Sanders on Paul’s Stripes and Mission

I started Anti-Judaism in Early Christianity.  I thought that E.P. Sanders’ essay, “Paul on the Law, His Opponents, and the Jewish People”, raised some interesting points.  Here are two items:

1. In II Corinthians 11:24, Paul says that he received thirty-nine stripes from the Jews five times.  Sanders notes that, from a Jewish perspective, stripes were administered as punishment for certain crimes against the Torah.  So which crime did some Jews believe that Paul was committing?  Sanders wrestles some with this question by considering what ancient Jewish sources have to say:

“It is fruitless here to search the list of things in Mishnah Makkoth for which the rabbis decreed corporal punishment.  For one thing, the rabbis themselves extended the list of those to be punished by the thirty-nine stripes to include those for whom the Bible decreed ‘cutting off’ (Mak. 3:15).  More to the point, it is intrinsically probable that the Diaspora synagogues had at their disposal only two punishments, ostracism and thirty-nine stripes.  We know from 1QS 7:1, for example, that in Qumran even blasphemy (according to the Bible a capital offense) was punished by separation from the community.  One may reason qal-va-homer that the Diaspora synagogues could not and did not execute people guilty of capital offenses.  The administration of the thirty-nine stripes was probably the only punishment available in the Diaspora to be applied to transgressors who kept showing up to the synagogue.  The penalty, in other words, probably covered so many transgressions that the crime cannot be precisely specified just by learning the punishment.”

But what was Paul’s transgression, in the eyes of certain Jews?  Was it blasphemy, since the Gospels present the Jews considering claims that Jesus made (i.e., to have authority to forgive sins, to be the son of God, etc.) to be blasphemous?  Sanders maintains that Paul bringing Gentiles into the people of God without requiring them to be circumcised was his transgression.  According to Sanders, the Jews considered the Christian movement to be Jewish, and so they thought that Paul was bringing Gentiles into Israel without circumcision.  Circumcision was serious, according to Judaism, for God told Abraham in Genesis 17 that those in Abraham’s community who were not circumcised would be cut off from their people.

Sanders also notes that the fact that Paul was even beaten indicates that the Jews considered Paul to be part of their community and thus under their authority.  This, even though Paul relates in I Corinthians 9 and Galatians 2 that he did not consistently live like a Jew under the Torah.

2.  On pages 88-89, Sanders states: “It is true that Paul says that ‘to the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews’ (1 Cor. 9:19), just as it also says that he preached from Jerusalem to Illyricum (Rom. 9:15).  Yet his own description of his career (Gal. 1-2) seems to exclude any possibility of his having preached in Jerusalem, just as the Antioch incident (Gal. 2:11-13) shows that in a mixed church he did not live like a Jew.  In short, it is hard to know when Paul could have preached in Jerusalem, and it is hard to know when he actually lived like a Jew in order to win Jews, since he clearly did not do so even in Antioch.  I do not have at hand a precise literary category for Rom. 15:19 and 1 Cor. 9:19, although a student of rhetoric may.  Perhaps the term ‘hyperbole’ will be adequate…In any case, the statements that he preached in Jerusalem and sought to win Jews do not accord with the rest of his descriptions of his career.”

I do not understand all of Sanders’ argument, but I can somewhat see his point: Paul in Galatians says that he was entrusted with the mission to the Gentiles, whereas Peter was the apostle to the Jews, and Paul does not live like a Jew when he is in a mixed community of Jews and Gentiles.  For Sanders, that does not mesh with Paul’s statement in I Corinthians 9 that he also had a mission to the Jews and behaved as a Jew in order to win Jews.

I have doubts that we should speak in absolutes when it comes to Paul’s career, for perhaps he preached to Jews before he was entrusted with his mission to the Gentiles, or he sometimes expanded his mission a bit.  Sanders’ skepticism about Paul’s statement here is interesting, though, because Daniel Fraikin in the very next essay, “The Rhetorical Function of the Jews in Romans”, states on page 95 that “We should remember in this respect that the audience, from a rhetorical point of view, is not the actual congregation of people hearing the speech but a construction of the speaker.”  Fraikin here reminds me of Andrew Das, who argued that Paul wrote Romans primarily to Gentiles, and that his address to Jews is purely rhetorical and is not addressed to actual Jews in the Roman congregation.  Paul is making a point to Gentiles when he addresses Jews: that Gentile Christians are part of the community of God because everyone has sinned and Christ is thus how people (Jews and Gentiles both) enter God’s community.  (But Fraikin also says that Paul addresses Jews, so I’m not sure that he’s making the exact same point as Das.)

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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