He’s the most famous and controversial convert in Jewish history. And he’s also been widely misunderstood these past 2,000 years, say people who study his work. So yet another effort was made last week to shed light on the contribution or obstacles presented by Paul of Tarsus to Jewish-Catholic relations.
“Paul: Bond or Barrier” was the featured topic at the Sixth Annual Nostra Aetate Dialogue sponsored by Fordham University to commemorate the great progress in interfaith relations since the Vatican II Council in 1965. Barnard College religion professor Alan Segal and University of Chicago New Testament expert Adela Yarbro Collins tried to explain to the audience of several hundred last week the meaning of seemingly anti-Jewish statements attributed to Paul, a first century Jewish leatherworker who is credited with helping found Christianity and writing one third of the New Testament — the Christian Bible. Segal, author of “Paul the Convert,” said one reason Jews misunderstand Paul is that they rarely read him.
“The New Testament is not our scripture so Jews don’t bother reading it,” Segal explained. Most of his Jewish students, he said, are taken aback when they read Paul’s writings. “Who are these people and why are they saying such bad things about us?” Segal reports from his students. “Why are they so obsessed with Jews?” Segal said the answer for this reaction is obvious: “Christians are never mentioned in Jewish scripture or liturgy. So it seems strange that the scriptures or liturgy of a religion should go out of its way to pick on us.” But Segal argues that it is important for Jews to study Paul — a Jew who tried mightily to convince his fellow first century Jews that Jesus was the messiah the people were waiting for in this apocalyptic time.
For one, Paul is a diaspora Jew and a mystic who sheds light on the state of Jewish mysticism in the first century.
“He is invaluable to understanding Jewish history of the first century. Without him, we would have little idea about the kinds of perspectives that Judaism evinced in the first century,” said Segal. As to whether Paul is a barrier or a bond to Jewish Christian relations, Segal believes he is both. On the one hand, Paul says some harsh things about Jews who refuse to come on board with the early Jews who believed in Jesus.
“He is puzzled, indeed angered by the Jewish lack of interest in the Gospel,” Segal explains. But Paul also states that “All Israel will be saved,” — apparently, whether they accept Jesus or not, leading to confusion about what he really meant. Ultimately, Segal says, Paul does not do what many of today’s TV evangelists do in his name, that is, declare they know what God has in store for Jews in history.
“He [Paul] does not relegate the people of Israel and their religious piety to the ash heap,” said Segal. “So I think Christians should do the same. Refrain from making statements about what God intends from the Jews or especially what Jews should do to guarantee their salvation. Instead Paul makes a statement about the unknowability of God’s plan.”
Joking, he compared Paul to Homer Simpson’s toast: “Here’s to alcohol, the cause of and solution to all life’s problems.
“I could paraphrase and say, ‘Here’s to Paul, a cause of and solution to the Jewish Christian dialogue.’ ”
Fordham’s first five Nostra Aetate dialogues are now available (Fordham University Press) in a new book edited by Dean Edward Bristow called “No Religion Is An Island,” including discussions on the Jewishness of Jesus and on Abraham Joshua Heschel and social activism.
Several major Christian figures in the Jewish-Christian dialogue have passed away in recent months causing concern about the next generation.
A. Roy Eckardt, a professor of religion at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania died in May at the age of 79. A United Methodist who graduated from Brooklyn College and attended Yale Divinity School and Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan, Eckardt was one of the first vocal Christian defenders of the State of Israel a fierce foe of anti-Semitism. A student of the great Christian theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, he spent much of his life calling on Christians to refrain from all attempts to convert Jews. Last month Rev. Edward H. Flannery died at the age of 86. He is credited with being a major force in the development of constructive Catholic-Jewish relations in the past 30 years.
“His path-breaking work, ‘The Anguish of the Jews’ published in 1966, shattered negative caricatures and stereotypes that had existed for centuries,” explained Rabbi A. James Rudin, director of Interreligious Affairs at the American Jewish Committee. In 1967, Rev. Flannery became the first director of Catholic Jewish Relations at the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.
“The friendship and trust that exist today between Christians and Jews in this country and in many other parts of the world are due in large part to the courageous initiatives of Father Flannery,” said Judith Banki, program director for the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding. In a time when some say privately that the Jewish commitment to interfaith dialogue is waning, and Christian elder statesmen are passing away, the loss of these two men is deeply felt.
“The Jewish community and the people of Israel have lost steadfast, outspoken and caring friends,” Banki said.