2016-03-03

Theological Assumptions (Can Christianity handle a Jewish Paul?)

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by Neil Godfrey

Not long ago I wrote The Jewish Jesus as a Christian Bias. This time I am writing about the Jewish Jesus and Paul as opposed to a Christian bias. Nothing is simple, is it. I do suspect that the focus on the Jewishness of Jesus was originally undertaken with the conscious belief that such a path was more truly historical and a step removed from traditional theological biases, but as with many good intentions others less pure in motive hijacked the process for their own ideological ends — hence my earlier post.

This post, however, addresses the pure in heart, or at least pure in print, and no doubt in intent.

And my motive is? To place on record yet one more instance where biblical scholars, in particular New Testament scholars, set down for the record evidence that the biblical studies guild is indeed ridden with theological bias. So often we hear protestations from certain biblical scholars how so alike they are to other “scientific” academics, so dedicated to “the objective truth”, that anyone who raises the mere possibility that they might be religiously biased can only be a god-hating, angry atheistic, degenerate secular-humanist.

From a methodological point of view, the Christian ideological perspectives that continue to characterize much of the ostensibly historical work done in New Testament studies is problematic.

Mark D. Nanos (2015-01-01). Paul within Judaism: Restoring the First-Century Context to the Apostle (p. 32). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition. — That’s in the Introduction.

magnus-zetterholmMagnus Zetterholm is Associate Professor in New Testament Studies at Lund University. He is the author of Approaches to Paul: A Student’s Guide to Recent Scholarship (Fortress Press, 2009); The Formation of Christianity in Antioch: A Social-Scientific Approach to the Separation between Judaism and Christianity (Routledge, 2003); and the editor of The Messiah in Early Judaism and Christianity (Fortress Press, 2007).

Mark D. Nanos (2015-01-01). Paul within Judaism: Restoring the First-Century Context to the Apostle . Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

The main criticism comes in the first chapter by Magnus Zetterholm. Zetterholm begins by doubting Christopher Hitchens’ assertion that religion poisons everything while at the same time conceding that in the case of Pauline studies

it could, however, easily be argued that this research discipline has indeed been negatively affected by Christian normative theology.

Mark D. Nanos (2015-01-01). Paul within Judaism: Restoring the First-Century Context to the Apostle (p. 31). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

What follows is surely a truism so it is remarkable that some New Testament scholars become quite defensive when a critical outsider attempts to point it out. Much safer, it seems, for such things to be admitted only within the confines of the club walls.

The study of the New Testament in general is, and has always been, a predominantly Christian affair. Christians study the New Testament, often within theological departments of seminaries and universities. Indeed, many scholarly commentary series are for Christians: The New International Greek Testament Commentary specifically states in the foreword that

“the supreme aim of this series is to serve those who are engaged in the ministry of the Word of God and thus to glorify God’s name.”

foreword
Similarly, in the editorial preface to the Word Biblical Commentary, it is stated that the contributors all are “evangelical,” understood

“in its positive, historic sense of a commitment to Scripture as divine revelation, and to the true power of the Christian gospel.”

Furthermore, it is not unusual to find that methodological atheism, a quite natural assumption in most scientific research,[2] is challenged from scholars advocating what must be understood as an alternative theory of science, where supernatural events are possible, and where gods and angels intervene in human affairs. For instance, in his, in many ways excellent treatment of the resurrection of Jesus, presented as a scholarly contribution, N. T. Wright states in the introduction that he will argue

“that the best historical explanation is the one which inevitably raises all kinds of theological questions: the tomb was indeed empty, and Jesus was indeed seen alive, because he was truly raised from the dead.”[3]

Theological conviction drives a comment expressed as if it were merely a historical reflection. From a methodological point of view, the Christian ideological perspectives that continue to characterize much of the ostensibly historical work done in New Testament studies is problematic.

Mark D. Nanos (2015-01-01). Paul within Judaism: Restoring the First-Century Context to the Apostle (pp. 31-32). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition. (Italics original; formatting, bolded emphasis, graphics and hyperlinks are mine in all quotations.)

The particular theological perspective that Zetterholm is addressing in this opening chapter is the “theological dichotomy between Judaism and Christianity”. This belief that Christianity originated through such a dichotomy is more than a theological position: it is “one of the most influential master narratives within Western culture”. Christianity has been viewed as a religion freshly born out of direct opposition to Judaism. Judaism bad; Christianity good. Judaism legalistic; Christianity spiritual. Only in recent years have more scholars begun to acknowledge the debates between Judaism and figures like Jesus and Paul can well be interpreted as intra-Jewish engagements. Daniel Boyarin in Border Lines is able to argue a case that the two religions did not really separate as distinctive religions until into the third and fourth centuries.

For a number of reasons scholars have been able to embrace the idea of the Jewishness of Jesus (some of them theological!) but Paul is a different beast. Surely, our seasoned assumptions go, Paul was fighting Judaism. Well, he certainly was fighting some Jewish ideas and practices but what is less often realized is that in the Second Temple era factional rivalries were the standard characteristic of “Judaism”. It is so easy to think of rabbinical Judaism whenever we read about Pharisees in the gospels and Judaizers in Paul’s letters. The fact is, however, that rabbinical Judaism did not become normative until at least as late as the fourth century or probably even later.

I have myself been guilty of thinking of Judaism splitting after the fall of the Temple in 70 CE into rabbinic Judaism, Christianity and probably Gnostic forms of Judaism. We have archaeological evidence warning us against such an assumption. There are five synagogues from the fourth to sixth century depicting beside biblical scenes mosaics of the pagan sun god Helios and the Zodiac. Moreover, did thinkers like Philo suddenly depart the scene after 70 CE? We find Hellenistic influence in a wide range of Jewish writings even after 70 CE.

Alas, the following pages in the same chapter betray a raft of other assumptions that are at odds with sound methodology in historical studies, but that’s a flaw to be addressed another time. Let’s leave this post as the silver lining.

 

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Neil Godfrey

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14 Comments

  • Bee
    2016-03-04 09:13:02 GMT+0000 - 09:13 | Permalink

    For me, Christianity originated out of the gradual merger in some places, of elements of Judaism, and Greek and Roman thought. Greece was the major power in the Mediterranean, from 332 BC. So Israel could hardly ignore it.

    Elements of Greco – and then Greco Roman – culture can be found even in rather ancient “Jewish” or Palestinian beliefs. However, many Jews resisted that, with patriotic and religious fervour. Even as Greece went to war with Israel or Tyre, 332 BC.

    So I see Paul and early Christians as persons caught between two sometimes overlapping, but more often warring camps, or cultures. Paul, I would suggest, was mainly Jewish; but knew a bit about both. And he was eager, like Philo, to try to reconcile or combine the two. At times, to loyal Jews, Paul stressed his Jewish side. Other times, he took Greeks like Steven as his assistants. And even claimed to be a Roman citizen, himself.

    So I see Paul as a VERY hellenized Jew. And Christianity, as very hellenized Judaism. Paul and others were largely Jewish Jahwists. But they were trying to add to Judaism, the “fullness of the gentiles.”

    The result of all that, I suggest, was Christianity. Which at times claimed 1) total loyalty to the God of the Torah. But which also, 2) on the other hand, added a Son, and a “new covenant,” and Greeks and Romans, to all that.

    In church, theology, and on the surface of the New Testament, this merger was always read to us as a one-way process. As Greeks, pagans, totally giving up their old ways, to follow the Jewish God. But historically speaking, deeper down, it was also about Jews, coming to the gentiles. To the Greeks and Romans. And their beliefs.

    Jesus and Christianity, eating and drinking, owed nearly as much to Dionysus, as they owed to Judaism. Judaism as it had been defined by the Old Testament.

    So yes, Paul was mainly Jewish, or Torah observant. But in spite of his occasional asseverations of total obedience to all that, an historian who knows a lot about Greek and Roman culture, and cultural diffusion, can see plenty of signs of a veiled but all-important Greek and Roman influence.

    Christianity began among, mainly, Jews. And it wanted to appear totally loyal to that tradition. But hidden under all that, it wanted to bring in some New things.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2016-03-04 10:51:01 GMT+0000 - 10:51 | Permalink

      Judaism was a Hellenistic cult, a product of Hellenism — so I understand scholars of early Judaism are moving. Rabbinic Judaism did not come to dominate and define Judaism until some centuries after 70 CE. It’s a field I’m wanting to learn much more about. But it means studying the works of early Judaism — not Christianity or Biblical scholars.

  • Bee
    2016-03-04 10:08:55 GMT+0000 - 10:08 | Permalink

    Is it antisemitic to suggest that Christianity is not entirely Jewish? Or when atheists even bad-mouth Judaism or Islam?

    Atheists at times are accused of being antisemitic, or guilty of Islamaphobia. But I’d note that what you are hearing is often an anti-deist’s dislike for. .. all religions.

    Many atheists strongly dislike Christianity – and Judaism. And Islam. And Hinduism. No difference. No particular discrimination.

    To many atheists, they are all even diabolically bad.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2016-03-04 10:33:08 GMT+0000 - 10:33 | Permalink

      It’s one thing to promote rationalism and debunk religions. But some atheists, let’s say “new atheists”, go well beyond that and actively attack theism/religion. I used to think this was not a bad way to go but soon came to see a fanaticism wedded to ignorance in much of their efforts. I have been trying to understand religion by delving into the scholarly research, not by theologians but by anthropologists, psychologists, etc. But these guys, the serious attackers of religion, are not interested in understanding — they even denigrate, scoff at, misrepresent some of those serious studies. They prefer to attack religion with their ignorance. It’s called bigotry. It is grounded in a serious failure to understand “the other”. And it can only backfire.

      • 2016-03-04 12:14:02 GMT+0000 - 12:14 | Permalink

        There is also a demonstrable and sometimes serious failure of the “other” to understand themselves, no?

        • Neil Godfrey
          2016-03-04 12:25:37 GMT+0000 - 12:25 | Permalink

          Of course. But that does not excuse those who are in the privileged position of having access to understanding for deliberately closing their minds to that understanding. People who know how to research and evaluate serious findings about how the world works for some reason flip a switch and turn their backs on all of that understanding when it comes to feeding on and spreading their prejudices.

          In short, those with the privilege of better education have less excuse for clinging to their ignorant bigotry.

          • Bee
            2016-03-04 12:39:28 GMT+0000 - 12:39 | Permalink

            I can work within that framework. But I feel that the positive side to religion has already been all too widely trumpeted, by the apologists. While the negative side has been even violently kept hidden, for far too long.

            • Neil Godfrey
              2016-03-04 13:14:38 GMT+0000 - 13:14 | Permalink

              It’s not about pushing the positives or negatives. It’s about understanding what’s going on. I have no time for religion personally. I know too well the harm religion does to so many. The only time I have spoken of the positives of the cult experience has been in the context of encouraging those who have been through the experience to realize they can build on positives from that experience — they don’t have to despair that every moment was a disastrous waste. That’s taken straight from the pages of a psychologist who had also been through a fundamentalist experience and was helping others rebuild their lives.

              If on a few occasions I have opposed some assertions about Islam it is not to promote the positives of Islam but to promote informed discussion over ignorance.

              What is missing from the new atheist denunciations is any genuine understanding of the nature of religion and the religious mind. Of course science and religion are at odds. Even the religious know that (their attempts to make them compatible are just another branch of theology at bottom) and of course religion has been a terrible blight in our history — we all know that. So what is needed is understanding. Just shouting out the crimes and stupidity of an idea is fun for those doing it but hardly gets us anywhere. There are plenty of others doing great jobs at exposing or debunking religion. Religious people who are for various reasons beginning to question their faith are open to some of these arguments. I wonder how often, though, the tone of the debunking serves more often to turn off a religious person who might otherwise be led to question their faith.

              • 2016-03-04 21:00:51 GMT+0000 - 21:00 | Permalink

                An atheist new or old should not criticize religious ideas because 1. They have no understanding 2. Their bigots.

                Sorry, don’t buy it.

                When creationism is taught in schools, when you have to pray to Jesus to participate in sports, when you have to pledge Aligence to a country under god, where health care for women is regulated by men who get their instructions from a holy book, when politician decided what you do in your bedroom based on a revelation from a god then it is tine that the new atheist and the old atheist get together and say loud and clear “Enough”.

                These things are flat out wrong. To say so is not bigotry. But to refuse to say so is cowardice.

                Having read your post over the last couple years, it us rather obvious that you have little understanding of the American or English religious climate. I don’t mean the academic climate. I mean the day to day fight to live a life with reason.

              • Neil Godfrey
                2016-03-04 21:48:21 GMT+0000 - 21:48 | Permalink

                Woah there! I by no means said religious practices and beliefs should be immune from criticism. I said plenty of others are doing a good enough job of that. Please read what I wrote and quote my words, not your own substitutes: I am talking about the sorts of attacks that are based on ignorance.

                And I am talking about culpable ignorance because some of these same crusaders even attack the serious scholarly research that offers a genuine understanding of their enemy.

  • John MacDonald
    2016-03-04 18:39:58 GMT+0000 - 18:39 | Permalink

    A crucified messiah was clearly a “stumbling block” for most Jews (1 Cor 1:23), but at least some Jews, like Paul, believed Jesus’ atoning death, burial, and resurrection fulfilled Jewish scripture (1 Cor 15: 3-4). The scriptures Paul is referring to here are probably Psalm 22, Isaiah 53, and following Matthew 12:40, the account of Jonas and the big fish. In any case, following accepted hermeneutic protocol, since the account of the passion, burial, and resurrection of Christ serves a theological function as scripture fulfillment for the original Christians, there is no reason to think there is any historical core to any of these three reported events, since the original Christians would have had reasons to invent them. So, the crucifixion does not meet the criterion of embarrassment. Just as the writers of the Hebrew scriptures may have invented a story about Moses receiving the ten commandments from God on top of the mountain so that their laws would appear to have impressive authority, so too might the original Christians have invented stories about Jesus’ divinity because they wanted to lend authority to Jesus’ ethical message. Clearly, in the ancient world, people were willing to lay down their lives in support of an ethical cause (e.g., Socrates). That’s not to say we have reason to think the passion/burial/resurrection narratives were “noble lies,” just that the criterion of embarrassment can’t be used here to rescue an historical core.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2016-03-04 23:13:47 GMT+0000 - 23:13 | Permalink

      Agree with the main thrust of your comment. Not so sure about one detail, though — that most Jews found the idea of a crucified messiah a stumbling block. Reasons: http://vridar.org/2014/08/02/was-paul-really-persecuted-for-preaching-a-crucified-christ/

      Even the author of Daniel appears to have interpreted the suffering servant in Isaiah as a messianic figure: http://vridar.org/2014/08/02/was-paul-really-persecuted-for-preaching-a-crucified-christ/

      Isaac’s actual or near sacrifice was also seen as an atonement for some Jews (Levenson) and a model for Paul’s Christian story.

      • John MacDonald
        2016-03-06 02:07:53 GMT+0000 - 02:07 | Permalink

        I agree with you, of course. I just meant it in terms of what people usually interpret it to mean. By the way, can you fix my sentence that says “Just as the writers of the Hebrew scriptures may have invented a story about Moses receiving the ten commandments from God on top of the mountain so that their laws would appear to have impressive authority, so too might the original Christians may have invented stories about Jesus’ divinity because they wanted to lend authority to Jesus’ ethical message.” The second use of the word “MAY” is redundant.

  • John MacDonald
    2016-03-08 21:09:36 GMT+0000 - 21:09 | Permalink

    (1). Robert M. Price is interesting here. He writes:

    The Crucifixion (Mark 15:21-41):
    The substructure for the crucifixion in chapter 15 is, as all recognize, Psalm 22, from which derive all the major details, including the implicit piercing of hands and feet (Mark 24//Psalm 22:16b), the dividing of his garments and casting lots for them (Mark 15:24//Psalm 22:18), the “wagging heads” of the mockers (Mark 15:20//Psalm 22:7), and of course the cry of dereliction, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34//Psalm 22:1). Matthew adds another quote, “He trusts in God. Let God deliver him now if he desires him” (Matthew 27:43//Psalm 22:8), as well as a strong allusion (“for he said, ‘I am the son of God’” 27:43b) to Wisdom of Solomon 2:12-20, which underlies the whole story anyway (Miller), “Let us lie in wait for the righteous man because he is inconvenient to us and opposes our actions; he reproaches us for sins against the law and accuses us of sins against our training. He professes to have knowledge of God, and calls himself a child of the Lord. He became to us a reproof of our thoughts; the very sight of him is a burden to us because his manner of life is unlike that of others, and his ways are strange. We are considered by him as something base, and he avoids our ways as unclean; he calls the last end of the righteous happy, and boasts that God is his father. Let us see if his words are true, and let us test what will happen at the end of his life: for if the righteous man is God’s son he will help him and will deliver him from the hand of his adversaries. Let us test him with insult and torture that we may find out how gentle he is and make trial of his forbearance. Let us condemn him to a shameful death, for, according to what he says, he will be protected.” As for other details, Crossan points out that the darkness at noon comes from Amos 8:9, while the vinegar and gall come from Psalm 69:21. It is remarkable that Mark does anything but call attention to the scriptural basis for the crucifixion account. There is nothing said of scripture being fulfilled here. It is all simply presented as the events of Jesus’ execution. It is we who must ferret out the real sources of the story. This is quite different, e.g., in John, where explicit scripture citations are given, e.g., for Jesus’ legs not being broken to hasten his death (John 19:36), either Exodus 12:10, Numbers 9:12, or Psalm 34:19-20 (Crossan,).

    (2) Paul said “Christ died for our sins ACCORDING TO THE SCRIPTURES (1 Corinthians 15:3).” So the question is what scriptures are Paul Referring to? As I said above in section (1) above, many details of the crucifixion seem to be derived from Psalm 22. In fact, the crucifixion itself may be derived from the implicit piercing of hands and feet in Psalm 22:16b (Mark 24). Psalm 22:16 says “Dogs surround me, a pack of villains encircles me;they pierce my hands and my feet.”The Septuagint , a Jewish translation of the Hebrew Bible into Koine Greek made before the Common Era, and which the New Testament writers use, has ωρυξαν χειράς μου και πόδας (“they have dug my hands and feet”), which some commentators argue could be understood in the general sense as “pierced”. The proper way to render the phrase remains disputed, but given the extensive parallels between Psalm 22 and the crucifixion, which I outlined, I have no problem with rendering it as “pierced.”

    (3) So there really isn’t any reason to think Jesus was crucified. Maybe all the stuff about Pilate and the like was just good historical fiction, like the stuff about the Census of Quirinius relating to Jesus.

    In fact, we don’t even need the Christ-mythicist hypothesis to call into question the historicity of the death of Jesus. A crucified messiah was clearly a “stumbling block” for most Jews (see 1 Cor 1:23), but at least some Jews, like Paul, believed Jesus’ atoning death, burial, and resurrection fulfilled Jewish scripture (see 1 Cor 15: 3-4). The scriptures Paul is referring to here are probably Psalm 22, Isaiah 53, and following Matthew 12:40, the account of the relation of the death and resurrection of Jesus to the story of Jonas and the big fish. In his new book, “Jesus Before The Gospels,” Bart Ehrman writes that memories of Jesus’ death “do not appear to be remembered in any prejudicial way – for example, because they represent episodes of Jesus’ life that Christians particularly would have wanted to say happened for their own, later benefit (Jesus Before The Gospels, pg. 148).” Ehrman is trying to rescue the historicity of the crucifixion, but this seems to fly in the face of Paul’s claim that Jesus’ atoning death is grounded in scripture. Recall Paul said “Christ died for our sins ACCORDING TO THE SCRIPTURES (1 Corinthians 15:3).” In any case, following accepted hermeneutic protocol, since the account of the passion, burial, and resurrection of Christ serves a theological function as scripture fulfillment for the original Christians, there is no reason to think there is any historical core to any of these three reported events, since the original Christians would have had reasons to invent them. Paul Clearly says that “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins ACCORDING TO THE SCRIPTURES, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day ACCORDING TO THE SCRIPTURES (1 Cor 15:3-4) So, the crucifixion does not meet the criterion of embarrassment. Just as the writers of the Hebrew scriptures may have invented a story about Moses receiving the ten commandments from God on top of the mountain so that their laws would appear to have impressive authority, so too might the original Christians have invented stories about Jesus’ divinity because they wanted to lend authority to Jesus’ ethical message. Clearly, in the ancient world, people were willing to lay down their lives in support of an ethical cause (e.g., Socrates). That’s not to say we have reason to think the passion/burial/resurrection narratives were “noble lies,” just that the criterion of embarrassment can’t be used here to rescue an historical core. Consequently, we don’t even need the mythicist hypothesis to call into question the historicity of the crucifixion, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.

    On the other hand, if we take the mythicist interpretation that 1 Cor 15:3-4 means Paul DISCOVERED the crucifixion, burial, and resurrection of Jesus through an allegorical reading of Hebrew scriptures, this still destroys the historicity claims about Jesus’ death

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