Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

Paulus Als Yischmaelit? the Personification of Scripture as Interpretive Authority in Paul and the School of Rabbi Ishmael

Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

Paulus Als Yischmaelit? the Personification of Scripture as Interpretive Authority in Paul and the School of Rabbi Ishmael

Article excerpt

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While a growing body of scholarship suggests that Paul's scriptural hermeneutics may fruitfully be illuminated "backwards" in the light of his early Christian reception and interpretation,1 the enigma of the precise Jewish matrix of his exegetical method remains tantalizingly unsolved. Some have emphasized Paul's debt to Hellenistic rhetorical and philosophical methods drawn from Alexandrian and Antiochene diaspora communities and their allegorical "yearning for the One."2 Other studies have highlighted the distinctly Palestinian, Semitic, apocalyptic, or otherwise "midrashic" character of his biblical interpretation.3 Still others construe Paul's relationship to Israel's Scriptures in primarily canonical terms.4 Any attempt to root Paul's hermeneutics in his Jewish education and identity, however, must wrestle with one intractable fact and its correlative question: Paul was a Pharisee (Phil 3:5), but what kind of Pharisee?5 Despite the difficulties of answering this question, the quest remains legitimate,6 and outlining two classic answers will help contextualize the contribution of this study-to identify mutually illuminating similarities between Paul's exegesis and the later exegesis of the school of Rabbi Ishmael-while also indicating a road not taken.

The first position is that of Joachim Jeremias, the renowned Göttingen Semitist, who, in a 1969 Festschriftfor Matthew Black, made his own position on the subject crystal clear:

Wir können nun aber die theologische Heimat des Apostels im Raum der zeitgenössischen Theologie noch genauer fixieren. Zahlreiche Einzelbeobachtungen lassen erkennen, dass Paulus Hillelit war.7

Paul was a Hillelite. In defense of this position, Jeremias rallies a host of arguments, including their shared Stoicized Jewish doctrine that the entirety of Torah could be reduced to a single summary Kerngesetz; belief in the resurrection of the dead; an openness to the inclusion of the gentiles; and preference for proselyte baptism rather than circumcision as the primary rite of initiation.8

Many of Jeremias's methods and presuppositions have been challenged by subsequent scholarship.9 Most glaring is his dependence on the beraitot of the Talmud Bavli for his reconstruction of Tannaitic tradition. The echoes he hears of 1 Cor 10:12 in m. Avot 2:4 and of Rom 12:15 (χαiρειν µετ? χαιρoντων, κλαiειν µετ? κλαιoντων, "Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep" [NRSV]) in t. Ber. 2:21, on the other hand, remain intriguing.10 Nonetheless, the contemporaneous critiques of Klaus Haacker and Hans Hübner significantly problematized Jeremias's conclusions, and, following the more trenchant skepticism of Jacob Neusner, almost everything that had been said about first-century Pharisees has now been called into question.11

All the more interesting, then, that a second, more recent scholar, N. T. Wright, using much the same evidence as Jeremias, has revived just the opposite conclusion: Paul was a Shammaite Pharisee. Wright claimed this confidently in his 1992 work The New Testament and the People of God, following the earlier thesis of Hübner, and has reiterated it in his most recent study, Paul and the Faithfulness of God.12 For Wright, it is precisely Paul's later opposition to the Shammaite zeal for circumcision and their exclusion of the gentiles that suggest this as the tradition in which he was schooled. Paul's later apparent affinities with Hillel are simply a natural result of his shedding the scales of his Shammaite past.13

The ability of Jeremias and Wright to place Paul in conflicting schools on the basis of his position vis-à-vis gentiles and circumcision suggests that further evidence is needed to make headway on the question of Paul's Pharisaism. It furthermore confirms that, given the current state of the evidence, attempting to plot Paul's Pharisaism along the Hillel-Shammai grid is probably quixotic. …

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