Thursday, December 3, 2009

Jewish Jesus People and Paul

This post isn't for scholars so much as it is for students, pastors, and the like. In my teaching -- on campus and off -- I continue to encounter powerful negative stereotypes about Judaism and Jews, including the Jewish followers of Jesus we encounter in Paul's letters. They're historically inaccurate, insulting to Jews, and harmful to Christian faith.

Here's the stereotype. Jews were all tied up about the law. They followed it because they feared they wouldn't pass the final judgment. As a result, they followed the law out of fear rather than devotion, or (healthy) pride. They thought they were superior to the Gentile Christians.

Paul's letters do indicate that some Jewish followers of Jesus expected Gentiles to convert to Judaism as part of their devotion to Jesus. We see this in Galatians, Philippians, and maybe 2 Corinthians. But that's some Jewish Jesus people; we don't know how many. And we might consider their motives.

When you read the Jewish literature of Paul's day, you see that (by and large) people observed the law because they loved it. God had given the law as part of Israel's election, and that gift ordered Israel's life. The law was a source of wisdom and guidance (Psalm 105 and 119, anyone), not a source of fear.

The law also provided identity for the Jewish people. Countless ancient ethnic groups vanished as identifiable peoples during the Hellenistic and Roman periods, but Jews had the law to maintain their identity. When tyrants sought to abolish ethnic distinctions, Jews lived, fought, and died for their faithfulness to the law. It wasn't out of fear. It wasn't out of rigid legalism. It was out of devotion and love.

So when some (remember: some) Jewish Jesus people wanted to continue observing the law, they were simply honoring the tradition in which Jesus himself was born. They didn't think they were "better" than Gentiles, but they did understand the Jesus movement to be a Jewish movement. So did Paul, though his understanding of what that meant led in a different direction.

Preachers, students, and (a few) colleagues, it's time to stop describing ancient Judaism as fearful, elitist, and self-righteous. Look at Paul himself: Jesus people are to remember that we depend on Judaism for our lives, we are not to judge our sisters and brothers, and -- consider how many times Paul says this -- the gospel does not abolish the law.

8 comments:

M.joshua said...

Thats a little funny. My experience has been the opposite: making Messianic Jews and a Jewish identity something bigger than it is.

Coming from a Messianic Jewish experience, I've found that the pendulum swings fiercely from a point of anti-semitism to a point of ultra-semitism.

Yet, we're all one people in Christ.

Nevertheless, that's not to neglect the huge important of looking at the Scriptures through Jewish eyes. When we think like big dumb Gentiles, we miss a ton of what God wants us to get.

Let's have a healthy view on the subject!

derek4messiah.wordpress.com said...

Perhaps M.joshua has been around some immature Messianic Jews, but I for one appreciate your post. I do hope the New Perspective on Paul gives the next generation of scholars a healthier view of Judaism and even wakens many to the idea of Torah-faithful Jewish believers in Jesus.

M.joshua, I'd recommend a book to you: Mark Kinzer, Postmissionary Messianic Judaism.

Derek Leman

M.joshua said...

Derek, sorry if I wasn't clear. I'm talking about Gentile's responses to Jews - especially Messianic Jews as being "ultra-semitic" to the point of actually wanting to be Jewish.

I'm no less guilty of this than anyone.

Sabio Lantz said...

I love your emphasis and how it draws away from anti-semiticsm.

Question: Isn't the law meant to "set apart" -- the Jews therefore "love" it in as much as it sets them apart from others. This is tribalism plain and simple. Is this really something we should embrace. Wasn't Christianity more marketable because it broke down the tribalism and allowed for empires to embrace their faith.

Is it "love" of the law itself, that causes the orthodox to embrace the law or "love of themselves and their own identity". I that the later makes more sense.

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