Paul the Apostle, detail of stained glass

What Sort of Jew Was Paul?

John Hemer, 30/01/2017

There is no question that the young Saul of Tarsus was zealous where religion was concerned, but Paul’s zeal is much more than mere religious enthusiasm. Paul was a Pharisee and a rigorist. A big area of concern was how the Jewish people were to get on with the Roman occupation. Many thought the best way was to adapt and accommodate, not upsetting the ruling power. The Herodians and the Sadducees thought like this, as did some Pharisees. In Jn. 11: 48, the threat they felt is expressed very succinctly: if Jesus is allowed to continue his ministry, the Romans will step in and destroy Jerusalem. A much more extreme set of people maintained that there should be no accommodation with Rome and that the only hope would be holy war when the time was right. The early Paul might have had more sympathy with this wing. Not that he was a dagger-wielding assassin (we can’t equate Paul with Barabbas) but he may have been at least sympathetic to that rabble rouser’s ideas. Many educated and pious people believed that religious zeal demanded the violent removal of Rome.


Perhaps a modern parallel to this would be the lawyer Yagal Amir, who assassinated Israeli premier Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. Zeal for the Torah* meant for him not just devotion but radical action. Misguided as he was, he believed that Rabin was leading Israel away from compliance with God’s will and that the only way to deal with that was violence. Paul would look very much like him, or perhaps like those people in our contemporary headlines who take up weapons to fight a religious cause.


The early Paul (Saul) believed that the promises made to Israel by God had still not been fulfilled, but that the countdown was on. The reason for the delay must have been that so many Jews were still not worthy, still not living the Law fully, accommodating themselves too readily to pagan ways. Rather than just sit and wait for things to happen, Paul and many like him believed it necessary to take matters into their own hands. Defeating the Romans was a tall order, perhaps impossible, but much could be done as regards the behaviour of fellow Jews. The behaviour of stricter Pharisees towards fellow Jews was rather like that of the religious police in Saudi Arabia today. If fellow Jews were weakening the nation’s holiness then they had to be forced into line.


The followers of Jesus of Nazareth were just one such group. They were people who had abandoned pure living of the Torah* and had followed a lax Galilean rabbi who had openly broken the Sabbath and been publicly disgraced by crucifixion. They were at least badly letting the side down, but worse they were endangering the whole nation with their false teaching. It wasn’t just their own salvation the Christians were endangering. Salvation was not the purely personal thing we imagine. Salvation was the full restoration of the Holy Nation of Israel, and if some people were not pulling their weight, they spoiled it for everyone else, so they had to be stopped. If God was honoured by the perfect keeping of the Torah*, any mitigation of this was seen as a dishonour to God and had to be stamped out. (We see echoes of this in the violent reactions in some quarters to reports of blasphemy, or the desecration of a sacred text.) Perhaps what is significant in all this is that we find in Paul before his conversion echoes of religious attitudes that are becoming increasingly common and increasingly worrying today. And his conversion consists precisely in realising how wrong these attitudes are and learning to imitate Christ.


Paul has often been criticised by politically radical Christians for being too submissive to Roman authority. Take for instance Rmns 13:1-2: Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. Perhaps part of the reason for such submissiveness is that he wanted to make sure that Christians did not establish their identity in opposition to the empire? He had tried that option and found it led to violence. Maybe in using such statements Paul deliberately intended to distance himself from the zealot* cause. (In fact, just a few years after the writing of Romans the zealot rebellion would lead to the destruction of Jerusalem and the needless death of over a million Jews.)


Do you recognise anything of the sort of person Paul was in other religions, other Christians, in yourself?


© Fr. John Hemer, used with permission.

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