Did Paul reject “Judaism?”

In the latest issue of the Journal of Theological Studies, James D. G. Dunn reviews the new multi-author book Paul within Judaism edited by Mark Nanos and Magnus Zetterholm. The book argues that Paul should be interpreted from within Judaism. Dunn, a proponent of the New Perspective on Paul, is quite unimpressed with the book as a whole and finds the specific critiques of the New Perspective underwhelming, to say the least!

I have yet to read the book, and don’t necessarily endorse all the ideas in it. However, I thought it worth making a comment here about Dunn’s final critique:

Still more surprising from my perspective is the fact that Paul’s use of the key phrase ‘in/within Judaism’, which occurs only in Gal. 1:13–14 (twice), is never really discussed, even by Anders Runesson, who explicitly addresses ‘The Question of Terminology’ (ch. 2). How can an attempt to (re)locate Paul ‘within Judaism’ ignore Paul’s only use of the phrase so completely? The point is that Paul uses the phrase only in reference to his pre-conversion self-understanding. The implication is that the converted Paul no longer thought of himself as ‘within Judaism’. This, of course, says nothing about Paul’s continued understanding of himself as a Jew (as in Acts 21:39; 1 Cor. 9:20; Gal. 2:15). And ‘Judaism’ as used in Gal. 1:13–14 should not be simply equated with ‘Judaism’ then or now; Paul the Jew certainly digs deeply into his Jewish and scriptural heritage. But the clear implication of Gal. 1:13–14 is that ‘in Judaism’ was used by Paul to describe or refer only to his pre-conversion self or status. So, quite how Nanos in his opening essay, but representative of the volume, can simply assert that Paul remained a representative within late Second Temple Judaism (pp. 9–10) without reference to this key text is somewhat baffling. It is very disappointing, then, that a collection of essays entitled ‘Paul within Judaism’ never really discusses what presumably should be regarded as the key text.

If Dunn is right that the book never properly discusses Galatians 1:13-14, that is unfortunate. However, there is an answer to his criticism. Dunn actually alludes to the answer when he says that “Judaism’ as used in Gal. 1:13–14 should not be simply equated with ‘Judaism’ then or now”. In fact, the term Ἰουδαϊσμός in Galatians 1:13-14 should not be translated as “Judaism” at all, if by “Judaism” we mean a general set of religious beliefs about God, salvation, etc. Rather, the word Ἰουδαϊσμός in Galatians 1:13-14 refers to something far more specific. It refers to a strong, often militant, commitment to preserving the Jewish way of life from the contaminating influence of Gentiles. It is a rare word, used only in 2 and 4 Maccabees (2 Macc 2:21; 8:1; 14:38 [2x]; 4 Macc 4:26) and twice in inscriptions. In each case, the word is describing a kind of revolutionary counter-movement that fought against foreign influences and sought to bring Jews back to true Jewish ways.

Galatians 1:13-14, then, is not making a direct statement about Paul’s rejection of “Second Temple Judaism”. Rather, Galatians 1:13-14 is simply saying that Paul had rejected one particular Jewish idea – Ἰουδαϊσμός. The Ἰουδαϊσμός Paul had rejected was a militaristic striving to preserve God’s people from contaminating influences, which he had expressed in his violent persecution of the Christian assemblies. Paul had repented of this attitude ofἸουδαϊσμός. The reason he rejected this form of violent striving is because of the revelation of Jesus Christ, which, among other things, made him realise that “all flesh”–i.e. both Jews and Gentiles–stand as sinners before God and in need of justification through faith in Christ (Gal 2:16ff.) In other words, Jews didn’t need protection from contamination by Gentiles. What they needed was justification through faith in Christ.

(More detail about this word is in my book Paul and the Vocation of Israel.)

There may be many other reasons to reject the claim that Paul should be interpreted from “within Judaism”. However, the reference to the word in Galatians 1:13-14 is not one of these reasons.