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Paul: The Second-Temple Jewish Apostle to the Gentiles

July 2, 2014

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.


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  1. Ricky permalink

    Dear Dr. Hurtado
    After reading all the comments may I say Christianism is just a form of Judaism? One of the differents ways of judaism commons in the first century? A Messianic and binitarian Judaism?

    • Ricky,
      I’d say that certainly in its initial several decades, what became “Christianity” was a new messianic movement in 2nd temple Jewish tradition. (Both “Christianity” and “Judaism” as we now use the terms are anachronistic for the 2nd temple period. “Ioudaismos” isn’t our “Judaism”. Instead, it = promoting the practices associated with being Jewish.)
      The distinctive features of the “Jesus-movement” were, perhaps first of all, the central place of Jesus in faith & practice.

  2. Martin Davis permalink

    Thanks for this balanced and considered explanation Larry. In my denomination Paul is portrayed as a refugee form the Law who rejoiced in finally being able to throw off all those Jewish shackles which no one, especially he, could live up too anyway Finding great wisdom and beauty in the Law I was somewhat perplexed and had come to almost despise Paul but thought ‘Oh well he’s in the Bible what can I do>”

  3. Dr. Hurtado, I don’t know if you can answer this question but it’s one I need to ask. I attend a rather conservative Evangelical church. The Pastor preaches that although Paul continued to live as a Jew after his “conversion” to Christianity, the continuation of his (and the other Jewish apostles) Jewish practice was always considered by God to be a “transitionary period.” Judaism was expected to cease as a normative approach to God through Christ and be replaced by “the Church” which would “retire” Jewish practices and replace them with a “law-free” body of Jewish and Gentile believers.

    If, as you say, Paul saw the worship of Messiah as a variant of Jewish practice in his day, is it reasonable to believe that he expected Jesus-worship to remain a variant Judaism that included a Gentile component not required to undergo the proselyte rite? That is, was (Gentile) Christianity always destined to replace Judaism in the worship of Christ or was/is it expected that worship and devotion to Christ was to remain a Judaism that included Gentiles?

    • James: To engage your question involves speculation . . . about what Paul might have imagined that the future would comprise, how much of a future there would be to his present world, etc. The intense eschatological hope/expectation that seems reflected in Paul’s letters has led some scholars to judge that Paul’s vision of the “ekklesia of God” as both comprising Jewish believers (who continued to practice Torah as Jews) and non-Jewish believers was not viable over the long haul. Historical events of the first couple of centuries after Paul’s time can be invoked in justification for this judgement. But one might also ask whether the problem was an inherent problem in Paul’s vision, or whether other factors, including the Jewish war of 66-72 CE and other things (including a failure of many Christians of that time to grasp Paul’s vision) contributed to the emergence of a mainly gentile “Christianity” distinguished from a “Judaism”. For one view, I recommend a book by my friend, the late Alan F. Segal, Rebecca’s Children: Judaism and Christianity in the Roman World (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univesity Press, 1986).
      In any case, Paul didn’t undergo a “conversion” to “Christianity.” He refers to his experience as a prophet-like “calling” (e.g., Gal. 1:13-15), and there was no “Christianity” (as a separate religion) to which he could “convert” as a Jew. We could describe the former “pagans” (gentiles) that formed his churches as “converting” from the worship of their various ancestral deities to the God of the Bible/Israel.

      • Thanks for the quick reply. I’ve just ordered Segal’s book and look forward to reading it.

  4. Cameron permalink

    Also, just a quick thanks, Dr. Hurtado. Some of your post were very helpful as I was processing some of the information on the trip. Your book, “Lord Jesus Christ,” is definitely on my reading list in the next few weeks.

  5. Cameron permalink

    No way! I just got back from Rome yesterday. I too part in a 4 week study trip organized by the AG Center for Holy Land Studies. We spent time in Turkey, Greece, and Italy, the last 6 days or so centered in Rome. The two main purposes for this leg of the trip (the first leg, which I did not participate in, was another 3 or so weeks in Israel/Jordan) were to study Paul among Judaism in the diaspora and to gain a better understanding of Greco-Roman culture. It was such a wonderful, thought provoking experience! The premises you mentioned are basically what we learned in our evening and site lectures. Had we known, some of us might have nestled up to an open window to eavesdrop on the conference!

  6. Alan Bill permalink

    This seems reasonably convincing. But does not this line of thinking take one towards the view (which has been widely promoted in the past) that Paul had a dangerously large amount of responsibility for the direction that Christian theology took, particularly in understanding who Jesus was.

    If Paul remained a Jew this emphasises his setting within a culture and a world view that we – at least I – do not share. And so strengthens us if we wish to assert, as I would, that the christological developments of the early Church period, and the earlier beliefs from which they developed, are not determinative for our understanding of Jesus and who he thought he was.


    • Alan, You raise a historical question and a theological one. As for the historical question, about Paul’s “responsibility” for the contents of the religious views that he espouses, don’t be deceived by the fact that Paul’s letters are our earliest extant witnesses. Most of what he reflects in his letters, especially Christology, he shared with (and derived heavily from) those Jewish believers who preceded him. His own distinctive contribution appears to have been mainly the conviction that he was personally called to enfranchise gentiles into the family of Abraham (the company of the redeemed) without their having to convert to Judaism. Even scholars have (in my view) exaggerated the amount of Paul’s originality in other matters. My paper was about the Christological emphases *reflected* in Paul’s letters, not about him as some creative theologian.
      Second, as to the theological question (we don’t really deal with theology much here), the larger question is what role the originating witnesses to Christ have in shaping continuing Christian faith. That’s a matter for every Christian group to judge, of course. But, unless you have your own revelatory experience to claim and draw upon, what else would one use as the starting point for Christian faith, if one seeks to be an authentic member of that tradition? But, as I say, this really isn’t the sort of question that this blog site is intended to focus on.

      • Alan Bill permalink

        Thank you Larry for such a full and considerate reply. I noticed that your recent blog(s) about Ehrman’s book are relevant and will look at them again.

        Just a couple of comments:

        (1) We ‘don’t really deal with theology much here’ you say, but I do not think the history and the theology can be so easily separated. And I noticed this comment of yours recently: “what about the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ miracles, authoritative actions, etc.? Doesn’t this suggest that Jesus was actually exercising his divine power during his earthly life?” A good bit of theology there!

        (2) One of my mentors Dennis Nineham was fond of quoting Leonard Hodgson in “For faith and freedom” as saying something like (unfortunately I cannot track down the direct quote) ‘if that was how they thought and believed then how should we think and believe now’ – and I do not think the answer is straightforward or an easy one to arrive at.

        But that’s enough! I’ve made my points and I leave it at that.


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