Tag Archives: Apostolic scriptures

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.

Mission to Rescue the Jewish Scriptures: The Story of the Kidnapped New Testament

He who reads through translation looks through a blurred pane, not experiencing the full flavor and the soul’s yearnings.

Chaim Nachman Bialik, “Nation & Language Part 1”
from the Translator’s Preface, p.xxvi
written by Rabbi Kadish Goldberg in
Rabbi Moshe Avigdor Amiel’s English translation of
Jews, Judaism & Genesis: Living in His Image According to the Torah

Sabrina Allen, who was abducted in 2002 at age 4 by her mother in a custody battle, has been found in a secret rescue mission near Mexico City and returned to the United States, the private investigator involved in the search said Wednesday.

Sabrina, now 17, was rescued in an operation conducted by the Mexican Federal Authority, FBI and U.S. Marshals in Estafeta Tlaxcala, about 60 miles southeast of Mexico City, according to Philip Klein, with KIC Investigations.

Klein told USA TODAY that Sabrina and her alleged abductor, Dara Llorens, were flown back to the U.S. on Tuesday night, arriving in Houston.

-Doug Stanglin – 1:27 p.m. EDT October 1, 2014
“Texas girl, missing for 12 years, rescued in Mexico”
USA Today

I insist on using evidence that is verifiable in cultural and documented substantiation to elucidate the information provided somewhat cursorily in the apostolic writings which themselves reflect earlier Jewish writing that begins in the Tenakh and continues with the apocryphal writings — and they are consistent even with later Jewish literature and archeological evidence discovered in such finds as the Dead Sea Scrolls (representing a variety of ancient Jewish literatures).

To put it another way, the apostolic writings are Jewish literature, and we’re taking them back from the non-Jews who have oh-so-lovingly preserved them and distorted their meaning by wrenching them out of their native context and reading them as if they were written in an antiseptic cultural vacuum — or worse: as if they were written in a pagan cultural milieu.

from a comment on my blog post
The High Holy Days for the Rest of Us

When I was catching up on the numerous comments on my various blog posts, reading PL’s words, I immediately thought of the news story I’d read just a few minutes earlier about the rescue of Sabrina Allen.

Sabrina was (allegedly) kidnapped by her non-custodial mother at the end of a six-month period of court-supervised visitation in 2002. For the past twelve years, Sabrina had been living with her mother in a town sixty miles southeast of Mexico City.

I have a background in Social Work and Child Protection, and given that, I was imagining what this child had been through and now, at age 17, what she is facing. Probably most people reading the news story about her rescue breathed a sigh of relief and thought that she’s going to be OK now that she’s being returned to Dad.

Sabrina Allen
Sabrina Allen (Photo: Center for Exploited and Missing Children)

Problem is, she hasn’t seen Dad in twelve years and her entire world is built around Mom and living with her in Mexico. There’s a good chance that Mom told Sabrina a whole bunch of bad things about Dad, so this teenage girl may not be at all happy to see him. I’m betting she runs away the first chance she gets since right now, she’s feeling like a foreigner in an alien land, surrounded by a bunch of strangers.

Now imagine this.

Thirty-five hundred years or so ago, God gathered His people Israel to Him at Mt. Sinai. Through the prophet Moses, He gave Israel the Torah, the Holy Word of God, and commanded them to obey His Word as their part of the covenant He made with them.

Then, for the next fifteen-hundred years, more or less, Israel made a concerted effort to do just that, with the results being a sort of spiritual and experiential roller coaster ride, with some generations being obedient and some generations rebelling, suffering, and going into exile.

Now we arrive at the late-Second Temple period. A man named Yeshua was born, lived, taught Torah wisely, some thought he was Messiah, was betrayed and executed by the Romans, was believed by many to have been resurrected, and then witnesses said he ascended into Heaven with the promise of returning “at the end of the age.”

Through his apostles, many more disciples were drawn to his teachings, and particularly through one late arriving apostle named Paul, many non-Jews were brought into discipleship while not having to undergo the proselyte rite and take up the same obligations that were the conditions of the Sinai Covenant, since only Jews belong to that covenant.

The Gentile disciples, as part of their introduction and integration into “the Way” were taught the Jewish scriptures and received the teachings of their Master as well as other teachers through various means, including letters.

It must have been a challenge for these non-Jewish peoples representing many languages and cultures, to fully grasp the complex and nuanced meaning of thousands of years of Jewish holy literature, since the Jewish people teach, live, and think much differently than the world around them. Nevertheless, if a Gentile really wanted to be a disciple of the Jewish Messiah King, he had to take every opportunity to learn from  his/her Jewish teachers and fellow disciples to grasp a completely different cultural and educational matrix in order to fulfill his/her role to Israel and to God as a “crowning jewel of the nations” in fulfillment of the New Covenant prophecies.

kidnappingBut then, much like the Mother and Father of Sabrina Allen, the “couple” violently split, and the “non-custodial parent,” that is, the Gentiles, “kidnapped” the “child” the Jewish scriptures, took them to an “alien” place and changed their appearance (Sabrina’s Mom escaped detection in part, because she dyed Sabrina’s hair, making her look differently), so that they no longer resembled Jewish holy literature at all, but rather, took on the “mask” of the newly invented Gentile religion “Christianity.”

I know that all sounds harsh and highly critical of the early history of the Church, but in the Second and Third Centuries CE, that’s how it would have looked, especially to the remaining Gentile disciples of the Master who, right before their very eyes, saw the Word of God, which they cherished and were zealous for, transformed so that it would provide a completely alien understanding of what God wants and the nature and purposes of Yeshua…uh, excuse me, “Jesus Christ”.

The “child” is illegally spirited away from the “custodial parent” and taken to a foreign land, vanishing from sight for the next twelve years, or more accurately put, the next nearly two-thousand years. To be fair, the “child” has been seen innumerable times by Jewish people since then, but her “appearance” was so drastically altered, that she not only was completely unrecognizable by the custodial parent (the Jewish people), but she looked like a terrible enemy and a horrible threat to Jewish survival. The “parent” rejects and even shuns the child and the non-custodial parent, tries to pass off someone who looks like an obvious impostor as the Father’s child for the purposes (often unwittingly) of inducing the Father to accept someone who couldn’t possibly be his Jewish offspring.

Then, in more recent times, the child’s disguise is penetrated and a rescue mission planned. But at this point, there is so much confusion about who is who, that even taking back what was once theirs, the Jewish people, redeeming the Jewish Apostolic Scriptures and bringing them back home, draw great ire, not only from the non-custodial (Gentile) parent, but from most other Jews as well. How dare these few “Messianic Jews” bring a dangerous impostor into the fold and call her one of their own? It’s ridiculous. It’s heresy. What Jew could possibly love a Bible that has been used for centuries to justify murdering and maiming Jews, and incinerating Torah scrolls, volumes of Talmud, and synagogues.

But there’s a “father” out there who has finally, after so very long, recognized his only “daughter” underneath the cheap makeup that tried to turn a Jewish “child” into a “Goyishe” traitor. He loves her. He know she belongs with her “sisters” (the rest of the Jewish scriptures) and in a Jewish “home”. But even in successfully pulling her back from exile, the “father” is so alone, for most other Jews will not accept him as long as he claims these foreign books as his lost child.

The non-custodial parent (the Gentile Christians) for her/their part, demand that if the Jewish father really accepts the “alien” as his own, he should not attempt to change her back to her original (Jewish) form, but instead, the father must change to become, like his once kidnapped daughter, an “alien.”

No dice.

So not only is the “father” isolated from other Jews, he is cast out by the Gentiles as well. He is in-between and nowhere. All he wants to do is go home and take his rescued “daughter” with him.

sefer torahBut all “children” come from God, as did the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings (which were distorted by the non-custodial parent along with the youngest “daughter,” the Apostolic Scriptures), and so too the kidnapped child who has now been brought back. God will find a way for everyone to see who this “little girl” really is and to bring her back into the “family” (the Bible) so that all of the “children” are unified with each other and look like one.

I know I’ve confused the imagery and the comparisons are less then perfect. It’s probably been difficult to follow this metaphorical essay and keep everything straight, but this is how I see the Apostolic Scriptures and how they are being reclaimed by Jews in Messiah (as opposed to Hebrew Christians). It’s not that Christians must convince Jews to accept the New Testament which looks and speaks with a foreign accent, it is we Gentile Christians who must get it through our heads that we have misappropriated Jewish holy books, changing their “face” in the process, so that they no longer look Jewish or speak to Jewish people. We have to give them back, not that they don’t mean something to us, for they mean everything to us, but we must let them be Jewish, to speak with a Jewish voice, to have the face of the Jewish authors and readers and students, just as in days of old.

Only then will they speak the truth to both Jewish and Gentile ears and only then will we see the face of the Jewish King in her pages.

Addendum: In case you’re interested, here’s an updated news story about how Sabrina is doing so far.

Questioning Paul

Read today’s article, where you, in part, again defend Paul. Obviously, I have to come to read him very differently and would like to run something by you. Can you give me your thoughts on the following words of Paul, namely in Galatians 4:21-26 (and a bit beyond, in Galatians 5-1)?

“21 Tell me, you who want to be under law, do you not listen to the law? 22 For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the bondwoman and one by the free woman. 23 But the son by the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, and the son by the free woman through the promise. 24 This is allegorically speaking, for these women are two covenantsone proceeding from Mount Sinai bearing children WHO ARE TO BE SLAVES; she is Hagar. 25 Now this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children26 But the Jerusalem above is free; she is our mother. “

“It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery.” (Galatians 5-1)

Here Paul, although supposedly speaking figuratively, plainly says that the covenant on Mount Sinai produced slaves (even though the opposite actually happened there – Jews were freed from slavery there, becoming servants of G-d). According to Paul, Jews who are still bound by Torah and the Mosaic covenant are not the spiritual children, but the children of the flesh and are born not of Sarah, but of Hagar. Christians (primarily his Gentile audience), however, are Sarah’s true children, who are free. Following Torah as given on Mount Sinai, according to Paul, is a yoke of slavery from which Christ came to set humanity free (Galatians 5-1).

Would love to hear what you thought of the above. May be the billions of Christians over the many centuries didn’t misread Paul after all but received much of their view of Judaism from him?

-from a private email discussion

There’s a lot more to this conversation. For a little background, the person asking the above-quoted questions is a Jewish friend of mine who believes that Paul was anti-Torah and anti-Judaism.  He very gently but firmly is questioning my faith and our exchange, from my point of view, has reached something of an impasse. Not being a theologian or a historian, especially within the context of Messianic Judaism, I don’t always have all the convenient answers at my fingertips.

A “normative” (i.e. not Messianic) Jewish person has a wide variety of resources to draw from, such as Jews for Judaism, in questioning the validity of the “Christian texts,” while in response, all I’ve got is me.

For obvious reasons (obvious to my regular readership), I can’t really rely on traditional, Evangelical Christian apologetics, since I’m often a critic of Evangelical Christian theology.

To add a bit of dimension, where I “stalled” in the conversation, my friend questioned whether one could look at Paul’s letters in the same fashion as the writings of Moses. Moses received direct revelation from God while Paul was writing letters. Can his letters be elevated to the point of scripture inspired by the Holy Spirit? Moses knew he was recording the thoughts of God. Could Paul have imagined that his letters would also be included in canon?

In the body of believers, we tend to see deep theological meaning in Paul’s letters. Further, we (or at least I) believe that there are messages “encoded” within said-letters that are difficult to understand without a “Rabbinic” comprehension of the text. Scholars such as Mark Nanos and Roy Blizzard have written erudite works unpackaging the “hidden” meanings within Paul’s writing. But the Sages in more normative Judaism across the long centuries and into the modern era, reading the letters of Paul from a Rabbinic perspective, see nothing but a condemnation of Jewish people and Judaism in Paul’s writings. If Paul’s letters are so “Jewish” that most Christians don’t “get” Paul, why don’t most Jewish sages “get” Paul the way we do when peering through a Messianic Jewish lens?

The Jewish PaulIn line with the above, I’ve attempted to answer the “Hagar and Sarah” question with my own commentary based on Ariel Berkowitz’s paper A Torah-Positive Summary of Sha’ul’s Letter to the Galatians. However my explanation of more hidden meanings doesn’t seem to pass the “pshat test,” whereby the plain meaning of the text is still the primary meaning, even if there are other more hidden and even mystic meanings contained within.

Finally, many if not most of Paul’s letters were written to a primarily Gentile audience, with many or most of them having limited literacy (according to my source) and for those fresh out of paganism, virtually no apprehension of Judaism, Jewish thought, Hebrew idiom and word play, and Jewish symbolism. If Paul were writing to a bunch of Rabbis or other learned Jews, we could understand Paul crafting letters with great amounts of complicated theological detail, but wasn’t he trying to get his ideas across to mostly common Greek-speaking people?

It’s possible that no one can answer these questions or at least that no one will be willing to answer these questions on my blog, so I may continue to be stuck until subsequent investigation (which experience tells me could be months or years) helps me to understand where the answers lie (or, Heaven forbid, that there are no answers to give to my Jewish friend). I should say that my primary goal isn’t to “convert” him or otherwise convince him to become “Messianic.” My goal is to show why any intelligent and reasonable person could accept the writings in what the Church calls “the New Testament” as scripture at all and why we would go jumping through all of the hoops we have been in order to refactor Paul as pro-Torah and pro-Judaism after nearly two-thousand years of Church doctrine has been teaching the exact opposite?

I plan to put links to this blog post in the relevant groups in both Facebook and Google+. I’d like to encourage the readers there to post your responses here so my friend (and any other interested parties) can read them. If they’re “trapped” in closed groups on either of those social networking platforms, then they will not be available for my audience here.

Thank you.