Why we Love to Hate Paul*

*and why we shouldn’t

By Joseph W.H. Lough

Liberal mainstream protestant Christians love to hate Paul. There’s plenty to hate. For one, there is Paul’s apparent fixation on authority. For another, there is his understandable, but no less disturbing endorsement of slavery. But, perhaps the main reason we love to hate Paul today are his teachings on sexuality.

I do not hate Paul. To the contrary, I am convinced that without Paul we lose much that was good about the first century Christian and Jewish diaspora communities.

I once thought that hatred of Paul was a generational phenomenon. Educated in the 1980s at a liberal, mainstream protestant seminary, I knew that Paul was not the author of the pastorals (Titus, and First and Second Timothy), that he was probably not the author of Ephesians, and that he may not have been the author of Colossians either. I knew therefore that “Paul’s” most offensive statements about slaves and women, and about submission, subordination, and authority in general were not Paul’s at all.

Yet, most of those who love to hate Paul, who received their training in the 1960s and 1970s, knew this as well.

I also once thought that hatred of Paul might be an interreligious matter. Unlike Peter, James, and the other Jerusalem apostles, Paul was, after all, not a “real Jew.” When Paul rejected Torah, rejected circumcision, and rejected the uniquely Jewish dietary restrictions, he also drove a wedge between his Greek/Barbarian communities and the uniformly Jewish communities of Peter and James in Jerusalem. And, in so doing, he laid the groundwork for two millennia of Christian Jew-hating.

Except that we now know—and have known since the 1940s and 1950s—that the conflict between the diaspora Jewish community and the Jerusalem Jewish community long preceded Paul. Jews in Rome’s diaspora community, where Paul learned his faith, could not be expected to rigorously adhere to the Cult of the Temple and so had to develop other ways of being good, observant Jews. But this was not all. Where Jerusalem’s Jewish community maintained high laws of ritual and ethnic purity, the diaspora Synagogue had to adjust itself to a much more ethnically and religiously diverse setting. Thus, long before Paul ever advanced his rightly praiseworthy saying “in Christ there is no Jew nor Greek, no Male or Female, no Slave or Freeman,” Rome’s diaspora Jews were saying much the same.

To be sure, the diaspora synagogue could be rigid in other ways. Rabbis (teachers) in diaspora synagogues found ways to apply Torah to everyday life that it is almost certain bore little relationship to the original intent of the law. (Paul’s Midrash on Torah in First Corinthians, chapters 8-11, would have been deemed laughable by any self-respecting Jerusalem teacher.)

But, there were other reasons why Jerusalem’s Jews hated their diaspora cousins. For instance, often the most educated members of the diaspora synagogue were non-Jews. Sometimes they were even women or slaves. Yet, in the judgment of diaspora Rabbis, it was better that Torah be read aloud and interpreted, even by a woman, a Greek, a slave, or barbarian, than that Torah not be read at all. Long before Paul appeared on the scene, the Roman diaspora Jewish community was already intimately acquainted and comfortable with women and ethnically non-Jewish religious leaders. This helps to explain the long list of women episkopos (overseers) and diakonos (Eucharistic ministers) not only in the salutations of Paul’s authentic letters, but in the ongoing Pauline mission long after his martyrdom.

So, if Paul inherited such a noble legacy from his diaspora Jewish sisters and brothers, what went wrong? What went wrong was the fall of the Jerusalem Temple and the slaughter of Jerusalem’s Jews in 70/71 C.E.

Here we need to bear in mind that, when they slaughtered Jerusalem’s Jews, Rome’s soldiers did not distinguish between those who followed Jesus and those who did not. A Jew was a Jew, and the Roman soldiers slaughtered the Jews indiscriminately.

The slaughter of Jerusalem Jewry had four related consequences:

  1. First, it transformed all of Judaism into rabbinic Judaism overnight. No Temple, no Cult of the Temple. As a consequence, Jerusalem’s Jews—both Christians and non-Christians—had to learn the ropes of diaspora Judaism. Needless to say, they were none too happy at what they found. (See, for example, II Peter 3:16.) Women and slaves leading service. Uncircumcised religious practitioners. And piles upon piles of rabbinic Midrash specifying in detail what a religious Jew could and could not do on Sabbath.
  2. Second, it transformed all Jerusalem Christians into Pauline Christians overnight. No more patiently waiting for Jesus to return to the Temple and destroy the Roman occupiers. No more rigorous observance of the Cult of the Temple. The transition was no less painful for the surviving members of Peter’s and James’ community than it was for non-Christian Jews. All of a sudden these Christians were thrown at the mercy of communities where women and slaves were leaders and presiders at worship. But, perhaps most difficult of all, the facts themselves—the destruction of the Temple, the slaughter of the Jews, the victory of the Romans—compelled this diaspora community to make peace with the Pauline community’s “realized” eschatology, the teaching that Jesus has returned “in and through his living body,” the ekklesia, or gathered faithful.
  3. Third, the Temple’s destruction rent the already tenuous Jewish-Christian community asunder. Many non-Christian Jews viewed the destruction of the Temple as a punishment for their unfaithfulness in general, and, in particular, punishment for their toleration of Christians in their community. One synagogue after another closed its doors to Christians, thus accelerating the union of the fleeing Petrine-Jamesian communities with the Pauline communities. The consequences for the diaspora synagogue were, in other words, the very reverse from those for the diaspora Christian communities. Where the latter continued to grow more ethnically and religiously diverse (and less Jewish), the diaspora synagogue grew more ethnically and religiously pure and isolated.
  4. Finally, however, the combining of Jerusalem with diaspora Christian communities reshaped the Pauline mission in fundamental ways. As Luke-Acts makes clear, it was following the fall of the Temple (and following Peter and Paul’s twin martyrdoms in Rome) that “Peter” and “Paul” decide to put their differences aside and agree to work together. Of course, Luke-Acts’ story is only partially apocryphal. For, in matter of fact, their two communities do eventually make up, albeit well after the martyrdoms of their respective leaders. And, not surprisingly, so too do the pseudepigraphical and deutero-Pauline authors make up with Peter’s and James’ heirs. For it is precisely here, after 70/71 C.E. that we find the Jerusalem community’s love of authority, misogyny, subordination, and subjection creeping into “Paul’s” letters as well.

To be sure, all of this was already well known to scholars in the 1940s and 1950s. And, so, already by the 1940s and 1950s, there was really no good reason to love to hate Paul. Quite to the contrary; a half-century of groundbreaking research into the Roman Jewish community has brought most scholars to a greater appreciation not only for how well Paul reflected a certain strand of diaspora Jewish political radicalism, but also how close, both theologically and practically, Paul’s supposedly unique “Christianity” was to already existing diaspora Judaism.

So, why do we continue to love to hate Paul? I suspect that our persistent hatred has a good deal to do with our preference for the devil we know than the saint we do not. And, yet, if the past seventy-five years of scholarship holds good, then our learned ignorance of this saint may have deprived us of much that is right, good, and meet about both the first century Christian and the first century Jewish diaspora Roman communities.

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