Paul’s “Persecution” of Jewish Jesus-Followers: Nature & Cause(s)
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. 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). 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). 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.
- 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. 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.
 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.
 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.
 Torrey Seland, “Saul of Tarsus and Early Zealotism: Reading Gal 1,13-14 in Light of Philo’s Writings,” Biblica 83 (2002): 449-71.
 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.
 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.