This blog explores and examines the intersections of rhetoric, race, and religion.
Thursday, September 19, 2013
Paul the Jew as Founder of Christianity?
The notion that Christianity depends on "grace" and Judaism on "works" is a terribly unfortunate misunderstanding of Judaism. What divides Paul from Judaism is his insistence that God's justifying forgiveness is only extended to those who accept his Christ faith. In Paul's thinking, instead of humanity divided as "Israel and the nations" which is the classic understanding of Judaism, we have "Israel "after the flesh" (i.e., the Jewish people), non-Jews whom he calls "the nations," (i.e., Gentiles) and a new people called "the church of God" made of all those whom he designates as "in Christ" (1 Corinthians 10:32).
One thing historians of religions often emphasize is that no religious tradition is a static monolithic entity. Whether we are talking about Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, or Islam, the varieties and diversity within each tradition are rich and complex. Judaism is no exception. In the time of Jesus, which historians often refer to as the "late 2nd Temple period" we find within the varieties of emergent Judaism multiple interpretations of almost every subject imaginable -- the nature of God, the coming of the Messiah, free will and determinism, and explanations for the causes of sin, suffering, and evil. At the center of it all was the practical matter of how one is to observe and follow the Torah, or what was believed to have been the revelation of God to the people of Israel through Moses at Mt. Sinai. One of the things we most emphasize in courses on the "Judaisms" of this period is this matter of diversity as we see it reflected in the so-called Pseudepigrapha literature, the Dead Sea Scrolls, Philo, the Mishnah, and other rabbinic writings.
For a general overview of Judaism/s of this period I would recommend a few basic books: Shaye Cohen, From the Maccabees to the Mishnah; James Vanderkam, An Introduction to Early Judaism; Seth Schwartz, Imperialism and Jewish Society: 200 B.C.E. to 640 C.E, and most recently, Daniel Boyarin, The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ, which questions whether even the adoration and heavenly status that Jesus' first followers gave to him as heavenly "Lord and Christ" was particularly "un-Jewish." I maintain that Jesus was and remained a Jew and never entertained the establishment of a new religion.
In contrast, it was Paul who might actually be called the "founder" of Christianity, with its distinctive theological doctrines. Even though Jews disagreed on how one might reflect and live out all the teachings and commandments of the Sinai revelation, especially regarding what came to be called halacha (literally "the way" or "the walk"), that is how to fulfill the various commandments, in general religious Jews, who took seriously the revelation of Torah, agreed on the obvious point that Israelites of all persuasions were obligated to live according to the commandments in order to be faithful to the Covenant. Historians and scholars seem to be in almost universal agreement that what is called "the Jesus movement," as represented by the teachings of John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth, was a movement within the various Judaism/s of its time and is most properly understood in this way, rather than as a "new" religion, separate from the mother faith.