“Whether Paul was responsible for all this anti-Jewish writing is far less important than the use Christian theologians from the late empire to the twentieth century made of this material as an ideological paradigm and an emotional attack of Jews…”
(Robert Michael, 2008, A History of Catholic Antisemitism, p.12)
The Jewish Problem: From Christian anti-Judaism to Secular Antsemitism
With this article I introduce the “prequel” to my previous blog-turned book, America the Exception? Jewish Denial in the 21st Century.
In the present series I intend to explore more deeply how and why Christian scripture needed a Jewish “negative” against which to understand itself. Christian theology, the literature dedicated to understanding and providing explanation of scripture achieved, in the writings of Augustine of Hippo in the late fourth century, an approach to its Jewish Problem that provided explanation and solution, the Witness Doctrine. According to Augustine God allows “the Jews,” eternally (Matthew 27:25 attribution) guilty of the murder of His son; to survive as “witness” to “Christian Truth.” That explanation would incidentally allow Jews to survive the fourth century.
As for Augustine’s description of and solution to Christianity’s Jewish Problem, however successful or not as theological explanation adopted by the Church, gospel representations of “the Jew” in the crucifixion of Jesus would not satisfy the urge for revenge on Christ’s "murderers." As the crusaders set out seven centuries later to liberate the Holy Land in 1096 they would, on the road to Jerusalem, exterminate entire Jewish communities encountered along the way:
“As the soldiers passed through Europe on the way to the Holy Land, large numbers of Jews were challenged: "Christ-killers, embrace the Cross or die!"
In the words of James Carroll, author of Constantine''s Sword, the Crusades were,
“Europe''s rehearsal for the extermination of the Jews.”
II. Beginnings of the Jewish Problem
Christianity''s Jewish Problem may be dated with the father of Christianity, Paul of Tarsus. Who was Paul, and what motivated him to attack Jews and Judaism? Paul describes himself a Pharisee, as having studied at Qumran. But according Jewish scholars of the period his understanding of Judaism is, at best, flawed, his identity as a Jew questioned by both Jewish and Christian scholars today. William Nicholls, an Anglican minister and theologian finds Paul’s “revolutionary interpretation,” his anti-Jewish approach to Judaism inconsistent with his own asserted “Jewish” identity:
“He represents himself as fully qualified to put forward this revolutionary interpretation of Judaism by virtue of his own Jewish birth and education as a Pharisee... Either Paul was not really a Pharisee of advanced scholarly accomplishment, as he himself claims, or the traditional interpretation that involves making him ignorant of basic Jewish beliefs is wrong.” (1993, Christian Antisemitism: a history of hate, p. 130-31)
Which raised, for Dr. Nicholls, the question,
“Was Paul anti-Jewish as well as Jewish, if indeed his own origins were Jewish, as he claims?” (emphasis added)
The road to the Holocaust was launched in the earliest documents of Christian scripture. 1 Thessalonians, considered the first of Paul’s epistles, already contained the charge that “the Jews” were collectively responsible for Jesus crucifixion. This theme, that Jews are Christ-killers, is a theme that would be picked up by all four canonical gospels decades after Paul’s death. And while some Protestant denominations and the Church differ significantly on interpretation, what all retain in common is basic Ghristian scripture: Paul’s epistles and the four canonical gospels. And that collection is generally considered the “inerrant Word of God.”
III: Scriptural “inerrancy”
If Christian scripture is the “inerrant Word of God” then the writings of Paul and the gospels should today be identical to the form in which they originally appeared. Yet Christian theologians, Catholic and Protestant, generally agree that this is impossible since the originals were written on papyrus, a medium with a short “shelf life.” Periodically all had to be transcribed, rewritten. And all would have had to include unintended errors as well as intentional harmonizing to accord with later need and understanding. Perhaps the most famous and obvious such was the likely fourth ccentury insertion into Josephus Antiquities of a passage referring to Jesus, the Testimonium Fluvianum. It seems that Eusebius, a Church Father, would have been its author.
“As for the story of Jesus, there were at least 50 gospels written in the first and second century CE. Four of them (Mathew, Mark, Luke, and John) were included in the official canon during the fourth century CE and are found today in every Bible. All of the original copies of the gospels were lost. What we have now are handwritten copies, which are an unknown number of replications removed from the originals.” (my emphasis)
The Jesus Seminar agrees that the argument for “inerrancy” is flawed, and in describing the process of rewriting the documents wonders,
“Why, if God took such pains to preserve an inerrant text for posterity did the spirit not provide for the preservation of original copies… we do not have original copies of any gospels… The oldest surviving copies of the gospels date from about one hundred and seventy-five years after the death of Jesus, and no two copies are precisely alike… And handmade manuscripts have almost always been ‘corrected’ here and there [in the process of copying them], often by more than one hand. (emphasis added)
“Even careful copyists make some mistakes, as any proofreader knows. So we will never be able to claim certain knowledge of exactly what the original text of any biblical writing was.” (The Five Gospels: What did Jesus Really say?)
Paul’s epistles, closest in time to the the assumed date of the crucifixion was written a decade and more later. Paul never actually encountered Jesus except, as he describes, in a vision. As for the gospels, the earliest of the four, “Mark,” likely appeared after 70 CE and the fall of Jerusalem. The last of the four, “John,” only appeared in the early Second Century:
“at least seven letters [epistles] are “genuine” – that is, written by Paul himself… These seven include three longer ones (Romans, I and II [and] Corinthians), and four shorter ones (I Thessalonians, Galatians, Philippians, and Philemon). Written in the 50s of the first century, plus or minus a year or two, they are the earliest documents in the New Testament, earlier than the gospels (recall that Mark, the first gospel, was written around 70). Thus the genuine letters of Paul are the oldest witness we have to what was to become Christianity.”
How “authentic” are these documents? Neither Paul’s epistles nor the four canonical gospels survive in their original form for reasons described above. The earliest fragment of an “original” is tiny and dates to the late Second Century. For “preservation” originals were copied by generations of scribes which opens them to the problems described above plus, even assuming transcription accuracy, language itself changes over time introducing yet another source of “error.” And if the materials were translated into other languages: it is commonly acknowledged that translating preent-day literature results in "losing something in translation.” And with numerous translations form the original Greek; with numerous versions within each language the problem of “inerrancy” becomes obvious.
Dr. Robert Eisenman, world renown scholar of the first century and responsible for opening the Dead Sea Scrolls to the public has written extensively on Paul as Herodian and I will soon turn to that discussion. But before turning to the identity of the evangelist let''s consider Paul’s described encounter with Jesus.