Continuity — Paul's Audiences —The Thessalonians

In the previous post we saw that for 'historicists' like Greg Boyd and Paul Eddy the earliest Christians were Jews who, despite the vehement revulsion they would have felt toward the idea of a “god-man” under normal circumstances (it was against their very grain and fiber to accept such sacrilege—so Boyd & co.), were somehow convinced and compelled by the ‘evidence’ (i.e., reports of Jesus’ supernatural ‘extras’ —healings, raisings, self-proclamations, et al.) to now choose to abandon the strictures of their former fanatical monotheism in favor of one that allowed for this “god-man.” This is in fact the standard traditional (orthodox) view.

If we, for the sake of argument, bracket the question of their authenticity[1] and their dating, and place them in the sixth and seventh decades of the first century, as current consensus does, the Pauline epistles would be the earliest record that we have of the phenomenon of Christianity. Under this scenario, just twenty years after Jesus supposedly was killed, perhaps a few dozen thriving communities of Christians were already festooning Canaan, Asia Minor, and the northern Mediterranean—even across into Alexandria in Egypt—all proclaiming the peculiar christologies and soteriologies and creeds of an emerging orthodoxy. Paul knew of these communities and endeavored to travel to many of them to preach his particular gospel. His tireless labor made him a valued mentor and authority to these communities, who received his correspondences with either joy and gladness or fear and trembling, depending on whether or not they had been upholding the teachings he had previously given them. In addition to asking what the spiritual/theological indebtedness or relation to the original Jerusalem group was (the wellspring of it all), we would like to know who these people were that Paul was exhorting to follow this new fulfilled religion that in his eyes transcended the Torah. As we survey the epistles it is very important to keep in mind who Paul’s respective audiences were.

Boyd is absolutely certain that Paul is “thoroughly Jewish. He thinks Jewish. He talks Jewish. His letters are filled with references to the Old Testament. He presupposes a Jewish framework in all of his epistles and the congregation he’s writing to.”

Questions queue up: Do Paul’s letters bear this out? Is there some way to determine the Jewishness of Paul’s proto-Christian communities?
What about Paul’s own Judaism? Is there a way to gauge it?

Commentaries that underscore Paul’s thorough Judaism usually do so by comparing the rhetoric of the epistles to some of the popular exegetical methods available and known to be in vogue in Jewish discourse at the time. These include midrash, typology, allegory and pesher. I’ll stop to remark on some of those occasions when I discuss the pauline epistles, as this might reveal not just the extent of his “Pharisaim”, but it might also tell us what his readers were prone to accept as normative from an authority of Paul’s stature.

The New Testament is a richly variegated text with many subtexts. I’m limiting my focus to a few questions relevant to the topic of "Jewishness" as I survey the epistles:

  • Who were the intended readers of the epistle to each respective community? 
  • Were they Pagans? 
  • Were they Jews? 

The answer to this question will affect the way we judge their understanding of the material that Paul is presenting to them as a form of "Judaism."

Some further questions:
  • How does the preaching contained in the Pauline epistles compare/contrast with the normative Judaism of the day as we understand it? 
  • What can we glean about the James faction from these epistles?

The Thessalonians

Who were they?

The audience of the first letter to the Thessalonians consisted of gentile pagans. Of this there can be little doubt (1:9). A plain reading suggests they were working class gentile people that Paul likely preached to at their places of work and in public.

This short epistle praises the community for holding fast to the gospel that Paul had previously handed down to them. When the Jews are mentioned in it, they sort of have a “Blue Meanies” (from the Beatles' Yellow Submarine) feel to them, i.e. they have a malevolent aspect; they are an enemy to run and hide from, lest they inflict harm to the apostle and his entourage. (see end of Chapter 2)

Who was it that persecuted Paul, as late (presumably) as 51 C.E. or so?
Who chased him from Judea to Athens?
If his only crime was holding to a radical Jewish messianic belief in the face of an antagonistic and muscular orthodox Jewish opposition, then why wasn’t James (or Cephas for that matter) who was supposedly espousing this same messianism, also chased out of town along with Paul?
The anti-Paul faction must have been some group who either didn’t know of the truce reached at the "council of Jerusalem," or who otherwise were a rogue group that just didn’t care about this truce. Perhaps the James gang was persecuted as well, and we just don’t know about it, that's certainly one possibility. Or perhaps James wasn't preaching the same stuff that Paul was at all, after all, and was therefore left in peace by those who opposed Paul. The problem with the first option, though, is that the only pertinent near-contemporary extra-canonical textual reference that alludes to this James sect is that of Josephus (in the Antiquities.) Though it is dubious, to be sure (and likely an interpolation[2]), this Josephan passage portrays James as a respected and righteous leader of the community, not as an outcast, so I seriously doubt he could have been preaching “Jesus the resurrected god-man” in Jerusalem and yet was still left in peace by these Über-judaizer bad guys.

What traces of Judaic symbolism we find in 1st Thessalonians immediately call to mind the Qumran variety of Judaism (current consensus calls them “Essenes”) — consider the “sons of light/darkness” [3] motif (5:5), for instance. It could reflect this kind of exilic "Judaism" but they could just as easily be a traces of emergent Gnosticism or of Zoroastrian dualism, which was already part of the cultural milieu at the time. One of the telling things that I have learned about “Paul” as I re-read these epistles is that it is hard to peg all that he says down to one single individual person’s mind.   Paul seems to be as much a composite talking head as Jesus is. (But that’s for another essay.)


What do we know about the Thessolonians viz Paul's epistle and/or Judaism?

We know that Paul was pleased with the Thessalonian Christians for remaining loyal to the Pauline brand. We know that some people were starting to die off before the parousia and that the surviving members were beginning to worry about their salvation. We know that Paul felt persecuted by "Jews" which seem to be more caricature than real people. 

What do we think we know?

We tend to subconsciously automatically (uncritically, retrojecting into this epistle what is found in Acts) equate “Jew” or “Jerusalem” with “James party” which leads to a whole parade of misunderstanding. We’ll return to that after we take a look at some meatier Pauline letters.

1 - I tend to agree with W.C. Van Manen, G. A. van den Bergh van Eysinga, and Bruno Bauer that it is unlikely that any of the pauline epistles are authentic. However, for the purpose of this series of essays, I will presume that Baur's Hauptebriefe is genuine. I include Thessalonians in this series as well just because it is thought to be the earliest of the pauline epistles by some scholars.

2 — James Carleton Paget, Some Observations on Josephus and Christianity, the Journal of Theological Studies, (2001), pp. 553-554;  Ken Olson, A Eusebian Reading of the Testimonium Flavianum, in Eusebius of Caesaria: Tradition and Innovations (2013), pp. 314-319);  Richard Carrier, in a couple of works, most recently in On the Historicity of Jesus (2014),  pp. 337-340 ... {and also scholars who accept the (partial) authenticity of the TF itself} ... c.f.  Robert E. Van Voorst, Jesus Outside the New Testament (2000), pp 91-92.

3 - Compare with the Dead Sea Scrolls “Rule of the Community” which elaborates on this theme.


Post a Comment

anonymous comments may or may not be published ...