August 25, 2018


Jesus was a 'somewhere'. Paul was an 'anywhere' (Giles Fraser, 24 AUGUST 2018, UnHerd)

Jesus wasn't a Christian. He wasn't the first Christian. He wasn't even a Christian with an interesting Jewish backstory. Nowhere does the carpenter from Galilee suggest that he wants to start a new religion. On the contrary: "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel" he tells a woman in Matthew's gospel.

Yes, Jesus would constantly argue with the religious authorities of his day. But argument with religious authority is itself a longstanding Jewish tradition. Jesus was Jewish, completely Jewish - he had a Jewish mother, he was circumcised according to the law, he kept kosher, his Bible was the Bible of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, he attended his local Galilee synagogue, he taught in the Temple throughout his life, he made pilgrimage to the Temple for the special feasts. And he died Jewish, mocked as the King of the Jews. The very idea of Christianity was not even invented in his lifetime. Jesus was very much a somewhere - Jesus of Galilee.

Most of Jesus' early followers were also Jewish, but not all of them. And for these people, the question began to arise whether being a follower of Jesus required following the Jewish law - and, in particular, whether it required the Jewish practice of circumcision. This question prompted a furious debate among Jesus' followers, with some maintaining that Jesus-following required the full commitments of Jewish religion, and some maintaining that it did not. St Paul was the leading proponent of the second view.

Paul was also a Jew himself, indeed a Pharisee by training, but he was also a Roman citizen, born into the Jewish diaspora in what we now call Turkey - and thus the nearest thing to a citizen of the world that a Jew could be. For Paul, the God that he recognised in Jesus was absolutely the God who was promised to Jews in the Hebrew scriptures, but - and this was his world-changing idea - it was also a God who was promised to all humanity.

It now seems obvious to Christians that the God spoken about by Jesus is a God who seeks the salvation of all people, irrespective of race, nationality or culture. But it wasn't at all obvious to many of Paul's contemporaries, and it took some arguing on his part. "In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek," Paul insisted. You don't need to be ethnically Jewish to have a special relationship with God. With Jesus, the special deal that God had made with the Jewish people had been extended to include all non-Jews.

It wasn't that Paul denied the idea that God had established a special relationship with the Jewish people in the first place - all those who are "in Christ" are "Abraham's offspring" he maintained, and the Jews were the chosen people - but now, Paul declared, being chosen was open to all.

Posted by at August 25, 2018 6:28 AM