Saturday, June 26, 2010

St Paul - Jew or Hellenist? Part 3

Paul, the Jew (Part 1 of 2)

What Paul preached and taught was his own interpretation of Jesus’ life, ministry, death and resurrection. It was based partly on the tradition accepted by all the churches (1 Cor 15:1-6), but he pondered it over the years and his knowledge of the Old Testament, interpreted to some extent by Jewish tradition, helped him to see the meaning of the Christ-event as no other first century Christian was able to do. “He was our first great theological thinker, not a systematic theologian but an apostolic herald of the gospel, essentially a preacher.”(1) According to W.D. Davies, “both Hellenism and Judaism are Paul’s tutors unto Christ.(2) But it is Judaism which is the more significant.” Paul looked back with pride on his life as a Jew of the Pharisaic tradition (Phil 3:5-6; Gal 1:14; 2 Cor 11:22). As a Jew he thinks and expresses himself in Old Testament categories and images. He quotes the Old Testament often (90 direct citations), usually according to the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament.(3) The significance of this is often lost to us who do not appreciate the fact that all the wealth of Greek literature lay open to him; yet at the most he only quotes a Gentile writer twice (cf. Acts 17:28 – where he quotes the Greek poet Aratus; Titus 1:12 – he quotes the poet Epimenides)(4). Paul relied extensively on the Old Testament. Possibly it was not all he knew, but certainly it was all he needed. He quotes the Old Testament to stress the unity of God’s action in both dispensations and often as announcing the Christian gospel (Rom 1:2) or preparing for Christ (Gal 3:24). Even if he contrasts the ‘letter of the law’ and the ‘Spirit’ (2 Cor 3:6; Rom 2:29; 7:6), the Old Testament “is still for him a means through which God speaks to humanity (1 Cor 9:10; 2 Cor 6:16-17; cf. Rom 4:23; 15:4).”(5) Indeed, we shall later see that most of his theology and this anthropology clearly reveals this Jewish background.

According to Barclay, Paul, to the end of his life was “proudly, stubbornly, unalterably a Jew.”(6) The polemical passages in which Paul reacts against the Mosaic Law should not be allowed to obscure the fact that even the Christian Paul looked back with pride on his life as a Jew of the Pharisaic tradition (Phil 3:5-6; Gal 1:14; 2 Cor 11:22). When he wrote to the Corinthians in answer to the charges of his detractors, Paul took his stand on his Jewish lineage: “Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they descendants of Abraham? So am I” (2 Cor 11:22). Although the three words are basically synonymous, all have their own distinctive nuance. A ‘Hebrew’ was a Jew who could still speak Hebrew (or more accurately Aramaic) in contradistinction to the Jews of the Diaspora, many who had forgotten their native language for the Greek of their adopted countries. An ‘Israelite’ was specifically a member of the covenant nation. To be a ‘descendent of Abraham’ was to have absolute racial purity – proselytes to Judaism were still regarded in many circles as second class. Therefore, Paul’s claim was that “there was nowhere in the world a purer Jew than he.”(7)

Paul did not himself abandon the ancestral laws and customs of his own people; in many things he was still a devout Jew. Again and again Paul’s Jewishness comes out. For example, we can deduce this from his treatment of Timothy in Acts. Timothy’s father was a Greek but his mother was a Jewess, and so we find Paul taking and circumcising Timothy in order that Timothy might be able to work amongst the Jews (16:3). In another instance, we find Paul taking what appears to be the Nazirite vow; when we find him shaving his head at Cenchrea (18:18). When Paul arrived in Jerusalem, we find him undertaking to be responsible for the expense of certain men who were engaged in carrying out the Nazirite vow in order that he might make it clear that he was no destructive renegade from the Jewish faith (21:17-26). In all these instances, we find a man that has never forgotten his Jewish origin; he never turned his back on the faith of his fathers.

But it was not only in his words and actions that Paul’s essential Jewishness came out; it was equally clear in his thoughts. It is not surprising, therefore, that Paul’s theology is profoundly and thoroughly Jewish: it tells the story of how the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God who spoke through Moses and the prophets, has now acted to fulfil the promises made long before and to enable God’s people to inherit their long-awaited blessings through the coming of the Messiah (e.g. 1 Cor 10:1; Rom 4:1; 9:3, 10; Gal 6:16). Paul’s speeches in Acts paint the same picture as his letters do (Acts 13:16-41; 28:23). Yet according to Paul’s ‘gospel,’ the people who inherit these blessings, the people who are the true ‘children of Abraham’ are not all who are Jewish, but all who have faith in Christ, whether they be Jew or Gentile. Indeed, ‘in Christ,’ according to Paul, ‘there is no longer Jew and Gentile’ (Gal 3:28; cf. 1 Cor 12:13; Col 3:11). So Paul’s theology is essentially Jewish, yet it claims Israel’s identity, blessings and salvation for a community which is not comprised solely of Jews, but of Jewish and Gentile believers in Christ. There is, then, in Paul’s theology “a fundamental tension between continuity and discontinuity: Paul’s message did not represent a rejection of his Jewish ‘past’, but neither was it simply a straightforward continuation of it.”(8)

1. Sherman E. Johnson, Paul the Apostle and His Cities (Wilmington: Michael Glazier Inc., 1987), 32
2. W.D. Davies, Paul and Rabbinic Judaism (London: SPCK, 1979) 1.
3. Matthew Thekkekara, The Letters of St. Paul: The Face of Early Christianity (Bangalore: Kristu Jyoti Publications, 1997), 18.
4. William Barclay, The Mind of St. Paul (London: Collins, 1958) 13-14.
5. J oseph Fitzmyer, “Pauline Theology” in Raymond E. Brown et al (ed), The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1990) 1382-1416, cf 1384 n. 82:10.
6. Barclay, 11.
7. Ibid.
8. David Horrell, An Introduction to the Study of Paul (London: Continuum, 2000) 82.

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