Amy- Jill Levine in The Misunderstood Jew talks about how Christianity developed within and along side Judaism during the first decades after Jesus.
She deals with Peter, James and Paul as pivotal figures. Peter represented a two-track approach. He had a kind of comity agreement with Paul. Paul fostered a Gentile Christianity and Peter fostered a Jewish Christianity (Galatians 2:9). But James championed the authority of the mother church in Jerusalem over both Gentile and Jewish Christianity. James apparently sent people to bring the Antioch congregation into compliance with Jerusalem’s views on food purity (Galatians 2:12). Acts has James sending a letter to Gentile churches outlining the obligations of Gentiles in light of the Torah (Acts 15:22ff.) But, according to Levine, Paul’s less observant gospel for Gentiles won out in the end.
The two-track approach and the compromise Acts says James proposed were both bound to fail. Paul successfully maintained that Gentiles had no obligation to live like Jews.
She goes through his arguments in Galatians and finds them pretty ridiculous. Her understanding of the situation in Galatia is that someone had pointed out to the Gentiles the statement in Genesis 17:14 that to be uncircumcised meant to be “cut off” (a pun) from the people of God. So the men in Paul’s church started lining up for surgery.
“Hearing of this practice, Paul reacts as any good first-century rhetorician would: he viciously caricatures the views of his opponents, attacks the heart of their teaching, and piles on arguments in favor or his position” (p. 76).
But Paul’s arguments from the Hebrew Scriptures make no sense. For instance, Paul argues that Abraham’s “seed” is not ethnic Israel but Jesus and those who spiritually follow Jesus. He uses the fact that in the LXX Abraham’s”seed” is a singular word, not plural. But this is weak and has nothing to do with the original meaning of Genesis.
Then he argues as though the covenants with Abraham and Moses are mutually exclusive when he must have known better than that. Besides, the argument about the priority of the covenant with Abraham does not help his case regarding circumcision, since Abraham and his family practiced circumcision.
Also weak are Paul’s arguments that the Torah came about in response to human sin and that it was a kind of disciplinarian that could be replaced by faith. Nothing in Jewish tradition ever suggests that the Torah was temporary.
Finally, Paul’s allegory of Sarah and Hagar, which ends up identifying those who claim physical descent from Abraham as the spiritual descendants of Hagar and Ishmael, just makes no sense.
So Amy-Jill Levine thinks Paul was way too harsh on people who just wanted the option of following the Abrahamic practice of circumcision. He piled on low quality arguments to make his case.
I won’t take her to task for this. My own mind can’t easily bend around to follow Paul’s arguments. I will just point out that not every Jewish reader of Paul is quite so negative. Mark D. Nanos, for instance, in his The Irony of Galatians, sees Paul’s arguments as ironic more than ridiculous.
It is helpful for Christians sometimes to see their scriptures through the eyes of others. We tend to be judgmental about early Jewish persecution of Christians, for example. But Levine helps us put it in perspective. She doesn’t justify it, but sees it as pretty much inevitable. Christianity was telling Jews that their scripture and religion were inadequate and that Christianity supplied just the thing that Judaism was missing. She compares this to the Mormons telling frontier Christians in America that the New Testament was not enough and the Mormon scriptures needed to be added. Frontier Protestants persecuted the Mormons. Good point.