Paul, Jews and Judaizing

paulThis is, I vow, the last piece I’m going to write about the apostle Paul for a looooooong time.

Initially, I took on Paul as part of an effort to explore the roots of Christian anti-Judaism. I devoted four posts (here, here, here and here) to outlining what I think is a simple position: Paul’s anti-Jewish statements in 1 Thessalonians were intended broadly, and meant to condemn all Jews who had not become followers of Jesus. But whatever negative Paul had to say about Jews, he had equally bad (probably worse) things to say about Gentiles who were not following Jesus. I think this is how we should understand Paul, as someone devoted to the Jesus movement, and critical to all those outside the movement.

In response, I received many comments decrying Paul for the critical side of his program. I think the comments are fair. Paul was an extreme character. Krister Stendahl described Paul’s extremes as follows in his book Final Account: “He was always the greatest: the greatest of sinners, the greatest of apostles, the greatest when it came to speaking in tongues, the greatest at having been persecuted. That is because he wasn’t married. Or perhaps that is why he wasn’t married. Nobody could stand him …”

Still, I feel compelled to defend Paul. I think that Paul can be badly misunderstood. As many scholars have noted, Paul’s language is dualistic: mind/body, spirit/flesh, flesh/promise, slave/free, present Jerusalem/Jerusalem above, and most critically for my purposes, Jew/Gentile. This dualistic language can seem divisive (and doubtless, Paul is used for divisive purposes), but just as obviously, there’s much in Paul that is radically inclusive.  In any event, I don’t think Paul is best understood by focusing on one side or the other of his dualism – for example, by focusing on what he had to say about slavery, homosexuality or gender. And for certain, I don’t think Paul is best understood by how he’s used today by culture warriors.

Instead, I think that Paul is best understood in terms of mission. This is one of the great insights of recent scholarship, under the banner of the so-called “New Perspective on Paul”: Paul emerged from his experience of Jesus on the Damascus Road with a mission to serve as Jesus’ apostle to the Gentiles. Paul’s encounter with the risen Jesus was not a conversion experience; it was a “call”. “G-d … called me by his grace,” wrote Paul in Galatians, in a manner reminiscent of Isaiah (“The Lord called me before I was born”) and Jeremiah (“I ordained thee a prophet unto the Gentiles”). But while Jeremiah may have spoken about a call “unto” Gentiles, he appears to have spent his life prophesizing to Jews. If we’re looking for the first Jew to have made a career out of outreach to Gentiles, that first Jew may have been Paul. (It most certainly wasn’t Jesus.) At the least, Paul seems to be the first Jewish envoy to the Gentiles who left us with extensive writings.

Paul not only believed he had received a call; he thought the call was urgent. More specifically, Paul’s mission to the Gentiles should be understood in terms of Jesus’ apocalypticism. I think that the best view of the historical Jesus is that he thought that the world as he knew it was soon about to end, and that an earthly Kingdom of G-d was fast approaching. This Kingdom would include resurrection of the dead, universal divine judgment and an idyllic world with G-d in charge, all coming soon. Jesus himself would participate in some manner in the ruling of this Kingdom – he might serve as divine judge, or divine king. Paul’s call was to prepare the Gentiles for this coming Kingdom.

And what a call this was! Paul not only had a much larger target audience than his fellow Jesus followers, who understood their mission primarily in terms of bringing the Gospel to the Jews. Paul was also responsible for an audience that had little familiarity with Judaism, or the Old Testament, or even the G-d whose Kingdom was imminent. Paul’s challenge was to get his Gentile audience into this Kingdom, meaning that (1) the Gentiles had to opt into this Kingdom, and (2) the Gentiles had to be accepted by those who were already included in the Kingdom. To understand Paul, we need keep both (1) and (2) in mind, because Paul was unwilling to accept any kind of second-class Kingdom status for his Gentiles.

But how could Gentiles be included into a Kingdom that would be ruled by the Jewish G-d, as prophesized in Jewish scripture and heralded by the Jewish Jesus? The logical answer might be: these Gentiles needed to become Jews. Clearly, some of Jesus’ earliest followers believed that Gentiles must convert to Judaism in order to join the early church. Just as clearly, Paul believed differently – and his belief was a strong one. Paul expresses his belief most clearly in his letter to the Galatians, 2:16: “we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.” While there is much controversy over how this passage should be translated (is it “faith in Jesus” or “faith of Jesus”? Is it “justified by the works of the law” or “justified out of works of the law” or even “justified to works of the law”?), clearly it is this component of faith that (for Paul) gets Gentiles into the Kingdom.

Jesus faith is so important to Paul, he insists that his Gentile followers must rely on this faith exclusively. If a Gentile adopts any Jewish practice (such as circumcision) in the hope that this might help assure their justification, then Jesus faith will be “of no benefit” to them — “You who want to be justified by the law have cut yourselves off from Christ; you will have fallen away from grace.” More on this exclusivity in a moment.

Paul’s means of accomplishing his mission was to preach a Gospel that allowed Gentiles to enter the Jewishly-envisioned Kingdom of the Jewish G-d without having to actually become Jewish. We should pause a moment to consider Paul’s vision more carefully, because it’s not entirely clear why Paul went in this direction. Wouldn’t it have been simpler, easier and a whole lot less controversial to have Gentiles join the Kingdom by becoming Jews? To my mind, Paul never clearly answers this question. Perhaps Paul was worried that conversion to Judaism would take too long, given how quickly the Kingdom was about to come into power. We don’t know much about Jewish conversion practices in the first century — it’s not even clear that Jews sought converts in the first century. But whatever the conversion process was, it’s likely that the process took time. In The Beginnings of Jewishness, Shaye Cohen writes that the first century process of converting to Judaism required three elements: practice of Jewish law (including circumcision for males), exclusive devotion to the G-d of the Jews, and integration into the Jewish community. This would have been a difficult and painful process — not just the part about circumcision, but (as the Jewish philosopher Philo put it) the abandonment by converts of “their kinsfolk by blood, their country, their customs, and the temples and the images of their gods, and the tributes and honors paid to them.”

Doubtless, the conversion process was difficult … but I don’t imagine that this difficulty would have discouraged the likes of Paul. Indeed, I think Paul demanded something like conversion from his followers — he wrote about these followers as once having been “foreigners to the covenants of the promise,” who had since “turned to G-d from idols.” So, I don’t think Paul was reluctant to ask his followers to make a major change in lifestyle. But I do think that Paul was dissuaded by the time it would take to get Gentiles to convert to Judaism. Not only would the process of conversion (getting circumcised, learning Jewish law, turning from idols, disassociation from old habits and associates) take some time, but even when this process was complete, the proselyte might not be fully, 100% Jewish. Shaye Cohen asks if proselytes became “Jews” in the eyes of other Jews, and answers, “Apparently not.” The status of “proselyte” was difficult to escape; according to Cohen, this status was noted on the gravestones of some converts. Proselytes were (as I described in an earlier post) “fuzzy Jews.” They may have had a second-class kind of Jewish citizenship; it might have taken a generation or two for a proselyte and his or her family to be regarded as fully Jewish. And for someone like Paul, who wanted full and instant Kingdom status for his converts, such a waiting period would not do.

Naturally, I’m speculating why Paul did not seek to bring Gentiles into the Kingdom through conversion to Judaism. But regardless of his reasons, Paul did not seek to make Jewish converts. Neither did he explicitly oppose conversion. What he opposed (and this is critical to an understanding of Paul) was Judaizing. My argument here is that Judaizing and conversion to Judaism were different things, though you can find people who argue that they were the same thing. I think that for Paul, conversion meant a complete change of identity: becoming Jewish, joining the Jewish people, and all the other steps Cohen described above. Judaizing was something short of conversion: it meant pretending to be Jewish, or siding with Jews, or adopting manners characteristic of Jews (or stereotypically Jewish), or imitating Jews. Cohen writes that Judaizing refers not to a change of essence but a change in behavior, not “to be” but “to be like.”

Because there seems to be some confusion on this point, even among scholars I respect, I think it’s worth our time to look carefully at what was meant by Judaizing. In Greek, the word for Judaizing is ἰουδαΐζειν, pronounced “ioudaizein.” Cohen makes it clear, the Greek use of ioudaizein is part of a general Greek pattern of using –izein verbs to describe a certain kind of behavior, where a member of group “A” acts like a member of group “B.” The use of –izein verbs is often critical: for example, to cilizize meant to act like Cilicians, that is, to be cruel and treacherous. To bergaize meant to adopt the manners of the people of Berga, telling tall tales. But there is no sense that any of these –izein behaviors involved a conversion – Romans that bergaized had not become Bergans, but were merely acting in an unpleasant way supposedly (and doubtless, stereotypically) characteristic of the people of Berga.

We can see this meaning of Judaize in Galatians 2:11-14, where Paul attacks Peter for his eating practices. According to the text, Peter used to eat with Gentiles, then stopped doing so “for fear of the circumcision faction.” Paul’s criticizes Peter as follows (and here I use Cohen’s translation of Galatians 2:14): “If you, although a Jew, live in the gentile manner and not Jewishly, how can you compel gentiles to judaize?” Here, Paul is accusing Peter of hypocrisy. At one point (and here, Peter is acting properly from Paul’s point of view), Peter was willing to eat like a Gentile for the sake of his Gospel mission. At that point, Peter was of course fully Jewish – he was merely acting like a Gentile at the dinner table. Then Peter changed his mind, and (wrongly, according to Paul) tried to compel his Gentile companions to eat like Jews. There’s nothing here to indicate that Peter wanted to convert these Gentiles to Judaism; Peter’s Judaized by merely requiring these Gentiles to act like Jews at the dinner table. Hence the hypocrisy: Peter was asking Gentiles to follow a rule (“eat like Jews in my presence”) that he himself had broken by previously eating like a Gentile.  But the accusation of hypocrisy makes no sense if what Peter was seeking was to convert Gentiles to Judaism.

While Paul uses the word ioudaizein only this one time in Galatians, I think it’s clear that Paul’s critical focus was not on conversion, but was instead on piecemeal adoption of Jewish practices. Paul makes the argument in both Galatians and Romans: the adoption of any Judaizing practice put a Jesus-follower on a path where they were “obliged to obey the entire law.”  It was not enough merely to attend synagogue to hear the law read, not enough to merely become circumcised. Apart from Jesus-faith, nothing short of full conversion, full membership in the Jewish people, would get a (former) Gentile into the Kingdom. (Paul may be arguing that only Jesus faith gets a person into the Kingdom, but that’s a discussion for another time.) Worse: a person’s piecemeal adoption of Jewish practices was a Kingdom-impediment – it meant that the person lacked true faith in Jesus’ ability to get the person into the Kingdom. A person can seek the Kingdom through Jesus or (perhaps) by “human performance,” but for Paul at least, there is no splitting the difference. The dangerous ground is the middle ground, the ground represented by Judaizing.

From this, we can see more clearly the root of Paul’s anti-Judaism. Paul wasn’t anti-Jewish per se: he didn’t renounce Judaism (not his, and not anyone else’s). He remained committed to the Jewish idea of a Kingdom of the Jewish G-d. He simply opposed membership in this Kingdom being determined by whether a person was Jewish. In Jesus faith (faith in or by the Jewish prophet par excellence of the Jewish Kingdom of the Jewish G-d), Paul saw (perhaps ironically) a way to break the Jewish monopoly on the Kingdom. It was not so much Judaism Paul opposed, but this Jewish monopoly. Paul opposed this monopoly either in its “hard” form (“you have to be Jewish to enter the Kingdom”) or in its “soft” form (“your status in the Kingdom can be enhanced by Judaizing”).

And this is where I propose to leave our discussion of the Apostle Paul. Doubtless I’ve left many questions unanswered (and if you have questions, ask them in the comments below!). But I think we can now see Paul’s anti-Judaism from a better perspective: Paul opposed Judaism primarily to make room for Gentiles within a Jewish-envisioned G-d-Kingdom. It would fall to later Christians to explore Paul’s words, interpreting them (I believe incorrectly) as the foundation of a deeper anti-Judaism than Paul himself would not have expected.

  • Robert

    Hi, Larry.

    I’ve finally had the chance to read through all of your recent posts on 1 Thessalonians and Paul’s anti-Jewish words. My specialty is not Paul, but over the years I have continued to puzzle over and struggle with his letters and, as I’ve come to understand his Jewish background better, I feel I’ve come to understand him better. This explains my appreciation of your Jewish perspective on Paul. Here are my current thoughts on your conclusions:

    “Paul’s anti-Jewish statements in 1 Thessalonians were intended broadly, and meant to condemn all Jews who had not become followers of Jesus.”

    I think Paul’s statements here are perhaps better understood as in opposition to the Judean/Jewish authorities, not merely those responsible for the death of Jesus, but also those responsible for the death of ‘all the prophets’, and, most
    especially, those who continued to oppose his own sense of messianic Judaism and mission. This opposition to human authorities is, of course, itself a very ‘Jewish’ idea. And it is also fundamental to Jesus’ and Paul’s view of the Kingdom of God, the God who was initially opposed to there ever being a human king over his people who would presume to build a temple for God.

    The Krister Stendahl quote is a great one to illustrate aspects of Paul’s personality that grate against modern and irenic sensibilities. His polemical nature and writing, however, is actually rather tame when compared to some other Jewish
    writers of his time, eg, some of what we find in the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran. While later Christians would use his writings and even more so the writings of the gospel authors in truly anti-Jewish crimes of monstrous proportions, Paul would never have endorsed this, but those at Qumran, it seems, would not have flinched at such violence, first against their fellow Jews and then against the Gentiles. Similarly to Paul, Josephus also would embrace the Gentiles without abandoning his self-identification as Jewish, and he had no qualms about understanding God as using Roman emperors and troops to punish his fellow Jews, especially those usurping priestly authority, and destroying the Temple. The gospel authors would take up some of this same, dare I say ‘Jewish’ perspective of trying to understand why God would allow such calamity to come upon Jerusalem and the Temple. The generally more mildly mannered rabbis pale in comparison to Paul, but they are only one form of Judaism, and the one that came to dominate the later tradition. Paul saw himself as a prophet of sorts but his language is much less violent than that of Jeremiah.

    “But if the Ioudaioi that Paul means to implicate are those Jews that rejected the prophets … isn’t that the entirety of the Ioudaioi? … “but if Paul meant to condemn those Jews who had failed to heed the prophets … well, that would cover pretty much everyone.”

    No. Just like those at Qumran, Paul saw himself and other Jews as part of the faithful remnant. More hopeful than those at Qumran, he saw that remnant as growing to encompass the Gentiles and eventually all Israel. There was always a hope that the people would listen to a prophet, and if not, the oracles were preserved in writing in the hope that later people would read and understand, and there was even prophesied that a remnant would be faithful now or in the future. So those who did not heed the prophets should not be thought of as pretty much everyone. As for those who killed the prophets, that might be thought of as the Jewish authorities, the leaders, the priests, the wealthy, etc. “Some people (for example, the Jerusalem High Priest Caiaphas) were clearly Jewish …” and representative of the Judean authorities who generally opposed the prophets and the prophetic movement that Paul himself first opposed and later joined. Paul recounted the beatings that he underwent at the hands of his fellow Jews, Jewish authorities, and that might explain some of his sense of vengeance, but he continued to put himself back in the lion’s den, he excused their opposition to Jesus because of (what he saw as) their ignorance of who Jesus was, and he continued to hope for the salvation of Israel.

    The so-called new perspective on Paul was incredibly helpful, but the next two essential steps in coming to understand Paul’s thoroughly Jewish perspective are his view of the faithful witness of Jesus (subjective genitive), which you reference, not just for Gentiles but akin to the faith of Abraham, and understanding that faith in opposition only to ‘works of the law’ as it was understood in Qumran, our only other source for this phrase. Have you had a chance to read much of the Qumran literature?

    • Robert, there’s a lot to respond to here, but I’ll keep this brief, because most of what you’ve written here is going to come up in future posts (at least, that’s the plan).

      Have I read the Qumran materials? Some of them. Not carefully or systematically. Yes, I recognize the polemic in some of these materials, but these materials were clearly intended for an intra-Jewish audience, as were the prophetic writings of Tanach. One might make the same argument for the Gospels, though it’s a more difficult argument, and I don’t think the argument quite works. But regardless, one cannot make the same argument about Paul’s letters. Of Paul’s letters, I think only Romans may have been intended for Jewish readers (and not Jewish readers alone; some argue that even Romans was written with an exclusively Gentile audience in mind). Nasty talk about the family is one thing when it’s addressed to the family, and a different thing entirely when it’s addressed outside the family.

      We’ve explored here the idea that the anti-Jewish talk in Paul was intended as criticism of Jewish leaders only. I don’t think this idea stands up terribly well. The New Testament authors certainly knew how to refer to Jewish leaders alone. We’ve already addressed how the New Testament references to “those who murdered the prophets” are not supported by what we find in Tanach – with one or two exceptions, the prophets of Tanach died natural deaths. Ergo, these New Testament references seem to harken back to unwillingness of Jews (leaders and ordinary folk) to always heed the words of the prophets. So if Paul is linking the Jews who killed Jesus to the Jews who ignored the prophets, we have to read these Jews as pretty much all Jews except those following Paul. Yes, I agree, Paul held out the hope that Jesus’ Jewish following would grow, and that perhaps at some point the entire Jewish people would see the light and follow Jesus. That doesn’t change the sweeping nature of Paul’s condemnation in 1 Thessalonians, which I think is best read to cover all Jews not yet following Jesus.

      I have trouble reading Jesus and Paul as opposed to the Temple per se. Certainly we can see a possible opposition to THIS Temple, or THIS priesthood, or THESE Temple practices.

      Paul’s anti-Jewish statements are like those of Josephus? I don’t think so. That’s a discussion for another time.

      • Robert

        No, I think Josephus’ theologizing about the destruction of the Temple is more akin to Mark, and later evagelists, all of whom wrote subsequent to this event and tried to make it fit into their understanding of God’s plan. It is possible that Paul was beginning to think along these lines with reference to Caligula and Petronius, if he was writing 1 Thessalonians as early as 41 CE (so Gerd Lüdemann), but my point of comparison was really about Josephus and his contemporaries, the evangelists, who were writing after the destruction of the Temple.

        You seem to want to interpret one single use of the verb ‘to kill’ in 1 Thessalonians 2,15 mean ‘to kill’ for Jesus as its direct object but ‘to fail to heed’ for ‘the prophets’, its other direct object. That does not work grammatically. Your rationale for this seems to be that there are few accounts in the TaNaK of the prophets being killed, but there are extra-biblical traditions and writings about the martyrdom of several of the prophets (eg, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Micah, Amos, Zechariah), as is found in the Lives of the Prophets, which we only have as it was later variously redacted by Christians. Not all of these prophets were said to be martyred in Judea and I do not claim that we know exactly what Paul was referring to here, but I don’t think we should interpret the same single use of the verb ‘to kill’ to mean two different things.