Thursday, August 12, 2010

Hurtado on Why S/Paul Persecuted Christians

In pp6-7 of his review essay of James Dunn's new book, Did the First Christians Worship Jesus?, Larry Hurtado gives a concise and convincing argument for what Saul of Tarsus (later to be Paul) found objectionable in Christian belief and praxis:
More directly to the question about why Paul opposed Jewish believers, nowhere in Paul’s letters or Acts do we find a statement that Paul’s persecution of them was on account of their supposedly lax (or non-Pharisaic) Torah-observance, their association with Gentiles, or their critique of the Temple. Instead, Acts depicts Paul as proceeding against “all who call upon [Jesus’] name” (9:14), as “opposing the name of Jesus” (26:9), and as seeking “to make them blaspheme” (i.e., probably pronouncing a curse upon Jesus, 26:11).

Moreover, nowhere does Paul say that his conversion was basically a capitulation to accepting a more relaxed Torah-observance, a more negative attitude toward the Temple, or more relaxed associations with Gentiles. Instead, he refers to the cognitive effect as a “revelation of God’s Son” (Gal. 1:15-16), and in Philip. 3:1-11 he contrasts his former Torah-centric life with his present fervent devotion to Jesus. The Damascus Road experience did not convince Paul primarily to approve a relaxed halakha, but to change his view of Jesus. In my view, that also suggests a lot about what he had previously found objectionable in Jewish believers.
It was therefore the way in which the Christians used and revered the name of Jesus that made them offensive to Saul, and it was Saul's encounter with that Jesus on the Damascus road that resulted in his change of heart towards the Christians and his acceptance and consequent advocacy of their beliefs and praxis (to put it mildly).


  1. I'm still not persuaded by Hurtado's view on this, since Paul not only doesn't single out monotheism or the exalted status of Jesus as the reason he persecuted the church, but also fails to defend his view of Jesus the way he does with his view of the Torah, from potential objections from Jews and other Jewish Christians.

    I think that the Christian claim that a crucified man was the Messiah is enough to explain why a devout Jew would persecute the group.

    Be that as it may, thanks for blogging about this, as it is an important topic (and as you know, one I'm very interested in!).

  2. Hi James, thanks for the comment. I'm actually just getting back to your book to write a more critical review for print (sorry it's been a while) and I think this is one of the key issues, and one of the things your book shows very well, is the definitions we start our investigation with, as to where lines would be drawn, and what those lines would mean, between different religious ideas will have a huge influence on our subsequent conclusions.

    For me, Paul's damascus road experience always needs to be central to understanding Paul's divergence from pharisaic judaism, but i am aware that that is at least as much because of my own religious experience as because of the weight of the evidence. much hangs, as well, on how much weight you give to the evidence of Acts.

    I'm looking forward to contiuing to learn on this one!