Remembering for the Future: Interpreting Paul Today

Diana M. Swancutt

Before the shattered glass of World War II could begin to be swept away, the haunting images of carnage and cataclysm—including the murder of 6 million Jews—provoked unprecedented outrage in the Christian West.

The questions were predictable: “How could they…? What kind of monsters would…?” But slowly, with uneasy consciences, European and American Christians acknowledged the truth “that there was something more going on here than simple inhuman brutality.”1 “They” were “us.”

Beneath the question of European Christians’ direct involvement lay the cultural bedrock of their unwitting complicity in the attempted extermination of the Jewish “race.” Christians had laid its groundwork, in part, through centuries of scriptural interpretation, especially of Paul.

We may ask how this fact is relevant in the ninth year of the twenty-first century—and what Paul and his place in Holocaust history have to do with “us.” I shall give no simple answer here. My goal is rather to tell a story about Paul and lost kinship, to show how interpreting Paul can be a moral act that calls us both to self- and culture-criticism and to works of loving-kindness—toward enemies as well as friends.

A History of Slander

“History” is not objective fact but the living memory of a people—their sacred story. It is continuously retold in order to make sense of a people’s present life and future hopes. So is scriptural interpretation.

According to Scripture, the history of Israel is a long story of national hope discovered in the interstices of political oppression. Israel became a distinct people under the reign of other governments— Egyptian, Assyrian, Persian, Babylonian, Greek, then Roman. Likewise, Jesus of Nazareth was a Jew born under Roman control of Palestine, who witnessed Roman abuses of power and publicly proclaimed God’s approaching judgment of imperial rule. From a Roman point of view, then, Jesus was a rabble-rouser, a “terrorist threat.”

Straining to understand the Romans’ subsequent execution of their Messiah, some of the first believers (who were Jews) blamed not just Jerusalem’s leadership—who were beholden to their Roman overlords—but Israel itself. Their censures were written in texts that later became Christian Scripture. So, part of Christians’ sacred heritage is the slander against their Jewish forebears for Jesus’ death, which was at the hands of Roman oppressors—John’s denigration of “the Jews,” and Matthew’s curse of Israel, “May his blood be upon us and upon our children.”

The Apostle Paul, too, wrestled with fellow Jews (and Greeks) over the precise significance of Jesus, and in his letters struggled “in light of Christ” with the question of the relevance of the law, the fate of Israel, and the justice of God’s intention now to embrace Christ-confessing Gentiles in the covenant. So powerful was Paul’s gospel to non-Jews in the Roman Empire—his vision of multi-ethnic inclusion in the covenant and his subsequent voice in the Christian canon—that for almost all of Western Christian history, Paul has been interpreted not just as a Jewish “apostle to the Gentiles” but as “the founder of Christianity.”

But is this an apt description of the figure scholars call the “historical Paul,” since there was no non-Jewish religion called “Christianity” in Paul’s day? The answer—No—is the first part of the story I wish to tell: Paul gained his reputation as Christianity’s founder in the centuries after his death, when a majority of Gentile Christians in the West renounced their ethnic and religious kinship with Judaism in Christ, and instead embraced identities as citizens of (God’s) empire. Taking their cues from the power centers of the wider culture, they Hellenized and Romanized Western Christianity and reinterpreted Paul’s mission to the Gentiles as Christianity’s religious supersession of Judaism.

It may surprise modern Christians to learn just how late this split with Judaism occurred. Even in the third century CE, Jews and Christians were not completely separate groups. Christians attended Jewish festivals and went to synagogues for worship and biblical education. We know this because church leaders from Tertullian to John Chrysostom roundly denounced the practice and the Jews who allowed it. This means that well into the third and fourth centuries Christians and Jews defined themselves in relationship to each other, in everything from commerce and education to community worship, as rival sibling groups vying for meaning, identity, and (as oppressed groups in the empire) for safety and a bit of cultural clout. But with Emperor Constantine’s embrace of Christianity (313 CE) and Theodosius I’s declaration of Christianity as the imperial religion (380 CE), Christians began a political and theological shift in identity from a persecuted group under Roman rule to imperial power brokers. Over the next millennium highly placed Christians used that new-found power against Jews—who were now their political subjects.2

A Seismic Shift

The impact of this cultural shift on Pauline interpretation was profound. Portraits of Paul slowly morphed from that of an ethnic Jew and apostle to the nations into a religious convert to Roman Christianity, who proved that a “civilized” (Greco-Romanized) Jesus supplanted “primitive” Judaism, and replaced the old Jewish covenant with a new Christian faith. So, Augustine of Hippo (354-430 CE), reading Paul, sacralized empire by approving “just war” and depicting Christianity as the spiritual City of God (pre-Constantinian Christians were largely pacifists enduring as resident aliens in Roman lands). Like other church fathers, Augustine also “baptized” high-status Greco-Roman philosophical traditions and wed them to Christian theology. Finally, he asserted that Paul accused Jews of being hypocrites who judged others but dishonored the Creator God (Rom. 2:1). It is a testimony to the blinding cultural power of this reading that Western interpreters asserted for 1,600 years that Paul censured Jews in Rom. 2:1, even though interpreters before Augustine univocally identified the objects of Paul’s censure as non-Jews. Not until the 1990s did scholars seriously question this reading.

Augustine’s conferral of political power on Christian theological anti-Judaism set the stage for Martin Luther (1483–1546). Wrestling with the cultural problem of Catholic religious excesses and governmental restrictions on people’s freedom, he too read Romans, and out of it created the doctrine of justification by faith alone as a tour de force solution to what he saw as his society’s politico-religious problems. In other words, the beating heart of sola fide, the seemingly self-evident central tenet of Pauline theology, actually emerged from Luther’s response to the turbulent social conditions in his Germany—his embrace of individual freedom of conscience, and his belief that the Bible, rather than the church, was the only infallible source of religious authority.

Jews, Catholics, and Luther

Thus, Martin Luther read Romans with a critical eye on (Roman) Catholic rule and the sale of indulgences for salvation. He equated Catholic rule with Jews’ supposed works-righteousness, and he contrasted both, together, with “Paul’s” argument that salvation rests on the divine gift of grace alone.

Luther also translated the Bible into the vernacular so lay people could read it. This act of political resistance to Catholic rule had a watershed effect on church and culture, helping to standardize the German language through the reading of Scripture. So Luther’s interpretation of Paul served as a building block of modern German Kultur (culture). But because Luther’s sola fide and interpretations of Scripture were inseparable from the stereotype of Jewish legalism he used to battle Catholic “oppression,” anti-Judaism was a natural ideological requirement of Luther’s Kultur-making. Unsurprisingly, Luther’s other writings about Jews, that synagogues should be burned, Jewish homes destroyed, property taken, and freedoms curtailed, were read (along with his Bible) in German Lutheran churches and revived in Nazi propaganda.

Interpreters of Paul were not unanimous in their anti-Judaism (see Calvin’s emphasis, for instance, on the continued viability of the law). But the long-standing Christian strategy of denigrating Judaism in the reading of Paul and in Christians’ cultural and political self-empowerment continued well into the Enlightenment era. Indeed, the Enlightenment project of secular biblical scholarship added its own racialized imprimatur to Christian confessional anti-Judaism. As church and state divided in Western governance and the modern sciences (including the faux-science of race) emerged, the first modern biblical scholars interpreted Scripture through these lenses. But their project was not the disinterested interpretation of an objective past; it was rather Europeans’ quest for their own origins, which they sought in Greco-Roman culture and civilization. The rise of biblical studies was a European exercise in culture-building that hellenized and “civilized” figures like Jesus and Paul in order to support an emerging ideology of European national supremacy over racial “primitives” like Jews and Africans.3 It portrayed human evolution as the “racial” progression from the age of the Jews to the age of Christ, and Paul as the Christian civilizer of salvation history beyond the racial primitivism of Judaism.

This soiling of the birth of biblical studies by anti-Semitism colored almost all pre-Holocaust scholarship on Paul, as well as the confessional theology that was built on it. Emil Schürer, Wilhelm Boussett, and Rudolf Bultmann all treated the Greco-Roman world as the source of “historical information” about Paul. At best, they ignored Judaism, and at worst, degraded it. A variety of commentaries similarly “colored” Jews. For instance, Sanday and Headlam’s International Critical Commentary: Romans (1895, 1992)— still in print today—called Jews “sojourners among men” whose customs (circumcision, food laws) were racially inherited. Thus, the ICC depicts a “typical Jew” (in Rom. 2:1–3:6) as one who thinks his superiority is secured by virtue of descent from Abraham and possession of the law. Notoriously, in his 1969 article, “Paul and Israel,” Ernst Käsemann made Jews the exemplar of human arrogance, saying that in Rom. 2:1–3:6, Paul “strikes at the hidden Jew in all of us, the man who validates rights and demands over against God.”

This is a hard word to swallow. But confronting the past is a crucial moral act. As a kind of scriptural interpretation it is an act of chesed (loving-kindness to others), of faithfulness, which never forgets the future.

And so, we must say that even though Paul could not have founded “Christianity,” the founding of Christianity was a culture-building project, and for subsequent generations of Christians whose culture-making depended on oppression of Jews, Paul was a prime architect of their success. This Paul, whose identity was shaped by their social locations and quests for political and religious identity, has been a critical weapon in the Western cultural elevation of Christianity over an (ethnically, politically, religiously, and then racially) “primitive” Judaism. This Paul has even been a tool in the rise of European hegemony over other nations and races. The irony is: as they became politically empowered, post-Constantinian Christians became blind to the corrosive role of imperialism and political oppression in both their interpretations of Paul and their own self-understandings.

A Post-Holocaust Paul

The good news is that the once-invisible is now visible. For the vivid images of the Holocaust broke the back of this history, compelling white Western scholars and laypeople alike to acknowledge its jagged edges, its violence, and to begin to re-view, re- member, and re-tell the truths of a Paul freed from that violence.

In mainstream post-Holocaust Pauline scholar- ship, the pioneers of this retelling were Krister Stendahl and E. P. Sanders. In 1961, the late Krister Stendahl delivered a now-famous lecture called “Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West,” a surgical dissection of modern Westerners’ individualization and psychologization of Paul’s letters. Stendahl argued that Luther’s focus on “justification by faith” and Augustine’s emphasis on Paul’s “introspective conscience” have led interpreters to attribute to the “historical Paul” meanings that are completely opposed to what Paul said. Paul’s first-century message, Stendahl argued, had to arise out of Paul’s own Judaism and his conviction that the God of Israel had commissioned him as Jewish apostle to the nations.

In his monumental Paul and Palestinian Judaism (1977), E. P. Sanders built on the historical rapprochement to Judaism begun by Stendahl (and others) by uprooting the anti-Semitic “truth claims” of earlier Christian scholarship. Persuasively demonstrating (for example) that Judaism was never a religion of works-righteousness but a community of covenant faithfulness, he ushered in what James Dunn dubbed the “New Perspective” on Paul—a scholarly movement that has deepened our understanding not just of Paul’s Judaism, but of the Jewish roots and worldview of his Christian gospel.

Paul, as these scholars see him, is a scriptural theologian of eschatological Israel, rooted in the righteousness of God, the faithfulness of Christ, the goodness of the law and prophets, and the enduring nature of God’s covenant to all peoples through Christ. These scholars’ vision of Paul’s gospel is one whose universal welcome also makes the particularistic political claim that the Jew, Jesus Messiah (and not the Roman emperor), was Lord of both the Jews and the nations.

Power and Pathos

A profound advance over the scholarship of the first half of the violent twentieth century, the pathos of this renewed commitment to reading Paul as a Jew is undeniable: the devastation that Christian oppression wrought on Jewish bodies and minds has, in important ways, brought Christians back into conversation with their Jewish kin.

The post-Holocaust moral re-evaluation of Euro-Christian readings of Paul has also given voice to a new world of critical approaches that are deepening and challenging our understanding of Paul—from African diaspora and Asian interpretation to womanist, feminist, queer, and postcolonial criticism, and historical studies of ethnicity, empire, philosophy, and politics. So, what can this turbulent Christian history teach us in a new century?

First, politics and power plays between peoples are an inescapable dynamic of scriptural interpretation. White Westerners’ recognition of some of our religious- and race-hatred can teach that our vision (of Scripture and each other) depends on where we are seated (our “point of view”) and how well-appointed our seat is.

Scripture-reading is an ethical enterprise, with an interpersonal dimension, always involving others, however invisible they may be to us. And it can have a moral underside. Even when an interpretation (like “justification by faith”) can breathe life into one group of people, it can do violence to others if their bones are the foundation upon which such interpretations are built—if they are a “them” to us rather than a Thou.

But these difficult truths can be a blessing, an opportunity to enter dialogues with those we believe to be unlike ourselves, to learn about ourselves in our strengths and weaknesses and prejudices and gifts, and about the rich places of Scripture in others’ lives.

Second, if we are members of a culturally empowered group, we can learn that giving up our “front seat” for one in the back might better illumine Scripture. Israel, the Jesus movement, the Pauline mission, and earliest Christianity were all forged in the crucible of imperial oppression. Scripture is a story of the underside.

Especially if we are U.S. citizens or white or wealthy, this means that we can learn much about the cultural “truths” (e.g., about power or race and capital) that color our point of view from listening to the interpretations of those who are not. That whites may learn from the vibrant history of African American interpretation of Paul, North Americans from those in the South, Westerners from those in the East, those with money from those with less. Not to undercut their own engagements with Scripture, but to temper them in the fire of others’ voices.

It also means that we can learn from Paul’s instruction to our spiritual ancestors, his first auditors: largely Greek, upwardly mobile, but mostly poor folk and ex-slaves living under first-century Roman rule, they were unlike most of us. To them, Paul offered a message of strength for their struggle—so that they would take pride in their association with Judaism (which was culturally suspect, with a Messiah the Romans had killed), eschew the shiny baubles of Roman power, and remain united as they awaited God’s judgment of the (Roman) world.

The primary emphasis of Paul’s letters was therefore moral and political, focused on deeds of community growth and survival under Rome.4 Paul taught believers that God gave them the spirit of Christ, and thereby made them interrelated members of his material, resurrected Body. They had to enact their new identity, knowing that what they did affected everyone else in the Body. And so, Paul called believers, as Christ’s arms and legs and feet and unmentionables, to live in Christ as Christ lived in them (Rom. 12, 1 Cor. 12-14). Instead of chasing wealth, lording it over others with knowledge, and arm-wrestling over the best seat at the table, they were to build each other up. To seek peace rather than vengeance, to elevate the lowly, to support the poor, and to act humbly toward others, knowing that such love fulfilled God’s law and embodied the rule of God (Rom. 13:8-10; 14; 15:1-6; 1 Cor. 13).

In other words, Paul’s word to our ancestors is a moral and political challenge from below. Meant to welcome non-Jews into Israel’s covenant while requiring them to live peaceably with their once-reviled, Jewish kin, it likewise calls us to live into the tension between “us” and “them,” to redefine “them” as family, and to imagine how God wants us to live, knowing better what the world looks like from our sister’s or brother’s point of view.

In short, this kind of Scripture-reading makes certain moral questions unavoidable: What might it mean for us to live the truth that we are intimately connected to every other believer, no matter what their race? To stand with the disempowered, knowing that they are as indispensable to us and to God as the mighty? To live peaceably, treating enemy as well as friend with love, because God is the taproot of creation’s renewal?

1. Robert Egolf, “Review of Reinventing Paul by John Gager.” The Paul Page http://www.thepaulpage. com/Reinvent.html.

2. Over the next millennium, positioned Christians charged Jews with (among other things) blood libel (the idea that Jews sought to kill and eat Christians in such festivals as the Passover), kept them segregated in ghettos, and engaged in pogroms against them.

3. In his reading of Scripture, Gotthold Lessing wed
 the Romantic notion that every race had its own particular traits, language, and “spirit” to the Kantian idea of enlightenment as cultural education in order to argue that enlightenment was the civilization of naturally advanced peoples (Europeans) in a nation- state that fostered their unique abilities. Jews could be but a racial minority in such a nation state. Ernst Renan argued that the Greek language (utilized by Paul) was a symbol of Europeans’ superiority to Semites.

4. Paul repeatedly said final salvation would be based on works (Rom. 2:1-16, 14:10-12, 2 Cor. 5:10). But as late as 2003, the New Testament scholar N.T. Wright could still detect “the massive conspiracy of silence” that guards the reign of sola fide over interpretations of Paul. N. T. Wright, “New Perspectives on Paul.” Perspectives.htm.

Diana Swancutt, Associate Professor of New Testament at Yale Divinity School, is the author of an upcoming book, Pax Christi: Empire, Identity, and Protreptic Rhetoric in Paul’s Letter to the Romans.