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.