Last week’s post was on why “The New Testament is Not a Jewish Book;” this week, we look at the man chiefly responsible for shaping the book’s arguments in particular and Christianity in general.
“The conception of a new faith, half pagan and half Jewish, such as Paul preached, and susceptibility to its influences, were altogether foreign to the nature of Jewish life and thought. For Judaism, religion is the hallowing of this life by the fulfilment of its manifold duties (see Judaism): Paul shrank from life as the domain of Satan and all his hosts of evil; he longed for redemption by the deadening of all desires for life, and strove for another world which he saw in his ecstatic visions.”
—Kaufmann Kohler, “SAUL OF TARSUS (known as Paul, the Apostle of the Heathen)”
Jewish Encyclopedia, 1906
Paul, who was born with the Jewish name of Saul, made a decision that would define Jewish-Christian relations for centuries. It was Paul who decided to turn this Jewish sect away from Judaism, chiefly as a means to attract followers who were not Jewish. He made a decision to render the fundamental laws that defined Judaism as unnecessary for the new followers of Christianity. These included circumcision, or brit milah, the dietary laws of kashrut, the laws of Shabbat, the celebration of the thee pilgrimage festivals of Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot (Shalosh Regalim), and the Mosaic laws in general.
That one man felt that he had the power to do so says much about him. His decisions affected the small Jewish sect: he removed from its practices all that then defined Judaism. Small wonder that many claim that it was Paul who invented Christianity, enlarging its numbers by engendering anti-Judaism sentiments in his many letters (e.g., see chapter 2 in the Book Of Romans, where Paul minimizes and negates Judaism’s history and accomplishments).
In many ways, Paul follows the line of thinking found in the Gospel of Luke and in the Acts of the Apostles, both attributed to the same author, Luke the physician. In such cases, Christianity is often presented as a victim of Jewish persecution (playing up to the Romans, who genuinely held power), both as rhetorical weapon against critics and as method to differentiate it from Judaism as being more loving, more peaceful.
Moreover, Paul made it his mission to stand in opposition to Judaism, considering this as a necessary strategy to ensure Christianity’s survival. He achieved this by writing that this new sect had a greater spirituality, had established a new covenant and had a greater closeness to G-d than Judaism; that this was the heavenly plan all along, that the original chosen people were no longer chosen, having failed in their task; Paul refers to them (the Jews), bound by the laws of Judaism, as the “old man” There is, for Paul, only the “new man,” a spiritual being not defined or bounded by any earthly or religious distinctions; he is by all accounts incorruptible, righteous and holy (Ephesians 4:22-24). Echoes of this idea are found in Marxism's “New Soviet Man.”
Both Hellenism and Gnosticism factored into his writings, as do the mystery religions. Given this, it is not surprising that Paul’s letters are often dismissive and derogatory of Judaism; and in many cases, Paul inveighs against the Jews. His views would today be considered on the extreme side, perhaps even delusional or filled with paranoia. His desire to make this new sect large, successful and universal meant that in his view the old established religion of Judaism (and its Jews) were his enemy.
Here is one of many examples, in Paul’s Epistle to the Thesolonians, written around 52 CE, and considered the first of his letters:
For you, brothers and sisters, became imitators of God’s churches in Judea,which are in Christ Jesus: You suffered from your own people the same things those churches suffered from the Jews 15 who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and also drove us out. They displease God and are hostile to everyone 16 in their effort to keep us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved. In this way they always heap up their sins to the limit. The wrath of God has come upon them at last. (2:14-16)Such a message of condemnation would not and could not endear him to the Jewish People. Given his lack of success with the Jews, Paul quickly turned to the non-Jews, to whom he devoted himself with a fierce passion, and with a zealousness that worked to keep his mission in focus. Such describes Paul, an apostle to the Gentiles (גויים or goyim, Hebrew for “the nations”).
The only requirement in the apostle’s view was faith, and in particular “a faith in Jesus,” who is both human and divine, which describes one of the characteristics of a mystery religion. The Epistle to the Romans (written in the mid-50s), considered by Christians to be his magnum opus, is an attack on the law in particular and on Judaism in general. In it, Paul argues forcefully that faith is more important than the Mosaic Law, and goes to great lengths and much rhetorical contortions to “prove” such a point. I found his arguments here both confusing and irrational.
It is true that there are many verses in the New Testament arguing faith’s sufficiency, and he does so tireless and tediously, so at least he remains consistent in his efforts. But this is neither a Jewish argument nor ever a part of normative or mainstream Judaism.
The result was that non-Jews—ignorant of Jewish practices, Jewish ritual and Jewish history—found it more acceptable and were more willing and eager to join the new sect, finding its promises of eternal life appealing. After all, most were pagans and had no knowledge of any monotheistic religions like Judaism. Thus, there is a good reason that Church fathers considered Paul an “apostle to the gentiles.” His knowledge of the Torah and of Judaism was as thin as his connection and affiliation to the Jewish People. Not surprising, his relationship to the established Jewish community was unfriendly and often hostile; this is to put it mildly.
Yet Paul persisted, believing his mission was ordained in the heavens; at times (see Romans 11). he displayed some tribal allegiance but this was attenuated by the broader message that Judaism was in need of change, if not outright replacement with a more universal and inclusive religion. Such largely explains many of the verses in the New Testament where Paul both vilifies the Jews and yet desires they would accompany him on his journey to a new religion. The vast majority rejected him and his claims; and rightly and understandably so. Jesus’claims as messiah were not met; and Paul’s transformation of Jesus into a god-man and Paul’s denial of Judaism and its Mosaic laws made his message unwelcome and unholy to the Jewish People. His message was far too foreign (and far outside the boundaries of Judaism) for Jews to ever consider as valid and accept.
Later, the Church Fathers with their anti-Judaic emphasis of the New Testament, would close the door to the possibility of any great Jewish influence on Christianity. The result is that Paul won the battle and got what he desired: a New Testament, apart from (some of) the teachings of Jesus, bereft not only of Jewish religious ritual, but also of Jewish religious thought.
The small Jewish sect that started with the teachings of Jesus was no more. In its place was an aggressive, evangelizing and expansionary Pauline Christianity—one that for most of its history viewed Jews and Judaism with suspicion and hostility. Much credit goes to Paul. There are attempts today among some Christian writers and scholars to rehabilitate Paul, to cast him in a less harsher light. I understand their reasons, but can’t agree with them. This effort will not find much sympathy among the Jewish People, who view Paul as the “Father of Anti-Judaism,” a reputation he worked hard to earn.
Next week: “Jesus Of Nazareth Was Not A Christian.”