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Paul’s “Persecution” of Jewish Jesus-Followers: Nature & Cause(s)

November 11, 2014

In email exchanges over the last couple of weeks, Paula Fredriksen and I have been comparing views on what might have been the nature of, and cause(s) for, the “persecution” of Jewish Jesus-followers that the Apostle Paul later lamented. There have been various proposals over the years, and hers is to my knowledge the latest.[1]  With her agreement for me to do so, I publish a response in this posting.

In a recent publication, she probes the matter by first addressing Paul’s references to being on the receiving end of floggings by fellow Jews (five times) in the course of his Gentile mission (2 Corinthians 11:24).[2] Her cogent hypothesis is essentially this: Paul required his pagan converts to withdraw from worshipping the gods of the Roman world. Given the place and significance of the gods in Roman-era life, this would have generated serious tensions with the larger pagan community. As he identified himself as a Jew and linked up with Jewish communities in the various diaspora cities where he established early assemblies of Jesus-followers (ekklesias), these Jewish communities could have feared that they would bear the brunt of these tensions. So, Paul was meted out synagogue discipline in the form of the 39 lashes as punishment on several occasions (he mentions five).

I find this entirely reasonable myself. It fits the setting, Paul’s Gentile mission. It fits his own behaviour, continuing to identify himself as a member of his ancestral people all through his ministry as apostle to the Gentiles and herald of the gospel. It fits also with what we know of real and potential tensions over the matter of worship of the traditional deities (of household, city, nation, etc.).

But the next move in her argument seems to me less secure. She proposes that this hypothesis can also serve to explain Paul’s own opposition to the Jewish ekklesias prior to the experience that transformed him from opponent to proponent of Jesus and the gospel. That is, she hypothesizes that within a very short time after Jesus’ crucifixion, the young Jesus-movement spread to Damascus, and there began to recruit converts from local “god-fearer” pagans who had already begun to associate themselves with the synagogue(s) there. As “god-fearers” (she contends), they hadn’t been expected by the Jewish community to forsake their traditional gods. But, she further hypothesizes, from this early point the Jesus-movement required this of their pagan converts. This (she further proposes) would have created tensions with the larger pagan public of Damascus, and so Paul the devout Pharisee involved himself in helping to take punitive measures against Jewish Jesus-followers. This was to discourage them from requiring pagan converts to abstain from worshipping the gods, thereby to avoid trouble for the local Jewish community.

Moreover, crucially, she proposes that the punitive measure taken by Paul as persecutor was likely the same as handed out later to Paul as the persecuted: He participated in flogging Jewish Jesus-followers with the 39 lashes. But I’m not so confident of matters, and I’ll indicate why.

First, as to method, I’m not so sure of her posited premise, that we can equate the cause(s) and nature of the synagogue discipline given to Paul with the nature and cause(s) for his own earlier opposition against Jewish Jesus-followers. I think that we should analyse each separately first, and only afterward see if there are similarities that justify linking them. And when we do so, I think we see some differences.

As to setting, Paul received synagogue discipline in the course of his itinerant mission to establish churches in various diaspora cities as “apostle to the Gentiles.” I repeat that Fredriksen’s proposal that this likely generated tensions for the local Jewish communities makes sense of that setting. But what reason do we have in Paul’s letters (Fredriksen sets Acts aside as insecure evidence) for assuming that already in Damascus the Jewish Jesus-circle was effectively conducting a Gentile-mission, at least on a scale like that of Paul’s own later efforts, and, crucially, on the same terms? More importantly still, Paul’s references to his own persecution of the Jesus-movement seem to me to point to something different. I’ll simply highlight basic points, focusing first on Paul’s initial opposition to what he came to call “the church of God” (Gal. 1:13-15):

  • Paul says his aim was to “destroy” the Jewish ekklesia (Gal. 1:13). The word “destroy” (portheo) used here typically was used to describe the ravaging of a place or people by an invading army or other pretty serious, even violent actions (e.g., 4 Maccabees 4:23; 11:4). The same term is repeated in Gal. 1:23, where Paul cites people referring to him as having sought to “destroy the faith” of Jewish believers. Paul doesn’t use this kind of language in referring to the synagogue discipline he received, or the opposition to his Gentile mission (e.g., 1 Thess. 2:14-16).   Something was sufficiently alarming to him, as a devout Pharisee, to justify this kind of severe action. Consorting with gentiles, not keeping Pharisaic food rules, even speaking against the Temple, wouldn’t likely have generated or justified it. And, as I’ve noted, we really have scant basis for positing a significant “pre-Paul” Gentile-mission in Damascus (or other places) such as required for Fredriksen’s hypothesis.
  • Paul says his strong actions against the ekklesia sprang from his being a superlative “zealot” (Gal. 1:14). That is, he doesn’t describe his opposition as what appears to be the more “ordinary” punishment/discipline that he received from several synagogues later. In ancient Jewish tradition, the term “zeal” was often associated with the biblical character, Phinehas (Numbers 25:1-13), famous for his rather ruthless action against a fellow Israelite who yoked himself to an idolatrous Moabite woman. Phinehas is praised for thereby saving Israel from divine wrath (a plague), and is lionized in a number of texts as the model for similar drastic actions (e.g., Sirach 45:23-25; Josephus 4.145-58; Philo, Spec.Leg. 1.54-57, and other references in the essay).[3] The offences listed by Philo as justifying Phinehas-type action were idolatry, apostasy, seduction by false prophets, and perjury. This list further suggests that what irked Paul the Pharisee was likely something serious that he regarded as endangering the religious integrity of his people. So, take your pick. But I’d suggest that (what he judged inordinate) Jesus-devotion could well have seemed an infringement upon the unique place of God in the eyes of a particularly vigilant Pharisee such as Paul. There may have been additional factors, but it seems to me fully cogent that Jesus-devotion was involved.
  • To my mind, this also tallies with how Paul describes his own change-experience that moved him from opponent to adherent of the young Jesus-movement: a “revelation of [God’s] Son” (Gal. 1:16). That is, the cognitive import and content was christological, a “revelation” of the high status/significance of Jesus. He doesn’t say that the experience involved a shift of view about a supposed Temple-criticism or Torah-laxity by Jewish Jesus-followers, or overcoming a prior objection to their converting pagans.
  • The most reasonable inference, therefore, is that what he came to accept and affirm robustly in all his letters (christological claims and linked devotional practices) was likely central in/among the things that he had previously found sufficiently offensive to demand his vigorous efforts to “destroy” the Jesus-movement. In an essay published years ago, I cited additional Pauline textual data as well that point in the same direction.[4]
  • To cite here another piece of evidence, in 2 Corinthians 3:12—4:6, Paul describes fellow Jews who reject the Jesus-movement. He says that they have veiled and hardened minds that prevent them from seeing (what he sees now) “the glory of the Lord” (3:18), who is Jesus (4:5), “who is the image of God” (4:4). Nothing there about Torah-laxity, or Temple, or anything other than the christological issue: Paul and fellow believers perceive Jesus’ high significance, whereas others (including particularly fellow Jews) don’t. That sounds like “Jesus-devotion” is the critical issue.
  • One further text: Romans 10:9-13 appears in the midst of Paul’s extended discussion of the widescale Jewish refusal to embrace the gospel (Rom. 9—11). Here, after lamenting what he calls their unenlightened stance (10:1-4), and then a remarkable appropriation of a biblical text in vv. 5-8, Paul declares that the confession of Jesus as “Kyrios” and accompanying faith that God raised him from death are the requisites for salvation (vv. 9-11), with “no distinction between Jew and Greek” in the matter (vv. 12-13). The point here is that this text too seems to me to make recognizing the significance of Jesus the central issue, for Paul, for Gentiles, and for his own Jewish people. This seems to me to confirm the suggestion that this had been the issue for Paul himself in the change of stance from opponent to proponent of the gospel about Jesus.

In sum, it seems to me that both the nature and the cause(s) for Paul’s initially violent opposition to the Jewish Jesus-movement were somewhat different from the nature and cause(s) for the synagogue floggings that he later received in the course of his ministry as apostle. I’m inclined to think that Paul’s initial Pharisaic zeal was incited, at least in part, by the christological claims and accompanying devotional practices that he later came to embrace, and that are reflected in his letters.[5] Indeed, his zealousness for his religious traditions may have even made him particularly sensitive to the implications of the christological claims and devotional practices of the early Jesus-circles, perhaps more sensitive than many others, including perhaps even those early Jesus-circles as well!  In any case, whatever the reasons for his strenuous initial opposition to the Jesus-movement, his subsequent shift to passionate adherent (e.g., Philippians 3:4-16) remains one of the most remarkable personal stories of the ancient world.



[1] See, e.g., Arland J. Hultgren, “Paul’s Pre-Christian Persecutions of the Church: Their Purpose, Locale and Nature.” Journal of Biblical Literature 95 (1976): 97-111, for a proposal not totally different from my own stance.

[2] Paula Fredriksen, “How Later Contexts Affect Pauline Content, or: Retrospect Is the Mother of Anachronism,” in Jews and Christians in the First and Second Centuries: How to Write Their History, eds. Peter J. Tomson and Joshua Schwartz (Leiden: Brill, 2014), 17-51.

[3] Torrey Seland, “Saul of Tarsus and Early Zealotism: Reading Gal 1,13-14 in Light of Philo’s Writings,” Biblica 83 (2002): 449-71.

[4] See Larry W. Hurtado, How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God? Historical Questions about Earliest Devotion to Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 152-78, originally published in Journal of Theological Studies 50(1999): 35-58.

[5] I’ve laid out these devotional practices in several publications, beginning with my book, One God, One Lord: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism (Fortress Press/SCM, 1988; T&T Clark, 1998), 93-124; also in At the Origins of Christian Worship: The Context and Character of Earliest Christian Devotion (Eerdmans, 1999), 63-97. On the christological claims and devotional practices specifically reflected in Paul’s letters, see Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity (Eerdmans, 2003), 79-153.

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  1. On Gentile Godfearers continuing pagan worship: Of course the synagogue could not oblige them to abandon pagan worship, but I would expect that Jews strongly encouraged such people to do so. The apologetic/propaganda literature that we have from the diaspora (such as the Sibylline Oracles) denounces idolatrous worship and calls on pagans to worship only the true God.

  2. Steve Walach permalink

    Paul’s demeanor in 2 Corinthians 11 is so outlandish and cleverly self-serving that I am inclined to take him at his word: “I am talking like a madman.”

    Paul may be crazy – like a fox, perhaps, but there’s no denying he’s a gifted rhetorician, so much so that it is difficult for me to accept anything he says in this epistle at face value. He begins Chapter 11 by chastising the Corinthians and positioning himself against, and coyly above, the “super-apostles” – those “boasters” who are “false apostles” preaching a different gospel and revealing a different holy spirit. Paul has an agenda in this chapter, and beyond the reach of fact-checkers, it would not be surprising if he stretched the truth.

    Nevertheless, it’s little wonder that he’s been flogged five times. His goading, needling, attacking style surely would have provoked at least that many and not necessarily for religious or political reasons. It’s easy to imagine the “super-apostles” he lampoons and upbraids being so disposed in their less Christian moments.

    It’s hard to argue, though, with a man who writes his own performance review – the only one, save a partial Luke-Acts, in existence. Judging solely from this epistle, however, it’s easy to see that Paul had the zeal, a.k.a. aggressiveness, to mount a spirited offensive against anyone who crossed him or his way of believing and why his influence remains strong 21 centuries later.

    • Well, Steve, that’s one “take” on the man, and one that may have been shared by some of his opponents. Everything is rhetorical, Steve, even your own comments! That doesn’t justify some jaded perspective, however. A man who was willing to undergo several floggings just to continue to be able to be a member of his ancestral people deserves some credit, surely. How many others would be willing to undergo that to keep their membership alive??

      • Steve Walach permalink

        Yes, Larry, I have to agree with you that my comment was jaded, i.e., cynical, and I was perhaps channeling, so to speak, Paul’s opponents, who unfortunately never had chance to respond point-for-point to his critiques in 2 Cor. 11, or if they did, there is no record of it.

        As for others who would have undergone similar punishment to keep their membership alive, the first who comes to mind is Socrates. He accepted the death penalty rather than forego his allegiance to Athens, even though circumstances allowed him time and opportunity to escape – if the account in the Phaedo holds true.

        More apropos, there’s James, who remained in Jerusalem when presumably he could have returned to his home turf in Galilee, prudently distancing himself from the political turmoil and the petty, priestly animosities and jealousies that earned him a stoning and cost him his life. Instead, he lived in eye of the storm, remaining loyal to his Hebrew roots and doing more than just keeping his own membership alive. For thirty-plus years after his Lord’s death, James ostensibly kept his members alive – and Jesus’s mission – during times of riotous upheaval and despite being so closely linked to a treasonous criminal (by legal definition), his crucified brother.

        It bothers me, I admit, that the “super-apostles” Paul attacks and belittles in the most ad hominem manner could have been “James’ people,” yet their side of the story never gets a fair hearing. Paul pulls no punches, judging them in league with Satan, who “disguises himself as an angel of light. So is it not strange that if his ministers also disguise themselves as ministers of righteousness.” However, he never addresses the specifics of how the spirit they impart or how their proclamation of Jesus and the gospel is different than his, or why it is so diabolical. All told, Paul’s diatribe against the “false apostles” reveals nothing about the substance of their alleged offenses but a good deal about his vindictive temperament.

        Paul’s numerous citations of his personal injuries and accomplishments (2 Cor. 12) are – interestingly – also thoroughly ad hominem but in this instance self-serving, flattering testimonials meant to validate his integrity and re-affirm his authority. However, a discussion about the spiritual substance of his experiences ends before it can ever begin when, for example, Paul writes that he was “caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat.”

        I apologize if what I write is old hat to you and other scholars, or offensive to Paul’s legacy, and apologies also for diverging from the original thread of your post, which focuses on the wherefores of Paul’s floggings – those he received and those he administered. However, once I understood the context of the citation, namely, Paul’s verbal assault on his foes, I felt compelled to respond on their behalf.

        Thank you for your patience.

      • Well, Steve, I think you need to look a bit closer and you’ll find indications of why Paul denounced these people and what the differences were: They challenged the validity of his message and ministry, particularly his message that gentiles must not become Jews but are to be admitted to the family of Abraham and body of the elect simply through trust in Christ, turning from their idolatry and observing God’s commands for gentiles.
        It’s not actually clear whether those “false apostles” were representatives of James. Maybe, but not clear.
        And as for Paul’s citation of his personal costs, it’s actually a clever move: His opponents appear to have emphasized their charismatic powers and spiritual attainments, and so Paul aligns himself with the weakness of the crucified Christ. Effectively, “I’ll show you my scars, and you show yours, and we’ll see who has the most”.

  3. Dr. Hurtado,

    Always enjoy reading and learning from your blog.

    May I ask a very quick question on a Pauline tangent: his coming from Tarsus. Am I right in assuming that the association with Tarsus comes only in Luke/Acts? And where would your thoughts lie on the historical accuracy of the matter, in as much as we can know?


    • The Tarsus link is mentioned only in Acts, yes. But it may be significant that Paul says that a few years after his revelatory experience he visited Jerusalem, and then “went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia” (Gal. 1:21). The city of Tarsus was in Cilicia. For a good one-volume handbook on questions about Paul (and of modest size): Dunn, James D. G., ed. The Cambridge Companion to St. Paul. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. See, e.g., the chapter, “Paul’s Life,” by Klaus Haacker.

  4. James permalink

    Hi Larry,

    This is probably a naive question on my part (I apologise if it’s a little off-topic aswell) but why is it, given that Jesus was executed in roughly 30 AD, that the apostles survived for so long after and weren’t killed sooner?. It also seems that some Christians faced persecution and physical beatings, whereas others (James in Actc 12:2) were killed by the authorities. Why the difference in treatment?

    • That Jesus alone was executed (and none of his followers) suggests to me that he was perceived to the “the problem” that needed to be addressed by the authorities. Moreover, why should we expect people to be executed more than they were?

  5. Professor Hurtado,

    As a non-scholar but interested lay-person, I have hugely enjoyed the books of both yourself and Paula Fredriksen. I don’t pretend to pick up all the nuances of the debates but admire the ability of you both to communicate complicated ideas to the general reader.
    As a matter of genuine curiosity, what do you make of Acts 21:16-25?
    It seems to suggest that those mostly connected with Jesus in Jerusalem were under some pressure on account of Paul? :
    “You know, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews who have become believers, and that every one of these is a staunch upholder of the Law. They have been told about you—that you teach all Jews who live among the Gentiles to disregard the Law of Moses, and tell them not to circumcise their children nor observe the old customs.”
    Their diagnosis of the problem seems not to have been about Paul’s view of Christ?

    • Yes, but the people involved in the text are all Jewish “Christians”. So Jesus wasn’t the issue FOR THEM. They were concerned over reports that Paul was urging Jews to forsake Torah-observance (which, per Acts and Paul’s letters, was an unjustified charge).

  6. Tim Henderson permalink

    Thanks for this very helpful discussion. I tend to agree that Jesus-devotion played a significant role in Paul’s persecution of Jewish-Christians. I wonder, though, if other factors also played a role. For example, it seems that only certain Christians in Jerusalem faced persecution in the earliest years of the movement. If Luke is even remotely aware of the situation, then the so-called “Hellenists” seem to have faced resistance, while other more (for lack of a better term) Torah-observant Jewish-Christians met less opposition. So even if a full-blown Gentile mission had not begun, the seeds were planted in the early Christian proclamation that Jesus (not Moses) was now Israel’s authoritative spokesman. This obviously would be heard by many Jews as “setting aside the Law,” something that evolves further in the later Pauline mission. Paul indicates that the Jewish-Christian “agitators” in Galatia wanted to avoid “persecution” by requiring Torah-observance of Gentile converts (Gal 6:12), which seems to be a further development of what started in the earliest Jerusalem community. So, yes, Jesus-devotion played a role, but so too did early Christian re-definition of other pillars of Second-Temple Judaism: Torah and Election (Jews alone as God’s people).

    • Tim: Read Acts more carefully! E.g., 8:1ff. says that “a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem [NB: no hint that it was only “Hellenists”], and all [NB] except the apostles were scattered . . .” There’s scant basis for your assumption that the persecution depicted there was directed against “Hellenists” in particular, leaving “Hebrews” unscathed. There’s also no basis for your assumption that “Hellenists” were less Torah-observant. There’s no “re-definition” of Torah and Election (hmm, sounds like you’ve been reading Tom Wright!). Torah remains what it was for Paul and fellow Jewish believers. And Paul’s ancestral people retain their special elect status too. What’s new is the notion that in a special eschatological setting Gentiles can now be admitted to the family of Abraham (without becoming Jews) and be treated as fellow members in Christ.

      • Tim Henderson permalink

        By “re-definition,” I mean redefining the role of those things in the religious beliefs and praxis of the earliest Christians. Was it really the case that none of the first generation of Christians had any change whatsoever in their attitude toward the role of Temple, Torah, and Election subsequent to their belief in “Jesus-devotion? If that is truly your position, then I suppose we’ll agree to disagree.

        One last point I would make in support of the possibility that the function/interpretation of Torah might have played a role in Paul’s persecution of Christians lies in one of the very verses you discussed – Gal 1:14. You discussed Paul’s “zeal,” but you failed to mention precisely what it was that Paul says he was zealous FOR. I think it’s useful to quote both verse 13 and 14 in their entirety:

        “For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers.”

        So it’s in the context of his work to “destroy” the church that he mentions his zeal for maintaining the traditions of his fathers, a factor that should have at least as much pull in this discussion as what appears later in verse 16 (per your discussion). I think this at least leaves open the possibility that zeal for traditions, which most likely has some connection to interpreting the role/function of Torah, played a small role in Paul’s attempt to “destroy” the church.

      • Tim: Two responses: (1) Staying with Paul (other changes came later), the only “redefinition” of Torah that I see is his insistence, against some others, that Gentiles are not required to make a Torah-conversion to Judaism. I see nothing that indicates, e.g., any aim of discouraging fellow Jewish believers from continuing to identify themselves as Jews, and that means continuing Torah-observance. So far as I can see, Paul’s only critique of Torah is in contexts where somebody is trying to impose it on Gentiles. Oh, and as for the Temple, I find nothing that suggests that he regarded it as invalidated.
        (2) As for Gal 1:14ff., yes, “zealous for the traditions of my fathers”, precisely. Those traditions included as primary the sanctity of the one God. I repeat for emphasis: Paul’s own description of the cognitive content of his “revelation” experience was Christological: God revealed “his Son to me”.

  7. Thank you for sharing this. Do you know if or how Paula Fredriksen develops her view over against the clear picture that emerges from the OT of the Jews as a people of YHWH, the God who requires exclusive devotion, and who takes vengeance on those who go after other gods? There seems to be an odd, ironic tension in the notion that zealous Jews would persecute someone for requiring converts to give up their worship of pagan gods. If this were the case, would that suggest that the Jews had become lax in their own fidelity to the YHWH their forefathers wrote about, fearing their oppressors more than the wrath of their God?

    • Sean: There isn’t necessarily the implication that you draw. Fredriksen simply proposes that “god fearers” (that is, pagans who didn’t become full proselytes but simply showed some interest in the Jewish deity) weren’t required to abstain from idolatry. How could they be required, when they weren’t Jews, and so weren’t under jurisdiction of the synagogue? In her schema, however, Paul innovated in making this requirement of his pagan converts, because they weren’t “god fearers” but were summoned to come truly to the God of Israel, turning from idolatry, as (she further proposes) Paul saw it laid out prophetically in parts of Isaiah, where the nations come to Zion as gentiles, not as proselytes.

      • Ah, that makes good sense; thanks for clarifying. It looks like I’ll have to track down a copy of “Jews and Christians in the First and Second Centuries” and add her contribution to the mix. I’ve always assumed that Paul persecuted Jewish converts to Christianity because he found the notion of a crucified Messiah offensive, but I’m open to the potential validity of other proposals, such as yours, and now hers. It seems that a best guess is the best we can do at this point.

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