Opinion: Remembering Saul/Paul

Paul’s message in defence of Judaism was ignored by the Catholic church for centuries.

Christian bible - Paul (photo credit: Courtesy)
Christian bible - Paul
(photo credit: Courtesy)
For most Jews, Saul/Paul was a renegade remembered with bitterness for the criticism he aimed at the Jewish religion after he became an ardent follower of Jesus. Perhaps it is time for this negative view of Paul to be balanced by the solid defense of the Jews he wrote in the middle of the first century CE. Scholars estimate that the main purpose of this letter to the Roman church was to encourage Christian-Jewish coexistence and prevent Roman Christians from supporting the anti-Jewish sentiment prevailing in Rome.
Its compelling defense of the Jews was the most important scriptural backing for the turnaround of Catholic attitudes to Jews in the Second Vatican Council.
One can speculate that if Paul’s defense had been properly understood from the start, contempt for the Jews may never have taken root in the Church.
In this letter, there is one statement that deserves special attention just as the whole world is demonizing the Jewish inhabitants of Judaea and Samaria. Over the past few years, strong condemnations have issued from the World Council of Churches, Presbyterian Church (USA), Disciples and United Church of Christ, Mennonite Central Committee, Sabeel and in the Kairos Palestine document, to mention a few.
Most recently the United Methodist Church has resorted to punishing the Jews of Judaea and Samaria with a boycott. Not only do these mainstream Christians condemn Jews for living in their ancient homeland, but they also influence leading statesmen, politicians and non-governmental organizations to do the same.
Quite apart from the usual legal and historical arguments supporting Jewish settlement in Judaea and Samaria, these Christians should be challenged for ignoring Paul on this issue. For in his letter, Paul says of the Jews: “In respect to the gospel, they are enemies on your account; but in respect to election, they are beloved because of the patriarchs. For the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable” (Romans 11:28-29). And in this reference to ‘the gifts and call,’ no one can deny that the Land is among the most prominent of the gifts. There is no question here of Christian abrogation or supersessionism, for Paul confirms that the gifts, including the Land, are irrevocable. For believing Christians, this should be self-evident.
This brings us to the enduring incomprehension of this passage. Prof.
Joseph Sievers summarizes a series of ecclesiastical misunderstandings going back nearly 2,000 years: “We have observed that Ambrosiaster’s misinterpretation of Romans 11:29, based on a simple error or on a somewhat forced theology of baptism, exerted its influence for over 1,000 years, even beyond the time of the Protestant Reformation. Similarly, Augustine’s teaching on grace and predestination, which made extensive use of our verse, has had an enduring influence on Catholic and Protestant theology.... Finally, important impulses for further exegetical and theological reflection have come through the teachings of Vatican II and of Pope John Paul II” (A History of the Interpretation of Romans 11:29’ in Annali di Storia dell’Esegesi 14/2 [1997], 381-442, quote from 442).
It is almost unbelievable that such an apparently simple verse should have to wait until the middle of the twentieth century to start making sense to Christians. Prof. Sievers ascribes this delay to the strong Christian prejudice against Jews, which persisted more or less unchallenged until the Shoah: “The verse, perhaps the most concise statement of God’s fidelity, has long been neglected. For based on a Christian reading of other biblical texts it seemed inconceivable that Jews who did not accept Jesus as the Christ could still have a positive relationship with God. Thus it was frequently argued that God’s gifts and call had either passed entirely to the Christian Church or had been put on hold until the Jews’ conversion…” (op. cit. 440-1).

In the wake of the Shoah, Christian communities have cited this verse again and again in their radical reassessment of Jews. However, confronted with current Christian attitudes toward the Jewish inhabitants of Judaea and Samaria, one wonders whether the full significance of this verse has even yet been grasped.
Yochanan Ben-Daniel is a family doctor with an abiding interest in Christian- Jewish relations.