Where Christians Got it Wrong with Paul

Where Christians Got it Wrong with Paul August 20, 2012

Mark Nanos is on a mission to expound for readers of Paul a Paul who never broke from Judaism. His project, and here we are sketching some of what he says in the book edited by Mike Bird called The Apostle Paul, is both about rhetoric and theology. Nanos, who plays golf well and is a Jewish scholar of Paul, has been stumping for his themes for more than a decade.

The rhetoric is clear: Christians have explained their faith, in particular the theology of Paul, at the expense of Judaism. They have made Paul a champion of freedom by arguing Judaism was slavery, Paul a champion of universalism by arguing Judaism was exclusive and ethnic, and Paul a champion of a religion of grace, faith and love while Judaism comes off looking like a religion of merit, works and legalism.  In a strange irony, Nanos then says “those values that Christians champion… are instead inferior to the values Jews actually uphold” (163). I get his point, but he’s done the same thing he’s accused Christian scholars of doing: comparative descriptions come off as comparative denunciations. But Nanos has the larger end of the stick on this one; he’s right; Christians have failed to comprehend Judaism because they’ve settled for caricatures that they can use to champion their own faith. Though Luke Timothy Johnson, in his response, thinks Nanos has kept a binary opposition by talking about Judaism as if it were “normative Judaism.” Johnson’s contention is that Judaism was more diverse than Nanos suggests. And Campbell thinks this perception of Judaism derives from Melanchthon.

Can you point to a text or texts where you think the Jewish apostle, Paul (or Peter), did not observe Torah? Do you think Paul observed Torah completely? Would you say Paul’s gospel is a kind of Judaism, but still Judaism? Or did he crack the door?

The theology of Paul, then, needs another explanation. If the traditional view made Jews legalists, the new perspective (Nanos argues) makes Jews ethnocentric. He wants to argue neither of these categories belong on the table.

Paul never left Judaism and the only difference between Paul and other forms of Judaism is that Paul’s Judaism had Jesus as the Messiah. Paul was Torah-observant, never left being Torah-observant [I’d quote Acts 23:6 here, but he doesn’t; there Paul says “I am a Pharisee”], and Paul’s mission was to expand the Shema faith of Judaism — One God — to include Gentiles. So, Paul’s mission was including Gentiles into one Judaism. Freedom from the Torah is only for non-Jewish Christians; Jewish Christians remained under the Torah. Schreiner’s response focuses on Paul no longer being Torah observant, and he points to Peter in Galatians 2:11-14 (eating with Gentiles) and Paul saying in Romans 14:20 that all foods were clean.

It is big, then, for Nanos to say a major cutting edge between Paul and other forms of Judaism was that Paul permitted Gentile “conversion” without becoming “proselytes” to Judaism. You could convert to Judaism but did not have to become a Jew by undergoing circumcision. Paul opposes proselyte circumcision for Gentile “converts” to Judaism, because circumcision entails Torah observance, and Gentiles don’t have to obey the whole Torah.

Nanos, then, has a narrowed meaning for “works of the law”: it’s about circumcision. Works of the law ultimately leads to changed ethnicity or to ethnic Jewishness.

Nanos is not alone in thinking Paul didn’t have a “conversion” but instead a “calling” to the Gentiles. I think Nanos’ point can be sustained in some ways but his perception of “conversion” could benefit from conversion theory studies themselves, in which conversion is measured by identity change and not by swapping religions. So, I would argue was converted to a whole new frame of mind but that doesn’t necessarily mean he changed religions, which is the (anachronistic, a la LT Johnson’s response) categories he presses into service. Nanos thinks the term “conversion” muddies the water, and he’s right. So he uses “calling,” which I think muddies the water. Paul’s change is more than simply vocational. He saw everything anew through and in Christ. So convert is a good word, but I would want to respect Nanos’ concern to make sure this does not necessarily mean Paul swapped religions.

The issue, for Nanos then, between Paul’s Judaism and others is “chronometrical”: What is appropriate now that the crucifixion and resurrection have occurred? Are we in a new era or not? Paul says Yes, others say No. In other words, it is eschatological. Or, perhaps even more nuanced, hermeneutical. How do we explain where we are in God’s plan? And it revolves around whether or not Jesus is the Messiah.

The big issue of this whole discussion can be expressed as questions: Did the apostle Paul think all Jews had to believe Jesus was the Messiah to be saved, or to enter the kingdom of God, or the Age to Come? Did he think non-messianic Jews were just as saved as messianic Jews? Was historic Judaism sufficient or did one have to embrace messianic Judaism? Johnson thinks Nanos doesn’t give sufficient attention to the newness in Paul’s gospel.

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