The Apostle Paul and the Jewish People

This is a cross-post from Joseph

With the thoughts of Howard Jacobson and Geza Vermes reaching wider audiences, reclaiming the Jewish Jesus is becoming increasingly popular. In late 2007, Time Magazine identified the “re-Judaising” of Jesus as one of the top ten ideas that will change the world. Yet whilst the “Jewish Jesus” is widely broadcast throughout the world, the “Jewish Paul” remains more low-key.

Having last left Paul before the Sanhedrin, we rejoin Paul in Jerusalem before Felix in Acts 24.

Paul has made reference to his former teacher Gamaliel in the Sanhedrin, and boasted of his Pharasaic belief in the resurrection of the dead, in order to avoid the judgement of the religious court.

Paul now finds himself on trial, accused of stirring up riots amongst Jews and being a ‘chief mover’ within the Nazarene sect. Once more, Paul defends himself by stressing the consistency of his Nazarene beliefs with the writings of the Hebrew Scriptures.

Paul stresses that he has come to Jerusalem to offer gifts for ‘his people’ in the Temple, and reminds Felix that he was ritually pure whilst there, before being accused by fellow religious pilgrims.

Paul even plays with the logic of his accusers, saying in verses 20-21:

Either let these men here state what wrongdoing they found in me when I stood before the Sanhedrin, or about this one statement I cried out while standing among them, ‘Today I am being judged before you concerning the resurrection of the dead”

Paul wants those listening to understand that he shares the Pharisaic hope of the bodily resurrection, albeit with a hope radically transformed by the Christ event.

Throughout the book of Acts, Paul identifies as a Jew still bound to his kinsmen, and this is evident in his theological writings too.

Paul writes in Romans 3:1-2 that religious Jews have all kinds of advantages, enthusing that they were trusted with the ‘oracles of God‘. Further on in Romans, Paul expands his teachings that God’s loving-kindness as expressed through Jesus’ atoning sacrifice powerfully transcends any religious or legal boundary.

Yet Paul is a tortured soul, and needs a framework to understand why not all Jews are accepting his teachings. Romans 9:3 is heart-rending:

“for my people, my Jewish brothers and sisters. I would be willing to be forever cursed–cut off from Christ!–if that would save them.”

In A Radical Jew: Paul and the Politics of Identity [p.3], Orthodox Jewish scholar Daniel Boyarin comments on this verse:

In his extremity and marginality, Paul is in a sense emblematic of “the Jew”. […] The very tension in his discourse, indeed in his life, between powerful self-identification as a Jew and an equally powerful, or even more powerful, identification of self as everyman is emblematic of Jewish selfhood.

Paul views the ministry of Jesus through a messianic, salvific lens, and has to grapple with the full implications of what he believes. And so, both in Romans and elsewhere, Paul allows the Spirit to echo his words in his soul and move him to tears.

Paul is assertive but not proud against other Jews, and laments that he is the least of the apostles for having persecuted the Jesus movement before his conversion.

Yet not everyone shares Paul’s sensitivity, and Paul is aware of this. He knows that what he is writing is dynamite, and how it could be used against his people. He is aware that anti-Semitism is at the door, and so firmly warns Gentiles not to become arrogant against religious Jews.

Yet again, the tension in Paul’s theology is explicit. In Romans 11, Paul refers to Jews as “natural branches” of God’s olive tree, and instructs the Gentile Nazarenes of Rome (verse 18):

Do not be uplifted in pride over the branches: because it is not you who are the support of the root, but it is by the root that you are supported

This is a crystal clear refutation of replacement theology, as is Galatians 3:17:

What I mean is this: The law, introduced 430 years later, does not set aside the covenant previously established by God and thus do away with the promise.

Yet there is no point arguing that Paul was a champion of all things Jewish, nor that he was an opponent of all things Jewish either.

Paul had his own approach to Jewish theology, convinced that the essence of Jewish Pharisaic hope – realised in Jesus the Davidic Messiah – would fully transform the world.

Bishop of Durham Tom Wright makes a very important point when he writes on Romans:

In this passage and throughout his other writings, Paul’s thinking remained Jewish through and through. I now see that the attempt to rescue Paul from believing in Jesus’ Davidic messiahship not only de-Judaizes Paul, but also de-politicizes him.  The claim that Jesus was the Messiah places Paul, of course, in conflict with those Jews, both ancient and modern, who take a different view.  But it also places him in conflict with Rome-the city to which this letter was written.  If Jesus was the true king, Caesar was not.

Too often and with tragic consequences, the Church has scandalously used Jesus so that the Church itself can be Caesar. As Caesar, the Church has discriminated and boasted against minority groups. The Church has then turned to the Jews, using Paul as a weapon against them, even though Paul’s words would actually challenge the Church’s lust for power.

I have recently been reading Ronald E. Diprose’s The Church and Israel: The Origins and Effects of Replacement Theology, which highlights how the Church Fathers tragically ignored Paul to develop their own anti-Jewish replacement theology – from Justin Martyr to Tertullian to John Chrysostom to Athanasius to Augustine. Diprose sets Paul’s positive yet critical Jewish theology against the anti-Semitic overtones of the aforementioned theologians.

Just as Paul’s letter to the Romans has been scandalously misrepresented and coloured with prejudice by Christian theologians over the centuries, so has his letter to the Galatians.

Properly understood, the letter to the Galatians is not a screed against the Jewish rituals, but a call for Jewish Nazarenes to look beyond boundary markers and participate in table fellowship with Gentile Nazarenes. And contrary to popular myths, the word “Judaizer” is never used in Galatians.

Indeed, in Galatians 6:13, Paul distinguishes between the concept of “circumcised Jews” and those whom he disagreed with in Galatia:

“Not even those who are circumcised obey the law, yet they want you to be circumcised that they may boast about your flesh.”

Recently, interfaith theologian David Rudolph commented on 1 Corinthians 7:19:

I contend that Paul uses hyperbole in these passages to stress that being “in Christ” is more important than being Jewish. This means that being Jewish could still be very important toPaul.44 He is simply relativizing A to B. In support of this reading of 1 Cor 7:19b, there areseveral occasions when Paul uses “nothing” (οὐδέν) or “not anything” (οὐτέ…τι) language in aclearly hyperbolic way.

So here is my conclusion:

You cannot simply focus on the Jewishness of Jesus without a deeper understanding of the Jewishness of Paul. For some, it is almost as if there is an inverse relationship between the two: the more “Jewish” Jesus was, the more “Greek” Paul was – a distinction which I find unhelpful at best.

Should Christians and Jews alike delve deeper into the inner logic of the Jewish Paul, I believe that we could curb some of the hostilities which have developed between religious communities.

If Orthodox Jews understood Paul’s theological links to Gamaliel and Pharisaic doctrine, it might help to reduce their suspicion of Christianity as an intrinsically alien and hostile faith.

And if religious Christians understood Paul’s Jewishness more intimately, it could help them avoid the pitfalls of replacement theology, systematic anti-Semitism, extreme apocalyptic Zionism and religious anti-Zionism.

Paul’s words in Romans 15:27 alone should make anti-Jewish boycotts impossible:

For if the Gentiles have shared in the Jews’ spiritual blessings, they owe it to the Jews to share with them their material blessings.