Introductory Lectures on Matthew and Epistle to the Romans
[The following is the text of lectures and notes prepared by Ian Johnston of Malaspina University-College, Nanaimo, BC, Canada (now Vancouver Island University), for students in Liberal Studies. The lecture was first delivered in January 1996, but extensively revised several times after that. The last revision was in December 2001. This text is in the public domain and may be used, in whole or in part, by anyone, without charge and without permission, provided the source is acknowledged. For comments, questions, corrections, and so on, please contact Ian Johnston]
[References to the Gospel of Matthew and the Epistle to the Romans in the following text are to The New Oxford Annotated Bible, Revised Standard Version, edd. Herbert G. May and Bruce M. Metzger (NY: Oxford University Press, 1977)]
Sometime between 9 BC and 4 BC Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem, in the Roman province of Judea. About thirty years later he began a public ministry, moving around through the cities and towns of Palestine attracting attention with a remarkable new public message. After a ministry of about three years, he was arrested, tried, and crucified (c. 30 AD), a standard punishment for lower-class political troublemakers. For the Roman authorities the execution of a public political nuisance was routine, one in a continuing series, especially in Palestine, and for the Jewish priestly authority (the Sanhedrin) the crucifixion marked the end of a nasty little incident, prompted by the appearance of yet another sectarian Jewish movement (of which there were at the time at least two dozen).
Ever since that time, however, the followers of the movement which arose out of Jesusís ministry have been disputing its significance, and these disputes and the various resolutions to them have played an enormously important role in shaping what we call Western Civilization. No other argument or series of arguments has had a more decisive effect on what we have become. The history of how the teachings of this relatively obscure person became, hundreds of years later, the basis for the official religion of the Roman Empire through the Roman Catholic Church is, in my view, the most fascinating narrative in the history of Western culture.
The two texts we are studying this week, the Gospel of Matthew and the Epistle to the Romans, are two of the earliest and most important extant written contributions to the arguments over the nature of Jesus Christ and the meaning of his mission. It is vital to realize that both documents originate in a climate of dispute, some 25 to 35 years after the death of Jesus, and both seek (in different ways) to interpret the life and message of Jesus of Nazareth, so as to put a particular interpretative construction on what believers will derive from his preaching and, thus, how they ought to conduct themselves as followers of Jesus Christ, that is, as Christians. These two texts, in other words, are not disinterested documents, since they are seeking to define what it means to be a Christian, who qualifies for inclusion in the new religious group, and thus who is excluded. They are, in a very real sense, more concerned with theology and doctrine than with history. And when I read these documents together, the thing that holds my attention most immediately is the argument going on between them, something which is all the more intriguing because it seems that neither Matthew nor Paul has clearly worked out for himself some of the key issues in his position.
For both documents are very ambiguous in some crucial places and have given rise to huge disputes, providing fuel for a number of different ďmessages.Ē Even a cursory knowledge of the history of interpretation of these texts reveals radical ambiguities at the heart of the them. Paulís Epistle to the Romans, for example, has been used as key document in establishing the necessary authority of the Church and of Church discipline (in, for example, Augustine) and, by contrast, as a key document in stressing the importance of freedom from such authority (in, most notably, Martin Luther). If one had to pick a single Christian document which has been the focus for the fiercest doctrinal disputes throughout the history of Christianity from the beginnings right up to the present century, the Epistle to the Romans would be an obvious candidate, and a detailed study of the different interpretative constructions put on Romans through the ages would provide a more comprehensive insight into the history of Church doctrine than would a study of any other Biblical text. Even today, the disputes continue.
What I would like to do in this lecture is to call attention to three problems which these two documents seek to address. I donít want to explore complex questions of context (except as brief digressions) or go into the even thornier problem of the reliability of the gospel and the epistle as we have received them (for it seems clear that there may have been considerable tampering to fit with later doctrines). Taking the documents as we have received them, I want to explore three questions which arise out of the texts and sketch out the range of answers to these questions which the texts provide.
The single most important initial point I would invite you to consider as a result of this lectureóa point better illustrated by the comparison of these two texts than by any other pair I can think ofóis the crucial importance of how the significance of particular events depends above all on how they are interpreted rather than on any single determinate meaning clearly emerging from the historical facts as best we can confirm them. That point is especially the case in the years following the work of a charismatic new political or religious leader, as his followers seek to codify the nature of the leaderís ďmessage.Ē In such a process, there is very commonly a conflict between different factions in the group, and such a conflict will offer differing interpretations of how the followers should now behave, how they should further the cause.
Such a conflict can highlight a particular problem faced by a small revolutionary group: How do its members expand their numbers without compromising the original sense of revolution? How can they resist assimilation (i.e., retain their sense of having something significantly different from the culture around them) and at the same time avoid being so exclusive and strictly obedient to a different set of ideals that they attract no new members and simply remain a slowly diminishing fringe group? Put in terms of the debate between Matthew and Romans, how exclusive should the Christians be in admitting new members, how closely should they link their faith to existing Jewish traditions, how compatible should Christianity be with non-Jewish traditions? And so on. The survival of the small Christian communities in Palestine and throughout the eastern Mediterranean would depend on the answer to such questions (in other words, the answers to these questions, although framed in terms of religious doctrine and ethical conduct, carry an urgent political weight).
B. The Presentation of Jesus
The first point I wish to focus on (in our comparison of Matthew and Romans) is the way the two texts emphasize different things in their presentations of the central figure in the new religion, on Jesus Christ himself. An appreciation of these differences will encourage us to see the different religious and political visions in these two influential writers.
[Incidentally, I am not concerned here to argue questions of historical chronology. The evidence seems to indicate clearly that the Epistle to the Romans was written first, addressed to a group of Christians living in Rome (i.e., outside of Palestine)óabout 25 years after Jesusí death. The Gospel of Matthew seems to have been written in Palestine by a Palestinian Jewish-Christian, about 15 years after the Epistle to the Romans, perhaps as a response to it or to the position it advances. The considerable gap of time between the death of Jesus and these writings might indicate a growing sense that the second coming of Jesus was not going to occur as quickly as originally anticipated and therefore some written documents were necessary to clarify and preserve the new faith, especially now that those with a memory of Jesusís ministry were disappearing. For a more specific chronology, see below.]
One of the first thing one notices about Matthewís account (especially in comparison with Romans) is that the former really stresses Jesusís human and social and ethnic identity: he is born in a particular place, identified as from Nazareth, has a family, is associated with the mission of John the Baptist, a charismatic preacher who seems to have come from an austere Jewish sect, and is given specific cultural label by those who come into contact with him. The extensive genealogy with which Matthew begins seeks to fix Jesusís identity in a long line of human ancestors, the royal house of Israel: 14 generations from Abraham to David, 14 generations from David to the Babylonian Captivity, 14 generations from the Babylonian captivity to Jesus Christ. We should have no doubt, reading Matthew, that Jesus is, first and foremost, a Jew, a member of the nations of Israel, with essential connections to the most important aspects of the past history of the Israelites.
There is also in Matthew a much stronger emphasis than in Romans on Jesus Christís human identity, his incarnation into a living, suffering member of humanity. In this connection the ambiguous phrase ďSon of ManĒ which appears over thirty times in the Gospel of Matthew, most immediately seems to stress the humanity of Jesus Christóhe is a fully realized human being. This sense is particularly strong if we read Matthew without reference to other Biblical texts, in which the term ďThe ManĒ has a wide range of different meanings. The constant emphasis on the Son of Man, together with the strong identification of Jesus in a human context, creates a continuing stress in Matthew on the humanity of Christ as a particular, suffering human being.
In Matthewís account Jesus is a prophet, identified most immediately as someone claiming the powers and the status of the long tradition of prophets in Jewish history and in Old Testament literature. When he asks the disciples in Chapter 16, Verse 13, about how the public perceives him, they say that he is viewed as a new John the Baptist or Elijah or Jeremias, a human being with a special commission to wake the Israelites up to their spiritual duty and to perform special acts of healing. With such figures Jesusís audience was well acquainted through their traditions, so the most obvious interpretation of his identity for many of his listeners is to see him as a Jewish prophet.
And Jesusís acts most of the time in Matthew as a prophet rather than as a teacher (at least in the Socratic sense), since he is much more concerned to announce the truth he brings than to argue people into a realization of his message. Jesus acknowledges that his message is difficult, that many people will not understand it or refuse to accept it, but he makes no detailed attempt to explain himself. His characteristic way of ministering to the people is to simply tell them what they must do, amplifying that with various parables or miracles which do not admit of argument. When people ask for some sign of his identity, he repeatedly refers them rather cryptically to the sign of Jonah (the prophet who was swallowed by a whale and emerged to write tell the story).
The name Jesus means in Aramaic the equivalent of the Hebrew Messiah (the Greek word for Messiah is Christ), again a vital figure in Jewish traditions. The Messiah (meaning the anointed one), according to Old Testament traditions, is a human figure who will liberate Israel from oppression. There is no suggestion of divine origin for this figure, but he will be someone specially favoured by God. In that sense, he will be selected by God, an adopted Son of God perhaps. The Messianic figure is as important politically as theologically, since the political liberation of Israel is an important part of his achievements.
English translations of Matthew does not use the term Messiah, but early in the narrative the connection is made, when the birth of Jesus is linked to the ancient prophecies of the arrival of a Messiah: ďAnd you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will govern my people IsraelĒ (2:6). So throughout Matthewís account of Jesus life, the Messianic prophecies are present, nowhere more so that in the crucifixion when he is given the ironic Jewish title Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudorum (Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews).
However, Jesus does not in Matthew identify himself in the traditional Messianic terms. In fact, he seems to downplay the possibilities of a political rebellion and urges the followers to render unto Caesar the things that are Caesarís. And in announcing and then living through his death, he is clearly denying the peopleís common expectations of Messianic triumph over the secular enemies. In that sense, his mission must have been a great disappointment to those who viewed him in the light of Jewish traditions.
Jesus accepts this designation as a traditional Jewish prophet, but he makes much larger claims for his identity. For Matthew presents Jesus as claiming a very special authority. He is not just another prophet, although he is that. He speaks with special divine sanction as the Son of God, who is not only a human being bringing a divine message but a divine figure himself, who will return to judge the community of believers and non-believers: ďFor the Son of man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then we will repay every man for what he has doneĒ (16.27). And repeatedly in Matthewís account God the Father endorses his son, ďThis is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleasedĒ (3:17). And Jesus, in his continuing disputes with the Pharisees, invokes an authority which no one has ever heard of, his eternally divine status, which gives him pre-eminence over the law and the prophets: as Matthew says, ďFor he taught them as one who had authority, and not as their scribesĒ (7:29) or, in Jesusís own words, ďFor the Son of man is lord of the sabbathĒ (12:8).
Now, this is something very different from Jewish traditions or from pagan religionóhuman prophets and a human Messiah were part of ancient Jewish literature, and dying and rising gods were commonplace in pagan rituals. But here we have a remarkably new combination, a figure both eternally divine (in the past and future) and at the same time fully human at a unique moment in history. Hence arises in Matthew a central paradox of Christianityóthe Incarnationóthe dual nature of Christ, a son of God, a fully realized and pre-existing divine essence and a historically living and suffering human being, who suffered and died in a fully human sense and at a particular historical moment, but who rose again and will return in glory to bring justice to the community.
Now this is a very puzzling doctrine, and it is clear that even the disciples have serious doubts at times. And Jesusís public, raised in the tradition of a historical Messiah who will save Israel, a human being specially favoured and adopted by God (and thus perhaps a Son of God in a figurative sense), clearly has trouble accepting the notion of a human Messiah who is at the same time fully divine.
The emphasis in Paulís account in Romans is significantly different. For him the historical details of Jesusís particular identity as an Israelite are apparently unimportant. That Jesus Christ lived a human life, suffered, and died Paul is prepared to stress. The historical basis of Jesusís ministry is important (the fact that he really lived), but the particular details are not. The most important element in Christís life for Paul is clearly the resurrection. So in Paul the paradox is equally present. What is remarkably different is the way in which Paul is not prepared to bolster claims to Jesusís humanity by a detailed reference to his life or to his teachings at particular times and places. Itís as if Paul want us to forget about, or at least to place on a distant back burner, any sense that Jesusís ethnic identify is important for an understanding of his mission or for a belief in him.
Now, if we sense, from reading these two passages, that something of an argument is going on about the nature of Jesusí ministry, then this difference in emphasis may stem from the fact that one of Matthewís strongest rhetorical points is that his story seems to be based on close personal acquaintance with the events (or with those who were there). His Gospel seems to claim historical authenticity (all the more since itís natural to link Matthew the disciple with Matthew the writer of the gospel, even though such an identification is incorrect); whereas, Paul has no first-hand knowledge of Jesus Christ. When Matthew appeals to and stresses Jesusís ethnic and national identity, he is establishing a strong and apparently authentic cultural and personal link between the two of them. In any attempt to persuade a wider public, such a claim carries some weight. Paul typically appeals for his authority to his conversion experience: lacking a personal acquaintance with Jesus during his ministry, historical events to which he can appeal, he bases his claim to spiritual authority on his conversion and to his faith in Jesus Christ, not from any specific cultural link or personal acquaintance with him. For Paul, knowledge of Jesus Christ, an understanding of the figure central to the new religion, is exclusively a personal spiritual acceptance, a conversion to belief. It does not require any basis in a particular historical identity.
C. What is Christís Message?
These reasons for these different presentations of Jesus become a good deal clearer when we recognize that each of these writers is interpreting Jesusí ministry in a very particular way and that they are, on some key issues, fundamentally at loggerheads with each other. Let me try to describe briefly some of the main differences.
Matthewís account presents Jesus as calling upon people for a radical reformation in their spiritual lives by redefining their relationship with God and by impressing upon them an immediate historical imperative. His main message attacks very strongly traditional ritualistic practices, especially those associated with the Temple and the traditional rites of sacrifice and payment, and calls upon people to become even more sincerely committed to living good lives based on good works, with a constant sense of the need for righteousness, no matter what the cost. The strictness of Jesusís message amazes (and occasionally even dismays) the disciples.
It is a call to set aside traditional visions of the good life, especially those based on mere adherence to Mosaic Law as the traditional religious authorities have defined the practice. The precise terms of the calling are not always clear, but the emphasis falls on a new commitment to a spiritual perfection, free of the distractions of the flesh and the habitual rules of the community (even of the family). The essence of this new commitment, and something that would be very surprising to many of his listeners, is a new conception of love: ďBut I say to you, Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your father who is in heavenĒ (5:44); ďSo whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them; for this is the law and the prophetsĒ (7:12).
A major difference between Paul and Matthewís interpretations of Jesusís message is their account of his attitude to the traditional Mosaic Law. In Matthew, there is strong emphasis on the point that Jesus sees his mission as a fulfilment of what the Law literally requires: ď
Think not that I am come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them. For truly, I say to you, will heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless you righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (5.17-20)
In Matthew Jesus repeatedly appears to adopt the position that he is not here to challenge the law but to see that it is followed correctly, more strictly, so that it is not corrupted in the ways the Pharisees and Sadducees have done through their centuries of interpretation and institutionalized practice.
Iím not sure from reading Matthew of the extent to which Jesus is preaching a break with Judaism or a radical renewal of the traditional faith. On the one hand, Jesus claims the authority of teaching the law as it is fully intended, but on the other there is a sense that the new messianic community he is seeking to establish is going to involve a break with the customary community religion:
And no one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch tears away from the garment, and worse tear is made. Neither is new wine put into old wineskins; if it is, the skins burst, and the wine is spilled, and the skins are destroyed; but new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved. (9:16-17).
Words like this and the extremely harsh language used to curse the orthodox leaders of the religious community seem to suggest that Jesusís vision is for a new messianic but distinctly Jewish community to exist alongside the traditional community, not in co-operation with it.
Paulís emphasis is very different. As I say, he does little to place Jesus in any sort of cultural context (other than a brief initial mention of his descent from David). Rather than telling the story of Jesusí ministry he stresses again and again the essential requirement of the Christian: faith in Jesus Christ. And he makes it clear early on that this faith is something available to both Jews and Gentiles (not simply to the Jews). Good works flow from faith, but faith comes first, and no record of good works is proof of faith (admittedly what Paul says on this point is sometimes ambiguous, but the sheer frequency with which he comes back to the issue of faith as the radical centre of a Christian life indicates his priorities).
With this emphasis Paul is trying to chart a clear course between pagan ritual and the Mosaic Law. Any religious life based on pagan ritual is a clear betrayal of oneís faith. That betrayal is confirmed by the lapse into sins, like the worship of animals or homosexuality (1:24 to 1:26). There is thus no compromise possible with Greek pagan religion and faith in Jesus Christ. Greek Christians will thus have to make a clean break with their religious traditions. That seems clear enough in the opening.
But the issue of the Jewish Christians is more complex. They may have faith in Jesus Christ, but how does this faith deal with their oldest Jewish tradition, Mosaic Law? Under that ancient tradition, a religious life is primarily (even exclusively) a matter of good works, that is, of actions which scrupulously follow a clearly established set of rules handed down from God (that is, a tradition which reverses Paulís emphasis on the primary importance of faith). In addition, of course, the issue of the Mosaic Law (including circumcision) raised the sometimes stormy problem of the extent to which that Law might be binding on all Christians (including the Gentiles or Greek and Roman Christians).
In tackling this point, Paul in effect drives something of a wedge between the Christian community and the most important elements of traditional Jewish religious practice. The relationship between Judaism and the Jesus sect in Romans appears quite clear: they are distinct, and what is essential for the former plays no necessary role in the latter. The Law has a role to play for those who believe in it. It can help to make them aware of their own sin (so it is not useless), but it cannot be a substitute for faith. The Christian life, for Paul, is based on a uniquely personal relationship between God and the individual (a relationship based on Godís gift of Grace), and no outer deeds or ritual practices are going to work if that is absent.
For he is not a real Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical. He is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart, spiritual and not literal. His praise is not from men but from God. (2:28 ff)
That is the reason Paul in Romans is so concerned to fend off the Law, while at the same time to insist on the historical connections with the Old Testament figures and with the historical fact of Christís life, particularly his resurrection. Emancipation from the Law is essential if Christianity is to thrive among the Gentiles, and drawing a firm line between orthodox Judaism and the new Christianity is essential if Christianity is to free itself from its nationalistic Jewish base (thus tying its fortunes to the future of Palestine) and to avoid the risk of being assimilated into Judaism (a religion with, at that time, many splinter groups). Paul clearly wants Christianity to become a universal faith.
That Paul has a political motive here seems clear at times from his determination to flout the Jewish authorities in Palestine, to take public issue with them, so as to convince the Gentiles that Christianity is, indeed, something very new, and not just another Jewish sect:
Now I am speaking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry in order to make my fellow Jews jealous, and thus save some of them. For if their rejection means the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance mean but life from the dead. (11.13)
The hostility of the Jews to Paulís message will encourage Gentiles, and thus help to spread the gospel. Jews may be the natural branches on the tree, but their lack of faith has led God to break them off, leaving room to graft on new branches from the Gentiles (11.19). Obviously Paul is treading a fine line here, risking further offending the Jewish-Christians, but itís a risk heís obviously prepared to take in order to make his case more persuasive to the Gentiles.
One way to appreciate immediately the different thrust in Paul, the push to universalize Christianity by emancipating it from its Jewish roots is the acronym we derive from his writings for identifying Jesus. If in Matthew, Jesus is called Ieusus Nazarenus Rex Iudorum (hence the acronym INRI in many religious paintings depicting the crucifixion), in Paulís writing Jesus is Ieusus Christos Theou Huios SoteróJesus Christ Son of God the Saviour (this phrase produces the acronym IXTHUS, the Greek word for fish, hence the early adoption of the fish as a Christian symbol). This latter identification, it is clear, involves no ethnic or racial terms linking of Jesus to the Jewish people. By contrast, it insists upon the universal attributes of Jesusí identity.
The desire to de-emphasize the Jewish roots of Jesusí ministry explains, for example, Paulís interpretation of Abraham. Paul argues that Abraham was not favoured of God because of the Covenant (a historical event linked to the political future of Israel), but rather because of his faith. His special relationship through faith with God was essential; his identity as an Israelite was of no particular consequence. We cannot all be Israelites, but we can all look to Abraham as a universal (rather than as a national) symbol of the faith which must precede all other aspects of our relationship with God. In that sense, Abraham is the father of us all.
[Abraham] received circumcision as a sign or seal of the righteousness which he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised and who thus have righteousness reckoned to them. (3:11)
Paulís treatment of Abraham illustrates his approach to the Old Testament figures. For him they are important as types, that is, a representatives of men who possess faith and therefore important role models. They do not derive their importance from their historical success in establishing a particular race or nation: their success is, by contrast, evidence of their faith and thus serves to underline the importance of the human type they represent.
However, while the traditional Jewish understanding of the importance of ritual and law must be reinterpreted, the connections with the Old Testament must be retained, so that people understand that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ as a unique historical event with significant implications for the future history of the world. His story is not simply some repetitive ritual celebration similar to the various mystery cults associated with hundreds of divinities in Greek religion. Without that basis the characteristic historical element in the new faith (something which sets it apart from pagan religion) will be lost.
That is the reason, Paul spends very little time on the narrative details of Jesusís life and ministry and so much time in trying to sort out the relationship of the Christian believer to the Mosaic Law. At the same time he insists upon the reality of the death and resurrection of Jesus. His definition of what it means to be a Christian leaves out of account the specific teachings of Jesus, upon which Matthew spends so much time, and insists that the essence of the new religion is faith in the historical identity of Christ as Paul delivers it: ďif you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be savedĒ (10:9).
The emphasis for the believer is on being reborn through a new experience of Christ, who is no longer a Jewish Messiah but a universal prince of peace, who transcends and, in effect, renders irrelevant or secondary, all questions about ethnic origins, political activity, social station, traditional religious rituals, and so forth. Unlike Aristotle, who saw no moral life outside a particular polis and for whom a good life can be defined only by a very specific social context in which some people are clearly better than others, and unlike the Messianic tradition in Jewish religion, with its stress on Mosaic Law and the role of the Messiah as a political leader and saviour of the children of Israel, Paul stresses the universal nature of Christianityófrom a uniquely personal spiritual encounter available to all we can then enter a community of righteousness which extends wherever there is a group of believers (no matter what their origins). Yes, there may be a great many details missing about how we ought to behave in particular situations (i.e., specific ethical guidelines), but Paulís sense here is clearly that the first priority has to be a strongly felt, personal commitment to Jesus Christ, an absolute faith in Godís freely given grace. If Christians have that, then they can follow the basic rules of living in peace and harmony amongst themselves, obeying the governing authorities (no hint of political revolt there), and loving their neighbours, without ceaseless wrangling over doctrinal trifles like diet, circumcision, and other complex matters arising out of the Lawís traditions..
To drive home this message Paul places an enormous stress on sin and death and on the imminent end of the world. Hence, the urgent call for repentance and a renewed faith which prompts good works. Paul never tires of reminding his readers of their imprisonment in sin, in the body, in the degenerate realities of the physical world. This Gnostic strain, very pronounced in Paul (and in Romans), some have attributed, in part, to later interpolations. Be that as it may, there is no doubt that with Paulís text there enters into mainstream Christianity a harshness in attitude towards certain aspects of life (especially sexuality) that is quite missing (for the most part) from Jesusís call. On this point, Paul is explicit: his religious call is asking believers to become slaves, not to their human nature, but to their spiritual faith.
In defence of Paul on this issue we might recall the circumstances of these letters and his visits. He is, in effect, seeking to stiffen the discipline within the small emerging Christian community in the midst of competing religions, facing (in some places) a certain amount of hostility, isolated from similar communities, and with no coordinating structure to keep them going. His role is, in some sense, to provide a short, energizing burst which will help sustain the faith. Paul no doubt realized, quite apart from any of his personal beliefs (and we have no reason whatsoever to believe that he was not being totally sincere), that a strict and challenging discipline was necessary to maintain the identity of and morale within the threatened community of Christians, if these groups were to survive and prosper. A more relaxed, tolerant, and forgiving message might well have encouraged the community simply to dissolve into the varied religious life of its surroundings.
To sum up: simply put (too simply perhaps), the essence of Paul is faith in the fact of Christís divinity and universal presence as a means for a spiritual renewal. Cut away from all the centuries of interpretation and doctrine (and perhaps editorial meddling), the text of Romans, as J. C. OíNeill points out, delivers a straightforward message:
Paul taught that the righteousness God approves is attained by the man who lives by faith. If a man trusts God and believes his promises and accepts Godís gifts, above all the gift of his Son, he becomes righteous. This is no instantaneous affair but a character of life that is to be lived from day to day. The man who is faithful, who trusts and believes God, is enabled to live righteously despite his weaknesses, his lapses into sin, and his mistakes. He will in the end be found to be righteous, however much he has yet to purge away because of the sins he has committed. God gives men the choice. They may become righteous or may reject righteousness. It would be better if men never sinned, but they do, and God has revealed a way that sinners can become righteous. (20)
Paul is sometimes called the inventor of Christianity, but, as Paul Johnson remarks (35), he might be more properly called the person who rescued Christianity from the twin fates of being Hellenized (turned into one more pagan cult) or Judaized (reabsorbed into Judaism).
If we read (as we might) Matthewís account as a response to Paulís teaching, then the reason for Matthewís emphasis on the Jewish identity of Jesus becomes manifest: Matthew wants to counter the universalizing aspects of Paulís teaching and to anchor Christianity much more securely on the country of its origin
Jesusís Message and History
One particularly important part of Jesusís message, and the one I want to focus on particularly, is the historical dimension. In Matthew Jesus Christ insists that his message is urgent because a historical revolution is at hand, the Kingdom of Heaven is about to be realized on earth and that will be followed by the end of history, with a final judgment and the coming of the Kingdom of God. His message is marked throughout by this insistent eschatological call: the end of time is approaching, so wake up to your spiritual duty. Paul has a similarly urgent sense of time.
This urgent historical message gives the doctrine of love a particularly violent edge, since what is at stake is the choice between the wrath to come in hell fire (clearly in Matthew a well-developed doctrine) and eternal life. Matthewís account of Jesusís ministry calls upon people to save themselves by preparing for the kingdom of heaven, which will be inaugurated with the return of Jesus as Christ in all his glory or which is being inaugurated at the moment. This is a historical promise which all those who accept Christís teaching should pray for:
Our Father, which art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy name.
Thy Kingdom come,
Thy Will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.
The frequent repetition of this prayer has perhaps dulled our sense of the intense plea it makes for the realization of this Messianic community. In fact, the core of Jesusís message, especially in the Sermon on the Mount (Chapters 5, 6, and 7), the Spiritual Charter of the Kingdom of Heaven (Albright and Mann), seems in Matthew to be a cry for a preparation of the Messianic community, primarily to the disciples and then to a wider Jewish audience.
Matthew makes clear that Jesus understands that his message will be puzzling and will be resisted by many. Hence, he tells his disciples at times to conceal his identity and not to reveal everything they know of what is to come. And for this reason, Jesus typically speaks to the people about what is happening in parables, in particular examples (similar, as some critics have pointed out, to case-law examples). The favourite metaphors that keep cropping up in these parables, of harvest, of fruit, and of a marriage, all point to a consummation of time, when people will be called to account and history will end. In the Kingdom of Heaven, which is almost here, the wheat and the tares will grow together, but when the Kingdom of God arrives, the harvest will take place, and the tares will be collected and burned.
He answered, ďHe who sows the good seed is the Son of man; the field is the world, and the good seed means the sons of the kingdom; the weeds are the sons of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the close of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the close of the age. The Son of man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and throw them into the furnace of fire; there men will weap and gnash their teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear. (13:38-43)
Now, this element of Jesusís message, which has obviously and close links to the tradition of Old Testament prophecy, is a key element in the new message. And historically it has played an enormously important role in shaping the way those of us who live in cultures shaped by Christianity think about time. To be a believing Christian is to adopt a strongly linear sense of history, in which the significance of past, present, and future is linked to a unique historical event, the life and death of Jesus Christ, an event which becomes the turning point of all history.
That this distinctive feature of Jesusís ministry is important, we can see in Matthew and Paul by the way in which they are always concerned to link Jesus with Old Testament figures and events. Whatever wedges Paul wants to drive between traditional Jewish practice and the new Christian community, he is not at all willing to drop (as some Christians were) the key historical idea that Jesus Christ comes as the fulfillment to a long history of prophecy. The past takes on its meaning because of the coming of Jesus Christ, just as the future is going to take shape because of his return. In a sense, Paul and Matthew both see history, the interpretation of the past as revealed in the Old Testament, as part of the evidence for the faith in the future direction of history, which will (sooner rather than later) come to an end with the Second Coming.
In Matthewís account there is a strong sense that Jesus Christís story has already been prefigured in many of the Old Testament personalities (Adam, Noah, Abraham) or events, like the trip to Egypt or the story of Jonah. Christís life and death are therefore a turning point in history, the fulfillment of the past and the start of a new era. Thus, the message of Jesus, as given to us by Matthew and especially by Paul, seeks, in a way that should be familiar to us from reading the Old Testament, to transform our basic understanding of the world from what we might call a sense in participating in the eternal rhythms and cycles of nature (the basis for much of pagan, especially Greek, religion) into what we might call a sense of participating in a unique history, especially a future history.
And it may well be that a great deal of the attraction of Jesusís message lies precisely in that historical promise, since it announces a world that will be significantly different from the traditional one. I suspect that nothing attracts people to Christianity more than this call to historical thinking. We no longer have to understand ourselves in relation to the eternal cycles of nature or present systems of political oppression, for we are on a mission from God which will transform our relationship to time. For those who have faith, conditions will change fundamentally, and we will be delivered from the endless repetition of the same hardships and follies. The attractions of such a faith for those who have no meaningful or bearable stake in the status quo or who are longing for some significance beyond what they already know and have participated in to me seem obvious enough.
I think that it was Paulís special genius to realize this point and to insist that Christianity needed to retain that sense of a transformation in our thinking about history (derived from the Old Testament) but also to recognize that this sense had to be emancipated from its Jewish roots in order to attract both Jews and Gentiles unwilling to link their religion too closely with the Mosaic Code or with the politics of Israel (a great many Jews to whom Paul wrote or preached did not live in Palestine). As Iíve already mentioned, itís as if he sensed that there were two great dangers to the new movement, either that it would be reabsorbed into Judaism (if it remained just one more Jewish sect) or that, if it abandoned this unique vision of history and of the historical uniqueness of Jesusí life, it would become just one more pagan sect based on the story of a god who appeared, died, and will reappear.
D. To Whom is Jesus Christ Speaking?
When we read Matthew and Romans, we come across a repeated question: Who are those to whom this message of salvation through the new Messianic Community is addressed? We know from these two documents and from others in the New Testament that this particular issue was of special importance.
The issue, crudely put, is as follows. Is Jesus solely concerned with reforming the Jewish community, the Israelites? Or is his message a universal one, aimed at all people? A key issue in this question was the relationship of the Christian to the traditional centre of Jewish religion, the Mosaic Law, with its more than 600 explicit instructions in everything from rules for worship, to divorce, to dietary instructions. Was adherence to the Law a necessary part of being a devout Christian?
Matthew, it seems, is on this point quite ambiguous. On the one hand, he stresses Jesusís Jewish identity and is concerned, as I have pointed out before, to place Jesus very firmly in a Jewish context within the Jewish state. Some have argued that Matthew is the most traditionally Jewish of the gospels and is seeking to reclaim the Jesus sect for Judaism. Certainly there are passages in the text which support that view, especially Jesusís explicit words telling the disciples ďGo nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of IsraelĒ (10:5-6) and his later words ďI was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of IsraelĒ (15:24).
This emphasis suggests that Jesusís intention is to develop from the Israelites a new Messianic Community, alongside traditional Judaism, in preparation for the inauguration of the Kingdom of Heaven (although even the apparently explicit statements above are ambiguous in context, because Jesus goes against his own commission by healing the Canaanite woman. But itís clear that in Matthew there is less insistence on any universal applicability of the new doctrine (although one can find some support for it).
. . . nothing is more misleading from the standpoint of Christian history than the assumption that its Founder was engaged in the construction of a new moral code of universal applicability. . . .[T]he Great Instruction [Sermon on the Mount] is directed to the Messianic Community, first to the disciples, and then to those whom they taught. Any extended application of its provisions to a non-Christian or mixed community, however well intentioned, is a use of the material which the infant Messianic Community would have found puzzling, to say the least. (Albright and Mann)
Paul, by contrast, is seeking hard to universalize the message of Christ. He has a special commission to preach the gospel to the Gentiles and is particularly concerned to sort out for the community of Christians in Rome the precise relationship between the community and Jewish traditions.
Given that Paulís audience (in Romans and other writings) consists primarily of Jewish Christians and Greek Christians and Roman Christians outside Palestine, for the most part in much more sophisticated urban centres than Jesusís original audience, itís not surprising that his message seeks to reassure them about how being a Christian does not necessarily involve any close link to Palestine or to the Jewish authorities there (a point about which there would naturally be some confusion and dispute within the Christian communities).
In addressing the concerns of this mixed audience, Paul treads a fine line between encouraging those who believe in the Mosaic Law to hold onto it and advising those who do not wish to follow the Mosaic Code that they donít have to do so. For Paul the Law serves the purposes of Christ by making us conscious of sin, but the salvation offered by Jesus Christ does not require the law. It seems clear that the purpose here is to make Christianity available to Gentiles and to Jews who do not want to be bound by strict adherence to traditional law, without offending those Jewish Christians who do not want to abandon Mosaic Law entirely.
In Romans (and in other epistles) Paulís main concern seems to be to urge the fledgling Christian communities to accept his views (he has become something of an arbitrator and advisor to these small Christian communities), so that the groups do not fall apart, quarrelling all the time about what for Paul are details of cooperative life (especially dietary rules). He wants his listeners to derive from his words a single common spiritual message and to adopt the rules for living together which will enable that faith to flourish.
Historically, the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem (in 70 AD, about the same time that the Gospel of Matthew was first written) and the further dispersal of the Jewish people from Palestine soon afterwards removed from power the central bureaucratic authority of Judaism and enormously weakened those who would seek to keep Christianity in the Judaic tradition. At the time of Paulís death these events had not occurred, and it was by no means clear that his version of Christianity would prevail. However, after the destruction of the temple and the further scattering of the Jews away from Israel and the consequent weakening of the Jewish influence within the Christian community, the writings of Paul provided a vitally important basis for continuing the apostolic missions among the Gentiles and transforming Christianity into the universal religion it eventually became in Europe
List of Works Cited
Albright, W. F. and C. S. Mann. Matthew. Anchor Bible Series. New York: Doubleday, 1971.
Cohn, Norman. The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millennarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages.
Johnson, Paul. A History of Christianity. London: Penguin, 1990.
OíNeill, J. C. Paulís Letter to the Romans. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1975.
Supplementary Notes and Observations on the Context of St. Paulís Teachings
[The following notes are provided as a supplement to the above lecture]
A. Notes on Saint Paul: Chronology
c. 4 BC: Birth of Jesus
c. AD 5: Paul (originally Saul) born in Tarsus (Cilicia) son of a Jew of the tribe of Benjamin, a Roman citizen. Brought up a Pharisee, educated in Jerusalem.
14 AD: Death of Emperor Augustus, Tiberius became emperor.
c. 30 AD: Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea, ordered the crucifixion of Jesus.
c. 35 AD: Saul emerged a bitter opponent of the followers of Jesus; assisted at the martyrdom by stoning of St. Stephen, the leader of a colony of Greek Jews of the Diaspora who had joined the Christians (Acts 7:58). Paul was converted on the road to Damascus to arrest some Christians and bring them to Jerusalem for trial. Baptized and went to Arabia (Gal. 1:17). The story of his conversion is told three times in the Acts of the Apostles (9:1-19; 22:5-16; 26:12-18).
37 AD: Tiberius died; Caligula became emperor.
c. 39 AD: Paul returned to Damascus, had to make secret escape from the king in a basket over city walls (Acts 9:23-5; 2 Cor. 11:32 ff).
41 AD: Caligula assassinated; Claudius became emperor.
c. 45 AD: Barnabas and Paul went to Antioch (Acts 11:25 ff) and later to Jerusalem to take food to Christian community during a famine. He returned to Antioch (Acts 12:25). Afterwards the Church at Antioch sent Paul and Barnabas out on the First Missionary Journey (to Cyprus, Asia Minor, and back to Antioch). On this journey Paul changed his name from Saul to Paul (Acts 13:9). Paul openly proclaimed his mission to the Gentiles, an action which met strong opposition from some Christian Jewish communities, those who wanted Christianity to remain exclusively for Jewish people.
c. 50 BC: Paul traveled to Jerusalem for the first Council of the Church to discuss with Peter the contentious issue of the relationship between Jews and Gentiles in the growing Christian communities. The mission to the gentiles was, however, recognized by the Jerusalem Church, a victory for Paul. In addition, the Law was not to be imposed on Gentile Christians (Gal. 2:6-9; Acts 15).
c. 53 AD: Second Missionary Journey (Asia Minor, Macedonia, Greece, Athens, Corinth), then back to Antioch (Acts 16-18).
54 AD: Death of Emperor Claudius, Nero became emperor.
c. 55 AD: Third Missionary Journey (Acts 19-20): Ephesus (two years), Macedonia, Achaeia, Corinth (where he probably wrote the Epistle to the Romans, to prepare for his visit there), and Jerusalem. In Jerusalem beaten by the mob (protesting against the conversion of the gentiles), rescued by Roman soldiers. To protect Paul the Romans sent him to governor Felix at Caesarea, and kept him loosely detained awaiting trial (Acts 21:27-36; Acts 22; Acts 23 ff). First Corinthians was probably written at this time (c. 56 AD).
c. 60 AD: Paulís trial. Paul appealed to Rome (using his rights as a Roman citizen). Voyage to Rome, shipwrecked at Malta. In Rome awaiting trial, Paul wrote the Captivity Epistles.
64 AD: The great fire in Rome (Nero fiddling, etc.). Christians blamed by Nero for the fire.
c. 65 AD: Paul martyred in Rome during Neronian persecution. By tradition Paul was beheaded on the left bank of the Tiber, about three miles from Rome.
c. 65 AD: Composition of the Gospel According to Mark, by an anonymous author (John Mark?), prepared as an indication of Peterís teaching.
66-70 AD: Revolt in Judea. Romans began forcible suppression under Vespasian (later emperor in 69 AD).
68 AD: Nero committed suicide after being declared a public enemy by the senate (backed by the praetorian guard)
70 AD: Jerusalem fell to the Romans under Titus (Vespasianís son): the Temple destroyed, the Jewish national council and high-priesthood abolished, religious taxes diverted to imperial treasury, Judea given over to the Roman empire (i.e., the end of the independent Jewish state).
c. 70 AD: Gospel According to Matthew prepared (anonymous author who complied the different stories and sayings of Jesus). During this period the Gospel According to Luke was also prepared, traditionally by Luke, a gentile doctor who had become a Christian.
c. 90 AD: Gospel According to John prepared by a disciple of John who recorded his preaching (?). The date of the writing of this gospel is much disputed.
B. A Note on the Diaspora (Dispersion)
The term Diaspora (Dispersion) refers to the scattering of the Jewish people throughout Asia Minor, North Africa, and Europe. It started in the Assyrian and Babylonian deportations (722 and 597 BC) and was originally confined to parts of Asia. Later it spread throughout the Roman Empire to Egypt, Asia Minor, Greece, and Italy. By the time of the New Testament, there were not less than a million Jews in Alexandria, in Egypt, and, although exact figures are difficult to compute, some scholars have estimated that about 10 percent of the population of the Roman empire was Jewish.
Until 70 AD many Jews of the Diaspora maintained close contact with their home country, paying Temple taxes and keeping their religious practices, observing the Law, and heeding the decisions of the religious leaders in Jerusalem (the Pharisees and Sadducees). The destruction of the Temple by Titus in 70 AD, the abolition of the central religious authority, and the end of the existence of an independent Jewish state severely crippled the ability of the Jews of the Diaspora to retain a well-developed sense of a total, coordinated identity with a central authority in religious matters, and this fact undoubtedly contributed enormously to the spread of Pauline Christianity among the gentiles, since one of the major obstacles to his missionary work, the well organized, popular, and enormously influential politico-religious parties of the Pharisees and Sadducees, no longer existed after 70 AD.
The term Gentile refers to non-Jewish people, largely Greeks and Romans. However, it is important to remember that, given the dispersion of the Jews (already very wide before Titus destroyed the Temple), many Jewish people spoke only (or mainly) Greek or Latin and lived in a thoroughly Hellenistic or Roman culture (e.g., at Alexandria or Romeóand had done so for generations. Thus, it is not easy clearly to demarcate the separation between Jewish and Greek populations in the years of Paulís mission. Similarly, many Jews, like Paul, were also Roman citizens, fluent in Latin and valued and thriving members of many urban centres throughout the empire.
C. Paulís Works
Paulís writings generally fall into two classes: (a) the undoubtedly authentic letters and (b) the works of the Pauline school. In the first group belong the following texts:
First Thessalonians (c. 51 AD), Galatians (c. 54 AD), First Corinthians (C. 56 AD), Second Corinthians (c. 56 AD), Romans (c. 57 AD), Philippians (c. 62 AD ?), Philemon (c. 62 AD ?).
To the second group belong the following texts:
Second Thessalonians (c. 51 AD), Colossians (c. 62 AD ?) Ephesians (?), The Pastoral Letters (c. 125 AD; these are First Timothy, Second Timothy, and Titus).
D. Some Observations on the Context of Paulís Life and Writing
Jesus of Nazareth, the charismatic leader of a relatively small and Jewish religious cult (one of a number of such sects) was executed about 30 AD, at the age of about 33. The fact that the Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate, was involved in his trial and judgment, suggests that Jesus was perceived by some as a potential political threat in a perennially turbulent area, the Roman province of Judea. However, other interpreters of Jesusís trial and execution have claimed that the crucifixion was not so much a matter of a conflict with the Roman authorities as with the most conservative elements in the religious establishment in Jerusalem, especially the high priestly Sadducees.
Whatever the reason for the persecution of Jesus, after his death some of his followers, his inner circle, continued the work of being apostles (ďsent menĒ) to proclaim the essential point of Jesusís ministry, the arrival of Godís rule on earth, manifest in the life, teachings, and example of Jesus Christ, the historical Messiah.
These first Christians, the apostles and the people they sought to convert, were for the most part all devout Jews, from all walks of life. There was no attempt to break with Judaism, which already contained numerous sects, so there was nothing particularly strange about the fact that the first Christians were Jewish Christians and that the links between Jewish religious practices and the new gospel teachings were very close. However, the new Christian faith, because of its relative lack of interest in matters of traditional ritual, was particularly attractive to many faithful Jews who did not live in Judea, the Diaspora Jews, and who felt no particular desire to follow the deeply rooted Jewish sense of nationhood, who wished, that is, to loosen the very close connection between the religious life of Judaism and the complex political issues of the independence of the Jewish state from Roman influence and control, issues quite central to the orthodox Jewish establishment in Jerusalem.
In this connection, it is important to remember that a great many Jews lived outside Judea, far more, in fact, than the inhabitants of the Holy Land, as often as not respected and valued members of trading, intellectual, and political communities, frequently wielding through their scholarship, business skill, and religious devotion a major influence throughout the empire (one million in Alexandria; in total about 10 percent of the population of the Empire). For many in this community, the attractions of a Jewish religious sect less passionately nationalistic about the Promised Land than the religion which existed in Jerusalem were clear enough.
The result was that the latent tensions between some of the orthodox Jewish religious practices and beliefs and the desires of some Jewish Christians for a relaxation of the strict rules about circumcision, diet, and the Law became explicit. In a sense, the struggle was over control of the new sect: Who was to determine the limits of proper religious conduct? How closely was Christianity to be wedded to traditional Judaism? Some Christians were very close to Jewish orthodoxy and wished to maintain the traditional practices; others wished a creed less bound to Mosaic law. This tension became particularly important in the crucial question of whether or not the apostolic duties included carrying the message of Jesus to the Gentiles. And if so, did the Gentiles have to undergo formal conversion to Judaism before being considered Christians? Was Jesus of Nazareth to be only for orthodox Jews or was he a saviour of the entire world?
Central to these early debates was Saul, a Pharisee (the most militantly observant of the Mosaic Law, the most passionately concerned to see Godís will done, and ardent defenders of Jewish political independence), a Jew of the Diaspora, from Tarsus, in Cilicia, and a Roman citizen. He had studied Judaism diligently in Jerusalem and began his career as a prosecutor of the young Jewish radical sect, acting on behalf of the Temple authorities who opposed the mission to the gentiles and to the Greek Jews of the Diaspora (see note on St. Stephen).
One of the most famous stories in the New Testament is the account of Saulís conversion (in Acts of the Apostles three times: 9:1-19; 22:5-16; 26:12-18). And from this point on Saul, or as he soon renamed himself, Paul, became the most tireless, dominating, and passionate champion of a very particular vision of the new religious sect, criss-crossing the Mediterranean and Asia Minor in a constant attempt to encourage the missionary work, resolve disputes, and, most important of all, insist upon his particular vision of how the various doctrinal differences must be resolved, of what the meaning of Jesus Christís ministry really was for true Christians. There are relatively few examples in our history of a single person exercising so tirelessly such a decisive influence in the formative stages of a revolutionary change.
Inevitably, proselytizing doctrines of salvation through Christ without proper regard for traditional law and ritual brought Paul into direct and repeated conflict with the more orthodox religious leaders in Jerusalem, who were understandably far less keen to set aside traditional practices and the Law and who had no desire to lose the historical particularism of the past and present (such a vitally important feature of Old Testament faith).
From the first days of the growing Christian movement, quarrels between the two tendencies had existed. Paul became the central figure in the often fierce disputes on this issue. Sometime around 50 BC, for example, Paul traveled to Jerusalem to argue his position with Peter and other Jewish Christian leaders. The result was a victory in principle for Paul (the fact that Jews outside Palestine were often wealthy enough to send significant financial contributions to Jewish Christians in Palestine was, no doubt, an important factor in these arguments). This first council of the church endorsed the mission to the gentiles and removed adherence to the Law as a requirement for Gentile converts. However, as numerous passages in the Acts of the Apostles make clear, the quarrels did not therefore disappear, and hostility to Paulís mission intensified with its very success.
Indeed, it seems clear that for all his tireless energy, Paul was in some vital respects not succeeding, for those wishing to curtail his vision of what the new religion should be grew in power and in the mid 50ís AD summoned him to Jerusalem where he was treated so roughly that he appealed to the Roman authorities for protection. They took him into custody and began arrangements for his trial. Paul appealed to Rome, eventually arrived there, and was finally executed during the Neronian persecution.
If someone had judged Paulís efforts at the time of his death, one might very well have concluded that his mission had failed. The central powers in the Jerusalem Church were increasingly hostile to those urging a resolution of the growing differences between the Christian community and traditional Jewish religion by relaxing the requirements of Judaic religious traditions, and there was every indication that they might succeed in establishing their orthodoxy on the movement, against the tireless efforts of the newly martyred Paul.
But then one of those great accidents of history occurred, the effects of which no one could have foreseen, just as no one can tell what might have happened if a very particular decision had not been made. In 70 AD the Roman Emperor Vespasian, whose son was leading the Roman legions in Judea in an attempt to put down the constant eruptions of Jewish nationalism, decided to have done once and for all with the troublesome Jewish religious nationalists, a constant thorn in the imperial flesh. So Titus destroyed the Temple, outlawed Temple worship, diverted the religious taxes to the imperial treasury, placed Judea even more firmly under Roman control, and most important of all from the point of view of the development of Christian history, in the process demolished the organized structure of orthodox Jewish religion, the Sadducees and Pharisees. Thus, two of the most powerful and best organized and most popular opponents of Paulís vision of the new religion disappeared overnight and forever.
In the confused climate which followed, the faithful Christians discovered in Paul and in the work of his followers the basis for a new doctrine, according to which they could discuss and sometimes resolve the many and increasingly complex doctrinal issues which inevitably arose from the considerable ambiguity and confusion concerning the precise meaning of Christís ministry. Paulís vision of Christ did not rest on a particular historical vision for the Jews, and so it was not threatened by the destruction of the historical reality of a Jewish stateóin fact, that event made his vision all the more persuasive. Thus, Paulís pioneering work, which at the time of his death appeared to have been largely in vain, later became the solidest basis for the rapidly growing new faith, now quite divorced from Judaismóand in the centuries which followed his death, as the Christians had to grapple with all the competing visions of Gnosticism, Donatism, free will, predestination, reformation, anti-Semitism, and a host of other issues right up to the present day, the letters of Paul have remained key places on which various adherents have taken their stand and from which Christians, particularly the most passionately revolutionary believers, have drawn inspiration. This is a key point for which there is obviously no time now. But it is significant that whenever one enters a fiercely contested doctrinal dispute in the history of Christianity, whether in the works of heretics like Marcion, saints like Augustine, or revolutionary figures like Luther, at the very centre of the arguments, as likely as not, one finds the dominating figure of Saint Paul.
It is clear that one of the great assets of Christianity following Paul has always been its ability to draw on apparently contradictory traditions in order to forge a coherent body of doctrine which is not only intellectually challenging but also emotionally satisfying and accessible to all, to combine, that is, the passionate and often simple faith of the radical Jewish sects with the philosophical sophistication of the Greeks, with no limiting vision of exclusive membership. Moreover, Christianity for centuries displayed an astonishing energy in and talent for organization. The very complexity of Paulís character, origins, and life is as apt a symbol as any of this phenomenon: a Jew well versed in the passionate faith of a traditional religion and fearlessly candid about his beliefs, an international traveler who could converse easily in different languages with people from all walks of life and live happily in any Christian community, an intellectual who had a ready command of Greek and Latin, and a Roman citizen with a very strong sense of the importance of attending to details, communicating with all believers, and settling disputes in the most efficacious ways to promote international cooperation. These qualities, as much as anything, have earned him the title Nietzsche gave him: ďthe first Christian.Ē
If these are some of the great assets of Christianity, there have been darker issues, too, particularly the treatment of women, pagans, heretics, and, above all, the Jewish people. While it is clearly not fair to lay the blame for this wretched tradition all at Paulís feet, there is equally no doubt that many of the most horrible desires to persecute, to promote anti-feminism and anti-Semitism, and to apply what later came to be called Political Augustinianism, the forceful dealing with many minorities as cruelly as the Church deemed necessary, such desires have often found in Paul a sympathetic and influential justification for an extraordinarily narrow, passionate, and destructive religious impulse, in which an obsession with the sins of the physical world or the alleged evils of the Jewish people have encouraged men to persecute and to slaughter others in the name of the Lord.
Paulís theological legacy has been as ambiguous as it has been powerful. There is, for example, a central argument about how one should interpret his message, about where the chief emphasis should fall. In the last century, the central achievement of Paul was almost universally seen as the de-Judaizing of Christianity, a victory against the Christian faction led by Peter, who wanted to turn the gospel into new law. Thus, in a sense, Paul was seen as the moving spirit behind the Christian spirit for reform and Protestantism, just as Peter was seen as the leading spirit behind Roman Catholicism (which traces its origin to Peter as the first Pope)
Recent scholars have changed the emphasis. Many now maintain that the central message of Paul, and especially of the Epistle to the Romans, is contextual. It is to be found in his discussions of the appropriate relationship between Jews and Gentiles and not in the notion of justification or predestination. Many interpreters thus now maintain that Paul is far less important theologically than historically. They see the climax of Romans, for example, in the Chapters 10 and 11, his reflections on the relation between church and synagogue, the church and the Jewish people, not ďChristianity and ďJudaismĒ or ďGospelĒ and ďLawĒ (Pelikan).
Estimates of Paulís character have varied greatly, no more so than in our own century. For some people, like Bernard Shaw, Paul was extremely pernicious, satisfying his own inner needs by corrupting the healthy and vital ministry of Jesus into something much more sinister and historically damaging:
He is more Jewish than the Jews, more Roman than the Romans, proud both ways, full of startling confessions and self-revelations . . . but always hopelessly in the toils of Sin, Death, and Logic, which had no power over Jesus. . . . It was by introducing this bondage and terror of his into the Christian doctrine that he adapted it to the Church and State systems which Jesus transcended, and made it practicable by destroying the specifically Jesuist side of it. He would have been quite in his place in any modern Protestant State; and he, not Jesus, is the true head and founder of our Reformed Church, as Peter is of the Roman Church. The followers of Paul and Peter made Christendom, whilst the Nazarenes were wiped out. (ďThe Monstrous Imposition Upon Jesus, 1913, From ďPreface on the Prospects of Christianity, to Androcles and the Lion).
To others, by contrast, Paul has always remained the greatest of all the Christian fathers, in whose debt the Western tradition forever stands:
What missionary is there, what preacher, what man entrusted with the cure of soul, who can be compared with him, whether in the greatness of the task which he accomplished, or in the holy energy with which he carried it out? He worked with the most living of all messages, and kindled a fire; he cared for his people like a father and strove for the souls of others with all the forces of his own; at the same time he discharged the duties of the teacher, the schoolmaster, the organiser. When he sealed his work by his death, the Roman empire from Antioch as far as Rome, nay, as far as Spain, was planted with Christian communities. . . . They had little ďillumination,Ē but they had acquired the faith in the living God and in a life eternal; they knew that the value of the human soul is infinite, and that its value is determined by relation to the invisible; they led a life of purity and brotherly fellowship, or at least strove after such a life. Bound together into a new people in Jesus Christ, their head, they were filled with the high consciousness that Jews and Greeks, Greeks and barbarians, would through them become one, and that the last and highest stage in the history of humanity had then been reached. (Adolf Von Harnack, ďThe Founder of Christian Civilization,Ē 1900).