Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

Why Should a "Law-Free" Mission Mean a "Law-Free" Apostle?

Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

Why Should a "Law-Free" Mission Mean a "Law-Free" Apostle?

Article excerpt

"Law-free" is a phrase habitually used to describe both the Pauline mission itself, and Paul's own personal repudiation of traditional Jewish practices. The present essay argues that the phrase misleads on both counts. Paul demanded of his gentiles a much greater degree of Judaizing than either the synagogue or the Jerusalem temple ever required or presupposed of theirs; and gentile involvements in Jewish community institutions, whether ekklesiai, synagogues, or the temple, in principle can tell us nothing about Jewish levels of Torah observance within these same institutions. The essay concludes that much of the Pauline mission was Jewishly observant and traditional, and that Paul's Judaizing demands of his gentiles are to be understood as an aspect of his absolute conviction that he lived and worked in history's final hour.

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"Law-free" is a phrase habitually used to describe the Pauline mission, even by scholars (like me) who think it is wrong.1 The phrase seems historically useful because it serves to signal, economically, what long scholarly tradition has considered to be the identifying characteristics of Paul's gentile mission: no to circumcision, no to "the works of the law" (Sabbath, food ways, circumcision), no to Torah, no to "Jewish ethnic pride." For Paul and for his communities, as one of our colleagues has phrased it, the criterion of revelation and thus of salvation was "grace, not race."2 And not only did Paul promote this message (so goes this interpretation), he himself embodied it. After the revelation of the risen Christ, Paul himself was "law-free," dead to the law (see Gal 2:19).

This view of Paul's personal rejection of Jewish ancestral custom has proved remarkably enduring, stretching from earliest patristic theologies to current modern and postmodern ones, uniting those scholars of the New Perspective with those of the "Two-Covenant" perspective. No matter how various their interpretive frameworks, all of these scholars hold that Paul himself, in pursuit of his gentile mission, had ceased to observe the "traditions of the fathers."3

Finally, this idea of "law-freeness" serves as a cover theory to explain the history of the earliest postresurrection movement. Why the split between the Hellenists and the Hebrews? Hellenists were supposedly looser on the issue of Torah observance.4 Why did Paul persecute the ... in Damascus (Gal 1:13)? Because its Jewish members mingled too closely with uncircumcised Gentiles, an index of their own lax attitude toward the law. And why eventually did Paul get as well as give synagogue punishment-"five times forty lashes less one" (2 Cor 11:24)? Because his own law-freeness offended or enraged synagogue communities in the diaspora, just as, before his "conversion," such laxness had offended and enraged him. To quote Alan Segal, Paul the apostle was Paul the apostate.5

This reconstruction, in my view, is utterly wrong. I argue here that the earliest movement's energetic extension to pagans, while socially unprecedented, was in fact Jewishly traditional. I also argue that the main criterion for a pagan's joining the movement was his or her commitment to a radical form of Judaizing. Additionally, I argue that scholarship's traditional emphasis on "law-freeness" so focuses attention on synagogue resistance to Paul that it obscures the involvement of the many other ancient actors who likewise resisted Paul's mission: irate pagans, Roman magistrates, and most especially the lower cosmic gods (2 Cor 4:4, 11:25- 26). Finally, I argue that levels of pagan Torah observance in principle can tell us nothing about levels of Jewish Torah observance, whether within the Christ movement or outside of it. To make my case, I will ask you to bear two contexts in mind: that of the Greco-Roman city, and that of Jewish restoration theology.

We are so used to knowing that "gentiles," in order to join this new messianic movement, had to foreswear the worship of "pagan" gods, that we easily fail to see what an odd idea this was, both in the wider context of the ancient city and in the narrower context of the resident diaspora Jewish community. …

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