The Reasons Saul was a Persecutor and Paul was Persecuted

In email exchanges over the last couple of weeks, Paula Fredriksen and I have been comparing views on what might have been the nature of, and cause(s) for, the “persecution” of Jewish Jesus-followers that the Apostle Paul later lamented. There have been various proposals over the years, and hers is to my knowledge the latest. With her agreement for me to do so, I publish a response in this posting.

-Larry Hurtado
‘Paul’s “Persecution” of Jewish Jesus-Followers: Nature & Cause(s)’
Larry Hurtado’s Blog

I read Dr. Larry Hurtado’s blog regularly. He’s one of the leading New Testament scholars currently doing research and publishing his findings, and although I don’t have the educational background to always grasp everything he says, I still feel I learn a lot.

The issue at hand in the above-quoted blog post has to do with the rationale for Paul being “persecuted” by Jews early in his ministry. Were the reasons for such poor treatment of Paul the same reasons Paul had previously in his life when he persecuted “Christians” (in this case, Jewish disciples of Jesus)?

Frankly, it never occurred to me to consider such a question until now. But it’s a good question.

I think the story told in most churches is that “the Jews persecuted the Christians,” indicating that the Jewish followers of Jesus (Heb. “Yeshua”), once they “converted” to “Christianity,” were no longer considered Jews, and thus, were targets for Jewish persecution because they rejected the Law and replaced it with grace.

There are a lot of problems with those assumptions, including the fact that “Christianity” wouldn’t exist as a “stand-alone” religious entity for decades, and was only created once the Gentile disciples split from their Jewish mentors and “refactored” the Bible to reject the Jewish narrative, manufacturing a new Gentile religion, the aforementioned Christianity.

The Jewish Paul
The Jewish Paul

So Jews, at best, could “convert” to a different sect or branch of Judaism, in this case the Pharisaic/Messianic sect, which was virtually identical in its beliefs and practices to the Pharisees with just a few minor adjustments, such as acknowledging the revelation of the Messiah (and following one Messiah or another is a fairly common occurrence across Jewish history), and an unusually liberal policy about admission of Gentiles into their ekklesia (assembly) as co-equal participants in Jewish social and religious space.

Returning to Hurtado and the likely reasons Paul would have been beaten by his own people on numerous occasions, he writes:

In a recent publication, she probes the matter by first addressing Paul’s references to being on the receiving end of floggings by fellow Jews (five times) in the course of his Gentile mission (2 Corinthians 11:24). Her cogent hypothesis is essentially this: Paul required his pagan converts to withdraw from worshipping the gods of the Roman world. Given the place and significance of the gods in Roman-era life, this would have generated serious tensions with the larger pagan community. As he identified himself as a Jew and linked up with Jewish communities in the various diaspora cities where he established early assemblies of Jesus-followers (ekklesias), these Jewish communities could have feared that they would bear the brunt of these tensions. So, Paul was meted out synagogue discipline in the form of the 39 lashes as punishment on several occasions (he mentions five).

I find this entirely reasonable myself. It fits the setting, Paul’s Gentile mission. It fits his own behaviour, continuing to identify himself as a member of his ancestral people all through his ministry as apostle to the Gentiles and herald of the gospel. It fits also with what we know of real and potential tensions over the matter of worship of the traditional deities (of household, city, nation, etc.).

So according to this, Paul wasn’t beaten by his fellow Jews because he had exited Judaism in any sense, was proposing a “foreign” religion, or was thought to be speaking against the Torah of Moses or the Temple. Hurtado even says Paul was “continuing to identify himself as a member of his ancestral people all through his ministry as apostle to the Gentiles.”

Larry Hurtado
Larry Hurtado

The issue, as is stated in the quote above, was more likely the tension Paul was generating among the Gentiles by requiring his non-Jewish disciples to cease participation in Roman cultic practices and to be devoted to the God of Israel alone. The synagogues in the diaspora were deeply worried that they would receive the “fallout” from the pagans among whom they lived, which was not an unreasonable fear given the long history of enmity between Jewish and Gentile communities.

But how does this reflect on Paul when he was formerly “persecuting the church,” so to speak? Was Paul (previously “Saul”) worried about pagan Gentile “fallout?”

Hurtado states that Paula Fredriksen believes this likely, but he says otherwise, and lists very specific reasons (see his blog post for the details). In summation, Hurtado writes:

In sum, it seems to me that both the nature and the cause(s) for Paul’s initially violent opposition to the Jewish Jesus-movement were somewhat different from the nature and cause(s) for the synagogue floggings that he later received in the course of his ministry as apostle. I’m inclined to think that Paul’s initial Pharisaic zeal was incited, at least in part, by the christological claims and accompanying devotional practices that he later came to embrace, and that are reflected in his letters. Indeed, his zealousness for his religious traditions may have even made him particularly sensitive to the implications of the christological claims and devotional practices of the early Jesus-circles, perhaps more sensitive than many others, including perhaps even those early Jesus-circles as well! In any case, whatever the reasons for his strenuous initial opposition to the Jesus-movement, his subsequent shift to passionate adherent (e.g., Philippians 3:4-16) remains one of the most remarkable personal stories of the ancient world.

In other words, the bigger deal for Paul was the assertion among Jewish disciples of Messiah, that he was of a Divine nature and that they gave worship to Yeshua normally reserved only for Hashem.

But He kept silent and did not answer. Again the high priest was questioning Him, and saying to Him, “Are You the Christ (Heb. “Messiah” or “Moshiach”), the Son of the Blessed One?” And Jesus said, “I am; and you shall see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.” Tearing his clothes, the high priest said, “What further need do we have of witnesses? You have heard the blasphemy; how does it seem to you?” And they all condemned Him to be deserving of death.

Mark 14:61-64 (NASB)

This answer is what got Jesus killed, not claiming to be the Messiah, which as I said above, isn’t all that unusual a declaration in Jewish history, but stating that he was of Divine nature and appearing as co-equal with God in Heaven.

If Paul was indeed zealous for the Torah, such a claim would certainly have set him off. In fact, we see something similar occurring where Paul was actually involved:

Now when they heard this, they were cut to the quick, and they began gnashing their teeth at him. But being full of the Holy Spirit, he gazed intently into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God; and he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened up and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” But they cried out with a loud voice, and covered their ears and rushed at him with one impulse. When they had driven him out of the city, they began stoning him; and the witnesses laid aside their robes at the feet of a young man named Saul.

Acts 7:54-58

stoneAlthough Stephen said a great deal to anger the Jewish court before which he appeared, they didn’t turn murderous until he also described Jesus at the right hand of God. A young Paul (Saul) was present and the death of Stephen no doubt was part of his inspiration to pursue other Jewish believers and for the same reasons, not because it had anything to do with Gentile disciples or pagan community “blowback” on diaspora Jews.

This also touches on another topic Hurtado wrote on yesterday (as you read this) as to whether there was opposition and even persecution of the Greek-speaking Jewish Jesus-believers by the native Israelite Jewish believers. It is another question that would never have occurred to me and you can click the link I provided to explore the matter and read Hurtado’s opinion.

I’m writing about this because it’s yet another illustration how recent scholarly inquiry has dispelled some long-held “truths” in the Church, so-called “sound doctrine,” about “Jews persecuting Christians” for such-and-thus reasons, when indeed, those “truths” are merely long-held “assumptions” based on long-held “traditions”. Those traditions of the Christian church, in my opinion, were born out of the historic tensions that have existed between Christianity and Judaism that go all the way back to when Gentile Christianity violently divorced ancient Messianic Judaism.

I’m not telling Christians not to listen to their Pastors’ sermons or to what Sunday School lessons teach, but it might be a good idea to also pay attention to what Biblical scholarship is doing and what they are writing. It will be years (if ever) before the latest research trickles down to the local church pulpit and into the ears of the average Christian sitting in the pew.

Being a disciple of Jesus isn’t a spectator sport. It’s what you do that counts, including how you study the Bible. You’ll never know Jesus as well as you’d like unless you take an active role in acquiring that knowledge. It’s not just a matter of reading the Bible, although that’s critically important. It’s a matter of paying attention to and critically analyzing the collected body of research about the message of the Bible, what it meant within its original context and to its original audience, and thus what it means to us today.

For more on the early Jewish belief in the Divinity of Jesus, see Derek Leman’s blog post Are We Apostates? Yeshua’s Divinity.


18 thoughts on “The Reasons Saul was a Persecutor and Paul was Persecuted”

  1. In Galatians 5:11, Paul wrote, “But if I, brothers, still preach circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been removed.”

    Paul told us in his own writing why he was being persecuted. It was not because of belief that Jesus was the messiah (offense of the cross), but because he was teaching that conversion (circumcision) was not the answer to salvation. Claiming that Gentiles did not have to convert was the debate for decades. That was the basis for the infamous Jerusalem council decision in Acts 15, which rendered their decision some time after Paul wrote his letter to Galatia.

  2. I wonder if some of the same controversy that arises from the divinity-as-distinct-from-deity discussion is also responsible for the early persecution prior to the admission of unconverted gentiles that brought another dynamic altogether into play. This would be more pronounced if some of the same misunderstandings were common then as they are now. For example, if common crowds of Jews then were to mistake statements like Stephan’s dying visionary one as supporting what would later be described as a “two powers in heaven” viewpoint about Rav Yeshua, their antagonism would be particularly understandable.

    However, if that was not what Stephan (Tzephanyahu) was trying to imply, then the crowds were making the same mistake as described in later literature as the reaction of one of four rabbis (ben-Abuyah/”A’her”) entering the pardes and seeing Metatron seated as a scribe at HaShem’s side, whereupon he jumped to the conclusion that this seated being had power that exceeded that of angels and was equivalent to that of HaShem. He became an apostate because of his “two powers in heaven” error. Thus if the Jewish crowd similarly presumed that Stephan’s vision of Rav Yeshua as the “Son of Man” character described by Daniel and featured in subsequent apocryphal literature, even if merely standing at HaShem’s right hand, were a similar view, then he would seem to be likewise apostate and advocating that sort of apostasy. If Rav-Yeshua messianists were likewise misperceived, it would account for Rav Shaul’s early persecutory zeal as well as later persecutions.

    Nonetheless, there were other disagreements later that created tensions between the messianic community and other Jews. One, as noted above, was the lenient inclusion of gentiles that could invoke the ire of the pagan community and the Roman occupiers who wanted to maintain order in the form of a common core of pagan civil/religious observances from which Jews were exempt but gentile G-d-fearers were not. Another was a degree of factionalism between various Jewish communities, of which the messianists were one.

    It is my suspicion that both today and in the first century there were many who drew false conclusions from messianic references to Rav Yeshua, that are comparable to the “two powers” heresy, thus invoking similar antagonisms for similar reasons. Unless one interprets these references, that are comparable to the honor reserved for HaShem, in a favorable context that is consistent with HaShem’s uniqueness, such that messianic divinity is not presumed to be equivalent to participation in deity, then the threats of apostasy and righteous antagonism to resist it are virtually unavoidable.

  3. @PL – You are very articulate and obviously well spoken. I am not nearly as well read or knowledgeable as you are, so my question is meant to help me understand in simpler terms. Is it accurate to state that your comment is a detailed discussion of the question, “Was Yeshua actually divine or simply divinely used?”

    1. @terryocana — No, that wasn’t the question I was considering. I would answer that question by saying: “Both divine and divinely employed.” However, that answer begs for a clarification of definition. Divinity is a characteristic rather than an identity. Clearly HaShem, as the one and only actual and valid Deity in this cosmos, certainly possesses this characteristic. Hence we refer to Him as a Divine Being.

      But humans who are made in His image also bear the stamp of divinity, as we see in Ps.82:6 where HaShem claims that He has called certain humans, whom He was criticizing at that moment, “gods” (though it was nonetheless their fate to die like men). Hence we can see that the characteristic of divinity exists also in humans, and that “divinity” in itself is not the same quality as “deity”. There exist also differing levels or degrees of divinity, just as Rav Shaul noted in 1Cor.15:41 how one star differs from another in its degree of glory. Thus there is no question that the divinely-appointed Messiah is himself divine. However, that does not make of him any sort of god, nor any part of G-d; and in Is.45:21 HaShem states unequivocally that He alone is G-d and there is no other god with Him nor any other gods alongside Him.

      In Rav Shaul’s comments to the Philippians, in ch.2:5-11, he draws a clear distinction between the exalted Rav Yeshua and his heavenly Father, while at the same time noting that he has been granted the highest possible job position. Rav Yeshua’s assignment is to be the agent who accomplishes HaShem’s purposes of redemption and salvation for the Jewish people primarily, and also for all humanity. That’s a big job, and worthy of the highest honor. The prophets describe HaShem as accomplishing this task, though they don’t specify the exact mechanism for doing so nor do they rule out the use of an agent like the Messiah. Because that task has been assigned to the Messiah, and because he has accomplished it, he is honored by use of the same language and terminology that would be applied directly to HaShem for accomplishing this promised victory over sin. And, because no other angels or exalted beings are assigned to perform this task, none of them are ever addressed or described with such exalted language.

      However, because such language is used only to honor the Messiah and HaShem Himself, some folks have mistakenly inferred that the Messiah must therefore be equal to HaShem or even part of HaShem. This inference presumes far too much, and ignores the revealed uniqueness of HaShem as stated in Is.45:21 and Deut.6:4, and which has been maintained by Jews as unmistakable truth during the course of millennia. This mistake, moreover, is reflected also in what I described above as the “two powers in heaven” error.

      The question I was considering above was whether the persecution under discussion might have been impelled in large measure by similarly misunderstanding what Rav Yeshua’s disciples meant when they used such honorific language about Rav Yeshua and his accomplishments. Jews who thus misunderstood would mistakenly criticize or persecute these disciples, thinking that they were advocating something like the “two powers…” heresy and its consequent apostasy or even a kind of polytheistic idolatry.

  4. OBTW, terryocana — I believe the Sanhedrin that condemned Rav Yeshua made the same mistake of misunderstanding what he meant when he said that they would see the “Son of Man” at the right hand of “the Power”, and coming on the clouds of heaven. [viz: Mt.26:64; Dan.7:13]

  5. P.L. You reminded me of a lecture by the Lubavitcher Rebbe that I watched recently when he spoke about four different levels of shluchim. I would have to go back and find it, but he discussed the different levels of identification with the sender.

  6. @PL – While I’ve unintentionally pulled these comments slightly off topic from the original post, you’re feeding a great source of curiosity I have right now. Thank you. I will be digging into your above comments a lot more to better understand.

  7. Here is the video I mentioned. Give it a watch and see if there are elements here that could relate to Yeshua as shliach of G-d.

  8. @Terry: The context around Galatians 5:11 had to do with the belief many Jews had in those days that only Jewish people could partake of the New Covenant (be “saved”). Paul was preaching that Gentiles were grafted in to the New Covenant blessings by “Abraham-like” faith in Messiah without having to convert to Judaism. This drew the ire of a number of Jewish communities and yes, it was one of the sources of Paul being persecuted. That said, it doesn’t have to be the only one. It all does seem to center on Paul’s rather casual admission policy for Gentiles into the ekklesia of Messiah.

    @PL: I’ve been following the discussion this topic at Derek’s blog as I’m sure you’re aware. I admire your ability (and Derek’s) to be so definitive as to the characteristics of the Messiah’s Divine nature. While I’ve taken a stab at discussing this from time to time, for me, it remains a profound mystery in the manner of the Divine Presence inhabiting the Mishkan and later Solomon’s Temple while God also said that Heaven was His Throne and the Earth is His footstool (Isaiah 66:1), illustrating His infinite nature and that He cannot be “contained” within any structure. It’s apparent that God is One and yet God has the ability to manifest in our universe as a “finite being” while remaining infinite and remaining One. I don’t know how to wrap my brain around God, who has no body and is completely Spirit having Yeshua sit next to Him, but then I wonder if this is metaphorical language since the Bible speaks of God’s “voice,” “arm,” and “face” and yet technically, He possesses none of these physical qualities as does a human.

  9. I think that the key to the persecution of Paul was the inability of the Jews in the first century to think in terms of Both/And…That G-d is so much beyond our understanding in terms of how He holds His being, that the possibility of YHVH sending a small part of Himself into human form was, and is, inconceivable. Yet the Shikinah is an extension of G-d into our universe, as is the Ruach haKodesh

    If one takes the idea of Logos, and Arm literally, one can see G-d existing primarily outside of this Universe, while a small portion of Him is acting within this Universe.

    The First Century Jews did not speak of the Ruach in the way that Messianic Believers do these day, as we experience the Ruach as an ever-present contact with haShem. What Yeshua said, what others after Him said…it would sound like a breach of YHVH’s personhood if we perceive YHVH as a man, but we cannot know what the real Personhood of YHVH is like, except that He is immense, powerful, and complicated beyond our understanding.

    Yeshua Himself said many things that are actual statements of YHVH being in Yeshua, and Yeshua in YHVH, and both of THEM in us.

    10 Don’t you believe that I am united with the Father, and the Father united with me? What I am telling you, I am not saying on my own initiative; the Father living in me is doing his own works.

    John 17:22-26 (CJB)
    22 The glory which you have given to me, I have given to them; so that they may be one, just as we are one —
    23 I united with them and you with me, so that they may be completely one, and the world thus realize that you sent me, and that you have loved them just as you have loved me.
    24 “Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am; so that they may see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world.
    25 Righteous Father, the world has not known you, but I have known you, and these people have known that you sent me.
    26 I made your name known to them, and I will continue to make it known; so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I myself may be united with them.”

  10. The video of the Rebbe offers some rather intriguing insight into the notion of shli’hut. Certainly Rav Yeshua is described in the initial chapter of Yohanan’s besorah as such a shalia’h, sent into the world to enlighten all those who would respond to him. The mystical ‘hasidic perspective also offers some insight into how language may be used in a manner that appears to view the sender and the sent one as so inextricably linked as to be seen as a single entity, even though it is clear that they are distinct individuals, just as the “one flesh” of a man and woman being joined unifies them but does not diminish their distinctive gender identities or physical presences.

  11. My reasons for any interest I may have in Jewish mysticism is that I don’t think we can understand the nature of the Messiah any other way.

  12. P.L.: In other words, killing Hashem’s shliach is akin to….?

    This close identity between the principal and his agent also intensifies some of Yeshua’s parables in which their is an agent and a principal.

    1. Shavua Tov, Steve — I suppose the answer in this case would have to be something along the lines of cutting off one’s own right arm, since we must consider Is.53:10; 5:16; & 63:5 and HaShem’s direct involvement, in addition to that of the Roman governor, some loudmouths among the audience in the governor’s courtyard, his troops, and the Jewish Sanhedrin that sent their victim to him as a presumed political threat. Except, in this case, the martyrdom apparently was also part of what the shalia’h was sent to accomplish. What shall we say of Pharaoh — was he cooperating with HaShem in demonstrating the greatness of HaShem’s deliverance of the enslaved Jews from Egypt? Certainly that was not his intention, though that was the result of his choices to continually harden his heart until he could no longer do otherwise. With Rav Yeshua’s martyrdom we can identify the sins and wrong choices of many individuals as well as the hand of HaShem in action; but can we reduce the result of “killing the shalia’h” to something simple enough to fit the simile you’ve suggested? Perhaps another approach to the answer may be found in another simile of the sort we see in those parables you referenced: how would any of us feel if we sent a messenger somewhere and the recipients decided to torture and dismember the messenger as their way of indicating their rejection of the message, particularly if that messenger was someone as close to our heart as a family member? Would we not feel that our own heart had been ripped apart?

      Was this not the feeling shared by virtually every Israeli (not to neglect many others) when the three Jewish youngsters were recently kidnapped and murdered? These were not direct family to more than a few, but they were made unsuspecting representatives of the entire Jewish people, who felt personally assaulted by this affront. Of course, this incident was regrettably not such an isolated or rare one among the terroristic assaults of our era. But it does demonstrate how pain and outrage can be transmitted indirectly, via a relationship, without requiring direct connection between an assaulted shalia’h and the one who sent him or her.

  13. I was just trying to point out that given the close identification between principal and agent, it would have been a very small step to say they are the same being. Gentiles may easily have missed the distinction that a Jewish person would make.

    1. I don’t disagree at all that it could be all too easy to miss the subtle distinction; and, as I suggested above, I think that many Jews as well as gentiles have missed that distinction.

  14. The cross was offensive before Yeshua died on one; it is significant that crosses were widely used by Rome. But Yeshua’s obedience to undergo its torture (without cause or guilt or flaw except in the eyes of the world) and his resultant death (under the title of King) gave us the Messiah and proved that Pax Romana is not Israel’s Peace (no matter what deals or understanding had been settled on or what perks were perceived for those complying or even for subjects in the most honored positions for their ethnic group).

    Complying with Roman-approved definitions for who could hang out with Jews or be Jews with the end result of ditching requirements pertaining to the Roman gods and religion and responsibilities and status levels would be capitulating to the civilization that held its power most symbolized by the cross, the ultimate. As Mark Nanos has compared to an extent, it’s like considering whether someone can associate with an Amish group and get out of a draft.

    Of course, there is the added dimension of not only evading, so to speak, military service (and to extend the parallel, taxes and other usual behaviours), there is the question of neglecting “gods” and Caesar as representative of them. Could gentiles remove themselves by the power of Israel’s God from standard religious assumptions and the concomitant demands of the current overarching empire?

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