The measure of Paul’s Jewish identity remains a matter of considerable controversy in current scholarship. As Pamela Eisenbaum observes, the question has provoked anxiety among some scholars, and not surprisingly, since the study of Paul “continues to be the arena of discourse where Christians (and recently some Jews) work out their religious identity.” It is an indication of that anxiety that today, some thirty years since the announcement of a New Perspective on Paul, it remains profoundly difficult for many interpreters to escape the constraining categories of the older “Christianizing” view of the apostle.
from the beginning of the essay
“The Question of Politics: Paul as a Diaspora Jew under Roman Rule”
Paul within Judaism: Restoring the First-Century Context to the Apostle (Kindle Edition)
This could be the introduction to any of the essays contained in the Nanos and Zetterholm volume or even the introduction of the volume itself.
I know using the term “Christianizing” when referring to the Church’s traditional understanding of Paul would seem puzzling if not insulting to most lay-Christians, Pastors, and even many New Testament scholars. After all, what is “unChristian” about the Apostle Paul who brought Christianity to the Roman Empire while showing the Jews the uselessness of living by the Law?
Well, that’s how some or most Christians might see it.
But I don’t think that many of these Christians would feel anxiety about the New Perspective so much as they would consider it misguided, misleading, or totally false…unless they entertained the thought, even for a few seconds, that Paul might be better understood within the context of the Judaisms as they existed in the late Second Temple period.
Then these Christians might actually break out in a cold sweat because, as Elliott suggests above, it is through Paul that we gain any understanding of our identity as believers at all. If Paul turns out to be totally different from who the Church has imagined him to be for most of the past two-thousand years, it means we have to totally reinvent ourselves.
Which is what a lot of us have been talking about lately.
One consequence is that significant political aspects of Paul’s context (and of our own) continue to be minimized or marginalized in interpretation.
According to the older, Christianizing view, we must understand Paul fundamentally as someone whose thought and experience–however these may have been formed by his background in Judaism–had been decisively reshaped by his encounter with the risen Christ…
It’s not that Paul’s encounter with Moshiach wasn’t a game changer. Certainly it was. But it might not have been the sort of game changer imagined by most Christians.
Elliott compares and contrasts two major themes in this essay: Paul as the Mystic/Visionary seeking apocalyptic revelation, and the New Covenant meaning of being sent to the Gentiles with the goal of turning large populations of Goyim to the God of Israel.
Consider Paul’s “Damascus experience” in Acts 9 as compared to 2 Corinthians 12:
I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago—whether in the body I do not know, or out of the body I do not know, God knows—such a man was caught up to the third heaven. And I know how such a man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, God knows—was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words, which a man is not permitted to speak. On behalf of such a man I will boast; but on my own behalf I will not boast, except in regard to my weaknesses. For if I do wish to boast I will not be foolish, for I will be speaking the truth; but I refrain from this, so that no one will credit me with more than he sees in me or hears from me.
–2 Corinthians 12:2-6 (NASB)
The man Paul describes as being “caught up to the third heaven” is commonly believed to be Paul himself. He describes a highly mystical experience, something uncommon to most modern Christians, and something many modern Christians prefer not to dwell upon too much.
On the other hand, Paul’s “Damascus experience” is thought of primarily as Paul’s “conversion” to Christianity from Judaism and the mystic aspects aren’t given a second thought nor even a first one.
Admittedly, this is a bit of supposition on Elliott’s part, and even if you consider it a really big stretch, it does get us to think in previously unexplored directions.
Instead of Paul “jumping ship” from Judaism to Christianity, or making an abrupt departure from Judaism and creating a new religion based on these “radical interruptions,” what if his change from persecuting the Jewish disciples of Yeshua (Jesus) to actively making new disciples from the Goyim was all consistently part of how Paul understood being Jewish within Judaism in the First Century?
In contrast, Alan F. Segal understood Paul’s visionary experience of Christ in context of the apocalyptic-mystical tradition of early Judaism…
…Rather, here “Paul reveals modestly that he has had several ecstatic meetings with Christ over the previous fourteen years.” Participants in Jewish mysticism, “and perhaps apocalypticism as well, sought out visions and developed special practices to achieve them.”
Like I said, at least a bit of a stretch. But if it’s true, then it means that all of Paul’s experiences, before and after the Damascus Road encounter, were part of Paul’s lived existence as a Pharisaic Jew.
…that he perceived in heaven a divine figure at the right hand of the Ancient of Days (cf. Dan. 7:9-14), one such experience was the first in which that figure was perceptible to Paul as the crucified Jesus. Just here Segal provided us with a powerful explanation of the “apocalypse” of Christ on fundamentally Jewish terms.
But what about Paul and the crucifixion of Messiah? I’ve been told by a number of Jewish people that the death of Jesus on the cross automatically a “show stopper” because a Jew hung on a tree is cursed (Deuteronomy 21:23).
In no Jewish writing of the period, Paul included, do we find crucifixion itself taken to indicate a death cursed by God or by the Law. To the contrary, archaeological evidence shows that crucified Jews were buried and memorialized honorably. The notion that Paul (or any Jew) would have regarded a crucified Jew as “cursed” is historically improbable.
It could even have been likely, given Elliott’s perspective, that a crucified Messiah may have fit very well within Paul’s apocalyptic viewpoint of Judaism in terms of the Gentile disciples and under the Rule of the Roman Empire.
But what about that?
…the original apostles so readily accepted these Gentiles because they saw in their response, as with their leader’s resurrection, yet one more sign that the Kingdom approached…
We must suppose that as a Jew, as an apocalyptist, and as a Pharisee, [Paul] assumed that God’s triumph over the Romans was inevitable, however indeterminate…
Paul the Mystic connected the dots to determine that his vision of a resurrected Messiah and his mission to turn the hearts of a multitude of Gentiles to Israel’s God was all part of the apocalyptic plan to restore Israel and elevate the Jewish nation to the head of the nations, defeating Israel’s enemies and placing them under Israelite dominion, with the knee of every Gentile bending to Hashem.
Elliott states that Paul (Saul) originally persecuted the communities of Yeshua disciples, not out of some fanatical zeal to impose the Torah of Moses over the Grace of Christ, but as a matter of national security. Groups of Jews running around declaring that their Messianic King had risen and would overthrow Roman tyranny, from Paul’s previous viewpoint, would only inspire greater persecution against Israel by Rome.
“The vision would have confirmed to [Paul] that what the apocalypses promised God would do someday, God had in fact begun to do now. The consequence would have been an abrupt about-face from persecuting assemblies, but this turn would have been motivated and remains completely explicable within categories supplied by the Jewish apocalypses.
As well as…
I suggest that there is nothing “essentially” Christian about a Pharisee experiencing a visionary ascent to heaven and seeing the resurrected Jesus there.
I’m choosing to review only a small portion of Elliott’s overall essay. It’s so densely packed with information that I’m concerned I’ve already done this scholar a disservice by attempting summarize such a complex set of factors.
Most of this seems highly speculative, especially since I haven’t included the references to all of Elliott’s source material, but this is one of the most compelling visions of Paul that I’ve read about. It seems to, in my way of thinking, explain both to Christians and to observant (and non-Messianic) Jews a rationale for why Paul said and did the things we read about in the Bible.
He was always zealous for the Torah, zealous for the Temple, and zealous for Hashem. He persecuted “the Church,” that is, Jewish disciples of a sect in Judaism that claimed a resurrected Messiah King, not out of any belief that they were not Jewish or opposed Moses or the Temple, but because they represented a fundamental danger to the nation of Israel as well as the diaspora Jews by provoking Rome against them, much as we’ve seen how the Romans responded to other Jewish revolts. Paul, however misguided, persecuted the believing Jews as the defender of Israel and protector of the Jewish people.
As a apocalyptist and a mystic who constantly sought visions of the Heavenly realms, while his encounter with the risen Messiah on the road to Damascus in Acts 9 may have been a startling game changer, it also fit perfectly with Paul’s orientation within Jewish mysticism. Paul’s zeal was unquenched and merely redirected based on the revelation that this sect of “Messianics” weren’t delusional in believing Yeshua was the risen King. Paul saw the vision and heard the bat kol for himself. The Messiah was revealed and alive.
Now realizing that the Messiah was resurrected, and that he had directed Paul to fulfill the next step in bringing about the Kingdom of Heaven now by recruiting large numbers of Gentile disciples as Gentiles (rather than having them undergo the proselyte rite), the apostle attacked his current task as he had his previous one, with passion and devotion, never relenting in his service to God.
Everything Paul did as we see him recorded in the Apostolic Scriptures including his own epistles, was wholly and thoroughly consistent with his praxis within First Century Judaism. In a very real way, there was nothing “Christian” about it or him.
Only two essays left to review. I’ll post my next one soon.