This is part of a series of blogs on Amy-Jill Levine’s The Misunderstood Jew, just released by Harper San Francisco. Amy-Jill Levine teaches New Testament at Vanderbilt and is an Orthodox Jew, though a progressive and a feminist (how’s that for a contradictory list of identifiers!). My musings on her book may range from using her as a springboard for topics to critiquing her work or allowing her work to critique myself and others.
First the bad news and then the good news. Levine’s second chapter is a little dry. Nothing revolutionary here. It is called “From Jewish Sect to Gentile Church.” Could have been interesting, but in the first place it was a little too basic. I guess it was written for benefit of readers who are not well-read in New Testament background and Second Temple Judaism.
Anyway, one annoying feature–she makes a dozen or so attempts to color the early Messianic community as a Marxist movement. She uses a bizarre collection of unrelated verses in the New Testament to paint a picture of a movement that rejected traditional family values (“neither married nor given in marriage” Mk 12:25) and that canceled all private and public debt (“they had all things in common” Acts 2:44). These things will work in the Age to Come because sin will be dealt with, but they are naively utopian in this age. For the record, Marxism has never worked.
Second, the good news. Levine does raise a few interesting issues in this chapter. The one that caught my attention was this one: Why Paul persecuted the church is a matter of some speculation. was he concerned that members of the Way were seeking to replace the Torah with Jesus? . . . Had he heard that the followers of the Way were teaching that the Law was unimportant or marginal or somehow replaced by Jesus? . . . Could Paul have been worried about the safety of his fellow diaspora Jews [because this new movement was viewed as Jewish and was bound to clash with the Romans]? . . . Or had Paul heard that Jesus and his followers uttered threats against the Temple? . . . Or perhaps Paul had heard that these messianists were praying to Jesus or through Jesus, for that practice may have suggested a second God . . .
This is an interesting question to raise. Why was Paul persecuting the Yeshua-followers?
Too often, it is assumed that Paul was a sort of proto-Pelagian before Christ. Pelagius believed man was essentially good and that we could earn merit by keeping God’s commandments. We can save ourselves. Supposedly, this is what Judaism, especially Pharisaism, believed. Thus, Paul went from being a saved-by-keeping-the-law Pharisee to a saved-by-faith-apart-from-the-law Christian. Much of this view comes from Luther’s reading and Luther read Paul in light of his own struggle with the Catholic church and indulgences.
Just today I was reading from a Christian missiology book (Contextualization in the New Testament: Patterns for Theology And Mission by Dean E. Flemming) which gave this exact (minus the word Lutheran) portrayal of Paul’s “conversion.” It is a terrible misunderstanding and oversimplification.
Jews like the pre-Yeshua Paul were not worried about “getting in.” They were already in. They were Jews and they did not fall away from God’s covenant. They did not think every time they gave a denarius in alms they got closer to earning a ticket to heaven.
So Paul probably had no qualms about a community of Jews who followed the teachings of a man like Yeshua who kept the law. The Messianic Jews were known for keeping the law. Paul did not persecute the Yeshua-followers over the issue of Torah.
N.T. Wright has made a case that Paul was a Shammaite Pharisee (What St. Paul Really Said, a book with many flaws, but worth reading). He was part of a movement motivated by zeal like Phinehas in the Torah. He believed that he could help bring Messiah if he would rid the land of heretics.
What made the Yeshua-followers heretics? It is impossible to say with certainty since Paul’s complaint is never spelled out in detail. Yet the obvious answer would seem to be that: (a) they claimed their leader was the Messiah though he did not fulfill the expectations of Messiah (defeating Rome, restoring Israel, ruling the world in peace), (b) they claimed that Yeshua was divine, and (c) they claimed the Messianic Age had already begun.
Paul certainly had a different idea of the Messianic Age. It was the same as the idea of the Zealots, who sought to overthrow Rome with violence and assassination. Yet Paul’s method was zeal for Torah and purifying the land. Paul wanted to see Rome overthrown, but the way to make it happen was to bring Israel into forced obedience to Torah (don’t laugh, Hezekiah and Josiah had been praised by God for doing just that).
So, what happened to Paul on the Road to Damascus? Did he finally see that the Torah was obsolete and the new way of the lawless gospel was God’s answer? No, he saw that he was wrong about Messiah and the Messianic Age. He found out that a notorious Jew executed for claiming Messiahship had been raised from the dead. The Age to Come had already started, just as these followers of the Way proclaimed. The resurrection of the dead had already started in Yeshua. And the Gentiles were already being included as the prophets had foretold. His previous vision of messianism was wrong.
Paul started as a Jew and ended as a Messianic Jew. Plain and simple.