Sunday, March 22, 2020

Paul and the "Parting of the Ways"

Paul wrote before the "parting of the ways" of Jews and Christians. He regularly expressed a utopian view of Jews and Gentiles living together as an eschatological community – the "people of God" at the end of the age joined together as one body, one house, one loaf. Christianity did not have an independent existence during Paul's lifetime. Rather the "Jesus assemblies" – whether meeting in the homes of well-to-do patrons or in tenement work places and houses – grew out of and paralleled the synagogues of the Jewish diaspora. It is hard to imagine the first Gentile "Jesus worship" as anything other than a mirror, or extension, of the liturgy borrowed from the first century synagogues.

This is not to say that Paul was oblivious to the ever-present problems of his utopian vision. The great bulk of Paul's major letters – Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians – deals specifically with the challenges of Jewish and Gentile believers coexisting in a single community of faith. These challenges were voiced with great volume and frequency by Paul's diverse opponents. Nevertheless, Paul never abandoned his vision of end time unity.

We – as modern interpreters of Paul – approach his letters from the other side of the "parting of the ways." And this historical perspective always colors our reading of Paul. Like Luther who "read into" Paul the Protestant conflict with late medieval Catholicism, we often see Paul only through our experience of Western individualism – as so clearly expounded in Krister Stendahl's essay "The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West."

The new perspective on Paul not only challenges Luther's misrepresentation of the religion of second temple Judaism and Paul's place in it, it also – and appropriately so – questions contemporary Western readings of Paul's letters. Whether the new perspective offers a satisfactory reconstruction of second temple Judaism and Jesus and Paul is a separate matter. But the importance and necessity of this quest is beyond question.

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