In recent months, I have been advancing a fairly “strong” reading of the authentic letters of Paul, with Romans 9-11 as the guiding thread on his relationship to Judaism. As I’ve been going through the letters in Greek, though, my reading completely ran aground on Galatians. It seems clear that any attempt to get one consistent position from Paul on this issue is impossible, and that’s because Paul is always responding to events — as indeed his very mission to the Gentiles is a response to an event (the apocalyptic vision of Christ).
I’ve also been reading Gershom Scholem’s work on messianism in the last couple weeks, and based on what he says there, I’d say that Paul starts out as an “anarchist” messianist (as opposed to the kind of messianist who thinks the law will be intensified in the messianic age) — perhaps because the coming of the messiah required the ingathering of the Gentiles, Paul concludes that the law loses its force for the new messianic era. This is where the language of the law as temporary pedagogue in Galatians comes in, as well as the language about the curse of the law that has now been lifted. With everyone set free from the requirements of the law and everyone being gathered into one community, it becomes easy to view Jewish particularity as something that’s being dissolved in the messiah — and for both Peter and the Galatian community, turning back to the law under these circumstances means voluntarily putting oneself under a curse.
However, as time goes by, Paul sees that the Jews, as a people, are not acknowledging Christ (though individuals, most notably Paul, are). Based on his previous understanding, the only conclusion to draw is that the Jews are completely rejected — but that’s impossible! And so he comes up with the argument in Romans 9-11, wherein the Jews should not be expected to turn to Christ until the full number of the Gentiles has been brought in, at which point they’ll be so jealous of God’s grace to the Gentiles that they won’t be able to help but join in themselves.
(It appears that Paul might even think that he can “pull it off” in his own lifetime: in his mind, he’s already exhausted the eastern half of the empire and plans to head west. The first commentator on Romans, Origen of Alexandria, views Paul as personally interceding for the salvation of the Jews and letting his audience know that God has promised to grant the request — and in our own century, Jacob Taubes reads Paul as putting himself in the place of Moses, interceding for the people after the golden calf incident. Perhaps this motif reflects something of the “taking God by surprise” element that we’ve lately discussed in connection with 2 Maccabees — Paul discerns that God is waiting for all the nations to be gathered in before bringing Israel on board, and so he says, “Well, okay, I’ll personally go to all the nations, then, to speed things up!”)
It doesn’t seem as though Paul made it west, instead finding himself martyred at Rome. He also likely missed the world-historical event that was to render his position in Romans 9-11 a minority opinion in the New Testament and to color the interpretation of Galatians: the destruction of the temple. This event is, in my reading, the watershed moment when the Christian movement develops the tendency to view the Jews as the enemy, rather than (as had been the case for Paul) the Roman Empire.
The Gospels increasingly scapegoat the Jews (though it’s possible Mark can be interpreted as escaping this charge), with the Gospel of John going so far as to reject essentially all claims of Jewish privilege and to identify the Jews as children of the devil — and notice how it’s the only Gospel that doesn’t explicitly line up the crucifixion with the Passover or have Jesus taking part in a Passover meal. Acts attempts to recruit Paul himself into this narrative, imposing a scheme whereby Paul has to reenact the Jewish rejection of the messiah in every town he visits before turning to the Gentiles. On the other side, the post-Pauline epistles (other than James) either base themselves on the dominant model of the Roman household or, in the case of Hebrews, explicitly make the case for supercessionism.
The major dissenting voice among the later New Testament writings is Revelation, where the enemy is once again clearly the Roman empire. Brilliantly synthesizing the Hebrew Bible, the writings of the 2nd Temple period, and the nascent New Testament traditions, its author calls out — with a degree of desperation matched only by Galatians or the Corinthian correspondence, i.e., rhetorical situations where Paul was basically never going to win the argument — for Christians to define themselves in opposition to empire. (I base my argument here on Elisabeth Schussler-Fiorenza’s interpretation.) Like Paul’s argument in Romans, though, Revelation was destined to be marginal in its impact, as both became folded into the game of “end times” speculation (and in the case of Romans, the question of predestination, which wasted so much of the intellectual energy of Western Christianity).
The irony is that the anti-Jewish stream only makes sense if the situation of Romans is read into Galatians — if Paul was an antinomian messianist at this early period, then his remarks about how the law is not beneficial to the Gentiles who are being brought on board should not be extrapolated to the Jews as such, whom Paul surely expected to be brought on board as well via their own set of apostles. Paul can only say such harsh words about the law in a situation where he’s confident that the Jews are soon to acknowledge Christ en masse (something of which his own story surely seemed to be a token), and once it becomes clear that that’s not happening, he radically revises his thought, coming up with the unexpected narrative whereby the ingathering of the Gentiles is meant to arouse jealousy in the Jews.
In both situations, the one constant is that God’s calling of the Jews is irrevocable and all Israel shall be saved. Beginning already in the New Testament, however, the respective situations of Galatians and Romans were reversed, in the interests of producing a reading that left out the one constant that underlay both arguments.