November 29, 2003

The Theory of Pauline Exceptionalism

So I was working on my term paper for Jewish Law class, and I was reading this rabbi giving a comparison of ideas about natural law (i.e. moral ideas which can be discerned by reason) between traditional Christianity and traditional Judaism - actually mostly just between Thomas Aquinas and Maimonides, Christian and Jewish philosophers of the middle ages, respectively. I was struck by Aquinas' representation of the Jewish Law, and I can't believe how Aquinas (who was too heavily influenced by classical Greek philosophy anyway, and so prone to certain theological errors) and so many other Christians seem to misunderstand this.

The primary reason for the misunderstanding seems to be the Apostle Paul's statements about Law and how he rejected the Law when he came to Christ. However, this was the exception and not the rule, and a careful reading of his letters will reveal that even Paul admitted that this ought to continue to be an exceptional case rather than it being the norm for Jewish believers in Jesus to reject the Law. In fact, Paul was an exception to a number of general rules in early Christianity, and I believe that realizing this can help us to better understand the teachings of the New Testament without taking away from the divine inspiration and authority of the New Testament. You may be familiar with the Theory of American Exceptionalism in political science, which says that the political situation in the United States is so different from any other country that it cannot be used to study worldwide political trends. It is my assertion that, similarly, the Apostle Paul's life is so different from the life of the average Christian that, while there is much to be learned from it and much to be imitated, there are certain areas in which it would be foolish and contrary to Scripture to suggest that every Christian should behave as Paul did. I shall call this the Theory of Pauline Exceptionalism.

First a simple and easily demonstrable example of this theory in action, and then we shall proceed to the Law. This exception is in regard to the privileges accorded to apostles. Paul himself writes: "Do we not have a right to eat and drink? Do we not have a right to take along a believing wife, even as the rest of the apostles, and the brothers of the Lord, and Cephas? Or do only Barnabas and I not have a right to refrain from working? Who at any time serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard, and does not eat the fruit of it? Or who tends a flock and does not use the milk of the flock?...Do you not know that those who perform sacred services eat the food of the temple, and those who attend regularly to the altar have their share with the alter? So also the Lord directed those who proclaim the gospel to get their living from the gospel. But I have used none of these things. And I am not writing these things that it may be done in my case; for it would be better for me to die than have any man make my boast an empty one." (1 Corinthians 9:4-7, 13-15) Paul insisted on denying himself the privileges which he says the other apostles were rightly given. He says to others that it is their right, but takes none himself.

Now, proceeding to the Law: Paul was formerly a Pharisee. Some sources I have read insist that he had formerly been a member of the Sanhedrin, but I am highly skeptical of this claim due to his relative youth at the time of his conversion and other similar issues. However, Paul did study under Gamaliel, a very respected Rabbi of his day, and Gamaliel was a member of the Court. Paul was working his way up within the party of the Pharisees, and had studied the Law extensively and practiced it scrupulously. After his conversion, Paul realized that the Law had become an idol to him. Before meeting Christ on the Damascus road, Paul had not been a worshipper of God, but a worshipper of the Law. In order to follow God, Paul was forced to renounce the Law - indeed, to renounce Judaism. This was because Paul took great pride in his Jewish heritage and his obedience to the Law, so much so that he had become self-righteous, thinking himself better than others. This can be seen throughout all of Paul's discussions of the Law, especially in Romans and Galatians.

It is clear from the New Testament and Church history and tradition that in this matter Paul was again an exception. Particularly, James bar-Joseph, the oldest of the Lord's brothers, continued to follow the Law so carefully that his epithet "the Just" was given not by Christians but by the non-Christian Jews of his day. He was also called "James of the Camel's Knees" because he spent so much time praying in the temple that his knees became calloused like the knees of a camel.

Peter also continued to follow the Law at least in some degree. We see in Acts 10 that Peter was reluctant even to enter the house of a Gentile, or to eat with him, because this was prohibited by the Oral Law as it existed at that time. God sent Peter a vision commanding him to go into the house of a Gentile to preach the gospel, and Peter did so. Incidentally, there is no such regulation in Jewish Law as it exists today. This story shows that Peter did continue to be concerned with following the Law even after he followed Jesus.

Paul does not discourage this. In fact, he might be said to encourage it. 1 Corinthians 7:17-20 reads, "Only, as the Lord has assigned to each one, as God has called each, in this manner let him walk. And thus I direct in all the churches. Was any man called already circumcised? Let him not become uncircumcised. Has anyone been called in uncircumcision? Let him not be circumcised. Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but what matters is the keeping of the commandments of God. Let each man remain in that condition in which he was called." Paul often uses circumcision as a metaphor for the keeping of the entire Law, and this must be the sense of this text, since no man who has been circumcised physically can later become uncircumcised again. Therefore verse 18 is read as "Did anyone follow the Law before he became a Christian? Let him continue to follow the Law. Did anyone not follow the Law before becoming a Christian? Let him not begin to follow the Law on account of Christ."

Interestingly, Paul's teaching on the subject of Gentiles being circumcised and following the Law very nearly follows the Rabbinical teaching on the subject. In the Jewish Law, if a man goes to a rabbi and asks to be converted to Judaism, the rabbi must turn him away on three separate occasions before agreeing to perform the conversion. This is because to convert to Judaism, which is what Paul means by being circumcised, is to make a covenant with God that you will obey all of the commandments given in the Law, and breaking a covenant with God is no laughing matter. Paul actually goes a step farther, but on the same rationale, and forbids Gentile Christians from converting to Judaism. This is because the incentive to convert is gone. The purpose of converting to Judaism was to enjoy a closer relationship to God on earth. It is not, in the Jewish view, necessary in order to enter the "world to come". In New Testament theology, there no longer exists a "holiness barrier" between God and man. A man is made holy by the sacrifice of Christ, and that sacrifice alone. Following the Law cannot make him holy any longer. Being holy by Christ's sacrifice, a Gentile no longer need convert to Judaism to enjoy a close relationship to God, as he is already made holy apart from the Law. This is why Paul says "if you become circumcised Christ will profit you nothing" (Galatians 5:2). To convert to Judaism would be to trust in the Law to bring you closer to God, rather than trusting in Christ.

The situation is different, however, for one who is born Jewish, or who has converted to Judaism before becoming a Christian. The New Testament does recognize Israel's special status with God as continuing to the present time and for the duration of this world. The Abramic covenant was an "everlasting covenant". For the Jewish Christian, the Law is no longer an obligation. Following it is reccomended, but not required. Following the Law separates the Jew from the Gentile world. It is a reminder of his heritage and the status he has with God. Even Jesus saw the need to put the Gentiles in their place occasionally, as is seen when he tells the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15:26 and Mark 7:27, "It is not good to take the children's bread and throw it to the little dogs." Likewise Paul says in Acts 26:20 that he preached the gospel in "all the region of Judea, and even to the Gentiles". Similar statements are found throughout the New Testament. It is clear that the New Testament sees Israel as coming first, and recognize the continued special status of the Jewish people. For this reason, the New Testament does not advocate any Jewish person renouncing the Law or his Jewish heritage if he becomes a Christian. It does, however, give one - and only one - example of a situation in which this was necessary, and that is the highly exceptional Apostle Paul.

Posted by Kenny at November 29, 2003 2:41 PM
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So would this be a preview of your term paper or something? hehehe... aren't computers distracting? nice to know you are still posting tho. =)

Posted by: Amani at November 29, 2003 3:21 PM

ooooooooh. ooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooh.

Posted by: melody at December 18, 2003 10:07 PM

New evidence in favor of my theory: in Matthew 23:2-3 Jesus explicitly recognizes the authority of the Oral Law and the scribes and Pharisees as its keepers (before denouncing them for their hypocrisy, as was His habit). The quote is, "The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat. Therefore whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do, but do not do according to their works; for they say, and do not do." This clearly shows that recognition of the Torah, including the Oral Law, by Christians of Jewish descent is not only not forbidden, but most definitely suggested by the New Testament.

Posted by: Kenny Pearce at February 6, 2004 1:06 PM

I want to thank you for what I consider to be an extremely well written article. I believe every word was carefully considered; and, unlike most articles on religious subjects, find it devoid of bias. Remarkably good! Bravo!

Posted by: april at February 8, 2004 11:32 AM

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