Dr IAN ELMER…
Do you come to Catholica each day searching for certitude and the security it brings — or do you come searching for mystery and excitement — the thrill and exhilaration of "entering into the greatest story ever told"? Dr Ian Elmer begins hts commentary today with the provocative statement "all religions are, in some sense, human inventions" and proceeds to discuss some of the commonalities between different religions before seeking to draw out the uniqueness of Christianity...
Similarities between Jesus and Paul…
For any picture of Jesus to be at least historically plausible, it must be one that presents him as a man who is both credible and crucifiable in first-century Galilee. This insight, which is credited to Jewish scholar Geza Vermes by N. T. Wright (Mattison, 2007), serves to remind us that Jesus was neither a simple, peasant sage nor a violent, revolutionary zealot. Similarly, as we noted last week, we can speak of Paul's conversion, not so much in terms of a radical departure from his Jewish faith, but rather as a new perspective of that faith.
Jesus and Paul shared much in common, not least in the fact that they were both accused of apostasy and blasphemy, and both ended their lives as criminals executed by the state. For all that, however, there were some very clear differences between the religions of Jesus and Paul. Some scholars have even branded Paul the true founder of Christianity; but perhaps this view underestimates the dynamism of "tradition", which probably best understood, not as a static body of unchanging truths bequeathed to us from the past, but as constantly changing practice and belief that are in continuity with the past.
Jesus was a thoroughly Jewish figure; the evidence of the Gospels is not just clear, it is irrefutable! Jesus was a "good", Law-observant Jew. The view that Jesus consistently and consciously broke from the Jewish Law is supported only by Mark's Gospel. Not even Paul's authentic letters, written earlier than Mark by someone who knew Jesus' original clan, suggests that Jesus taught a Law-free message. This is why Paul almost never quotes Jesus or refers to him other than in the "spirit", because Jesus in the "flesh" taught a gospel that had different foci to that of Paul's gospel.
This is also why Paul had so much trouble with the Jerusalem church who apparently claimed that Paul's gospel stood outside legitimate tradition. If Jesus had ever preached a Law-free creed, Paul would have said so, because it would have been a knock down argument against his Law-observant opponents. On the contrary, because Jesus never condoned a mission to Gentiles, let alone a Law-free one, Paul had to fight very, very hard all his life to prove the legitimacy of both his Law-free gospel and his right as an Apostle to preach it.
Having said that, however, I would also want to claim that Paul's mission and Gospel was not created de novo. Apart from wanting to take Paul's numinous experience on the road to Damascus seriously, I would also want to suggest that the tradition of "breaking down boundaries" is one that does go back to Jesus. Even Matthew's Gospel, which is the most thoroughly [Christian] "Jewish", presents Jesus as one who deplores the Pharisee's legalistic rigidity and their lack of mercy and compassion.
Vaulting the social class boundaries…
Many of the sayings and teachings of Jesus that we would hold to be genuine, based on the accepted criteria for judging historicity, testify that Jesus did speak out against both the Law and the Temple cult, which was used by some Jewish groups as cause for an elitism and "religiosity" that separated them from other Jews, especially the poor, sick, and dispossessed.
The ethnic divide was not the only boundary that the first Christians would vault. Many other classes of people, prostitutes, tax collectors, grave diggers, adulterers, lepers, children, and even the poor, were considered by the religious elite to be "beyond the pale".
The authors of the Gospels are unanimous in proclaiming that their sources attest to Jesus' determination to break down all boundaries that separated "good" Jew from bad "Jew", the overtly and proudly "pious" from those who knew they were sinners.
Jesus shared table fellowship with these apostates, blasphemers, collaborators, sinners, adulterers, lepers, and ailing. He was a genuine breaker of boundaries within the broadest understanding of the Jewish community. Such a program would ultimately also come to include ethnic boundaries as well — and it seems that Jesus did have contact with a few non-Jews, some of whom were considered "beyond the pale" for other reasons (adulterers, Roman soldiers, the sick and infirm, and women).
Moreover, we should qualify any statement that we might make about the early Christian-Jewish community vis-à-vis its attitude to "outsiders". Gentiles (and sinners for that matter) were welcome to join the Jesus Movement, even in that most Jewish of all congregations, the Apostolic community in Jerusalem. But they were expected to observe at least of some of the Jewish Law (dietary and purity prescriptions); just as sinners were expected to mend their ways.
By and large the Jewish Law was about morality and justice, rather than the rigors of "religiosity". Gentiles who became Christians were expected to lead moral lives and observe the Jewish traditions of justice and charity — something which was already widespread in the synagogues of the Diaspora where many Gentile "God-Fearers" attached themselves to the local Jewish communities and adopted Jewish lifestyles (without "going all the way", submitting to circumcision and following the dietary laws).
A practical modus operandi…
The point of difference between Pauline communities and Christian-Jewish ones was that such Gentile "God-Fearers" were given equal status with the Jewish members, even if they were unwilling to observe all the "ritual" demands of the Law — circumcision, Sabbath observance, Temple worship, and especially the dietary and purity prescriptions. Paul's communities held to a similar discipline for its Jewish members. It was a practical modus operandi that evolved out of the Hellenists Gentile mission in Antioch, which enabled both Jew and Gentile to share equally in the table fellowship of the community.
Pauline communities broke down all barriers hindering fellowship between Jews and Gentiles — but, in this, they were merely carrying to an obvious conclusion a trend that was initiated by Jesus (and, putting on my "man of faith" hat I would add, under the inspiration of the Spirit of Jesus). Both Jesus and Paul were inspired from within their communities of faith to push the boundaries. Both were drawing upon their "sense of faith" (sensus fidei) and, accordingly, found a ready acceptance in a new collective vision. Jesus' anti-Law and anti-temple rhetoric, as well as his demonstrable "boundary-shattering" equalitarianism, found its fullest expression in Paul's communities, which eventually separated from their Jewish exclusivism and embraced the universalism inherent in Jesus' message.
There is an important lesson for us to learn here. All legitimate change in the communities of faith is the result of development (rather than innovation) that is pursued in (and grows out of) continuity with tradition — which ensures that it represents no one person's vision but, rather, the collective and dynamic vision of the whole community.
Bibliography and Further Reading:
What are your thoughts on this commentary?
©2008 Ian Elmer