Monday, December 05, 2011

Paul the Jew 1

I am very grateful to Wesleyan Publishing House for publishing soon to be three books on Paul's letters.  Although there is a wealth of books out there on Paul, I was convinced that a lot of the great insights on Paul these last thirty years have not made it to the pew, including the Wesleyan pew.  What started out as a single book project, "Life Reflections on Paul's Life and Letters," has now become three books!  The first reflects on Paul's Earlier Letters.  The second ended up just being reflections on Romans.

Now the third one is being proofed, Paul: Prisoner of Hope.  It will cover the later letters of the Pauline corpus.  As often happens, I got long winded and these chapters, which were originally meant to be part of the second volume, became a third volume in their own right...

... which means I quickly need to write a new "first chapter" for the third volume that catches a reader up to speed with the other two books, just in case someone starts with this one.  I've decided to do so in three sections: Paul the Jew, Paul the Christ-follower, and Paul the apostle.  Today is Paul the Jew.
Chapter 1: Introducing Paul
This is the last in a series of three volumes reflecting on Paul's life and letters.  Accordingly, this book starts near the end of a discussion that has already extensively covered Paul's known ministry.  The first volume, Paul: Messenger of Grace, reflected on Paul's early life, as well as on some of his early letters: 1 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, and Philippians, since I wonder if it was written while Paul was at Ephesus.  The second volume, Paul: Soldier of Peace, reflected extensively on his letter to the Romans.

In this book, we finish reflecting on the remaining letters of the Pauline collection: Ephesians, Colossians, the Pastoral letters, and we will cover 2 Thessalonians and Philemon here as well. However, since you may not have read the two previous books on Paul, I want to take a few pages to summarize some of the key dimensions of Paul's life and ministry up to this point.  Most of the letters in this volume differ in some interesting ways from Paul's earlier ones, and it is helpful to have an idea of the starting point before  looking at the variations!

1. Paul the Jew
Paul was a Jew, just as Jesus was a Jew.  Christians throughout the centuries have often seen this fact as irrelevant, as if when Paul became a Christian, he abandoned his Jewishness entirely.  He is thought to have changed religions and perhaps even become a model for anger or hatred against Jews today.  It is unfortunate, but evil hearts throughout the centuries have often used such ideas as an excuse to persecute or even slaughter Jews. [1]

In part as a result of the Holocaust, the last few decades have seen a careful re-examination of some of these assumptions.  What we have found is some glaring holes in this way of looking at Paul.  For example, Paul identifies himself as an Israelite and a "Hebrew" in more than one place long after after he believed in Jesus (e.g., 2 Cor. 11:22; Phil. 3:5; Rom. 11:1).  In fact, Acts 23:6 has Paul identifying himself as a Pharisee in the present tense over twenty years after he became a Christ follower! [2]

It is only because Christianity and Judaism are two distinct religions today that we tend to see Paul as changing religions or converting from one religion to another.  Paul would not have seen it that way.  For him, the Jews remained the natural branches of the tree, with Gentiles being grafted in (Rom. 11:17-21).  One of the most obvious mistakes is to think of "Paul" as his Christian name, as if Paul threw away his Jewish name Saul when he "converted."  Acts continues to call him "Saul" well over ten years after he believed on Jesus.

If the prevalent picture drawn of Paul's Jewishness has often been skewed, even more so has the picture of Judaism. [3]  The old story was that Judaism was a legalistic religion that believed you had to earn your salvation by good works.  Our hero Paul then comes along and realizes that works play no role at all in getting right with God.  We are made right with God by faith alone, purely as a matter of God's grace.

This interpretation of Paul has of course everything to do with the argument between Martin Luther and the Roman Catholic Church in the 1500's.  But it seriously skews Paul's argument with other Christians in the first century.  The people Paul spars with in Galatians were other Christian Jews--including Peter and James--and, even then, he was arguing on the proper understanding of Jewish faith rather than in terms of Christianity versus Judaism as a separate religion.  He was arguing over the proper interpretation of the Jewish Scriptures, the only Scriptures that existed at the time.

It is also important to recognize that these arguments are not the central topic of Paul's letters as a whole. They come up primarily in Romans and Galatians, where the question of how Gentiles can be incorporated into the people of God is at issue.  Even there, the topic is not "Can a person earn their salvation?" but "Does a Gentile need to convert fully to Judaism to be saved?"  The works under discussion are not primarily good works, but "works of law"--especially the ones like circumcision that separated Jew from Gentile ethnically.

A thorough look through all the Jewish literature of Paul's day reveals both that there was a wide spectrum of Jewish beliefs at the time and that all or nearly all of them saw God's grace as the ultimate basis for right standing before him. [4] Further, as the Wesleyan and other traditions have always argued, how one lives remains an element in final salvation for Paul, not in terms of how good a person is but in terms of walking in faithful relationship with God.  The older Lutheran version of Paul was thus wrong on both ends--wrong about how grace-less Judaism was and wrong about how works-less Paul was. [5]

[1] An early reflection on this dynamic, written by a Jew in part while on the run from the Nazis in France, was Jules Isaac's Jesus and Israel (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1971 [1948]).

[2] Of course, we have to interpret this fact carefully.  Paul was a master at rhetoric, and Acts tends to give a "conservative" portrait of Paul.  It is doubtful that Paul would have normally identified himself as a Pharisee at this point in his ministry.

[3] The work that broke the dam on this issue was E. P. Sanders' Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1977).

[4] 4 Ezra, from about AD100 is sometimes mentioned as an exception.

[5] Like any tradition, present day Lutheran interpreters of Paul do not simply repeat the interpretations of Luther.  They have assimilated the discussions of the last thirty years into their interpretations.


FrGregACCA said...

DBrothers said...

Anxious to see the books. And yes, somehow this scholarship takes a long time to trickle down to the pew.

And I am discovering some great connections between the "New Pauline" studies and Wesleyan concerns on election, grace, and sanctification.