Monday, March 01, 2010

W.D. Davies's Paul and Rabbinic Judaism

While it is clear that in the five decades since  its publication the discussions in Pauline studies have eclipsed or superseded the language and concerns of this book at points (e.g. calling Paul a Christian), Paul and Rabbinic Judaism: Some Rabbinic Elements in Pauline Theology, which was first published in 1948, remains as fresh a perspective on Paul as it ever was. In fact using Zetterholm's recent taxonomy of perspectives of Paul and Judaism in his Approaches to Paul, Davies's book would is clearly a Radical New Perspective before the New Perspective.

For those of us who are sympathetic to the idea that Paul was a first-century Torah observant Jew, Davies's book must be seen as our great grandfather. As best I can tell, Davies's book does not get the credit today that it should as being a ground breaking work. In fact it is with the so-called Radical New Perspective that Davies's central thesis is now coming into its own. It is time to read it again or as in my case for the first time.

I quote Davies's conclusion at length:
Both in his life and through, therefore, Paul's close relations to Rabbinic Judaism has become clear, and we cannot too strongly insist again that for him the acceptance of the Gospel was not so much the rejection of the old Judaism and the discovery of a new religion wholly antithetical to it, as his polemics might sometimes pardonably lead us to assume, but the recognition of the advent of the true and final form of Judaism, in other words, the advent of the Messianic Age of Jewish expectation.

It is in this light that we are to understand the conversion of Paul. We have above referred cursorily to that interpretation of his conversion which depicts Paul in his pre-Christian days as suffering from agonies of discontent with the Torah, a discontent which was more particularly characteristic of Diaspora Judaism, as Montefiore has argued, and which Paul sought to suppress and hid by zeal in persecution. But, as we have previously written, there is little evidence that this was the case. Doubtless Paul, looking back on his pre-Christian days not only from the height of his Christian experience but also past many a bitter memory, could depict them as a period of dissatisfaction and frustration.

Nevertheless, things are seldom in fact what they appear to be in retrospect. It is far more probable . . . that Paul's persecution of the Church was due not to his dissatisfaction with Judaism but to his zeal on its behalf. It was not the inadequacy of Judaism, not the fact that Judaism which Paul knew was an inferior product of the Diaspora that accounts for Paul's conversion, but the impact of the new factor that entered into his ken when he encountered Christ. It was at this point that Paul parted company with Judaism, at the valuation of Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah with all that this implied.

While, therefore, our study has led us to the recognition of Paul's debt to Rabbinic Judaism, it has also led us to that challenge which Pauline Christianity, and indeed all forms of essential Christianity, must issue to Judaism no less than other religions: What think ye of Christ? (324)

1 comment:


Delighted to find someone else who shares my appreciation of this great book.I read it in the early ^0s at theological college and it has illuminated my reading of his letters and of the early church.
It is certainly time people began to appreciate his view of Paul's ability to grasp Jesus's teaching as the fulfillment/ completion of the message of the jewish bible and his critique of the failure of his contemporaries to grasp the true essence of the message God had given them to proclaim.
Mark VH