Even though I have a busy week of Holy Week services and preparation for leading worship on Sunday, I had to spend some time in a medical waiting room where I read another article on the Paul-within-Judaism perspective from the anthology, Paul within Judaism. This article was Neil Elliott’s “The Question of Politics: Paul as a Diaspora Jew under Roman Rule”.
He tries to undercut the essentialism that forms part of the basis for several perspectives on Paul. Essentialism is the taking of Paul’s distinction between Jew and Greek as putting people into completely different ethnic, religious and national boxes. His most important point is that for Paul “Greek” is clearly not an ethnic category. For Paul it has cultural significance and does not refer only to people of Greek ethnicity. So the parallel concept of “Jew” may be more fluid as well.
People in the 1st century world could be both Greek and Roman. And Jews in Alexandria wanted to be both Jews and Alexandrians. Identity politics in the Roman world included as much both/and as either/or. Emphasis on essential differences between Jew and Greek creates the false impression that Paul’s mission churches were more distant from Judaism than they were.
That seems to be the big argument. But I want to focus on a couple of things he brings up that seem appropriate for reflection this Holy Week.
One of them is that Elliott doubts the idea based on Galatians 3:13 that, before Damascus, Paul thought of Jesus as cursed under the law because he had been crucified. He points out that we have archeological evidence that Jews buried crucified Jews with honor. Why would Jews stigmatize a fellow Jew for what Roman law did to him? The real reason Paul persecuted followers of Christ was probably their immediate apocalyptic expectation which made them seem revolutionary and invited Roman reprisals against all Jews.
The second thing is the interpretation of Paul’s understanding of Christ’s appearance to him. Elliott finds valuable Alan Segal’s understanding of Paul as a mystic and a visionary (Segal’s book is Paul the Convert). In 2 Corinthians 12 Paul seems to reluctantly boast of this. Segal thought that Paul’s experience on the Damascus road was one of several mystical or ecstatic appearances of the exalted Christ that the apostle experienced over the 14 years leading up to 2 Corinthians.
Elliott is not satisfied with where Segal left this. (Segal seemed to think that Gentiles had to explain the meaning of his initial vision to Paul.) Elliott argues that Jewish apocalyptic and Pharisaic traditions give us what we need to understand what Paul would have made of visions of a crucified messiah at the right hand of God in heaven. Paul already believed that God would someday act to vindicate Israel and judge the nations. But if God had raised a martyred Jesus from the dead, then God had begun to bring about the end now.
So Paul made a U-turn from persecuting Christ’s followers to seeking to save the nations as a sign of God’s new work.
For me, trying to understand and talk about the Easter events, I wonder if 1 Corinthians 15–where Paul puts his own experience along side the appearances to Peter, James and others–confuses us because we make a distinction between Jesus’ resurrection and exaltation. Luke/Acts makes this distinction by delaying the exaltation until 40 days after the resurrection. But is there any evidence anybody made this distinction before Luke? Perhaps Peter and James (like Stephen in Acts 6:55-56 also saw the exalted Christ).
Of course, the church and Luke (also e,g, N. T. Wright today) were concerned about a too mystical interpretation that downplayed Jesus’ bodily reality (Docetism). For the record, I share that concern.
Still, I think it is worth considering that we might explain Paul as someone who had an intermittent mystical experience of the exalted crucified Christ. Elliott would add that Paul did not have to go outside a Jewish framework to understand this experience.