Paul’s Two Minds on the Law: Or, Paul’s One Mind on the Jews

In recent months, I have been advancing a fairly “strong” reading of the authentic letters of Paul, with Romans 9-11 as the guiding thread on his relationship to Judaism. As I’ve been going through the letters in Greek, though, my reading completely ran aground on Galatians. It seems clear that any attempt to get one consistent position from Paul on this issue is impossible, and that’s because Paul is always responding to events — as indeed his very mission to the Gentiles is a response to an event (the apocalyptic vision of Christ).

I’ve also been reading Gershom Scholem’s work on messianism in the last couple weeks, and based on what he says there, I’d say that Paul starts out as an “anarchist” messianist (as opposed to the kind of messianist who thinks the law will be intensified in the messianic age) — perhaps because the coming of the messiah required the ingathering of the Gentiles, Paul concludes that the law loses its force for the new messianic era. This is where the language of the law as temporary pedagogue in Galatians comes in, as well as the language about the curse of the law that has now been lifted. With everyone set free from the requirements of the law and everyone being gathered into one community, it becomes easy to view Jewish particularity as something that’s being dissolved in the messiah — and for both Peter and the Galatian community, turning back to the law under these circumstances means voluntarily putting oneself under a curse.

However, as time goes by, Paul sees that the Jews, as a people, are not acknowledging Christ (though individuals, most notably Paul, are). Based on his previous understanding, the only conclusion to draw is that the Jews are completely rejected — but that’s impossible! And so he comes up with the argument in Romans 9-11, wherein the Jews should not be expected to turn to Christ until the full number of the Gentiles has been brought in, at which point they’ll be so jealous of God’s grace to the Gentiles that they won’t be able to help but join in themselves.

(It appears that Paul might even think that he can “pull it off” in his own lifetime: in his mind, he’s already exhausted the eastern half of the empire and plans to head west. The first commentator on Romans, Origen of Alexandria, views Paul as personally interceding for the salvation of the Jews and letting his audience know that God has promised to grant the request — and in our own century, Jacob Taubes reads Paul as putting himself in the place of Moses, interceding for the people after the golden calf incident. Perhaps this motif reflects something of the “taking God by surprise” element that we’ve lately discussed in connection with 2 Maccabees — Paul discerns that God is waiting for all the nations to be gathered in before bringing Israel on board, and so he says, “Well, okay, I’ll personally go to all the nations, then, to speed things up!”)

It doesn’t seem as though Paul made it west, instead finding himself martyred at Rome. He also likely missed the world-historical event that was to render his position in Romans 9-11 a minority opinion in the New Testament and to color the interpretation of Galatians: the destruction of the temple. This event is, in my reading, the watershed moment when the Christian movement develops the tendency to view the Jews as the enemy, rather than (as had been the case for Paul) the Roman Empire.

The Gospels increasingly scapegoat the Jews (though it’s possible Mark can be interpreted as escaping this charge), with the Gospel of John going so far as to reject essentially all claims of Jewish privilege and to identify the Jews as children of the devil — and notice how it’s the only Gospel that doesn’t explicitly line up the crucifixion with the Passover or have Jesus taking part in a Passover meal. Acts attempts to recruit Paul himself into this narrative, imposing a scheme whereby Paul has to reenact the Jewish rejection of the messiah in every town he visits before turning to the Gentiles. On the other side, the post-Pauline epistles (other than James) either base themselves on the dominant model of the Roman household or, in the case of Hebrews, explicitly make the case for supercessionism.

The major dissenting voice among the later New Testament writings is Revelation, where the enemy is once again clearly the Roman empire. Brilliantly synthesizing the Hebrew Bible, the writings of the 2nd Temple period, and the nascent New Testament traditions, its author calls out — with a degree of desperation matched only by Galatians or the Corinthian correspondence, i.e., rhetorical situations where Paul was basically never going to win the argument — for Christians to define themselves in opposition to empire. (I base my argument here on Elisabeth Schussler-Fiorenza’s interpretation.) Like Paul’s argument in Romans, though, Revelation was destined to be marginal in its impact, as both became folded into the game of “end times” speculation (and in the case of Romans, the question of predestination, which wasted so much of the intellectual energy of Western Christianity).

The irony is that the anti-Jewish stream only makes sense if the situation of Romans is read into Galatians — if Paul was an antinomian messianist at this early period, then his remarks about how the law is not beneficial to the Gentiles who are being brought on board should not be extrapolated to the Jews as such, whom Paul surely expected to be brought on board as well via their own set of apostles. Paul can only say such harsh words about the law in a situation where he’s confident that the Jews are soon to acknowledge Christ en masse (something of which his own story surely seemed to be a token), and once it becomes clear that that’s not happening, he radically revises his thought, coming up with the unexpected narrative whereby the ingathering of the Gentiles is meant to arouse jealousy in the Jews.

In both situations, the one constant is that God’s calling of the Jews is irrevocable and all Israel shall be saved. Beginning already in the New Testament, however, the respective situations of Galatians and Romans were reversed, in the interests of producing a reading that left out the one constant that underlay both arguments.

14 thoughts on “Paul’s Two Minds on the Law: Or, Paul’s One Mind on the Jews

  1. and notice how it’s the only Gospel that doesn’t explicitly line up the crucifixion with the Passover or have Jesus taking part in a Passover meal.
    John lines up the crucifixion with the day of preparation for the passover, so that Jesus is killed when the passover lambs are being slaughtered. Thus, he is (as said in Ch.1) “the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” John is particularly interested in Jewish cultic life, which is why the scenes in Jerusalem are always correlated with a particular festival.

    As for your larger argument, I’m not sure I see it. If, as in Romans, the righteousness of God has been revealed apart from the law, then Romans and Galatians agree–the law simply cannot give righteousness, never could, and those who seek righteousness through the law seek in vain (and finally, it doesn’t matter whether this is done via the law of Moses or the blasphemous rites of the empire–the futility is equal).

    But more than that, I think your reading of Galatians is slightly odd. Jewish particularity isn’t being dissolved into a new community, but into a single new person. The designation “Jew” has lost its meaning in the new creation. So, “but all are one in Christ Jesus. There is a new creation (who just so happens to be a Jew), a new high priest, and so the original, intended human priesthood is entirely restored in him. Therefore distinction between Jew (priestly) and gentile (not) has lost its sense.

  2. Right, because Paul never wrote those words. Or he simply must have meant something else. Never mind that the Gospels show this just as consistently. Heck, I can get there just out of Isaiah and Jeremiah.

  3. As for the issue with the Passover in John, I threw that remark out there based on my (apparently) faulty memory, so I’m probably wrong — but your description does fit into the general theme of becoming more supercessionist, I think.

  4. Your memory of John is half right. John puts the crucifixion on the day of preparation, not the passover day itself, as the synoptics do. Supercessionist? Yes, in the sense that Jesus is replacing the whole temple cult, and this is tracked through every major festival. But that’s there already in the repeated insistence on authority in Mark (just in a less liturgically-aware manner).

  5. At stake in this debate, it seems to me, is whether we can find warrant in Paul for the claim that God’s covenant with Israel that the Hebrew Bible testifies to from Genesis through the prophets has ongoing validity after Christ’s death. Or, put it differently: after Christ’s death, what is the value of the Hebrew Scriptures? Are they now only to be read as the shadow of which Christ is the full light? Are they a revelation of God’s word, but one whose divine illumination is hidden behind a veil? Such a view would be fine if it were not for the fact that the Hebrew scriptures are not the only written signs of God in the world. There is a writing on the flesh, a sign of the flesh, that is the sign of the same covenant as testified to in the Hebrew scriptures. Now here is the problem, and I think Adam K is right: Paul starts off thinking that the Hebrew scriptures can be best read after Christ as a shadow/veil of the fullness of the covenantal revelation in Christ. But that makes the sign in the flesh of his people (and in his own flesh, and in the flesh of Christ) also a shadow/veil of the full revelation. Paul may think at first (as Adam K suggests) that the flesh is about to be transformed, so why worry about the covenant in the flesh? But then he sees that the transformation of the carnal flesh into the spiritual flesh is not going to take place until the non-circumcised flesh of the gentiles has been raised to its proper state of readiness for the ultimate transformation. In the meantime, the covenantally-signed flesh must also remain in place, awaiting its transformation. This is what Paul finally sees in the “mystery” of Romans 11.

    @Adam M: The Aufhebung of all particular flesh (covenantly signed and not) in the oneness of Christ is NOT achieved through faith in Christ. This is a stage in the unification of all flesh in the New Adam. The final stage, the end of history, is when those who have faith in Christ acquire the new flesh of the New Adam, at which point there will be neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free. To live in this mortal flesh as if all particularity has been abolished is to live like the Corinthian Christians. It is delusion. And worse: it cannot help from letting lawlessness loose on particularized flesh.

  6. Bruce–
    Paul identifies the promise to Abraham with Christ himself. It’s not so much a shadow as the Man in seed form. So the scriptures give Jesus (which is why Paul preaches using them)–that’s validity enough, I should think.

    But Paul also very clearly distinguishes between the sign of the covenant and that promise which preceded it. To collapse the two together confuses Paul’s arguments. The sign on the flesh postdates the promise, and remains only a sign, a seal, not the thing itself. But the promise is the thing, and actually gives righteousness.

    As to particularity, the end of history has already been declared, though is not yet visible. The new flesh already is in Christ. You are undoubtedly correct that “to live in this mortal flesh as if all particularity has been abolished” is grave error. But Paul never calls for anything but restraint for mortal flesh (which, after all, has already been declared dead in Christ)–we are nevertheless to live in the Spirit, which is given by hearing through faith, and really does place us in the oneness of Christ.

  7. When one single human being after Christ lives in the Spirit and “restrains” his mortal flesh (keeps it dead, to sexual desire I presume), that is when all the Jews will convert. I promise.

  8. I actually meant external restraint (even by the governing authorities), but whichever. Of course, I don’t believe this is really an act of will or effort, either. The flesh does its thing, the spirit does its, and we experience this as suffering. Conversion is not a thing to be measured historically, anyhow.

  9. So, “restraint for mortal flesh” as in 2 Thes. 2:6, the katechon? Oy vey, I thought I heard the last of Carl Schmitt.

  10. Does “even by” somehow now mean “exclusively by, and without limit”? There is of course a difference between noting that an entity does something, and claiming it to be justified in all its doing (see Jeremiah on Babylon), or worse, claiming it to be the sole legitimate actor. I think you pulled out the Schmitt card way too quickly.

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