Sunday, July 4, 2010

St Paul - Jew or Hellenist? Part 4

Paul, the Jew (Part 2 of 2)

The beginning of Paul’s apostolic career and foundations of his missionary career can be traced to his conversion or call experience on the road to Damascus. The event is narrated three times in Acts (9:1-19; 22:3-20; 26:4-18) and is also described briefly by Paul himself in Galatians 1:11-17 (there are certainly some differences between these two source accounts and even discrepancies between the three accounts in Acts, although all point to the same reality). It appears that Paul was secure and content under the law as a Jew, and lived as a good Jew as can be seen in this text: “If anyone does claim to rely on them (the prescriptions of the Law), my claim is better. Circumcised on the eighth day of my life, I was born of the race of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrew parents. In the matter of the Law, I was a Pharisee; as for religious fervour, I was a persecutor of the Church; as for the uprightness embodied in the Law, I was faultless” (Phil 3:4-6). So good was he, that he was zealous enough to challenge those who threatened his religion. Paul’s conversion, then, was not from a sinful life to a religious life, but rather “a major shift from one religious perspective to another.”(1) Whatever Paul saw or heard (the different accounts in Acts and Galatians differ) – if there were any external manifestations at all – it is certain that he encountered a Christ whose very life was shared as his own. This encounter with Christ helped Paul see the continuity of the revelation of God which he knew from his Jewish traditions. His God was still active in history, but now in the raising of Christ (Rom 3:1-26). The eschatological kingdom anticipated by the prophets and the Old Testament had indeed come, at least in its first fruits in the Risen Christ (1 Cor 15:20-28). Finally, the experience of the Risen Christ showed Paul that the good things that the Law was given to achieve were in fact achieved through Christ (Rom 8:3-4) and that “it is not being circumcised or uncircumcised that matters; but what matters is a new creation” in Christ” (Gal 6:15). Therefore, while Paul had been nurtured in a world where the distinction between Jews and Gentiles was fundamental, the essence or at least the outcome of his conversion experience was the realization that in Christ “there is no distinction between Jew and Greek” (Rom 10:12). “His conversion meant the abandonment of a set of convictions that was rooted in a fundamental Jew-Gentile distinction and the adoption of a new set in which this distinction was of no continuing significance, having been eliminated or transcended in Christ.”(2)

The Law or Torah remained the fundamental pre-occupation of the Pharisees. The Law meant to the Jews the sum and substance of all that is good and beautiful, of all that is worth knowing.(3) The Law was their guide, their stay, their goal; yet it was more than a code of law; it was teaching, revelation, the Word of God. Being a Pharisee, Paul was not merely a devout Jew but one who had foresworn all normal activities in order to dedicate his life to the keeping of the Law (thus meaning of the title ‘Pharisee’ – ‘Separated One’), and he had kept it with such meticulous care that in the keeping of it he was blameless (Phil 3:6). The basic problem in interpreting Paul’s Christian view of the Jewish law is that he seems to say both positive and negative things about it. For example, apparently negative statements include the following: “So then, no human being can be found upright at the tribunal of God by keeping the Law; all that the Law does is to tell us what is sinful” (Rom 3:20). “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin comes from the Law” (1 Cor 15:56). “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law …” (Gal 3:13). But on the other hand, we must consider these positive statements: “So then, the Law is holy, and what it commands is holy and upright and good” (Rom 7:12). “The only thing you should owe to anyone is love for one another, for to love the other person is to fulfil the law” (Rom 13:8). “… be servants to one another in love, since the whole of the Law is summarised in the one commandment: ‘You must love your neighbour as yourself’” (Gal 5:13-14). What then can we surmise from this seemingly conflicting and contradictory position? According to Horrell, Paul has taken up thoroughly Jewish themes, themes known from the Jewish Scriptures, and developed them in the light of his new conviction that God’s saving grace is now manifest in Christ. From this Christian perspective, Paul reasons that the law itself cannot save, and thus have to rethink the purpose for which God gave it. Paul rejects the idea that God (or God’s law) is directly the agent of sin; he remains insistent that God’s purposes are being worked out, and that the law played its part in the cosmic drama of salvation that now finds its culmination in Christ.(4) To Paul, “Christ was the ‘end’ of the Law (Rom 10:4), not merely its abrogation but its final goal and consummation, its ‘τέλοϛ’ in the total purposes of God.”(5)

The tension between the confining ‘Jewishness’ and the Hellenistic universalism of Paul can also be discerned from his attitude towards Israel and the Gentile world. It is clear that Paul claims for the Christian believers, both Jewish and Gentile, the status which Israel claims as her own. In particular, Paul spends some time in Galatians arguing that the true descendants of Abraham, the father of the Jewish people, are those who have faith, specifically faith in Christ (Gal 3:6-4:31). Certainly for Paul, as in the case of any other Jew, Abraham is central to Paul’s argument here and also in Romans 4. But Paul then moves away from the exclusive understanding of the Jews when he claimed for his Christian converts the status of children of Abraham, and simultaneously denied that exclusive status to those who conventionally claim it, the Jewish people. This was indeed a radical departure, demonstrating once again the seemingly contradictory themes of continuity and discontinuity. We see here as in the case of the Law, Paul wrestling with theological dilemmas: attempting to hold together his belief concerning the need for people to turn to Christ with his belief in God’s promises to Israel and his conviction that God’s sovereign plan of salvation will ultimately be unstoppable; attempting to do justice to both human responsibility and the sovereignty of God. Moreover, Paul insists on holding on to 2 basic convictions, thought they stand in some considerable tension:
1. That salvation is available to Jew and Gentile, without distinction, only in Christ; and
2. That God’s promises to Israel – the people of Israel, the Jews – are irrevocable.

Other examples of Paul’s Jewish theological background can be seen in these instances. First, Paul’s view of man is essentially Hebraic and he derives it from the Prophets (e.g. Isa 40:6 cf. Rom 8:7). Secondly, Paul has inherited the prophetic intuition of the living God (Rom 4:17). The ‘holiness,’ the ‘otherness’ of God was as vivid to him (2 Cor 5:11; 7:1; Phil 2:12) as it was to the psalmists and Isaiah. Thirdly, Paul has certainly been influenced by the Jewish apocalyptic. The pre-occupation with the day of the Lord in 1 Thess 4:13-5:11; 2 Thess 2:1-12, the evocation of the wrath of God in Rom 1:18-20, the sense of the end of the world has come in 1 Cor 7:26, 29, 31; 10:11; 11:32 and the general resurrection in 1 Cor 15, all bear out Paul’s debt to the apocalyptic.

We had already noted the abundant use of the Old Testament in Paul’s writings. At times, he accommodates the OT text or gives new meaning to passages he cites (e.g. Hab 2:4 in Rom 1:17 or Gal 3:11; Gen 12:7 in Gal 3:16; Exod 34:34 in 2 Cor 3:17); he may allegorize a text (Gen 16:15; 17:16 in Gal 4:21-25) or wrest it from its original context (Dt 25:5 in 1 Cor 9:9)(6). Paul’s use of the Old Testament does not conform to our modern ideas of quoting scriptures, but it does conform to the contemporary Jewish way of interpreting and must be judged in that light. Acts 22:3 tells us that Paul was a student of the famous rabbi, Gamaliel. Paul may probably, therefore, had been trained in the rabbinic exegetical methods. A few examples of this method are noted hereunder:(7)

1. Homiletic application of a text - in 2 Cor 6:2, Paul applies the text from Isa 49:8 (which refers to deliverance from exile) to Christ and the Christians.
2. Deduction from a biblical text – in 1 Cor 14:21-22 the text of Isa 28:11-12 is appropriated and applied to the gift of tongues.
3. Drawing a conclusion from the strict meaning of the word – in Gal 3:16, Paul plays on the word ‘offspring’ found in Gen 12:7 to arrive at his own conclusion.
4. Typological exegesis – Adam in Rom 5:14 is a type of the ‘man’ who is to come, Christ.

As a trained rabbi, Paul was also familiar with the rabbinic traditions, e.g. the existence and mediation of angels (Acts 7:53); that the Law was given 430 years after Abraham (Gal 3:17); the miracle story of the rock that followed the Israelites during the Exodus (1 Cor 10:4). Furthermore, when Paul uses the Old Testament, he uses it as a Jew would use it. Again and again he introduces an Old Testament quotation with the phrase: “It is written.” That was the normal Greek legal phrase for a law or an agreement or a condition that was unalterable and inviolable. Paul’s view of scripture as the voice of God, however, was a Jewish view.(8)

1. Anthony J. Tambasco, In the Days of Paul: The Social World and Teaching of the Apostle (New York: Paulist Press, 1991), 30
2. Terence L. Donaldson, “Israelite, Convert, Apostle to the Gentiles: The Origin of Paul’s Gentile Mission” in Richard N. Longenecker (ed), The Road from Damascus: The Impact of Paul’s Conversion on His Life, Thought and Ministry (Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans, 1997) 70.
3. Matthew Thekkekara, The Letters of St. Paul: The Face of Early Christianity (Bangalore: Kristu Jyoti Publications, 1997), 19.
4. David Horrell, An Introduction to the Study of Paul (London: Continuum, 2000), 90.
5. Frederick C. Grant, Roman Hellenism and the New Testament (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1962) 147.
6. Joseph Fitzmyer, “Pauline Theology” in Raymond E. Brown et al (ed), The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1990) 1384 n. 82:10.
7. Thekkekara, 18-20.
8. William Barclay, The Mind of St. Paul (London: Collins, 1958), 14

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