Paul, “Judaizers” and Jews
Yesterday, I attended an interesting seminar-presentation entitled “A Muslim Reads Galatians,” by Dr. Shabbir Akhtar (St Stephen’s, Oxford). He is engaged in writing a commentary on Paul’s epistle to the Galatians for a forthcoming series. Although, unfortunately, little time in the seminar was actually spent on Galatians (he spent most of the time giving personal background, and his wider perspectives on Paul, the NT, et alia), it was clear that he has approached the subject with considerable preparation, thought, seriousness, and respect for Paul. Indeed, commendably, it seemed that he has acquired some Koine Greek (which, some readers will recall from the animated blog-discussions in Autumn 2011, some folk don’t think necessary for PhDs in NT), and also demonstrated an acquaintance with a number of scholarly studies on Paul and Galatians.
In the course of the presentation, he drew contrasts between the more negative and even caustic references to “the circumcision party”, “Judaizers” and the Torah in Galatians (and also Philippians), and the more positive references to “Israel” and the Jewish people in Romans (esp. chaps. 9-11). But, of course, as I pointed out in the ensuing discussion, in Galatians (and Philippians too) Paul seems to be critical of fellow Jewish Christians, not because they were Jews, but because they were apparently seeking to impose Torah-observance (including male-circumcision) on Paul’s (former pagan) converts as an additional requirement for full recognition as co-religionists with them. It was this “Judaizing” stance, i.e., the view that baptized pagans had to become Jewish, that Paul opposed, and his opponents (I repeat) were Jewish believers in Jesus. So, because their stance seemed to Paul to call into question the sufficiency of Jesus, and because it also represented to him an interference in his gentile-mission (the terms of which he believed he had received directly from God), he went at the matter with full force (and in places some serious vituperation).
But in Romans (esp. 9-11), his subject is the Jewish people and their future in God’s redemptive plan, an altogether different subject. So, in this setting there is no vituperation, and, instead, Paul holds out that astonishing and yet confident hope for the eventual redemptive “fullness” of “all Israel”. This isn’t a change in his view, or a contradiction, but a different issue. (I should add that Akhtar readily agreed.)
Especially non-Jewish readers of Paul need to be sensitive to the specifics of Paul’s letters. Each is shaped very much by the specific situation(s) being addressed. Paul was a flexible thinker, and seems to have been able to hold together ideas and convictions that can appear to be in tension with one another. (Indeed, it seems rather clear that subsequent Christianity found it much more difficult to maintain these tensions, and tended to slide off in one direction or another.) But I don’t think he was (at least in his own mind) contradictory or confused.
Paul’s only critique of the Torah (Jewish Law) was when some fellow Jewish believers tried to impose it as an additional requirment for salvation upon his pagan converts. He had no problem with fellow Jews observing Torah, Jewish Christians included, so long as they didn’t try to impose full Torah-observance upon baptized pagans. He certainly seems to have insisted that Jews as well as pagans must recognize Jesus as God’s Son/Messiah, and held that Jewish failure to do so was a kind of unbelief and “hardening”. But he also believed that God would ultimately deliver fellow Jews from this stance (Romans 11:25-32), showing “mercy” to all, both pagans and Jews.