“He plays a beautiful trick on us”

The more I read the traditional account of the relationship of Judaism and Christianity, the more it seems like a sick joke. The Jews were apparently given a law that is impossible to fulfill, all so that they could stand as an object lesson for the majority-Gentile movement that inherited God’s promises to the Jews.

Meanwhile, in the real world, there’s no indication that pious Jews have any particular difficulty following their laws, which makes sense given that they are inculcated from early childhood — it’s much like how I don’t have trouble following Midwestern American cultural practices. Nor indeed did Paul, who is supposed to have originated this notion of the function of the law, report having any difficulty in following the strictest version of Judaism in his own time (cf. Philippians).

Gentiles, on the other hand, who wanted to become Jewish converts (not an uncommon phenomenon at the time), may well have experienced the law as an incitement to sin, since the law would seem like a bunch of arbitrary precepts rather than an encoded version of cultural common sense. For instance, it seems plausible to me that someone converting to Judaism might say: “I didn’t realize how much I loved pork until you told me I couldn’t eat pork!” This leads me to believe, following Ted Jennings’ interpretation, that Romans 7 is actually spoken from the Gentile point of view rather than from Paul’s own experience — and therefore, the whole narrative of how the law is impossible to fulfill and the Jews were a big object lesson, etc., etc., is based on a misunderstanding.

All of this leads to the big question: Would it have killed Christianity to have a founder with a clearer prose style?

18 thoughts on ““He plays a beautiful trick on us”

  1. This is why I back up and privilege instead Romans 2.13-14, where Paul talks about the difference between justice coming to the “doers of the law” and “hearers of the law.” This doesn’t so much undermine the Jewish law as it opens up one’s production or doing of a law that is not wholly determined or circumscribed by the Jewish law’s particular content.

  2. Yes. The “doer of the law,” as presented to me by a Pauline studies friend, incorporates that idea pf “producing” the law — versus being its recipient.

  3. “following Ted Jennings’ interpretation, that Romans 7 is actually spoken from the Gentile point of view rather than from Paul’s own experience”

    On strictly exegetical grounds, does Jennings reconcile this interpretation with Paul’s first-person narration of this text?

  4. The NT scholar Krister Stendahl has a great article called the Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscious of the West (found in Harvard Theological Review vol. 56 1963) In it he argues that Paul in fact was not concerned with fulfilling the Law. The Law was seen by the Jews as an act of grace that established a covenantal relationship in which there was room for forgiveness. Hence Paul’s confidence (Phil 3). In Romans Paul is concerned with the possibility for the Gentiles to be included in the messianic community. In 7 he is using an argument that actually acquits the I (ego) and blames sin on sin and flesh instead of on the law. the problem is how the Law can be good yet no longer needed. For Stendahl it is our view point that has been tainted by Augustine and Luther. So possibly it is that we have read it from Gentile perspective and that Paul is less an Augustinian or Lutheran than we thought.

  5. See Stanley Stowers, A Rereading of Romans, where he argues that Paul actually talks in multiple voices throughout and that multiple voices were a common feature of Greek rhetoric — as demonstrated by the fact that Origen, the first commentator on Romans and an educated Greek from not long after Paul, understood him to be speaking in a different voice in that passage, for example.

  6. The traditional understanding of the relationship between Judaism and Christianity is shifting quite significantly due in large part to the work done on the Dead Sea Scrolls. The DSS (esp. sectarian texts) read along with other intertestamental literature provides us with a much more tangible link between both Apocalyptic Judaism and Christianity, as well as early Jewish cultural practices and the practices of nascent Christianity.

    Popular Christianity today (and throughout history) relies fully on the caricature of the law that is set-up in Paul in order to imbue Jesus with some kind of contextual uniqueness. Often this turns into a game of seeing who can best use the ‘oppressive and evil Judaism’ as a negative foil for Jesus’ own life-affirming teachings.

    I think the major issue here is how Christianity will be re-formulated on a popular level when the traditional explanation of the relationship between Judaism and Christianity trickles down from academia.

    Paul already gets piss loads of guff from everyone, and I think he might be getting a few more loads in the near future since the theology and rhetoric in his epistles factors so heavily in the construction of Christian identity.

  7. See Stanley Stowers, A Rereading of Romans, where he argues that Paul actually talks in multiple voices throughout and that multiple voices were a common feature of Greek rhetoric — as demonstrated by the fact that Origen, the first commentator on Romans and an educated Greek from not long after Paul, understood him to be speaking in a different voice in that passage, for example.

    Yup. Sorry to open up an old thread, but I figured I’d toss out one more argument that is, to me, dispositive:

    Rom 7.9 (NIV): “Once I was alive apart from law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died.”

    Paul obviously was never alive apart from the law. His audience would likewise recognize that he was never alive apart from the law – he has made quite clear that he is a Jew.

    Stowers demonstrates that ancient audiences would have been pretty good at picking up this sort of speech-in-character, and that later exegetes read it precisely that way. The text includes a couple of key clues, but 7.9 seems like the most obvious one – the speaker cannot be a Jew, and so Paul must be speaking in character.

    The more I read the traditional account of the relationship of Judaism and Christianity, the more it seems like a sick joke. The Jews were apparently given a law that is impossible to fulfill, all so that they could stand as an object lesson for the majority-Gentile movement that inherited God’s promises to the Jews.

    To very mildly defend the “tradition”, this view is one among several, and the Bultmannian domination of Pauline studies has made it seem somewhat more historically universal than it was. FC Baur, for instance, rejected the notion that the law was put in place to increase transgressions. He argued instead that the law was material while Christian faith is spiritual, and thus Paul’s Christianity constitutes a superior relation to God, though the Jewish mode is not a bad one, just inferior.

    The traditional view is messed up in a lot of ways, but I think quite a few “traditional” theologians did not assent to this precise ridiculous idea.

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