PAUL’S MOVE FROM JUDAISM TO APOSTLE TO THE GENTILES
As Dom Dix, the Roman Catholic Patristic scholar notes, Acts passes very lightly over the Jewish-Christian mission to the Dispersion, even though it caused a ferment in Judaism. Dix notes that Sir Idris Bell published a papyrus, which, in his opinion, indicated that the very serious disturbances in the Alexandrian ghetto in AD 42-43 originated in opposition to the activities of Jewish-Christian missionaries “from Syria”. The “continual rioting” in the Jewish quarters at Rome, which resulted in the expulsion of many Jews from the city in AD 49 were ascribed to this cause. Possibly the riots were directed against Andronicus and Junias, Jewish “Apostles”, who came to Christ before Paul, and who are members of the pre-Pauline Palestinian Jewish Church. We see traces of this in the earliest days of the Church.
“When the mob at Salonica in AD 50 complains to the magistrates that ‘These people who have turned the whole world upside down have arrived here now,’ they indicated a far wider and more notorious disturbance than S. Paul’s own bare three years of missioning, mostly in remote towns in Galatia (i.e. south central Asia Minor), could have caused; and the rumor that the movement is disloyal to the Empire and proclaims ‘another Emperor, one Jesus’, suggests a propaganda addressed exclusively to Jews. No missionary to Gentiles would present ‘the Gospel’ as the proclamation of a ‘Jewish king’!”
In Acts 18, while in Corinth, Paul meets with Aquila and Priscilla from Rome, and at Ephesus with Apollos from Alexandria. All are Jewish-Christian converts – but not Paul’s converts. These co-laborers of Paul formed a vast movement of Jewish-Christian expansion, which begins (like Paul’s own missions, as he boasts) “from Jerusalem”, which had spread through Syria almost before Paul was converted, and which had reached out beyond Syria while he was still quiescent at Tarsus.
“This is a mission to Jews only. In the light of the later controversy on circumcision and discussions on the law and grace…it is easy to misunderstand this. It was only to be expected that the Jewish Christians would stand firmly by the declared attitude of Jesus Himself, Who was, as S. Paul insisted, ‘a Minister of the Circumcision for the truth of God, to fulfill the promises made to the (Jewish) Fathers.’ Before he wrote that, S. Paul had learned to add ‘and that the Gentiles might glorify God for His mercy.’ But S. Paul himself insists also, again and again, that even for him this had required a direct ‘revelation from Jesus the Messiah’, by a vision which Acts xxii. 21 appears to situate in the Temple during the disappointing visit to Jerusalem recorded in Gal i. 18 (=Acts ix. 26sqq.) some three or four years after his own conversion (i.e. in c. AD 38-9).”
Dix observes that neither in Gal 1 nor in Acts 9 is there any suggestion that Paul preached to Gentiles at that stage of his Christian career. When he retired to Tarsus for the next six years or so, in all probability he did not occupy himself with evangelizing the local Gentiles. More likely this ex-Pharisee needed time to recover from such a shock as the idea of a mission to Gentiles, and fortify and understand this new idea by a fresh study of the Jewish Scriptures in the light of God’s call on his life, and to equip himself generally to approach the Greek mind.
“With all his passionate sense of a mission to the Gentiles, his epistles reveal that he always remained unmistakably a Jew talking to Greeks about a Jewish ‘gospel’, from purely Jewish assumptions. It was his love and his own burning faith in ‘the Gospel’ he preached which won his Gentile converts, rather than his presentation of it….
“This question of a special revelation to S. Paul in AD 38 or 39 set aside, it seems clear that before AD 40, at the very earliest, the idea of a mission to the Gentiles had not been contemplated by anybody. Jesus Himself was known to have made exceptions to His usual exclusion of Gentiles from His ministry…But apart from express indications of the will of God about individuals, the Gentiles as such were still entirely hidden from the sight of the Jewish-Christian Church in connection with ‘the hope of Israel,’ by that ‘wall of separation’ built between the whole Syriac and Hellenic worlds by centuries of conflict.
“It was the Jewish-Christian missions to the Jews of the Dispersion which first faced the question, not of accepting but of seeking Gentile converts. This step had been taken at Antioch at a date which must fall somewhere between c.A.D. 40 and 44…”
Obviously Paul was not alone in his understanding that the comprehensiveness of the gospel included the Gentiles. Peter saw this in his encounter with Cornelius. However, evidently none but Paul saw how the Gentiles fit into the Church and how Israel fit into God’s future plans. It was this failure of the pre-Pauline Jewish-Christian mission to the Jews to see how Israel fit into the eternal plan of God, that gave rise to the anti-Semitism among the Patristics.
With the Jewish rejection of Messiah, the Patristics deserted both the pre-Pauline and Pauline understanding of God’s commitment to Israel. These historic pre-millennialists had a divided hermeneutic; the Revelation was interpreted literally, the Old Testament figuratively. Adolf Harnack showed the pathetic results of their thought processes in this regard.
Dix is no doubt correct that Paul received his understanding of eschatology from special revelation. As the other apostles demonstrated, the inclusion of Gentiles in the family of faith apart from Judaism was not clear in the teaching of Jesus. A Pauline understanding of how Israel and the Gentiles fit into God’s plan, however, makes good sense if you maintain a literal hermeneutic. If you read the Old Testament like the morning newspaper, understanding the inviolable nature of God’s promises to Israel based on grace, then it logically follows that Revelation 20 is the time when God will fulfill His promises to the Jews as Paul taught in Romans 11.
Are we going to allow a proper hermeneutic to shape our theological presuppositions, or vice versa? As we continue to look at how this influences our lives, we will see that this is not as easy a question to answer as it may appear. This will be the subject of the next issue.
In a spirit of dependence,