Friday, January 27, 2012

Segal on Paul, Judaism, and Conversion

I'm continuing my way through Alan Segal's Paul the Convert. I have two items:

1. For this first item, my understanding may be flawed, but, for the purpose of interaction with this book (however imperfect that interaction may be), I'll still say how I am understanding Segal's argument. Segal says at one point that instantaneous conversions were looked down upon in the ancient world, since many people preferred for conversions to occur after a period of education. Paul's conversion was instantaneous, even though it was followed by a degree of education within the Christian community, for Paul does quote Christian teaching that was handed down to him. At the same time, although Paul's instantaneous conversion was unusual compared to how conversions back then often took place, there are (according to Segal) a few places in ancient Judaism in which conversion is accompanied by some sort of ecstatic experience, which is what Paul undergoes.

This item is about conversion, so I will highlight another point that Segal makes about that topic. Segal does not believe that Paul was simply a Jew who was embracing and proclaiming the one whom he believed was the Jewish Messiah. Segal acknowledges that there were Jewish-Christians who fit this description, which means that they were technically not converts, for they were remaining within Judaism, on some level. (My understanding here may be flawed, however, for Segal does argue that joining a new religious community with its own set of values is an element of conversion, and it is the case that Jews who became Jewish-Christians joined the Christian community, even though they also remained part of the larger body of Israel, by worshiping at the temple, etc.) Paul, however, was a convert from one system of thought to another. He went from being a Pharisaic Jew to being one who viewed the Torah as temporary and did not think that Gentiles (or, presumably, he himself) had to observe its ritual requirements to be part of Israel (but, according to Segal, Paul did regard the moral requirements of the Torah, the Noachide Commandments, to be binding on Gentiles). Paul was a convert, not a Jewish-Christian. (Paul was a Jew and also a Christian, but not a Jewish-Christian, the way that Jewish-Christians were.)

2. I turn now to the Noachide Commandments, the laws that many rabbis believed were binding on Gentiles, whom they did not think had to observe the entire Torah. Segal argues that this belief emerged because conversion to Judaism was stigmatized in the first century C.E. Josephus' story about Izates (see here) shows that Gentiles did not like for their Gentile rulers to become circumcised, and so there were Jews who held that Gentiles could please God and honor the Torah without circumcision. And, in the late first century, in the aftermath of Jewish revolts, there were Roman imperial attacks on proselytism. On page 112, Segal says that some Jews thought Gentiles should obey the entire Torah, whereas others held that Gentiles could observe the Noachide Commandments to please God, since conversion would result in a blacklash from Gentiles----against the converts and also against the Jews.

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