Paul: The Second-Temple Jewish Apostle to the Gentiles
I returned last night from a very enjoyable trip to Rome to take part in the Nangeroni Seminar on “Paul as a Second-Temple Jew.” For more information on the Nangeroni Seminars click here. This encouraging and demanding event brought together about 35 scholars from various countries who are specialists on second-temple Judaism and/or the Apostle Paul. The premise and the broad conclusion to which all assented is that Paul was and remained in his ministry as apostle to gentiles a Jew. He did not renounce his identity as a member of the Jewish people. He did not demonize his ancestral religion. He did not reject the Torah (“Law”) as false. He did not regard his Jewish past as one of frustration, failure, inability to observe Torah, or as something to escape. He did not play off the particularity of his Jewishness in favour of some kind of universalism.
Instead, Paul claims to have practiced Torah successfully and happily. He does not refer to himself as “converted” from Jewishness to being a “Christian.” Instead, he claims to have had a powerful experience that he describes as a “revelation” of Jesus as God’s “Son,” and a special calling to proclaim God’s welcome to non-Jewish peoples (“Gentiles”) without their having to convert to Judaism (see especially Philippians 3:4-16; Galatians 1:13-17). I’ll have more to say about the Rome seminar in subsequent postings. In this one, I’ll briefly indicate the gist of my presentation.
As one of those invited to give a main paper, I addressed “Paul’s Messianic Christology.” In my paper I took as now established that Paul regarded Jesus as Messiah, especially in light of the recent book by my colleague, Matthew Novenson, Christ Among the Messiahs: Christ Language in Paul and Messiah language in Ancient Judaism (Oxford University Press, 2012). My own contribution was to propose that, instead of thinking of Paul as departing from some notion of a monolithic Jewish messianism, we should regard Paul as espousing a particular variant-form of Jewish messianism. Jewish messianism of Paul’s time was pluriform, and the Christological faith that Paul adopted and promoted represents one of the several variant-forms.
To be sure, Paul’s Christology is a particularly noteworthy form of messianism. In my paper I focused on several specific features that distinguish it from other known forms of second-temple messianism. Perhaps most readily acknowledged as distinctive is the emphasis on Jesus’ death and resurrection as key messianic events. With his predecessors in the young Jesus movement, Paul insisted that Jesus’ crucifixion was part of God’s plan and was redemptive in effect, and that God had then vindicated Messiah Jesus by resurrection.
I also noted the place of Jesus’ “parousia” (a Greek term used in the NT to refer to Jesus’ return) and the interval between his resurrection and parousia. This interval Paul regarded as the special time in which the gospel is preached and God accomplishes his purposes of forming a redeemed people, especially from among non-Jews.
A third noteworthy feature of Paul’s messianic Christology is the cosmic dimension to Jesus’ exaltation and appointed rule. Granted in some other messianic hopes of Paul’s day we see the expectation that the Messiah will rule over all peoples. But Paul reflects the belief that heavenly powers as well will be made subject to Messiah Jesus, and even death will be one of the enemies to be subjugated to him. The messianic figure of the “parables of Enoch” (part of the text known as 1 Enoch) may come close to having this wide a supremacy, but in texts such as Philippians 2:9-11 and 1 Corinthians 15:20-28 Jesus is pictured as being given obeisance by all dimensions of creation, even angelic powers.
Still another striking feature of Paul’s messianic Christology, and one that is not noted very often, is the strong affective tone and emphasis. Paul expresses his relationship to Christ (and that of other Christ-believers as well) with a pronounced intensity of feeling. Consider, for example, Paul’s passionately worded declaration in Philippians 3:7-11, or his statement of being motivated by “the love of Christ” in 2 Corinthians 5:14-15. I know of no parallel for this affective emphasis in other known forms of ancient Jewish messianism.
We may also note the way that Paul refers to the incorporative relationship of believers to Jesus. This has sometimes been referred to as “union with Christ,” “Christ-mysticism,” or “participation in Christ.” Paul’s frequent use of “in Christ” (56 times in the seven undisputed letters), and related expressions (e.g., “with Christ,” “through Christ,” “in the Lord”) are indicative of this.
Finally, I referred to what I regard as perhaps the most striking distinctive of all in Paul’s Christology: The programmatic way that Jesus is treated as rightful recipient of devotional practices along with God. I’ve written on this in several publications, from my 1988 book, One God, One Lord: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism, and subsequently. Note how in 1 Corinthians 1:2 Paul can refer to fellow believers simply as “all those in every place who call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” The phrasing “call upon the name” derives from the OT usage, where it designates invoking God and offering worship. Paul here applies this expression to the collective reverence given to Jesus in early Christian assemblies.
Certainly, the collective force of these features makes the messianic Christology that Paul affirmed and promoted distinctive, even in the rich pluriformity of ancient Jewish tradition. But, to reiterate the point for emphasis, Paul affirmed a messianic Christology, calling the nations to recognize Jesus as God’s messianic “Son” in whom they were now welcomed into the family of Abraham and acceptance before the God of Israel.