2016-06-30
Reprinted with permission of Cross Currents.

What's a nice Jewish feminist like me doing studying the apostle Paul? After all, from a Jewish perspective, Paul is a heretic who had a demented view of Judaism. From a feminist perspective, Paul is an ally of Christian conservatives who wish to keep women in a subordinate position to men. I am a Jewish New Testament scholar who teaches in a Christian seminary, and, after some years of studying and teaching Paul, I have come to the conclusion that Paul was a committed, well-intentioned Jew, even if the subsequent uses of his teachings were abominable where Jews are concerned.
Moreover, I believe Paul was largely driven by the fact that he was both a Jew and a citizen of the wider Hellenistic world that encompassed the ancient Mediterranean in his day. In my view, Paul is one of the first people in the history of Western civilization to deal directly with the problem of multiculturalism. As a modern American Jew, I do not end up in the same place Paul ends up (with Christ), but I appreciate how boldly and constructively he faced questions about human diversity. In my view, Paul's theological vision can be summed up by Galatians 3:28: "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus." Exploring the essence of this dictum, particularly the implications for intercultural relations, is the driving force behind my passion for Paul. Because my understanding of Paul deviates rather significantly from traditional as well as au courant scholarly views, I will begin by briefly describing the typical understanding of Paul and his writings. Old and New in the Study of Paul Under the influence of Augustine and Luther, Christians have traditionally viewed Paul as the exemplary convert, the one who was transformed by a vision of the resurrected Jesus on the road to Damascus, who went from being an unbeliever and vicious persecutor of Christians to recognizing Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior; in other words, Paul converted to Christianity and left his Judaism behind. Furthermore, Paul's newfound religious commitment is evident in that he traveled the world preaching Christ, establishing churches, and "making disciples of all nations." Thus, he became the quintessential Christian believer, leader, and teacher, and the writings attributed to him, which attest to the superiority of Christianity over Judaism, make up a substantial portion of the New Testament.

From a Jewish perspective, Paul has traditionally been viewed as an apostate from Judaism, a self-hating Jew, and a master manipulator of others. Jews have often used Paul as their primary target in anti-Christian polemics, claiming that while Jesus was a good Jew who never meant to found a new religion, Paul manipulated Jesus's message for his own gain and glory. Paul deceived Gentiles who did not know any better and undertook to start a new religion that was antithetical to Judaism (as well as Jesus). This view of Paul holds him single-handedly responsible for two thousand years of antisemitism and Christian brutality toward Jews.

At first these two views may look mutually exclusive, but in fact they are mirror images of one another. They both assume Paul left his Judaism behind once he "found Christ" and consequently turned toward communities of gentiles, where he became a leader and made large numbers of converts. From the Christian perspective, Paul's experience is true and he is sincere; he simply found something better and wanted to share it with the rest of the world. Christians view Paul's work positively, since it resulted in the salvation of the Gentiles. From the Jewish perspective, Paul is a manipulative fake, or at least seriously misguided. What he did resulted not in the salvation of the world, but in the condemnation of millions of Jews. (Interestingly, some mainline Christians of a liberal ilk have taken up a version of this view. They tend to revere Jesus and see him as a teacher of love, while feeling skeptical about Paul and viewing his teachings as intolerant, divisive, and unforgiving.)
Over the last twenty-five years many scholars have begun to view Paul differently. Commonly designated "the new perspective on Paul," this wave of scholarship signifies a rejection of the traditional Christian portrait of Paul and the reconstruction of Paul as a Jew. Scholars who align themselves with the new perspective pride themselves on having liberated Paul from the dominant interpretive lens created by Augustine and Luther. They have benefited from dialogue with Jewish scholars and by an honest engagement with ancient Jewish literature that has resulted in a vision of first-century Judaism that makes it impossible to see Paul as completely alienated from his Judaism. It is clear from the way Paul speaks that he thinks of himself as a Jew, not just before his experience of the risen Jesus, but throughout his life (see, for example, Rom. 9:3; Gal. 2:15; Phil. 3:5). Moreover, in the middle of the first century when Paul is writing his letters, "Christianity" does not yet exist. Jews who believe in Jesus do not yet understand themselves as members of a distinct religion -- they are simply followers of Jesus. Not all scholars, of course, accept this new view. Critics of the new perspective claim that it is motivated more by contemporary Jewish-Christian relations in light of the holocaust than by an accurate reading of Paul.
Why is it that Paul is viewed by some as the quintessential Christian in a world in which Christianity trumps Judaism, while others argue passionately for seeing Paul as a Jew who has been misunderstood by subsequent Christian readers?

Paul himself is partly to blame. He seems to speak out of both sides of his mouth; he has good as well as bad things to say about Jews. For example, compare the verses in each of the following sets:

  • A. Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision? Much in every way. To begin with, the Jews are entrusted with the oracles of God. (Rom. 3:1-2)
  • B. For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, "Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law, and do them." (Gal. 3:10).
  • A. They are Israelites, and to them belong the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; and to them belong the patriarchs, and of their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ. (Rom. 9:4-5)
  • B. I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing. (Gal. 2:21)

    In each of these sets, the verse labeled "A" coheres with more recent views of Paul as someone who felt positively toward Jews and Judaism. The verse labeled "B" reflects the traditional perspective, which sees Paul as rejecting Judaism in favor of Christ. Although we can debate the subtleties of these statements, the point is that they are all authentically Pauline, even though they appear -- at least on the surface -- to express contradictory points of view.

    The problem is not merely one of inconsistency among various passages. Like many biblical texts, the same Pauline passages can be interpreted in varying ways. Take, for instance, Gal. 3:10, quoted above, which includes a quotation of Deut. 27:26. Traditionally, commentators have assumed that Paul believes that Jews ("all those who rely on works of the law") are cursed because nobody can do "all things written in the book of the law" -- the emphasis being on the "all." Unless one keeps every single commandment perfectly, one is irredeemably condemned. Therefore, as Paul seemingly goes on to argue in Gal. 3:11-14, Christ was needed to redeem people from this otherwise inescapable curse created by the law.

    This interpretation assumes a negative view of Jewish law, in keeping with the traditional portrait of Paul. But some Pauline scholars influenced by the new perspective point out that Paul's argument in Galatians (or elsewhere, for that matter) never articulates the impossibility of keeping the law perfectly. In fact, in Phil. 3:6, Paul claims that he was "blameless as to the law." To ascribe to Paul the belief that God gave Israel a law the people were incapable of living up to is to ascribe a very perverse view of God to the apostle.

  • It seems more probable that Paul understood the verse from Deuteronomy that he quotes in Gal. 3:10 as other Jews would have understood it: the curse applies to people who do not observe Jewish law, i.e., either deviant Jews or Gentiles. The emphasis, then, is not on "all things written in the book of the law" but on "everyone who does not abide." According to this interpretation, Paul's concern is not with the law itself, but with people who have not had the benefit of God's law, and are, therefore, under a curse. The reason Christ is needed to redeem the so-called "curse of the law" is to make possible the righteousness of the Gentiles before God, not the Jews. Many new-perspective scholars claim that the issue fundamentally preoccupying Paul is the seemingly impenetrable boundaries human beings erect between themselves, and that Torah ("law") constitutes one of these boundaries. In other words, Paul's problem with Jewish law is that it limited interaction between Jews and Gentiles; the observance of dietary laws, for example, meant that Jews would not or could not eat with Gentiles. There is nothing inherently wrong with Torah, as the Lutheran interpretation advocated, but it is applicable only to Jews and as such creates barriers between Jews and others. Thus, it gets in the way of building the kind of inclusive community Paul desires.
    Although I generally position myself with liberal commentators and am profoundly influenced by the new perspective in my reading of Paul, I am troubled by the inclusive reading of Gal. 3:28. At the turn of the twenty-first century, most Americans would agree that the elimination of slavery and the obliteration of all master-slave distinctions between people is a social good, such that we feel no ambiguity about proclaiming "no longer slave or free" and meaning it literally. But how about "no longer male and female"? Do we feel the same unambiguous enthusiasm for collapsing those distinctions? If by "no longer male and female" we mean equal political, social, and vocational opportunity for all women and men, then perhaps we might find it easy to subscribe to the dictum. But Paul does not use the language of equality; rather, he issues a call for erasing the distinguishing marks between people (if one accepts the liberal reading). The problem is even more acute when it comes to "no longer Jew or Greek." Do we really want a world in which there is neither Jew nor Greek? Certainly not from a Jewish perspective! But even, I imagine, from a Christian one. It seems to me that the value of the slogan "no longer Jew or Greek" as a broad universalist claim has become compromised. While perhaps at an earlier time people desired human homogeneity, most Americans have now come to embrace multiculturalism. We recognize there are profound differences between people, and furthermore we do not lament these differences but celebrate them.
    One may object that I am pushing the liberal interpretation of Gal. 3:28 to absurdity, or taking it too literally, that by "no longer Jew or Greek" Paul does not mean the obliteration of cultural difference, but rather the establishment of an equitable human community based on our common humanness. But therein lies the problem: What exactly is our common humanness? Does it not imply that deep down we are all the same? If so, then reading Paul's proclamation in Gal. 3:28 necessarily implies that human equality is predicated upon human sameness. When Paul says "There is no longer Jew or Greek,. . . no longer slave or free,. . . no longer male and female,. . ." the ideal human being is indeed not somewhere halfway between each of these conditions. Paul is not simply mentioning complementary pairs of equals. One term in each pair represents the ideal, the desired status for the believer (from Paul's perspective): Jew, free, and male (which, by the way, equals Paul!). For Paul, the prototypical human ideal is best represented by the free Jewish man. When Paul juxtaposes "Jew" and "Greek," he means that the Jew possesses the preferred condition. As Paul says in Rom. 3:1-2, "What advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision? Much in every way." It is the Greeks who are underprivileged. Being "in Christ" allows Gentiles to be part of the people of God, a privilege Jews already hold.

    Paul did not relegate Jewishness to a lower order of being; it is his interpreters who do that. Even for new-perspective scholars, Jewish law is still seen as an obstacle to the goals that Paul is trying to promote. And if law remains the fundamental problem for the apostle, then when he says "no longer Jew or Greek," he must mean the eradication of Jewish law as the primary means of eradicating difference.

    I think it implausible that Paul's "problem" is with Jewish law. Rather, his problem is what to do about the people who do not have it, i.e., the Gentiles. I do not think Paul preaches the collapse of all human difference; this interpretation is simply a more benign expression of Christian imperialism. Rather, Paul assumed human difference is a God-given part of creation, and more importantly, that it is an essential aspect of Paul's utopian vision. Paul believes Jews and Gentiles, like men and women, are fundamentally different kinds of people. Paul recognizes the inevitability of peoples' differences and even shows genuine respect for those who are different from him. For example, Paul objects to Gentiles' having to be circumcised; he does not condemn circumcision per se. In other words, Paul's message to the Galatians advocates the inclusion of Gentiles as Gentiles into the community of the people of God; he does not think Gentiles should first have to become like Jews by being circumcised in order to become members of God's people. Paul understood the coming of Christ as the ritual event that allowed for members of other nations to become part of Abraham's family. Just as in marriage, where people come together ritually in order to create a new family, Christ's sacrifice inaugurated the unity of Jew and Greek. "No longer Jew or Greek" does not, however, mean that Jew and Greek are no longer distinct from one another, so long as the paradigm of "male and female" operates in our reading of this text. The enactment of marriage does not deny the essential difference between woman and man; on the contrary, their complementarity has traditionally been viewed as essential to the creation of the family. Marriage binds the man and woman in a new kind of relationship that entails a reprioritizing of loyalties so that they can build a common life. Similarly, Jew and Gentile coming together in harmony while remaining distinct is the goal of Paul's mission. Paul's vision encompasses Jew and Gentile because, as a monotheist, Paul understands all peoples as part of God's creation. As Paul himself says, "Is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also" (Rom. 3:29). Christ has enabled Jews and Gentiles to become related to each other as children of Abraham, but they do not cease to be Jews and Gentiles.

    I do not believe the dictum in Gal. 3:28 as used by Paul was meant to articulate the destruction of human categories of existence so that people might share the same human essence. Rather, he articulated the construction of new human social relations based on the model of family. Gal. 3:28 encapsulates the message that people who are different can, if they so choose, come to understand themselves as meaningfully related to each other, committed to their well being, and part of a shared world.