Often, we all can feel a strong attraction to — and sometimes also repulsion toward — someone or something that feels both entirely foreign and oddly familiar at the same time.
Dr. Ishay Rosen-Zvi is an associate professor and the head of the Talmud and late antiquities section in the Hebrew culture studies department at Tel-Aviv University. His publications look at the intersection between the cultures vying for breathing space during the few centuries that began the Common Era; he’s focused on midrashic hermeneutics, the Mishna itself, Temple rituals in rabbinic literature, and gender and sexuality during that time.
Now, he is exploring that very polarizing Christian figure, the apostle Paul, né Saul, the very Jewish Christian whose writing about the Jews has had such a devastating impact on so many Jews, tragically culminating, in a logical progression, he said, in the Shoah.
“I’ve always been fascinated with Paul, as a scholar, as a Jew, as someone who works with rabbinic literature,” Dr. Rosen-Zvi said. It’s the push-pull of the familiar and the foreign. “On the one hand, he is an anti-Jewish, maybe even anti-Semitic thinker, and on the other hand, he is so similar in the way he works with the Bible to create a kind of holy community.
“I’ve always been interested in Paul, but only recently I’ve tried to think more systematically in this area,” he said.
Academic thinking about Paul has changed a great deal since World War II. “It was the area in which scholarship was most affected by the Holocaust,” Dr. Rosen-Zvi said. “It was acknowledged that the Protestant interpretation of Paul actually contributed to the caricature of Judaism as a kind of godless, spirit-less religion that had to be replaced. Throughout the 1950s, ‘60s, and 70s, we find this really very thorough attempt to separate Paul from later developments in Christianity.
It was an attempt to make Paul not guilty for the horrors that seemed to stem from his worldview.
“In the beginning, Paul was a committed Jew, a Pharisee, someone who bragged about his knowledge of the law, his conception of Judaism and of Torah, and of his mission as a Jew,” Dr. Rosen-Zvi said, explaining that scholarly view. “That is radical and different from the way the second-century church fathers saw him.
“It is an attempt to read Paul as Jewish, and his critique as an inner Jewish critique, aimed at his own world.”
Those historians and theologians were Protestant. “Jewish scholars enter the game very late, only in the last 15 or 20 years,” Dr. Rosen-Zvi said. “Protestant scholars were creating a mixture of very sensitive historical scholarship, that says that we have to read Paul in the context of first-century Judaism, on the one hand, and on the other there was a lot of apologetics. They were saying that they had to save Paul.” They had to reclaim his reputation.
“And if you have to save Paul, that limits your ability to read the text clearly.”
From there, “the effect of the trend was a really big investment in reading Paul inside Judaism.” That’s when scholars began comparing his writing to rabbinic literature.
“Comparing Paul to the rabbinic literature is problematic because the rabbis are later — the second century of the Common Era — and the first documents that we have are from the beginning of the third century. Paul is in the middle of the first century. So it’s problematic.
“But it is really tempting, because they” — that’s the rabbis and Paul — “are doing very similar things.
“They are both based in biblical interpretation, and from a kind of relevanticization of the Bible they are attempting to create what I call holy communities under Rome.
“They had very developed eschatology on one hand, and on the other they accepted reality. They did not attempt to leave the city or urban life; both the first Christian communities and the rabbis lived in the city, part of secular life under Rome. And in this realm, they tried to create a holy community, with a new conception of what being God’s people means.
“To me, this means that the comparison is unavoidable. The question is how to do it,” Dr. Rosen-Zvi said. “And here we get to the question of methodology.”
Dismissing the crude assumption that every time “the rabbis talk about how great the Torah is, or how great Israel is, we should read it as a kind of anti-Paul polemic,” that means that “we have to find more sensitive tools,” he said.
“There are two main streams in scholarship. One sees Paul as the receiver of Jewish traditions, and that those traditions also are preserved in rabbinic literature. That means that Paul takes ancient Jewish traditions and adds his Christological flavor to them, so when we find similar stories in Paul and the rabbis we should assume that they are preserving the right tradition.
“The other stream says no. The rabbis are later than Paul, and Paul is a very influential figure in the second century. It’s not that they would have read him — but his ideas would have penetrated in the culture. They would have known his ideas.”
For example, he said, “the rabbis say that Abraham inherited the land of Israel not because of his faith or his beliefs, but because he preserved the commandments. This seems to be the exact opposite of what Paul says — that Abraham inherited the land not only because he was a believer, not because he kept the commandments.” That’s in keeping with Christian theology, which says that the mitzvot ceased to be necessary once their messiah lived and died.
The rabbis, in other words, offered a direct refutation of Paul, these scholars believe. “They emphasize the rabbinical statements as polemical.”
Dr. Rosen-Zvi believes that the truth about whether Paul and the rabbis inherited the same traditions separately or that the rabbis were responding to Paul is that they are both right — part of the time. Sometimes it’s one, sometimes it’s the other. It depends.
“My modest contribution is to help identify when we should talk about ancient traditions shared by Paul and the rabbis, and when we should talk about the rabbis being aware of Pauline ideas and reacting to them,” he said.
“My criterion is a simple question mark.”
Sometimes, traditions that seem to have been unquestioned all of a sudden come with an explanation. Why? “The simple fact that the rabbis add that question mark, making it a question to ask, a problem to solve, I suggest is the Pauline effect.”
An example — the term Abraham’s seed, zera Avraham in Hebrew — “is a biblical term, and it is used by many biblical and post-biblical writers before Paul,” Dr. Rosen-Zvi said. “But the rabbis suddenly, out of the blue, made it into a huge issue. The Mishna says that only Israelites are the sons of Abraham.
“This term was used for hundreds of years, and nobody thought that it had to be clarified. Suddenly the rabbis go out of their way. Since we have Paul say explicitly, in many places, that Christ-believers among the nations become the seeds of Abraham, it seems very hard to detach these things.
So sometimes the rabbis and Paul are drawing from the same story-well, and sometimes the rabbis react to Paul. “These perspectives are not mutually exclusive,” Dr. Rosen-Zvi said. The trick, however, is to figure out what is going on with any one issue. “These traditions can get new perspectives when the rabbis relate to their new use — from their perspective, their misuse — as seen through the Pauline lens.”
That means that “both sides are right” in the academic dispute. “They are old traditions, but old traditions do not stay the same,” Dr. Rosen-Zvi said. “They get new twists, and new uses.” And that way, they stay alive.