In this post, we continue our examination of Michael Brown’s book The Real Kosher Jesus by examining its second section, “From Kosher Jesus to Unkosher Christianity?” It consists of two chapters about the Apostle Paul. In the first of these chapters he considers the range of negative opinions that have circulated about who Paul was and what he taught. The chapter begins on a brighter note, recording Michael Shapiro’s assessment that Paul was the sixth most influential Jew of all time (see his book The Jewish 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Jews of All Time). But in the opinion of most Jews, it’s all down hill from there.Paul is not on most Jewish people’s “A-List” for party invitations.
Even for those who are prepared to rehabilitate Jesus as having been a very good rabbi, prophetic visionary, or moral exemplar, Paul comes out as the bad guy of the Christian story. The general opinion is that Jesus was just a good rabbi, but that Paul sought to merchandise Yeshua to the pagan world by converting him to some kind of God. Furthermore, Paul is generally regarded as the person who declared Torah to be obsolete, and Jewish life no longer relevant. Even in his own day, Paul had bad press. For many, he was regarded as the consummate troublemaker who had the chutzpah to insist that Gentiles, that is idol worshipping, fornicating, blood drinking, idol worshipping pagans could become part of the people of God without becoming Jews first! I mean, are you kidding me? If you want to know what put Paul on a lot of enemies lists in the First Century, this was it!
Now, two millennia later, it is difficult to grasp how far people will go in order to portray Paul is a bad guy. In part this is due to poor exegesis, poor textual analysis. But also in part it is driven by antipathy to the Christian message, which is too many ways is well-deserved. Christianity has not, in general, proved to be good news for the Jews. This antipathy to Christianity combines with a need to explain away the messianic claims of the “nice guy from Nazareth.” And the way to do this is to make the Christian message of a Divine, atoning, and risen Messiah a fraud which Paul concocted for selfish reasons. Considering the evidence, such a scenario would be hard sell to most people, but when people, driven by fear, animosity, or both, are seeking an occasion to hold on to their biases, it’s not very hard to do.
In his book Kosher Jesus, which Brown is responding to in this volume, Rabbi Shmuely Boteach goes so far as to say that Paul was a stranger who came into the life of the apostles when they were devastated by the the death of Jesus and the failure of his, and their insurrectionist mission. According to Boteach’s construct, Paul has had some kind of vision and went to tell Jesus disciples that there was a revised message for them to get behind. Speaking of Jesus as their rabbi, Paul’s message was something like this:
- Their rabbi was not just a rabbi but actually Divine, literally, the son of God.
- Their rabbi did not die in vain as they thought. Rather his death was part of his mission from God that he had come to die for the sins of humankind.
- And contrary to what they had always thought, their rabbi had come not for a political mission but a spiritual one. He had come look rebelling against Rome, but rebelled against a corrupt Jewish establishment and total observance that had become an obstacle to salvation.
- Indeed their rabbi’s death brought all the law of Torah to completion. They were no longer obligated to keep Torah.
As mentioned in the previous blog post, Rabbi Boteach gets some of his seminal ideas from the writings of Hyam Maccoby, a British intellectual and dramatist who died in 2004 at the age of eighty. Writing of his books about the Apostle Paul, the U.K. newspaper, The Guardian included this information in his obituary:
The central thesis of . . . Mythmaker: Paul And The Invention Of Christianity (1986), was that St Paul, not Jesus, created Christianity, being an adventurer who undermined the disciples who had actually known the living Jesus. It was Paul, said Maccoby, who turned Jesus into God and transformed the early Jewish Christian sect into a Gnostic mystery cult imbued with “Hellenistic schizophrenia”.
In Paul And Hellenism (1991), Maccoby wrote that a politically savvy Paul deliberately recast the gospels to exculpate Rome from the charge of deicide. Then, “by stigmatising the Jews as the rejecters of Jesus, [Paul] planted the seeds to anti-semitism in the Christian tradition”.
Maccoby was a charismatic and brilliant man. Brown does a thorough job chronicling how he was discredited and ignored by a wide range of scholars, including some whom one would imagine to be his ideological bedfellows. For example, Brown quotes from John E. Gager, a somewhat radical Pauline scholar himself, and until 2006 the William H. Danforth Professor of Religion at Princeton University, saying he “stated bluntly that (The Mythmaker) was, in part, ‘a perverse misreading’ of the relevant texts. Gager’s conclusion was that Maccoby’s book ‘is not good history, not even history at all. . . . This book, I fear, moves us backward in virtually every area.'” James D.G. Dunn, considered by some the premier Pauline scholar in the world says that Maccoby’s assertion that Paul was a converted Gentile (!!) is “wildly fanciful and shows no sensitivity to Paul’s whole argument in Romans [Dunn is speaking of Paul’s statement in Romans 11:1, ‘I am an Israelite myself, a descendant of Abraham, from the tribe of Benjamin.'” Jewish scholars denounce him as well, such as Dr. Adam Gregerman. Writing in the Forward of Boteach’s reliance on Maccoby, he said:”
Boteach seems not to know that this strange, conspiratorial reading [of Maccoby’s] has been almost universally rejected by scholars since it appeared.
And if an educated man like Rabbi Boteach can be seduced into adopting such views, what shall we say for the average Jew who has no knowledge of the New Testament, and no capacity to recognize the groundlessness of such theories? People are especially susceptible when the theories being promulgated coincide with their fears or the accepted narrative of their “crowd,” and when their opinions on the matter are forged entirely of hearsay, or nearly so. And this is commonly the case.
Brown goes on to quote numerous scholars, including Jewish ones, who soundly affirm the Jewish bona fides of Saul of Tarsus, and likewise demonstrates that the entire New Testament would have to be severely edited and in some sections gutted to lend credence for Maccoby’s and by extension, Boteach’s views. However, the available evidence just won’t stretch far enough to cover the naked untruths and fantasies these authors embrace.
The next chapter, “The Jewish Genius Who Brought The God of Israel to the Nations,” is the final one in this section of the book. Here, Brown rehabilitates Paul’s image in accordance with the wide thrust of contemporary scholarship which sees Paul as a Jew who lived a Jewish life from beginning to end, bringing the message of Israel’s Messiah to the pagan world. His ministry was not one of corrupting Jews, as Maccoby and Boteach would have us believe, but rather one of calling pagan Gentiles into the family of God through faith in Yeshua the Messiah. Paul never presented or viewed himself to be a convert to any other religion, nor did he seek to persuade Jews to forsake their loyalty to the God of their ancestors or their way of life. His main focus was on pagans, calling them to repent of their idolatry through faith in Yeshua the Messiah, and also reconciling them to the Jewish people with whom they had lived in enmity for generations. Brown ably shows how for Paul, with the advent of Christ, Jews stay Jews, but God does not want pagans to remain pagans, nor for Jews and Gentiles to remain estranged.
Paul also perpetuated the Torah of God rather than throwing it away. However. he taught that Gentiles did not need to become Torah observant Jews in order to please God. Brown stresses that the intent of the Law is fulfilled in people who believe in Yeshua the Messiah, and that such people, by the Spirit, walk in the righteousness the Torah requires through the activity of the Spirit rather than efforts to obey the laws delivered to our ancestors. But I have some problems with what he says and fails to say in this regard when it comes to how this applies not to Gentiles, but to Jews who believe in Yeshua. Here is a quotation that summarizes much of what he says on the matter.
Paul believed that followers of Jesus could already experience the first fruits of that covenant, not abolishing the law but internalizing it. Put another way, we were no longer to relate to God primarily as servants but more so as songs, walking with God as Father (in the deepest, most intimate sense of the word) more than as master, doing his will based on love more than fear.
Dr. Brown and I disagree on the role of the Torah in the life of contemporary Messianic Jews. I believe that we are still obliged to obey the Torah in recognizably Jewish ways as a means of communally bringing honor to God. In addition, Brown’s construct has a flaw: how would one know that one was obeying the law of God in the power of the Spirit unless one continued to refer to the law of God as a standard by which to measure oneself? While some would say that our standard of measure is Jesus, that sounds good but let’s unpack it a bit! We all know people whose standards of righteousness or so subjective that we have serious problems with them. I remember years ago seeking to intervene with a couple who had attended a Bible study led and who were now “shacking up.” When I confronted them, they veritably glowed with joy. They said they had “prayed about it, and God had given them peace.” Without the standard of Scripture and the commandments it contains, there was no way to disagree with them. Similarly, there are people who think they are being very Christlike, when in reality they fall abysmally short of the standard he set! Finally, the commandments of Scripture were given to the Jewish people by God as a means of communally honoring him. The Scripture is clear that God will bring the Jews back to the nuts and bolts of Torah living at the end of days in the power of the sSpirit and under the authority of the risen Messiah. We find this, for example in Ezekiel 36:27 and 37:24:
And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.. . . My servant David (the Messiah) shall be king over them, and they show all have one shepherd. They shall walk in my rules and be careful to obey statutes.
Those terms “statutes” and “rules” [hukkim and mishpatim] are the nuts and bolts, the details of Torah living. While I agree with Dr. Brown that the power to walk in this righteousness will be the power of the Spirit, I insist that the standard by which the behavior is judged is what Scripture says it is: the statutes and rules that God has given Israel. Otherwise, claims to righteous living become some version of “he said/she said.”
One of Brown’s key thrusts in this chapter is that Paul’s ministry, far from being a departure from Jewish life and standards, was a fulfillment of prophecies in the Hebrew Bible. The prophet Isaiah had said that they would come a day when God would send the remnant of the Jewish people to declare his glory among the nations, that is, the pagan Gentiles (Isaiah 66:19), which is of what Paul did. Brown supplies a helpful quote from Joe Shulam’s and Hillary leCornu’s commentary on Romans that makes the connection even more plain:
Paul is part of the people of Israel, whom God has chosen to be a “kingdom of priests and holy nation” before him (cf. Ex. 19:6). [Paul’s “offering” of the Gentiles] fulfills the prophetic passages and Isaiah 61:6 and 66:18-24.
The Apostle himself makes this connection explicit in Romans 15:8-12, which Brown also quotes:
8 For I say that the Messiah became a servant of the Jewish people in order to show God’s truthfulness by making good his promises to the Patriarchs, 9 and in order to show his mercy by causing the Gentiles to glorify God — as it is written in the Tanakh,
“Because of this I will acknowledge you among the Gentiles
and sing praise to your name.”
10 And again it says,
“Gentiles, rejoice with his people.”
11 And again,
“Praise Adonai, all Gentiles!
Let all peoples praise him!”
12 And again, Yesha‘yahu says,
“The root of Yishai will come,
he who arises to rule Gentiles;
Gentiles will put their hope in him.”
In these two chapters then, which comprise the second of three parts of his book, Brown soundly exposes and disposes of the kinds of fear-laden fantasies and word-of-mouth denunciations of Paul which many of us have held or heard. It their place he provides a far more justifiable and evidentially proven portrait of a controversial figure whose “sin” was not the dismantling of the Jewish people, but the enfranchisement of the Gentiles, through faith in Israel’s Messiah, as now also the people of God.
We will consider the third and final section of Brown’s book next time.