Being and Behavior in Pauline Christianity and Judaism
Ronald Pies MD
In their text, Classical Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism,
Chilton and Neusner make an intriguing observation about the second century Roman teacher, Marcion (d. ca. 160 CE). They state that “…He liked only Paul’s letters and one gospel (Luke), and wanted them expurgated of anything connected with Judaism…” Furthermore, according to Neusner and Chilton, Marcion made the letters of Paul “…the basis of his views…”
In order to explore the relationship between Pauline Christianity and Judaism, I believe it is important, first, briefly to explore the connection between Paul and Marcion. In particular, what is it about Paul’s letters that so inspired Marcion’s embrace? Hinson (1996) says of Marcion,
“…No early Christian thinker…did more than Marcion to bring to a head the question of Christianity’s relation to Judaism. Although often classified as a Gnostic, he is more accurately viewed as an ardent opponent of legalism and thus of Christianity’s ties with Judiasm.” (p. 91).
But whereas Hinson may be reluctant to classify Marcion as a Gnostic, other scholars are less hesitant. Here is Prof. Roland Bainton’s description of Marcion:
“…[he] was a Gnostic in his attitude toward the created world. It is bad, said he, and full of flies, fleas, and fevers. The God who made it, the creator God, could not have been the father of our Lord Jesus Christ, but was rather a malevolent demiurge. Marcion’s contention meant that Christianity would have to sever itself from all its Hebrew antecedents and that the Old Testament must be rejected.” (p. 66).
Although the nature of Paul’s views remains a topic of intense controversy [see, e.g., R. Apple, cited below] I want to suggest that in many respects, Paul’s views are closely aligned with, if not directly expressive of, various Gnostic doctrines; that these affinities explain Marcion’s attraction to Paul; and, most important, that Paul’s Gnostic leanings set Christianity on a radically different path from that of rabbinical or Pharisaic Judaism—indeed, a path that would lead ultimately to Luther and Calvin. More broadly, I want to suggest that Pauline Christianity is essentially a theology of being, whereas rabbinical Judaism is a theology of behavior.
To foreshadow the argument a bit: a theology of being is fundamentally preoccupied with essences (in the sense intended by Plato’s concept of “ideal forms”); with purity of intention, belief, or thought; and with justification or salvation mediated by pure faith, rather than by righteous action. In contrast, a theology of behavior is fundamentally concerned with human contexts rather than with essences; with the consequences of action rather than purity of motive (though there are important exceptions to this principle in Judaism); and with salvation mediated by righteous action rather than by faith as such. Arguably, in theologies of behavior, there is also a de-emphasis on the day-by-day importance of salvation.
Although I will present a case for distinguishing these two types of theology, I do not want to suggest that they represent an absolute separation between rabbinic Judaism and Pauline Christianity. Whatever his Gnostic leanings, there is no doubt that Paul of Tarsus was born a Jew; may have been educated at the feet of Gamaliel II, one of the leading rabbis of his time; and held many beliefs that were part of the Pharisaic tradition
( Hinson, p. 49). I am also aware that, in drawing from the arguments of Prof. Hyam Maccoby (University of Leeds), I am citing arguments that are themselves the object of considerable controversy. For a fairly balanced critique of Maccoby, see Appendix 3.
Paul as Gnostic?
In his book, The Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity, Prof. Hyam Maccoby argues that, “…the dominant outlook and shaping perspective of the Gospels is that of Paul, for the simple reason that it was the Paulinist view of what Jesus' sojourn on Earth had been about that was triumphant in the Church as it developed in history.” And what, in Maccoby’s view, was Paul’s perspective? Maccoby writes:
“Paul, not Jesus, was the founder of Christianity as a new religion which developed away from both normal Judaism and the Nazarene variety of Judaism. In this new religion, the Torah was abrogated as having had only temporary validity. The central myth of the new religion was that of an atoning death of a divine being. Belief in this sacrifice, and a mystical sharing of the death of the deity, formed the only path to salvation. Paul derived this religion from Hellenistic sources, chiefly by a fusion of concepts taken from Gnosticism and concepts taken from the mystery religions, particularly from that of Attis. The combination of these elements with features derived from Judaism, particularly the incorporation of the Jewish scriptures, reinterpreted to provide a background of sacred history for the new myth, was unique; and Paul alone was the creator of this amalgam. Jesus himself had no idea of it, and would have been amazed and shocked at the role assigned to him by Paul as a suffering deity.”
If Maccoby is mostly correct—and this is the premise of my own argument—how does his thesis relate to the constructs of “theology of being” versus “theology of behavior” as outlined earlier?
Essences vs. Contexts
In Gnostic philosophy, there is a sharp and unbridgeable chasm between good and evil, flesh and spirit. In the Gnostic universe, being is a matter of “either-or”—either something is flesh or spirit, but not both (though man is viewed as “…spirit imprisoned in matter…”-Bainton, p. 65).
The either-or quality of Gnosticism is grounded in the notion of essential features or essences: the necessary and sufficient conditions that characterize any entity. Just as, for Plato, the “essence” or ideal form of a triangle must always consist of a figure with three angles (Republic, Book VI), the essence of Christ is spirit alone. As Bainton puts it (p. 65):
“Gnostic Christians believed in Christ as the Redeemer, but since his function was to deliver man from the thralldom of the flesh, he could have had no flesh. It merely appeared that he had. His body was a phantom which only seemed to exist. Plainly, this view subverted the whole Christian doctrine of the Incarnation and the Crucifixion.” (italics added).
Now, I do not want to claim that Paul takes this extreme view of Christ; however, I do want to argue that Gnostic beliefs about “the flesh” and its inherent sinfulness permeate Paul’s teachings; and that these represent roughly the same “essentialist” world view as that of the Gnostics. For example, in Romans 8.5-11, Paul proclaims,
“For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God…But if Christ is in you, although your bodies are dead because of sin, your spirits are alive because of righteousness.”
And again, in Galatians (5.16-24), Paul proclaims:
“But I say, walk by the Spirit, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh…Now the works of the flesh are plain: immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness…and the like…And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires…”
For Paul, then, the flesh is inexorably and essentially bound up with death, degradation, and sin. It is of considerable interest that in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) and the Gospel of John, the word “flesh” appears a total of 23 times [Strong’s Concise Concordance, 1997, p. 236]. In contrast, in just two of Paul’s epistles—Galatians and Romans—the term “flesh” appears 41 times (ibid.), usually in a disparaging context.
In contrast, the rabbinical view of the flesh or the body is more nuanced; less “essentialist”; and more context-dependent. First, there is no absolute wall between holiness and sacrilege, based on notions of carnality. Indeed, “The greater a man, the greater his evil inclination” [Sukkah 52a], which term R. Joseph Telushkin takes to mean, the “sex drive” [Telushkin, 1994]. The rabbis also recognized that, “Even during the time a man is in mourning, his impulse is apt to overcome him” (Bavli, Kiddushin 80b). To be sure, we do find rabbinical warnings against excessive preoccupation with carnality (e.g., “He used to say: The more flesh the more worms…Avot 2:8). But this mishnah may be understood as “…a denunciation of gluttony…[teaching] that overeating and drinking fatten one’s body only in order to sustain the maggots in his grave.” (Lieber, 1995). The rabbis did not intend a general denunciation of the “flesh”.
As Sherwin and Cohen note (2001), Plato described the human body as a “living tomb” or prison (Phaedrus, 250)—quite in line with Gnostic views. In contrast, Jewish tradition compares the human body to the Temple. To take one example: sexuality, in its proper sphere, is not hostile to God, but expressive of the Divine nature. Rather than renounce the body, rabbinic tradition exhorts us to complete the body with “a complementary other” (Sherwin and Cohen, p. 154). Thus, the value or sanctity of the body and its sexual impulses depends on the human context. In Judaism,
“In themselves, bodily organs and functions are beautiful and good. Only when misused or abused can they become ugly or repulsive; but such is the result of human action, not divine intention.” (Sherwin and Cohen, p. 156, italics added).
Note the critical role of “human action” in determining the moral status of the flesh. This foreshadows the role of behavior in the theology of rabbinic Judaism.
See Part 2