Postscript on St Paul’s “anti-Semitism”
by Darrell Sutton
In two previous papers I introduced a letter of the Apostle Paul to Christians in Rome. The letter was written in the first century AD. Some of the recipients may have been former partisans of Judaism; others of them were converted from non-monotheistic faiths. The letter was a theological tract. Paul’s observations were perceptive even where his viewpoints were not wholeheartedly accepted. However, his points of view on the beliefs of ancient Jews, and their status among other religions, have recently come under fire. One book after another asserts that he was bigoted and spurred the Christian faith in wrong directions. These published conclusions are mostly based on revised notions: contemporary scholars have superimposed modern lexical meanings on ancient ideas.
Jean-Paul Sartre published his Anti-Semite and Jew: An Exploration of the Etiology of Hate in 1944. An essay of over 100 pages, it transformed debates on attitudes toward Jews and how Jewishness could be understood. Other writers broached the subject, but few intellectuals of his day were as influential as Sartre. Biblical studies were not unaffected. Since the late 1940s, many books and papers have been issued on the topic of “anti-Semitism” in the New Testament. The analyses were rarely formed through rigorous studies of lexemes. Contexts were re-imagined and re-interpreted in accordance with the latest critical theories: sociological and psychological methodologies were employed.
The end result was a recasting of personality traits of characters affiliated with New Testament documents. Primarily the focus has been on the Pauline corpus of texts. There are a variety of consensuses among scholars today regarding him. Many modern commentators entertain the notion that Paul in fact was anti-Semitic. I disagree, and set out my reasons below. Still, it is only natural that observant Jews might feel this way. They find certain remarks by him distressing; but they are no less distressed when people of other faiths bring up the Old Testament stories of Israelites waging war in Canaan land, of brutal activities, all of which may be considered to be kinds of anti-Philistinism, anti-Hittitism, anti-Moabitism and so forth.
Jews were considered at different times to be a mutinous folk. Dislike of them among Greek and Roman cliques stemmed more from Jewish abhorrence of polytheism; and the basic misunderstandings held by other Greek and Latin speakers had to do with Jewish disdain of Graeco-Roman speech, literature and arts. Even in cuneiform and hieroglyphic texts, little can be discerned with certainty. One could hardly say most natives found them objectionable on racial grounds.
In the BC era, Old Testament texts are clear: Jewish views of surrounding peoples were connected to how inhabitants had treated Jews. Furthermore, those views were tied to various groups’ belief and behavior toward their gods. Israelites were discouraged from emulating the practices of other societies, and they did not believe that their Jewish customs were adaptations from adjacent cultures. Pauline perspectives repair this exclusivity, but they perform this task by positioning believers in Christ. Attitudes are reformed and re-established in Grace rather than in keeping with the Law.
There are a number of false presumptions, upon which the allegation of anti-Semitism” is based. Some scholars of early Christian writings, who hold to the anti-Semitic theory, share several commonalities: as a rule, and in opposition to authors of New Testament texts, they deny the inspiration of Scripture and believe the account of Jesus’ virgin birth in the Gospels to be a myth. Moreover, they deny that a God, incarnate in any man, ever lived without sin and later died a penal, substitutionary death for sinners: as a result, the resurrection passages are rejected entirely. Since so much else is untrue, Christ’s ascension and his future role as a judge of mankind’s deeds are believed to be further products of ancient imagination.
Since religious writers of antiquity typically are supposed to be essentially biased or prejudiced parties, one wonders how the scientific results of contemporary literary critics have escaped the matching claim that they too are partial. Conversely, all Pauline passages which place Jews in a bad light are adjudged by would-be literary critics to be true. Parties who disbelieve in the above dogmas still believe in the new dogma of ‘Pauline Anti-Semitism’. But the facts of the case, although they may be a matter of personal faith to some, can be inferred from a purely objective analysis of Paul’s writings.
On the other hand, textual critics found their beliefs on an entirely different basis. Except when those texts are examined within larger frameworks of Pauline literary style: for that matter the statements may be construed to be interpolations later ascribed to Paul but written-in afterward by pseudonymous authors. The notion that additions of the kind just noted were made remains doubtful, and a good critical apparatus will prove the difficulties involved in implementing them. Plus, akin to an apparatus which shows how medieval scribes tried to reshape a train of thought, footnotes in critical study-Bibles tend to display how modern commentators seek to re-envision older contexts and their assigned lexical meanings according to abstract scientific rules of interpretation.
There are new perspectives on Paul through which current scholarship re-presents his theological ideas in ways that are less repugnant to modern students of Judaism. Of countless obstacles impeding the progress and acceptance of this research outside the realms of academia stands these two details: orthodox rabbis from the 3rd century AD until now have regarded Gospel accounts of Jesus’ person and portrayals of Pharisaical tradition to be wrong; but at the same time have looked upon statements about Jews made by Paul in his mid-1st century AD epistles to be genuine, i.e., not accurate, but authentic to the Christian tradition. Similarly, Conservative and Orthodox Jewish scholars hold in reverence those rabbinical figures who communicated off-putting assertions about Jesus in the Talmud (Sanh. 43 a-b, Jesus is a sorcerer; Sanh. 107b and Sot. 47a: Jesus engaged in the darks arts and was an idolater). Those comments are normative, held to be valid and believed to have been adequately transmitted and preserved by rabbinic authority.
A cursory study of relevant statements by Paul will show that the “anti-Semitic” charge against him is baseless. However, some essential biographical facts need to be noted. Paul was a Jew, as stated in Acts 21:39 and II Cor. 11:22. He indicated his past zeal in promoting and advancing the principles of Judaism: a zeal that exceeded by far the fervent piety shown by his peers (Gal. 1:13-14). As he recorded in the Galatian passage, he was eager to resist infringements of Jewish law and tradition, even if such resistance called for violence (a modern expression of this sort of devoutness can be seen in Saudi Arabia where there are employed a group men named the Mutawwa, whose business it is to reprimand publically those who transgress specific aspects of Sharia law). Besides, Paul was given license by leading Sadducean priests of his day to thwart the rise of Christianity in nearby districts (Acts 9: 1-2; 22:4-5). So the Church of God became a target. He imprisoned numerous believers; but his transformation from being a Jew who believed that God did not have a son, into a Jew who accepted Jesus’ Sonship and Messiahship was sudden, occurring on a roadway to Damascus, Syria. Immediately he attempted to preach Christ to attendees at the local synagogue there (Acts 9:20), until the Jews there endeavored to kill him.
A few years later, Paul learned from other Jews like the apostle Peter and Barnabas who were instructed in earlier times by Jesus (Gal. 1:18). One should remember that all the apostles were Jewish. None of them ever became despisers of their kin. Their statements were not reflections of self-hatred. Nonetheless, they did lament Jesus’ death at the hands of Roman and Jewish leadership, often admitting that the Roman leader Pilate wanted to liberate Jesus, much to the consternation of the Jewish hierarchy in Jerusalem at that time (Acts 3:13).
A multitude of contemporary scholars are displeased with negative connotations in ancient texts which denigrate anybody. But the texts say what they say, and making them accessible to others is no tacit endorsement of attitudes expressed therein. Indeed, it is difficult to read of malevolent acts done in the past; but is not a close and exact scan of ancient texts the historian’s main function in the study of history? Decades ago, some folk became so offended by documented events of the past that new procedures of analysis were instituted, and these revisionary systems have paved the way to newer interpretations and conclusions. There is a problem here. If ever a bad deed was committed, any acknowledgment of the deed –whether orally or in print- does not make someone a lover or hater of the performer of the bad deed that was done. But in a scholarly world where any and all negative ascriptions are despised, and where negative adjectives are deprecated, people who periodically employ language with shades of meaning that do not positively reinforce what may be historically untrue or unnatural, are deemed “anti” this or that. Consequently, Paul is labeled a ‘hater’ because he swerved theologically from beliefs he once considered to be orthodox.
21st century readers of Christian texts must resist politically-correct ways of reading texts. It is for this reason that attempts were made decades ago to discredit New Testament documents, in order to illustrate bias wherever a system of belief obliged its adherents to subscribe to specific tenets that are now deemed unacceptable. Neither side will be pacified, no matter how many new textual revisions are made, nor versions issued. The Greek and Hebrew wording says the same thing to every literate generation. But for the benefit of readers who find the original Greek and Hebrew languages difficult of access, below are several statements by Paul and another by Peter. I use various translations. The Authorized Version is cited twice since upon its straightforward language so much vitriol has been heaped of late.
Acts 13:26-30 – here Paul is addressing a group of Jews in a synagogue in Antioch in Pisidia:
“My brothers, who come of Abraham’s stock, and others among you who worship God, we are the people to whom this message of salvation has been sent. The people of Jerusalem and their rulers did not recognize Jesus, or understand the words of the prophets which are read Sabbath by Sabbath; indeed they fulfilled them by condemning him. Though they failed to find grounds for the sentence of death, they asked Pilate to have him executed.” REB
Rom. 10:1-4 – here Paul attests to the Israelites’ status in sin, asserting that Christ’s coming subverts the importance of the ritual and rule of ancient Hebrew statutes.
Brethren, my heart’s desire and my prayer to God for Israel is, that they might be saved. “For I bear them record that they have a zeal of God, but not according to knowledge. For they being ignorant of God’s righteousness, have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone that believeth.” KJV
I Thess. 2: 14-15 – here Paul offers encouragement to Greek believers who have faced very difficult persecutions since they embraced Christ.
“For ye, brethren, became followers of the churches of God which in Judea are in Christ Jesus: for ye also have suffered like things of your own countrymen, even as they have of the Jews:
Who both killed the Lord Jesus, and their own prophets, and have persecuted us; and they please not God, and are contrary to all men.” KJV
Tit. 1:13-14 – here Paul gives instructions to Titus for his pastorate on the Mediterranean island of Crete.
“This testimony is true. For the which cause rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith, not attending to Jewish fables, and commandments of men, averting themselves from the truth”. Douai Rheims
Heb. 7: 26-27 – here “Paul” affirms Christ’s eternal priesthood, stating that there is no longer any need for a [Jewish] priesthood.
“For it is indeed fitting for us to have such a high priest: holy, innocent, undefiled, separate from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. He has no need to do every day what those priests do, to offer sacrifices first for their own sins and then for the sins of the people, since he [Christ] did this in offering himself once for all.” NET
Acts 2: 36 – here Peter is addressing attendees in Jerusalem at the annual festival of Pentecost.
“Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.” NRSV
Acts 3:13-15 – here Peter speaks in the Temple to a crowd of Jews, declaring to all aloud that they wanted Jesus to die instead of Barabbas, a murderer.
“…the God of our fathers, hath glorified his Son Jesus, whom ye delivered up, and denied him in the presence of Pilate, when he was determined to let him go… but ye denied the Holy One and the Just, and desired a murderer to be granted unto you; and killed the Prince of life…”
The above verses are not full of amphibologisms (statements that can be diversely interpreted because of uncertainty a propos their grammatical constructions). A few men and women whose scholarship is influential want readers to believe that Paul’s use of Greek rendered many of his phrases’ meanings ambiguous on this topic. The verses, on the other hand, show clearly how Paul and Peter reckoned the guilt to be laid at the feet of those parties involved in Jesus’ death. No insurrection was initiated ever by either of them. Paul certainly was of the opinion that Jewish liturgy finds its completion in the atonement of Jesus: so he says “Christ is our Passover” in I Corinthians 5:7. In the interests of Paul’s theological views, I am obligated to state that the death of animals in a substitutionary way for Jewish families now was unneeded and circumcision was deemed to be unnecessary (Rom. 2:28-29). Paul’s new view, figuratively speaking, made Jesus the answer to the sin problem, not to the Jew problem, as if one never existed.
Paul was not anti-Semitic: his outlook on Jesus’ death implicated only those who participated. It was not projected onto the wider Jewish populace in Israel or in the Diaspora. Yet in his travels to synagogues around the Mediterranean Sea, Paul proclaimed the message of the Messiah to all those individuals who too were of the same elect people to whom he and Jesus both belonged. Believing as he did that Jesus was born to Jews, lived among Jews and died at the hand of Jews in a nation of thousands of Jews who heard his teaching and saw his miracles, he felt compelled to conduct an international mission to the Jews first and then to the gentile (Rom. 1:16.).
In a post-Holocaust setting it is important to be sensitive to how things are articulated, but it is not necessary to slander ancient writers whose views, although unseemly to modern tastes, have been in the public arena for millennia, but are now being cast in a different light. The New Testament also shows the antipathy of Jewish leaders too toward the Apostles in Jerusalem (Acts 8:1), in relation to Paul and his co-workers (Acts 14:4-5, 19; 16:22-23; 17:5; 18:12-13; 19:29; 21:27-30). Does this mean that each and every Jew alive round the world during that period was anti-Jewish, anti-Paul, and anti-Christian in a violent way, and yet remain so?
But it does affirm that not all Jewish persons accepted Paul’s general belief in Jesus’ assumed Messiahship and Sonship. The attacks were not based on ethnicity but driven by theological divergences. Disagreement with Paul, even heated discussions concerning Paul’s modified beliefs in God do not mean they disliked him because he was Jewish. They simply denied the validity of his historical and religious claims regarding the so-called “Christ”. Paul and Peter both understood that Romans played a role in the cruel scene of Jesus’ death. Yet neither of them is deemed by modern scholars to be anti-Italian or anti-Indo-European. The term “anti-Semitic” therefore is a misattribution to the Jews, for Arabs are Semitic too and have a Semitic heritage and language, as do the Ethiopians (descendants of Cush) who speak Amharic (definitely a Semitic speech) and a host of other dialects. Let us not forget the Chaldeans and Nestorians in Iraq, Iran, Syria etc., whose Syriac tongue also is Semitic.
These ethnic debates are skewed today. There is money to be made in this arena. And the profiteering of crusaders and publishers is observable. A few black activists still complain about the mistreatment of blacks at the hands of certain groups of whites during the era of slavery; but the activists rarely acknowledge that free blacks too owned slaves during and after the colonial era right up to Civil War times. Or that black tribesmen in Africa routinely captured and sold their brethren to whites for mirrors, silver trinkets and gunpowder etc. According to black activists, every white person was complicit. However, some points are not in dispute: black liberty eventually was won due to the help of certain whites in the Underground Railroad, because of the political courage of some whites in Congress via their articles against slavery in select newspapers and pamphlets, and owing to the spilled blood of blacks and whites who served together amid the horrors of the Civil War. The deeds of the past may be obnoxious to present day readers, but readers’ discontentment with historical events does not diminish the verity of corroborated fact.
Opinions change all the time, especially when a person returns to primary documents for study. Years of scrutinizing colonial documents and editing a few issues of a privately printed series entitled The Great American History Papers were enough to enlighten me. If one ought to read critically the transmission of old or ancient texts, the same method should be utilized when examining modern testimonies of those same texts. Post-Modernism reoriented how texts should be understood. The new interpretations have not been entirely positive. Reams of pages regularly are produced, sowing curious seeds in academic fields of study. Many of them are of varying worth, the fruit of which is visible through the plethora of theoretical explanations proffered by persons whose philological equipment is in need of repair.
Darrell Sutton is rector of the Tabernacle in Red Cloud, Nebraska, a small village in the Great Plains. He also teaches Semitic languages and edits an academic bulletin entitled ‘The DS Commentary on Books’