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  • Writer's pictureRoss Moughtin

How Jewish was St Paul?

I’ve made it so far to page 759, that’s 1¾ inches.

For the past five years, I now realise, I have been ploughing my way through N.T. Wright’s magnum opus, Paul and the faithfulness of God, with the emphasis on the magnum. 1658 pages (including the indexes) no less, split into two volumes. No pictures, just 800,000 words. Just a few pages each weekday morning (but thanks to you, not on Fridays). Not that it is difficult to read – his style is relaxed and sometimes even humorous. It is just very dense, a favourite word of his when describing the apostle Paul's style. Sometime I have to pause and think over each sentence. Where Wright is at his best is his recognition that Paul, indeed all the people of the New Testament, lived in a very different world to our own. So we need to understand their culture and thought-processes, very different to our own. To understand the apostle, we need to “earth him” into the world in which he lived. There are no short-cuts here: we need to do the work. That’s volume #1, phew. One of Wright’s key themes, maybe the key theme, is that Paul was first and foremost a Pharisee of his era, a second temple Jew as we say in the trade. True, he had a good understanding of Gentile culture, essentially Greek but also imperial Roman - but his mental operating system, even how he lived his life, was fundamentally Jewish, through and through. All this was dramatically upended by his encounter with the risen Jesus, that is the very Jesus who had been crucified, nailed to a tree even as a curse on the land. And it is not that Paul then rejected his Jewish heritage. The very opposite, as he realised that this crucified Messiah is the complete fulfilment of God’s promise to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. So Wright writes: “Paul the Jew, whose controlling story had always included the narrative whereby the living God overthrew the tyrant of Egypt and freed his slave-people, had come to believe that this great story had reached its God-ordained climax in the arrival of Israel’s Messiah, who according to multiple ancient traditions would be the true Lord of the entire world.” So here and elsewhere in his writing, Wright is at pains to point out that the apostle Paul never had any intention of starting a new religion called Christianity. Not at all, the very opposite. He is talking about the Jewish religion being totally fulfilled in Christ, even the end or goal of the Torah. Again: “Paul remained a deeply Jewish theologian who had rethought and reworked every aspect of his native Jewish theology in the light of the Messiah and the Spirit, resulting in his own vocational self-understanding as the apostle to the pagans.” All this is worth saying in a week when so much coverage has been given to antisemitism. Not least to the document fortuitously published last week by the Church of England: God’s Unfailing Word: Theological and Practical Perspectives on Christian-Jewish Relations. Before we throw any stones at any neighbouring glasshouses, we as Anglicans need to recognise our own antisemitism. The report explains: “Christians have been guilty of promoting and fostering negative stereotypes of Jewish people that have contributed to grave suffering and injustice. They therefore have a duty to be alert to the continuation of such stereotyping and to resist it.” As Archbishop Justin writes in the foreword: “Too often in history the church has been responsible for and colluded in antisemitism and the fact that antisemitic language and attacks are on the rise across the UK and Europe means we cannot be complacent.” Certainly the apostle Paul would have taken a strong stance himself. He writes introducing a pivotal passage in his letter to the Roman church: “It’s an enormous pain deep within me, and I’m never free of it. I’m not exaggerating—Christ and the Holy Spirit are my witnesses. It’s the Israelites . . . If there were any way I could be cursed by the Messiah so they could be blessed by him, I’d do it in a minute. They’re my family. I grew up with them.” (Romans 9:2f, Message translation). The challenge for us is how to share the good news of Jesus with Jewish people – and like all evangelism it has to be grounded in love and showing respect, even deference. No one likes being bashed over the head by a Bible, not least when a good two-thirds of it is actually your own scripture. So Ephraim Mirvis, the chief Rabbi (who has featured so prominently in the last few days) writes an afterword to the document. Here he challenges the church for failing to “reject the efforts of those Christians, however many they may number, who as part of their faithful mission dedicate themselves to the purposeful and specific targeting of Jews for conversion to Christianity”. Given the past, you can understand where he is coming from. As it happens, earlier this year I shared my faith in Jesus with a Jewish friend, the emphasis being less on the Jewish and more on the friend. After all he was paying for the meal! Just telling my story, being open with my problems and simply giving room for the Holy Spirit, the Shekinah himself, to breath his life into my testimony. And leave it there. Above all we need humility, as the apostle Paul writes to his mostly Gentile readers: “Why, if God could graft you—branches cut from a tree out in the wild—into an orchard tree, he certainly isn’t going to have any trouble grafting branches back into the tree they grew from in the first place.” (Romans 11:24, The Message). He concludes: “Just be glad you’re in the tree, and hope for the best for the others.” Just 900 pages to go, but I think I will skip the indexes!

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