Tag Archives: the apostle paul

Hurtado on the “Conversion” of Paul

The Jewish PaulI 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.

Larry Hurtado
Larry Hurtado

Hurtado’s reply to one of his readers continues to establish his views on the Apostle, complete with Biblical citations:

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.

Coffee and BibleI’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”.

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If You Could Imagine

Imagine that King David encouraged you to recite his Psalms. Imagine that King Solomon encouraged you to learn from the wisdom of Mishlei (Proverbs). Imagine that Hillel and Rabbi Akiva encouraged you to study Torah. Imagine that the Baal Shem Tov encouraged you to pray with passion and fervor. Imagine that the Chofetz Chaim encouraged you to be careful with your power to speak, and to speak words of positive encouragement and never to speak negatively about others or to insult people. Imagine that Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berdichev encouraged you to see the good in others and to find merit for them. Imagine that Rabbi Meir Shapiro encouraged you to learn Daf Yomi and to encourage others to do so. Imagine that Rabbi Noah Weinberg encouraged you to light the fire of Torah in every Jewish heart.

-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
from Chapter 37 of his new book
Encouragement: Formulas, Stories, and Insights

Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
Rabbi Zelig Pliskin

This is part of Rabbi Pliskin’s advice for how to use our imagination to encourage ourselves. Of course, he’s writing for a Jewish audience, so we may find ourselves limited in imagining that David might really encourage the Goyim to recite his Psalms, and certainly in envisioning the Baal Shem Tov encouraging us to pray with passion and fervor.

As much as I enjoy Rabbi Pliskin’s writing, I wonder if this one isn’t a bit of a stretch.

What would Rav Yeshua (Jesus Christ) encourage a non-Jewish disciple to do? What about Rav Shaul (the Apostle Paul)? The answers to those questions might seem self-evident to a traditional evangelical Christian, but when you realize that the hearts of Yeshua and Paul were first and foremost turned to their Jewish brethren, what does that mean for the rest of us? Do we have the right to even imagine they would encourage us?

Of course, Paul’s epistles to the various Gentile communities he established were full of encouragement (as well as, in some cases, criticism and even condemnation). After all, he was the emissary to the Gentiles, specifically appointed by Rav Yeshua in a metaphysical vision.

So if we were to imagine Paul encouraging us, what would he say?

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans 8:38-39

Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give fully to the work of the Lord because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.

1 Corinthians 15:58

For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.

2 Corinthians 8:9

Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.

James 1:12

The Jewish PaulThese are just quotes and don’t really address how we could imagine Paul encouraging each of us personally. Paul wrote these letters to a different audience, different of his “churches” nearly twenty centuries ago. How can we imagine what he might say to you or me today?

Let’s take a look at part of Rabbi Pliskin’s quote again:

Imagine that King David encouraged you to recite his Psalms. Imagine that King Solomon encouraged you to learn from the wisdom of Mishlei (Proverbs). Imagine that Hillel and Rabbi Akiva encouraged you to study Torah. Imagine that the Baal Shem Tov encouraged you to pray with passion and fervor.

Now, allow me the arrogance of rewording it.

Imagine Rav Yeshua encouraged you to review all that was written about him in the Gospels. Imagine that the Apostle Paul encouraged you to read everything he wrote to encourage the early Gentile disciples in his Epistles. Imagine that James and the Elders in Jerusalem encouraged you to read the Jerusalem letter as an invitation to stand alongside Jewish Messianic community.

Does that seem more reasonable to you? Can you imagine being encouraged in that way by those people?

I don’t know.

Jewish people can feel a kinship for David, Solomon, Rabbi Akiva, and all of the other ancient Jewish luminaries because they are all united, both by blood and by covenant. In a sense, they are all extended family.

Not so for the Gentiles. We have no direct covenant relationship with God, even through Christ (at least not as the Church teaches it). We are symbolically adopted, metaphorically grafted in. We belong only by the grace and mercy of the God of Israel. The only standing we have before our Maker is the one He decides we have.

That said, I’ve met Christians who truly believe the Apostle Paul would feel right at home in their Baptist churches, and that the “services” Paul led were pretty much the same as church services today (I kid you not), in fact, even with a language in common, Paul would find most or all church services totally alien to him.

He might not feel that much more comfortable in a modern synagogue service, but at least the Hebrew and some of the prayers would be familiar so he’d know he was in Jewish community.

I hate to over-generalize. It’s one of the failings of the Church, the belief that each and everything written in the Bible from Genesis to Revelation was specifically written for and to Christians.

Context tells us otherwise, or it should. Much if not most of the Bible is specifically written to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Unless you’re Jewish, that doesn’t include you or me.

So there is only a tiny handful of scripture that we can or should even imagine has anything to do with the rest of the world. Where does prayer stop and self-serving imagination begin?

Man aloneI haven’t been feeling myself lately. I’m doing a little bit better than I was, but recovery is slow. At least I can concentrate enough to write again.

If you can imagine any Biblical luminary speaking directly to you, oh I’m not suggesting self-serving wish-fulfillment, but what legitimately anyone in the Bible would have to say to you as an individual, who would it be and what would they say?

If God had a name, what would it be?
And would you call it to His face?
If you were faced with Him in all His glory?
What would you ask if you had just one question?

-Joan Osborne
from the lyrics of “One of Us”

Are We Naaman or Ruth?

This may sound like a really stupid question (Are there still Jews and Greeks in Christ?), but I cannot tell you how many people over the years have cited to me one particular text from the only surviving correspondence of the first century Pharisee, Saul Paul. This text relates to the believers in Galatia, who thought that, since they now followed the Jewish Christ, it stood to reason that they should not simply be a part of the Jewish coalition (sojourners with Israel), but they should also adopt all the ancestral customs of the Jews (This is what was meant to convert to Judaism back then). It is to them, in this nuanced and commonly misunderstood letter that the beloved Apostle wrote: “There is neither Jew nor Greek… in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:28)

-Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg
“Are there still Jews and Greeks in Jesus Christ?”
Jewish Studies Blog

I found a link to this article on a closed Facebook page a few days ago and have just gotten around to reading it. It’s short, easily consumable by most folks, and has a very interesting and, to me, relevant perspective.

The Jewish PaulAccording to Dr. Lizorkin-Eyzenberg (who I hear of from time to time, but don’t know a lot about), what we think of as converting to another religion, such as Judaism, today, wasn’t how it worked back when the Apostle Paul (Rav Shaul) was actively proclaiming the good news of Rav Yeshua (Jesus Christ) among the Goyim (Gentiles).

Conversions were widely attested in the ancient times. However conversions as they were practiced then, have little in common with conversions as we understand them today. Unlike in ancient times, “religion” today is seen as a category of its own – so someone can be Irish and Jewish, American and Jewish, Russian and Jewish, and so on. Ancient people, however, did not speak of conversion in terms of simply accepting another religion, while staying culturally the same. To them conversion to Judaism meant joining the people of Israel (especially its southern branch, “Judeans”, and hence “Judaism”) and adopting a set of ancestral customs which permeated every area of life. In other words, conversion to Judaism was a ‘package deal’. If one converted, he or she was expected to cut ties with their previous culture in every respect – not just accept a new divinity, but the entire package (God and people).

So in the minds of the Gentile Galatians, to follow the teachings of Rav Yeshua and to worship the God of Israel meant to not only become part if Israel in name, but to totally adopt all of the practices of born-Jews, being observant in every conceivable way. They would stop being citizens of their respective nations, and become Israelites.

ruth
Ruth the Moabitess

This has significant relevance to my previous blog post, The Non-Covenant Relationship with God, and particularly the discussion which (as I write this) is still going on in the comments section beneath. If we non-Jews are not Israel, who are we in terms of our faith and national citizenship, especially to Hashem?

As it turns out, Paul’s letter to the Galatians was intended to correct their mistaken belief that in order to be disciples of Rav Yeshua and devoted servants to the God of Israel, they had to become part of Israel and become Torah observant in exactly the same manner as the Jews.

However, this was only one paradigm of legitimate Gentile dedication to Israel’s God. There was another – I call this the “Naaman” paradigm, to distinguish it from the “Ruth” paradigm.

Notably, he did not say or do as Ruth did. He returned to his country and his own people and continued to worship Israel’s God there. In contrast to Ruth the Moabite, Naaman’s approach was more along the lines of: “Your God will be my God, but my people will still be my people”. Interestingly, in the end he receives from the prophet of God the greatest blessing of all – the blessing of Shalom (2 Kings 5:18-19).

You’re going to have to click the link I provided above to read all of Dr. Lizorkin-Eyzenberg’s article, but he poses the question of whether or not we non-Jewish disciples of Rav Yeshua (and all Christians) are more like Ruth or Naaman. Ruth underwent what we would think of as conversation, not only adopting the ‘religion’ of Judaism, but citizenship in Israel. Remember, in ancient times, one’s religion wasn’t a separate entity from one’s national affiliation or any other aspect of your life.

However, Ruth’s choice wasn’t Naaman’s choice. He acknowledged that only the God of Israel was God, and devoted the rest of his life to honoring Hashem, but he went back to his Land and he did not change his citizenship nor his cultural identity.

Apostolic DecreeFrom Dr. Lizorkin-Eyzenberg’s point of view, the First Century apostles and elders of the Jerusalem Council saw the Gentile disciples of Rav Yeshua joining their ranks as Naaman, not Ruth. There was never an expectation that they would obliterate their own nationality and cultural affiliation to become Israel, nor that they would take on a Jew’s obligation of Torah. That’s the whole point of the Jerusalem letter.

…so the apostles decided not to lay upon them any further burden. It seems from Acts 15:21, that it was assumed that Gentile believers would be attending synagogues wherever they lived, and hearing Moses read and presumably also hearing what Judaism taught about living a generally righteous life. In practical terms, observing these 4 laws would potentially enable Gentile believers to fellowship with Jews without offending them and being ostracized by them.

Acts 16:4-5 tells us that Apostle Saul Paul fully endorsed the decision of the “Jerusalem Council” and proclaimed its message with great joy as he traveled from congregation to congregation. Full Torah observance (proselyte conversion to Judaism) was unnecessary for any Gentile who joined the Jewish coalition by following the Jewish Christ. They too (as the Nations) were now first class-citizens in the Kingdom of God.

Look at that. “…now first class-citizens in the Kingdom of God.” First class, not second class.

And finally:

What Apostle Saul Paul meant by the phrase “there is neither Jew nor Greek” had to do, not with cessation of difference, but with cessation of discrimination. There is no discrimination with regard to race, culture, rank, or gender, for all are one in the Jewish Christ. Gentiles will no longer be discriminated against in the Kingdom of Israel’s God. They now will play an equally important rule in God’s redemptive plan. Their faith in the Jewish Christ alone qualifies and justifies them (just as it does the Jews) in every way to be first-class citizens in God’s Kingdom, without relinquishing their important identity as the “Nations of the World”.

kindnessWe don’t need to worry that because our people have no direct covenant relationship with Hashem, we or our nations are illegitimate. We are also important in God’s redemptive plan for the world just as people of our respective nations. Our closeness and “oneness” with Israel is a matter of reconciliation between Israel and the nations, not a fusing of national and covenant identities. As Dr. Lizorkin-Eyzenberg points out in Acts 16:4-5, the Gentile disciples received this news with great joy, not confusion or jealousy. Becoming a disciple of Rav Yeshua, worship of the God of Israel, and citizenship in the Kingdom of Heaven were and are available to everyone, making this branch of Judaism the most inclusive of all without the requirement to convert, adopt Israeli citizenship, and full obligation to the Torah of Moses.

Something has become terribly twisted that today we cannot experience that same joy, but must either declare ourselves as replacing the Jews in God’s promises and love, or claiming the Torah for our very own, complaining and fretting when others disagree with these very non-Biblical viewpoints.

I don’t know what else Dr. Lizorkin-Eyzenberg has written or what he teaches in general, but I have to agree with his conclusion that we Gentiles in Messiah are Naaman, not Ruth.

The Apostle Paul: Interpreter of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles

How does a Christian know what Jesus wants of us? From a traditional Church perspective, the answer is easy. Read the New Testament, that is the Apostolic Scriptures.

So primarily, Christians study the words of Jesus as recorded by four Jewish guys (I’m being way overly simplistic here regarding the source materials of the Gospels) Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, the “Acts of the Apostles,” which is mainly about the life of the Jewish Apostle to the Gentiles, Paul, as recorded by the aforementioned, Luke, and a whole bunch of letters generally attributed to the aforementioned Paul.

But arguably, Jesus taught almost exclusively or exclusively to Jewish audiences. The Gospel of Matthew is definitely written to Jews, while Luke’s Gospel may well have been intended for a wider audience. According to some sources, Acts may have been composed as part of Paul’s legal defense when he appeared before Caesar in Rome (as possibly was Luke’s Gospel), and we have to assume that most or all of Paul’s letters were addressing his Gentile students, although he may have had messages for particular Jewish people or communities as well.

MessiahHere’s one startling thought that occurred to me. For the most part, we can’t really depend on the actual, quoted words of Jesus or Rav Yeshua as a guide to worship and devotion for the non-Jewish disciple.

Why not?

Remember, I said that Jesus primarily or exclusively taught Jews about the true interpretation of Torah and performance of the mitzvot. He was a Jewish teacher teaching Jewish students about the Jewish mitzvot. What does that have to do with non-Jews?

In yesterday’s blog post about the Roman Centurion Cornelius, I mentioned that Marc Turnage in his presentation defined circumcision as the dividing line as to whether or not a person is Jewish, and thus, whether or not a person is obligated to the Torah mitzvot.

Of course, it’s not just circumcision, but a bris (brit milah) performed on a male, either on the eighth day of life for a boy born to Jewish parents, or as part of the proselyte rite undergone by a male Gentile converting to Judaism.

So if Jesus is a Jew teaching Torah to Jews and is not presupposing Gentiles reading his recorded words (let alone trying to act them out), we can’t always rely upon a red-letter edition of the Bible to be the Gentile Christian’s sole guide to a life of holiness.

So what can we do?

What did the vast majority of non-Jews in the diaspora do when they heard the good news of Rav Yeshua? For that matter, who did they hear those words from?

As far as the Apostolic Scriptures are concerned, most of the time, they interacted with the man who Yeshua specifically appointed (in Acts 9) to be the special emissary to the Gentiles, the man known as Saul of Tarsus but who most Christians call the Apostle Paul.

The Jewish PaulPaul had the responsibility of interpreting Jewish teaching so it would apply to non-Jewish lives. That’s no easy task. Well, it might not have been too much of a chore if his audience were Gentile God-fearers who had already spent a lot of time in the synagogue hearing Jewish teachings (see Acts 13:13-43 for example). But he may have fought quite an uphill battle when addressing pagan Gentiles who only knew their own mythology (such as in Acts 14:8-18).

So get this. Paul didn’t teach the Gospel message to the Gentiles in exactly the same way as Jesus taught it to the Jews (which may be why Paul called it “my Gospel” in Romans 2:16, 16:25-27 and in other epistles). Why? Because the Jewish message had to be interpreted and adapted by Paul so it would not only make sense to non-Jewish audiences, but fit their particular legal status in Jewish community. This is really important, since Jews are named subjects of the New Covenant (Jeremiah 31; Ezekiel 36) and Gentiles are not!

From that, we have to understand that the “admission” process must be different for Jews than Gentile initiates. Jews are born into the covenants, all of them, whether they want to be or not. Gentiles are born into no covenant with God at all except perhaps the Noahide covenant (Genesis 9). Our entry, so to speak, must be via a different process with different criteria involved.

I often wonder if this is why more traditional Jewish people don’t mind what Jesus taught so much, but most of them absolutely loathe Paul. Paul, when interpreted through traditional Christian and Jewish lenses, seems not to be teaching Judaism at all, but rather, creating a new religion. For modern observant Jews, this makes Paul a traitor to the Jewish people, and an advocate to the elimination of Judaism (and Jews, even in Paul’s day, also believed this of him — see Acts 21 starting at verse 15).

Ironically, many Christians believe the same thing, that Paul threw Judaism under a bus and replaced it with Christianity, but in this case, that’s considered part of God’s plan and not the ultimate insult to God and the Jewish people (more’s the pity).

bibleNo, I’m not saying that we non-Jews shouldn’t read the Gospels. We really need to get to know our Rav and what he taught. However, we cannot always assume we can apply each and every lesson he taught to Jews about the Torah to ourselves as non-Jews without some interpretation, anymore than we can assume to apply what and how Moses taught the Torah to the Children of Israel to the Church today.

That’s why it is so important to understand Paul correctly, such as they way he is rendered in the Nanos and Zetterholm volume Paul within Judaism: Restoring the First-Century Context to the Apostle.

Although the Apostolic Scriptures record that it was sometimes difficult to teach the Jewish people about the good news of Rav Yeshua, it would have been extremely difficult to get that across to Gentile pagans who lacked a Jewish educational and lived context. That’s why the Apostle to the Gentiles had to be highly educated, multi-lingual and multi-cultural, both a Jew and a Roman citizen. He had to be thoroughly Jewish and yet be able to “talk the talk,” as such, of non-Jewish peoples who lived in a wide variety of religious, cultural, and social venues.

That’s why the job was so hard and required such a unique individual.

But this is (in my opinion) why we modern non-Jewish disciples of the Rav, cannot simply imitate modern Jewish worship practices and performance of the mitzvot and say we understand the teachings of Yeshua and how to respond to them. That’s as erroneous as modern Christians in their churches today saying that Jesus did away with the Law for the Jew and that everyone, including born Jews, must abandon Judaism, Torah, and Talmud and become goyishe Christians in order to be reconciled with God.

WaitingSo how did Paul interpret Jesus for the Gentile? We may never have a solid answer, but I’m convinced that we’ll never get anywhere near that answer unless we’re willing to ask the question.

Ultimately, it may not be as complex as most folks who are “Judaicly aware” imagine. In fact, it might not be that different from what most traditional Christians do now, apart from a specific attitude toward the centrality of Israel (rather than the Church) in God’s plan of redemption.

Please keep in mind that everything I’ve just written I pretty much composed off the cuff. It’s not the result of an exhaustive review of the Bible and associated scholarly literature. If anything, it’s the result of my imagination and a number of years of reading, writing, listening, and learning. I still think the message has merit.

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 Conceptualization: Qualifying Paul’s Position on Circumcision in Dialogue with Josephus’s Advisors to King Izates”

Jews practicing Judaism in the first century observed the rite of circumcision, so it may seem natural enough to conclude that Paul’s arguments depreciating, when not opposing, circumcision undermine the very idea that Paul should be interpreted as a representative of Judaism. But Paul’s position is much more nuanced than the readings on which the interpretive tradition’s conclusions depend; so too is the practice of the right within Judaism.

-Mark D. Nanos
from the beginning of his essay:
“The Question of Conceptualization: Qualifying Paul’s Position on Circumcision in Dialogue with Josephus’s Advisors to King Izates”
Paul within Judaism: Restoring the First-Century Context to the Apostle (Kindle Edition)

So begins this rather lengthy article of Dr. Nanos’ on why, contrary to what is typically believed within Christianity today, Paul actually was a very good representative of the Judaism of his day, and why, again contrary to Christian tradition, Paul did support ritual circumcision of Jewish boys on the eighth day of life, though this was not required of non-Jewish boys, even among those families who were devoted disciples of Yeshua (Jesus).

Even if I were just to quote those passages in Nanos’ paper I highlighted as significant, this blog post might become almost as long as the original article. I will try to be brief and also to capture the essential points being made in this fourth submission to the “Paul Within Judaism” book (and yes, I realize it’s been quite some time since I’ve offered a review of this material).

Paul within JudaismIn real estate, the predominant credo is “location, location, location.” In Biblical exegesis, it’s “context, context, context”. Our traditional view of Paul relative to Judaism and circumcision (and most other things) tends to disregard that context, that is, the first century Jewish context in which the Apostle wrote, taught, and lived.

According to Nanos, viewed and read within that context, alongside “similarly qualified statements made by other Jews,” Paul always remained properly observant to the Torah of Moses and upheld circumcision of Jewish males as a continued sign of the Abrahamic covenant between the Jewish people and God.

If Paul opposed circumcision, it was specifically regarding the proselyte ritual to convert a non-Jew to Judaism, as was the tradition of his day (and ours).

I should make clear that, as Nanos writes, Paul did not object to non-Jewish practicing Judaism alongside ethnic Jews and converts, or at least he didn’t object to them behaving “Jewishly” within a Jewish social and community context. This did not require these Gentile disciples to become obligated to the Torah mitzvot in the manner of the Jewish people. Rather, for the sake of social discourse with their Jewish mentors as well as elevating the non-Jews’ spirituality and moral/ethical behavior to the level Hashem expects of those who were created in His Image, they behaved, as I have just said, “Jewishly,” or in a way that an outside observer might believe is “Jewish”.

Nanos slowly builds his arguments (which are too long to cite in detail here) regarding how we can read Paul and how the Apostle uses the term “circumcision,” “circumcised” (for a Jew), and “foreskinned” (for Gentiles including Gentile Yeshua disciples) to show that Paul supported (male) Jewish disciples being circumcised but not so the Gentile believers. Paul only was against circumcising Gentile Yeshua-disciples and fully supported the circumcision only of Jewish Yeshua disciples along with all other Jewish males.

The gospel’s chronometrical claim creates the basis for Paul’s resistance to circumcision of Christ-following non-Jews. He believes that now they must represent those from the other nations turning to the One God of Israel, and thus, that they must not become Israelites…

Nanos turns to a story related by Josephus, the narrative about the circumcision of the non-Jew Izates, King of Adiabene. Rather than attempt to familiarize you with that story from Nanos’s full rendition, you can find a summary of the life and significant experiences of Izates, specifically his familiarity with and eventual conversion to Judaism, at Wikipedia (not the best of sources, but it will get you started…feel free to Google Izates for more).

In short, Izates, who was a contemporary of Paul, encountered a Jewish advisor named Ananias, who familiarized the young King with Judaism, so much so, that even without converting, Izates took on a number of “Jewish” behaviors and, to a casual observer, could have been mistaken for acting “Jewishly” if not being “Jewish”.

Ancient Rabbi teachingAnother advisor, Eleazar, told Izates that it was improper for him to study Torah without converting. Izates greatly desired to convert, but Ananias believed the King’s subjects would not accept the rule of a Jewish King (how ironic, since one day, the whole world will be ruled by a Jewish King, King Messiah).

Even uncircumcised, that is, as a Gentile, Izates (as well as his mother) were practicing a form of Judaism without being Jewish. And while the advice of Eleazar won out and the King did indeed convert, Nanos makes the point that both Paul and Ananias held quite similar points of view, that it was unnecessary for a non-Jew to convert in order to worship “[sebein; literally , ‘honor,’ ‘respect,’ or ‘fear’] God without circumcision…”

Here’s an important point Nanos made:

…Izates had not yet given up his desire to become circumcised: thus Eleazar “urged him [Izates] to accomplish ‘the work’ [or ‘the rite,’ ton ergon].” Eleazar is a Jew from the Galilee, and likely a Pharisee…

Terms such as “the act,” “deed,” or “work” as we find in Paul’s writings on “the works of the law” (see Galatians 3:2 for example) specifically refer to the Apostle’s disapproval of Gentiles undergoing ritual circumcision for the purpose of conversion in order to be justified before God. Again, Paul’s “works of the law” had nothing to do with forbidding Jewish Yeshua-disciples from being circumcised nor was Paul preaching against Torah observance for the Jewish followers of Messiah.

Nanos quotes Josephus (quoting Eleazar) as outright stating that one must be a Jew in order to be obligated to the commandments of the Torah of Moses. In Eleazar’s case, the only way to resolve the conflict of a non-Jew even voluntarily observing some of the mitzvot was for him to “complete the act,” “rite,” “work” of conversion through circumcision.

Ananias, on the other hand, like Paul, saw devotion to God and observing a life of moral and ethical excellence as a Gentile was Izates’ proper response “apart from becoming a Jew, and thus, apart from becoming under Torah on the same terms as a Jew (a distinction that people of his [Itazes] kingdom are represented as grasping…).”

Nanos dovetails off of Josephus to re-engage Paul, stating:

Moreover, this raises interesting comparisons with Paul’s insistence that faith(fullness) for Christ-following non-Jews requires abstaining from becoming Jews through circumcision, while at the same time insisting that they turn away from cults associated with familial and civic gods, which would be expected to apply to themselves in most Jewish groups…

synagogueSo Paul expected that Gentiles as Gentiles behave “Jewishly” but not become Jewish. However behaving “Jewishly” does not mean they became Jews without a bris and were in any manner obligated to the 613 commandments as were/are the Jewish people, either born or converted.

Further:

Such unorthodox behavior creates for them [Yeshua-believing Gentiles] an anomalous identity leading to sociopolitical marginalization, both from Jews, who do not share their chronometrical gospel claim to be neither guests nor proselytes but full members alongside of Jews, and, for different reasons, from their non-Jewish families and neighbors. If even those who become proselytes may be regarded with suspicion as atheists and traitors, then likely all the more threatening would be those who remained non-Jews if they simultaneously claimed the right to abstain from honoring their fellow non-Jewish people’s gods and lords.

I suppose a brief explanation of the term “chronometrical gospel” is in order. As I understand it, the term refers to a time-based event in the overarching salvational plan of God for Israel and the nations, whereby with the first advent of Messiah ben Joseph, Gentiles were granted, for the first time in human history, the opportunity to be equal partakers in the blessings of the New Covenant (Jer. 31, Ezek. 36) without becoming Gerim as was required in the time of Moses, and having the third generation of their offspring being accepted as an Israelites (thus partaking in the Sinai covenant), or in first century (and later) times by undergoing the rite of the proselyte and converting to Judaism.

From the life, death, resurrection, and ascension onward, non-Jews were provided a new and better path by which we can swear fealty to God through the faithfulness of the Jewish Messiah King.

We also see from the above-quoted passage, that Yeshua-believing Gentiles were accepted as social equals and sharers of the New Covenant blessings of the Holy Spirit and the promise of the resurrection, not only without being required to first convert, but without the identical obligation to perform the Torah mitzvot, an obligation that remains exclusive to born-Jews and proselytes.

Nanos brings up something especially relevant to the role of the “Messianic Gentile” today, the matter of identity ambiguity. Just like our first century counterparts, we modern Gentiles in Messiah, when within (Messianic) Jewish communal space, are not Jews but are also not allied with our former identities as non-believers. We are expected to take the moral high road, so to speak, and particularly in Jewish space, we say Jewish prayers (although our prayers are sometimes adapted due to us not being Israel), attend prayer services with Jews, attend the Torah service with Jews, eat kosher food when we dine with Jews, cover our heads when davening with Jews, and committing many other acts that look pretty “Jewish,” even though we are not Jews.

identityIn many ways, we are neither fish nor fowl, and the question of just what Messianic Gentile behavior actually is supposed to look like is often a matter of spirited debate.

Changing the discourse about Paul by adding a contextual tag to virtually every statement made about his standing on Jewish matters, such as the circumcision of non-Jews, is a good place to begin for those who are attempting to conceptualize Paul within Judaism…

It would be nice if our Bibles contained such “tags” to make Paul appear more within his own context to those of us reading him thousands of years later in a religious, cultural, and conceptual environment definitely outside of his original context.

Sadly, no such Bible exists (to the best of my knowledge), but Nanos does attempt to give us examples:

In the shortest sense, this could consist of no more than adding the phrase “…for Christ-following non-Jews” to statements made about them in order to avoid universalizing the matter under discussion.

And…

…such as, “for non-Christ-following Jews”

And again…

…by adding “for Christ-following non-Jews who are participating in Jewish communal life”

Or even…

“…who practice Judaism according to the teachings of Paul”

Or even better…

policy changes toward these non-Jews, hence… “for Christ-following non-Jews who practice Judaism according to the chronometrical claim of the gospel proclaimed by Paul and the other apostolic leaders of this Judaism.”

messianic judaism for the nationsYou get the idea. What would have been understood as a matter of course by the original readers of Paul’s epistles almost completely eludes lay-person, clergy, and Christian scholar (or most of them) twenty centuries later in our American churches, seminaries, and universities.

Getting back to the role of the ancient Messianic Gentile who was not expected to observe many/most of the mitzvot in the manner of the Jews, what God did (and does) expect of them (us)…?

…and Paul regarding what signifies faith(fulness) alone for non-Jews is striking…

Or in more detail:

This reasoning parallels Paul’s argument about Abraham’s becoming circumcised as a “sign” of his faithfulness (based upon Gen. 17:11); yet Abraham for Paul illustrates why faith(fulness) for Christ-following non-Jews is shown [specifically] by their [our] not becoming circumcised (Rom. 3:27-4:25; Gal. 3:1-4:7; passim). Paul insists that these non-Jews represent the children promised to Abraham from the other nations before he was circumcised…

…they [we] must remain non-Jews, that is, must not become members of Israel.

That, in a nutshell, so to speak, is the particular path of the ancient and modern Messianic Gentile. The evidence of our faith is to deliberately not become circumcised, that is, to avoid converting to Judaism, within the Messianic community or otherwise, and to fulfill our destiny as the children from the nations called by His Name, thus fulfilling the promise God made to Abraham about his gaining (faithful) children from the nations…that is, us.

By either converting, or unjustly claiming full obligation to the Torah as if we were converts without a bris, we are making a mockery of God’s promise to Abraham, and denying our own role as non-Jews in Messiah, further throwing God’s prophetic word back in His Face (as it were).

In contrast, Paul argues for faith(fulness) alone exclusive of circumcision as the decisive action for the Christ-following non-Jews he addressed, even though it came at the price of marginalization.

In other words, if you’re a Messianic Gentile and you at least sometimes feel marginalized, both in the Messianic Jewish world and in the Church among more traditional Christians (and I know what that feels like), that’s normal.

The Jewish PaulBut Nanos believes Paul was not seeking to bifurcate faith for the Gentile vs. actions/deeds for the Jews. Both Jews and Gentiles are saved by faith(fulness), but what is required by the faithfulness of the Gentiles does not include an identity transformation by becoming Jews and/or Israel. That identity is reserved and the faithful Jews are assigned obligations and duties not incumbent upon the Gentiles in Messiah.

Or as Nanos puts it…

Paul appeals to principle, not expedience. He defines the principle as faith(fulness) according to what is appropriate for them as non-Jews, which can be different in specific ways from that faith(fulness) might consist of for those who are Jews.

Bingo.

Hopefully, I’ve captured the essence of Nanos’ arguments. He tends to approach his core points from numerous different directions, and adding a great deal of detail that sometimes defies my ability to succinctly review him. Nevertheless, there are two major takeaways from this essay as I see it:

  1. Any statements made by Paul that appear to devalue or require the elimination of Torah observance and circumcision by all Yeshua-believers, when read within Paul’s original first century Jewish context, only apply to his non-Jewish audience, the Yeshua-believing non-Jews in the Messianic ekkelsia.
  2. Any statements made by Paul that appear to require full observance of the Torah commandments and circumcision by all Yeshua-believers, when read within Paul’s original first century Jewish context, only apply to his Jewish audience, the Yeshua believing Jews in the Messianic ekkelsia (although they would also apply to Jews who were not Yeshua-believers since all Jews have Jewish identity, being Israel, and obligation to the Torah of Moses at the core of their being Jews).

I’ll continue with my reviews as time allows.

Note: Edited at Portland International Airport using PDX’s free wifi and free electrical power in their business courtesy room.