Acts 9 – Why did Paul Persecute the Jewish Christians?

Ekhard Schnabel asks this question in Paul the Missionary (44, cf. Early Christian Mission, 2:927-928).  There are rally two questions here.  First, what was the theological motive for Paul’s persecution?  Second, what drove him to pursue Jesus’ followers to Damascus?

Some scholars have argued the Jewish Christians were admitting Gentiles without circumcision.  This seems unlikely, since there is no reference at all to Gentile mission by the Jerusalem Church until Acts 10.  God-fearers were accepted into the synagogue without circumcision, so it is unlikely this would be a problem for Paul, if it had occurred.  Similarly, some argue Gentile believers were not concerned with food traditions.  This too is unlikely for the same reasons as the first, there is no evidence of Gentile converts in the pre-Pauline period.  These two issue are a problem only when a significant number of Gentiles were saved, and especially Gentiles who were not God-Fearers before accepting Jesus as Savior.

A more likely motivation is the possible political / social problems caused by the preaching of a crucified messiah / savior.  How would this play before the Gentiles, especially the Romans?  Could this be an accusation against Rome, and a possible rally-point for anti-Roman activity?   The problem here once again is the lack of evidence for preaching anything to Gentile / Roman audiences.  The early apostolic mission was confined to the temple area and the city of Jerusalem in general.  Remember that the factors which will eventually result in the Jewish War are already in the air some thirty years earlier.  Paul may have been concerned for sparking a revolution by teaching that Jesus is a resurrected King who will return and establish a kingdom.

It is probably best to see Saul opposing the Apostolic teaching as heretical.  That Jesus was the Messiah was absurd, since he was crucified, “hung on a tree,” and therefore a curse, not salvation.  In addition, Schnabel points out that any theology which saw Jesus as Savior is not compatible with the view that salvation comes through faith expressed in obedience to Torah.  A simple example from the gospels will illustrate this point.  When the rich you man asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life, he understands this in terms of obedience to the foundation of the Law (ie., he keeps all the commandments).  This is not to say Judaism was a “works for salvation” religion, but that one was right with God because God has given Torah and individuals come to God through the perfection of the Torah.

These early followers of Jesus claim that there is no other name by which a person can be saved (Acts 4:12).  Stephen’s speech in Acts 7 concludes with a contrast between the Torah and Jesus. Saul’s motivation is to correct this false teaching within Judaism, using the synagogue punishment system itself.  He likely sees himself as a reformer, working for the high priest, with the goal of dealing sharply with the followers of a condemned Rabbi.

11 thoughts on “Acts 9 – Why did Paul Persecute the Jewish Christians?

  1. Do we have a clue as to what Jewish followers of Jesus, after his crucifixion, believed or did not believe about him? People keep throwing around the word “Savior” or “Messiah” as if it meant what Paul meant by the words. Someone please cite for me where it says just what they believed and precisely why Saul was persecuting them. Really, because maybe it’s there but I don’t know where it is. The “history” provided in Acts was not composed until more than fifty years after Jesus died. Whether it is truly history or not is debated. Aside from the question of circumcision, what, I wonder, did the Jerusalem Council mean if and when they referred to Jesus as “Lord” or “Messiah” or “Savior”? There was no Pauline Christology in the early days. I won’t even say “the early days of the church” because there was no church in the beginning, just some sort of Jesus movement, I guess. The word “Christian” hadn’t been coined. When Jews said “Savior,” they meant God. When they said “Messiah,” they didn’t mean “savior.” Messiah does not mean savior. If they had been able to capitalize the word messiah, would they have and, if they would have, would it have been just because it was a title or because they believed there was something divine about Jesus? Did they believe so early on that he was the Son of God? No one even suggested he was God until at least 57-60 years after he was crucified (John). This is all quite muddled for me and I’d like some help sorting it out, but not with a flurry of doctrine and cliches.

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  2. I think a start at the answer is to read “Christ” as messiah, to read how Second Temple Judaism understood the idea of messiah. I think that Psalms of Solomon 17 provides one view (probably Pharisee), the Qumran material has a similar view, although there are differences. I am of the opinion that the fourth second of 1 Enoch does in fact date to the Second Temple period, but that cannot be proven since that is the one section not found at Qumran. While 2 Baruch and 4 Ezra post-date Paul by 40 years or so, I think they provide another flavor of messianism in the period. This is a daunting task, but there are some helpful summaries, I suggest John Collins, the Star and Scepter, recently re-printed by Eerdmans as a second edition.

    A second angle to explore is Pauline theology, as you suggest. There are reasonable arguments for Philippians as an authentic letter of Paul, written from Ephesus in the mid 50’s, 25 years after the events described by the later gospels. The Christ-Hymn in chapter 2 is widely accepted as a pre-exiting piece of tradition which has a very high Christology. Although we cannot know how early that tradition was, it does push a traditional high-Christology back into the first two decades at the very least. (I might also include Col 1 here, although that letter is often rejected because of the Christological hymn in chapter 1).

    Less certain would be the type of exegesis found in the speeches in Acts. If there is an authentic basis for the collation of texts by Peter in Acts 2-3 and Paul’s sermon in chapter 13, Psalm 2 seems to be a foundational text for proving that Jesus is the anointed one, God’s Messiah of Psalm 2. The language of Son of God clearly appears there, although it is not the same type of theological statement you find in the early Creeds.

    I like your statement: “no church in the beginning, just some sort of Jesus movement.” This is indeed the case, perhaps we could say, various struggles to figure out just exactly who / what Jesus claimed to be. He taught and did things which led at least some of his followers to think he was the Messiah, and more than that, that he was the God of Israel. But there were others who thought he was not even a messiah. Back to the topic of the original post, Paul persecuted Jews who thought Jesus was the Messiah, his “conversion” at least represents a reversal of that opinion.

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    • Thanks a lot, Phillip, for your suggestions and for taking my questions seriously. When I’m conversing or corresponding with a Christian who is using the word Christ, I do not take him as meaning what Second Temple Jews meant. They usually mean at least what Paul meant and, at most, what John meant. They’re most often ignorant of what Second Temple Jews meant, for the most part, by “messiah.” So I just am always ready and poised to make the distinction depending on the context. I can’t pull together the sources (from the last fifty years) of how I came up with my understanding to date but my understanding is that it was the case that, while some Jews before Jesus’ time might have expressed a view of the messiah as at least partially divine, almost all Jews never believed the coming, hoped-for messiah would be divine but a David-like figure directed and supported by God. That some might have believed he would be divine, does not tell us whether any Jews before Paul thought Jesus in particular was divine in any sense. As far as I can see, Paul nowhere identifies Jesus as God, just as the Son of God. I’m aware of the various views of the messiah(s) in the Dead Sea Scrolls. You couldn’t be referring to a “high Christology” in the first two decades of the first century, could you? Not clear on what you’re saying.

      Does Paul say that he “persecuted Jews who thought Jesus was the Messiah”? Odd, because it was not blasphemous to consider oneself to be the messiah. A person’s claims either panned out or they didn’t. As far as I know, it was not the Pharisees or Sadducees but the Romans who persecuted and crucified Judas the Galilean whom his followers, at least, believed to be the messiah.

      What do you mean by “the fourth second of 1 Enoch”? Maybe I can get to Collins.

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      • “What do you mean by “the fourth second of 1 Enoch”?”

        The book popularly known as 1 Enoch is a composite of at least 5 books, the fourth section is the most messianic, but alas that is the section not found at Qumran. That is not to say it was not there, it just did not survive. The fourth section has several clear references to a messianic figure called “the son of man,” obviously that would be gold if it could be shown to certainly predate Jesus.

        “it was not blasphemous to consider oneself to be the messiah. ”

        True, but remember that the Twelve were saying that the High Priest killed an innocent man, and that the innocent man was vindicated by God in resurrection. This messiah is going to return and rule over a reconstituted kingdom of Israel with a new twelve tribes and a new temple structure. Paul is reacting to that as much as Jesus being messiah. The issues which erupt in the the revolt in 66 are already brewing, to declare another king besides Caesar invites Roman reprisals, Paul may have sought to quell this revolutionary spirit before it drew the attention of the Romans.

        “You couldn’t be referring to a “high Christology” in the first two decades of the first century, could you? ”

        If you take Philippians as authentic and early, then yes. The very highest Christology possible within 20 odd years after the resurrection. If you take the speeches in acts seriously, then the use of Psalm two connects “son” language to Jesus early on, both in the preaching of Peter and Paul.

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  3. First, thanks for the complement on my landscape photos.
    You wrote that the fourth section 1 Enoch….has several clear references to a messianic figure called “the son of man,” obviously that would be gold if it could be shown to certainly predate Jesus.“
    Whether it would be gold of course depends on what one takes I Enoch and the New Testament writings to be. If the “son of man” references in I Enoch do predate the N.T. and some N.T. writers call Jesus “the son of man,” one would have to show that it meant anything more than this: the N.T. writers in question believed Jesus to be the son of man; it would not imply that he was. Also, it still is not totally clear what the phrase meant. It does not, however, mean “son of God” and even in Jesus’ use of it in the 3rd person, it is not always clear that he is referring to himself. I have Douglas R.A. Hare’s book The Son of Man Tradition but haven’t yet read it.
    In your response to my statement, “it was not blasphemous to consider oneself to be the messiah,” you wrote, “….remember that the Twelve were saying that the High Priest killed an innocent man [perhaps meaning he was not guilty of trying to start an insurrection], and that the innocent man was vindicated by God in resurrection. This messiah is going to return and rule over a reconstituted kingdom of Israel with a new twelve tribes and a new temple structure.”
    You and I differ in that you seem to take the above declarations that he was innocent or was resurrected as historical while I don’t think we can know. Also, I don’t think that II Temple Judaism generally or the Hebrew Scriptures predict the death of a messiah. I don’t believe Isaiah 53 is referring to a messiah much less to a suffering or killed one. I don’t think Jews believed any messiah would come a second time. (See Thomas Sheehan’s book The First Coming.) So, although you say that Paul is reacting to Jesus’ return, and his rule over a new 12 tribes and temple structure,” (I guess that’s what you meant), I’m not at all sure those were prevalent Jewish beliefs that he could have been reacting to.
    Whatever the 12 were saying before Saul’s conversion or in the decade after the crucifixion, is not anything we have any clues about until the Gospels and then Acts were written decades later. Does Paul say much or anything about what the 12 were saying?
    I asked, “You couldn’t be referring to a “high Christology” in the first two decades of the first century, could you? ” You answered, “If you take Philippians as authentic and early, then yes. The very highest Christology possible within 20 odd years after the resurrection. If you take the speeches in acts seriously, then the use of Psalm two connects “son” language to Jesus early on, both in the preaching of Peter and Paul.” The first two decades of the first century were pretty much over with by the time Jesus was crucified. “Within 20 years of the resurrection” means between approximately 30 and 49 CE when Paul began writing. That’s hardly the first two decades of the century; it’s the middle of the century. Some miscommunication?
    It is good that you refer to the “use of Psalm two” connecting its “son” language to Jesus early on. For, clearly, the Psalm doesn’t make the connection; rather, certain N.T. writers make use of it. Whether their doing so is just drawing lines between dots (as part of their reading into it) or whether there is any substance to the connection is not something I think we know. Same for Isaiah 53. Same for Revelation of John’s assertion that the serpent was Satan.

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  4. I believe the thing that was so blasphemous for Jews to believe was that the disciples believed that “salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). I liked when the article said that to them, to think Jesus was the Messiah was absurd, since he was crucified, “hung on a tree,” and therefore a curse, not salvation. In addition, Schnabel points out that any theology which saw Jesus as Savior is not compatible with the view that salvation comes through faith expressed in obedience to Torah. To Saul, the disciples were displaying false prophecy and what they spoke was blasphemy. After reading Acts 9, personally what I feel is most remarkable is that when Jesus appears to Saul, he says “who are you Lord?” (Acts 9:5). The fact that Saul called Jesus Lord, shows how divine Jesus was as someone who didn’t believe and persecuted Christians called him “Lord”.

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  5. Saul might have been persecuting the Christians and those who converted from Judaism to Christianity for what he might have thought was heresy. Saul was a Pharisee a keeper of the Jewish Law. So he knew what scriptures said. Scripture said that God would send his servant to them just as he promised he would. Of course that servant was Jesus, but he came with orders from God which were very different than what people expected him to come with. They thought that Jesus was going to come and over throw the captors who held Israel under their control, and establish his kingdom with them. But instead he came peacefully and was killed by the Romans in the most humiliating way in order to pay for the sins of us all. Saul might have been wondering why the Christians were worshipping him and preaching in his name, when Jesus of Nazareth was killed and buried. Except that Saul didn’t know what the disciples knew. Saul didn’t understand and he didn’t believe that Jesus was the Christ. Because of this he wanted to put a stop to what he called the “Way”. That is why he went to the High Priests and asked for written permission to throw any man or woman who proclaimed their faith in the name of Jesus, in prison. He thought that the disciples were teaching heresy and blasphemy, and so to him they needed to be stopped.

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  6. The idea or the theology behind why Paul (Saul) did what he did was to eliminate what he understood as false teaching and heresy of the Jewish faith. Paul took matters into his own hands under the high chief teachers of the law in order to correct and defuse the situation of Jewish tradition and way of life from transforming into something else. I think that Paul did not want to have another group that could end up being like the Samaritans and Paul say that the law and the dismissal of Jewish dependence of the Old Testament were not needed as Christ was the answer to these rebels of Judaism. Saul or Paul sought after the Jewish Christians all the way to Damascus to keep the Jewish culture and beliefs pure and sound in the reliance of keeping, following and living out the law. Jewish Christians threaten this way and lifestyle of living. In removing the issue of these peoples belief the status quo would return to the structure and history that Israel desired to travel allow and not God’s. Thus, by any means necessary did Paul chase and persecuted those who proclaimed to be Jewish Christians that believed in the Messiah, Jesus Christ who came to save the world by dying on a cross, being buried and being raised to life three days later. Paul wanted to keep what he thought was truly pure, holy, and right by the means of persecution of others who opposed the Law.

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  7. The gospel that the disciples preached angered the Pharisees for the same reason Jesus’ preaching did: their gospel undermined that of the Torah and Jewish traditions. However, now the disciples were additionally teaching that the Pharisee’s were responsible for the death of the Messiah! This not would have angered the Pharisee’s, including Saul, but would also have brought them great fear. If the followers of Jesus truly believed he was raised from the dead, they would have clear evidence to believe that he was the Messiah. And since the Pharisees had killed Jesus, this would mean they had killed someone believed by many to be the Messiah. Therefore, what would prevent the followers of the disciples from wanting the teachers of the Law overthrown and possibly killed as well? This is why the Pharisee’s take such strong actions at the beginning of the disciple’s ministry; so as to prevent any further preaching. While it is safe to assume that they believed the disciples themselves were not capable of any real harm, they were convinced that their teachings were. This all changes with Stephen’s speech. By closing his speech the way he does, Stephen confirms to the teachers of the Law that they do indeed believe they are to be held responsible for the death of the Messiah. This is why Paul begins persecuting the Church. In a way, the disciples are saying the Pharisee’s are deserving of death for their actions against Jesus. The Pharisee’s rebuttal is declaring holy war, of sorts, against those following the Way.

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