Saturday, February 10, 2007

Did Paul discourage Jewish Christians from keeping the Law?

Over on Euangelion, in a post headed Paul, the Law and the Jews, Michael Bird asks the question, "Did Paul expect Jewish Christians to adopt the non-Torah policy that he had for Gentiles?" and quotes a section from William Campbell's Paul's Gospel in an Intercultural Context, the first part of which is:
Because Paul cannot yield on this point [the gospel is available to Gentiles without having to proselytize] does not mean that he opposed all things Jewish or that he would discourage Jewish Christians from following a Jewish lifestyle after they had become Christians. This stipulation that Jewish Chrsitians recognise the right of Gentile Christians to be accepted into the people of God and continue to live a Gentile (Christian) lifestyle, does not mean that such Jewish Christians as recognised this, should not also have the freedom to continue to live in a Jewish life style.
It is a fascinating question. One way I try to focus it when teaching Paul is to ask my students whether they think Paul would have encouraged his fellow Christian Jews to circumcise their male children at eight days. Let's face it: over twenty or thirty years, Paul must have come into contact with many Christian Jews who were in this situation. They have just had a baby boy. Do they circumcise him? What about Paul's nephew (Acts 23.16); did Paul encourage his sister to circumcise him when he was born, and what about his brothers, or their children?

In the Campbell quotation above, it depends a bit on what we mean by the word "discourage". Given that Paul not living "under the Law" at all times, does that not act as a kind of discouragement to other Christian Jews from keeping the Law? Paul's "all things to all people" policy (1 Cor. 9.19-23) must have appeared to some as an encouragement to other Christian Jews not to keep the Law, whatever the content of Paul's actual preaching was. In other words, I find it easy to imagine how the charge of Acts 21.21 could have been made. Paul was not "teaching all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children nor to walk according to the customs," but the charge had a ring of truth to it if one observed Paul's actual practice.


Bob MacDonald said...

This question was explicitly raised on Corpus Paul some years ago in a discussion with Mark Nanos - the following link is near the beginning of the thread

After another two years considering the question, I think it likely that Paul would not have insisted one way or the other except as circumstances required. So I do not find the circumcision recorded of him in Acts 16:3 to be out of character or inconsistent with the text attributed to him of Colossians 2:11.

Richard Fellows said...

I tend to agree with the thrust of all that has been said, and think it is important to appreciate that Paul went out of his way to avoid causing unnecessary offense to Jews.

Paul's highest priority was that people should receive Christ, and he wanted Gentiles to be accepted as EQUAL members of the faith community without requiring circumcision. Paul's circumcision of Timothy (a Gentile) did not compromize these principles, because it was not done to increase Timothy's status within the Christ-believing community or to gain him salvation. Rather, it was done to allow him to evangelize in the synagogues, and so was for the benefit of outsiders.

Paul's tactics were to adapt his message according to his audience. He gave his radical views only to those who were ready for it. To those who were under the Law, he became as one under the Law, so that he could win them (1 Cor 9:20). This explains why he circumcised Timothy (so that Timothy could be a Jew to the Jews). The same policy of accomodation is seen in his teaching on eating food sacrificed to idols: he writes, "Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, so that they may be saved." (1 Cor 10:32). When he was among Gentiles Paul preached that Gentiles could be equal with Jews without being circumcised, but he did not preach this when he was among non-Christian Jews, for it would not have been expedient to do so. Of course, this led to confusion as to what Paul actually believed. In Galatia they concluded that he really believed in circumcision as the final step of conversion (5:10-11) and that his initial preaching of non-circumcision was just a ploy to please them (1:10) and thus draw them in.

When Paul was in Jerusalem (Gal 2 = Acts 15) he laid out the gospel that he preached among the gentiles, but did so privately in a confidential pre-meeting meeting with the pillars. He kept this message secret from the general population. This explains why the Acts 15 meeting with the general assembly could end so harmoniously: James got everyone to agree that Antioch could have Gentiles in the church, but no-one told them that those Gentiles were being given equal status with Jews. Paul and Barnabas kept a diplomatic silence about that, and let James do the talking. This issue came to a head only later in Antioch (Gal 2:11-14) and this confirms that the issue was dodged in Jerusalem.

Paul's collections can also be seen as an attempt to gain the acceptance of the Jerusalem believers.

In summary, I think that Paul felt the need to avoid causing unnecessary offense to Jews, and we see this in 1 Cor 9:20; 1 Cor 10:32; Acts 16:3; Acts 21:20-24, and in Acts 15 and Gal 2:1-14.

So, Paul would have certainly recognised that Christian Jews needed to circumcise their boys to avoid offending their Jewish neighbours. I don't know whether he felt that the circumcision of a son of Christian Jewish parents had theological significance.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the discussion, Mark and others. For what it's worth, an article which has helped me is Richard Oster's "'Congregations of the Gentiles' (Rom. 16:4): A
Culture-based Ecclesiology in the Letters of Paul." Restoration
Quarterly 40 (1998): 39-52.

AKMA said...

I should read some of the above-cited sources carefully before I venture too far out on a limb, but my offhand response would infer that since it was important to Paul that Gentiles be incorporated into the people of God as Gentiles (I almost said "precisely as Gentiles"), he would be equally insistent that Judaic believers should continue in the practices that define their own distinct identity.