I finally got around to reading Larry Hurtado’s blog post The “Conversion” of Paul and found it illuminating. Here are the two most telling paragraphs:
But it’s a genuine question among scholars whether Paul understood himself as having undergone a “conversion,” at least in the sense that the word typically has. He didn’t move from irreligion to a religious life, from being a sinful man to virtue. And he didn’t change his God, or denounce his ancestral religious tradition. Instead, he expresses the strong conviction that the God he had always sought to serve showed him his blindness in opposing the Jesus-movement, revealed (Paul’s word) Jesus’ high/unique status, and summoned Paul to a special mission that he believed would usher in (or at least promote markedly) the consummation of the divine plan of world-redemption.
So, some scholars prefer to characterize Paul’s shift in religious orientation as a prophet-like “calling” rather than a “conversion” (as influentially proposed by Krister Stendahl). Others, such as Alan Segal, contended that “conversion” was appropriate, as the term can include a change from one version of a religious tradition to another, such as a Roman Catholic becoming a Baptist. So, Segal urged, Paul shifted from one understanding of what his God required to another very different one, and from opposition to the Jesus-movement to aligning himself with it.
Anyone who has read this blogspot for very long knows I don’t consider Paul (or Rav Shaul if you prefer) a convert, but rather someone who received a “Prophet-like” calling (to use Hurtado’s phrase) to become Rav Yeshua’s (Jesus Christ’s) emissary to the Gentiles.
What’s really cool though, is Hurtado, a well-known and respected New Testament scholar, holds a view of Paul that you would hardly find preached in most normative Christian churches.
I still find it surprising that what the Church teaches (and I’m using the word “Church” in the broadest possible sense) is so at odds with the continuing research being done on the New Testament in general and on Paul specifically.
I suppose one explanation could be that, Christian (and Jewish) tradition about Paul being what it is, the average Christian sitting in the pew on Sunday wouldn’t tolerate a radical update to his/her doctrine. In order to make supersessionist/replacement theology work, Paul had to convert from the Judaism of his day to early Christianity. Most Jews and probably even some Christians believe that Paul even founded Christianity, converting it from a branch of ancient Judaism to a wholly Gentile religion.
Well, Michael, to go by his own testimony, Paul/Saul remained a devoted Jew, even in his ministry as “apostle to the nations” (e.g., Philip 3:4ff; 2 Cor 11:21ff.). But you put your finger on the historical phenomenon that I’ve worked on for over 30 yrs now, offering the best answers that I can find to the various component questions. Paul’s own statement (Gal 1:13ff) is that he shifted from opponent of the Jesus-movement to proponent when “God revealed his Son to me”. So, he accepted the exalted status of Jesus as thoroughly compatible with his commitment to the uniqueness of the God of Israel precisely because he was convinced (by a “revelation”) that this one God had himself exalted Jesus and now required him to be acknowledged and reverenced. In short, if God approved, who was he to withstand it?
In 2 Cor 3:7–4:6, Paul’s description of fellow members of Israel who don’t perceive/accept Jesus as “Lord” pictures them as having a veil over their minds. But “when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed” (3:16).
We have to form our notions of what “Jewish traditions and biblical monotheism” could include based on the evidence, not preconceptions. And, as I showed in my 1988 book, One God, One Lord (3rd ed., 2015), “ancient Jewish Monotheism” could accommodate some amazing things.
Moreover, Paul was and remained a Jew, and so even the remarkable view of Jesus that he accepted must be included as one of the developments initially within 2nd temple Jewish tradition.
I’m probably just recycling things I’ve written in the past, but frankly, I learn more about what the Bible is actually saying by studying scholarly works rather than listening to a Pastor’s sermon or going to Sunday School.
I wish I could make blogs like Hurtado’s “required reading” for all churches everywhere, but, in my opinion, many or most Christians don’t want to actually learn anything new. They are quite content to have their theology “settled”.
In the article, I tackled the now-familiar “trajectories” model of early Christian developments proposed influentially by James Robinson and Helmut Koester, showing examples of how it has involved dubious results. The trajectories model does reflect the sense of diversity in early Christianity, but I contend that it is inadequate as a model in allowing for the complexity of that diversity. For it seems to me that all our evidence points to a rich and vibrant interaction of the various early Christian groups.
Sometimes this was of a hostile nature, as in the well-known conflict of Paul and certain other Jewish Christians whom Paul refers to as “false brothers,” and even agents of Satan. Sometimes, however, perhaps more typically, this interaction was of a more positive nature, as reflected in the appropriation of “Q material” in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, or the implicit affirmation of Peter in John 21.
I suppose it would be naive to consider that there was a single, uniform expression of Christianity in the mid-to-late first century CE. As Dr. Hurtado points out, both on this blog and in his paper, there are multiple different theories to describe these varying expressions including the “trajectories model.”
However, in his paper, Dr. Hurtado suggests a different viewpoint he calls “Interactive-Diversity”.
As early as the Jerusalem church, there was linguistic diversity, as likely reflected in the Acts depiction of ‘Hebrews’ and ‘Hellenists,’ terms which probably designate respectively those Jews in the Jerusalem church whose first language was Aramaic and those whose first/primary language was Greek. Also, Paul’s deployment of the little ‘Marana tha’ formula in 1 Corinthians 16:22 is commonly taken as reflecting his acquaintance with Aramaic-speaking circles of Jewish believers, as distinguished from the Greek-speaking (gentile) congregations to whom he wrote.
I should note that regardless of believers being Jewish or Gentile, Dr. Hurtado refers to them as Christians.
In this first example, the diversity is linguistic and between Greek speaking and Aramaoic speaking Jewish disciples of Rav Yeshua (Jesus), as well as distinguishing them from the Greek speaking Gentiles.
Moreover, remarkably early there was also a trans-local diversity. In Acts we have reports of the young Christian movement quickly spreading from Jerusalem and other sites in Jewish Palestine, to Damascus, Antioch and Samaria, and through the activities of Paul and others (often anonymous) spreading through various locations in Asia Minor, Greece, Rome and elsewhere. Though the historicity of some features of
Acts has been challenged, it is commonly accepted that there was an early and rapid trans-local spread of the young Christian movement to locations such as these. It is to
be expected that this remarkably rapid spread of the Christian movement would have been accompanied by diversity, Christian circles taking on something of the character of
the various locales, and also the varying ethnic groups and social classes from which converts came.
There was, as we might expect, also diversity among the Gentiles based on “trans-local diversity,” or distinctions of geography, nationality, ethnicity, and custom.
All this seems to suggest that there were different interpretive traditions of not only the Jewish scriptures (remember, at this time there was no such thing as the “New Testament”) but how these differing groups understood the letters of Paul as well.
The different attitudes toward ‘food sacrificed to idols’ (8:1-13) comprised another potentially serious difference in Corinth that may well have reflected different social groups. Likewise, Paul’s exhortations in Romans 14:1—15:6 are widely thought to address differences that likely reflect a diversity of a social or ethnic nature.
But along with the evident diversity, a well-attested ‘networking’ was another feature of early Christianity. This involved various activities, among them the sending
and exchange of texts, believers travelling for trans-local promotion of their views (as, e.g., the ‘men from James’ in Gal 2:11, or Apollos’ travels to Corinth in 1 Cor 1:12; 3:5-
9; 16:12), representatives sent for conferral with believers elsewhere (as depicted, e.g., Acts 15:1-35), or sent to express solidarity with other circles of believers (as, e.g., those accompanying the Jerusalem offering in 1 Cor 16:3-4).
For that matter, Paul wasn’t the only one establishing “churches” in the diaspora. There were others, most or all of whom were anonymous, who were also “planting” faith communities and apparently establishing differences in teaching and praxis.
However, it wasn’t because these communities were isolated from each other geographically that allowed the rise of diversity. In fact, according to Hurtado’s paper, they were quite interactive, sometimes uncomfortably so.
On the other hand, there are also indications of far more adversarial interactions as well, and at a very early date. Paul’s letter to the Galatians will serve to illustrate this. Exegetes are agreed that this epistle reflects Paul’s exasperation over unidentified other Christians (probably Jewish) who have visited the Galatian churches calling into question the adequacy of Paul’s gospel and urging his gentile converts to complete their conversion by circumcision and a commitment to Torah-observance. Paul represents these people as proclaiming ‘a different gospel . . . confusing you and seeking to pervert the gospel of Christ’ (Gal 1:6-7), and he thunders an anathema on anyone who proclaims a gospel contrary to that which he preached (1:9).
This is rather clearly an example of early Christian diversity of a more hostile variety! But it is also indication of the interaction that I emphasize here, with non-Pauline teachers visiting Corinth (with intent!) and Paul reacting with an uncompromising vigour.
It can result in some exchange and adaptation or in a hardening of previous positions. But my point is that early Christian diversity was often (even typically?) of a highly interactive nature.
Doesn’t sound terrifically different than how different Christian denominations “get along” in the 21st century CE.
Various articles within “Paul within Judaism” put forth the idea that Jews and Gentiles “in Christ” not only did not share a single, uniform identity and role within the faith, but that the identity and role of the Gentile within the first century Jewish movement of “the Way,” was ill defined and incomplete.
Paul and others may not have thought this was a problem if they believed that the Messiah’s return was imminent. If Messiah was coming back in a year or two, or a decade or two, he would straighten things out as he completed establishing his Kingdom.
That may also be one way to view the diversity between various diaspora congregations and their differences in interpretation, doctrine, and praxis. While it’s compelling to imagine that in the beginning of the Yeshua movement within Judaism, and as it was being exported to the diaspora Gentiles, the conditions operating within the overall movement and trickling down to specific “churches” were uniform, representing a single, complete unity, perspectives such as “Interactive-Diversity” paint a much different portrait.
What we think of may never have been unified, at least not since Rav Yeshua lead his small inner circle of apostles and disciples through the Galilee or taught from Solomon’s Portico at the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. His teachings wouldn’t be documented and widely disseminated for decades, and even then, they would likely have been interpreted differently by the numerous congregations and house fellowships of Jews and Gentiles in both Israel and the diaspora nations.
I remember during my early days in the Hebrew Roots movement (some fifteen years ago or more) I thought what I was experiencing in my local, little “One Law” group was something akin to what the Gentiles experienced in their congregations in the days of Paul.
I was really inexperienced and unstudied.
I’m not exactly a genius now, but as time has passed and I’ve accessed a wider variety of information sources, I’ve come to realize that we aren’t particularly certain of what was normative practice for Gentiles in Messiah while Paul was on his journeys and writing his letters. Here we see that there probably was no one normative practice, but that not only were the teachings and praxis of the different groups of Gentiles highly variable and even competitive, but that their very identities and roles as disciples of our Rav were probably indistinct and variable as well.
Granted, I’m drawing a great deal out of a few small examples, but it does possibly mean we do have one thing in common with the earliest non-Jewish followers of Yeshua. Our variability or interpretation and practice and even the competition and (sometimes) hostility between differing factions within both the Hebrew Roots and Messianic Jewish movements is normal.
Like Paul, we too may have to wait until Messiah comes so he can sort everything out.
Almost a week ago, I had coffee with a friend, and we were discussing this topic. He believes that as the time of Messiah’s return draws near, the variability between all the denominations of Christianity, let alone those of us who, at least in name, don’t call ourselves “Christians” (well, we do and don’t…long story), will begin to erode and a clearer vision and more stable platform will emerge for Messiah’s disciples.
In fact, I think the opposite will happen. I think we’ll all become increasingly fragmented and confused. Sure, there will be a remnant that will maintain a stable perception of God, Messiah, Israel, and the Bible consistent with God’s redemptive plan for His Jewish nation, and through them, the people of the nations, but a lot of “nutsiness” will emerge and thrive as well.
I even think there will be scores of churches that will reject the resurrected Messiah and ascended King because he’s too Jewish, because he rebuilds the Temple in Jerusalem, because he rules from Jerusalem instead of Heaven, and because the “raptured” will join him in Jerusalem instead of Heaven…
I’m not saying we should just sit on our laurels and wait around for Messiah to come back. I’m not saying we shouldn’t continue to study the scriptures, to teach, to go to teachings, to seek out greater truth, to improve our walk, or any of that.
I’m saying it’s expected if we don’t know everything right now. It’s normal not to get everything right. We should accept that, when Messiah does come and when he teaches, that he will point out where we made mistakes, even as we were (and are) sincerely seeking him and searching out the face of God.
Fortunately, Hashem is patient. He understands us, even though we don’t always understand Him or what He’s trying to tell us. We may have the Spirit of God, but that doesn’t mean we always listen to the Spirit either, no matter how much we think we want to.
We aren’t one candle, but many, yet all burning for our God.
The Society of Biblical Literature has mounted a new/recent web-resource for the “general public” entitled “Bible Odyssey” here. People are invited to lodge questions, and to each a relevant expert is asked by the SBL to make a response. I’ve had my own first go at doing this here, in response to a question about the origins of treating Jesus as divine.
That’s a good, short description of a very interesting new resource on Biblical scholarship which has recently become available to non-scholars.
However, Bible Odyssey is more than just a place to ask a scholar a question.
You can learn how scholars view the different notable people in the Bible such as Abraham, Daniel, John the Baptist, and Jesus. The same treatment is given to specific places in the Bible like Antioch, Corinth, Jerusalem, and Rome. Have a question about a particular passage in the Bible? You can learn more about the Binding of Isaac, Jesus and the Money Changers, the New Covenant, and more.
But as Dr. Hurtado pointed out, one of the most exciting opportunities this web site offers is the ability to ask a Biblical scholar a question and receive a detailed response. Just click Ask a Scholar to get started, but keep this important proviso in mind:
Please keep in mind that this site is focused on the historical, social, literary, and cultural contexts of the Bible, rather than on theology, spirituality or personal religious beliefs. Selected questions that fall within the purview of Bible Odyssey will be forwarded to scholars.
If you just love getting into theological or doctrinal debates, that’s not going to happen here. Chances are, not all of your personal theological or spiritual beliefs are going to be supported by each and every response. I don’t know that each person listed as a contributor will be answering reader questions, but they’ve all provided content to the web site. In fact, one of my favorites (besides Dr. Hurtado) is on the list, Magnus Zetterholm.
When did the worship of Jesus, as God, rather than Messiah, Lord, and Savior, begin? And by whom?
This is right up Dr. Hurtado’s alley, so to speak, since he’s written extensively about the early worship of Jesus as God.
I found one portion of Hurtado’s response particularly interesting (I’ll put the relevant section in bold text below):
But I presume that you actually mean “when and where did Jesus first come to be reverenced as somehow really sharing in God’s status, or glory, and so the rightful recipient of worship along with God?” This has been a contested question for at least a century or more. Pretty much everyone is agreed that Jesus didn’t receive worship during his ministry. The key questions contested are how soon and where after Jesus’ crucifixion did it begin.
Maybe I’m reading this wrong, but it sounds as if Dr. Hurtado is drawing a distinction between God and Jesus, and that Jesus is alongside God as opposed to the embodiment of God as God’s Son.
Admittedly, the Divine nature of Jesus has always been rather mysterious to me, and I know that most Christians take it as a matter of course and don’t ask questions. Also, Hurtado isn’t answering the question about how Jesus could be God, just when did people begin giving him the same worship and devotion as God.
Dr. Hurtado finishes his response with (and again, I’ll bold what I think is the most interesting part of the text):
The Aramaic liturgical expression, “Maranatha” (= “O/our, Lord, come!” cited in 1Cor 16:22), is one of several pieces of direct evidence that Jewish, Aramaic-speaking believers invoked the risen/exalted Jesus as “Lord” in their corporate worship gatherings. The basis for this remarkable development was apparently the convictions that God had exalted Jesus as “Lord,” that Jesus now shared God’s glory, name and throne, and that God now required Jesus to be reverenced accordingly (e.g., Phil 2:9-11).
This makes it seem as if God took some sort of action that resulted in Jesus gaining exaltation as “Lord” and enabled Jesus to then share in God’s glory, name, and throne, thus requiring that his followers now revere Jesus in that light (as opposed to Jesus having eternally been God from “the beginning”).
Of course, I could be wrong in how I’m interpreting Dr. Hurtado’s response, but you’ve got to admit that this is a bit different from what you’ll hear coming from the pulpit on any given Sunday, at least it is in my experience.
And that’s the exciting part about being able to ask a Biblical scholar a question. It’s pretty rare for any current Biblical research to filter down into any particular Pastor’s sermon and thus into the church pews. From my own background, what we typically hear in sermons and Sunday school is a traditional interpretation of the Bible that’s been handed down for years, decades, or generations, filtered through specific denominational biases, and untouched by any recent or current Biblical scholarly findings.
For the person who wants to become a more serious student of the Bible but who isn’t a scholar nor likely to take a degree in Biblical studies, this is a terrific resource that is easily accessed.
I just read a blog post written by Dr. Larry Hurtado called Early Christian Diversity as well as a brief commentary by Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski on Pirkei Avot 1:14. Interestingly enough, I think they both speak to me personally as well as to the wider body of modern Yeshua (Jesus) believers.
Part of what Rabbi Twerski wrote was:
What Hillel really meant can be better understood with a statement by the Rabbi of Kotzk, who said, “If I am I because I am I, and you are you because you are you, then I am and you are. But if I am I because you are you, and you are you because I am I, then I am not and you are not.”
William Shakespeare said the same thing with the words “To thine own self be true,” and I think that’s what I’m attempting in creating my own definition of a life of holiness (not that it’s so easy to follow such a definition).
In reading Dr. Hurtado’s blog post, I am once again reminded that what I’m going through, what we are all going through, is not new at all:
But it isn’t as though we didn’t know that before Bauer wrote. From our earliest Christian texts (e.g., Paul’s letters and other writings) we have candid references to diversity in the young Jesus-movement, even sharp conflicts and mutual condemnation. Maybe Eusebius could convince himself that everything was sweet agreement initially and that diversity and division only came later, but that’s not what the earliest sources actually show.
This early Christian diversity, however, was not a number of totally separate communities or forms (hence, my dissatisfaction with “early Christianities”). As I contend in a recent article, the diverse expressions of early Christianity seem to have been in vibrant contact with one another, sometimes conflicting, at other times seeming to agree to overlook differences, at other times seeking to persuade others of their own views/emphases…
I’ve tended to think of the differences between “early Christian” communities as being divided largely across the lines of Gentile believers and Jewish disciples of Rav Yeshua, but I believe Dr. Hurtado is making finer distinctions. There may have been numerous branches of “Christianity” in the latter part of the first century and into the second that had other points of separation or distinction. In fact, there was likely no real effort to “form a broadly connected and cooperative trans-local religious movement” until Eusebius or Constantine, according to Dr. Hurtado.
That makes me wonder what the Apostle Paul was up to if not attempting to create unified and uniform communities of Yeshua followers among the Gentiles (certainly Jewish praxis and community was already well established for Jewish disciples of the Rav).
Now let’s look at the Christian and Jewish religious landscapes today. There’s a wide variety of denominations and branches in both faith movements. There are thousands of separate or overlapping Christian denominations, and a number of different branches to Judaism including various subsets.
We could spend a lot of time debating who is right and who is wrong, but that’s not why I’m writing this blog post. Each early “Christianity” (I keep writing that word in quotes because until the Gentiles forcefully separated themselves from their Jewish mentors and teachers and reinterpreted the Bible as a Gentile religious document which excluded Jews, there was no such thing as “Christianity” … it was just another Jewish sect, albeit with an unusually liberal policy about admitting Gentiles) was the result of a separate understanding of the teachings of Rav Yeshua, sometimes interpreted by Paul, sometimes interpreted by other Jewish or Gentile teachers.
In modern times too, we are separate by differences in theology and doctrine, but I believe some of these separations are also the result of efforts to define identity. This is a key issue for Messianic Judaism certainly, but I believe we “Judaicly aware” non-Jewish disciples of the Rav are also worshipers in search of an identity.
Some are comfortable identifying as “Messianic Gentiles” and operating within the confines of a Messianic Jewish community (or primarily Messianic Gentile community in some cases), while others, though appreciating the Jewish perspective on the Bible, feel a need to not necessarily emulate Jewish praxis, even to a minor degree.
In a number of ways, I think that Gentile involvement in Messianic Judaism, while it works for some, can lead other non-Jews to attempt to ingrain Jewish practice and Jewish identity into themselves, either via the “one law” theology promoted in areas of the Hebrew Roots movement, or in extreme cases, by these Gentiles abandoning Yeshua altogether and converting to (usually Orthodox) Judaism.
For some of these non-Jews, there is a justification for conversion, either to the aforementioned Orthodox Judaism (or some other traditional branch) or even within certain streams of Messianic Judaism.
However, there are a plethora of Biblical prophesies stating that both Israel and the people of the nations of the world will acknowledge God and bow to the King in Messianic Days. For that to happen, there have to be some Gentiles around. We can’t all convert to Judaism.
And we can’t all practice Judaism as such. There have to be people around who are devoted to God who nonetheless are recognizably Gentile.
And there are tons of us, but we are mostly in Christian churches of one sort or another. Lots of diversity even within “the Church”. And then there are outliers like me who don’t really fit anyone’s mold, system, or structure, who are seeking an identity that fits our personalities, educations, perceptions, and circumstances.
Rabbi Twerski summed up his small missive with:
Today I shall…
…try to achieve my own identity. Whereas I will listen to the advice of those who are wiser than me, I will nonetheless never hold others responsible for what I do.
Of course, he is describing his personal identity. His identity as a Jew in Jewish community is well-defined largely by the community. Anyone who belongs to any community is, in some fashion, defined by the norms of that community.
And for those of us who don’t belong, we struggle to define ourselves or at least, search the Bible for a way to understand how God defines us.
One mistake we often make is to take offense at how an individual defines themselves relative to the Bible, Rav Yeshua, and God. In writing Isaiah 56 and the Gentile, I started a bit of a “conversation” that was the result of my self-definition spilling over onto how other non-Jews define themselves.
Really, I’m hardly in a position to tell other people who they are and how to live when I’m struggling with those very issues myself. I believe I have a self-identity that’s fairly well-formed but a life of faith remains vital only when it is constantly under scrutiny.
Dr. Hurtado wrote of an early Christianity that was highly diverse as well as interconnected, finding different local and ethnic expressions. Rabbi Twerski spoke of consulting other individuals and the community and ultimately allowing self-identity to emerge from the “self”.
Whoever we are as human beings and people of faith, in community or not, the final responsibility to grasp an understanding of who we are, who God made us to be, and how God defines our identity, remains with each of us.
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.
I returned last night from a very enjoyable trip to Rome to take part in the Nangeroni Seminar on “Paul as a Second-Temple Jew.” For more information on the Nangeroni Seminars click here. This encouraging and demanding event brought together about 35 scholars from various countries who are specialists on second-temple Judaism and/or the Apostle Paul. The premise and the broad conclusion to which all assented is that Paul was and remained in his ministry as apostle to gentiles a Jew. He did not renounce his identity as a member of the Jewish people. He did not demonize his ancestral religion. He did not reject the Torah (“Law”) as false. He did not regard his Jewish past as one of frustration, failure, inability to observe Torah, or as something to escape. He did not play off the particularity of his Jewishness in favour of some kind of universalism.
In case you need a quick background on who Larry Hurtado is and what his qualifications are as a New Testament scholar, you can either Google him or read his Wikipedia page.
I’ve quoted Dr. Hurtado before on my blog and always for two reasons. One is that he is a noteworthy, mainstream Christian New Testament scholar who is currently active in his research, he’s well-respected in his field, and he has published extensively both in scholarly venues and in popular reading. The second reason I refer to him is that he has what I consider to be a fascinating view of Paul’s Christology and one that many “average” Christians might find surprising.
I’ve complained in the past that the latest findings of Christian scholarly research never find their way to the pulpit of the normative Evangelical church let alone into the hands and minds of Evangelicals sitting in their pews every Sunday.
Nevertheless, a statement such as the one I quoted above, would almost never be heard in any American church on Sunday, either in a sermon or a Bible study class.
What we hear, or rather, what I hear in the church I attend, is somewhat similar to how men like Pastor John MacArthur view Paul relative to Judaism and Christianity. I’ve reviewed the relevant sermons given by Pastor MacArthur in a three-part series (Part One, Part Two, and Part Three) on my blog, but in short, MacArthur believes that any practice of Judaism by Paul or the other Apostles was a “transitional period” between the end of the Law (Torah) and the beginning of the Christian era of grace. That is, from God’s point of view, Judaism was expected to cease as a valid and normative worship and religious practice in devotion to God through Christ (Messiah).
And yet, compared to “35 scholars from various countries who are specialists on second-temple Judaism and/or the Apostle Paul” all gathered together who agree that Paul “did not renounce his identity as a member of the Jewish people,” nor did he “demonize his ancestral religion,” did not “reject the Torah (“Law”) as false,” and“did not regard his Jewish past as one of frustration, failure, inability to observe Torah, or as something to escape,”opinions such as the one from MacArthur and most other Evangelical Pastors seem as archaic as dinosaurs.
I don’t say this to be unkind, nor do I “resurrect” my arguments about MacArthur just because I can. I’m trying to illustrate (again) for my Christian readers and for any other Christians who possibly will find my writings by “surfing the web,” that what we’re typically taught in church about Paul (and thus about Jesus) isn’t necessarily the most accurate information we can acquire. The majority of what is taught in most churches (as far as I can tell) is based more on the traditions we’ve built around Biblical exegesis than on active and modern Biblical research.
Studying the Bible isn’t supposed to be for the purpose of endlessly regurgitating what we have already been taught for years or even decades, it’s to discover what we may not know or understand about the message of the Bible, and thus to better understand God and who we are in Christ.
Science, in its broadest possible sense, is the testing and retesting of beliefs and observations to determine if they are valid. If we test a belief, an assumption, or a theory through objective means and the test validates our belief, that’s fine and well. However, if we apply such a test to a belief and we discover it to be invalid or at least questionable, then that demands an investigation…
My experience in church and especially in Sunday school, is that the apparent purpose of Bible study is to confirm what we already know, which provides us with doctrinal and emotional security. Cooperation and agreement of opinions are emphasized and variations in beliefs are tolerated only if those variations are slight and conform to established and accepted parameters.
Heaven help someone in Sunday school if they were to say that not only did Paul remain Jewish and devoted to the Torah of Moses, but that he saw absolutely no inconsistency between continuation of Torah observance and worship of Jesus as the Messiah within a variant of normative first century Judaism. Within the Sunday school context, that statement would at least raise a few eyebrows if not be considered an extremely radical suggestion.
And yet we have thirty-five scholars and experts in Paul and/or the late second temple period who uniformly agree on exactly that “extremely radical suggestion.”
But I don’t want to put words in Dr. Hurtado’s mouth. After all, he’s said that Paul did not see an inconsistency between being Jewish, practicing Judaism and the prophetic revelation of Jesus as Messiah. But does that mean, at least from Hurtado’s perspective, that Judaism should have continued to be the religious framework for Jesus-worship and will be in the coming Messianic age? After all, I’ve previously written about the rather ugly divorce that occurred between Gentile and Jewish Jesus-believers. Could the relationship between Jesus-believing Jews and Gentiles have been saved or will it be restored in the future?
I asked Dr. Hurtado the following on his blog:
Dr. Hurtado, I don’t know if you can answer this question but it’s one I need to ask. I attend a rather conservative Evangelical church. The Pastor preaches that although Paul continued to live as a Jew after his “conversion” to Christianity, the continuation of his (and the other Jewish apostles) Jewish practice was always considered by God to be a “transitionary period.” Judaism was expected to cease as a normative approach to God through Christ and be replaced by “the Church” which would “retire” Jewish practices and replace them with a “law-free” body of Jewish and Gentile believers.
If, as you say, Paul saw the worship of Messiah as a variant of Jewish practice in his day, is it reasonable to believe that he expected Jesus-worship to remain a variant Judaism that included a Gentile component not required to undergo the proselyte rite? That is, was (Gentile) Christianity always destined to replace Judaism in the worship of Christ or was/is it expected that worship and devotion to Christ was to remain a Judaism that included Gentiles?
To which he replied:
James: To engage your question involves speculation . . . about what Paul might have imagined that the future would comprise, how much of a future there would be to his present world, etc. The intense eschatological hope/expectation that seems reflected in Paul’s letters has led some scholars to judge that Paul’s vision of the “ekklesia of God” as both comprising Jewish believers (who continued to practice Torah as Jews) and non-Jewish believers was not viable over the long haul. Historical events of the first couple of centuries after Paul’s time can be invoked in justification for this judgement. But one might also ask whether the problem was an inherent problem in Paul’s vision, or whether other factors, including the Jewish war of 66-72 CE and other things (including a failure of many Christians of that time to grasp Paul’s vision) contributed to the emergence of a mainly gentile “Christianity” distinguished from a “Judaism”. For one view, I recommend a book by my friend, the late Alan F. Segal, Rebecca’s Children: Judaism and Christianity in the Roman World (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univesity Press, 1986).
In any case, Paul didn’t undergo a “conversion” to “Christianity.” He refers to his experience as a prophet-like “calling” (e.g., Gal. 1:13-15), and there was no “Christianity” (as a separate religion) to which he could “convert” as a Jew. We could describe the former “pagans” (gentiles) that formed his churches as “converting” from the worship of their various ancestral deities to the God of the Bible/Israel.
So, to break this down:
We would have to speculate about how Paul thought the future Messianic movement would develop since we cannot definitively know from his writings.
Some scholars judge Paul’s vision of the “ekkelsia of God” as being made up of formerly pagan Gentiles and Torah observant Jews was not a viable model and could not persist over time.
History seems to validate the viewpoint of scholars who did not expect the Jewish/Gentile ekkelsia to endure.
We don’t know if this is because there was an inherent flaw in Paul’s vision or if various factors including the Jewish revolt contributed to the outcome of a splitting off of Gentile Christianity from Judaism.
In other words, as Dr. Hurtado outlines things, we can’t really know, based on a scholarly understanding of Paul’s letters, what he expected the future to hold. We also can’t really tell if Paul’s vision of the “ekklesia of God” was flawed and thus could not endure as he attempted to construct it, or, assuming his model was fine, if history conspired to destroy Messiah-worship as a normative Jewish practice going forward in time.
It’s also possible, as Hurtado states, that one of the factors was the Gentile inability to grasp Paul’s vision, although from other books and papers I’ve read, plus my own understanding of the relevant sections of the New Testament, it seems as if the other streams of Judaism in Paul’s day had an equally difficult time accepting Paul’s concept of non-proselyte Gentiles entering a Jewish social and religious space.
I did like Hurtado verifying for me that Paul indeed did not “convert to Christianity” as is preached in many churches (including the one I currently attend), and that his experience in Acts 9 and later was a “prophet-like calling” that revealed the identity of the Messiah within a wholly Jewish experience. This sent Paul on a mission to the Jews and Gentiles, not unlike how God would call upon and task the prophets of old. Paul would have “converted” to “the Way” as I suppose a Jewish person of that era would have “converted” from one branch of Judaism to another (Sadducee to Pharisee for example), although I have no idea how common that sort of thing would have been in those days (and my understanding is that “the Way” was very similar in most respects to Pharisaism apart from it’s very liberal attitude about Gentile admission and, of course, devotion to a known-Messiah).
The only real converts would be Gentiles, since they would be exiting their worship of the various pagan gods and begin worshiping the God of Israel through faith in Israel’s Messiah.
While Hurtado presented me with something of a scholarly “dead-end” in my quest to develop the idea that Judaism was the proper context for Jesus-faith and possibly that it will be again in the Messianic age (since this requires some speculation), I’ll still proceed from that speculative platform for lack of any better place to stand.
My reading of Magnus Zetterholm, Mark Nanos, and others leads me to believe that while a Gentile/Jewish schism did take place splitting Jesus-faith into two camps and ultimately extinguishing the body of Jewish Jesus-faith, that doesn’t necessarily invalidate Judaism as a context for devotion to Messiah, complete with the continuation of Torah observance in response to their covenant relationship with God.
What will the future bring? I have my own ideas about that, but I suppose in an ultimate sense, we’ll have to wait and see about the exact details of the unfolding of the Messianic Era.
Since Dr. Hurtado suggested it, I went ahead and ordered the book he referenced (see the quote above) and I look forward to reading it when it arrives.
I intended to publish this tomorrow or maybe on Sunday, but then I realized we are rapidly approaching a major (American) national holiday weekend and I can expect a significant drop off in my readership over those three days, so I’m offering this to you now as an “extra meditation”. Have a good, fun and safe Independence Day and for those of you who observe it, a Good Shabbos.
Addendum: Dr. Hurtado published another blog post today, based on his time at the Nangeroni Seminar, called Paul and Gentile Circumcision. I definitely recommend it.
"When you awake in the morning, learn something to inspire you and mediate upon it, then plunge forward full of light with which to illuminate the darkness." -Rabbi Tzvi Freeman