In this episode of The Bible for Normal People Podcast, Pete and Jared talk with Paula Fredriksen about the emerging Christian movement after Jesus’ death as they explore the following questions:
- Why is the study of Second Temple Judaism important?
- When can we start using the term “Christians” to describe the followers of Jesus?
- Are Paul and Jesus trying to replace Judaism?
- What do the letters of Ignatious tell us?
- What is the first evidence we have of a movement that has separated from Judaism?
- Who is Josephus?
- How is Paul’s gospel distinct from Judaism?
- Was Jesus really in his thirties when he died?
- When were the letters of Paul probably written?
- What do roman baths have to do with Paul’s letters?
- How does Jesus intensify the law?
- Why was Christianity able to spread as widely as it did?
Pithy, shareable, less-than-280-character statements from Paula Fredriksen you can share.
- “The use of the word “Christian” is something that takes time to develop even as an idea, because that already distinguishes this group from the Jewish followers of Jesus during his own lifetime.” — Paula Fredriksen
- “Paul as far as Paul is concerned is a super Jew and he says so.” — Paula Fredriksen
- “Conversion as a technical term for changing religions doesn’t exist yet… Paul is actually Judaizing, he’s trying to get pagans to act more like Jews and less like pagans.” — Paula Fredriksen
- “One of the ways to know somebody isn’t the Messiah is if he’s already dead.” — Paula Fredriksen
- “The identification of Jesus as Messiah must’ve happened before his death or Pilate wouldn’t have killed him in the way he does. The bigger claim that he was Messiah, must’ve driven the Romans crazy if they were paying attention, was after he was killed.” — Paula Fredriksen
Mentioned in This Episode
- Book: When Christians Were Jews
- Website: Paula Fredriksen
- Course: Everyday Life in Ancient Israel
- Book: Love Matters More
- Patreon: The Bible for Normal People
Powered by RedCircleRead the transcript
Pete: You’re listening to The Bible for Normal People. The only God-ordained podcast on the internet. I’m Pete Enns.
Jared: And I’m Jared Byas.
[Jaunty intro music]
Pete: Hello everybody, welcome to this episode of the podcast, and our topic is “When Christians Were Jews” and our guest is Paula Fredriksen and she is a scholar who needs no introduction to people who know all this stuff about New Testament scholarship. She taught at Boston College, she is Emerita at Boston College, and she’s also a distinguished visiting professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. She’s a widely respected scholar of the origins of Christianity and of Judaism around the time of Jesus and Paul. And yeah, we talked about this topic of “When Christians Were Jews,” which means the beginning, right?
Jared: Well, yeah. It’s really making sure that we contextualize the New Testament in a way that is, I think, faithful to how this whole thing began. And I know it would’ve been pretty common in my tradition to contrast Christians and Jews as these very separate religions, and that’s a mistake whenever you look at the New Testament, how it was written, out of what was it written, and I thought Paula did a good job explaining that.
Pete: Yeah, I mean, there are different approaches to understanding the origins of Christianity in the first century, with respect to Judaism. Because like you said, Jared, you know, it’s almost natural, it’s wrong, but it’s almost natural for Christians to think, well, you know, Paul and Jesus were Christians, and then there’s Judaism. But of course, they were Jews. And so, in scholarship or in the history of thought about this, sometimes there is that antagonism, so, it’s Jesus or Paul against Judaism and then there’s Jesus and Paul, forget Jesus, Paul and Judaism. In other words, two separate tracks for how God deals with Jews one way, Gentiles another way. And then there’s another view which is Paul is Jewish and he operates within a Jewish way of thinking and that effects how, and we’ll get into some of this stuff in the podcast, it effects how we think about a whole number of things in the New Testament, where we don’t automatically make a distinction between, well, this is, you know, Jews over here, Jesus over here. I mean, one example, of course, is Jesus debating with the Pharisees and you know, saying things like, “you have heard it said, but I say to you,” and he’s arguing with them in Matthew, and the thing is that as Pharisees, Jesus was probably a Pharisee politically speaking, and that’s what they did. They debated law all the time. So, for Jesus to say here’s my interpretation of the law and I think it’s better than yours, that’s a very common Jewish thing to do. That’s not Jesus saying Judaism is wrong, that’s him actually being Jewish. And things like that are very helpful, I think, to understand about the New Testament.
Jared: Well, and even when you say Judaism or, you know, Israelite religion and like, those are, we’re talking about huge amounts of times too. So, a few, you know, terms that may be helpful to define, because we talk about Second Temple Judaism and a few other things, I think that might be helpful to define, because again, we may also talk about the historical context of when we’re talking about is important, because I think it’s easy to say, oh yeah, King David all the way up to the time of Jesus, we kind of think about that like it was 20 or 30 years.
Jared: That was like, 1,000 years.
Jared: So, what particularly is Second Temple Judaism in this context?
Pete: Well, I mean, in a nutshell and it is a very important concept of, for understanding the New Testament, the world of Second Temple Judaism. Solomon built the first temple, like in the middle of the 10th century roughly, nine-something, and that was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586, the exiles came back in 539, they rebuilt the temple like around 515, 516. That’s the beginning the Second Temple Period. And that was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70. That entire period is called the Second Temple Period, and it’s really important because this is where Judaism was really being formed in a sense, in living in the context of other nations ruling over them and their own land. And a lot of what would wind up being just like, normal Judaism in Jesus’ day, which is a diverse thing, things like Pharisees or Sadducees or Essenes or other sorts of things like that, that really grew out of this Second Temple Period, and this is marked by Jews continuing the ancient tradition but in a world that’s very, very different from the world of David or Solomon or any of the kings that came after that.
Pete: And that’s very important because the New Testament, the writers of the New Testament and Jesus himself were not just looking back to the Old Testament. They were part of this Second Temple tradition itself. You know, the Second Temple, if it ends, you know, rather arbitrary date in a sense, but if it ends in the year 70, this is already the period of Jesus and you know, maybe one or two Gospels have been written around this time and, you know, a lot of, well, actually, all of Paul’s letters because he’s probably dead in the mid-60’s at some point. A lot of Christianity has already happened in this context of Second Temple Judaism, and it’s, you cannot actually, you cannot study New Testament without also studying along with that the developments of Second Temple Judaism. So, Paula mentions that a lot, right, and she also mentions this guy Josephus, who is a very important figure for the study of Christianity and Judaism in the 1st century, because he was a Jew who was also very friendly with Roman power and he wrote books to sort of defend Judaism to the, you know, the cultural powerful elite at the time, and he gives insights into what life was like back then and he’s a very important historical source. She also mentions diaspora, I think, too.
Jared: Mm hmm.
Pete: That’s another term, that’s probably the last one, but it basically has to do with the spread of Judaism beyond the boundaries of the land of Judea which happened long before the time of Jesus and Paul, but you know, that’s where Paul does missionary journeys, he meets Jews and Gentiles wherever he goes in the empire. There are Jews just all over the place. So, that diaspora, that scattering, and one of the big scatterings happened when the temple was destroyed because a lot of Jews said, you know, I’m out of here. I don’t know what the Romans are going to do next, so we’re done, so they left there too. But those are terms that are just thrown around a lot in New Testament scholarship, and they’re important ones, all of them are.
Jared: Yeah, it was really helpful. The most important thing you said that I’m going to take away is “forget Jesus.”
Jared: That’s what I heard. So, if anyone, you know, that’s just my takeaway from this episode.
Pete: By which I meant let’s focus on Paul, because the lines are a little bit clearer with Paul because he has a very overt Gentile kind of mission, and it’s not always clear.
Jared: Yeah, mm hmm. You can try to cover up your sins now if you want.
Pete: I’m serious man.
Jared: Go for it. All right, let’s have this conversation.
Paula: The identification of Jesus as Messiah must’ve happened before his death or Pilate wouldn’t have killed him in the way he does. The bigger claim that he was Messiah, must’ve driven the Romans crazy if they were paying attention, was after he was killed. And it’s at that point that you get new movements spreading within late Second Temple Judaism.
Pete: So, I mean, let’s just talk about that. Let’s talk about the, let’s put it this way, the first, can we even say the first Christian community, or should we say the first community of Jesus followers?
Paula: Before or after the crucifixion?
Jared: Can you maybe say why that matters? Like, why would you ask that question?
Paula: There’s an interesting issue about when we can start using the word “Christian” to understand the followers of Jesus because if you think about it, Jesus has two faces. One is the lead up to the crucifixion when he had followers. Obviously, he had followers or he wouldn’t have ended up on a cross by the Romans unless he had followers. But we also know from the Gospel of Matthew itself that not all of Jesus’ followers had the experience of his resurrection. We know from 1 Corinthians 15, a letter that Paul writes in the mid, probably in the middle of 1st century, maybe twenty-something years after the crucifixion? But Paul himself gives a list of witnesses to, he says, “was seen.” Jesus was seen by, then he lists Peter and the twelve, that’s already interesting because you’d expect him to have eleven, but he doesn’t know the tradition about there being only eleven disciples.
Pete: All right, hold on here Paula. He doesn’t know the tradition? Yeah, we’ll get into all that stuff. I’m with you, yeah, yeah.
Paula: Okay. So, and then when Paul lists the witnesses, he says there some 500 people who saw Jesus, but there were many more people in the run up to the crucifixion that were enthused about him and were, who were identifying him as Messiah because these were Jewish pilgrims to Jerusalem at Passover, enthused that particular holiday about Jesus and calling him the Messiah, which is why Pilate makes a point of not only crucifying him, which is how the Romans discouraged political insurrection, but putting the titulus over the cross saying “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” just to make a point that that wasn’t the case. So, but my, the point I wanted to make is that Paul says that first he appeared to Cephas, by Cephas he’s indicating Peter. Then he appeared to the twelve, then he appeared to more than 500 brethren. The Greek is, the word means brothers, but the masculine plural can indicate men and women just as it used to be the case in English. Then he appeared to James, then to all of the apostles and last of all, he appeared to me. 500 people isn’t enough people to get somebody crucified in Rome, so there were people who were following Jesus before his death who did not have the experience of his resurrection and others of them did, including people who didn’t know the historical Jesus of Nazareth like Paul himself. Paul was not among the original twelve apostles.
Pete: All right, so we have these, you know, a resurrection account in Paul and that represents Jesus in one sense, one face of Jesus. There’s the other face of Jesus where you have the Gospels that have different kinds of resurrection accounts, right? So, the point you’re making is that when you talk about Christian, it really depends are we talking about followers of Jesus before crucifixion or followers of Jesus after the crucifixion, right?
Paula: It still takes another 70 years for the term to be used. We have evidence from different documents like the Letters of Ignatius who somebody who writes in the early decades of the 2nd century of the use of the word “Christian.” We have it in the Acts of the Apostles, volume two of the Gospel of Luke, right, is the Acts of the Apostles, probably by the same author, and that story about, it’s sort of the adventures of the apostles after the resurrection and in that account, the author who’s writing at the same time Ignatius is writing says that people began to be called Christians in Antioch, not that he has, the author isn’t dating by anno Domini, right? Nobody is taking anno Domini, so I don’t know what his sense of time is, but he attributes the use of the word to at least a decade after the crucifixion. So, and these are all texts that are written sometime probably shortly after 100. So, and there are other texts that cluster in that period. So the use of the word “Christian” is something that takes time to develop even as an idea, because that already distinguishes this group from the Jewish followers of Jesus during his own lifetime.
Jared: So, then if we can go back, that’s a good, in my mind that’s a good time frame of, okay, there’s a certain time in which the word “Christian” begins to be used, and that becomes to be an identity marker of some sort, so before that time, you know, what’s the evidence maybe that we have from the New Testament for how people were conceiving of this Jesus way or, I don’t even know how to frame it then at this point, but it seems like Paul is a pretty central figure in this because of Paul’s message to non-Jews, how does that square with this being a movement within the Jewish religion?
Paula: One of the most fascinating questions, I think, as somebody who’s been working on this for decades, is how this extremely Jewish movement in the earliest evidence we have of it, which is Paul’s letters, which are mid-1st century, already Paul was addressing a different ethnic audience, and he’s just calling them, the word in Greek is ethnē, and you can hear that in our word for ethnicity, and he’s using the Jewish term for people who aren’t Jewish. He says in Romans 1, now I’m talking to you ethnē, or I want to spread the Gospel to all the ethnē including to you, Romans.
So, he’s talking about them specifically as non-Jews, but he’s giving them all this very Jewish information. And then we have the Gospel of Matthew, probably written two generations after Paul, so somewhere in the last decades of the 1st century, early decades of the 2nd century, where Matthew’s Jesus deliberately says, you know, go nowhere among the ethnē, that’s translated at Gentiles, often, right? Go nowhere, go only to, I have been called to go only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. So he, and he tells his disciples only to go to other Jews. And again, the information that Paul is giving the ethnē, the other translation for the term is pagan.
Pete: Mm hmm.
Paula: Because different people groups in antiquity have different gods. The God of Israel is the God of the Jews, and that’s what, how Paul refers to him in Romans 3, but the gods of Rome are different gods and the gods of Athens are another set of gods, and the gods of the Egyptians, non-Egyptians thought were really weird, but the Egyptians were fine with the Egyptian gods. So, ethnicity, what we think of as ethnic groups typically have their own gods. What’s really unusual about Paul’s God, whom he identifies as the God of the Jews, is that Paul makes the claim to non-Jews that his, Paul’s Jewish God, is also the God of the pagans.
Jared: Hmm. Is that, do we find that in other places in antiquity where there’s a proclamation that a certain god transcends these ethnic boundaries?
Paula: Different gods are proclaimed by their own followers to be the biggest or the best god in antiquity. It’s one of the ways you register your respect and enthusiasm for your own tradition. So, we’ll even find in pagan inscriptions, writing in stone and I’m so glad they did this, because archeologists would be out of a job if they hadn’t.
Paula: Inscriptions that give a shout out to the god of that location. Ancient gods tended to be located with, in two ways. They were located in their own people, so you have a divine diaspora once you have different people immigrating. When Jews migrated out of the Jewish homeland and spread throughout the western part of the Roman empire going to the edge of Mediterranean, and their language changes to Greek. They, they’re not anxious about being separated from their God, even though they think of their God as living in a special way in Jerusalem.
Paula: And other ethnic groups other than Jews could also take their gods with them. So, you have the spread of the cult of Isis. Isis is an Egyptian goddess, but there are cults to her, altars dedicated to her, and priests dedicated to Isis and people could worship Isis even if they weren’t in Egypt even though she was particularly associated with Egypt. So, you get two points to think about this: you get shout outs saying one god by pagans who are perfectly well aware of the fact that they think there are many gods, and you also have Jews saying one God, meaning, their own God, the God of Israel. What Paul is saying is a particularly Jewish claim, he’s telling non-Jews in Rome that his God, the God of the Jews, is also their God and that their gods, he doesn’t say their gods don’t exist –
Paula: He says that their pagan gods are, the word he uses in Greek is daimónia, and it’s unfortunately translated as demons, which sound a little bit like the way we used to think about bacteria.
Paula: These little unpleasant irregularities that happen in the cosmos, but the word in Greek, which is the language of the New Testament, the word in Greek actually means something like godling, a lesser god. So, he’s saying, he’s referring to what is in the Bible for him, the book of Psalms in Greek, which is a language that Paul knows the Bible by heart in, and he’s referring to Psalm 95:5 in Greek, it says, “the gods of the nations,” same word, ethnē, “the gods of the nations are daimónia,” the gods of the nations are little.
Pete: Okay. So, there’s sort of like a cosmopolitan thing going on with Judaism spreading around the Mediterranean, had been for a while, and speaking Greek and being part of Greek culture that really helps set the stage for Paul doing what he did, and that’s a very Jewish thing. That’s what I’m hearing you say. Could we back up a little bit, because you said earlier, I think, something that’s so interesting that I know people are going to want to hear more about, how the Jesus movement is fundamentally a Jewish movement. And let’s back up to, maybe we can just start riffing a little bit on pre-crucifixion Jesus, that earlier model, that earlier face so to speak.
Paula: Right. Let’s get some, let’s get a timeline going since we’re doing, we’re talking about historical personages. Jesus was born either in -4 if you go by one Gospel, or +6 if you go by the Gospel of Luke. So, we don’t actually know, the evangelists didn’t know exactly what year Jesus was born, but we do know that he was crucified. We have this, again, from the four Gospels that are in the New Testament cannon. He was crucified when Pilate was the Roman Governor and when Caiaphas was the High Priest, and we know from, if I were doing my own addition of the New Testament, I would sneak in a fifth “gospel,” and that would be by the writer, the Jewish writer Josephus, who is a contemporary with the later Gospel writers and who writes about exactly this type of cosmopolitan Jewish culture, without which it’s impossible to imagine the spread of what will become Christianity.
Pete: And he is a Jewish writer, right?
Paula: And he’s a Jewish writer. He also, his dad, I mean, he’s from a priestly family. His father would’ve been serving in the temple in Jerusalem when Jesus went there to celebrate Passover.
Paula: So that’s how close Josephus is, how close the Gospel writers are to the source.
Paula: That’s pretty, in terms of ancient evidence, it doesn’t get much better.
Pete: Yeah! And so, how does he help? How does Josephus help us maybe get that timeline that you’re talking about?
Paula: Okay, so, we know from the dates that Josephus gives in his two histories, he writes something called The Jewish War, which is about the war against Rome fought in the Galilee and Judea between 66 and 73, the fall of Masada, and Jerusalem and the temple are destroyed in the year 70. Jesus dies sometime between 26 and 36, and for different reasons, people have more or less settled, toggled between the year 30 and the year 33 for the crucifixion. So, according to the Gospel of John, Jesus is not yet 50 years old, but we all think of him as 33 because our imaginations about him have been shaped by traditions of western art, right? So, we think of him as simply in his 30’s, but in fact, there’s no real way to tell exactly when he was born, so it’s hard to know exactly, I let myself think of him as in his early 30’s because I can’t, that’s, you know, I’m from western culture and I can’t help it, but we don’t actually know. But let’s say Jesus dies in the year 30 and I like using the timeline suggested by the gospel of John, which is different from the timeline suggested by Mark and followed by Matthew and Luke, who use Mark as one of their sources. And according to Mark, Jesus during his public mission goes up to Jerusalem only once. According to John, Jesus is in Jerusalem more than he’s in the Galilee. And John mentions a sequence of Jewish holidays where it ends up, sort of like playing the accordion, Jesus is up for the fall holidays, Jesus is up for what will become Hannukah, Jesus is up in Jerusalem for two different Passovers. So, the Gospel of John gives more time to, for the Jesus movement to expand. So, I’d say Jesus’s public mission begins after his immersion in the Jordan by John the Immerser, also known as John the Baptist. Jesus goes out on the road in Judea, as the Gospel of John says, as well as in the Galilee as the Synoptic Gospels emphasize. I should say synoptic means the “seen together” gospels, and it’s because if you start reading Matthew first, and then you read Mark, by the time you get to Luke you think, “I’ve seen this movie already.” It’s because they’re, they all tell the same basic story. The Gospel of John is a different type of literature.
Anyway, so Jesus gets on the road with his own mission in 27, Passover the year 30, he’s crucified sometime shortly thereafter. Some of the people who were followers of his begin to have experience of his presence. I like to put it that way because it’s hard, again, to, Paul doesn’t give us visual detail. And in fact, half the time, or more than that, Paul talks about Christ being “in them”, which is interesting, which means Christ is, they’re not waiting for, Jesus isn’t absent just because he’s dead. For the people who are followers of Christ. That’s where I’d make the transition, the identification of Jesus as Messiah must’ve happened before his death or Pilate wouldn’t have killed him in the way he does. But, the bigger claim that he was Messiah, it must’ve driven the Romans crazy if they were paying attention, was after he was killed because of some of his followers having this experience of his presence, and it’s at that point that you get new movements spreading within late Second Temple Judaism. Paul himself isn’t part of this movement yet until, if we look at the letter that he writes to the Galatians, which is probably, I keep saying mid-1st century. The letters we have from Paul were all probably written between 50 and 60, and if that sounds like a guess, that’s exactly what it is.
Paula: By the time we have Paul’s letters, this movement has been spreading, and it’s still spreading within synagogues and we know from what Paul says that he’s working through synagogue networks himself, and that’s where, how the movement ends up interesting to pagans because one of the places a pagan would go in a Greco-Roman city would be the synagogue. That’s the only place in town where you get to hear Bible stories in Greek because in the -2nd century, western Jewish populations, Jews travel with their scriptures with them and they translated it into Greek. So, by the year -200, we have probably most of what we think of as the Old Testament be in the Greek language. And if that hadn’t happened, this is the twilight zone transition in our conversation, if the Bible hadn’t been translated into Greek by Jews in the -2nd century, Christianity never could’ve happened.
Pete: Mm hmm.
Paula: By translating the Bible into Greek, Greek is the English of antiquity. What they do it put Jewish western populations put Bible stories out on a kind of international frequency by translating the Bible into Greek, and we know from inscriptions, and we know from pagan culture critics who don’t like other pagans doing this, that plenty of pagans like to hear Bible stories and they did. They were welcomed into Jewish synagogue diaspora communities and they would listen to the, this is why Paul can give his ex-pagan pagan audiences, his ex-pagan non-Jewish audiences all this Jewish information he’s giving them.
Pete: Right, yeah.
Paula: Because they are, you know, he’s saying Christ is the son of David, and they’re going, “oh, I know that story!”
Pete: Mm hmm, right.
Paula: And they did!
Paula: But there was only one place for them to know that story, and that’s by having gone to a Greek speaking synagogue.
Jared: Stay tuned for more Bible for Normal People.
[Producer’s group endorsement]
Jared: So maybe I can summarize what I’m hearing. What I’m hearing you say is that there, and I would put it maybe in overly simplistic, but there’s the Greek language that goes out before the message of Jesus, you know, several hundred years, a few hundred years at least, and then there is the going out of Jews who are no longer located in Jerusalem, but have now spread out in other areas, and they take with them their stories and their scriptures in Greek, and they set up these synagogues and they’re starting to influence the surrounding peoples with these stories, and that’s sort of the groundwork for Paul.
Paula: They’re living in the diaspora, and it’s only gradually that the translation occurs because it’s only once they lose Hebrew or Aramaic as their spoken vernacular that they need to have the Bible translated into Greek.
Pete: Mm hmm. And that puts, I think for a lot of our listeners, this is going to put an interesting spin on maybe having to reconsider a misconception that Paul is, you know, Paul is saying, “oh, Judaism! Who needs that? Now we have Jesus.” That might’ve fallen on deaf ears even with the ethnē, with the so-called pagan community, which, again, it sort of brings me back. How, let’s just talk more about this. Let’s talk more about how this early movement is so, just, deeply a part of this wonderfully diverse and maybe even in a sense, fluid Jewish culture of the time of that 1st century and maybe a little bit before. Because again, as I said, I mean Jared and I, we’ve experienced this, I’m sure you have too in all your speaking, that it’s just sort of assumed that Jesus and Paul, they’re just replacing the tradition with something very, very different. But there are all sorts of things, I imagine, we can point to in the New Testament itself that really, it won’t work if we have that kind of an assumption.
Paula: Well, you’re absolutely right and one of the most Jewish things, in fact, it’s idiosyncratically Jewish, that Paul made as a condition of ethnē, becoming part of the, we use the word, it’s translated often as church but that’s a little anachronistic for the middle of the 1st century, the word ecclesia actually means assembly or the congregation.
Pete: And that is a very Greek, Greco-Roman word, right?
Paula: It’s Greco-Roman; it’s what you use for town councils, what you use for government meetings. Some of the time I live in a 4,000-person town in New Hampshire and if we were speaking ancient Greek, we would be calling the town council the ecclesia. Which, so, it has a different taste than translating it as church, right? So, Paul is saying to these ex-pagans, you can be part of the community and be baptized, right, be immersed into the death and resurrection of Jesus, but there is, this doesn’t come for free, there’s a great big condition. And that condition is you can’t worship your own gods anymore, you absolutely cannot. And now, what does that mean to worship? What that means is, you know, the way Jesus and Paul would’ve worshipped the god of Israel meant animal sacrifice. That’s how you get, that’s the only way to get the main course at a Passover Seder is by sacrificing a lamb at the temple in Jerusalem. That’s when Jesus was down in Jerusalem for I think several different Passovers. But that’s also a normal way to show respect to any god in Mediterranean antiquity, and what Paul is saying, and remember Jews are the only population in the Greek speaking diaspora who would be trying to avoid sacrificing before images of other gods. Everybody knew, because how do I know this? Because pagans complained about it. It was considered disrespectful that Jews were, in fact, Jews would be accused of the word we translate is atheism, which in antiquity doesn’t mean you don’t believe in, you believe that there is no god, what it means is you’re not worshipping the right gods.
So, Jews would be accused of atheism because their Greek speaking pagan neighbors noticed that when there was a civic festival which involved sacrifices to the gods that were located, this is a security issue too, the gods that were looking over the well-being of that particular diaspora city, Jews wouldn’t, some Jews would not be part of the sacrificing or they wouldn’t buy meat that had been generated by killing an animal in front of what Jews called idols, right? But which, if you’re an ancient pagan, the statue itself isn’t the god, the statue is a place where if you think of it as closing an electrical circuit, if you sacrifice an animal in front of the statue of a god, the smell of the sacrifice calls the god down, so the god, it’s like a transistor. A statue is like a transistor for pagan god, and by sacrificing it, that’s how you closed that circuit. Exactly the same physics of respect is going on in the Jerusalem temple except that, and everybody knows about this because people knew that Jews are weird. There’s no statue of the Jewish God at the Jewish temple. How weird is that?
Pete: Mm hmm.
Paula: Well, in antiquity that’s really weird. And that’s what Paul is saying to his pagan, ex-pagan listeners, that they cannot, I don’t care how good that hamburger is, you can’t eat that anymore, right? If it’s going to scandalize somebody else in the assembly, and you certainly can’t go to the temple and sacrifice, show respect to your own gods anymore, you can only show respect to my God. Is God the God of the Jews only? No, he’s also the God of the nations. It’s such a Jewish thing to be telling people who really shouldn’t have to be worried about not sacrificing to their own gods, and yet people sign on.
Pete: Mm hmm.
Paula: And that means that they, like your listeners, have a good kind of helicopter tour sense of the contours of biblical stories because Paul is saying Jesus is the son of David, and they know who David is. He talks about the covenant with Abraham in some of these letters. He talks about the covenant with Abraham and circumcision. They know about this. Paul talks about, he gives a list of the gifts that god has given the Jewish people and he lists the word, it sounds so beige in English, the wording he says among these special privileges, this in Romans 9:4-5. Remember Paul is speaking in Greek to other Greek speakers who are not Jews. He’s saying, what God gives is the sonship, Israel is the “son of God,” and that’s a scriptural commonplace. God is always kind of patting the nation of Israel on the head and saying you’re my firstborn son.
Pete: Mm hmm.
Paula: I have three girls, by the way, I think he’s saying you’re my firstborn child –
Paula: But he’s actually not. It is male gendered. Anyway, and he says to them, my kinsmen, Israel, says Paul, belongs the doxa, which is a Greek word that gets translated in our RSV as the glory. And glory sounds like this nice, divine attribute.
Pete: Mm hmm.
Paula: Sort of shininess or shimmery-ness or something, but it actually translates, this is where knowing ancient languages is very cool, doxa translates the Hebrew word kavod, and what that is from in Jewish scriptures is the divine presence. It actually means the presence of God, which is a glorious thing, but it actually is, it’s like the Gospel of Matthew when Jesus is scolding somebody, I think it’s usually the pharisees in this part of the story. In chapter 23 Jesus says, “don’t swear, he who swears by the altar swears by the temple and by him who lives in it,” meaning, the God of Isreal. So, doxa, when Paul, who is not an ex-Jew, Paul as far as Paul is concerned is a super Jew and he says so. He says that God’s glory is one of the things that his God has given to the temple and you don’t get that sense from English. And the other thing that Paul praises, this always comes as shocking news to my Protestant students, the other word is translated as worship in English, very beige. The word in Greek is latreia. We’re getting more color now in the word, and what it actually refers to is the Hebrew avodah, which is the word for sacrifice, animal sacrifice.
Paula: So, Paul is listing the cult of animal sacrifice, it is performed exclusively in Jerusalem to the God of Israel as one of the dignities that God has given to his people and he’s calling them my kinsmen in this passage. So this is, this is such a Jewish download to be giving to these pagans and the only way prepared for this is for two centuries prior going out in the English of antiquity are, “hey, Jews are weird, I know they’re weird,” says one pagan to another, “but they have this really big, nice place downtown and they tell fabulous stories about God.”
Paula: “Oh, I don’t speak Hebrew. I don’t know Aramaic.”
“No, no, no! They’re in Greek, c’mon!”
Pete: Yeah, right.
Paula: That’s been going on, and that’s, if it hadn’t been for that, I don’t know what we’d be talking about.
Pete: Right, right. Well, as you’re saying this Paula, this is, you know, a couple things. One, it’s a good reminder for people how this wonderfully rich, complex world that Paul lived in, what he does and says makes, it makes a lot of sense. There’s a setting for that’s there, that’s almost waiting for the kinds of tactics or methods or language that Paul uses. A question that always comes up, and you know this question very well, is how, let’s use Paul’s language. How is his Gospel distinct from the Jewish tradition, if at all? I know there are misconceptions about that as well, but he has some opposition it seems like, you know, at least in Galatians and maybe behind the scenes a little bit in Romans. But, you know, what is it that might be distinct, all religious movements have a distinctive nature, right? So, what’s distinctive about this very Jewish rooted movement vis-à -vis the Jewish tradition?
Paula: Well, we know, and this is, again, one of the most Jewish things about this movement after the crucifixion is the earliest evidence we have, which is some twenty years after the crucifixion, Paul’s letters, the Jews within the movement who are taking the good news, right, the evangelion, which is what we as Anglo-Saxon speakers say is Gospel. What they’re doing is they’re already fighting with each other about what the right way to get this message is.
Pete: Mm hmm.
Paula: While all of them are expecting Jesus to manifest publicly, and what he does, and this is for all this Davidic language, David isn’t a programming geek in Jewish tradition. David is a warrior and a warrior king as well as a poet. And so, when, to call Jesus the son of David, who is going to raise the dead, and this is what these, you know, I’m making up this number but that’s okay because we don’t have any numbers, let’s say 50 Jewish guys are giving this message, and Paul is one of them, to different pagans who are hanging around Greek-speaking synagogues out in the diaspora and they’re fighting with each other about what the right way to do it is. So, Paul is fighting with other Jews within this, the Christ movement, let’s call it that to distinguish it from the period before the crucifixion, those of Christ, Paul says. Paul is having disputes with other Jewish missionaries to pagans who are also insisting that the pagans should join the movement have to stop worshipping their own gods. Some of these people are also saying you actually, if you want to worship the Jewish God, you should convert fully. There is no word for conversion, that you should turn fully. And gentlemen, this means circumcision, which is really not gonna fly in Greco-Roman culture –
Paula: Because people spend so much time in public naked. One of the great things, what have the Romans done for us? I want to give a shout out to the Romans who can be the bad guys in this story, the Romans created aqueducts, which enabled sanitation and they built baths, public baths. And if you didn’t have that water technology that the Romans mastered, you couldn’t have big concentration of human populations because of disease.
So, and everybody goes to bath. We have stories about, in rabbinic texts about rabbis going and using the Roman baths because that’s how you stayed clean is by using Roman baths which means that Jews and pagans were naked in public in these baths in cities all throughout the western diaspora, and Greco-Roman culture looked at circumcision as a mutilation and there are all sorts of Jewish jokes about Jews that pagans tell each other. Apella is a word that means, it’s a common Greek name, but if you break it down into “a,” means without, and “pella,” leather, skin. It’s a joke, it’s a Jewish joke name that means circumcision. Some of the apostles of Jesus who, I’m sorry, of Christ, who are going to these ex-pagan pagan assemblies are saying to the gentlemen, you know, you really should be circumcised, and Paul was saying, absolutely not. You don’t have to be circumcised; you just have to do what I’m telling you to do. And then Paul gives a whole list of what he thinks they should do instead. So, the fight is not between Paul and Judaism, because what Paul is actually telling these pagans is a kind of Judaism for Gentiles. You don’t have to be, gentlemen, you don’t have to be circumcised, but, and then here comes the list, no more toga parties, monogamous marriages, 1 Corinthians 7, no sex within marriage if you can manage that and if you can’t, well, that’s not a sin but I wish everybody were as I myself am.
Pete: Uh huh.
Paula: Says Paul. And Paul thinks Paul is fabulous. He has no self-esteem problems. It’s interesting.
Paula: So he’s, no buying hamburgers at the local temple, no going to prostitutes, no, I mean, it’s all this list of ethical and ritual behavior because not sacrificing in front of a statue of your own God is a ritual behavior, it’s not an ethical thing. Paul is Jewish legislation for Gentiles, but he’s saying, because Paul is reading Isaiah in Greek. He’s saying this is how I know that I, Paul, am, right about what time it is on God’s clock because the prophet Isaiah said that at the end times, the nations of the world will turn, that’s the word that’s used, conversion as a technical term for changing religions doesn’t exist yet.
Paula: And so, this is Paul’s way of saying we’re, Paul is actually Judaizing, he’s trying to get pagans to act more like Jews and less like pagans. But he’s fighting with the other 49 guys who are giving some version of the message too, and he’s not fighting, he’s not telling Jews to stop circumcising, he’s telling Gentiles not to start.
Pete: Yeah. I mean, that’s a fascinating way of looking at it, and I know that’s probably a big jump for some of our listeners to see, you know, the conflicts that Paul has, like in Galatians. That in and of itself is a Jewish thing. That’s what Jews did, and it’s somewhat analogous to like, maybe Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, at least in chapter 5 Matthew, you know, “you have heard it said, but I say to you,” is not Jesus supplanting the tradition, but participating in that tradition of debate and what’s the best way to handle law and things like that.
Paula: Exactly. They wouldn’t, if it wasn’t important to everybody, the fighting wouldn’t be so loud.
Pete: Right. Yeah, exactly. Yeah, yeah.
Paula: And it’s Jesus fighting with other Jews and, which is what Jews did. You’re not doing it the right way; you want to do it the right way you should do it the way I’m doing it. And what’s really interesting about chapters 5-7 in Matthew is that those verses that all of us know about “you’ve heard it said, don’t commit adultery, but I say if you even look at a woman with lust in your heart, you’ve already,” Jesus is making the law more strict.
Pete: Mm hmm.
Paula: He’s doing something, that in Jewish terminology is called building the fence around the Torah. So, no adultery? Don’t even, you know, fantasize about it. No killing? Don’t even let yourself get angry. So, he’s being stricter than the pharisees in this sense.
Pete: Mm hmm. Yeah, well, one more question. I know we’re sort of winding down here a bit, but again, I’m thinking of the kinds of things that people would be interested in and I want to come back to this issue of what might be distinctive elements, and I think what people would head for pretty quickly, and I’d like to get your thoughts on this, is just simply the idea of a Messiah losing, being crucified. And how do you, I mean, how do you talk through that issue? I mean, I just, from my point of view, I can’t imagine that being like in, you know, common Jewish thinking. Oh yeah, of course, obviously. Right?
Paula: One of the ways to know somebody isn’t the Messiah is if he’s already dead. That used to be the case anyway. But this particular Jewish movement, because of this sense of Jesus’ presence after his death, nobody is disputing that he was crucified, but what happens and what does it mean the presence of Jesus? Again, that sounds like a Hallmark Christmas card or something.
Paula: The presence of Jesus gives you, if you’re a mid-1st century person, pagan or Jewish, but part of this movement, it gives you power over spirits. It enables you to have prophesy. It enables what anthropologists call charismatic behaviors. Its people speaking glossolalia, which is the tongue of cosmic powers. People can work acts of power, paradoxa. They’re in, they’re charismatically empowered, and that’s one of Pauls’ proofs because the word he uses for that is the word spirit, and spirit for Paul and other first century people, unless you’re very strict platonist, which means you have at least an M.A. in philosophy. Platonism is way, way, way high up in the food chain in terms of how people are thinking. What he says is pneuma, spirit, which is this very, very fine stuff. The spirit of Christ actually infuses into the person who’s been immersed into Christ, and even if that person hasn’t been circumcised, but if he’s doing everything else Paul is telling him to do, he should be empowered as well and that’s how Paul knows Paul is right. The idea of taking a message about the Jewish God to non-Jews had obviously occurred to Hebrew speaking ancient Jews or Isaiah wouldn’t be talking about at the end of time, all the nations turning and worshipping the God of Israel. What’s different about this is it’s, it’s the message of Isaiah in a radioactive moment of conviction that the spirit proves that Paul is right and that all the nations are going to turn and this is what he says in his letters. I, what’s interesting is by the time we get the Gospels, Jesus starts in 27, he’s dead by 30, Paul joins the mission probably according to Galatians 1, probably in Damascus. So, it’s already spreading to pagan cities in the diaspora. He writes his letters around the year 50. The temple is destroyed by, because of this insurrection in the year 70, and it’s only after 70 that we get the first, probably the first Gospel, the Gospel of Mark. I’m making this up, maybe in the years 75, because Mark says, and he puts it into Jesus’ speech on the Mount of Olives, looking at the temple mount, Mark says that when you see the temple destroyed, that’s how you know that it’s when the Son of Man is going to come back. And then twenty years down the line, so if he writes in 75, somewhere between 90-100 Luke and John and Matthew and Josephus writing and thinking in Greek are telling stories where they obviously, the evangelists about Jesus, Josephus giving the historical context for those stories. So, the stories we have about Jesus are all written after the destruction of the temple. Paul is the only one we have who writes before the destruction of the temple, and he is expecting Jesus to come back in a public way. Jesus has already come back in a private way within these assemblies by his spirit empowering them, but the public manifestation of Jesus is going to be the resurrection of the dead and Paul says there’s no mistaking what that’s going to look like.
Jared: Hmm, wow. That’s a, I think that’s a great way to wrap up just with that timeline and I think that’s going to be a lot for people to chew on, even just that understanding of the progression of thought and how that all came to be. If people wanted to dive more into the topics like this, do you have, what are some places that they can find some of your work and what are the books that you’ve written on this or have coming out? Maybe a little commercial here on some of the things that you do around this.
Paula: I put out a book a year or so ago. When you’re writing a book, all you think about is finishing it. Once you finish the book, you can’t remember what happened.
Paula: It’s a book called When Christians Were Jews: The First Generation, and that’s where I put, I start out with Jesus and I go through to the destruction of the temple. So, it’s exactly what’s happening in this movement between the years, it was such a hope filled generation, what’s happening between the years 30 and 70, and that’s the, it’s like an unstable atom that is shooting out all this light. They’re so convinced that things are going to change radically for the good in that generation itself, instead it ends in the destruction of the temple.
Pete: Mm hmm.
Paula: So, but it’s a great, it’s a great story and if I could, people can get this on Amazon, they can, I don’t know, whatever people do. I don’t read electric books; I still read paper books. But it’s such an important story, because it’s, you know, it’s the 21st century and we’re still talking about this stuff.
Pete: And still learning.
Paula: And still learning.
Pete: And still changing.
Jared: Excellent. Well, thank you so much for coming on. We really appreciate it. It was a fascinating discussion, I think there’s a lot to chew on here.
Pete: Thank you, Paula. Yup.
Paula: Okay, be well. Bye. Stay healthy.
Pete: All right folks, thanks for listening to this episode, and if you have a chance, remember to check out Paula’s book When Christians Were Jews: The First Generation, really readable and informative and just, you’ll walk away a lot smarter from reading it.
Jared: And if this is your kind of thing, if you liked this conversation and you’d like to dig into everyday life, understanding the origins of these things, we have this course with our friend Cynthia Shafer-Elliot, who is an expert in archeology and everything around the everyday life in ancient Israel. We have a course by that title, starts October 6th, 8:30 PM eastern time. You can go to our website, https://peteenns.com/course/, and sign up there. I think it’ll be a really good time.
Pete: Yeah, it’s an awesome course. I can’t wait.
Jared: Thanks everyone.
Pete: See ya.
Narrator: Thanks, as always, to our team: executive producer, Megan Cammack; audio engineer, Dave Gerhart; creative director, Tessa Stultz; marketing wizard, Reed Lively; transcriber and community champion, Stephanie Speight; and web developer, Nick Striegel. From Pete, Jared, and all of us here at The Bible for Normal People – thanks for listening.
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