Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Simon Schama's misreading of Paul

I've greatly enjoyed the first couple of episodes of Simon Schama's Story of the Jews currently airing on BBC2.  Schama is a wonderful story-teller and he knows how to make his subject matter compelling and memorable, always very impressive given the constraints of the documentary medium, with the need to summarize,  to simplify, to splice and dice.

Because of my admiration for Schama and the current series, I was disappointed to hear the kind of ignorant caricature of Paul that one would normally only see in a sensationalist documentary.  About fifteen minutes or so into the second episode, Schama looks at Constantine's conversion to Christianity, and begins to explain how early Christians reacted to Jews and Judaism.  This is my transcription of the section:
Born a Jew, like his saviour, was Paul who, within a few years of Jesus' death began the process of liberating Christianity from the claims of Jewish ritual.  Christianity was either universal or it was nothing.  So Paul aggressively de-Judaizes the Christian message and there was no surer way of doing that than insisting on the divinity of Jesus.  That violated the first supreme principle of Judaism which was the indivisible oneness of God.  Echad.  Two: "Father and son" had Jews scratching their beards.  Three: "The holy spirit".  Why not five?

And it was Paul who repeated the sinister note sounded in the early Christian Gospels, -- the Jews as Christ-killers crying out for Jesus' crucifixion -- "his blood be on us and on our children".
There are several problems with this section of the documentary, all of which could have been simply ironed out if Schama had consulted someone competent in the study of Christian origins.  To take them in turn:

(1) Although Schama acknowledges that Paul was "born a Jew", the implication is that Paul converted away from Judaism to something different, called "Christianity".  But Paul never mentions "the Christian message" or "Christianity" and he would have been appalled by the notion that he "de-Judaizing" anything, still less that he did so aggressively.  Paul insists on his Jewish identity and without understanding that, one cannot understand Paul (Phil. 3.4-6, Rom. 9.1-5) or, for that matter, the early Jesus movement.  Schama's misunderstanding is a classic one.  Paul is an eschatological Jew who believes that the Messiah has come and that the Gentiles are now being included in the people of God.  He is not founding a new religion purged of Jewish ritual.

(2) Affirming Jesus as Messiah and God's son did not "violate the first supreme principle of Judaism".  On the contrary, Paul believed that Jesus' appearance was an affirmation of that very principle, and he goes to some pains to stress this in his Christological re-affirmation of the Shema (1 Cor. 8.6, "Yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live").  Nor does Paul talk about "the holy spirit" as a person of the trinity -- this is as anachronistic as "Why not five?" is sarcastic.

(3) No one, apart perhaps from some fundamentalists, think that the Gospels were written before Paul.  The line that Schama is quoting is from Matt. 27.25 and all contemporary scholars date Matthew long after Paul, some by decades.  So Paul is not "repeating the sinister note sounded in the early Christian Gospels", nor is that note found in Paul, who does not have a Passion narrative in his letters.

To reiterate, I think this is a superb documentary and I am a big fan of Schama.  But I think this section falls below his usual standards. One of the reasons that this is important is that getting the history right plays a key role in Jewish-Christian relations.  Given the appalling history of Christian attitudes to Jews and Judaism documented by Schama, it is worth paying careful attention to what Jews like Paul, right at the beginning of the Jesus movement, actually said.

22 comments:

Jerome said...

What is the evidence that Paul thought that Jesus actually was God/YHWH and not just YHWH's messenger, deputy or the like?

Chris Tilling said...

Jerome, my book may be of interest on that subject: Paul's Divine Christology

Chris Tilling said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ed Gentry said...

Jerome, you could also read Hurtado's "Lord Jesus Christ" or on a more popular level "How on Earth did Jesus become a God"

Peter Knezevich said...

Should have read Pamela Eisenbaum's "Paul Was Not a Christian: The Original Message of a Misunderstood Apostle"

Jens Knudsen (Sili) said...

" there was no surer way of doing that than insisting on the divinity of Jesus."

Isn't what Paul is insisting on the *death* of Jesus?

Incidentally I'm reading Adam Winn at the moment, and I'm curious as to what Paul actually says about the crucifixion. I think I've heard that his wording is not necessarily clear. That what he's talking about need not be Roman crucifixion in the manner we're used to thinking of it. Is there any truth to that?

sheffieldbiblicalstudies said...

Interesting use of the term "fundamentalists"!!

Paul Regnier said...

Schama's take on Paul bugged me as well.

It worked as a piece of drama, i.e. to set the scene for the Jews' subsequent uneasy existence under Christian rule, but as history it was pretty sloppy.

Deane said...

But this material on Paul comes after a highly uncritical use of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, in which Schama treats founding myths as reality. It might be good story-telling, but it's dilettantish history.

Miguel de Servet said...

(1) Paul definitely distinguishes between the Israel which did not accept Jesus Christ and the Gentiles who have accepted Jesus Christ (Romans 11), although he affirms that this "partial hardening [that] has happened to Israel" (Rom 11:25) is not definitive, but only part of God's providential and mysterious plan.
(2) Paul, while he doesn't alter the shema, on the other hand, by affirming that "there is one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live", extols Jesus Christ to a hight that no Jew would have admitted for the Messiah. This, BTW, is the very reason why in the Gospels we see Jesus accused of blasphemy.
(3) Paul certainly has at least a nucleus of "Passion narrative in his letters". In particular 1 Corinthians 11:23-26

Justin J. Meggitt said...

Important post Mark. Not watching Schama as I stopped being interested in his work after his Embarrassment of Riches book but such a shame he makes such remarks. Thanks for picking up on it and putting this in the public sphere.

Jim Deardorff said...

Re (2) and Paul's affirmation that Isaiah's prophecy of a Messiah had come true in Jesus, it is very interesting that Paul nowhere refers to "Immanuel" or to Isa 7:14.

Miguel de Servet said...

@ Jim Deardorff

Paul's epistles are the most abundant source of quotations, paraphrases or allusions to Isaiah in the NT. Could you please be specific as to what you have in mind when you speak of "Paul's affirmation that Isaiah's prophecy of a Messiah had come true in Jesus"?

Thanks

Jim Deardorff said...

@ Miguel, I had in mind Rom 15:12.

Miguel de Servet said...

Thank you, Jim. Rom 15:12 is a quotation of Isaiah 11:10, which, in turn, is the first verse of the unquestionably Messianic passage Isaiah 11:10-16. None of the a.m. passage, though, can be directly related to Jesus of Nazareth.

Steven Carr said...

Did Paul write 1 Thessalonians 2?

'You suffered from your own people the same things those churches suffered from the Jews who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and also drove us out. They displease God and are hostile to everyone in their effort to keep us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved. In this way they always heap up their sins to the limit. The wrath of God has come upon them at last'

Perhaps Simon Schama has become confused and thinks this is about the wrath of God coming on Jews.



Ian Paul said...

Thanks for picking this up. I have recorded it but not watched yet. I was more disappointed that the first episode did not look much at the OT, but perhaps that will be corrected.

But another key point which is perhaps more fundamental is the idea that rabbinic Judaism is in straight continuity with first century Judaism. It seems to me increasingly clear that it in fact defined itself away from the Jesus movement, so that these two were different expressions of second temple Judaism, rather than one being the inheritor and the other being a spin off, as it were.

David Bryan said...

Well said Mark. It is a stimulating documentary. But that section of the second programme was jarring and quite off piste! Dr David Bryan, Lindisfarne RTP.

Geoff Hudson said...

Simon doesn't seem to recognise that there were priests and prophets whose views were different. It is a pity that he doesn't come on this site.

Geoff Hudson said...

Is Simon Schama a historian?

It was a surprise to me that he was Jewish. And it was equally a surprise to hear his comments about Paul. But he is entitled to his opinion.

James D. Tabor said...

Thanks Mark, I have a somewhat different perspective as to whether Paul the Jew might be considered an "apostate" from the mother faith of "Judaisms" and founder of a "third way," with or without the distinctive label of Christianity. In other words the system of faith he proposes is much more than his Jewishness with "the Messiah has come" added in. Just wrote a post on this. Would love to discuss face to face someday.

http://jamestabor.com/2013/09/15/paul-the-jew-as-founder-of-christianity/

Geoff Hudson said...

Mark, you wrote:

"About fifteen minutes or so into the second episode, Schama looks at Constantine's conversion to Christianity, and begins to explain how early Christians reacted to Jews and Judaism. This is my transcription of the section:
'Born a Jew, like his saviour, was Paul who, within a few years of Jesus' death began the process of liberating Christianity from the claims of Jewish ritual. Christianity was either universal or it was nothing. So Paul aggressively de-Judaizes the Christian message and there was no surer way of doing that than insisting on the divinity of Jesus.' "

Was Simon Schama implying that Paul's letters were written late, i.e. shortly before the conversion of Constantine?