Paul and Diaspora Judaism

Longenecker and Still argue Paul was a Jew who valued his ancestral traditions despite living in a Jewish Diaspora community in Tarsus (Thinking through Paul, 26). Paul’s describes his Jewish heritage in Philippians 3:4-6, claiming he was “circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, and the Tribe of Benjamin, a ‘Hebrew of the Hebrews.’” Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles was born and raised a Jew, and never repudiated that heritage. Even in Philippians Paul lists his accomplishments with a little bit of pride.

Paul’s claim in Philippians 3 is that he is a proper Jew even though he was born in the Diaspora. That he was circumcised on the eighth day indicates he comes from a family interested in keeping Jewish traditions despite living in the Diaspora. It is possible that there were Diaspora Jews who did not circumcise their sons. Paul was not a Jew pretending to be a Greek, but rather a Jew who was well aware of his heritage as a child of Abraham.

Roman Road in TarsusPaul’s claim to be from the tribe of Benjamin is significant since not every Jew in the first century could claim a particular tribe (and some may have not particularly cared). Paul’s Jewish name “Saul” is taken from the first king of Israel, from the tribe of Benjamin, and Paul’s teacher in Jerusalem. Gamaliel, Paul’s teacher in Jerusalem, was also from the tribe of Benjamin.

Paul’s education is another indication his family was more conservative with respect to their faith. Paul studied “at the feet of Gamaliel” (Acts 22:3, see this post on Gamiliel). That Paul would be sent to Jerusalem to study with a prominent rabbi and Pharisee is another hint Paul’s family was committed to their son being trained as a teacher at the highest level possible. Imagine a modern British family living in America insisting their son return to England to study at Eton College. This sort of prestige is expensive! In addition, Acts 23:16 indicates Paul had a sister and a nephew living in Jerusalem in the late 50s.

The phrase “Hebrew of the Hebrews” can be taken in several ways. This phrase may mean that Paul was born of true Jewish blood, that there is no Gentile in his linage. It is sometimes suggested that Paul is referring to his ability to speak and read Hebrew. Not all Jews spoke the language, especially in the home.

Paul is, in the words of J. B. Lightfoot, making a progressive argument. A convert to Judaism may be circumcised, someone with some Gentile in his linage might claim a tribal affiliation, but Paul is a pure-bred true Jew! Of course, in Philippians 3 Paul is clear this heritage is of no value now that he is “in Christ,” but it seems obvious that Paul’s Jewish heritage is one of the major factors behind his successful evangelism.

To what extent do these observations about Paul’s early life help us understand Paul’s persecution of Christ followers in Jerusalem? How does his Jewish heritage impact his life after his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus?

6 thoughts on “Paul and Diaspora Judaism

  1. Paul’s many references to his proud Jewish roots while arguing that Gentiles need not worry about such things brings up the question of how much Paul himself maintained his traditions. I am inclined to think (read: guess) that he rarely if ever ate pork or shrimp. However, he had no problem eating with Gentiles which was also forbidden. My guess is he kept Kosher as much as possible without offending anyone.

  2. Some good points here. However, I think there is some real question as to whether Paul ever studied under Gamaliel… he doesn’t claim it when he likes to list all his authoritative credentials.

    As to your last q., I think Paul’s own accounts suggest that one of the main points of his “revelations” (or encounter with Christ, per Acts) is that in seeing Jesus as cosmic savior, it opened the door to inclusion of all non-Jews, while still maintaining the central role of Israel in his mind.

  3. A follow-up thought in answer to your q.: It would seem that Saul was probably familiar with the case Jesus’ disciples were making for why he was Messiah and not finding it persuasive. However, it also seems he’d not met nor heard Jesus in person either. Frankly, I’m not personally clear why he was so adamantly against Jesus-followers. But it seems reasonable his early life surroundings of ethnic mixing and dependence on inter-ethnic commerce created a “pluralistic” passion (maybe reinforced by factors he never wanted to mention, such as a Gentile mother??). This was in conflict with his Pharisaic training and Jewish commitments.

    The situation perhaps contributed to intense internal conflict which he found suddenly resolved by a creative synthesis “revealed” to him: Synthesis of the Jewish national “Kingdom of God” views of Jesus’ first disciples (in that they hardly “got” the “Kingdom within/among you” of Jesus… cf. Acts 1), and which he’d opposed, with his new conception that Jesus’ crucifixion represented a divine victory in “the heavenlies” over cosmic evil…. This made Jesus a cosmic Christ (Messiah), not just a Jewish one who would indirectly benefit all the world. Rather, benefit was direct and immediate (“new man” in Christ). Yet Paul stuck with much of Jewish contemporary apocalyptic belief by those like Jesus-followers, in expecting the worldly culmination of Jesus’ heavenly victory within his (or at least his contemporaries’) lifetime… at Jesus “appearing” (not exactly “return”).

    One would think apocalyptic expectation may have come early in Saul’s life, although it may have come only after his “revealing of his Son in me”… I would be interested in any of your thoughts on this, now or along the way.

  4. This concept of Diaspora Judaism seems to be a big reason that Paul was so zealous. Longenecker presents the idea that there were many people in Judaism that were zealous and that they were celebrated for their zeal (29). In the article “A brief Introduction to the New perspective on Paul” it is explained that the Jewish people were becoming more and more Hellenistic and abandoning the boundary markers of circumcision and food laws (10). Paul, having stayed within the boundary markers of Judaism might be very upset about the abandonment of the boundary markers and so result in zealous activity in order to bring God’s people back into what he considered to be God’s will. Paul was seeking to do what was right by God and by Israel even while he himself was both a Jew and a Roman citizen.

  5. I really think that you can effectively trace Saul’s zealousness for the Law (Acts 22:3) to his upbringing as a Pharisee under Gamaliel. Saul had a great understanding of the Law as a Pharisee and to him, the Christ followers were speaking out against his and the other Pharisee’s views that the Messiah had not yet come and that Jesus was just a blasphemous man. Up until his Damascus Road experience, he had, as Longenecker put it, an “excessive religious devotion and fervor” (TTP, pg. 29) Saul took it upon himself to get rid of these followers of “The Way” and after his conversion/calling, he regretted his zeal and denounced it as “unenlightened”. I think that after his conversion, Paul’s zealousness for the law turned into a zealousness for taking the word of Jesus to the Gentiles.

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