Monday 17 June 2024

Jesus & that Jew from Tarsus

(Edited. Originally published as part of "Jesus & the Jews", but revised here)

The man from Tarsus may well have walked (?) that road

Apart from Jesus himself, the most prominent person we know about in the spreading of the message of Jesus was Paul. (He was originally introduced as the Jew, “Saul of Tarsus”). He presents as formerly furiously antagonistic, miraculously changed into a representative of Jesus. (Below I am thinking about Paul’s “CV” - I do not plan to make this exhaustive.)

Saul first enters the Acts record here, as a participant in the Jerusalem death of Stephen, a Jesus’ follower: When the members of the Sanhedrin heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul (Acts 7:54-58, NIV). Saul knew something final had to be done and he took a leading role. The situation called for drastic action. The problem from Galilee had not been wiped out! It was even worse - look at what Stephen had just been proclaiming to his people! [Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made with human hands;[g] as the prophet says, .... They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers (Acts 7:48; 52, NRSVUE).] That had to really be stopped! Perhaps a "Gamaliel-like" restraint had finally broken.

The enraged young Pharisee was highly regarded by the Jewish Council, as in this: Now Saul was still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord. He went to the high priest and requested letters from him to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any men or women who belonged to the Way, he might bring them as prisoners to Jerusalem (Acts 9:1-2, CSB). How confident was Saul that he would find some of them? The journey did not end as was expected by him, or the High Priest, nor the followers of Jesus. Close to Damascus, everything changed! 
Much later, Saul recounted that Damascus Road experience to King Agrippa, as he had done earlier to an enraged Jerusalem mob (in Acts 22 - see below): when at midday along the road, Your Excellency,[a] I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, shining around me and my companions. When we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew[b] language, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It hurts you to kick against the goads.’ I asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ The Lord answered, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting (Acts 26:13-15, NRSVUE). Paul had been deliberately opposing Jesus but his mind had been troubled. He was hurting himself! At some layer his mind opposed his own zealous, compulsive, behaviour. [Agrippa in a response to Paul used a then uncommon word: “In such a short time do you think you can talk me into being a Christian?” (Acts 26:28, CEV). Evidently the label was becoming widespread.]

Paul's critical vision: Though not my experience, I have read modern references to people having dreams and visions of Jesus. Was that encounter on the road the first time Saul had met Jesus? Did they meet in the days of Jesus' life on earth?

In those earlier times, Pharisees (and Scribes) came to Capernaum to investigate Jesus in his home location. On one of those days while he (Jesus) was teaching, Pharisees and teachers of the law were sitting there who had come from every village of Galilee and Judea, and also from Jerusalem. And the Lord’s power to heal was in him (Luke 5:17, CSB). I know of no reason to think Saul was one of the delegation! However, no doubt the Pharisees of Jerusalem discussed their alarming findings back there, and Saul would have been very attentive to any such reports. I dare say Saul would want to know Gamaliel's response. Saul did show knowledge of Jesus and even shared words of Jesus not found elsewhere, such as in Acts 20:35 and 1 Corinthians 11:23. (But - did Saul simply quote from the available earliest traditions?) That is a lot of speculation on my part!

Saul soon began to dominate Luke's Acts narrative and became the most prominent figure in Jesus' continued recorded work, especially beyond the communities of the synagogues. (In Acts chapter 10, Peter had been shown that the door was open to non-Jews [the "impure"; Gentiles].)

From Acts 13:9 on we find Saul referred to as Paul - a name more natural in the Mediterranean world as Paul took the message far and wide outside of majority Jewish culture.

Years of work and travels, with returns, passed, and Paul was again in Jerusalem. With an angry crowd on the verge of a riot against him, a Roman officer permitted Paul to speak to them in (Aramaic): Then Paul said, “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus, a city in Cilicia, and I was brought up and educated here in Jerusalem under Gamaliel. As his student, I was carefully trained in our Jewish laws and customs. I became very zealous to honor God in everything I did, just like all of you today. And I persecuted the followers of the Way, hounding some to death, arresting both men and women and throwing them in prison. The high priest and the whole council of elders can testify that this is so. For I received letters from them to our Jewish brothers in Damascus, authorizing me to bring the followers of the Way from there to Jerusalem, in chains, to be punished... (Acts 22:3-5, NLT; see also Galatians 1). The full speech is much longer and ended with a roar for Paul’s death. Paul had been, like his hearers, zealous to honour God. Such a sad and destructive path - today, as then. (Yes, we pray that God’s name will, contrary to the culture, be hallowed - honoured, kept holy, revered as holy. We do pray, and do live out, and do not, ought not, seek to force on others.) Note Paul's "some to death" - somehow he had been responsible for the deaths of people of whom we have no information.

To believers in Philippi Paul wrote: For we are the circumcision, the ones who worship by the Spirit of God, boast in Christ Jesus, and do not put confidence in the flesh— although I have reasons for confidence in the flesh. If anyone else thinks he has grounds for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised the eighth day; of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; regarding the law, a Pharisee; regarding zeal, persecuting the church; regarding the righteousness that is in the law, blameless. But everything that was a gain to me, I have considered to be a loss because of Christ (Philippians 3:3-7, CSB). Paul was thoroughly, and by ancestry and conviction, an Israelite (or, Jew). He even shared the name of their ancient first King, who also came from Benjamin. He valued his heritage, despite his sorrow at his own religiously motivated behaviour. I will come back to that. (Now the make-up of God's own people is different.)

To his colleague Timothy, Paul wrote: I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength, that he considered me trustworthy, appointing me to his service. Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life. Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen (1 Timothy 1:12-17, NIV). Paul, the convinced meticulous Jew (Pharisee), was a persecutor; a blasphemer, a follower of unbelief, and violent man, and he was wrong. He partook in violence against Jesus’ followers - until he became one. If Paul could be shown mercy, then everyone could be. The account of his radical change is given in Acts, chapter 9 - see above.

Was Paul in Jerusalem during Jesus’ crucifixion? He had been living in Jerusalem as a student under Rabban Gamaliel. Surely he would be in Jerusalem for Passover if only he could. Was he unable to participate?
Or - did the Pharisees in Gamaliel's "die-a-natural-death" school (see Acts 5:35-39) stand back from the Sanhedrin action against Jesus?
Or - is the admission that he was the worst, or foremost sinner, an indication of a direct role in the death of Jesus? Surely Timothy, Paul's "apprentice", knew well what the truth was, even if we do not.

Paul, then, possibly had no part in the arrest, trial or execution of Jesus. Even if, like us, he was not directly involved in the death of Jesus, he did not see himself as any the less sinful. He said: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst (1 Timothy 1:15, NIV). Recall those words of the angel at the tomb: He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise” (Luke 24:6-7, NIV). Sinful men. I wonder if any women were involved in the crowds screaming for death? The problem was(is) sinfulness of men. That surely means humankind.

Paul entered Luke's account after Pentecost as an antagonist (see above). I am sure he was well aware of what had been said and done by Jesus, and troubled by it. Forgiving sins? Breaking Sabbath rules? Questioning temple practices? Perhaps, as expounded by Stephen, Saul came to hate the "new wine" even more! He was well educated and knew his Bible well. Unfortunately he had acted aggressively out of ignorance and unbelief. So it is with violent people who profess to be serving God.

But he changed into a powerful advocate who naturally often spoke about Jesus’ death, but did not try to pin eternal blame on the generations to come. How did it happen? Here it is again: even though I used to blaspheme the name of Christ. In my insolence, I persecuted his people. But God had mercy on me because I did it in ignorance and unbelief. Oh, how generous and gracious our Lord was! He filled me with the faith and love that come from Christ Jesus. This is a trustworthy saying, and everyone should accept it: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners”—and I am the worst of them all (1 Timothy 1:13-15, NLT).

The same mindset which had underlain the "crucify" calling crowd in Jerusalem was also expressed in the subsequent persecution of believers in Jerusalem and elsewhere. It was even so in more distant places. So Paul wrote to the Thessalonian believers: For you, brothers and sisters, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea, for you suffered the same things from your own compatriots as they did from the Jews who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets[a] and drove us out; they displease God and oppose everyone by hindering us from speaking to the gentiles so that they may be saved. Thus they have constantly been filling up the measure of their sins, but wrath[b] has overtaken them at last[c] (1 Thessalonians 2:14-16, NRSVUE). [The CEV translators used "their people" to translate "the Jews".] So Paul identifies a common thread - antagonists in Thessalonica compared to Judea. Note that their justice will be delivered by God. By God. (The account of the impact and resistance at Thessalonica is in the first part of Acts, chapter 17.) I note that Paul writes of "us" - did he have company in these experiences? Or, perhaps he is making a generalised statement about multiple expulsions?

Ironically, in reference to the early Jerusalem persecutions, Paul had himself been a major offender in that strategy! He who had driven others out was to suffer the same opposition (Acts 9:28-29). It does show a consistent and widespread opposition from "the Jews", a label, which I interpret, as the ESV translators do here in their marginal note: "The Greek word Ioudaioi can refer to Jewish religious leaders, and others under their influence, who opposed the Christian faith in that time." (See previous post re John's Gospel.) [preceding para edited]  

And Paul could say:

For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile - the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved’” (Romans 10:12-13, NIV). This to the believers in Rome, written sometime before his arrival there, as a prisoner sent to "Caesar".  

That Christ died (and rose) was central to the ongoing message. In a quick survey of the NT letters I found 18 statements that Christ died, with no mention of "the Jews". For example: Christ died for us at a time when we were helpless and sinful. No one is really willing to die for an honest person, though someone might be willing to die for a truly good person. But God showed how much he loved us by having Christ die for us, even though we were sinful. But there is more! Now that God has accepted us because Christ sacrificed his life's blood, we will also be kept safe from God's anger. Even when we were God's enemies, he made peace with us, because his Son died for us. Yet something even greater than friendship is ours. Now that we are at peace with God, we will be saved by the life of his Son (Romans 5:6-10, CEV). Reference to "the Jews" is sparse in the letters; but see above.

Paul is very clear that being one of God’s own people was(is) not actually a matter of ethnicity, culture or religion. Looking at the descendants of Jacob (ie of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob/Israel) he makes the clear distinction: But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, (Romans 9:6, ESV). The true Israelite shared Abraham's faith. Paul discussed the issue at some length and wanted to establish that God had not thrown away his own people: I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! For I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin (Romans 11:1, NIV). No, Paul was a Jew who had come to accept the Christ. (Sadly, others did not accept their Christ and excluded themselves.) The account of Saul’s conversion may give the impression that Jesus went to extraordinary length in his case? However, Jesus spent something like three very active years among "his own" in the Jewish community of Palestine (Roman Judaea, and client Herod’s Galilee/Perea. And, us? We today have many riches - unless we are in the large number of unreached without the Bible. God will have mercy! 

Paul wrote a clear and brief summary: For I am not ashamed of this Good News about Christ. It is the power of God at work, saving everyone who believes—the Jew first and also the Gentile (Romans 1:16, NLT). He lived out that statement, as far as it was possible. 

An example from the visit to Athens. He went to the synagogue to speak to the Jews and to anyone who worshiped with them. Day after day he also spoke to everyone he met in the market (Acts 17:17, CEV). No detail is given of the conversation with the Jews and God-fearing Gentiles of Athens. (We have an account of the message to the Greek elite there, with a [rejected] climax of judgement and resurrection.)

Paul continued to see himself as a member of the House of Israel and to access the (Jewish) Synagogue wherever he went, as had happened in Pisidian Antioch: And on the Sabbath day they went into the synagogue and sat down. After the reading from the Law and the Prophets, the rulers of the synagogue sent a message to them, saying, “Brothers, if you have any word of encouragement for the people, say it.” So Paul stood up, and motioning with his hand said: “Men of Israel and you who fear God, listen.  The God of this people Israel chose our fathers... (Acts 13:14-17, ESV). Even at the end of Acts (chapter 28) Paul was able to have a hearing from his fellow Jews. (Results that day were mixed and incomplete!)

How long could and did that Pauline priority remain, I wonder? If it continued to the Roman defeat of Jerusalem and the demolition of the Temple in 70 AD (CE), there did come a “parting of the ways” and followers of Jesus no longer had access to the synagogue. However, the invitation stood, and stands, to all. Jesus welcomes all. Jesus' welcome is for you.

Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again. 

May God bless you
Allen Hampton

PS There are many entire books devoted to Paul.

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