read a fair amount of that and like the direction it’s gone in – among other things, it clarifies that Paul was not the “angry reformed theologian”, that’s just what the Protestant paradigm of most of the last 500 years post Luther has made of him.

    For what it’s worth, I’m inclined to disagree with the general trend of scholarship which holds that Jesus didn’t talk to or extend a message to non-Jews at all. I don’t think Paul could have happened had there not been some basis in the original message to that effect, and I don’t think that the Jesus I envisage could have preached in the area without having to meet and engage with non-Jews and without being inclusive towards them in some way. It may well not have been in the form of what we now have written as Jesus’ actions and statements, but as an example I don’t think the episode where Jesus is corrected by the Syrophonecian woman in Mark 7:34-29, Matt. 15:21-28 would have been likely to be remembered in this form if it didn’t have some truth behind it. Correcting Jesus? Wow!

    I end up completely agreeing with you as to what Paul thought he was doing, i.e. extending Jesus’ message to the Gentiles without seeking to change it (although I’m confident he did change it in part), and as I only ascribe 6-7 epistles to the actual Paul, I think he was inclusivist and the bad rep about exclusivism, approving slavery and so on is actually undeserved; I do think there’s some merit in a charge of attempting to impose order, though (and I’m not sure that’s a bad thing insofar as Paul rather than his later followers actually did this). However, he did land us with some huge hostages to fortune in his (mostly ad hoc) theologising, and I agree completely with Daniel Boyarin (“A Radical Jew”) that whatever you say, his overall message was supersessionary.

    Incidentally, apropos the number of Christians who can claim Jewish descent, you may be amused to learn that locally to me (where there has been no synagogue since the twelfth century) I learn from a Jewish friend that the rabbi setting up a new reform congregation has asked that Christians stop attending, as he’s so far attracted more Christians than Jews and they’re threatening to swamp his congregation (if that’s the right word). “Enough of your support, already…”

    • lbehrendt

      Chris, I want to hear more about that synagogue.

      As for Jesus and the Gentiles, I think the Gospel writers (writing to a predominantly or at least increasingly Gentile audience) naturally looked for whatever Jesus stories they could find relating to Gentiles. But they couldn’t find much. The passage about the Syrophonecian woman is the one I referenced, where a healing of a Gentile is compared by Jesus to giving the childrens’ bread to dogs. That doesn’t exactly show Jesus as thinking inclusively about Gentiles! I think that Jesus’ Gospel message is inclusive, but at least the synoptic Gospels fail to show Jesus bringing this message to the Gentiles. I have to go with Sanders here.

      For Paul and supersessionism … up until a few days ago, I would have agreed with you. Today, I’m not so sure. I’m stuck today in Romans 2, where Paul says “There will be … glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek” (2:10), “the doers of the law … will be justified” (2:13), and “circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law” (2:25). This doesn’t sound like supersessionism! True enough, what Paul gives in Romans 2, he seems to take away in Romans 3: “”no human being will be justified in his sight’ by deeds prescribed by the law” (3:20). But I think Romans 2 and 3 can be reconciled with a bit of the New Perspective: the doers of the law will be justified, not by the doing of the law, but by the faith and grace of G-d’s election of the people of Israel who “uphold the law” (3:31). Doing the law retains a Jew’s membership in spiritual Israel; it is G-d’s grace and faith that justifies Israel.

      Granted: for me to make this argument, I have to contend with more than just Romans 3. I suspect that at the end of the day, there’s no way to explain and harmonize everything we find in Paul. Hence I fall back onto my belief that the best way to understand Paul is through his mission, and his mission is to get Gentiles into the Kingdom. How Jews enter the Kingdom is not Paul’s primary concern, so long as the Jews are not interfering with Paul’s Gentiles.

      It’s late here, so I’ll pause to see what you think.

      • Chris Eyre

        There may be a delay in me finding out much more about that synagogue, as although I have an in principle invitation to go along sometime, as things are I don’t want to add to the rabbi’s problem! As to why there hasn’t been a synagogue, the location is York, and York has a particularly black reputation in Judaism due to an event in 1190 – http://ddickerson.igc.org/cliffords-tower.html. While there have been vibrant communities in other nearby cities for a long time (Leeds, for instance), York has been avoided. Fairly recently the Lord Mayor took the step of issuing a public apology to Judaism; that might have some influence on current developments. That said, I’ll be seeing my friend again tomorrow and may ask a few gentle questions.

        It isn’t just the Syrophonecian woman, of course; there’s a centurion and a Samaritan woman as well. Though only the centurion (not only presumed pagan but also Roman!) appears in the synoptics, there’s the parable of the Good Samaritan to consider, I suppose. I end up in the position of thinking that Jesus very dominantly thought his mission was to Jews, but there were a few exceptions, and the Syrophonecian woman making him look bad initially not only rings true as admission against interest but also strikes me as a potential point of change.

        Boyarin’s central text is Gal. 3:28 “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” If nothing else, he sees this dissolution of the particularity of Jews as supersession, and although I struggled against that for a while, I think it’s a good argument. I could see ways in which Paul might have developed the combined ideas of particularity and universal inclusion, but he didn’t, as far as I can glean.

        But Paul wasn’t a very systematic theologian, despite what Luther, Calvin and their followers may have thought. I think you’re right; we’re on a hiding to nothing asking him to be completely consistent.

        • lbehrendt

          The centurion was not exactly someone who Jesus sought out! And the Samaritans were just barely Gentile, if they were Gentiles at all — there are plenty of folks who include the Samaritans as a first century Jewish sect. Yes, Jesus may have thought more kindly of Gentiles after his experience with the Syrophonecian woman, but he doesn’t appear to have spent any more time with them as a result.

          N.T. Wright has both praised and critiqued Boyarin’s work on Paul — see http://ntwrightpage.com/Wright_Two_Radical_Jews.htm. Agreed, Galatians 3:28 is evidence of Paul’s interest in unity in the church (though like so many who call for unity, Paul wants unity under HIS banner), but I don’t read that statement as applying to those outside his target audience (i.e., non-Christian Jews). It’s not even clear to me that Paul wants to eliminate distinctions between Jewish and Gentile Christians — he may merely be seeking to place each group on an equal footing, and perhaps to emphasize how much the two groups have in common. Certainly, he realizes that the distinction between Jewish and Gentile Christians continues to hold — this is evident throughout Romans.

          When I look for Paul’s supersessionism, I’ve tended to find it in statements that acknowledge the distinctions between Jews and Greeks (or, Jews and Gentiles), but seem to say that the old ways of being Jewish are no longer functional after Jesus. But I’m losing the sense in Paul that this is how he felt. Yes, it’s clear that Paul did not approve of the widespread Jewish rejection of Jesus, and the image of Jews as branches lopped off the tree of Israel (Romans 11:17-21) is not a pleasant one for Jews to contemplate. Clearly, Paul saw Jesus as the preferred path to justification, over and beyond Jewish covenant membership. But I’m no longer sensing that Paul was thinking about the fate of Jews outside of his Church. These Jews seem to be an issue for Paul only when they interfered (directly or indirectly) with the success of his mission to the Gentiles.