Anders Runesson’s paper on the influence of paradigm assumptions for understanding Paul is a treasury of insights into the structure of paradigms. Runesson shows that the Christian assumption present in the theological paradigm that Paul established a new religion founded on the teaching of Christ, a religion that was opposed to “Jewish legalism,” is not only historically unwarranted but also theologically anti-Semitic. Runesson’s paper reveals the errors in the Christian view of Paul and raises serious questions about the legitimacy of Christianity’s divergence from the Jewish way of living that Paul himself embraced. In addition, Runesson’s work helps us see that unless we carefully deconstruct our own cultural, historical and theological assumptions we are highly unlikely to understand any work from the perspective of an author from another time and culture.
“New insights are thus dependent on our willingness to de-familiarize ourselves with the phenomena we seek to understand; on our refusal to let our familiar, already in-use mindset and concepts control and categorize that which we encounter.” In a footnote citing Morton Smith’s work, Runesson concurs that there is a “prejudice in favor of any established terminology: from infancy we have been tainted to believe that what we have been taught is right. Moreover, this belief’s convenient.”
I have experienced precisely this phenomenon. While attempting to explain the concept of hesed to an audience, I was aware that every word I used was being interpreted by concepts familiar to the audience, concepts that already assumed the Christian theological view of the Bible. My efforts to explain and demonstrate the radical difference between Hebraic ideas of community, obligation, duty and Torah were diminished because the differences were obscured by the form of worship, the place of worship and the applications of worship in the context of the Church. As far as the audience was concerned, what they had been taught in church was the Truth, and their lives were fashioned around that conviction in such a way that they were immune to any serious examination of the traditions, theological or practical.
It’s not that this audience rejected the idea of hesed. In fact, they embraced the word and were challenged by the practice. But what they heard was instantly converted into thought patterns compatible with Christian doctrine simply because they believed that Jesus founded the Christian replacement of Israel and that YHVH was the God of the Church. In their minds, hesed was a valuable evangelical tool to bring others to a saving knowledge of Jesus. What mattered was the practice of offering “salvation” to the lost, that is, to those who were not within the church. The fact that hesed demonstrated YHVH’s unwavering commitment to Gentiles within the heart of Israel was a moot point.
Scholarly terms and concepts, all of which are carriers for specific views and ideas, function in much the same way [i.e., as architectural space]. They construct the “space” within which we focus on specific issues and topics in our conversations. Terminological edifices are built slowly over time and are not easily torn down. Now-unsustainable scholarly ideas from previous eras influence current discourses, because many of us still occupy the space created by the terminological walls, arches, and ceilings they have left behind. We need, therefore, to reconsider and discuss not only the conclusions we draw, but also the ‘architecture” within which we formulate them.
Runesson’s analogy of architecture is instructive. Can we really imagine teaching about the Hebraic worldview while sitting in a church fashioned by millennia of synchronism? How will we explain the Hebrew idea of atonement when the sanctuary contains a Christian altar? Or the Hebrew idea of death and suffering when we are confronted with Jesus hanging on the cross (a powerful symbol of all that is not Jewish)? Runesson notes that “the conclusions we give birth to become the offspring of the language we use.” What does “sin” mean after Augustine or Luther? What does forgiveness mean once Calvin finishes his theory of atonement? I propose to you that we who have grown up in the West after the synchronism of nearly two thousand years are virtually incapable of understanding the world according to Moses, or Paul, or Yeshua. We will have to engage in serious deconstruction of our current, nearly ubiquitous paradigmatic architecture of religion in order to gain even a glimmer of what it meant to see the world as a first century Jewish practitioner. Certainly nothing of the symbolic and theological architecture of the Church can remain since the “Church” had no influence whatsoever in the thoughts of the authors of the apostolic writings, and was absolutely non-existent in the Tanakh. We live in a world whose basic architecture was constructed by the early Greek-oriented, anti-Semitic church fathers, whose approach to the Tanakh was one of reinterpretation and deliberate reinvention. The edifices of our minds have been shaped by Augustine’s view of Paul, Luther’s view of Paul, Calvin’s view of Paul but not by Paul as a first century Jewish believer in the Jewish Messiah. And while contemporary scholars are finding these traditional Christian views incompatible with the Paul of the text, the legacy of our past reformers lives on in the daily preaching and teaching of the ordinary church. To put it as bluntly as possible, Christian parishioners today have never been taught and have no idea that what they sing, say and do in the church is about as far from what is happening in the Bible as Venus is from Mars.
The ability to think of religious experience outside the culture of current belief is nearly impossible. Who could ever imagine that church would not begin with praise and worship music, three upbeat rousing songs followed by a spiritual heart-tugging emotional tune repeated to get the audience into the “mood.” Classic rock concert techniques adapted to Christian settings. The same thing that has been going on in the Church for two thousand years as it adopted what the world offered to meet its needs.
Who could tolerate a prayer time without the required instrumental, or a service without a sermon, or a conclusion without a benediction and an altar call? Our customs determine how we understand God, His message and our roles. It was ever so. How can we expect anyone to realize that the Bible is not a Christian Boy Scout manual under these circumstances? The Western world’s view of religion is intimately connected to the development of the Christian church. It is virtually impossible to separate the doctrinal architecture from biblical language.
No better example of the influence of paradigmatic words can be found than the word “divine.” When the word is used in both the Tanakh and the apostolic writings, whether in Hebrew of Greek, it is located in a polytheistic world, a world where multiple gods, all divine, were commonplace, where families, even cities were tied to the absolute commitment to these gods, where “divine” could be applied to sacred places, totems, idols, priests, kings and multiple gods all at the same time. The gods were everywhere and assumed to be involved in virtually every aspect of life. “Divine” did not mean “absolutely unique” in any context except orthodox Jewish thinking, and even there the temptation of idolatry remained a constant threat.
But we who have grown up in the West have no such appreciation for the wide umbrella cast by this word. For us, “divine” describes one and only one being, God. There may be angels, but they are not “divine” in our sense of the word because they are not to be worshipped. Consequently, any being designated “divine” is worthy of worship because such a being must be God. And since there is only one God, if we designate Jesus as divine, then it follows that he must be God. et voilà, the Trinity is born. It never crosses our minds that we have imported a definition of “divine” into the conversation that was most likely never a thought of the authors of the texts. They had to struggle in a world of a multitude of divine beings. We do not. Consequently, we read their efforts to deal with the nature of the one true God as if every use of the word “divine” must mean the Triune Godhead.
Frankly, unless the Spirit of the Lord unsettles the human heart I see no way for people to be able to step out of the architecture of their inherited beliefs. The only hope is God (and what does that mean in an ancient context?). At the human level, we are held captive by what we already think is correct. And that means it is probably time to stop trying to change the minds of those who are saturated by the Christian architecture. The mistaken theology of misunderstood Pauline material is essential for the continuation of the Christian religion. It cannot be questioned because if it is the edifice built by the Church will not survive.
Many current scholars have made this point, but the impact is reduced to a whimper by the continuing practice of the believing populace. Very, very few Christians realize that the words they use to describe their beliefs actually contain ideas that order their experience in ways that blind them to any other reality. And the Church is loath to open their eyes.
Runesson makes several telling points in this regard.
- The idea of religion did not exist in the time when the texts were written. Religion is a modern invention and as such carries with it the implicit assumption of “non-religious,” defining into existence the opposition to God’s endorsement. In the case of Christianity as religion, Judaism (another term that did not exist in antiquity) is the opposition. The fact that no biblical text conclusively endorses this opposition makes little difference. The religion of Christianity finds its essential identity in this self-created opposition.
- Runesson notes that when we apply this idea of opposition to Pauline material, we reinterpret Paul as if he were the defender of Christian thought against Judaism. In other words, we treat Paul as if he were a Christian, and that means, by definition, that he is opposed to Jewish thinking. As Runesson notes, “Our terminology is pregnant with the conclusion.” In a footnote, Runesson reminds the reader that the earliest attempt to define Christianity in opposition to Judaism is found in the second century work of Ignatius of Antioch, a Gentile.
Failure to take cognizance of this element of paradigms means that “although Christians have, through the ages, tried to redefine Judaism as a ‘religion,’ a negative mirror image of themselves, mainstream Jews never accepted this rewriting of their identity and have continued to understand their ethnos as intertwined with the Jewish law, the land, and the God of Israel.” What this means is that Christianity redefined every critical word of the Jewish way of life in order to establish itself as a new “religion.” And what that means is that every use of a term already pregnant with Christian architecture is most likely not what the word would have meant to the authors of the biblical text. In other words, in spite of the fact that we read the same text (although usually in translation), we do not read the same meanings. Our Bible is not the Bible of the prophets, nor even the Bible of Yeshua or Sha’ul.
As an example, Runesson notes the translation of the Greek ekklesia as “church.”
“In light of this ancient terminological and sociopolitical context it becomes quite clear that the English translation ‘church’ is inappropriate and misleading, since it conjures up not only a (modern) religious non-civic, non-political setting, but more importantly, imposes on the ancients a separate non-Jewish institutional identity for those who claimed Jesus to be the Messiah.”
Try reading Paul’s letter without using the word “church.” Instead read “assembly of Jews and Gentiles who believe Yeshua is the Messiah.” See what a difference that makes. Suddenly Paul’s missives are directed toward communities that are attempting to integrate, not separate. His instructions become applications of Torah for those who are trying to figure out how to live together under a common banner. The idea of something for Gentiles opposed to the Jewish way of life disappears from the text.
“Simply by listening to weekly readings from translations of the Bible, generations of churchgoers and Sunday school children internalize modern religious identity politics, as if these belonged in the first century.”
We can think of this in contemporary political terms. Palestinian radicals understand perfectly the power of identity formation through education. The textbooks of Palestinian children endorse terrorist actions, represent all Jews as worthy of extinction, recreate history to justify their cause and portray fallen terrorists as cultural heroes. What do you think is the result?
Has the Church done anything less?
And so the world of religion will ignore the scholarship that challenges it very existence. The Tanakh will continue to be the source of authority for orthodox Jews. The “New Testament” will continue to be the real Bible of the Christian Church. And those who try to live as Paul lived, believing that Yeshua is the promise of the Tanakh and the Jewish Messiah who reiterated the need for Torah and the inclusion of Gentiles, will continue to be marginalized by the entrenched communities that claim those same sacred texts. The paradigms will prevail
—and we can all go home now.
 Anders Runesson, “The Question of Terminology: The Architecture of Contemporary Discussions of Paul,” in Paul Within Judaism: Restoring the First Century Context to the Apostle, (eds. Mark Nanos and Magnus Zetterholm), Fortress Press, 2015.
 Ibid., p. 56.
 Ibid,, p. 57.
 Ibid., p. 58.
 Ibid., p. 62.
 Ibid., p. 63.
 Ibid., p. 65.
 Ibid., p. 72.
 Ibid., p. 77