Tag Archives: Magnus Zetterholm

The Illusion of the Unified Body of Messiah

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.

-Dr. Larry Hurtado
discussing the presentation of his paper,
Interactive Diversity: A Proposed Model of Christian Origins,” Journal of Theological Studies 64 (2013): 445-62
on his blog post “Interactive Diversity SBL Session”
Larry Hurtado’s Blog

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.

However…

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.

Larry Hurtado
Larry Hurtado

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).

And…

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.

Apostle Paul preachingDoesn’t sound terrifically different than how different Christian denominations “get along” in the 21st century CE.

You can read the full 16 page document as a PDF to get all of Dr. Hurtado’s message on this topic. My point in bringing all this out on my own blog is somewhat similar to what I pointed out in one of my reviews of the Nanos and Zetterholm volume Paul within Judaism: Restoring the First-Century Context to the Apostle.

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.

Christian CoffeeAlmost 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.

I disagree.

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…

…and because Israel will rule the nations of the world with King Messiah instead of “the Church”.

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.

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Book Review of Paul Within Judaism, “The Question of Politics: Paul as a Diaspora Jew under Roman Rule”

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.

-Neil Elliott
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.

Who am IThen 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.

paul's visionBut what if we were to consider Paul a mystic who actually sought out such vision? What if his Damascus vision wasn’t his first?

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.

There’s more:

…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.

The Death of the MasterIt 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…

And…

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.

But then…

“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.

The Jewish PaulHe 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.

Book Review of Paul within Judaism, “The Question of Worship: Gods, Pagans, and the Redemption of Israel”

Paul’s convictions about the impeding dawn of God’s kingdom place him securely within the world of the late Second Temple Jewish apocalyptic hope. But Paul’s biblical tradition was Greek, not Aramaic or Hebrew. His audience–unlike that of Jesus and of the earliest disciples–was pagan, not Jewish. And he stretched his time-driven gospel over the spatial frame provided by antiquity’s map of the cosmos.

-Paula Fredriksen
from the beginning of her essay
“The Question of Worship: Gods, Pagans, and the Redemption of Israel”
Paul within Judaism: Restoring the First-Century Context to the Apostle (Kindle Edition)

I had a difficult time wrapping my head around Fredriksen’s essay at first but when I finally figured out where she was going, not only did everything click into place, but I saw the connections between what she was saying and what I wrote about not that long ago.

Fredriksen draws a sharp distinction between the teaching and mission of Jesus (Yeshua) and that of Paul. While Jesus operated almost exclusively within a Jewish context, speaking to Jews, drawing Jewish disciples, training Jewish apostles, Paul had an extremely different audience to contend with and an environment at odds with Jews and Judaism, the pagan arena of the diaspora.

While the message of Jesus, the repentance of the Jewish people and return to the Torah in preparation of the coming Kingdom of Heaven, was not particularly surprising, Paul’s role required him to do the astonishing. He had to bring Gentiles out of worshiping pagan gods and into exclusive devotion to the One God of Israel, while leaving them in their diaspora towns, cities, and countrysides, living among idol worshiping family, friends, and business associates.

The Church tends to take all this for granted, having Paul preached to them like any modern missionary they know or have read about, but in fact, he was charting a course through unexplored territory, doing what no one had ever done before, at least on such a large-scale, and dealing with Gentiles not only as different ethnicities, but as pagans.

Today, we separate one’s ethnic orientation from their religion, but in ancient times, no such distinction was made. Lifestyle, business, family life, everything tied together into one’s identity. So a Jew practiced Judaism and Gentiles practiced some form of pagan worship, although, as I said, it was really all a part of living your life as you had been born.

interfaithOccasionally, a non-Jew would undergo the proselyte rite and live among Jews as a Jew, but Paul was attempting to bring a large number of Gentiles into a form of Judaism, while having them remain wholly distinct from Jewish ethnicity and obligation to the Torah mitzvot.

What we think of as “religion” ancient people accordingly constructed as an inheritance: “mos maiorum, fides patrum, ta patria ethe, paradoseis ton patrikon (this last from Paul, Gal. 1:14). “Religion” as a category separable and separate from one’s “family”–household to empire–did not exist.

And…

Finally, gentile versus pagan masks the degree to which not only households but also cities were family-based religious institutions.

In some ways, what Jesus had attempted in the Jewish homeland among his own people was all but child’s play compared to the mission he gave to Paul. While Jesus was imploring the Jews around him to return to a Torah lifestyle that was their inheritance, Paul was directing pagan Gentiles to leave behind everything they had ever known to join with a foreign people, the Jewish people, in worshiping what for them would have been an alien God.

I suppose I’m leaving out the non-Jewish “God Fearers” who frequented synagogues in the diaspora nations, but according to Fredriksen, these “God Fearers,” while worshipping and praying to Israel’s God on Shabbos, also worshipped and prayed to the various pagan gods during the other days of the week. As long as they behaved themselves while in Jewish community, these “God Fearers” were not required to leave their other “gods” behind.

Changing gods “was tantamount to changing ethnicity” but without undergoing the formal rite of conversion, abandoning the pagan gods and worshiping the God of Israel only would seem not only bizarre, but an all but impossible act.

What was everyone, human and divine, so upset about? Paul (and others like him), in proclaiming the gospel, radically disrupted the long-lived and socially stable arrangements prevailing between synagogues, god-fearers, and the larger pagan community; and they disrupted relations within the pagan community itself, from those of immediate family right up through the larger family of fellow citizens and the cities’ gods.

It’s easy to see why just about everybody learned to hate Paul, from many of the Jews in the diaspora, to the citizens of the various pagan communities in which the Apostle operated. He was stirring up a hornet’s nest of trouble no matter who he talked to, Jew or Gentile. The Jews needed the good will of the Gentile community around them and the Gentiles needed to be able to live life as was expected of them by the self-same community. Paul threatened all of that.

Receiving the SpiritIt was a miracle that anyone bucked the system at all and came to faith, and yet it was a miracle God arranged.

But this, as I suggested above, put the Gentile disciples into an uncertain state:

But Paul’s pagans fell into neither category. Like converts, his pagans made an exclusive commitment to the god of Israel; unlike converts, they did not assume Jewish ancestral practices (food ways, Sabbath, circumcision, and so on). Like god-fearers, Paul’s people retained their native ethnicities; unlike god-fearers, they no longer worshiped their native gods. Paul’s pagans-in-Christ are neither converts nor god-fearers.

Then Fredriksen asked the poignant question:

So who and what are they?

The very same question I’ve been dealing with lately.

You may not like Fredriksen’s answer:

…they occupied a social and religious no-man’s land. Eschatologically, however, they represented a population long anticipated within centuries of Jewish restoration theology: they were pagans-saved-at-the-End.

Paul and the other apostles and elders in the ancient Messianic movement then known as “the Way,” would have seen these droves of Gentiles turning to Israel’s God through Jesus-devotion as the fulfillment of prophesy, that at the coming of the close of the present age, the Goyim would be redeemed as part of God’s overarching plan of redemption for Israel.

Seen from that perspective, it would have been a very exciting time for Paul. He couldn’t possibly have realized that nearly two-thousand years later, both Israel and the faithful among the nations would still be waiting for Messiah’s return. He may indeed have believed, as other Jews in Messiah did, that Yeshua’s coming back in power and glory was imminent.

I’ve mentioned in other blog posts, both related to this review series and otherwise, that in all likelihood, Paul had no idea how to fully resolve the social status of Gentiles in Jewish community, including the development of a complete and functional halachah for such a population.

If I’m reading Fredriksen right, he likely didn’t think this was a problem. If Messiah’s return was right around the corner, so to speak, why bother? The effort would be wasted and Yeshua would be back so quickly that he’ll be the one who will finish the job of establishing how Gentiles were supposed to be integrated.

Restoration
Photo: First Fruits of Zion

Or, given that all Jews were to be returned to Israel as part of the Messianic promise, all Israel’s enemies would be defeated and removed from the Jewish homeland, and all (or the vast majority) of Gentiles would reside in their own nations, the task of integration would be completely unnecessary. Except for events such as the moadim in which devoted Gentiles would come to Jerusalem to pay homage to God, Jews and Gentiles in the Messianic Kingdom might not do much mixing at all, at least as Paul may have seen things.

Here’s an important point Fredriksen made that I think should be shared:

What about Paul? Paul’s circumstances differed pointedly from those of the Baptizer and of Jesus. His “mission field” was the cities of the eastern empire. His hearers were not Jews but pagans. And these he called to repent not of “Jewish” sins (i.e., breaking the commandments), but of “pagan” sins (most especially idolatry and its perennial rhetorical companion, porneia).

I mentioned this above but here we see Fredriksen emphasizing the imperative of each population repenting of sins specifically connected to their own populations in terms of how they had come into relationship with God. For Jews, it was primarily the Sinai and New Covenants, and while the New Covenant blessings also could be applied to the Gentile believers in terms of the promise of the resurrection and giving of God’s Spirit, that overlap only covered just so much common ground.

One of the clearer commandments for the Gentiles was to worship the God of Israel only, but their/our lives were not so specifically defined and delineated as were the Jews.

The Gentiles were to practice righteousness and justice, but these concepts were less “about religious sentiment than about showing respect.”

So how were the Gentiles called to “fulfill the law” (Rom. 13:8-10; Gal. 5:14-15; 1 Cor. 14:34)?

The common translation of the Greek in Romans 5:1 is rendered “justified by faith” but Fredriksen suggests that this would better be understood as a directive for the non-Jewish disciples to practice piety toward God and justice (charity) toward others.

Piety toward God can be covered in commandments such as no other gods, no graven images (idols), and no abuse of God’s Name, while justice toward others is exemplified in no murder, no adultery (or other sexual sins), no theft, no lying, and no coveting.

So, reading Paul without anachronism, “fulfilling the law” for a Gentile means turning away from pagan idols and turning to God alone as the One God “through baptism into the death, resurrection, and impending return of his [God’s] son” and making “right toward each other by acting rightly toward each other–‘not like the ethne who did not know God’ (1 Thess. 4:5; cf. Rom. 1:18-32).”

JerusalemBut then “who enters the Kingdom,” as Fredriksen asks? This is also a question recently asked in the comments section of my aforementioned recent blog post.

Since approximately the second century, in part basing their view on their reading of Romans 9-11, most Christians have answered “only Christians.” This despite Paul’s insistence, in this very passage of Romans, that “the fullness of the ethne” and “all Israel” will be saved (11:25-26), and that God’s promises are “irrevocable” (11:29; cf. 15:8).

No, not “true Israel” or “new Israel” but “all Israel will be saved!” Exclamation point. End of story.

But Fredriksen says not just all Israel but “the fullness of the Gentiles”. That sounds like a lot, and that’s not a very Christian point of view.

God’s universalism, in short, is a very Jewish universalism. And his particular universalism is reflected in the ways that Paul imagines ethnicity in the eschatological community, both the proleptic one of the present ekklesia, before the Parousia, and the final community, once Christ returns.

In both present ekklesia and future Kingdom, Jews and Gentiles are “one in Christ” (Gal. 3:28) and yet Paul absolutely insisted that all those “in Christ” should and must remain Jew and Gentile, distinct from one another, and Paul “has no problem accommodating both difference and oneness.”

That may not have been a problem for Paul, especially as I said before, because he believed the present ekklesia was to be short-lived and Messiah would settle the matter once the Kingdom was established, but it’s a problem we struggle with today, if only for those of us who have left the anachronistic interpretive traditions of Christianity behind and who have chosen to engage with the Jewish scriptures on their own terms.

If the nations, through an eschatological miracle, now worship Israel’s god alone, then even though they remain ethnically distinct, they are spiritually joined to God’s family.

Even our ability to call God “Abba, Father” (Gal. 4:6; Rom. 8:15) is a deeply mystical mystery, one we may end up spending all of our lives exploring.

According to Fredriksen, the Jewish Paul believed “Eschatological Israel will stand together with but distinct from the other nations, for they are the nation long ago set apart by God.”

I completely and wholeheartedly agree, both with Fredriksen and with Paul (assuming Fredriksen’s understanding of Paul is correct).

The Jewish PaulIt may not seem so, but I’ve only scratched the surface of Fredriksen’s article regarding the connections between Gentile devotion to the God of Israel and the redemption of Israel herself.

So far, I’ve found all of the chapters I’ve read and reviewed to be very illuminating and edifying and I hope, if you choose to read the Nanos/Zetterholm volume, that you will as well.

There are only three essays left for me to consume, though it seems like I’ve gotten through little more than half the book.

I’ll post my next review soon.

Book Review of Paul Within Judaism, The Question of Identity: Gentiles as Gentiles–but also Not–in Pauline Communities

I have long puzzled over how to understand the gentiles in Paul, both from his perspective and their own perspective. I operate under the assumption that he is writing primarily to them and his goal is to articulate and manage just how they are connected to Israel through Christ. In the process, as I have discussed elsewhere, both he and they undergo various transformations in identity, changes that, I maintain, never separate him from Judaism and that affiliate gentiles with Israel but not as full members. They are not Jews and, in my view, they are not Christians…

-Caroline Johnson Hodge
Mark D. Nanos and Magnus Zetterholm, Editors
“The Question of Identity: Gentiles as Gentiles–but also Not–in Pauline Communities”
Paul within Judaism: Restoring the First-Century Context to the Apostle (Kindle Edition)

More than the previous essays I’ve reviewed from this volume, this one speaks in detail not only to the identity issues involved in being a “Gentile in Christ” in the time of the Apostle Paul, but also to those of us who call ourselves “Messianic Gentiles” today.

For the vast majority of mainstream Christians in churches, this identity conundrum does not exist. Being “Christians” is self-defining and self-explanatory and perhaps anachronistically, they believe they have direct one-to-one connectedness of identity with Paul’s own Gentiles. According to Hodge, nothing could be further from the truth, or at least further from the facts.

Many scholars use the term “Christian” for these gentile believers, even though there is fairly widespread agreement that it is anachronistic. There are good reasons not to use it: Paul does not use it himself…

At the scholarly level, it may well be agreed that Paul did not consider the Gentile disciples “Christians” nor that there is much, if any, comparison between the ancient ekklesia and the modern Church. Nevertheless, at the level of the local church and the local Pastor, I have heard it preached, specifically to Acts 20, that there are close comparisons that can be made between ancient believers and today’s Christian in the pew.

This is another case of the lag between academic discourse and what most Christians hear preached from the pulpit. It’s not so much because these Pastors are unaware of new research, but that such information does not make a good fit, either with the Pastors’ theology and doctrine or what would be accepted by their parishioners.

According to Hodge, Paul calls his Gentile disciples “beloved, holy ones, faithful ones, brothers and sisters, and a new creation,” but if they weren’t “Christians,” who were they?

She argues that defining their identity remains somewhat elusive and that these “gentiles occupy an in-between space, hovering around the borders of identities that they are not quite.”

ChurchThat’s not particularly satisfying but I know exactly how that “hovering” feels in my personal and congregational experience in various Messianic communities, or at least those few I’ve had the opportunity to visit.

Hodge’s line of pursuit in attempting to examine this “identity problem” is to trace how Paul “draws upon Jewish conceptions of gentiles, especially where they approach the boundaries of Jewish identity.”

Is it possible that there’s more than one kind of Gentile? According to Hodge, in the late Second Temple period when Paul was operating, there were two broad categories.

There’s the Jewish concept of the “generic” Gentile, that is, anyone who isn’t Jewish is a Gentile, regardless of how differentiated people from one culture or nation may be from another.

Then there are Gentiles in Christ, the disciples made by Paul and others.

And in Paul’s usage, this term has a doubleness to it in that there are two kinds of gentiles. First, there are the audiences of his letters, whom he addresses explicitly as gentiles in a number of places (Rom. 1:5-6, 13; 11:13; 15:6). Second, there are all the other gentiles who are not in Christ, the sort of gentiles that believers used to be.

That narrows things down but only a little. This believing group of Gentiles used to be, but no longer are, like the generic not-in-Christ Gentiles that populate the world. They used to be them but now they’re something else, occupying “a kind of liminal space between being those kinds of gentiles and now these kind of gentiles.”

Some of the characteristics of “these kinds of gentiles” in Christ include rejecting “idolatry and sexual immorality and [to] practice self mastery in holiness and honor.'”

Further:

Elsewhere Paul describes this as the life of the spirit, which they receive at baptism, so that, Paul says, “the just requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us” (Rom. 8:4). But he is adamant that they not keep Jewish Law, especially with respect to circumcision for male gentiles. Indeed, gentiles-in-Christ are not quite gentiles and not quite Jews.

This level of ambiguity may have ultimately been unsustainable and resulted in the eventual schism between the Christ-believing Gentiles and the Messiah-believing Jews, although Hodge doesn’t address this point in her essay.

Who am IShe does say that while remaining gentiles, these non-Jewish believers did participate in Jewish community and Jewish practices, behaving “Jewishly” but not being Jewish, as Mark Nanos has previously stated.

In fact, there may have been “a sliding scale of gentile participation in Judaism” such that there was no one fixed standard for the behavior of non-Jews in Jewish community and worship space.

I hope I’m not being anachronistic in applying this to those modern “Messianic Gentiles” who operate within Jewish spaces such as Beth Immanuel (although arguably, Beth Immanuel could be recognized as a Gentile space that behaves very “Jewishly”) and Tikvat Israel. From personal observation, I’ve seen a wide degree of variability in just how “Jewish” many non-Jews behave within these communities and elsewhere.

Perhaps this isn’t a matter of a lack of accepted standards for Gentiles, but a reflection of the necessity of process for non-Jews in community with Jews.

Hodge approaches her investigation from two avenues: one that uses the logic of lineage and the other one that uses the logic of purity.

Seed of Abraham

Hodge cites Ezra, particularly Ezra 9, and Jubilees chapter 30 to illustrate how purity of lineage was used to create a strong distinction between the Jewish people and the rest of the world, effectively excluding Gentiles from community with Israel. Not just the priests, but each individual Jew was defined as “holy unto the Lord,” set apart, unique, special, particularly from the goyim.

Furthermore, Jubilees uses the holy seed idea to distinguish between gentiles and Jews. Although gentiles number among Abraham’s seed…

…they are not part of the holy seed that belongs with God…

And that holy seed that belongs with God” began with the progeny of Abraham’s son Isaac. It is of this holy lineage which Jubilees refers to as a “kingdom of priests.”

Paul uses the same argument, only leveraging it for Gentile inclusion rather than exclusion. His rather unique interpretation states that in the promise that Abraham will be the father to many nations, and that this promise was made before the giving of the Torah, the Gentiles-in-Christ inherit the role of “Abraham’s seed” due to the faithfulness of Messiah.

As I have discussed at length elsewhere, baptism in Paul is a ritual adoption, creating a kinship relationship between gentiles and Abraham (Gal. 3; Rom. 4)…

Indeed, one of these promises, foretold by Scripture to Abraham long ago, is that, “All the gentiles (ethnê) will be blessed in you” (Gal. 3:8; Gen. 12:3; 18:18).

Paul’s own creative interpretation of Scripture allows him to claim that these ethnê mentioned in Genesis are those gentiles who have been baptized into Christ. We should not be surprised at their inclusion in God’s plan; they were present in Abraham’s body at the time of the blessing.

puritySo, according to how I’m reading Hodge, Paul was employing not so much a literal interpretation of scripture, but using widely sweeping metaphors, his own personal midrash, to make linkages between Abraham and the Christ-believing Gentiles. Once having undergone baptism as a symbolic rite of adoption, a new kinship was formed between the faithful Gentiles and the Jews in Messiah.

However, the term “adoption” should not be assumed to be the same as the legal process in modern American courts whereby a child who is not biologically produced by two married people becomes legally indistinguishable from any children born to the marital couple.

Although the “Messianic Gentiles” who are “adopted” through the rite of baptism are equally “in Christ” with their Jewish counterparts, equally apprehending the blessings of the New Covenant, such as the Holy Spirit and promise of the resurrection, Hodge emphasized repeatedly that this “adoption” did not make the gentiles Jewish nor did it in any sense obligate them to observe the Torah mitzvot in the manner of the Jews.

Paul’s rather complex metaphorical language in his epistles was necessary to articulate a concept that even today is not well understood. Just how are Gentiles included in any of the blessings of a covenant God made exclusively with Israel? The “Abraham connection” is the key, but even then, as we continue to discover through Hodge’s article, exactly who and what we Gentiles are in Christ remains a puzzle, at least in the details.

Holy Bodies

The second tact Hodges employes is the sense of the Gentiles being set apart in Christ, being holy and in need of protection.

Paul does not develop a concept of a holy seed, but he does develop the idea of holy bodies for gentile believers. In 1 Corinthians 6, Paul offers a “before and after” assessment of the Corinthians…

Earlier in this review, I mentioned two types of gentiles in Paul’s day, believing vs. non-believing gentiles:

Here Paul seems to refer to their baptism with the term “washed,” implying that he understands it as a purifying rite that brings the gentiles into right relationship with God. In this passage and in others that similarly mark the baptized gentiles as now holy…

And…

As priestly bodies are “holy to the Lord,” Corinthian bodies “belong to the Lord” and not to porneia (1 Cor. 6:13, 19-20).

…so Corinthians are “members of Christ” (6:15) and must protect this holy body.

fragmented-bodyFrom Hodge’s perspective, the believing Gentiles in Corinth underwent “a material transformation that makes them into the Jewish body of Israel’s messiah.” Citing Benny Liew, she further states, “…on this multiethnic mixture, ‘Paul is engineering here nothing less than an inter-racial/ethnic bodily substitution….The Corinthian body…is, in other words, built on and through a racial/ethic other…'”

That’s a little difficult for me to get my brain around and it doesn’t seem to clear up who we “Messianic Gentiles” are supposed to be except that we are neither fish nor fowl, so to speak. The bottom line of this section of Hodge’s essay is that Gentiles in Messiah have a “holy, mixed identity.”

Gentiles as a Part of Israel’s Story

According to Hodge, the “seed of Abraham” argument and the “purity” discourse serve two separate rhetorical purposes. The Galatians “seed” commentary was focused primarily on explaining why Gentiles are not required to observe the Torah mitzvot as do the Jews. This is because their/our identity as “gentiles-in-Christ” and how we become part of Israel’s story is through Abraham and before Moses and the Sinai event. We are recipients of the promise to be Abraham’s children from the nations who can only fulfill that promise by remaining Gentiles.

While the Jews have a very specific set of responsibilities defining their identity, it’s not so clear what the obligations of the believing Gentiles are except:

In 1 Corinthians, Paul responds to competing ideas about how to live this new life in Christ. Throughout his letter he tries to control gentile bodies, urging harmony, cooperation, and self control. These persuasive aims are responsible at least in part for the ways Paul portrays gentile identity in each.

That’s bound to be a little disappointing to modern Messianic Gentiles who are hoping for something a little more codified. Nevertheless, we do have the general guidepost of separating ourselves from other, non-believing Gentiles and from our former lives, in order to live a life in Messiah that is pure, decent, and sanctified, being inhabited by the “pneuma” of Christ. We are called to worship the God of Israel as Gentiles and not as Israel. This was non-negotiable for Paul.

…when Christ returns to establish God’s kingdom, it is necessary for Israel and the gentiles to worship God not as one people, but as separate peoples–now worshipping together, as expected in the awaited age. Paul is clear in Romans 9-11, where he lays out this larger plan, that Jews and gentiles remain separate.

Rethinking the Question

maskSo, what is the real question?

If my analysis has shown that Paul’s portrayal of gentiles as mixed or ambiguous makes some sense in Jewish context of eschatological expectation, it simultaneously raises some important cautions about the concepts of identity. My initial question–who are the gentiles?–itself assumes that there is an answer…

But what if there isn’t an answer? What does that mean for Yeshua-believing Gentiles in Jewish communities today?

Hodge raises two problems. The first is that any assumption about the answer presumes an identity that is overly simplistic. While a nice, neatly wrapped gift of well-defined Gentile identity might be satisfying, it could also sell who we are in Messiah short, denying the complexity of our role and function in the Messianic ekklesia.

The other problem is that such an assumption confuses the strategies of the speaker, that is Paul, with a description of reality.

Remember, I called Paul’s letters an exercise in metaphorical or midrashic writing. Such commentaries are not meant to be taken in an overly literal manner, and yet much of Christian exegetical tradition does just that. If we’re attempting to build a literal model out of metaphorical material, no wonder we have chronically misunderstood Paul in the Church.

Hodge states:

…his [Paul’s] rhetoric is prescriptive, not descriptive, and his goal is to coax the gentiles to think and behave in certain ways.

Citing Brubaker, Hodge writes:

…that ethnic identity should be viewed as a process, a perspective on the world, rather than a thing that exists independent of human arguments.

I read that as Messianic Gentiles not having a fixed, static identity in Jewish space but rather, we are in the process of becoming, not just being. Also, that identity likely flexes depending on our specific circumstances and our relationship to Jewish community.

In the ancient world, there were “myriad social formations” that contributed to identity and I don’t think anything has changed relative to Gentile identity in Jewish space. While Galatians 3:28 defines both Jew and Gentile as “one in Christ,” that “oneness” does not imply identical identity in any manner. It does define a place where Jew and Gentile meet and whereby we take on a shift in identity from who we Gentiles were without God to who we are now with God.

But God is a God of Israel as well as the world and when a Jew comes to faith in Messiah, he/she changes less than does the Gentile.

The Jewish PaulThe Jew already has an identity with God as defined through the covenants. Faith in Messiah is the next step in the revelation of God to Israel, a continuation along the same, straight line. For the Gentile, the change in identity is radical to the extreme. Everything we were before as individuals and as people groups undergoes transformation. In ancient days, a lot of that transformation borrowed from Jewish praxis simply because no other model was available.

But now, as it existed then, Gentiles in Jewish community remain Gentiles and behave “Jewishly” on a sliding scale of behavior depending on role and circumstances, but still only vaguely defined. Being a Messianic Gentile is a continual journey of discovery, not a destination where we can hope to arrive, at least anytime soon.

I’ve found Hodge’s article thoroughly enjoyable and hopefully you will find it equally illuminating. Being Gentiles-in-Messiah isn’t about who we are but who we are becoming. Each day is new and we are new with the coming dawn.

Judaism is not all or nothing; it is a journey where every step counts, to be pursued according to one’s own pace and interest.

-from the Ask the Rabbi column
Aish.com

Book Review of Paul Within Judaism, “The Question of Terminology: The Architecture of Contemporary Discussions on Paul”

Over the last decade or so, more and more scholars of the New Testament have pointed to the need to re-think the terminology we use in our analyses as well as our teaching. Several terms have been asked to retire, as Paula Fredriksen has phrased it, and leave room for new words and expressions that may help us to better grasp what was going on in the first-century Mediterranean world, a time and culture very distant from our own.

Anders Runesson
from the beginning of his essay
“The Question of Terminology: The Architecture of Contemporary Discussions on Paul”
Paul within Judaism: Restoring the First-Century Context to the Apostle (Kindle Edition)

George Orwell’s famous novel 1984 demonstrates very well that when you control a people’s language, you control how they think. If a population has no word for “riot” or for “liberty,” they will be unlikely to be able to conceive of, let alone operationalize those ideas.

So the words we use in understanding Paul affect how we think of Paul, his writing, his teaching, and how we conceptualize our Christian faith. Even the term “Christian faith” summons particular thoughts and ideas that Paul may not have (and probably didn’t have) in his possession at any time in his life.

It is said that interpretation begins at translation, the words in English (or whatever other language) we use to translate Biblical Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. How we translate the Bible and what terms we use to express “Christian” ideas are part of what Runesson calls the “politics of translation.” This suggests that any attempt to disturb the status quo of how the Bible is translated now and what terms and phrases are included will encounter resistance. If you change the term “Paul the convert to Christianity” to “Paul the Jewish emissary to the Gentiles,” the accompanying image of Paul immediately and dramatically changes.

In his article, Runesson focuses on two terms in English used in Biblical translations: “Christians” (including “Christianity”) and “church.”

He further states:

It will be argued that “Christians,” “Christianity,” and “church” are politically powerful terms that are inadequate, anachronistic, and misleading when we read Paul…

These terms serve the needs of the 21st century church but in doing so, wholly misrepresent Paul the Apostle and everything he ever wrote or taught. Both modern Christianity and modern Judaism receive the same image of the Apostle from this mistaken illustration of Paul, and while the Church hails the story of a Jewish Pharisee who converted to Christianity and taught new disciples to replace the Law with Grace, Judaism reviles him for the same reasons.

In discussing “translating history,” Runesson asks if we are “colonizing the past or liberating the dead?” America is a colonial nation and as we know from our own history, and that of other such empires, one colonizes a “new world” and an indigenous people by subjugating what was there before and reforming it to resemble the colonizing nation and the colonizing people.

If we (Gentile Christianity) have done so with the past, with Paul, with the Bible, then we aren’t interpreting Paul in any accurate manner. Rather than employing exegesis, or taking our meaning of the Biblical text from the original context of that text, we are performing eisegesis or overwriting the text by inserting our own meaning anachronistically and erroneously.

Luther
Martin Luther

I mentioned in my previous review some of the historical events surrounding men like Augustine and Luther in terms of their probable motives for rewriting Paul’s history and they aren’t all pretty. In that review, you will recall, I quoted Magnus Zetterholm as saying that it is the Christian Church that must change, that must adjust how it chooses to understand Paul, to be more historically accurate and Biblically sustainable.

Runesson states:

New insights are thus dependent on our willingness to de-familiarize ourselves with the phenomena we seek to understand…

We think we know Paul. We think we know Jesus (Yeshua). We think we are intimately familiar with the late Second Temple period in Roman occupied Judea, not because we read the Bible, but because we listen to the prevailing Christian doctrine about the Bible as preached from the pulpit and taught in Sunday school class.

We don’t truly comprehend how alien that ancient world really was, how few historical facts have survived from that time and place. We want to believe that if Paul miraculously appeared in one of our Evangelical churches today, he would immediately feel at home and provide us with a sermon of unparalleled insight (assuming he spoke a language we understood). In fact, even if he understood our language, he would have absolutely no idea what was going on and probably wouldn’t even understand that we are the descendants of the Gentile disciples he taught.

We need to learn to experience Paul as someone we’ve never met. We need to learn about him from that view. We need to stop creating Paul in our own image and cease colonizing the ancient near east of the Apostolic Scriptures.

As Runesson puts it:

Reconstructing and translating history inevitably begins and ends with language. When we defamiliarize ourselves with texts and other artifacts, we engage in a process of decolonizing the past, liberating the dead from the bondage of our contemporary political identities.

This he calls the “reconstruction of silenced voices.”

So how are we going to change the “architecture of the conversation?”

Terminological edifices are built slowly over time and are not easily torn down. Now-unsustainable scholarly ideas from previous eras influence current discourses…

It might be easier for you to pick up your car with your bare hands and lift it over your head than it would be to change a Christian’s time-honored and “sacred” traditions about the words they/we use to describe Paul.

We need, therefore, to reconsider and discuss not only the conclusions we draw, but also the “architecture” within which we formulate them.

Terminology is pregnant with meaning that often goes unnoticed in the analytical process, which it nevertheless controls from within.

The minute we use a term or set of terms to describe an idea, we have shaped the meaning of that idea, even unknowingly, into something that might be completely foreign to the person who originated that concept.

When we talk about New Testament scholarship in general and Paul in particular, it has been the convention to say that one is studying (earliest) “Christianity” and/or (the early) “Christians.” Already at this point we have framed the shape and thus the likely outcome of the discussion…

new testamentEven the term “New Testament” as contrasted with another term, “Old Testament” creates a dichotomy that doesn’t necessarily exist. I’ve known intelligent, learned, well-read Christian clergy who actually believe the New Covenant (which we find in Jer. 31 and Ezek. 36) is actually synonymous with New Testament. I choose to think of the Bible as being divided into four basic parts: Torah, Prophets, Writings, and Apostolic Scriptures. None of those classifications is designed to divorce one part of the Bible from the other as the terms “Old Testament” and “New Testament” do. They simply classify different areas of emphasis for different sections of our Holy text. If we must “carve up” the Bible, let’s do it without setting one part in direct opposition to another.

Runesson asks if the earliest followers of Messiah would have recognized the “umbrella term” we’ve assigned to them: “Christianity” and their own identity as “Christians” as we comprehend the term today? Would they have understood that when they gathered to fellowship and to worship, they were going to “church?”

Christianity is a religion. But up until a couple of centuries ago or so, “religion” wasn’t a distinct entity that could be wholly separated from other societal functions. So to call the “religion” of Paul “Christianity” or even “Judaism,” as such, is to impose a modern concept on an ancient people. Although there was not one uniform practice of Judaism in the first century world (although according to Rabbi Carl Kinbar, there was a core Judaism that all branches of Judaism agreed upon and variations were then applied), if one was a Jew, one’s lifestyle included the mitzvot in devotion to God (apart from the periodic heretic or two).

Calling Paul a Christian and saying he practiced Christianity is totally anachronistic and forces modern Church concepts on an ancient Jewish Pharisee who saw himself quite differently.

Even acknowledging the existence of the Greek word “christianos” (translated into English as “Christian”) does not mean that how “christianos” was thought of and lived out nearly two-thousand years ago has very much or even anything to do with how Christians think of and live out their faith today. What would a modern Evangelical think if he took a trip in Mr. Peabody’s “Wayback Machine” and found himself in Paul’s “church” in Antioch? How would that Christian navigate through what would (in my mind) undoubtedly be a Jewish synagogue prayer service on Shabbat rather than a Sunday church fellowship?

The most natural point of departure for renewed terminological reflection around who Paul was and how he self-identified would be to speak not of “Paul the Christian” but of “Paul the Jew”; of Paul as someone who practiced “Judaism,” not “Christianity.”

Simply put, “Christianity” didn’t exist while Paul lived in the world. Paul taught about and wrote about and lived out a Judaism called “the Way,” and he applied it to his Gentile disciples as it was relevant to them as Gentiles. He himself was a Jew, a Pharisee, a devout Hebrew, dedicated to the mitzvot, the Temple, the Torah, and Hashem, God of his fathers.

If anyone else has a mind to put confidence in the flesh, I far more: circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless.

Philippians 3:4-6 (NASB)

And as Runesson says:

…that speaking of Paul as a Jew practicing a form of Judaism is a more historically plausible point of departure for interpreting his letters…

And given all that, how do we read and interpret Paul’s letters if we employ this drastically changed paradigm?

Actually, it’s harder than that.

This does not mean, of course, that we should understand “Jewish” in essentialist terms as ahistorically referring to specific characteristics completely untouched by time and culture.

And…

…the observer needs to focus on how “a society understands and represents Jews at any given time and place…”

synagogueSo dropping Paul in a modern Orthodox Jewish synagogue on Shabbat might not be a particularly familiar experience for him either, though he’d have something more in common with the other Jews present than he would a Christian congregation.

We have to answer the question of what kind of Judaism Paul practiced. Only then can we gain a better understanding of what he was writing about in his letters. If we could only view them through his own interpretive lens or through the eyes of his immediate audience, what revelations would we see?

Runesson said that he and Mark Nanos have coined the term “Apostolic Judaism” to refer to the sort of Judaism Paul practiced and taught. How that Apostolic Judaism was lived out by Jews and by Gentiles is our mission of discovery.

Moving on to his discourse on the term “church,” Runesson brings up a point that I’ve written about on more than one occasion. The Old English word which eventually became “church” and originated in earlier Germanic languages wouldn’t be coined for many, many centuries after Paul penned letters mentioning the “Ekklesia” of Messiah. Translating the word “Ekklesia” as “Church” in our English Bibles is not only anachronistic, it is misleading and probably even dishonest.

Ekklesia, at least in Paul’s mind, was probably more closely associated to the Hebrew word “Kahal” than “Church”. It would be better, if we need to use an English word, to translate “Ekklesia” as “Assembly,” which more accurately maps to the first century Greek meaning of the term. Paul didn’t invent “Church,” either the word or the attendant concept. Later Christian Gentiles did that.

Paul never uses the word synagoge, but since ekklesia as a term was applied also to Jewish synagogue institutions at this time, it is instructive to compare how translators work with synagoge in relation to ekklesia.

In modern Bible translations and modern Christian thought, we have created a separate and opposing relationship between church and synagogue. Christians think of synagogue as the polar opposite and negative reflection of church. But this “anachronistic dividing line” is a manufactured artifact of later Church history and has nothing to do with Paul. Paul would have more closely associated Ekklesia and Synagoge in his thoughts than this thing called “church” which had no existence in his era.

Nevertheless…

Ekklesia occurs 114 times in the New Testament. The NRSV translates all but five of these with “church”…

What Runesson says next supports what I said above:

…the English translation “church” is inappropriate and misleading…

It is more accurate to say:

Paul’s use of ekklesia indicates that as the “apostle to the nations” he is inviting non-Jews to participate in specific Jewish institutional settings, where they may share with Jews the experience of living with the risen Messiah, of living “in Christ.”

Maybe that can be said to be true also of Gentiles who find themselves in fellowship within modern Messianic Jewish community. We are invited to share in a Jewish institutional setting while remaining Gentiles, and “share with Jews the experience of living with the risen Messiah.”

The Jewish PaulWe can dispense with colonizing the past and instead participate in giving a voice to the dead, letting them speak to us again, letting them…letting Paul use his own voice, or as close to it as we can manage.

Runesson concludes his essay with:

The terminology used by the sources themselves invites us to understand Paul as practicing and proclaiming a minority form of Judaism that existed in the first century. Such an invitation is, however, not the end of the research project; it is its very beginning.

I’ll continue my review soon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anti-Jewish propaganda started promptly within early Christianity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zetterholm’s goal is:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Luther
Martin Luther

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The solution is this:

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

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

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

Paul the Christian Caricature.

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

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

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

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

Paul (must be) firmly rooted within Judaism.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ll continue with my reviews soon.