Friday, March 09, 2012

Paul’s letters as our best source for information of earliest Christianity (in the 30’s and 40’s)

I’m continuing to work through Larry Hurtado’s Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI and Cambridge, UK: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, ©2003). Hurtado notes that Paul provides the best source we have for looking at Palestinian Jewish Christianity of the 30s and 40s, prior to Paul’s missionary journeys, and prior to the writing of his letters.

He talks about Paul’s qualifications:

Paul’s Jewishness
In chronological terms, and in terms of its pervasive relevance, the first factor to take very seriously is Paul’s Jewish religious background and its continuing effect in his Christian beliefs and life… precisely because Paul is remembered mainly for his efforts to win believers among Gentiles, it is important to recognize that the formative religious tradition for him was Judaism of the Roman period.

It is clear that even in his role to the apostle to the Gentiles Paul’s motives and conceptions were heavily indebted to biblical and Jewish categories. For example, he likened his apostolic appointment to a prophetic calling (Gal 1:15, echoing Isa. 49:1), and he seems to have seen his mission to the Gentiles in terms of passages in Isaiah about the nations coming to worship the God of Israel (e.g., Rom 15:21, quoting Isa. 52:15) (87).

Jewish Monotheism
Jewish insistence on the uniqueness of the God of Israel and the exclusive validity of worship offered to their God made them unique (and in the eyes of some, notorious) among the ethnic groups of the Roman Empire. Their religious exclusivity provoked significant questions and difficulties as well, for virtually all aspects of Roman-era life were linked to the gods and were charged with a certain religious character.

Two features of Jewish monotheism are especially important for appreciating the historical significance of the devotion to Christ that is reflected in Paul’s letters. First, in addition to refusing to accept and worship any of the other deities of the Roman religious environment, conscientious Jews also maintained a distinction between the God of Israel and any of the exalted figures who could be seen as prominent in God’s entourage, such as principal angels or revered human figures like Moses or Enoch. This distinction was most clearly maintained in discouraging the worship of these figures; and devoted Jews insisted that worship was to be given to God alone. In light of this attitude, the level of reverence for Christ reflected in Paul’s letters is historically remarkable …

Second, the Jewish monotheistic stance forbade apotheosis, the divinization of human figures, and thus clashed with a major theme in pagan religion of the time. Philo’s quip about Gaius Caligula’s claim to divinity aptly illustrates Jewish attitudes, and is all the more important in coming from a diaspora Jew who in some other respects shows a cosmopolitan attitude: “Sooner could God change into a man than a man into God” (91-92).

Paul as a Convert
It is necessary to appreciate the nature of Paul’s zealous preconversion stance in order to grasp the significance of the change in his religious convictions. Study of the Phineas-zeal tradition in ancient Jewish sources has provided us with valuable help in catching the force of Paul’s allusion in his references to his religious “zeal.” The offenses mentioned in ancient Jewish sources as justifying (even demanding) “zeal” of the type associated with Phineas were serious: idolatry, perjury, sorcery and poisoning. Against fellow Jews publicly committing such offenses, the devout Jew was authorized to take vigorous action, which could even involve the death of the offender. The rationale seems to have been that the religious integrity of the Jewish people, the collective Jewish responsibility to exhibit faithfulness to the God of Israel was at stake. If, as seems likely from his references to his own preconversion actions, Paul saw himself as carrying out this sort of firm disciplinary effort, then he was responding to something he found deeply offensive, even dangerous, in the beliefs and practices of the unfortunate Jewish Christians on the receiving end of his zeal Consequently Paul’s shift from this attitude to an enthusiastic participation in the Christian movement is remarkable, and must have involved profound changes in his religious views.

As a convert, especially having moved from opposition against the Christian movement to being an adherent, Paul had to undertake a rather thorough reformulation of his religious views, indeed his whole religious “self.” As anyone acquainted with political or religious converts (or even with smokers who become nonsmokers!) will know, a radical shift in commitment often involves a more enthusiastic and also a more thoroughly thought-out appropriation of the views to which one converts than may be characteristic of those whose acceptance of the position came less traumatically.

This is part of the reason why we sense in Paul’s letters that we are dealing with both an enthusiast and a “thinker,” or at least with someone who has given a good deal of consideration to his religious views; and it makes Paul’s letters all the more valuable as historical sources. In them we have affirmations of Christian beliefs and practices that are accompanied by, or give indications of, a rationale for them. Having worked out his understanding of his Christian beliefs in various Christian communities of the very earliest years of Christianity, he gives us at least a glimpse of the sorts of reflections going on in such groups.

Moreover it is reasonable to think that the basic Christological views that he embraced and espouses in his epistles reflect the beliefs he had previously found objectionable and had opposed so vigorously. In fact, in a number of places Paul recites traditional formulations that likely illustrate the beliefs of those he persecuted, beliefs he that accepted as a convert (e.g., Rom. 4:24-25; 1 Cor 15:1-7; 1 Thess 1:10) (94-96).

Paul’s Gentile Mission
Another distinctive feature of Paul, and the third key factor to bear in mind in considering Paul’s letters, is his mission to the Gentiles…Over against some other Jewish Christians, Paul insisted that faith in Christ was sufficient basis for the full inclusion of Gentiles as partakers in God’s salvation, fellow members of the ekklesia, and fellow heirs of Abraham (e.g., Gal 2:1-5, 11-18; Rom 4:13-17). And he insisted that the Holy Spirit-empowered obedience to Christ was the defining content of their ethical obligation (e.g., Gal 5:6, 13-26)…

Paul includes the belief that “Christ died for our sins” among the traditions that he received and among the beliefs common to him and the other Jewish Christian leaders he refers to in 1 Corinthians 15:1-11. But Paul’s mission required him to develop the rich implications of Christ’s redemptive death that he presents in passages such as Galatians 3:1-29 and Romans 3:9-31. In these passages Paul seems to be presenting his own reflections [or “revelation”] rather than simply reciting Christological tradition. Particularly in his views of how Christ is to be understood in relation to the Torah, it is likely that Paul’s Christology shows the effects of his special mission to the Gentiles.

Nevertheless, given Paul’s concern to maintain links with, and acceptance of his mission in, the Jerusalem church, and given also his need to present arguments for his own views with premises that could command the assent of those with whom he disagreed, we should be careful about attributing too much originality and distinctiveness to him. Though he drew practical inferences that were apparently not shared by all, specifically as to Gentile Christian obligations and the proper Jewish Christian attitude toward Gentile converts, it is not at all clear that in other respects the beliefs about Christ and the devotional practices reflected in his letters constitute a major departure from prior Christian tradition (96-98).

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