From Jew to Gentile?

James D. Tabor is chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He specializes in biblical studies, with an emphasis on Christian origins and ancient Judaism. He spoke with Vision publisher David Hulme.


DH What was Judaism like at the time of Jesus and Paul? A lot of people think of it as a monolithic system.

JT It’s a broad misconception that there was a single Judaism during the time of Jesus or during the first century. We could probably rightly talk of Judaisms. Even one of our best contemporary sources, the Jewish historian Josephus, talks about three main schools of Judaism: the Pharisees, the Sadducees and the Essenes. But from other sources we know of as many as 20 additional variations. The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls has really made this clear. To talk about somebody today being a Christian, without any sort of differentiation, would be very similar to saying in the first century, “Oh, he’s Jewish.” It wouldn’t tell you very much.

DH How would you categorize first-century followers of Christ?

JT One of the most interesting questions to ask when you open the New Testament is “What were they called?” Two things begin to come out in the book of Acts, which is our earliest internal record of the history of the group. First, they are not called Christians until quite a bit down the road when they go to the Hellenistic city of Antioch. There, a decade or so after the movement starts, they pick up the name “Christian.” But it is clearly not the dominant name. The name that comes up is a descriptive term: “the people of the Way” or “the Nazarenes.” If we could go back to the first century in a time machine to do a survey of ancient Judaisms, we would have to include them.

DH Some say that Paul wasn’t a Christian because there weren’t any Christians in those days.

JT If anyone could be labeled as a Christian, you might think it is Paul, until you back off a bit and look. I often point out to my students that he is preaching the Hebrew God, Yahweh or Jehovah. He is telling the gentiles about the Hebrew Bible. It is translated into Greek, but it is essentially Abraham, Isaac, Jacob. So instead of reading about Zeus, Apollo and the pantheon, they are going to hear Jewish stories. If you look at Paul’s letters, he refers to the stories as if they either know them or should know them: “our father Abraham,” “consider Isaac.” He expects these gentiles to be very Judaized. He is giving them a very Jewish form of morality, a Jewish view of time and the future (eschatology)—they are very apocalyptic. So when you add up all of that, what would you call them? It’s clear to me that the movement for the first hundred years should be seen as part of Judaism.

DH Yet Paul’s writings have been used by many over the centuries to support an anti-Jewish position.

JT I think the greatest problem we have in reading Paul today is that we tend to read him through the eyes of Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation. Paul becomes the champion of a Protestant version of Christianity. But if we go back to Paul and let him be our guide, we find a Pharisee of Pharisees who excelled in the knowledge of Judaism, who knew the Passover, the Feast of Pentecost and the Feast of Tabernacles. He knew the Sabbath and would have known nothing of Christian history and tradition. If we understand him in that context, Paul is not a Protestant. He is not protesting the Catholic Church. If anything, Paul is a visionary of a kind of a Jewish future that includes the whole world. I think the two people who most misunderstood Paul would be Augustine and Luther, in the sense of not putting him into his Jewish historical context.

The greatest problem we have in reading Paul today is that we tend to read him through the eyes of Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation.” 

James D. Tabor

DH What would Paul have expected of those non-Jews or gentiles who wanted to accept Jesus as the Messiah? Just how “Jewish” were they expected to be? What were their practices?

JT The evidence is that such gentiles generally conformed to what would be seen by outsiders as a Judaic form of life. They are not meeting on Sunday; they are not worshipping in a church; they know nothing of Easter or Christmas or any of the Christian calendar. They are going to meetings on the Sabbath—the seventh-day Sabbath, Saturday.

One of the things we find in Paul’s letters and the book of Acts is an assumption on the part of the authors that they are addressing largely gentile audiences who are participants in Jewish culture. For example, when Paul goes to Philippi, he goes out on the Sabbath to a place where he thinks people will be gathering for prayer. You could call it culture, but it’s Jewish culture, not pagan culture. They are meeting on the Jewish holy day; they are in some way addressing prayers to the Jewish God, reading the Jewish Scriptures; and yet they are gentiles. These followers of Paul are essentially following the rhythms of Jewish life. They are very familiar with the calendar—the holy days—and are clearly deriving some sort of meaning out of these days.

DHThe first-century Roman author Juvenal satirizes some of his fellow Romans for being Sabbath-keepers and for obeying Jewish food restrictions. Why would they have been doing that?

JT When you read the Greco-Roman sources on the way Jews were viewed for about a 300-year period, you get an interesting set of opposites. On the one hand, you find a lot of them making fun of the Jews: they waste one seventh of their life in idleness (referring to the weekly day of rest), or they have odd dietary customs. But you also find references to Judaism being popular: people picking up on Jewish customs and finding them attractive or interesting. And that is from pagan writers. What is more interesting is to fast-forward to fourth-century Antioch, to the time of John Chrysostom. He is very anti-Jewish; he is proud that Christianity has become the replacement for Judaism. But in half of his sermons he is telling people, don’t go to the synagogue, quit keeping the Sabbath, don’t listen to your Jewish neighbors about what you should eat. So it is very clear that, even in the fourth century, Christians are still having this exchange with Jews and being interested in Jewish things. Now, if we want to go back 300 years to Paul’s day, when there is no Christianity per se, these gentiles joining the Pauline movement are essentially becoming Jews in the cultural sense. They are joining a branch, a sort of Judaism for gentiles.