Tuesday, June 26, 2018


Krister Stendahl was a bishop in Sweden and also spent time in America, at one point being a dean at the Harvard Divinity School. In 1976, he published a short collection of essays on Paul, Paul Among Jews and Gentiles. The title essay is based on lectures given from 1963 to 1964.

His interpretation of Paul tends to be overly generous. Stendahl was looking for inspiration for his own admirable beliefs and he found it in Paul. He always sees Paul as humble, never arrogant, embracing pluralism and diversity, never the triumphalism of one way of thinking. He makes Paul out to be a staunch opponent of triumphalism. I wish that were true, but I don’t see Paul that way. Paul has his moments where he can appear humble and weak, but he could also boast of having the only proper way to understand Christ. He portrays himself as the underdog, but he is clearly seeking power.

Stendahl has good points to make. One of the best is when he notes that while Christianity was developing stereotypes of Jews, Paul related to his real, fellow Jews, not the stereotypes. He understood how much his fellow Jews loved Torah. That was a problem for Paul who wanted to replace Torah with the Messiah. I also think Paul knew that Jewish leaders had nothing to do with the death of Jesus; he did nothing to spread that false tale, but that's a long story which I justify in my two books (more succinctly in True Jew).

In any case, thinking about Paul leads Stendahl to offer this reminiscence (p. 37):

“When I preach to people in the New England area, where there is a substantial Jewish community, and I say to my Christian hosts that Paul would at best call them honorary Jews—for that is what a Gentile Christian is, according to Paul (Rom. 11:17ff.)—this does not meet with universal approval, to say the least. When I tell Gentile Christians who live in a good and affluent suburb that only by adoption are they honorary Jews, they are startled. And when I claim that Romans 9-11 deals with our relations and attitudes to the Jewish businessman who has moved in next door, they simply find me odd and unspiritual.”

I understand why Stendahl would pick Paul as a point for reconciliation between Jew and Christian, but it’s an odd choice. While many Jews can find a likeable rabbi in Jesus, they have nothing but revulsion for Paul. They blame Paul for all the antisemitism in the generations that followed. It is not hard to find Jews who have a high opinion of Jesus for his very Jewish teachings, but it is impossible to find any Jews who have something good to say about Paul. Just mentioning his name to a Jew is like saying “Niagara Falls” in the old comedy skit from Abbott and Costello. It provokes a wild, crazy anger.

And Paul is not the magnificent teacher of love and diversity that Stendahl makes him out to be and therefore cannot really serve to reconcile anyone. The twelve tribes of Israel could be used as a metaphor for diversity, but Paul prefers the oneness of Jesus Christ. Paul has a tendency to give with one hand and take back with the other. In Romans 11, he tells his gentile audience that God has not rejected the Jews, but then he goes back on that by declaring that some Jews have been lost and this is great because it has given gentiles a chance to be saved. He tells the new gentile converts not to boast of their superiority to Jews, but also tells them that God has lopped off some of the Jews because of their unbelief. In Romans 7, he can praise Torah and disparage it for not being sufficient.

I like the idealism that Stendahl stands for and I like the way he reads Paul, purely as a noble, idiosyncratic way of making Paul out to be better than he was. But his reading of Paul is not true. The arrogant parts of Paul come through too strongly, and yet it is wrong to blame Paul for the antisemitism that came after him. It’s interesting that Paul could spot the beginning of such antisemitism in his lifetime and speak out against it in Romans. The problem is that he did so only in a halfhearted way. Proving his “truth” about the necessity of believing in the Messiah was more important to him than making peace between Jews and new gentile converts.

© 2018 Leon Zitzer

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