Gentiles and the historical Paul mix well in imaginations colored by spurious facts, but not reality.
We’ve been exploring the reality of Paul, the so-called “apostle to the Gentiles,” and his evangelization. Shockingly discomforting to our spurious familiarity, he didn’t really evangelize Gentiles. Instead, informed by Context Scholars Bruce Malina and John Pilch, we see that Paul was an apostle sent to Israelite émigrés living among non-Israelite majorities. He spread his Gospel through homophilous communication. Even simple math supports this.
Despite clumsy English translations, passages such as Galatians 1:15-17, together with its allusions to Jeremiah 1:5 and Isaiah 49:1, must be read in this light. The Israelite Paul was an Apostle of Israel’s God sent to fellow Israelites to communicate something new concerning Israelite Theocracy, “the Gospel of God” (Romans 1:1).
Should we respectfully read Paul, taking seriously both his approach and presumptions, it shouldn’t be difficult to see for whom his message was intended. Doing that, it becomes clear to whom he went.
But how did he view the Gentile peoples? Watch the video…
Paul Didn’t Convert Gentiles, or Anybody Else
It should be pointed out that Paul was not converting Israelites. This was because he didn’t change Israelites or anyone else by inducing them to change membership from one religious/social group into another. Paul didn’t belong to any group in competition with the Israelite group. Therefore Paul himself didn’t convert, and he didn’t convert anyone else.
We 21st century Christians imagine Paul’s unrealistically. We see “Paul winning converts,” because we are tainted by ethnocentric anachronism. In other words, we imagine familiar psychological scenarios at home in our 21st-century world but alien to the cultural world of the Bible. Jesus, Paul, and everyone in the Bible were anti-introspective. Therefore, Western psychological matrices don’t pertain to any of them. Thus, Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell don’t apply. Sorry, George Lucas—Luke Skywalker may indeed have a thousand faces, but all are Western, post-Industrial heroes.
I love you and learn so much from you, Fr. Richard Rohr. I wouldn’t give you up for $1 million. Don’t give up on me. Just do us a favor. Trust your fellow Franciscan, John Pilch. Stop trying to apply the Myers-Briggs and Enneagram models to Jesus and Paul. Because it doesn’t work.
Why Paul Didn’t “Win Converts”
So we keep anachronistic scenarios in our heads from Sunday school right down to the funeral home about Paul and what he did. We imagine Paul travels to a Mediterranean city and tries to get every Gentile urbanite to join the Church (i.e., leaving one group, then joining another). Ultimately, as Pilch and Malina explain, for various reasons, this model is misplaced.
First, Paul didn’t evangelize non-Israelites. Second, when Paul proclaimed his Gospel to his fellow Israelites, there were no Jesus groups in those urban centers. Third, when someone is offered the choice of “conversion,” it’s an either/or deal—join us in this group or stay inside that group. But that’s not Paul’s offer—it was a yes or a no about adopting a change within the SAME group. There were no other groups for his Israelite clients!
So, What Was Paul Up To?
If Paul wasn’t converting people, what was he doing? He was homophilously communicating his Gospel or innovation. As Pilch and Malina describe, Paul was proclaiming a new stage in the corporate history of Israel. Therefore he announced to Israelites that God was doing something new in Israel for Israelites. And when Israelites adopted his innovation, that wasn’t a conversion, a choice between which group to belong. Instead, it was their yes-choice adopting change within the same group (i.e., first-century Israel), because of what God was doing in Israel.
Paul & the Gentiles
But let’s return to the big question of this post. How did Paul feel about the Gentiles? To quote Robert DeNiro, “Not too good.”
As illustrated by Bruce Malina and John Pilch, and in the video above, and contrary to popular Christian ideas generated by spurious facts, Paul didn’t really care about non-Israelites. He merely tolerated Gentile Jesus-group people. And where were these Gentile Messianists? In Jesus groups he never formed. For example, the Roman Jesus groups.
But Paul tolerating Gentiles is a far cry from Paul desiring Gentile proselytes. For reasons that should be apparent, the real Paul was ethnocentrically particular to Israel.
Paul, Gentiles, and Romans 9—11
Read carefully Romans 9—11. See how Paul depends on Israelite Scriptures (what we call “Old Testament”)? Would any first-century non-Israelite Mediterranean reading this letter understand his Israelite references? That says a lot about to whom he is actually writing. Take care that your theological commitments don’t distort Paul into being an inconsiderate author. Paul knew his audience. Pity is, we Christians usually don’t.
Anyway, the irony is thick. Paul uses Scripture to say that God included Gentiles into the Jesus group resulting in Israelites (the chosen people) being excluded. How ironic! The fact was that despite Paul’s best efforts, the majority of Israelites everywhere rejected Jesus as the Messiah. Even the people who received Paul’s innovation (his “Gospel of God”) reinvented it, much to his bitter frustration. Looks like we have impeccably maintained that unfortunate old tradition, huh?
In Romans 9:1-5, Paul laments over Israel’s failure to be loyal to God and God’s gospel. For Paul, the seven great gifts of adoption, honor, covenants, Torah, worship, promises, and the patriarchs belong to Israel. He adds another, Messiah. For Paul, these are Israelite realities—this tips us off to whom he is actually addressing in “Romans” (and it ain’t Gentiles). But Paul agonizes over the fact that most Israelites have abandoned these gifts in rejecting Jesus.
Finally, Paul Gets to the Gentiles
Paul never addresses Gentiles anywhere in his seven authentic letters, except in Romans 11:13-24. Remember that the letter we call “Romans” wasn’t addressed to all those living in Rome, but instead specifically to the God of Israel’s “Beloved” (Romans 1:7). In other words, to Israelite residents. Imagine going eleven chapters deep into this text, and Paul doesn’t bother with non-Israelite believers. That says a lot! Add that to his complete disregard of them in his six other undisputed letters.
And what does he do when he finally addresses Gentile believers? As Pilch shows us in the video above, he insults them! He disrespectfully paints them as if they were an olive branch that produces inedible, disgusting fruit. That’s how the historical Paul felt about Gentile believers.
This insult gets missed by Western 21st-century consumers oblivious to agrarian producers. We are more familiar with supermarkets than horticultural grafting. But Paul’s first century, “Roman” audience would get the insult, easily.
Gentiles & Messy Inspirations
Is this messy? Uncomfortably so? Does it hurt your evangelistic aspirations? Change your missiology much? Okay.
Just remember that God took that messiness. God cooked that in time and human freedom over the centuries and even more mess. Something resulted that the historical Paul could never have desired or expected.
Consequently, the Body of Christ became Gentile, something Paul would have called “contrary to nature.” And contrary to his own “nature” (i.e., custom), Paul would eventually be known as “apostle to Gentiles.” That is a messy inspiration, indeed!
Soon we will explore differences between Paul’s Gospel and that of Jesus. And we will finally lay out how Paul eventually became known as the “Apostle to the Gentiles.”