The Jewish Advantage

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“What advantage has the Jew?” Paul asked (Rom 3:1). “Much in every way,” was his answer. Paul’s Gentiles certainly thought so. There were social advantages for some people in the Greco-Roman world in being associated with the Jews. While some might have regarded Jewishness as an inferior ethnic status, there were others of low status who saw it as a way up.

Judaism was ancient. It was respectable. It was a religio licita, a protected religious status in Roman society. It was a permitted collegium of like-minded people with its own social network. A Roman person could do worse than belong to such an ancient and protected group. Granted there were also social disadvantages, but one person’s disdain for Jewishness might be another person’s reason for aspiration to that same Jewish belonging.

Paul was, more than anything else, a Jewish teacher of Gentiles. His Jewishness was a primary reason for his desirability as a teacher. His high qualifications within the social world of Jewish people made him as desirable a teacher as could be imagined for the Gentiles of the Roman empire at the time. There were other Jewish teachers. Paul had advantages over them, being a Jewish teacher trained in Judea. And Paul had personally seen Yeshua. Who could really compete with his resume, even though some apparently tried?

Paul’s letters reveal to us a few things about his Gentiles, who are the implied audience. First, they had learned and were learning in Jewish settings — primarily in synagogues. Second, they sought out Jewish teachers. Third, they saw Jewishness as a preferred trait in an apostle.

We see such hints about Paul’s audience in the way he corrects an imaginary Jewish teacher in Romans 2:17-29. This teacher has done an inferior job, says Paul, not understanding the way God incorporates Gentiles into his people. Paul’s diatribe against this hypothetical Jewish teacher is a window into an unspoken reality: Paul had rivals and competitors in the Jewish world, who had been teaching his Gentiles before he arrived on the scene. Paul’s way was something new. The method and message of the shadow opponent in Romans 2 had been around for some time.

We see more clues in 2 Corinthians 11:21-23, where Paul compares himself to the claims of his rivals — people he calls “super-apostles” — by implying that he out-Jews them. Paul is also a Hebrew, an Israelite, a seed of Abraham. Are these rival apostles to Corinth servants of Messiah? Paul is better, has been beaten more, and deserves at least the same amount of respect even if he is not quite the orator some of them are. Jerry Sumney (“Paul and Christ-Believing Jews Whom He Opposes,” in Jewish Christianity Reconsidered, ed. Matt Jackson-McCabe, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2007) says it is obvious that “Paul, his rivals, and the Corinthian church all see being Jewish as a persuasive element of a claim to authority” (63). Paul’s continuing Jewish status is evident since “five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one” (2 Cor 11:24, ESV). The synagogue only exercised discipline on people seen as members of the Jewish community.

We see that Jewish teachers and teachings are preferred in Paul’s insistence that the Gospel is a Jewish message (Rom 1:16). He maintains that there are advantages to being Jewish (Rom 3:1-2; 9:4-5). He voices his certainty that the place of the Jewish people in God’s promises permanent and unchangeable (Rom 11:29). Paul’s Jewish people are beloved of God (Rom 11:28). And Paul himself models what a good Jewish teacher knows (that Yeshua is foreshadowed in the Jewish Bible) and practices (the biblical model for the incorporation of Gentiles).

Paul has been improperly cast by Christian readers as a former Jew who became something else, leaving Jewish theology or even Jewish social identity behind. Paul’s own rhetoric, however, gives the lie to this interpretation. He is the thoroughgoing Jewish teacher, the extractor of mysteries from the Jewish Bible, one who was selected personally by Yeshua for his role because of his Jewish qualifications and not in spite of them. Paul may have regarded his former prominence in Judea Jewish politics as rubbish compared to the value of gaining Messiah (Phil 3:7-8), but that background and resume is precisely why he is the preeminent envoy to the Gentiles from Messiah.

And Paul’s qualifications as a Jew without rival, a Jew above most other Jews, trained in Judea and having formerly been high in the echelons of Jewish politics in Judea, made him a supremely desirable teacher and spokesperson for the Yeshua movement. Let’s take a closer look at why Jewish things appealed so much to Greeks and Romans of the time.

Mark Nanos (Irony of Galatians, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2002) has argued that the Gentiles in the Yeshua movement put the synagogues in a precarious position. Jews in the Greco-Roman world had an exemption, dating back to Julius Caesar himself, from participation in Roman festivals and the temple cult in every city and town of the empire. They had been granted the status of religio licita, a permitted religion (Josephus, Ant. 14.185-267, Nanos 260). This meant that Jews, and Gentile proselytes within their synagogues, were not liable to the usual requirements for participation and status in the Roman empire. Allegiance to local gods and temples, homage to Ceasars and statues of them, and other signs of political-religious fidelity could not be required of them. Their loyalty to Caesar was based on something else and local rulers were to recognize the synagogues as authorities permitted by Rome to govern their own members. Even corporal punishment (such as thirty nine lashes) and capital punishment were allowed in their governance.

But the larger number of God-fearers — not full proselytes undergoing conversion, but sympathizers and supporters — were not clearly exempt and likely were expected to show homage and participate in local festivals at Greco-Roman temples. However, the Yeshua-believing Gentiles had a no-compromise policy with regard to idols and were more committed to monotheism than the God-fearers (e.g., 1 Cor 10:20-21). To the Greco-Roman authorities the Gentile believers were attached to the synagogues, but as they in larger numbers were seen abstaining from local patterns of citizenship and fidelity to Rome, it could appear that the synagogues were causing trouble and dividing the population dangerously.

A simple realization from this pattern is that Gentiles needed the exempt status of the Jews, to be seen as broadly connected to the synagogue, in order to maintain their abstention from idol worship. Gentiles drawn to the God of Israel, even if they were not yet monotheists in any real sense, had always come under the authority of synagogue leaders. This, in fact, is how Mark Nanos interprets Romans 13:1-7 — not about Roman authorities but synagogue authorities (see The Mystery of Romans, Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996).

Gentiles needed the synagogue. They needed Jewish teachers. And whether as God-fearers (sort of like half-members), proselytes (converts through circumcision or those undergoing the process), Yeshua-believers or not, they came under the Jewish umbrella of authority and belonged at least partially to the Jewish collegium. The collegia were fraternal organizations such as guilds or social clubs. At various times many of them were outlawed because of a history of rebellion against Roman authority by organized groups. Yet when Roman authorities outlawed collegia in certain times and places, the synagogues were nonetheless permitted (Magnus Zetterholm, The Formation of Christianity at Antioch, New York: Routledge, 2003).

In other words, Judaism was a permitted association. This had advantages. Judaism was ancient and such age-old religions and groups were respected in Greco-Roman culture as superior. Judaism was spread abroad, with associations and networks in all the major cities. People on the move, and many people moved and migrated in the empire, could find hospitality and affiliation through a collegium such as Judaism. For many Gentiles, Judaism could have been seen as a socially desirable affiliation.

According to Acts, and consistent with clues in the epistles, many of Paul’s Gentiles had come into the orbit of the synagogue before they heard the Gospel. Jewish teachings and ways were desirable. To them the message of Yeshua was a Jewish message. The Jewishness of it was originally a large part of its appeal.

The situation began to change later for a variety of reasons. Jewish affiliation became less desirable over time, as the Jews in Judea and Galilee had two wars with Rome (66-70, 132-135 CE). As the Yeshua-assemblies and affiliation grew, some began rather quickly to doubt their need for Jewish spiritual parents — which is what Nanos argues is the very reason for the letter to the Roman believers.

The original Jewish association of Yeshua-believing Gentiles is a large reason why Paul was the ideal representative of the Gospel to Gentiles. The later erroneous view of Paul as one who abandoned his Jewish beliefs and practices is at odds with this historical reality. Among the leaders in the early Yeshua-movement, Jewish status was a prime qualification — and Paul was a Jew among Jews.