In my most recent Flatland column, I wrote about Mark D. Nanos (pictured below right), a Kansas Citian who has become a cutting-edge scholar of the Apostle Paul. Which might seem like an odd field of study for a Jewish man, but Nanos is convinced that his work can help improve Jewish-Christian relations, which, frankly, could use some improvement.
Beyond that, Nanos says that when Paul invited non-Jews (as the apostle to the gentiles) to follow Jesus, he was inviting them into Judaism, there being yet no separate religion called Christianity. But these non-Jews were not required to become ethnic Jews. Rather they were simply being invited into a Jewish way of life. If they were male, for instance, they were not required to be circumcised or to live strict Torah-observant lives. In effect, Paul was asking them to be practitioners of Judaism without going through a proselyte process to become official Torah-observant Jews.
Had they not remained gentiles, it would have meant that God was the god of just one nation, the Jews, whereas Paul (and, in fact, Judaism itself) believed that God was the god of all nations and that once the Messiah had come and the end of the ages had dawned, non-Jews would worship the God of Israel even though they didn't have to become Jews to do so.
One reason Paul was so convinced of that, Nanos writes, is that the Shema Israel, found in the book of Deuteronomy, was crucial to Paul's theology, and that short passage -- a primary prayer of Judaism -- declares that God is the one and only god.
Today I want to introduce you to Nanos' latest book, a collection of his essays called Reading Paul within Judaism. It's a companion to an earlier collection of essays by several scholars (co-edited by Nanos) called Paul within Judaism.
Early on in his new book, Nanos explains his project this way (italics his): "I am convinced that approaching the task of reading Paul as a Jew within Judaism, practicing and promoting a Torah-defined Jewish way of life for followers of Christ, is historically more probable and therefore more authentic, and that it will contribute to positive developments in Christian-Jewish dialogue and thus relations going forward, where it has more often been used to distance and disrespect, if not even to destroy those Christianity has deemed to be 'the quintessential other.' I also am convinced, and I say this respectfully as an outsider, that it will contribute to a Christian self-understanding that is useful to Christians on its own terms."
First Century Judaism should really be called First Century Judaisms, plural. There were many sects under the umbrella of Judaism in a religiously vibrant time. The subset of Judaism that eventually included Paul was made up of Christ followers. And Paul understood that his mission in life as a Torah-observant Pharisee was to invite non-Jews to follow this same Jesus and to therefore join that subset. As Nanos asks, "Is it not precisely within Judaism where Paul as well as all of the other Jewish and Judean believers in Jesus Christ understood themselves to find him (Christ)?"
In New Testament passages in which, at first reading, Paul might seem to be rejecting Judaism and Jewish law, Nanos says it's vital to remember that Paul is writing to non-Jewish Christ believers, not to traditional Jews. The seventh chapter of Romans is a good example of that, though it's one that translators often get wrong by assuming that the "law" Paul refers to means Jewish law.
As Nanos himself notes in his latest book, so far not a lot of scholarly work has been done on the task of locating Paul within Judaism, and as I quoted him in the Flatland column, scholarship is slow moving, and it will be awhile before this work becomes more widely known and accepted.
Beyond that, he writes, "Christianity has had much invested in the tradition of Paul against Judaism, providing a counter-narrative against which to measure its own unique fulfillment of God's expectations, whereas the Judaism it has fashioned in this meaning-making is portrayed to have failed. Interestingly, Jewish interpreters have become invested in the same construction of Paul, although turning the meaning upside down." In fact, Nanos notes, "Jews traditionally characterize him (Paul) as an apostate who either failed to understand Torah, or rejected it because of his own inadequacies."
In the time of Paul, Nanos writes, Jewish and non-Jewish Christ followers "thought of themselves in terms of a coalition, a Jewish subgroup or subgroups engaged in a temporary task on behalf of Israel, and not founding a new religion or sect that was in some way less Jewish."
In the end, Nanos insists that "the origins of Paul's faith were not based on a fundamental rejection of Judaism in the way so often imagined and taught."
The book is not the easiest theological read imaginable, but it is accessible and its message is a vital one in a world that for most of 2,000 years has found ways to pit Jews against Christians, often because of the way Paul has been misinterpreted.
* * *
A SAD MENNONITE SPLIT
Another Protestant denomination -- the Mennonites -- now are dividing badly over questions of human sexuality as the largest group in the Mennonite Church USA has left the denomination. I long for the day when it becomes clear to all that, as I write in this essay, the Bible should not be used as a weapon in this disagreement because it's often misinterpreted to promote exclusion and even hatred of LGBTQ folks.