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.
‘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.
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.”
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.
Although 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.