Wednesday, October 25, 2006

A Great Irony: Paul and the Pillars' About-Face

In "Judaism, the Circumcision of Gentiles, and Apocalyptic Hope: Another Look at Galatians 1 and 2" (JTS 42 (1991): 532-64), Paula Fredriksen distinguishes between inclusion and conversion of Gentiles. The early inclusion of Gentiles cohered with apocalyptic belief; the later controversy over their conversion owed to the delayed apocalypse. Fredriksen writes:
"From its inception, the Christian movement admitted Gentiles without demanding that they be circumised and observe the Law...until 49 CE, evidently... What had changed between c. 30 and c. 49 CE, and why? Posing the question puts the answer...The kingdom did not come. Time drags when you expect it to end. Put differently, millenarian movements tend, of necessity, to have a short half-life. As the endtime recedes, reinterpretations and adjustments must reshape the original belief, else it be relinquished to unintelligibility or irrelevance." (pp 558-559)
We thus have an irony. In the earliest days of apocalyptic fervor, Gentiles were (naturally) admitted into the Christian movement as Gentiles, without needing to become proselyetes. This is probably what Paul refers to in Gal 5:11: the period before his conversion when he zealously urged circumcision on these pagans who were sharing indiscriminate eucharist fellowship with Jews. After his conversion he not only accepted Gentiles as the other apostles did, but he saw them as his prime mission, and began evangelizing abroad.

But twenty years is a long delay for the kingdom -- and a long time to be fending off persecutions from wider Judaism. The success of Paul's large-scale mission would have made the issue more poignant: Can Gentiles really go on being included as implied equals without converting? The apostles had increased misgivings and knew they had to evolve accordingly. Paul, on the other hand, wasn't about to relinquish this aspect of the millenial dream: the Gentiles were his babies.

Paul began as a foe of Christianity, and of Gentiles in particular. The other apostles began as apocalyptic enthusiasts, welcoming Gentiles as they were. Yet Paul ended up championing the pagans uncompromisingly, while the pillars ended up imposing conversion requirements -- and circumcision, no less -- in act of treachery and revenge.

5 Comments:

Anonymous Nick said...

Is there any direct evidence of Gentiles being admitted to the community apart from circumcision before Paul? There are probably only 1-3 years between Jesus' death and resurrection and Paul's call/conversion. What would be the Halakhic implications of this? Supposing that Jesus was Torah-observant would we not also expect his followers to continue to be after he was gone? These are honest questions, as I am working through these things at the present time.

10/25/2006  
Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

Is there any direct evidence of Gentiles being admitted to the community apart from circumcision before Paul? There are probably only 1-3 years between Jesus' death and resurrection and Paul's call/conversion. What would be the Halakhic implications of this? Supposing that Jesus was Torah-observant would we not also expect his followers to continue to be after he was gone?

On the question of Jesus' Torah-observance, he seems to have intensified the law in some cases, while in other cases relaxing or even dismissing it. That's characteristic of millenial groups: they break taboos, desecrate tradition -- and they often do it proudly. But even if we assume that Jesus was more Torah-observant than not (as Sanders and Fredriksen do, for instance), that doesn't bear much on the point being made here, namely, that at the apocalypse Gentiles were expected to join the house of Israel without needing to become proselytes. The early Christians believed the apocalypse had begun with Jesus' death and resurrection. It's only natural that they would have welcomed Gentiles without converting them to Judaism in the process.

That's why I follow those who speculate that Gentiles were indeed admitted into the movement at an early date (and again, I think Gal 5:11 points to this), even if not to the extent they were later evangelized by Paul.

10/25/2006  
Anonymous Nick said...

Thanks, Loren. I can see the reasoning, but I remain skeptical of the point that "from its inception" (or even shortly thereafter) the Christian movement admitted Gentiles without circumcision or observance of the law. It seems to me that the picture painted by Acts is much more likely, namely, that the move to admit Gentiles without such requirements and as full members took time to work through, especially since there was no clear precedent in the teaching of Jesus. That the dominant expectation was that in the eschaton Gentiles would be admitted as Gentiles was a factor in their eventual admission I would'nt deny, but we probably shouldn't overlook all the social complications that such a move would entail, especially in conditions that were not so obviously identified with the eschaton! So I think it remains an open question whether Paul opposed the first "Christians" (in part) on the basis of their admission of Gentiles into the community. "Preaching circumcision" (Gal 5.11) is not necessarily to be equated with persecuting in defence of circumcision, though admittedly Paul grounds his former persecution in his devotion to the law (Gal 1.13-14; Phil 3.5-6).

10/25/2006  
Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

I remain skeptical of the point that "from its inception" (or even shortly thereafter) the Christian movement admitted Gentiles without circumcision or observance of the law. It seems to me that the picture painted by Acts is much more likely, namely, that the move to admit Gentiles without such requirements and as full members took time to work through, especially since there was no clear precedent in the teaching of Jesus.

One must wonder, then, what Paul persecuted the early Christians for. Many scholars would answer along the lines, "for believing in a crucified criminal". But messianic beliefs, however radical, were fluid in the first century, and I agree with Esler that something more concrete is needed. Persecutions follow when people engage in threatening behavior more than for professing belief in one crackpot idea or another. The early Christians were likely persecuted for offensive practices more than beliefs per se. And I can't imagine a practice more offensive than mixed table-fellowship.

(Esler, incidentally, gives reasons for doubting Luke's account of Cornelius being the first Gentile to convert with Peter as the agent, in Community and Gospel in Luke-Acts, pp 95-96, 107.)

10/26/2006  
Anonymous nick said...

I wouldn't want to imply that the specific picture Acts paints is the most plausible. However, some of the general strokes are very probable. For instance, you object that "beliefs" are less likely than "practices" per se to spark a persecution. However, confession in Jesus the Messiah was far more than an airy belief for the early Christians. We have every reason to believe that they vigorously and publicly called the nation to repent and believe in this crucified kurios and soter. Now that is a practice that could be most odious; remember how close we are to the crucifixion, both temporally and geographically. And Paul in his letters articulates why this practice/belief would be offensive to a law observant Jew (Gal 3.13 and 1 Cor 1.23). So a mere belief, not likely to cause persecution, but a stubborn and public proclamation that a crucified Messianic pretender is indeed Lord and demanding repentance or else, that could and probably did give rise to persecution.

10/26/2006  

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