by Dr. Mika Ahuvia
Everyone remakes the apostle Paul in their own image and I, as a scholar of classical Judaism, am no different. Paul describes himself as a “Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless” (Philippians 3:5-6). By his own account, Paul was devoted to the life of the Torah, with the interpretation of his forefathers, the Pharisees, making sense of biblical complexities.
Paul, of course, never described himself as Christian. The term didn’t exist yet in his lifetime. (He also didn’t describe himself as a Jew. Jewish/Judean was what others called the people of Israel, not what they called themselves in that period.) Like the later rabbis, he defined himself as a member “of the nation of Israel.” Unlike the other Jewish apostles, Paul defined himself as an apostle to the nations, translating Judaism and its teachings, prophecies, and ethics to non-Jews.
I like to think that Paul, like me, was a diaspora Jew, who often found himself explaining Jewishness to non-Jews. He lived primarily outside ancient Judea, and he spoke with powerful Greek rhetoric and a passion that still has the power to reach out of the page and grab you. When Paul looked out at the great monuments of the Roman Empire, he wasn’t awed by the eternal power of Rome; instead, he looked forward to the end of the imperial age. I like to think he saw those monuments more wholly than we do, as edifices built by slaves, evidence of the corruption of the ruling class, merely physical things that would be brought down by God in good time (and he believed that time was fast approaching). In other words, I like to think that being a member of an ancient minority people gave him a broader perspective.
I also like to think that it was the contradiction between God’s promises to the tribe of Israel (Gen 49:8-12; Exod 19:3-6) and God’s promise that he would embrace all people (Isaiah 56:7, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the peoples”) that prepared Paul for his transformational vision of the risen Christ. Given the choice between salvation for members of the nation of Israel alone and salvation for all the world through belief in Jesus, Paul chose the latter. Paul believed he was placing the nations and Israel on equal footing. Paul did not know that others would interpret him as rejecting God’s promises to Israel and rejecting Judaism itself. Later Christians understood Jewish rejection of Jesus as threatening to Christianity’s universal promise. Anti-Judaism preceded Paul and continued to develop through the medieval period as church leaders, monarchs, and theologians like Martin Luther defined themselves through and against Jews, imaginary or real (see the work of David Nirenberg).
I’ve been teaching about supersessionism, the dangerous idea that Christianity fulfills, triumphs over, and replaces Judaism, for 10 years. Most of my students have no idea what the term supersessionism means, but that does not prevent them from engaging in supersessionist thinking without ill-intention – and without even realizing it. They ask questions like: “But the God of the Hebrew Bible is an angry God, right?” Or they make statements like: “Judaism is a legalistic religion, it’s all about ritual, not a relationship with God;” “Christianity is a religion of love, Judaism isn’t.” In supersessionist thinking, Judaism stopped developing in the first century CE and has remained stagnant ever since. Even students of Jewish backgrounds repeat these clichés, having internalized what the Christian majority says about them and their traditions.
A close reading of the Hebrew Bible obliterates such supersessionist clichés. The entire narrative of the first five books of the Bible is about a God who is in search of a relationship with people: over and over again, God reaches out, and humanity lets him down, but God perseveres through Noah, Abraham, and his descendants. The Hebrew Bible offers the stories not only of Isaac, the promised child, but of Hagar, the lowly maid-servant without a home, who also happens to be the only woman in the Bible to see and name God (Genesis 16:13). In the biblical narrative, God finds Hagar and her son Ishmael in the desert, and provides water for them and comforts them. Indeed, the New Testament does not have a monopoly on compassion for the lowly. Hagar’s son Ishmael, the forefather of the Arabian people, is promised the same destiny as the forefather of the Israelites, Jacob. That story of equality between the descendants of Abraham is often forgotten and overshadowed by Paul’s retelling that favors Isaac and displaces Ishmael. Also overlooked are the inspiring stories of Exodus, when the enslaved Israelites were liberated by God from slavery, the priestly ideals of Leviticus, the intimate relationship of God with Israelites in the wilderness in Numbers, and the culmination of biblical teachings in Deuteronomy.
The only biblically commanded prayer can be found in Deuteronomy 6:4, still recited by Jews today: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” This prayer emphasizes the importance of a relationship of love with God. In ancient times, Jewish interpreters such as the Pharisees developed liturgical ways of marking their devotion to God, grounded in the laws of the Torah and the example of the priests.
As far as scholars can tell, most Jews never experienced the law the way Paul (sometimes) described it: in terms of guilt or enslavement to sin. Jews all over the Mediterranean world impressed and intrigued Greeks and Romans with their devout devotion to an aniconic God, their dietary regulations, their Sabbaths, and circumcisions. Through these rituals, Jews celebrated ongoing interaction with God. If ritual was a mode of paying attention, the ancient Jews figured out myriad ways of doing so.
That’s why the Jewish way of life was so attractive to others and why Paul railed against gentiles adopting Jewish Law in the Letter to the Galatians. Paul believed that the Torah and its way of life was for Jews; for gentiles, there was a new way to salvation for gentiles, one through faith in Jesus, a way that did not require circumcision, Sabbath, and kashrut (on which see the New Perspective on Paul or John Gager’s Reinventing Paul, or his recent book Who Made Early Christianity? The Jewish Lives of the Apostle Paul). Paul argues so adamantly about his position precisely because these rituals – and the communities they engendered – must have been appealing to the recipients of his letters.
As I tell my students, it might seem easier to understand the world in terms of binaries like Christianity/Judaism, good/bad, love/anger, wrong/right, chosen/rejected, but these binaries are not rooted in truth nor are they rooted in history. To understand Judaism, Jewish practices, and Jewish beliefs in terms of a binary with Christianity and Christian beliefs is fundamentally wrong and lazy. Through the centuries and in America today, it has also proven dangerous as well. Medieval imaginings of the blood-thirsty wretched Jews, guilty for the murder of Jesus, provoked countless expulsions, pogroms, blood-libels, and genocide.
It was only after the Holocaust that scholars acknowledged that supersessionist thinking permeated the study of Judaism and had violent real-world implications. After the war, religion departments in America began reframing the relationship of Judaism and Christianity as sibling religions which parted ways in the first century.
The term Judeo-Christian was popularized only after WWII as Americans reacted to the horrors of the Holocaust and defined themselves against the atheism of Communist Russia. This has proven to be a fragile term, poorly papering over differences that were never fully confronted. That hyphenated link is now fraying as a certain segment of Americans are defining themselves against an imagined Other, the Jew, once again. Jews are once again serving as a useful foil and are being demonized once more in this polarized and poisoned political climate: old anti-Semitic clichés are in political campaigns once more: Jews, a tiny minority spread throughout many countries are somehow in control of the media, government, and banks and are looking to overthrow white Americans with their globalists and cosmopolitans interests. “Jews will not replace us,” the white nationalists at Charlottesville chanted last year, alluding to the Anti-semitic propaganda that Jews are responsible for the social movements of the 1960s that toppled white supremacists from power. The shooter at a Pittsburgh synagogue targeted local observant Jews because he saw the world in terms of “us” and “them”: us, being white Christian Americans and all Jews, refugees, and people of color, as “invaders” unworthy of life.
It was the approach of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) to refugees that set the Pittsburgh terrorist off. HIAS and many Jewish-Americans refuse to see the world in terms of “us vs. them.” In the words of HIAS’s president Mark Hetfield: “We used to welcome refugees because they were Jewish. Today HIAS welcomes refugees because we are Jewish.” To understand what Mr. Hetfield meant, we must to turn to the biblical sources.
“The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I the LORD am your God.” (Leviticus 19:34). Today, many Jews understand refugees to be strangers, much like the ancient Israelites were strangers in the land of Egypt, driven there by famine and dependent on the kindess of others. The anthropologist Mary Douglas made a compelling case that the very center of the book of Leviticus can be found in a related statement in verse 18: “You shall love your fellow [or neighbor] as yourself.”
Most Christians do not realize that Jesus is quoting Leviticus in Mark 12:28-31, when a scribe asks him “Which commandment is the most important of all?” and Jesus answers, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
We might compare this with a conversation a gentile had with one of the leading interpreters of the Torah in the first century CE. When asked to summarize the teachings of the Torah, the famous Hillel answered: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor, that is the entire Torah, the rest is commentary, go study.” (Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 31a).
These sayings pose a different kind of binary relationship between the self and one’s neighbor or fellow human being, where the relationship is not one of replacement (or us vs. them), but one of ongoing interaction: love the other, do not hate the other.
More recently in religious studies, scholars have reframed the relationship of Judaism and Christianity in terms of “the ways that never parted.” This paradigm acknowledges that Jews and Christians never did part quite so neatly as we like to imagine in the first century CE. Instead, Jewish and Christian communities continued to overlap and share much in common for centuries, only slowing establishing their communal boundaries, and defining themselves through each other for centuries.
It comes down to this: Christians read the Old Testament through the New Testament. For them, the Hebrew Bible is incomplete. For Christians, Judaism might seem incomplete. For Jews, the teachings of the Hebrew Bible stand on their own, without Jesus. For Jews, the New Testament can be read as an intriguing document, a record of how some Jews understood themselves in the first century CE. As a scholar, it is an ancient text that I cherish alongside many others, even as I do not feel its pull theologically. Christians must have the confidence in their own faith without needing to make Judaism wrong. And Jews too, can have confidence in their own traditions, without needing to justify themselves to Christians. The other will remain other, but we have the choice of choosing between love or hate as our point of departure. This season, I hope we choose to follow the best insights of our shared religious traditions and choose to see each other’s fundamental humanity first. The rest is commentary, let’s study.
This is the Revised Common Lectionary sermonizing archive.