What a pleasure to read two such fascinating books – Matthew Thiessen’s Paul and the Gentile Problem and David Kaden’s Matthew, Paul, and the Anthropology of Law – whose intersections, differences and complementarities promise to enrich and reform the scholarly conversation on Paul and the Law. I’d like to structure my remarks around these features – the books’ intersections, their one primary point of difference and the way in which this difference might in fact be crucial to a full understanding of Paul.
The most obvious points of intersection between the two works is their shared focus on Jewish responses to the gentile problem and their recourse to the broader context of 1st century Roman Palestine to illuminate Paul’s solution to this problem. I’ll say something about each of these elements in turn. First, the gentile problem.
Explicit reference to the gentile problem appears in the title of Thiessen’s book, but it is no less central to Kaden. The gentile problem, of course, is the problem of the gentiles’ relation to the God of Israel. How are the gentiles to be included in the experience of God’s promises, how are they to be brought into the community of those who will receive the benefits and blessings of God’s promise, if they are not the descendants of Abraham? These books shed new light on ancient Jewish strategies, especially Paul’s, for achieving the inclusion or incorporation of the gentile.
The authors employ dramatically different methodologies for gaining traction on Paul’s strategy for including or incorporating the gentiles. For his part, Kaden is skeptical of efforts to compare the views of Paul or Matthew with those of other Jews, in order to gauge proximity to or distance from a putative 1st century Judaism and thus pinpoint the beginning of a so-called “parting of the ways” of Judaism and Christianity (5). Scholars who make these comparisons can be divided into two camps: those who argue that Paul and Matthew can be situated within Judaism and those who argue that they broke with Judaism or some aspect of Judaism. To escape this stalemate, Kaden proposes a broader context for interpreting Matthew’s and Paul’s views of the law. He aligns himself with Fredrikson and Kahl and others who situate Paul’s discussion of the law in the context of the Greco-Roman world (107). But he presses well beyond this scholarship by adopting an essentially anthropological posture. He employs the cross-cultural comparative method and redescription of Jonathan Z. Smith, tempered by a Foucauldian insistence that objects – such as law -- emerge from, rather than pre-exist, various relations of power. In Kaden’s hands, Judea becomes one more ethnographic case study that can be set alongside ethnographic materials from Indonesia, Mexico, the Philippines, and Hawaii as examples of the way in which relations of power make possible the emergence of law as an object. Kaden shows that when external social forces penetrate and engage an indigenous group, the exercise of power at the broader (macro) level outside the group interacts with the exercise of power at the local (micro) level of the group creating a space in which law or law-like customs are constituted as a problem and discourses about the law proliferate. To illustrate this point in connection with the Jews, he examines the writings of Philo and Josephus both of whom develop a discourse of Judean law that constitutes Torah as “ancestral custom” (110). The reframing of Torah as ancestral custom, says Kaden, is a tactical accommodation to the administrative realities of the empire in which imperial (macro) level policies regarding the Jews were regularly ignored at the local (micro) level, making it necessary for Jews to repeatedly advocate for their rights and in the process to constitute themselves as imperial subjects with distinctive ancestral customs (143-44). Kaden takes a next step: on analogy with Philo and Josephus, he argues, Matthew and Paul may also be seen as formulating their discourses of law and their respective missions within the imperial context, appropriating and reinscribing elements of imperial propaganda, and as we shall see, appropriating the tactics of Roman jurists (149).
For Thiessen, the best way to understand Paul’s strategy for solving the gentile problem is to situate him within Judaism. The “Paul within Judaism” approach is to be preferred to the more common anti-legalistic and anti-ethnocentric interpretations of Paul, both of which set Paul in opposition to Judaism (11) and, along the way, portray Judaism as legalistic and ethnocentric to a fault. But the problem with these two interpretations is that neither delivers a fully coherent Paul. After all, good works play an important role in Paul’s thinking on the Law, suggesting that he does not champion a work-free gospel and is not anti-law. By the same token, there is much evidence of ethnocentrism in Paul’s writings, suggesting that he did not preach a gospel free from observance of distinctively Jewish rites and is not anti-ethnocentric (5-6).
The problem with approaches that try to locate Paul within Judaism, Thiessen argues, is that they often operate with narrow or inaccurate understandings of “Judaism” – leading to the stalemate that Kaden lamented. Correcting for this, Thiessen says, Paul can indeed be situated comfortably within Judaism. We see this in Thiessen’s first chapter where he examines Paul’s thinking about gentiles in relation to contemporary Jewish ideologies of gentiles and their relation to Israel’s God. Previous scholarship (and here Thiessen cites the work of Terence Donaldson) identifies four Jewish patterns for relating gentiles to the God of Israel: sympathization, ethical monotheism, eschatological pilgrimage and conversion (20). Trying to fit Paul into one of these four patterns is doomed to failure, because all of these patterns are open and inclusive to some degree and Paul, Thiessen claims, was an exclusivist. To Donaldson’s four patterns for relating gentiles to the god of Israel a fifth must be added: the position that gentiles are excluded from a positive connection to Israel’s god. Thiessen connects Paul to this stream of Jewish thought and argues that Paul considered Jew and Gentile to be distinct identities. Paul was an essentialist, or primordialist, about identity, not a constructivist (23). Identities are given not made. Thiessen cites my own work to argue that in Paul’s view, Gentiles are irremediably gentiles and no amount of observance of Jewish law and no rite of circumcision can change that God-given reality. As Thiessen says, “for Paul, nomos does not overcome physis or genos (70) which means that gentile conversion is an impossibility. As Thiessen notes (14) it is not just that Paul thought gentiles need not or could not convert to Judaism in order to be acceptable to God but rather that they could not.
With this more thorough accounting of Jewish views, Thiessen issues a much needed corrective to two distinct errors in New Testament scholarship – Paul was not the anti-law, anti-ethnocentric universalist he has been made out to be but an exclusivist promoting both law and ethnic particularism for Jews. Other Jews were, in general, far more inclusivistic than Paul, conceiving of a number of ways for gentiles to be related to the God of Israel up to and including the adoption of full Israelite identity through conversion. But this does not mean that Paul broke with Judaism, since Paul’s exclusivist position is also found in Second Temple period Judaism. Thiessen provides painstaking evidence for the fact that this exclusivistic, primordialist approach to Jewish identity – that idea that Jewish identity is a divinely determined given, sealed by circumcision on the 8th day of life and immune to modification by any human deed including circumcision conducted at any other time – this primordialist approach to Jewish identity was alive and well in certain quarters in the Second Temple period. It is most fully articulated in Ezra and writings that follow Ezra’s lead (such as Jubilees, the Temple Scroll, the Testament of Levi, 4QMMT; see on this my Gentile Impurities and Jewish Identities, Oxford University Press, 2003, pp. 58, 73-91). But more important, Thiessen provides painstaking evidence for the fact that this exclusivistic, primordialist approach to Jewish identity is the approach of Paul. I am sympathetic to this claim – having argued in my most recent book (What’s Divine about Divine Law: Early Perspectives, Princeton University Press, 2015) that Paul is a primordialist on the question of Jewish identity and an exclusivist regarding gentile access to Jewish identity in contrast to his opponents and in contrast to the later rabbis both of whom are constructivist and nominalist on these issues – but it takes a true scholar of the New Testament to provide the kind of detailed evidence from the text that can begin to sway hearts and minds about the true nature of Paul’s solution to the gentile problem.
I began by listing two points of intersection between these books: their shared focus on the gentile problem and their recourse to the broader Greco-Roman context to illuminate Paul’s solution to that problem. Regarding the latter, I’ve said a little about Kaden but will say a little more. For Kaden, the Roman imperial context shaped Matthew’s and Paul’s understandings of the Law and their approaches to the gentile problem in three main ways. First, the boundaries of the empire demarcated the geographic space of the ethné who, conquered and pacified, were now ready to hear the gospel. In other words, Roman imperial power enabled a mission to the ethne by “delivering” the ethné in a geographically defined space (158-59, 169). Second, Roman political propaganda infused the missionizing program of both Matthew (whose vision is explicitly imperialist) and Paul (whose missionary strategy is articulated in terms of Roman toponymy) (149).
Third, the approaches of Matthew and Paul to the gentile problem can be explained on analogy with a Roman solution to a similar problem. Specifically, under the pressure of an expanding empire, Roman jurists had to find ways to incorporate noncitizens into the legal framework of the empire and they did so by means of the legal fiction, treating non-Roman litigants in a given case as if they were Roman citizens and subject to Roman civil law. Legal fictions are, of course, a legal strategy for adapting the law to new circumstances without introducing new law, or undermining existing law. Kaden cites John S. Richardson (“The Roman Mind and the Power of Fiction”) who states that as a result of this legal fiction: “a non-Roman does not ontologically become a Roman, but is treated as if he were a Roman for the purposes of adjudicating the case at hand” (171). Kaden argues that an analogous logic is operative in the gospels of Matthew and Paul. In Matthew, Jesus claims the authority to present a summarized law on the basis of which a gentile will be treated as if he were fully compliant with the requirements of Judean law and therefore sufficiently righteous to enter the kingdom of heaven (181). For Paul in Romans 2, and on the basis of his own authority, an uncircumcised person who keeps the precepts of the law will have his uncircumcision looked upon as circumcision (192). Thus according to Kaden, Matthew and Paul bring the non-Judean ethné into God’s family on equal terms with the Judean by means of a kind of fictio, on analogy with the extension of Roman citizenship to non-Romans by means of a legal fiction.
I am very sympathetic to Kaden’s recourse to legal fiction with regard to Jewish identity, having written about rabbinic conversion as a legal fiction, and having argued that this strategy was available to rabbinic Judaism because the rabbis are, by and large, legal nominalists, who understand law not as mapping or reflecting a pre-given reality but creating it through its taxonomies. But until reading Kaden, I did not consider that the strategy of legal fiction was used more broadly in ancient Judaism – not just by its juristic class, the rabbis, but earlier, by individuals like Matthew and by the opponents of Paul; and while I was sure that the use of legal fictions in Talmudic law owed something to the invention of the legal fiction by the Romans, I did not connect this specific use of the legal fiction in pre-rabbinic and rabbinic recourse – that is, its use for converting gentiles – to the Roman use of legal fiction for precisely the same purpose -- to move real human individuals from an out-group to an in-group, conferring Roman citizenship on non-Romans.
Now, Thiessen understands Paul differently, but before I turn to Thiessen’s account of Paul’s solution to the Gentile problem and how he draws upon the Greco-Roman cultural context of Roman Palestine to illuminate that solution, I think it is important to catalog the remarkably long list of points on which the two authors agree, often against the scholarly consensus. In this way, we will be able to isolate precisely the point of difference between them.
First: both maintain that scholars have misread Paul because they have failed to recognize that Paul’s audience is gentile (specifically, Judaizing gentiles). Second: both maintain that the problem of how to include the gentiles in the divine promises made to Abraham was one that many ancient Jews felt called upon to solve, not only Paul. Third, both reject the claim that Paul solves this problem in Romans 2 by redefining Jewishness. According to both, Paul redefines nothing but works with existing understandings of Jewish identity based on descent. Fourth, both understand that the issue at stake is the power to redistribute statuses or identities, the power to move actual individual humans from one identity status to another, while leaving the rules themselves (the membership criteria) in place. Fifth, these two authors agree that Paul and his opponents differ on the effectiveness of various strategies for moving individual gentiles from the category of gentile to the category of Israel, the descendants of Abraham. Sixth, both maintain that many Jews adopted a constructivist and nominalist approach to Jewish identity. Thiessen would probably even agree with Kaden that, on analogy with the Roman legal fiction that extended Roman citizenship to non-Romans meeting the criterion of residence within the geographical space of the empire, some Jews extended Jewish identity or membership in the people of God to gentiles meeting the criterion of circumcision and law observance (Paul’s opponents). Seventh, they agree that Paul, like other ancient Jews, sought to incorporate the gentiles into the family of Abraham, but he did so through faith rather than through circumcision and law observance.
And now we have reached these authors’ point of disagreement, and that disagreement is on the question of how faith effects the incorporation of the gentile. For Kaden, Paul, like his opponents and like Matthew, employs a legal fiction – but one based on faith rather than circumcision and law observance. Have faith, Paul says, and we will treat you as if you are a native-born Jew. This interpretation gives us a Paul who is a constructivist on the question of Jewish identity.
But for Thiessen, as already noted, Paul is not a constructivist on the question of Jewish identity. Thiessen has established that Paul is an essentialist. The separate identities of nations are divinely bestowed and, to paraphrase Jesus in Mark 10:9, what God has separated, no man shall join together – not by legal ritual and not by legal declaration or fiction.
So if not by a legal fiction – the strategy preferred by his opponents, by Matthew, by the later rabbis – how precisely does faith accomplish this identity reassignment? How does it change in a real and not merely nominal way, a gentile into a Jew? According to Thiessen, Paul held that faith in Christ leads to the reception of Christ’s pneuma (108). Receiving Christ’s pneuma the gentile becomes one substance with Christ and since Christ is understood to be the singular seed of Abraham, the gentile incorporated into Christ becomes – in a very real and material sense -- the seed of Abraham (114). Here Paul draws on Greco-Roman ideas, particularly Stoic physics, in describing the incorporation of gentiles into the family of Abraham through faith. The Stoic theory of pneuma, a fine and rarefied but fully material substance that can interpenetrate other coarser substances without altering them or being altered by them – a type of blending referred to by the Stoics as krasis (112), shaped Paul’s thinking about the reception of the pneuma into human bodies and the pneumatic union of the body of the Christ follower with the body of Christ (following Dale Martin, The Corinthian Body, 1995). Thiessen’s argument is that Paul does not reject genealogy and kinship; he simply envisages a pneumatic form of it and this was made possible by Stoic science and theories regarding the blending of substances. This argument makes sense. Essentialists like hard science. If he is going to argue that gentiles undergo an actual material change, a change in substance, Paul is well-served to rely upon a scientific theory that can explain this material change.
This is already great stuff, but Thiessen presses on to an even deeper understanding of Paul’s thinking, again illuminated by currents in Greco-Roman science. Paul evidently believes that God’s promise to the seed is a promise of pneuma. But where in Scripture is the content of the promise said to be the gift of the pneuma? Thiessen’s answer is original and once again he grounds the essentialist Paul in the hard science of the day. In Gen 15, the seed of Abraham who are destined to enjoy the promises made to Abraham, are likened to the stars. Thiessen shows that early interpreters of this verse understood it in qualitative terms and not just quantitative terms (135ff). But what might it mean to say that Abraham’s seed will be like the stars in quality and not just number? Thiessen shows that the predominant physics of the 1st century identified the stars with semi-divine beings consisting of a pneuma-like substance (140-43). He cites evidence that in Paul’s day, people identified stars with divine or angelic beings and thought of stars as pneumatic (143-47.
Thus, when God promised to Abraham that his seed would become like the stars (Gen 15:5 and 22:17) he was promising that he would multiply Abraham’s seed to become pneumatic, exalted, angelic beings who participate in the ethereal life. In short, when gentiles have faith, they receive Christ’s pneuma and become sons, seed and stars –real, material pneumatic sons, seed and stars (159). Two things follow from this transformation: first, as a source of power, the pneuma enables the gentile to overcome the problem of sin and live righteously (148-50); second, because pneuma is indestructible, the gentiles’ resurrected bodies will be incorruptible pneuma that can live eternally (150-54) and through their angelification, they will come to rule the cosmos (154-59). Thus, as Thiessen says, Christ’s pneuma, solves not only the gentile problem, but the problem of morality and the problem of mortality!
So what of Kaden’s claim that in Romans 2, Paul employs the language of legal fiction. Well, I think there’s something to this claim. After all, Paul speaks with the rhetorical markings of a legal fiction: X will be reckoned (logisthēsetai, λογισθήσεται) as something it is not. So I think Kaden is right – Paul trades in the currency of legal fiction because that is the currency of his opponents, but I think he does so not in order to endorse this currency but in order to devalue it. Paul knows that his opponents say if you meet the criterion of circumcision and law observance you will be treated as if you are a Jew. And so he invokes the rhetoric of legal fiction precisely to say that in the case of gentiles entering the family of Abraham, the legal fiction doesn’t work the way you think it does: you say that circumcision effects a change in identity but I am telling you it does not. So in Romans 2:25 he says to the Judaizing gentile: if you perform the rite of circumcision your circumcision will be reckoned for what it actually is – uncircumcision, because it doesn’t make you a member of the covenant community. Conversely, and probably ironically, he says in v. 26, that if the uncircumcised respect the law and do not seek the circumcision for which they are ineligible, then a legal fiction kicks in: then they are approved, they are accepted, like Jews who are actually circumcised. This is because the incorporation of the gentile requires an actual change in the substance of the gentile, and that is something only God can bring about, by imparting the pneuma.
So we need Kaden to help us see that Paul is invoking the strategy of legal fiction and we need Thiessen to help us understand why he then sets it aside. Paul does not believe that the legal fiction of his opponents is capable of solving the gentile problem. As Thiessen rightly argues, for Paul, unlike his opponents and many other Jews of the time, identities cannot be reassigned through legal fictions or the actions of human authorities of any kind, because they are God-given. Thus, they can only be divinely reassigned, by means of a kind of transubstantiation of the Gentile through the pneuma of Christ.
Together, these two books have accomplished a great deal. First, Kaden and Thiessen have succeeded in making sense not only of Paul, but also of Paul’s opponents which other scholars have failed to do. Paul’s opponents here are not caricatures – they are represented as differing with Paul and yet still behaving reasonably, sincerely and even inclusively towards gentiles. Second, Kaden and Thiessen have succeeded in making greater sense of Paul in his Greco-Roman context. Kaden shows how Paul’s very mission became possible with the empire’s delivery of “the ethné” as an entity to be missionized and how ancient Jewish solutions are informed by Roman imperial discourse and the legal fiction of Roman jurists; Thiessen shows how Stoic physics and philosophy inform Paul’s essentialist strategy for incorporation of the gentile. Moreover, as I have shown, they are in agreement in all but one respect – whether Paul understood faith to include gentiles nominally via a legal fiction or whether it incorporated them materially via an ontological transformation.
What is at stake in this difference? The first interpretation of Paul – Kaden’s – retains Paul as a universalist while recognizing that his opponents likewise deployed fictions that led to the inclusion of gentiles (and that rehabilitation of Paul’s opponents is a real gain). The second interpretation of Paul – Thiessen’s – dismantles the centuries-long portrayal of the apostle as “an ancient precursor to modern conceptions of universalism (128), the great preacher of freedom from a narrow, legalistic and ethnocentric form of Judaism (161). According to Thiessen, Paul did not free gentiles from the requirement to keep the law. Like Ezra, and some other Second Temple period Jews, Paul believed that gentiles didn’t need to keep the law, and in fact were positively prohibited from doing so. This interpretation threatens sacred dogmas – both theological and scholarly – but it cannot be discounted on those grounds.
Ultimately, I believe that a full understanding of Paul combines both of these interpretations, though with one additional element. It is perhaps a function of my age that I am more cynical than our two authors, but I am inclined to agree that Paul’s offer of cosmic rule for gentiles of faith has the ring of a marketing ploy. This is not to say that Paul does not sincerely believe that faith – for both gentile and Jew -- bestows Christ’s pneuma (I think he does sincerely believe this). It is to say, however, that for Paul, the kingdom of God was at hand but would not be realized until the gentiles recognized the god of Israel. And any inducement to that end was in order. The Law, the Torah, was for the holy seed of Abraham through Isaac only, off limits to gentiles. But to deny them this prize would be perceived as offensive (and indeed exclusivistic, which it was!). What else might be offered? Thiessen tells us: freedom from sin and death, and cosmic rule. Not bad.
And so, as I have recently written: “Paul’s position on Gentiles must be seen as a paradoxical mix of exclusivistic and inclusivistic ideologies. Gentiles are included in the kingdom of God that is at hand – an inclusivistic ideology. Yet, the seed of Abraham (Gentiles) can no more become the seed of Isaac (Jews) through a ritual conversion, than the seed of Isaac (lay Israelites) can become the seed of Aaron (priests) through a ritual of conversion – an exclusivistic ideology. God’s kingdom includes Gentiles as the seed of Abraham even as it excludes them from the rights and privileges of the Torah that is the sole patrimony of the seed of Israel through Isaac. Thus, it is not the Torah’s inferiority [an anti-law approach] that motivates Paul’s rejection of the Torah for Gentiles, but precisely its superiority, its assignation as a privilege to the seed of Israel through Isaac only. Paul may wish to include the Gentiles within the end-time kingdom of God, but as a genealogical exclusivist, he includes them only so far – and no further” (Hayes, What’s Divine about Divine Law: Early Perspectives, 150).
Christine Hayes is the Robert F. and Patricia Ross Weis Professor of Religious Studies at Yale University