The Jew First and Also the Greek

Though certainly one would prefer to consider the Holocaust an event of the past, an atrocity we have grown far away from, we still live in a world plagued by horrific acts carried out in the name of God. After the Holocaust, many people feel they can no longer put faith in God at all. This frightening situation is exacerbated by the fact that so many of the crimes committed against the Jewish people have been based on anti-Semitic doctrines and traditions deeply rooted in Christianity.

Naturally we do not like to think of Christianity as an anti-Semitic or Anti-Judaic institution. Still, the prevalence of pejorative remarks about and comprehensive indictments of Judaism in the New Testament require that we reevaluate Christianity’s historical response to Judaism and assess the degree to which these responses have insidiously worked themselves into our minds. After the events of the last hundred years, we cannot afford to simply sweep the ancient animosity under the rug for the sake of pluralism. We must come to a theological understanding that recognizes the right of other faiths to exist and flourish.

Given that Christian tradition has set its followers against Judaism, we face a difficult task. We must search our scriptures for unfair criticism of Judaism. Where it exists, we must admit the shortcoming and move on, accepting that the human pen is not infallible. But when the scriptures themselves offer a view different from the traditions that have betrayed humanity, it is imperative that we demythologize the texts and read the message actually presented on the page, no matter how irreverent we appear.

To that end, I will present my argument in defense of the Epistles of Paul the Apostle. The idea that Paul was advocating hatred in his followers for the religion that gave birth to Christianity is absurd and can be dispelled with even the shabbiest attempt to read honestly. However, one might still accuse Paul of spreading a subtler form of anti-Judaism. His preoccupation with justification by faith has long been seen as rendering the Jewish religion obsolete. This distortion of Paul’s message is what I seek to discourage in this paper.

Early tension

In the infancy of Christianity, it was tied closely to its mother, Judaism. They shared the same scriptures, the same ethics, and most importantly, the same God. To pagan outsiders, they looked like different sides of the same coin, different factions in a highly sectarian religion.

This affiliation had both advantages and drawbacks for the communities of gentiles newly converted to Christianity. It might have afforded some protection from the essentially hostile policies regarding forced Hellenisation and the mandatory worship of the Caesar, to which Jews were often considered exempt. However, it also caused gentile Christians to be associated with groups of Jewish troublemakers.

The Zealots, who insisted that one was either a slave to God or to Rome, had considerable influence on other first-century Jews, who came to see that they were, in fact, enslaved by the Romans at the peril of their religious beliefs. Faithfulness to God became an idea intertwined with rebellion.

Gentile Christians, in contrast, would have been Roman citizens with nothing to gain by stirring up trouble. In this dangerous political climate, it is not surprising that the gentile Christians would want to dissociate themselves from Jews, even those who were followers of Christ.

With the destruction of the Second temple, the rebellion, and the Diaspora, the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem faded from the scene, probably suffering exile and execution right beside their Jewish compatriots. After this time, the gentile branch of Christianity was dominant. It was this gentile Christianity that later developed into the structured Christianity of medieval Europe, carrying with it its grudge against Judaism, which was no doubt deepened by a canon that tended to portray Jews as villains and hypocrites, and to link them to the crucifixion despite the absurdity of that claim.

Medieval scholars such as Augustine looked back on Paul’s letters with deeply ingrained malevolence toward Judaism. It is hardly surprising that this lens of mistrust would tint Paul’s letters with its own shade of small-mindedness, transforming them into a doctrine that Christianity was the only valid faith.

Mutual dependance

Not only was Paul born a Jew, raised a Jew, and quite good at being a Jew prior to his conversion, he still referred to himself as Jewish while he was spreading the good news to the gentiles. He never says he is ashamed of Judaism as a whole, that Israel has lost its position as the chosen people of God, or that he regrets having been a fine example of a Pharisee. Quite the opposite: He describes his secure position within Judaism to lend credibility to his testimony.

Paul is continually prodding his audience to live ethically and peacefully with others, including Jews. To betray God’s people, no matter the form of their faith, would totally contradict Pauline ethics. Besides this, Paul tells his audience, such a betrayal would be ill-advised and self-defeating.

“…[I]f the root is holy, the the branches are also holy. But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, a wild olive shoot, were grafted in their place to share the rich root of the olive tree, do not boast over the branches. If you do boast, remember that it is not you that support the root, but the root that supports you.” (Romans 11.16-18)

Good news for Gentile – Bad news for Jew

It has frequently been assumed, as in the common Protestant doctrine of justification by faith, that the good news Paul presented to the Gentiles was that people need no longer adhere to the Torah because it has been nullified by the coming of Jesus. The task now, for both Jew and Gentile, was believed to have been leaving the law behind and stating one’s belief in the resurrection and the forgiveness of sin. While one can easily pull a few passages out of context in order to support this concept, such an interpretation of Paul transforms the rest of his message into a confusing mess of compound paradoxes. It is a mystery to me how this kind of interpretation can have survived for so long in the minds of a literate people with access to the scriptures. He plainly and specifically counters such distortions of his message: “Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.” (Romans 3.31)

In attempting to reconcile this insistence that the law remains valid with declarations seeming to say exactly the opposite, for example “Christ is the end of the law,” some scholars have concluded that Paul believed that the Torah came for Jews and Christ came for the Gentiles. (Hall, 60-61) While that would considerably aid attempts to forge a “Jewish-Christian dialogue,” it weakens under close scrutiny, leaving many issues unresolved, most notably Romans 11.28: “As regards the gospel they are enemies of God for your sake; but as regards election they are beloved, for the sake of their ancestors.”

Hall’s “Inclusive Promise” theory neatly deals with superficially contradictory verses like this. According to his theory, Paul’s gospel was not that Jesus died for the forgiveness of sins, but that he made a path to God’s love available to the Gentiles. They didn’t need to go through the rigourous steps involved in converting to Judaism, because God was willing to accept the Gentiles merely on the basis of faith like that of Abraham – steadfast belief in the trustworthiness and goodness of God.

Likewise, Jews had no need to abandon their traditions. They had made a prior agreement with God which was still valid; they were to be obedient to the law, and in exchange were granted the position of God’s elect. As long as they accepted his gospel – the good news that Gentiles had been granted access to God, that all who sought God could find him – Paul had no problem with faithful Jews remaining faithful Jews.

The phrase “the Jew first and also the Greek,” which occurs three times in Romans, gives particular credibility to Hall’s theory. Paul is emphasizing that salvation and judgement (favorable or not) come first to Israel because they are the elect, but this election doesn’t exclude others from the opportunity to be a part of God’s plans.

“The scripture says, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of who they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they have been sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”” (Romans 10.11-15)

Works consulted

  • Brown, Raymond E., S.S.. An Introduction to the New Testament. Doubleday, New York. 1997.
  • Coogan, Michael D. (Ed.). The New Oxford Annotated Bible. Third Edition. Oxford University Press, New York. 2001.
  • Dunn, James D.G.. The Theology of Paul the Apostle. William B. Erdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan. 1998.
  • Gager, John G.. The Origins of Anti-Semitism: Attitudes Toward Judaism in Pagan and Christian Antiquity. Oxford University Press, New York, 1983.
  • Hall, Sidney G., III. Christian Anti-Semitism and Paul’s Theology. Fortress Press, Minneapolis. 1993.
  • Langmuir, Gavin I.. History, Religion, and Anti-Semitism. University of California, Los Angeles. 1990.
  • Morais, Vamberto. A Short History of Anti-Semitism. W. W. Norton & Company Inc., New York. 1976.

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