Saturday, September 4, 2010

Paul as "The New Abraham" - thoughts on descent

Thanks to my friend Rafael for getting me off my ass to post this.

Paul considered himself the “new Abraham.” Abraham brought God to the pagan world as part of his covenant with God (“if you take me for your God I will make you the father of many nations”). Paul brought God (through Jesus) to the Gentiles, bringing the Gentiles into the Abrahamic covenant. This required a redefinition of descent from Abraham – Jewish tradition held (and holds) that Jews are the blood descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and that somehow this blood descent was transferred when non-Jews joined the faith.

Some thoughts about the whole issue of descent through consanguinity vs. descent through adoption.:

• Unquestionably, Isaac is the fulfillment/manifestation of God’s covenant with Abraham – no Isaac, no “father of many nations.”

• Equally unquestionably, Isaac is Abraham’s son by blood, then Jacob is Isaac’s, etc. However, with each marriage – Isaac to Rebecca, Jacob to Rachel and Leah, new DNA enters the bloodline. By the time you get to Moses, who also marries outside the tribe, there is an enormous admixture of “gentile” blood, and all of those people beginning with Rebecca are considered in the Hebrew bloodline. This goes on throughout the OT and throughout history, including Ruth, who is an ancestor of David, who is supposedly an ancestor of Jesus, presumably on his mother’s side.

• In most early societies, lineage is reckoned patrilinearly. While reflective of male dominance overall, this is problematic since only the mother can be known with absolute certainty, assuming the birth is witnessed. Starting around 1600, Jews began using matrilineal descent for this reason, but by then it didn’t matter. Reform Jews use both patrilineal and matrilineal descent to determine tribe membership.

• My point in all of this is that it’s essentially arbitrary. Judaism, while not a proselytizing religion, has always accepted converts (cf Ruth, again) and, incidentally, the Hebrew names given to converts are either Abraham and Sarah or ***** ben Abraham or ***** bat Sarah, emphasizing that even a “Jew by choice” is now considered to share in the inheritance of Abraham, i.e. the covenant.

So here’s what I’m thinking: The past is essentially an invention anyhow. Quantum physics suggests that past and future are both determined by present actions – see and so we have a situation that is essentially made up from the jump.

Paul’s case that anyone who declares themselves into the covenant is in has a strong foundation – converts had already been doing so for a couple of millennia by his time, and while men had to be circumcised as a sign (and blood sacrifice) when they opted in, women didn’t have to do anything but say so (“whither thou goest,” etc.). What’s required is not a huge leap of logic or faith – God’s covenant with Abraham (individually) required nothing from Abe except to go where God sent him and make God his God. God’s later covenant with the Hebrew people through Moses was the one with 613 stipulations. Paul, whilst I don’t’ think he ever says so explicitly, is implicitly distinguishing between the two covenants – he says that Jesus’ message is that everyone can come to the Abrahamic covenant through recreating his relationship with God the Father, and Paul extends this invitation beyond where Jesus went by bringing it to the Gentiles. He also says that those in the Mosaic covenant can follow Jesus without any need for rejection or violation of the Mosaic covenant.

I think that this message, while controversial to some at the time, was within the ground rules of mainstream Judaism in the First Century – sects were forming all over the place, and since the Babylonian Captivity, all sorts of new stuff was happening – house worship, synagogues, Rabbinical study. Also, while the Torah explicitly states that not one word may be added or subtracted from it, the rise of the Rabbis (Tanaim) opened up interpretation and debate as a legitimate intellectual activity within Judaism, so in that context the Jesus Movement was just one more school of thought, particularly since Jesus never claimed to be the Jewish Messiah – it wasn’t so long after the Prophets that the notion of a new Prophet would have been too extreme or heretical. I think it was Paul who was controversial by extending the Abrahamic Covenant to the Gentiles without any requirement that they (a) take on the outward sign of that covenant, which was a command given to Abraham (Gen 17:10) and (b) take on the Mosaic Covenant as well.

So I think that the evidence for Paul seeing himself as an emissary from Abraham through Jesus is convincing. I think that the problem for Jewish followers of Jesus in his time was that, for them, the Mosaic Covenant was part and parcel of the deal – no Moses, no Abraham. A short time later, after the Romans returned and the Temple was destroyed, this notion became a problem for the Romans as well, first because it departed from the Jewish position of conciliation with whoever was oppressing them at the time. Rome had just gone through a period where that position was briefly and bloodily abandoned, so they weren’t anxious to see it abandoned again and second because of the fiscus Judaicus – if followers of Jesus had to become Jews, that was a whole new and expanding tax base for Rome; if they didn’t, then Paul’s teaching was essentially stealing taxpayers from them. Combine this with John and Luke who were basically distorting Paul’s teaching to create a new religion that, in addition to not paying as much in taxes to Rome was teaching that allegiance to God superseded allegiance to the Emperor and the Emperor was not divine, and you were bound to piss the Romans off as well as the Jews. Poor Paul.