Book Review of “Paul within Judaism: The State of the Questions”

I may not be inclined to agree with the late Christopher Hitchens that religion poisons everything, but in the case of Pauline studies it could, however, easily be argued that research discipline has indeed been negatively affected by Christian normative theology.

-Magnus Zetterholm
from the Introduction of his essay
“Paul within Judaism: The State of the Questions”
Paul within Judaism: Restoring the First-Century Context to the Apostle (Kindle Edition)

This is how Zetterholm begins his contribution to the Paul within Judaism book, and no doubt it could be a disturbing statement for many Christian scholars, Pastors, and laypeople within the Church. How can “Christian normative theology” negatively affect Pauline studies? At least that’s probably the question they’d ask.

But the common thread running through the different articles within this book is removing Paul from within that normative Christian theological paradigm and inserting him (or re-inserting him) into a first century Jewish context, the context in which the Apostle lived, taught, and wrote.

Zetterholm points out that it’s primarily Christians who study the New Testament (or Apostolic Scriptures as I prefer to think of them) using (naturally) a classic set of Christian traditions. This includes a body of traditions used to study the letters of Paul. But tradition isn’t always the best basis to perform scientific and historical research. Zetterholm suggests something called “methodological atheism” as the preferred method, which isn’t to necessarily divorce our faith from our scholarly endeavors, but to set aside our tradition-based biases and to examine the text on its own terms.

From a methodological point of view, the Christian ideological perspectives that continue to characterize much of the ostensibly historical work done in New Testament studies is problematic.

The original understanding possessed by the first Jewish and non-Jewish disciples of Yeshua (Jesus) was a specifically first century Jewish (and largely Pharisaic) perspective on the teachings of Paul and, of course, the earlier teachings of Messiah. However, during and certainly after the particularly gruesome divorce the Gentiles required from their Jewish mentors, the theological landscape within the newly minted non-Jewish religion known as “Christianity” was significantly altered from what came before it.

Anti-Jewish propaganda started promptly within early Christianity.

But beginning in the early second century we find harshly critical statements from non-Jewish followers of Jesus that seem to indicate that some form of division based on ethnicity has taken place.

Zetterholm quoted from Ignatius, the bishop of Antioch, and his Letter to the Magnesians (8:1) for emphasis:

“…not [to] be deceived by strange doctrines or antiquated myths, since they are worthless. For if we continue to live in accordance with Judaism, we admit that we have not received grace.”

Or the even more damning statement (from the same letter, 10:3):

…”utterly absurd [atopon estin] to profess Jesus Christ and to practice Judaism.”

What was born in the second century has had a lasting impact on how the Church views Christianity and Judaism today:

The binary ideas that Christianity has superseded Judaism and that Christian grace has replaced Jewish legalism, for example, appear to be essential aspects of most Christian theologies.

two-roads-joinMore than that, we have the fixed notion that Christianity and Judaism are wholly separate things with, at this point in history, nothing in common besides a distinct shared “ancestor,” that is, the Torah and the Prophets.

Zetterholm’s goal is:

…what we herein prefer to call Paul within Judaism perspectives–believe and share the assumption that the traditional perspectives on the relation between Judaism and Christianity are incorrect and need to be replaced by a historically more accurate view. It is Christian theology that must adjust…

As history progressed in those first few centuries after the death of Paul, “Christian propaganda” against the Jews and Judaism only increased and diversified. Along with that, Paul’s central focus was also purposefully changed:

While Paul’s problem seems to have been how to include the nations in the final salvation or how the categories “Jew” and “non-Jew” would be rescued from their respective constraints, the interest changes to the salvation of the individual.

This is precisely the matter I was attempting to address yesterday. I believe it’s possible that nearly two-thousand years of inadvertent and deliberate distortion and corruption of Biblical interpretation has resulted in not only a fundamental misunderstanding of Paul the Jew and Pharisee, but confusion about the nature of his mission to the Gentiles. As I read Zetterholm, I believe that Paul was not “preaching” about saving individual souls from Hell, but attempting to reconcile the nations with the blessings of the New Covenant and integration into Jewish religious and social community.

Even within the early Gentile Christian community, there was still a “tug of war” going on between the Jewish and Christian perception of many theological issues. Zetterholm cites the example of a monk named Pelagius who “appeared in Rome around 380…”:

Pelagius also denied any form of original sin that had so corrupted the human soul that it was impossible for one to choose to do what God commanded. Against this, Augustine claimed the opposite: humans can in no way please God, even choose to want to please God, and are…incapable of doing what God demands.

This fourth century Monk seemed to possess a decidedly Jewish perspective of “the fall” in Genesis, and yet it was Augustine’s opinion that became “Gospel,” so to speak, and is staunchly believed in the Church today. But if our faith had remained Jewish and retained Paul’s original teachings faithfully, what would we believe today?

Many Christians, and I used to go to a church just like this, hold fast to the Reformation, to Martin Luther and those like him, who saw the corruption in the Catholic Church, and founded Protestantism as the solution. It would have been nice if they could also have corrected the many flaws that had crept into the Church’s theology and doctrine since the second century onward, but such was not the case. In fact:

During the Reformation, the already wide gap between Judaism and Christianity would widen even further and find new theological bases upon which to build. While the church had adopted a modified form of Augustinianism…Martin Luther returned to Augustine’s original doctrine of justification. Luther, however, developed several dialectical relations that would result in an even sharper contrast between Judaism and Christianity.

Martin Luther

In this aspect of theology, Luther and his peers reformed nothing. Actually, they took the misunderstanding of Paul’s teachings and amplified them.

Zetterholm referenced Luther’s infamous On the Jews and Their Lies, mentioning:

…that synagogues and Jewish schools should be burnt, rabbis should be forbidden to teach, and Jewish writings should be confiscated.

And from this, the 21st century Church has inherited:

Luther’s interpretation of Paul became established as an indisputable historical fact.

It’s small wonder that when questioning the traditional Christian view on Paul among Pastors and parishioners, it is as if you are questioning the existence of God. From Augustine to Luther, it has been the Church Fathers and Men of the Reformation who have manufactured how Christians understand Paul today, not Paul, not his Apostolic peers, not his Jewish and Gentile students, and not his original historic and cultural Jewish context.

During the nineteenth century the idea of a distinction between Judaism and Christianity was theologically well established. This dichotomy would eventually develop a kind of scientific legitimacy, predominantly within German scholarship.

I’m sure you see where this is going. With Holocaust Remembrance Day beginning this evening at sundown, the terrible legacy of Augustine, Luther, and so many others, reached its bloody climax in Shoah and the memory of six million Jewish deaths we continue to live with and must never forget.

Zetterholm didn’t make this point, at least not very strongly, but I felt it necessary to do so. No, it was not the intent of anyone, any Christian scholar or leader over the many long centuries to create the horrors of Hitler’s camps, but they were the inevitable result.

We can’t allow the possibility of another Holocaust to exist by allowing the traditional Christian misinterpretation of Paul to continue.

The solution is this:

Sanders did what Weber had done, but not so many after him–he reread the Jewish texts in order to see if he could find a religious pattern, common to all texts from 200 BCE to 200 CE.

This is what we should do. This is what the Church should do. Break from tradition and go back to the source material, reconstructing its meaning without twenty centuries of mistakes and disinformation getting in the way.

This revision of ancient Judaism changed the rules of the game quite significantly for New Testament scholars. It now seemed apparent that previous scholarship on Paul was based, not on an adequate description of ancient Judaism, but on a Christian caricature.

Paul the Christian Caricature.

The Jewish PaulNo, I can’t assign malice or any other ill intent upon modern Christians. Those who did create our traditions, some of them with malice, lived many centuries ago. With the passage of time, we’ve forgotten that these are the interpretations of men with a theological ax to grind, and we have forgotten that our understanding of “truth” and “fact” is in fact, a set of traditions, and that those traditions resulted from a hermeneutic that was specifically designed to remove every last vestige of Jewish learning and Jewish legitimacy from our devotion to the Jewish Messiah and the Jewish King of Kings, ruler of the Jewish nation Israel, and Son of the God of Israel.

Don’t worry, the article has a happy ending.

Zetterholm covered the “birth” of the new and even radical perspectives on Paul, citing Sanders, Dunn, Gaston and others. From them, he concludes:

The search for the historical Paul cannot be limited to finding a Paul who makes theological sense for the present-day church, but one who makes sense in a first-century context, before Augustine and Luther entered the scene.

Paul (must be) firmly rooted within Judaism.

A Paul within Judaism would not have taught that Jews and Gentiles in Messiah left their nationality and ethnicity behind and became a “third race,” a “one new man”. A Torah observant Paul within Judaism, still faithful to Judaism, faithful to the Temple, faithful to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, needs to be read within that context. His letters are the same, but the lens by which we view them creates a dramatically different perspective.

One thing to consider given what I just wrote, is that:

…all Paul’s authentic letters seem to be addressing non-Jews might give us a hermeneutical key. Is it possible that Paul only objected to non-Jews observing the Torah or to non-Jews becoming Jews and thus under Torah on the same terms as Jews?

Zetterholm goes on to state (and I’ve said this before as well) that there were different ideas on the table about how the Jewish disciples of the Master were supposed to integrate the new Gentile disciples. They ranged from a sort of open-arms acceptance of Gentiles coming into community with Jews to absolute rejection, the very idea of Gentiles in synagogues being loathsome.

There is also ample evidence indicating that many non-Jews were attracted to Judaism and imitated a Jewish life style, probably as a result of interaction with Jews who believed that also non-Jews would benefit from observing the Torah.

Or at least some of the Torah. Zetterholm considers the existence of some “non-Jews who could be regarded as partly Torah observant” in ancient times. This may have implications on modern “Messianic Gentiles” and what sort of praxis we might maintain as an expression of our faith.

But that creates what Zetterholm calls a “complex social situation” between Jews obligated to the mitzvot and Gentiles taking on at least some of the commandments as a matter of preference and a natural consequence of being part of Jewish community, sharing a common table.

The problem this young movement had to overcome was how to incorporate non-Jews, not only to find ways of socializing safely with non-Jews, but how to include non-Jews in the eschatological people of God. Paul evidently believed that non-Jews should remain non-Jewish, and that they should not observe Torah, which possibly meant that they should not base their relation to the God of Israel on the Torah but on Jesus-the-Messiah.

messianic judaism for the nationsYesterday, I quoted from a sizable block of Colossians 1 in which Paul emphasized the centrality of the Messiah specifically for the Gentile. Given Zetterholm, Paul’s meaning takes on additional dimension.

However, he also cited the Didache which includes an injunction for the Gentile disciple to voluntarily take on as much of the Torah as possible or reasonable, yet remaining a Gentile.

I maintain that this all speaks to the nature of Jewish and Gentile relationships in the Messianic Jewish and Hebrew Roots movements today, as does the following:

It is quite natural and most likely that the process of self-definition was complicated and led to harsh conflicts.

Unfortunately, those conflicts ultimately resulted in Gentiles and Jews taking different trajectories in their expression of Yeshua-faith and finally the invention of Christianity, which split from its Jewish predecessors entirely.

While Paul believed that he represented the perfection of Judaism, the church quite swiftly became a religious movement opposed to the practice of Judaism.

Even those modern Christians who express a love for the Jewish people and for Israel continue to oppose the practice of Judaism, both in normative Judaism and for Jews in Messiah.

I’ll continue with my reviews soon.

12 thoughts on “Book Review of “Paul within Judaism: The State of the Questions””

  1. “the assumption that the traditional perspectives on the relation between Judaism and Christianity are incorrect and need to be replaced by a historically more accurate view.”

    What makes this even more difficult is 1. Neither Christianity or Judaism are what they were in those ancient times. 2. Judaism wasn’t monolithic, and there was a wide range of Jewish practice in the first-century and 3. Christians are astonishingly unaware of Church history.

  2. @Chul: Thanks.

    @Sojourning: If I’m reading Zetterholm correctly, by Paul’s context in Judaism, I think he means the particular branch of Pharisaic Judaism that existed in the late Second Temple period. Granted, that’s a difficult feat given how little we know, but I think we’ll at least get a more accurate picture of Paul and his teachings by making this attempt than what the Church is laboring under now. I don’t think Zetterholm is attempting to fit Paul into any modern Judaism, which would be just as anachronistic as attempting to make the Apostle fit in modern Christianity.

    As far as Christians being unaware of their history, even those who are have a rather “favorably-biased” point of view. I’ve known Christians who fairly gush at the mention of Martin Luther, imagining him to be the best thing next to the invention of sliced bread. While he may have done some good relative to addressing the excesses of the Catholic Church as it existed in his day, he perpetuated all of the bad theology and doctrine surrounding the Christian view of Paul and wrote heinous things about the Jewish people toward the end of his life. Most Christians aren’t aware of how truly cruel many believers were to the Jewish people across Church history. More’s the pity.

  3. “how to incorporate non-Jews, not only to find ways of socializing safely with non-Jews, but how to include non-Jews in the eschatological people of God. Paul evidently believed that non-Jews should remain non-Jewish… they should not base their relation to the God of Israel on the Torah but on Jesus-the-Messiah.”

    This is a great statement, and I hope many will read it and think deeply about it.

    Something that is under appreciated is that many (most?) Jews at Jesus’ time and before, didn’t believe it was possible for a Gentile to “become Jewish”, since according to the Bible, being Jewish requires being a descendant of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and being circumcised on the eighth day (for men). But we’re so accustomed to hearing that Gentiles can choose to “be Jewish” we assume it’s possible, or that it was accepted across the board by Jews in the varied “Judaisms” of the time. But it wasn’t. It seems permeable and non permeable boundaries regarding Gentiles is a main reason for the differing Jewish “sects”.

    Some prohibited all intermarriage and so-called “conversion” as they believed Gentiles would defile Israel’s genealogy or “holy seed” since Gentiles had unalterable profane seed. Some Jews were absolutely anti-Gentile, as is seen from the book of Jubilees.

    Circumcision of a gentile allowed them to enter Jewish community – as a circumcised Gentile – but did not make them Jews (and they were still distinguished from Jews). Just like Ishmael’s circumcision didn’t make him part of the chosen people, and the circumcised slaves of a Jew didn’t “become Jewish.”

    This can truly help us discover our identity and purpose and as it
    is being applied to Pauline studies (and assumptions made about Luke and Acts) it also gives us other options as to who’s who in his statements about Jewishness and those that are “troubling” his Gentiles.

    Anyway, understanding that Gentiles trying to access God yet being
    looked down upon and treated as though they were in a perpetually unredeemable state, made the break away from Jews and “Judaism” inevitable, and necessary. Unfortunately it also got out of hand.

    1. @SWJ — While you can certainly find anti-gentile expressions within first-century Judaism(s), you cannot discount the effectiveness of conversions that joined the proselytes to the people of Israel, and that these conversions were considered valid by the Roman government as well as by the Jewish community. Rav Yeshua excoriated Pharisees who “scoured land and sea to make one proselyte” and yet mis-trained him to become a worse offender than themselves with respect to denying the kingdom of heaven perspective. Rav Shaul had to shame his Galatian readers not to convert, thus succumbing to social and political pressures that would seem to ease their plight vis-à-vis the Roman governmental requirements to participate in idolatrous public ceremonies of emperor worship, lest they deny the benefits that the Messiah offers to non-Jews as such. The later compilation of Talmud, which included rules such as never shaming converts by reminding them that they had ever been anything but Jews, does not imply that such rules and the perspective underlying them had not existed earlier. It is true that distinctions were made between slaves, who may have been circumcised under the duress of their slavery, and voluntary proselytes; likewise there were other peoples, such as Ishmaelites, who engaged in circumcision but not as Jews — therefore not to be reckoned as Jews. Nonetheless, you cannot deny the existence and acceptance of actual conversions to Judaism that recognized the converts as Jews after the completion of their proselyte period, their circumcision, their mikveh, and their validation by a duly-constituted beit-din. Rav Shaul’s point was that non-Jews could be cleansed of their idolatry and their native rebellion against HaShem, and become acceptable participants in fellowship with Jews without becoming Jews — that humanity could be functionally unified in pursuing righteous behavior and outlook despite the enduring distinctions defined by HaShem in Torah that must be nonetheless preserved and honored (as would certainly be so in the messianic kingdom on earth whenever it finally should be established).

      1. @SWJ: Thank you for bringing up the idea that perhaps Paul was admonishing the gentiles because they desired to convert to Judaism in order to escape persecution by Rome, and were not acting out of sincerity.

      2. @Chaya — I’m not convinced that converting to Judaism to side-step Roman persecution must be deemed insincere. Especially to those who devoutly wished to follow their Jewish Messiah and become more like him, it must have seemed a wise and prudent course of action that would yield two kinds of benefit: both civil and religious. No one should wish to suffer persecution unnecessarily. I don’t see that as being at all insincere. Insincerity would apply only if their sole reason for converting were to escape Roman requirements for emperor worship in civil ceremonies.

        The disadvantage and the danger pertaining to conversion were likely not immediately apparent until Rav Shaul called attention to them. The danger, of course, was inherent to the notion that adopting a new set of rules or joining a new community officially would of itself bring about redemption. In worst cases the adoption of Jewish rituals could be perceived merely as a replacement of prior pagan magical practices, failing to recognize that Jewish rituals were not a matter of trying to appease a capricious god or manipulate him into doing what a worshipper might request. Such thinking would detract from the messianic promise of redemption being the result of trust in what the Messiah ben-Yosef had already accomplished. It would shift the focus to external symptoms of redemption and miss entirely the crucial internal elements that actually accomplish the transformation of a “neshamah” and support the experience of “malchut hashamayim” (the kingdom of heaven). Thus the Messiah would be of no benefit to them (viz:Gal.5:2). The societal disadvantage, then, would be the loss of a testimony that members of all nations could be redeemed, rather than the notion that only Jews could be redeemed or receive HaShem’s blessings.

        Interestingly, both this danger and this disadvantage still face non-Jews who seek the deepest possible “relationship” with the Jewish Messiah. They do not face Roman persecution, nor the threat of being forced to conform with idolatrous civil or religious practices (well, maybe in some cases [:)]). That is not what may impel them toward Jewish praxis or conversion. But still they must be cautioned and constrained to understand properly how they may pursue redemption with the aid of HaShem and His Messiah, without pursuing conversion to Judaism.

  4. Hi James, have you seen the new “Journal of the Jesus Movement in its Jewish Setting – From the 1st to 7th Century”? It’s freely available online, and the first journal has some interesting articles. Mark Nanos’ article “Paul’s Non-Jews do not become Jews, but do they become Jewish?”, as well as Karen Zetterholm’s article “Alternate Visions of Judaism” will probably add to the essays in the book you are reviewing and the topics you have been writing about. Thought you might find the journal interesting.

    1. I’ve read and reviewed the Nanos article and visited that site, but I haven’t read any of the other articles there, including Karen Zetterholm’s. Thanks for the tip, Jaco.

  5. @PL:

    I didn’t say that *no* Jewish groups accepted prosylites into their community, but that it was certainly not across the board, and there were many who didn’t because of the biblical distinction that Jews are born and then circumcised on the 8th day.

    Although conversion is an accepted practice now, it wasn’t always that way and not with all groups. Scholarship is beginning to address this more and more Check out both Christine Hayes “Gentile Impurities and Jewish Identity” and Matthew Thiessen’s “Contesting Conversion”.

  6. “The disadvantage and the danger pertaining to conversion were likely not immediately apparent until Rav Shaul called attention to them.”

    Actually, the argument that is being made from scholarship that continues to develop – not only regarding first century Judaism(s) but Paul’s multi-faceted, fragmentary, and seemingly contradictory statements about Jewish identity and the common assumption/accusation that he redefined that identity to say that a “real Jew” is not one outwardly (an ethnic Jew), but one inwardly (a believing Gentile) is that he perhaps fell into the camp of Jews who didn’t believe it was possible for a Gentile to “become Jewish”.

    If a circumcised Gentile (in community with Jews) had a greater responsibility to Torah observance, today we automatically think he’s “become a Jew”, this wasn’t necessarily the case.

  7. @PL
    “…Pharisees who … mis-trained him to become a worse offender than themselves with respect to denying the kingdom of heaven perspective.”

    We still see this today with gentile converts. 🙂

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