Paul raises a problem for those who take for granted the historicity of Jesus on the strength of the existence of the NT canon. He rhetorically asserts that Jews in his own day had no chance of hearing about Jesus unless they hear a Christian preacher inform them about him.
The standard response to this problem for historicity is that Paul is only speaking of Jews in the Diaspora. But this standard response is offered without reference to the context of Paul’s statement, and when one does take a look at that context, one quickly sees that the response is ill-informed. Paul is definitely speaking about all Jews, even especially those based in Palestine!
Steven Carr has raised this question a number of times with those arguing for the historicity of Jesus and has met with scorn, accusations of being abusive, silence, or the standard “Paul was talking about the Diaspora Jews.”
I am posting here to draw attention to the context of Paul’s statement, and the ignorance of the response that he was referring to Diaspora Jews only:
How shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? (Romans 10:14)
Paul from the beginning of his letter to the Romans is discussing both Jews and gentiles in tandem, and he makes it clear he is discussing all Jews against all gentiles, without distinctions as to geographic locale or customs. Romans 1-2 sets the two beside each other: all mankind is addressed; both gentiles and Jews. The difference between the two is that one has inherited the Mosaic law and the other has not.
Familiarity leads us to read right over that! What advantage do the Jews have that the gentiles lack? Answer:
What advantage then has the Jew, or what is the profit of circumcision? Much in every way! Chiefly because to them was sent the Son of God, for God so loved the world that he sent to his own chosen people, the Jews, his very own Son to perform wonders and heal them, so they heard him, saw him, touched him, witnessed his raising of people from the dead, healing the blind, teaching with authority, forgiving sins, . . . .
No, that never crosses Paul’s mind here. Rather, the biggest advantage the Jews have over gentiles is that they have the Bible!
What advantage then has the Jew, or what is the profit of circumcision? Much in every way! Chiefly because to them were committed the oracles of God. . . Now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by Jesus Christ by the Law and the Prophets!
So Romans 3 digs a little deeper into the comparisons, but it is clear Paul is speaking of ALL Jews when he distinguishes them from gentiles for having the special advantages of possessing the oracles of God. Paul is not addressing the Diaspora as distinct from other Jews. He is addressing the Jews as the possessors of the Bible.
Paul here explains that Jews are no worse sinners than gentiles, and gentiles are no better than Jews, because Jews and gentiles alike have sinned equally before God.
What then? Are we better than they? Not at all. For we have previously charged both Jews and Greeks that they are all under sin.
Paul speaks of the Jews, of Israel, as having been rejected for now, and he does so at length in chapters 10 and 11.
And why have they been rejected? Paul again explains why the whole of Israel has been rejected:
They have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For they being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and seeking to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted to the righteousness of God. (Romans 10:2-3)
This is a very strange way to explain that God rejects them because they killed his son.
Paul is speaking of the Jewish people within the context of their Palestinian base. He addresses them in terms of what the Bible says about them in Palestine. He faults them through the words of Elijah for having killed the prophets (Romans 11:3):
Lord, they have killed your prophets and torn down your altars . . .
So how has God punished them for killing the prophets (not Jesus)?
God has given them a spirit of stupor, eyes that should not see, and ears that they should not hear, to this very day.
Paul says God has punished them by blinding their eyes and deafening their ears to the Gospel of Jesus Christ that is being preached by apostles like himself.
The sin of the Jews, according to Paul, is not that they killed and rejected Jesus. It is that they rejected — or failed to understand — the Gospel about Jesus that he preaches.
Paul faults Jews for their wrong understanding about the Law and the Prophets. Romans 10:1-8
Brethren, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel is that they may be saved.
For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge.
For they being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and seeking to establish their own righteousness [is this the worst of their sins, so that there is no room to even refer to their crucifying Christ?], have not submitted to the righteousness of God.
For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.
For Moses writes about the righteousness which is of the law, “The man who does those things shall live by them.”
But the righteousness of faith speaks in this way, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend to heaven?'” (that is to bring Christ down from heaven)
or, “‘Who will descend into the abyss?'” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead).
But what does it say? “The word is near you, even in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith which we preach): . . . .
Paul is clearly speaking of all humanity in his letter, and the point of his claims about the Jews is that they have failed to understand their scriptures, meaning they have failed to interpret them in the way Paul does. This is their sin and what makes them no better than the gentiles.
Paul is in agony over them for their blindness to the gospel as it is being preached in his own time. He has no historical awareness of an act of rejection of Jesus.
He begins his letter to the Romans by explaining that he, Paul, has been the recipient of the gospel of God that was promised long ago in the Bible (the Prophets). This gospel is about Jesus, but it is the gospel itself that was promised by the Prophets, not Jesus, according to Paul in Romans 1:1-2
the gospel of God which he promised before through his prophets in the holy Scriptures
A few verses later he writes that it is the Gospel itself, not Jesus, that is the power of salvation:
For I am not ashamed of the gospel [of Christ], for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes. . .
He then lists all the unrighteous acts of men for which the wrath of God falls:
- making images of God and worshiping them
- sexual sins
- haters of God
- disobedient to parents
I suppose he meant readers to who thought of it to file the death of Jesus under one or two of those labels.
Paul is not addressing the Diaspora as distinct from the Jews in Judea, and this is abundantly clear throughout the entire epistle. The entire theme and message of Paul hinges on his meaning the Jews totally — all Jews — as opposed to all gentiles. That is his point.
Biblical scholars who deny this, or attempt to ignore it, are not doing their profession any credit and are shortchanging their lay readership even more.
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