Amy-Jill Levine’s Guided Tour: From Jewish Sect to Gentile Church (Part Two of Two)

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We continue here our serialized review of Amy-Jill Levine’s The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus. Dr. Levine is an Orthodox Jew who teaches New Testament Theology at the Vanderbilt University Divinity School. We here continue our examination of her second chapter,  “From Jewish Sect to Gentile Church.” In this section of the chapter she focuses on Saul of Tarsus, a.k.a. the Apostle Paul. 

She asks and gives tentative answers to a question that frankly I never thought to ask. “Why was Paul disturbed by the existence of the Yeshua group before he met Yeshua on the road to Damascus?” Great question! Some possibilities she offers:

  1. Perhaps he was concerned that members of the Way were seeking to replace Torah with Jesus,  that the Torah was now somehow unimportant or marginal and replaced by Jesus. If so this would have gon against what Paul knew as the center of his life, and the divinely given center of Jewish communal loyalty to the God of Israel, apart from which only judgment and disaster could follow, for both Israel and the nations.
  2. Perhaps he was worried about the safety of his fellow diaspora Jews?  Perhaps the charismatic activity of these congregations seemed to be disorderly. Perhaps the fervent Jewish followers of this new group seemed to be abandoning or compromising family commitments. This too would have been a matter of grave concern.
  3. Perhaps he worried that these groups of fervent Yeshua believers would jeopardize the well-being of the synagogues and communities in the Roman Empire. We should not forget how Suetonius reported that Emperor Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome because of controversy over a fellow named Chrestus, which may have been a mishearing of Christus. It could be that Paul saw the safety and social standing of the Jewish people within the
  4. Perhaps he was disturbed that these Yeshua believers had spoken against the temple. We should remember that this is one of the accusations made against Jesus for what he was crucified, and we read in Acts chapter seven that Paul was present at the stoning of Steven who himself was accused in these terms, “this man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law, we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us” (Acts 6:13-14). Although Levine doesn’t draw this connections, there is a dual connection here that bears noting: speaking against the Temple and against Torah.
  5. Perhaps Paul had heard that these Yeshua believers were praying to Jesus, something which may have truly offended his pharisaic convictions.

Refreshing thinking! However, Paul’s experience on the Road to Damascus convulsively overturned all of this. Is not so much that Paul abandoned these former concerns. Rather he saw that Yeshua was not in fact a threat to what he had always believed. And of all the possibilities I just listed, choice number four seems to me the most likely/

It is when she turns from examining his former objections towards summarizing the emphases Paul’s ministry as an apostle, that Levine begins to lose my agreement although not my interest.

Levine sees Paul to be the architect of the theory of Jesus’ atonement.  She builds a case for Paul developing a new market due to the initial failure of Messianic expectations among Yeshua’s Jewish followers

For Paul, the cross and the resurrection were more than an assurance that the messianic age was breaking in, and Jesus was more than a true prophet and righteous martyr. The payoff had to be greater, and it had to encompass not just Jerusalem, but Athens, Antioch, Alexandria as well. Since the sign of the messianic age inaugurated by Jesus was not, at least yet, the resurrection of the dead or the final judgment, Paul provided it a different, and his view even better, effect. He concluded that the cross could be understood as a sacrifice: it proved that Jesus had paid the penalty for all human sin.

It never occurred to me to think that Jesus’ vicarious atonement was Paul’s theological novum. It is one thing to say that Jesus was God’s atoning sacrifice: it is quite another to suggest that Paul crafted the entire idea. I admit to being caught flatfooted by such a suggestion, which seems easy to refute.

For example, what of John’s reference in his gospel to  Jesus as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world?” [John 1:29]. And what of the references in the Book of the Revelation to Jesus as a Lamb slain,  who ransomed people for God
 by the offering of his own blood. What of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world? Certainly these references and more demonstrate that Paul did not have a corner on the idea of the Messiah being an atoning sacrifice. And as for this being a new idea. that doesn’t hold much water either. The concept of the atoning death of Messian was already present in Judaism, apart from Pauline or Christian influence.  Aside from the Older Testmaental texts which Messianic Jews would point to and Dr. Levine discount, see for example what Douglas Welker Kennard says in his treatment,  Messiah Jesus: Christology in His Day and Ours:

In I Enoch and some Qumran texts, the teaching about the Isaianic Suffering Servant combined with Merkabah mysticism. 1 Enoch joined mainstream Judaism in announcing the afflictions of the righteous to be seen as mimetic atonement, especially at the culmination of messianic woes. In this context, the Son of Man as Messiah employs a representative role of suffering on behalf of the elect. That is, the heavenly Son of Man appropriate to himself the afflictions of the elect so that the elect on earth may enjoy in heaven the glory of Enochian Son of Man (2008:335).

In making her case, Dr. Levine offers an interpretation which seems rational when taken by itself, but which either fails to persuade when seen in the light of clear contrary evidence which she neither presents nor refutes.

Jews, Gentiles, and Holding the Center

It is in her version of Paul’s advocacy of Gentile inclusion in the people of God that Dr. Levine opens areas of interest and insight, but also of controversy.

In Paul’s day there were three options for Gentiles attracted to and seeking some kind of affiliation with the Jewish world: Gentiles could convert, which in the case of males involved b’rith millah [circumcision]; they could be God-fearers who reverenced the God of Israel and the Jewish way of life, but steered clear of being full converts, and they could simply maintain their status as righteous Gentiles who honored what are known as the Seven Laws of Noah: The prohibition of idolatry, murder; theft, sexual immorality, blasphemy, eating flesh taken from an animal while it is still alive and finally, the requirement of maintaining courts to provide legal recourse.

Paul’s message offered Gentiles membership in the people of God simply through faith in Jesus Christ. Levine reminds us that thismessage was not entirely unprecedented, because Zechariah spoke of the same phenomenon promising that at the end of days, ten Gentiles will grasp the hem of the garment of one Jews and say, “Let us go with you for we have heard that God is with you” [8:13]. However, most miss how volatile, even seditious, was this idea of Gentiles forsaking idols to become co-heirs with Jews, in the first century Roman world.

  • Christians’ claims that Jesus’ was the “savior,” the “son of God,” put Paul and his followers at odds with the entire Roman system, where these titles rightly belonged to Caesar alone. This was treason.
  • Bidding Gentiles to forsake worshipping the God’ of Rome, to forsake family deities and idolatrous feasts, to stop meeting meat sacrificed to idols, forsaking table fellowship with friends, family, and patrons, involved a shattering of the entire fabric of communal, familial, and civil life. Levine brings this to a head.

 From the Gentile perspective, the claim that followers of Jesus must cease being followers of the gods was horrifically unpatriotic, for the gods of the city were it’s protectors. Forsake the gods, and the gods will forsake you. No wonder Jews and local synagogues were upset, for the message about a Jewish Messiah, proclaimed by Jews, would impact them. Having Gentiles forsake their gods and their pagan practices in the messianic age is desirable; having them do it before the end has come is suicidal.

Levine gets it right that the original intent of the new Jesus movement was that Jews would continue living as Jews, and Gentiles would become part of the movement without becoming Jews or living by halachic standards.  For example, Jews would be circumcised, Gentiles no, which was why Paul circumcised Timothy, but makes a point of saying that Titus was not compelled to be circumcised, because one did not have to be circumcised to become a bona fide part of this end-time movement. But as Levine notes, such a movement embodies tensions sure to create dissonance, trouble, and rifts.

St_PeterUnder the mediating leaderhip of James the Just, brother of Yeshua, and leader of the Jerusalem St_Paulcommunity of Yeshua believers, a two track solution was worked out, with Peter and James being charged with mission to the Jewish world, and Paul with outreach to the Gentiles, with Jews expected to live as Jews, but “no such thing” being required of Gentiles who had believed [Acts 21:27].  As long as the two tracks were separate, tensions were manageable. But, says Levine,

Once the communities mixed, the defalt was no longer clear. Gentile Christians, at least in Paul’s system, did not need circumcision, Jewish dietary regulations, specific Sabbath observance, and so forth. Jewish Christians, however, sought to follow the Way as ews, complete with the practices that had awlays distinqusihed their community from those of the gentile neighbors. The center could not hold.

Surely Levine misstates the case when she holds that this tension was eventually resolved around universal acceptance of “Paul’s law free gospel.” She knows that Paul held the Law to be “holy, just and good,” and that he was Torah obedient to his dying day. Did Paul believe in a Law free gospel? Yes he did!  But only for Gentiles. This truth, amply demonstrable from the Book of Acts and Letters of Paul, is neglected in Levine’s tratement.

But let us give her credit for exposing well what was a problem not only in the First Century but also in our own: the fundamental instability of a movement composed of Jews and Gentiles, where the halachic expectations for both are necessarily different. There are covenantal obligations required of Jews which are not required of Gentiles, including provileges of access which belong to Jews in particular, such as functions connected with the Torah in the sbabbat morning services. Understanding, respecting, and maintaining these boundaries has become a battle line in the Messianic Jewish movement. One cannot generally speak of distinctions without being thought anti-Gentile.  For some, the solution is to either ignore or redraw Jewish boundaries. For others it is to form congregations where such boundaries are preserved and where Gentiles who participate accept and respect such boundaries. For some, the solution lies in reserving certain obligations and privileges for Jewish people, while making a way whereby Gentiles who believe themselves especially called to do so may responsibly take up the yoke of Jewish covenantal responsibility: this involves conversion.

All of these options are hotly debated, and unworthy motives are widely attributed by almost everyone involved to almost everyone else. It was not a pretty picture 2,000 years ago. It is not pretty now.

One thing seems sure: legislating an approach to which all will be obliged to adhere is not going to work. It remains to be seen how the Spirit of God and the people of God will deal with these challenges.

1 Comment

  1. Rabbi Stuart,
    This is fantastic. Thank you so much for sharing. I really hope to be a part of the familiarization and courting process between Gentiles and Jews.

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