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Saul/Paul the “Persecutor” and Jewish Tolerance of Diversity

October 26, 2018

On Monday of this week (22nd) the esteemed scholar of ancient Judaism in the Roman world, Professor Martin Goodman, delivered the 2018 Kennedy-Wright Lecture, sponsored by our Centre for the Study of Christian Origins: “The Jewish Paul and the History of Judaism.”

Goodman first noted several Jewish texts from the first century CE that emphasize both the diversity of ancient Judaism and also the readiness of most Jews to live with that diversity.  That is, Jewish differences, such as those between Pharisees and Sadducees, appear to have led sometimes to vigorous disagreement, but did not lead to physical conflict (so far as we know).

He then moved to Paul’s references to his initial opposition to the young Jesus-movement (Gal 1:13-14; Philip 3:4-6; 1 Cor 15:9), noting that they appear to offer an exception to the general picture Goodman had painted.  He suggested that Saul/Paul must have been an unusually vigilant person, and this accounts for his self-described efforts to “persecute” and “destroy” the Jesus-movement.

Goodman’s proposal may find some support from Paul himself, as I pointed out in the discussion following the lecture.  For in Gal 1:14 Paul describes himself as surpassing many contemporaries in his zealous commitment to “the traditions of my fathers” (which I take to include Pharisaic traditions/interpretations of Torah).  That is, Paul seems to say here that his “progress” in living out Jewishness (my preferred shorthand translation of Ioudaismos) was noteworthy.  Note also Philip. 3:6, where he simply states that he was “as to righteousness of the law [Torah], blameless.”

But the point made by Goodman earlier in his lecture continues to demand the question why the Pharisee Saul/Paul felt obliged to take the sort of determined actions against the Jesus-movement that he repeatedly refers to.  That is, if the more typical posture of devout Jews toward religious diversity was to express disagreement, but not to engage in physical coercion, perhaps there was also something about the early Jesus-movement (comprised then of Jews) that seemed to require its “destruction” (the word Paul himself uses in Gal. 1:13-14 to describe his intent).

In a previous posting here I reviewed this matter briefly, taking particular notice of Paula Fredriksen’s proposal that the issue generating Paul’s initial response to the Jesus-movement was that it was making gentile adherents abstain from worshiping the many gods (a proposal repeated now in her newly-released book, When Christians were Jews:  The First Generation, Yale, 2018).  She surmises that this would have led to Jewish fears that this could produce a backlash against the Jewish community among the wider gentile populace of cities such as Damascus, and so Paul (in her proposal with the Damascus synagogues) took disciplinary action against the Jewish Jesus-followers in question.  I also laid out briefly the reasons and data that make me think that her proposal is flawed.

She refers to unnamed “apostles” as the Jesus-believers who were disciplined in Damascus, and who were the likely objects of Saul/Paul’s ire.  But what corroborative evidence is there that “apostles” were working in Damascus within the first year or so after Jesus’ execution, conducting what would amount to a gentile-mission conducted along what we know a bit later as Pauline lines?

Moreover, as I pointed out in that earlier posting (and in the publications cited there), Paul’s description of the import of the experience that he calls a “revelation” is entirely “christological”.  That is, the experience is portrayed as a radically new estimate of Jesus.  Paul says that God revealed “his Son” to him.  This suggests to me that the crucial issue for Saul the Pharisee before that experience was how to regard Jesus.  Was he a blasphemer or false prophet as judged by the Jerusalem Jewish authorities, and so handed over to Pilate for execution, making the claims of the Jesus-movement about his divine vindication an outrage?  Were the devotional practices (such as invoking the resurrected Jesus) thus further outrages, nigh to impinging on the devotion that Jews offered to the biblical deity exclusively?

If so (or something like this), then the “revelation” of Jesus’ divinely-affirmed status that Paul refers to in Gal. 1:15-16 could well have had the effect of turning Saul/Paul from opponent to advocate of “the faith that he previously sought to destroy” (Gal. 1:23).  At least in this proposal we have Paul’s statement of the cognitive content that he came to embrace in his “revelation.”

In any case, to return to Goodman’s lecture, accepting his general thesis that Roman-era Jews were able to accommodate most religious diversity, the vigorous initial efforts of Saul/Paul against the Jesus-movement suggest that something made it seem to him an exceptional danger.

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  1. David Madison permalink

    I’ve just finished reading “When Christians Were Jews”. Ironically, Paula Fredriksen actually cites 1 Corinthians 1:23. Paul preached “Christ crucified” but Paula Fredriksen really downplays that. She gives the impression that Paul was actually preaching, “Christ will be back any minute; I wonder what’s keeping him.”

  2. David Madison permalink

    “Paula Fredriksen’s proposal that the issue generating Paul’s initial response to the Jesus-movement was that it was making gentile adherents abstain from worshiping the many gods”

    That is a remarkably roundabout explanation for Jewish opposition to the Jesus movement. Was there really little or nothing in the movement’s central message that was considered objectionable? What about the scandal of a crucified Christ (1 Corinthians 1:23)?

  3. Sue Kmetko permalink

    I endorse your view, Larry. It was Jesus’ claim to be the son of God that led to his execution, and to have others proclaim faith in this appears to be the issue that caused the consequent attempts to extinguish the Jesus movement. The NT amply testifies to this as something vital to Paul, whether vigorously opposing or later defending the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.

    • Well, the charge reflected in the title attached to the cross was “king of the Jews”, which reflects a royal-messiah. Whatever claim Jesus made for himself, it seems that his followers expected him to be messiah, and that brought the attention of the Roman governor.

  4. Seems to me the exceptional danger of Christianity was Jesus Christ himself, whom the church was worshiping as God. Absent a coherent Trinitarian theology, this could only be a deep offense—and heresy among the Jews. Of course, it wasn’t an apologetic encounter that convinced Paul of the error of his persecuting ways, but a vision of Christ himself.

    • I think it’s a bit of a “reach” to ascribe “Trinitarian theology” to the believers of the first decades, given that this formulation didn’t emerge till the 3rd/4th century. A profound reverence for Jesus, to be sure, but not a doctrine of the Trinity in 30-50 AD!!

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