Paul: Jew or Christian?

Is Paul a Jew, or is he a Christian? This is the wrong question. For Paul, a Jew was not the other of a Christian. For him, Gentile was the other of a Jew, and Christian was the way to resolve this difference. Both, Jews and Gentiles, are equally called upon to escape the coming wrath. The fact that Gentiles accepted baptism and received the holy spirit did not erase the difference between Jew and Gentile. Being himself called to proclaim the good news to the Gentiles, Paul never ceased to be a Jew. But he ceased to consider being a Jew as an advantage when it came to the question of righteousness. He or she who is under the law is not considered righteous or blameless before God because of being under the law; and he or she who is not under the law is not considered sinful or condemned, as long as they acquire the “faith of Jesus.”

Why is all this so difficult and complex? Whence the confusion of the Galatians and the need to say it over and over again in sometimes the same, sometimes different words? What made Paul’s message difficult to comprehend? Or was it not difficult to comprehend but difficult to trust?

Here are some further characteristics of his message.

  • Paul remained an apocalyptist. From beginning to end, Paul proclaimed a way for the Gentiles to escape the coming wrath. He invited them to the way of Christ, preaching the word of the cross, of the death and resurrection of Christ that made Jesus into a “place of atonement” (hilasterion), inviting both Gentiles and Jews to change their thinking (metanoia), and put their trust in faith, rather than in the works of the law.
  • From beginning to end, Paul’s message revolves around Gentiles who are somehow already within the orbit of the Greek body of Jewish texts that he cites as proof of the truth of his message.
  • The question of where this leaves the Jews is not clear from the beginning. Paul’s position shifts: from the roundabout condemnation of the Jews as enemies of human kind of 1 Thessalonians, to the radical dismissal of the old covenant in Galatians, to the irenic position of Romans: one God for both Jews and Gentiles; a prerogative of the Jews because of the oracles (i.e., scripture); and a divine mystery playing itself out in their (temporary) rejection of Christ, which is the providential condition for Paul’s mission to the Gentiles. Without the temporary blindness of the Jews (cf. 2 Corinthians: whenever Jews read Moses they do so with a veil before their eyes), the Gentiles could not be grafted as wild shoots onto the noble olive tree.


A Visit to the Museum of the Bible

Last week, between lunch with Vicki Barnett of the USHMM Mandel Center and a guest lecture in Michael Brenner’s Jerusalem class at AU, I had an hour to dip into the notorious new Museum of the Bible. The MoB is a recently completed, private addition to the nation’s capital’s array of stately institutions of memorialization. It was built on an entire city block, that was purchased and cleared for the purpose of bringing something so fundamental to D.C. that one might be surprised it wasn’t already there. Of course the reason why there wasn’t a MoB in Washington already is precisely the reason why this one has quickly divided the minds of its visitors. While there’s no question that the Bible is an important foundation of American civilization – a text woven into the fibers of American cultural memory and contemporary belief – there is no agreement on whose Bible, or how the Bible, ought to be represented. The MoB fails to do justice to this complexity, but this is not to say that it ought to be disowned by anyone but the most devout Christian fundamentalists.

I walked into the museum with certain assumptions. I had heard of billionaire funder David Green and his Hobby Lobby chain of arts and crafts stores. I was aware of the role that company had played in the Supreme Court decision to allow companies to opt out of health coverage of contraceptives for religious reasons, and I remembered that there had been charges against the MoB of questionable practices of acquisition of ancient Mesopotamian artifacts from modern Iraq. The day I visited, an article had appeared in Religion News, commenting on the recent hire of a Jewish museum specialist as the new director of exhibitions. One of the most persistent charges against the MoB was that it largely represented an Evangelical Protestant view on the Bible, with little attention paid to the Bible as understood in the Jewish tradition. The Religion News website noted that the name of the new director of exhibitions had as yet to be noted on the museum’s website.

My first impression was of the extraordinary façade. As best I could tell, flanking the entrance were two supersized bronze replicas of the movable print of the Gutenberg Bible. To me these gaudy gates seemed more forbidding than inviting. The glass window set back between these walls was screened by what looked like an enlarged Greek manuscript.


As became clear to me later, in a central hall devoted to the history of Bible translations, the design highlights the very mission of the MoB as understood by its makers: the Bible must be translated into every language, disseminated to the four corners of the earth, and the gospel preached to every nation before “the end shall come,” when Christ returns to judge the living and the dead. (Cf. Matthew 24:14) Clearly, the MoB is a museum with a mission. It is a museum whose makers are committed to a certain vision of the place of the Bible in God’s plan for humanity. Yet, clearly, the MoB wants to do more and better in the pursuit of its mission than merely cater to the convinced or preaching to the choir. (More on this in a moment.) Nevertheless, the majority of visitors I saw, at least, seemed to be ready to be both confirmed in their belief in the Bible as the most awesome book ever and obediently dazzled by the multimedia shows they lined up to see. Since I had checked in on FB, the social media’s algorithm later steered me to a site where I could rate my visit and view what others had written. Gushing would be an understatement. People, at least those whose comments I was able to see, LOVED the experience and could have stayed for many more hours than they had. For those who love it, the MoB offers an immersive experience in what they believe is as close as they will ever come to the world of the Bible. The MoB is poised to become a major “shrine” to the Bible, a pilgrimage site for believers who arrive with family or church groups from across the country to pay homage to the holy scriptures. (An employee I asked where I could purchase tickets asked me whether I was with the group of pastors. I asked, did I look like a pastor? She looked at me again and said, Yes, you do.)

My overall impression of the MoB is one of confusion. As I mentioned, the museum wants to be many things to many people without losing site of its central vision, but that vision tends to dwarf and overwhelm the well-meaning attempts at giving scholarship and history their due. There are awkward attempts to highlight the continuity between the Israelite past of the Bible and contemporary Judaism, but the post-biblical history of the Jews is not part of the story told by the museum, while its Christian afterlife is everywhere. And then there is the awful kitsch that centers on the story of Jesus of Nazareth. Structurally, the self-guided exhibitions are relative islands of sanity in between screenings of history-channel and worse types of dramatizations of biblical history. I am saying “relative sanity” because the viewer is never left to contemplate anything without being bombarded by an overload of audio/visual impressions. Less would be much more here, as in fact it is in the current exhibition on “Jerusalem and Rome,” which is calmingly sparse and offers, in fact, tantalizingly little, but the material objects on display (on loan from the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, I believe) are genuine and telling. The museum guide I heard give an explanation of Roman and Jewish coins was moderately competent, though somewhat unexcited. Perhaps because the subject was actual history.

It would be easy to dismiss the MoB as lowbrow and single-mindedly Evangelical. My former teacher Marc Brettler recently argued that there should be many MoBs rather than one, reflecting the many points of view and afterlives of this oddly tenacious body of text. I am not convinced. Surely, as is the MoB fails to do justice to the complexities of the production, contexts, and reception of those scriptures. But we wouldn’t want a plurality of Holocaust museums with different viewpoints or a plurality of Vietnam memorials. Even natural history gets only one museum. Why, then, not the Bible? To be sure, if the MoB wants to be that space, it has a long way to go.

For my father

I think of you today, the night of Father’s Day,

Instead of, as usually, thinking of myself

As the father of my children.

My children!

Saying it is enough

To pull on the strings of my heart

As they say;


It is a physical feeling

One unlike others


I am almost certain

You felt it, too.


Certainly for your first-born



Who was abandoned

Brought up by his Jehovah’s witnesses’ grandmother

In Berlin


He came to us,

Dazed, confused,

James Dean in his undershirt

Shaving in front of

The small mirror

Suspended on the wall

Of his basement room.


This became my domicile

Where the organ you bought



Love? Affection?


I kissed you

With the love of my mouth

You returned my warmth

With a stranger’s card

In your jacket pocket,

Found by my mother,

Your wife.


The gun

In the drawer of your bedstead

Fired blanks.


I appreciated the heavy burden

Of your life

Too late

to tell you.


I am puzzled


But then, I thought

I knew.


But now,

I don’t.


Miriam Shenitzer’s putative life of Hannah Arendt. An introduction

The assembled images constitute an “archive” of sorts. As Jacques Derrida writes in Archive Fever, the arche of the archive alludes to both commencement and commandment.[1] The title of the visual archive, A putative life of Hannah Arendt, provides the directive on how to view the images. Like all historical evidence from which we attempt to retrieve or reconstruct the past, the visual archive of this putative life resists our attempts to impose prior knowledge, or prior assumptions, on the being that appears in the images, artifacts, and captions. We are to suspend our assumptions and allow for an encounter of a different life, a different personage, a different way of telling a story to take place.


Shenitzer’s putative life of Hannah Arendt intuits the “relatedness” of the self that Arendt sought to reassert in her thinking about what it means to be human. This “related” self––as Andrew Benjamin argues in a recent paper––“twists itself free from what (…) Heidegger criticized as a ‘metaphysics of subjectivity’.”[2] In place of the isolated self of the thinker, often invoked in iconic photographs that might appear on book covers, Shenitzer’s Arendt appears in an array of imagined figures and coincidental configurations. In the manner of a family album that neither fails nor succeeds in documenting the emergence of a character, while inadvertently documenting the styles, social habits, and historical contexts of a life, Shenitzer’s drawings and inscriptions capture the milieu, the aura, and the possibilities inherent in a particular time and a particular place. The particular time and particular place evoked in the putative life series is that of the 1920s and 30s, somewhere in Central Europe, somewhere in the “unbearable lightness of being” as Milan Kundera titled his breakout novel about private lives affected by the 1968 Prague Spring.

The putative life of Hannah Arendt is constructed from memory fragments of unknown origins that are nevertheless real and suggest familiarity. We become acquainted with a persona, a character, without being entirely sure of the knowledge conferred by this archive.

Defying the biographical convention that the early life of a personage adumbrates their eventual greatness, Shenitzer depicts the putative early life of Hannah Arendt as a set of ordinary moments, serendipitously captured and preserved in a visual archive of seeming trivia. This vindication of the everyday, the intimate, the fleeting moment, the odd relationship on the margins of a life, captures the tapestry of emotions and attachments that are often ignored, emotions of joy and disappointment and attachments of friendship and distrust that are here foregrounded as formative and normative in how we turn out as human beings. By retrieving, albeit virtually, the putative life of Hannah Arendt, Shenitzer’s visual archive vindicates the life of the emotions. Emotions and encounters constitute links and bonds between individuals where concepts and classifications fail us.

By creating the simulacrum of a putative life Shenitzer both asserts authority of access and memory preservation as well as relinquishes all claims to authoritative depiction. Gesturing at the ineffability of the true self, the putative life of Hannah Arendt denies as well as affirms access to the persona at the center of the series. The artist is thus in equal parts mystagogue and demystifier, enchanter and disenchanter.

For more information and to register for the opening symposium of A Putative Life of Hannah Arendt, see HERE.

For more on Miriam Shenitzer’s Putative Lives of Great European Thinkers go HERE.


[1] Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever. A Freudian Impression, transl. Eric Prenowitz (Chicago and London 1996), p. 1.

[2] Andrew Benjamin, “Being and Appearing: Notes on Arendt and Relationality,” Abstract, forthcoming in Arendt Studies. Online source: (accessed May 17, 2018).

May 14, 2018

Today is May 14, 2018. By the Gregorian calendar, this is the day when, seventy years ago, the provisional government of Israel headed by David Ben Gurion declared Israel’s independence. As was pointed out in a post I recently saw on FB, the question of territory of the newly independent Jewish state was not defined at the time. The declaration of independence proceeded without a definition of the borders within which Israel would be a sovereign state. When the War of Independence was over, the boundaries of Israel, those that were not natural boundaries, such as the Mediterranean coast, were mere cease-fire lines. In the preemptive war of June 1967, Israel revised those borders once again. It was widely assumed at the time that this revision was going to be temporary, and that Israel had conquered territory only for the sake of trading land for peace. Then came the settlements. Advocated by left and right leaning governments alike, Israel consolidated its hold on the conquered territories by establishing military outposts, as well as by transferring civilian populations into the Sinai Peninsula, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights, and the West Bank of Jordan. It started slowly, sometimes with, sometimes without the governments open support, but it took on a momentum of its own. Then came the 1973 war and its aftermath, the peace agreement with Egypt, which led to the first case of an evacuation of a modern Jewish settlement. The price for this peace agreement was high. It cost the life of Egyptian president Anwar al-Sadat, who made a daring 1977 visit to Jerusalem where he gave a speech to the Knesset that effectively broke Israel’s isolation from the Arab world. It also presaged the hysterical scramble, triggered by the Oslo Process, to make the annexation of the West Bank irreversible.

What we see today started with Sadat’s visit: Israel is now an integral part in the strategic alliance of Sunni countries, led by Egypt and Saudi Arabia, that opposes Iran’s growing influence across the Middle East, including in Iraq, which just elected a pro-Iranian majority in its parliamentary elections, Assad’s Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Huthi rebels in the Yemen, and elsewhere. Today Israel acts with virtual impunity, violently countering Palestinian protests in Gaza, flying missions against Iranian military installations in Syria, and courting the most right-wing, evangelical, unilateralist, and even anti-Semitic forces the US has seen since the 1930s.

On this day, the US embassy was moved to Jerusalem.

Jerusalem is claimed by Israel as its eternally undivided capital. To Jews, this is muvan me-elav, a matter of course. Even at the time, nearly forty years ago, when the Basic Law on Jerusalem was debated in the Knesset, many people advised against it. Why make a law that states what everyone believes is already the case? Doesn’t it rather achieve the opposite effect and make it seem as if the matter stated in the law was not settled a long time ago? But Jerusalem’s status is contested today, as it was then. The UN Partition Resolution of November 29, 1947, declared the area of Jerusalem, including the Christian holy city of Bethlehem, an international body, to be governed neither by Jews, nor by Arabs (read: Muslims). This vision of Jerusalem as a shared city was reiterated today, in a statement penned by my long-time friend Sani Ibrahim Azar, now Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Jordan and the Holy Land, who states the opposition of the ELCJHL “to the opening of the US Embassy in Jerusalem.” Jerusalem, the Bishop continues, “is a very special city, holy to three religions, and therefore it should be a place of peace, justice, and reconciliation.” He calls for the ELCJHL’s partner churches to “urge their governments to respect the International Law concerning Jerusalem.”

This morning, I also received a note from a Jewish Israeli friend responding to a FB post I had posted yesterday, in which I said that “as a Jew” I was happy that Israel existed and that I “unapologetically love(d) Israel and my Israeli friends.” But I also expressed my “deepest sympathy to my beloved Arab friends, for whom Israeli policies mean unmitigated pain and humiliation on a daily basis.” I expressed confidence that there was a “better way” and that we all knew what that was. I ended by cursing those who are making Jerusalem their “toy.” (Also, at this time, Tel Aviv’s fun culture is celebrating Netta Barzilai’s win in the Eurovision Song Contest, with a song called “Toy.”)

Upon reading my note, my friend, who rarely posts on FB, copied and sent a note posted by someone earlier today. The post mentioned two American Jews who appreciated Jerusalem’s special status. One was Ivanka Trump who expressed her joy at being in Jerusalem at such an auspicious moment. The author of the post pointed out that sometimes it is people who come from the outside that need to remind those living in Jerusalem what a special privilege it is to live there. The other was my former colleague and friend, Elie Wiesel. The post quoted from a one-page ad in which Professor Wiesel had voiced what Jerusalem meant to the Jews. “For me as a Jew – Wiesel wrote – Jerusalem is beyond politics. It is mentioned over 600 times in the Bible, but not even once in the Qur’an. There is no prayer more emotionally stirring anywhere in the Jewish past than the one that expresses the yearning for a return to Jerusalem. (…) It is what connects one Jew to another in a way that is difficult to explain. When a Jew visits Jerusalem for the first time it is not the first time. It is a return home. I once heard it said in the name of one of the great Hasidic masters, R. Nahman of Bratslav, that everything in the world has a heart, and even the heart itself has a heart. Jerusalem is our heart of hearts.”

Another colleague reminded me today (without any connection to Wiesel or to Jerusalem) that Marx had called religion the heart of a heartless world, surely a backhanded compliment, considering the source.

Celebrating the move of the US embassy to Jerusalem on a day when dozens of Palestinian youths were mowed down by the live ammunition of Israeli snipers policing the Gaza border is the heart of heartlessness. Why could the ceremony not have been be paused, just for a minute, to pay at least a minimal amount of lip service to the humanity of those for whom today’s move adds insult to injury?

Today’s celebration reminded me of the time when Israel crossed the Red Sea on dry foot, while the Egyptian army drowned. When the angels in heaven were moved to join in with Israel’s shouts of triumphant jubilation, the Holy One, Blessed be He, commanded them to be still. “How can you celebrate, when my creatures are dying?” I wonder what sentiments were shared in Heaven today.

Maimonides and his modern readers: Adventures in Jewish Philosophy

Note: The following summarizes my approach to Maimonides for a seminar I teach at Boston University, which concludes tomorrow, Monday April 30. The students were prompted to present on a significant text from our readings, or on their term paper. I decided to set myself a task as well, namely, to articulate the arc of the course, and explain what I hoped to achieve. The result is perhaps the first step toward a prospectus of a book.


First, let me explain what I mean by “adventures.” Oxford Dictionaries (online) defines adventure as “an unusual and exciting, typically hazardous, experience or activity.” Its synonyms, according to the same source, are exploit, escapade, deed, feat, experience.

The etymology of the word “adventure” points to things one comes upon by chance, that entail risk, but also the notion of arriving and reaching a goal. It can thus evoke something hoped-for, and something unforeseen, in any case, it points to a sort of encounter with something of great affective value, something stirring the hope that the apprehension felt on the way will be surpassed by the experience of happiness at the end: home, the golden pot at the end of life’s rainbow. If we think of the adventure as part of a dramatic plot, the adventure story belongs in the category of comedy, which on balance offers a redemptive outcome for the hero, a happy end.

Another preliminary remark. In contrast to the adventure story, the “plot” of religions of redemption hovers between comedy and tragedy. The trajectory of the religious life is open-ended, like the novel.[1] In religions of salvation, such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the prophetic revelation proclaims an unopposed monotheistic power structure that suggests the guarantee of a just outcome. But the concrete outcome is conditioned by human or divine choice. Religions of salvation offer a dynamic framework, within which the human being either chooses, or is chosen, to succeed or fail, making the outcome of our lives uncertain. This sting of uncertainty is meant to be balanced by faith or joyous submission to the verdict of divine judgment. Faith and submission imbue the believer with the confidence in divine forgiveness and ultimate reconciliation. The uncertainty of outcome may also lead to rebellion of those who, in their own eyes or in those of their fellow-religionists, despair of divine benevolence and succumb to the verdict of divine justice.

The above-mentioned religions are further complicated by the ambivalence of the object of special divine providence. Is it the individual, or is it the collective? (Buddhism is free of this ambivalence. The individual is here just as illusory, as is the world around them.) The Old Testament, or Tanakh, contains the material of both types of salvific religion. Torah, prophets, and the prophetic historiography of the Deuteronomistic school provide the blueprint for collective, i.e., political happiness/despair in the mundane realm of history and politics, whereas wisdom literature and many of the psalms provide a path for individuals to inscribe themselves into the plot of divine redemption.[2] The Book of Job and the pseudo-Salomonic work of Ecclesiastes/Qohelet belong in the category of skeptical wisdom that questions the efficacy of divine providence for the individual. This is precisely what secured their place in a canon that, for acute political reasons, wanted to emphasize and foreground the focus on collective redemption, in the sense of the restoration of the commonwealth.

What does any of this have to do with Maimonides and his modern readers or, more broadly, with Jewish philosophy. What is a philosophical adventure?

No one is born a philosopher. Some of us have stumbled on philosophy like the sleepy son of Strepsiades, for whom (and Aristophanes, his author) the editors of the ubiquitous Random House edition of The Complete Greek Drama show little affection. (See vol 2, p. 537). In other words, while we suspect that the pursuit of philosophy is somehow useful, we have no idea what we have gotten ourselves into until we become entangled in it. Enter: the philosophical adventure. At first it all seems like s suggestive soup of words, with a jumble of heavy concepts that offer a certain taste. Whether or not we like the dish, we are told it’s worth eating. And thus we take it in, wondering whether the meal will be transformative. A better analogy may be the first time we are prompted to consume a hallucinogenic drug. How will it go? An adventure in self-discovery.

Note that in imagining such an entry to philosophy we presuppose a certain configuration that resembles initiation into a mystery. There is an art of thinking (or just talking or speech-making, as its detractors suggest) into which we hope to be initiated. The paradoxical character of initiation is that, what we who hope to see or experience by ourselves (be it the gods, or a special place, a wonder of nature, or an illuminating idea), requires a guide: the novice requires a hierophant, needed for the wished-for encounter to be produced and experienced.

The Maimonides of the “Guide” (henceforth GP) serves as hierophant to those who turn to him to be guided from a state of “perplexity” to a state of clarity. The main difficulty of GP consists in the fact that it undertakes its task of hierophancy in writing. It is a book of instructions for a confused or perplexed reader, who aims to obtain clarity or, as Heidegger would say, “clearing” (Lichtung) which in German is a double entendre. It indicates light in the forest, where trees have been removed. The appearance of such a Lichtung is serendipitous. One comes upon a Lichtung on one’s wandering through the forest. Not everyone will arrive at such an auspicious moment of clearing. The condition of the possibility of finding it is that we enter the forest where we will soon be lost and in need of guidance. Hence the need for philosophical writing.

In our course, we repeatedly stumbled on the question of writing as the lesser of two evils and as always inferior to personal instruction. As I am writing this, I am reminded of the relentless push to increase the reach of academic instruction by means of digital communication. It seems to me, though I can’t be sure, that the virtual classroom is exactly this: a virtual classroom, i.e., a classroom that isn’t. Digital communication wants to extend personal and immediate instruction, the back and forth, the exchange of glances, the response to body posture, the attention to presence of the other, to a much larger “audience.” But audience presupposes speech and ears that are here de-materialized into a “monitorience” controlled by buttons, sidebars, and options to fast-forward and delete. I am quite certain, however, that Maimonides faced the same problem when he decided that the absence of his student Joseph required him to put his instructions for the perplexed in writing. It was an experiment in philosophical distance learning; more precisely, it was the first experiment in Jewish philosophical distance learning.

What are the secrets into which Maimonides wishes to initiate his readers? Are we still perplexed in a way that reading the Guide can be beneficial to us? Can Maimonides be our guide? Or do we approach Maimonides from a place where the questions that haunted him and his pupils are no longer daunting to us? In other words, are the mysteries of the Guide no longer compelling to us? Is Maimonides therefore only of historical, but no longer of philosophical, use to us? Has the “forest” of Maimonides been so completely mapped that we can no longer get lost in it, nor experience the thrill of a philosophical adventure?

I approach Maimonides by placing him, and us as his readers, in a certain company. This is not to say that I “contextualize” him, so as to explain him or his project. Historical antecedents and biographical context are important to get a “feel” for the intellectual and cultural preconditions of this (or any) thinker. This background helps us to see the generic aspects of an author’s writing more clearly. These generic aspects include references to the author’s own writings, or those of other writers and interlocutors that the author directs us to. This information is helpful to the work of understanding an author correctly, and to rule out the presumption of originality where an author merely repeats what others have already written, as well as the presumption of conformity where the author is original. Knowing what others wrote on the same subject also avoids the impression that great thinkers always work alone, rather than in conversation with others. By drawing attention to antecedents and interlocutors, our philosophical guide helps us to realize that philosophy is conducted among kindred spirits, rather than in splendid isolation. Philosophy does not begin from zero or an empty slate. By virtue of writing, philosophical conversations extend across time and place, allowing us to enter into a very special forest and to get lost and found in it: philosophical writing as an invitation to an adventure across times and spaces.

As Strauss points out eight centuries after Maimonides, philosophy begins when we read the “old tomes” again. Just how to read them with a mind that is awake and primed to ask the right questions is the first challenge.[3] Our guide wants the sleepy son or daughter of Strepsiades to awake from his or her slumber, just as Kant says of himself that he was awakened from his own dogmatic slumber by reading Hume. It is a kind of dogmatic slumber from which Maimonides wishes to awaken the perplexed, and guide them to perceiving a certain “light” with their own eyes; to glimpse it at first and then to proceed to a steady pursuit of a life in the light of truth, or at least of seeing clearly in the light that the truth sheds on the things we otherwise only perceive dimly. With these images, we enter into a metaphoric world Maimonides adopts from, and shares with, Plato. But is Maimonides’ goal the same as Plato’s? When they speak of light, do they mean the same thing? Is not Maimonides a student of Aristotle more than of Plato? And does he not affirm the Mosaic legislation as an unsurpassed event?

Before we go too far in this direction, let us flag another great divide. To entrust ourselves to the guidance of Maimonides in this adventure of metaphorical spelunking, we need to know whether we have access to Maimonides. This access is often denied. Maimonides is a remote object that we cannot see clearly. He is separated from us by time and distance, language, culture, and, most importantly, by his presupposition of the “medieval worldview.” He is also distant from us if, unlike him, we do not live under the political condition of compounded unfreedom indicated in the rule of the religious law of his own community and the oppressive circumstances of exile. We live in the “modern” age, an age characterized by a number of things that divide us from the medieval, just as the medieval–according to Maimonides–were divided from the ancients in some important respects. Reading Maimonides in light of Spinoza, Cohen, Strauss, and Arendt’s writing on the difference between the modern and the pre-modern “human condition,” sheds light on this divide. What separates us from Maimonides? What are the difficulties (prejudicial or actual) we must overcome as we approach his texts? How can we make sure we understand him? In fact, what is our goal or expectation in reading him?

Arendt provides us with a general introduction to the difference between the medieval and the modern worldview. Spinoza instantiated the conscious break with antecedent tradition that is characteristic of the so-called “radical enlightenment” of his age. One of the most eminent targets of his “un-reading” was Maimonides and his interpretation of scripture with the aim of reconciling the wording of scripture with the tenets of Aristotelian philosophical rationalism.[4] Cohen instantiates a new reading of Maimonides in light of the Kantian maxim of understanding an author better than he understood himself, which allowed him to bend Maimonides toward a critical idealism that Cohen saw as founded by Socrates-Plato. Strauss worked out a discipline of un-reading this modern hermeneutic, with the express aim of learning again to understand an author as s/he understood himself. Oddly, while it is Strauss who is often suspected to have “politicized” Platonic philosophy, Strauss’s critique of Cohen’s reading of Spinoza flips the presumed intentions of these authors, defending the good faith of Spinoza as grounded in his philosophy, while showing that Cohen’s attack on his modern antecedent – as well as his creative defense of Maimonides – were acts of politically motivated, willful misreading.

Maimonides prompted Strauss to speak of a difference between the natural difficulties of philosophizing, and an additional difficulty that did not exist for the ancients. That difficulty concerns the habituation to opinions, by which Maimonides means the proliferation of prophetic revealed legislation and of regimes based on such revealed legislation. According to Maimonides-Strauss, the fact of revelation and the fact of its political force creates an obstacle to philosophizing that we need to overcome if we wish to arrive at a proper understanding of the natural difficulties where, as Strauss writes, we can benefit, once again, from the guidance of the teacher of ignorance, Socrates. Strauss’s preferred image for our situation, as first articulated by Maimonides, is that we find ourselves in “a second, much deeper cave” from which we need to extricate ourselves. Strauss’s mature writings are an attempt to prompt his readers to extricate themselves from prejudices received by tradition, and arrive at a place of natural ignorance or freedom from all prejudice. More will need to be said about this later on. For now I want to flag the common trope of the cave and the quest for “extrication.” By speaking of “extrication,” Strauss may refer to the Hellenistic sculpture of Laocoon, famously described in an essay (1766) by the German poet Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (whom Strauss admired). The sculpture of Laocoon depicts the moment of agony of a priest and his sons who offended the gods and are punished by being entangled and crushed by sea-serpents. For Lessing, “the medium is the message.” The symbolic or allegorical work of art wordlessly represents the struggle for self-extrication that Strauss associates with the work of reading. Entangled by prejudice rather than mere opinion, the reader must struggle to rise from complete darkness to a place where we can begin to search for a Lichtung. In this reading, the modern Enlightenment (promoted by Spinoza and Lessing, a “Spinozist”) inadvertently generated a kind of eclipse of the medieval that, instead of bringing illumination, merely created a thick layer of prejudices. Strauss believes he can become a guide for the moderns who are safe in their prejudices and aims to raise a suspicion against the modern prejudice that we are insurmountably separate from the medieval philosophy of Maimonides.[5] He further believes that it is through the agency of Maimonides that we can free ourselves from the peculiarly misreading of Plato launched by Kant and Cohen.

Approaching Maimonides through a conversation with Spinoza, Cohen, and Strauss (rather than, say, Farabi or Averroes), I follow Strauss’s intuition. Like Strauss, I am interested in a philosophical conversation across time and convinced that we can benefit from reading Maimonides as a philosophical contemporary. This is not to dismiss Arendt and others who help us to become aware of the distance we must travers and the obstacles we need to overcome before we can benefit, once again, from reading Maimonides and benefit from his guidance.

[1] See Michael Zank, “Torah v. Jewish Law. A Genre-Critical Approach to the Political Theology of Reappropriation” in Allen Speight and Michael Zank (eds.), Philosophy, Theology, and Politics [Boston Series in Philosophy and Religion, ed. Allen Speight], Springer Verlag (2017), 195-221.

[2] This is speaking roughly and imprecisely. It would be more accurate to say that the psalms (of lament etc) project vindication in this life rather than reward in the hereafter. The latter idea is conceived in the context of apocalypticism, which combines personal and collective destiny and projects the promise of an afterlife to the partisan who remains loyal to the covenant as an individual (or member of a group) rather than to the nation as a whole. In this sense, the apocalyptic promise of vindication in the hereafter is an extension of, or variation on, covenantal prophetism, not an elaboration on the wisdom literature’s quest for individual virtue. The bridge between the latter and the later Christian doctrines of redemption is the Wisdom of Solomon, not the Book of Daniel. To be sure, Christianity absorbs both of these trends that continue to struggle within it.

[3] Two great variations on this theme come to mind: Wagner’s Parsifal and the parable of the four sons, from the Passover Haggadah.

[4] One of the first open disciples of Spinoza, John Toland (who gave us the term “Pantheism”) promoted the Socinian doctrine, which dismissed all Christian “mysteries.” Similarly, Spinoza deprives the biblical prophets of any claim to metaphysical or mystical insights into divine being, except for the utterly unmysterious teaching of a universal morality.

[5] See Zank, “Arousing Suspicion Against a Prejudice: Leo Strauss and the Study of Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed” in Moses Maimonides (1138-1204) – His Religious, Scientific, and Philosophical Wirkungsgeschichte in Different Cultural Contexts, ed. by Görge K. Hasselhoff and Otfried Fraisse (Ex Oriente Lux: Rezeptionen und Exegesen als Traditionskritik, vol. 4) Würzburg: Ergon Verlag, 2004, pp. 549-571.


Moses as religious “kitsch”

A few days ago, we screened Die Slavenkönigin/Moon of Israel (Austria 1924), a film directed by Michael Courtace (aka Michael Curtiz) that was based on a novel by H. Rider Haggard that romanticized the biblical story of the exodus. You can watch the French version HERE. The screening served as a co-curricular event for a class on “Moses and Muhammad as Prophets” that my colleague and Islam-scholar, Kecia Ali, and I teach as a freshman seminar for the Kilachand Honors College at Boston University.

The students in our class are outspoken about their likes and dislikes. In this case, they liked the live piano accompaniment by Gerhard Gruber (see, but they were puzzled by the story. If it was about the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, why was Moses such a marginal figure?

To make a long story short, let’s just say that “Moon of Israel” and other modern cinematic representations make something evident that may otherwise remain unnoticed. Within the context of popular western entertainment, Moses has been reduced to kitsch. For students unfamiliar with this technical term, here is a definition, borrowed from the Internet:

KITSCH refers to “art, objects, or design considered to be in poor taste because of excessive garishness or sentimentality, but sometimes appreciated in an ironic or knowing way: ‘the lava lamp is an example of sixties kitsch’.”

There is no question that the Moses of “Moon of Israel” represents something like 1920’s religious kitsch. He is the proverbial “old man with a beard.” a synthetic image of an aged (and, hence, irrelevant) Christ, or even God, the Father of Christian iconography, himself, a figure recognizable from nineteenth-century biblical engravings; in any case, he is an emasculated and ineffectual figure even in terms of plot, which is now driven by two youthful figures who take on qualities once held by Moses himself: an “Israelitish” woman named Merapi (Maria Corda) who––through “faith”––calls forth the first plague on the Egyptians, and her Egyptian lover, prince Seti (Adelqui Millar), a social-democrat who humanizes the Egyptians by lightening the burden on the Hebrews.

Oddly or not, cinematic representations of Moses remained kitschy throughout the twentieth century, whether or not the intentions of the representation were serious or unserious. (The same may be said of the Muhammad of “The Message,” the epic non-representation of the Islamic prophet, released just before the Iranian Revolution of 1979.) Call it the Midas-touch of Hollywood. In order to turn something into movie-gold, it must first be sapped of its non-kitschy potential.

The precondition of Moses-as-kitsch is the reduction of religion to the level of entertainment. The political thinker Leo Strauss pointed this out at about the same time as Walter Benjamin wrote his famous essay on art in the age of infinite reproduction. Strauss worried that religion was no longer recognizable as such at the moment when it turned into a form of entertainment, even if was the highest form of entertainment. (I will look up the exact quote. Meanwhile, readers are kindly referred to my translation of Strauss’s early writings.)

Neither art, nor religion, the filmed Moses of Hollywood is a product of sentimentality, deprived of any true knowledge of “ultimates” (a nod to my colleague, Professor Neville) and divine authority. Take Cecile B. Demille’s two versions of the Moses/Exodus story, the original “Ten Commandments,” released in 1923, and the monumental remake of 1956, the most costly and meticulously researched spectacle of the time. The white-American 1920’s Moses is an apostle of temperance, the 1950’s Moses a vehicle of Cold War propaganda, proclaiming the gospel of freedom, made in America, over against the tyranny of the East,  represented in the figure of Rameses, played by the inimitable Yul Brynner. In both cases, the audience’s confused beliefs and their sentimental attachment to the prophetic leader of the exodus is exploited in the interest of clearly articulated social-political messaging. The biblical story is given contemporary “relevance,” while a contemporary agenda (more or less uncontested by the intended audience) is reinforced by what remains of the authority of the biblical figure.

I haven’t seen the new Museum of the Bible in D.C. but it will be interesting to see whether it manages to avoid the trappings of kitschification.

For further thought: Does the biblical narration of the life of Moses escape the verdict of kitsch, and if so, how? What about Philo and Josephus? To what extent are their respective apologies for Moses “serious” and to what extent do we owe the modern image of swash-buckling Mosaic feats of strength to their early attempts at romanticization? What about the Midrashic burlesque of Moses stuck in a pit by Jethro, in a kind of contest of the magicians? In other words, when and under what presuppositions was Moses ever not kitsch? This raises the question: when and under what conditions is religion “serious” rather than sentimental? Do we need to go back to the Aztecs to find religious seriousness? Or is the theatricality of religious ritual inevitably a form of entertainment?

The Scandal of Paul

Jay Harris, in a review of Daniel Boyarin’s A radical Jew published in Commentary Magazine of June 1, 1995[1], cites Edward Gibbon to point out that the idea of Paul as a universalist transcending Jewish ethnic boundaries is, at best, only part of the story.

That Paul’s exclusivism was more “ecclesiocentric” than “ethnocentric” primarily means that, as the historian Edward Gibbon noted long ago, it was socially less narrow than some forms of Jewish exclusivism; but that is a difference in degree, not in kind.

Paul was also an apocalyptist who believed that faith in Christ was the only way to escape the coming wrath. That this way was open to both, Gentiles as well as Jews, marks his universalism. That the path was defined by faith in the Risen Christ marks his covenantal particularism.

Paul’s letters stand apart from other early Christian literature. His writing and thinking contrast with the irenic “proto-Catholicism” of the canonical gospels, the Book of Acts, and the other apostolic letters. It is Paul who enabled Protestant thinkers from Luther to Barth to justify their own radical theologies. Modern secular intellectuals such as Alain Badiou and Giorgio Agamben as well recognize Paul as one of the most profound and outrageous thinkers of the western tradition. Generation after generation, readers have taken inspiration from his writings, but also attempted to harness the words of this radical apostle and bend his words to their own doctrine. Daniel Boyarin is no exception, except that he bends Paul’s words openly, rather than tacitly, to his interests as a postmodern and post-Zionist Jewish reader. And yet, Paul emerges fresh from the piles of commentary and appropriation whenever one reads him. (Classical philologian Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Möllendorf once argued that it was Paul’s use of the Greek language that made him stand out. No one in antiquity wrote Greek in quite as lively a fashion as did Paul.)

Introducing Paul’s letters to first-time collegiate readers I was struck by three observations that I detail in the following. First, Paul represents a pre-70/pre-destruction voice of Christian discourse. This alone makes him unique among early Christian authors. Second, Paul’s reading of scripture is both instrumental in, and emblematic for, how his gospel inscribes Gentiles into the Judaic story of salvation. This assures him a place in the pantheon of hermeneutic genius. Third, Paul is an awkward fit for Jewish and Christian orthodoxies. This makes him a heretic to both, Jews and Christians.

  1. Paul’s pre-AD 70 Voice

Paul’s letters, at least those widely considered authentic, represent a pre-AD 70 voice that is unique among New Testament writings. For the most part, early Christian literature was forged in the crucible of the turmoil of the Jewish war and its aftermath, which left Jews in public shame and Christians scrambling to explain in what sense they were heirs to the Israelite dispensation without being counted among those rebellious Jews. (Hence: “My kingdom is not of this world,” John 18:36)

Early Christian literature answers the question, who was Jesus of Nazareth, for believers baptized in his name. For these believers and their instructors, Jesus of Nazareth was son of God, son of man, and son of David. The Paul we meet in this literature, i.e., the Paul of the Acts of the Apostles, is not the Paul of his own letters. It is a usable Paul who receives his commission from, or in agreement with, the original apostles; a Paul who argues that he merely preaches what Pharisees believe as well (i.e., the resurrection of the dead); a saint protected by angels, and the instrument by which the good news is spread to the Gentiles.

The character of Jesus of the canonical gospels was shaped by the struggle to write the story of Christian origins into and out of a Jewish world that no longer existed by the time the anonymous authors of the canonical gospels did their work. (I am greatly simplifying the situation to underscore the contrast.) Paul was still part of the world that the canonical gospels reconstruct from an ideological and historical distance. The matrix of their writing is no longer the Judaism of Judea and the Galilee of Jesus and his apostles but a Roman Empire suspicious of Jews and their associates.

The post-70 gospels and Acts provide the students of the apostles with a usable past, an unassailable and unchallenged chain of authority from Jesus of Nazareth, son of God, man, and David, to their own contemporary leaders and beyond. None of that was of relevance to Paul who did not foresee the emergence of an institutionalized church. Paul taught and wrote with a view to an imminent parousia of Christ. Paul’s assertion to be an apostle by virtue of a divine calling challenges the privileged position of the original apostles as projected by the later gospels.

As disciples of the Jerusalemite “poor” or evionim, the gospel authors had access to authentic traditions of Jesus whose sayings and parables they heard from their teachers who were among the original apostles. Given the disruptions wreaked in Jerusalem by the punitive campaign waged by Titus, the disciples may have feared that the traditions they had preserved may be lost unless they were recorded in an orderly fashion. Moreover, the proliferation of traditions and views attributed to Jesus made it necessary to create a measure and standard of faith, a kind of proto-orthodoxy. The evangelists’ job was to preserve and shape these traditions in keeping with the liturgical practices of baptism and eucharist and with the proclamation of the early proto-orthodox Christians: that the messiah suffered and died according to scripture, was resurrected on the third day, and taken up into heaven from whence he will return to judge the living and the dead.

Paul as well received that tradition and impressed it on his readers. (See 1 Cor 15). While Paul has no interest in the teachings of Jesus, he is familiar with the eucharistic elements of Christ’s passion  and persuades his interlocutors in and around Syria, Asia Minor, Macedonia, Greece, and Rome that Christ died and was resurrected according to scripture. Where he differs is in his mission to the Gentiles.

Like Boyarin, I believe much is to be gained by considering Paul as part of a conversation that indicates the range of Jewish possibilities of his time even though, in hindsight, Paul may be regarded as the unwitting founder of Christianity as a “world religion.” While to some, such as Paul’s student Marcion, Christianity was essentially a non- or post-Judaic religion that liberated men and women drawn to that very religion from its most egregious errors and falsehoods, Paul labored to keep the salvific dispensation articulated in his gospel from exploding the dialectic linkage between scripture and its true meaning as revealed in Christ. For Marcion, the Jews were already condemned, for Paul their “hardening” (Rom 11:25) was temporary.

Paul was not only an occasional writer but also an occasional thinker. Most of his letters speak to questions that arose after he left the communities he founded to travel to the next station on his missionary travels. (The exception is the letter to the Romans where Paul introduces himself to a community he did not found and that he is about to visit.) His discussion in Galatians of the problem of circumcision was occasioned by the confusion in the minds of the Galatians caused by emissaries from other apostles who insisted that the new brothers from among the Gentiles be circumcised in order to become full members of the community of the elect. Paul clearly thought otherwise. In the Letter to the Galatians he emphasizes that the apostles had never before obliged Gentile Christians to be circumcised. He also emphasizes the immediacy of his own authority and the divine commission of his apostolic office. In arguing against Gentile circumcision Paul cannot refer to it as an innovation and therefore odious in and of itself. Circumcision is, after all, the first covenantal obligation that applies to all male children of Abraham, according to the literal sense of scripture. Paul is therefore forced to make an argument from scripture as to why scripture itself may have obliged circumcision in the past but does not require it any longer now that the true sense of scripture has been fully revealed in Christ. He makes this argument in a world where Jews were still politically independent and where the apocalyptic expectation of Christ’s imminent return seems was driven less by a looming historical cataclysm than by an inner urgency to spread the gospel to the end of the earth.

By the time Paul writes his Letter to the Romans, the spontaneous and heated rhetoric of Galatians has matured into a comprehensive theory of redemption that makes room for both Jews and Gentiles. Paul’s apocalyptic urgency seems to have cooled as well. His plan is to complete his business in Jerusalem, visit Rome and go on to Spain. In the same process Paul honed his sophistication as a reader and interpreter of scripture.

  1. Paul and Scripture

In order to bind god-fearing Gentiles and Jewish believers in Christ together into a single community of the redeemed, Paul strikes a balance between an affirmation of Jewish roots and the justification of Gentile branches. His point is not as much supersessionist as it is inclusivist, as the roots and the branches are combined in a single living organism. This “tree of life” – in Romans 11 Paul speaks of an olive tree and wild olive branches – is also an apt metaphor for the manner in which Paul and other early Christian authors approach scripture. In some sense this is like pouring new wine into old skins, or a turning of water into wine. For Paul it is a matter of disclosing the hitherto hidden true meaning of scripture that not only preserves scripture but elevates it from letter to spirit (2 Cor 3:6).

Scripture, considered authoritative and immutable (i.e., no longer open to rewriting), provides the justification for Paul to argue that what appears like an innovation is not an innovation, but a meaning always intended by scripture, though unrecognized until the advent of Christ. It is this advent that, in hindsight and only for those who are not blinded or read scripture with a veil before their eyes (as most Jews do according to 2 Cor 3:14), disclosed and revealed the true meaning of scripture. It provided the hermeneutical key to unlock the scriptures.

Paul’s arguments from scripture affirm the authority of scripture, while scripture confirms his interpretation. The Jews are not rejected as a whole or forever; their temporary rejection of Christ merely makes room for the implantation or grafting of Gentiles into the “cultivated olive tree.” Scripture’s literal referent (i.e., Israel) is therefore reaffirmed rather than transcended and superseded. It remains real and valid (see Rom 9:1-6). The literal meaning of scripture is not abandoned, just as the Jews are not abandoned, or the covenant dissolved. This capaciousness on Paul’s behalf must be contrasted with his own early expressions of frustration with the unbelief and rejection of his message by his fellow Jews, such as summary condemnation of the Jews found in 1 Thessalonians 2:15-16:

15 Who both killed the Lord Jesus, and their own prophets, and have persecuted us; and they please not God, and are contrary to all men: 16 Forbidding us to speak to the Gentiles that they might be saved, to fill up their sins alway: for the wrath is come upon them to the uttermost.

Paul eventually comes to believe that the providential hardening of the Jews (see 2 Cor 3:14, Rom 11:7.25) to the idea that redemption extends to the believers among the Gentiles without making them into Jews, does not erase their privileged position in this economy of salvation (see Rom 11:11). In contrast to the later ecclesia triumphans, Paul’s thinking remains firmly framed by an apocalyptic temporality. But while Thessalonians still operates with the dualistic notion of an absolute opposition between the children of light and the children of darkness (1 Thess 5:5), by the time he writes his letter to the Romans Paul seems to have abandoned his contempt for the Judean authorities that wished to prevent the spreading of the gospel to the Gentiles.

In the end, Paul regards the blindness or hardening of the Jews to the gospel of Christ as a temporary scenario, a providential ruse that, in fact, makes it possible for the gospel to be preached to the Gentiles. In later times, Christian theology turned to a more schematic approach. Orthodox Christian doctrine, empowered by the Roman state, legally cemented the Jews’ diminished place in society and forced them forever to enact their exile from salvation. But that is not Paul who preached faith, hope, and love as preparation for a return of creation to the ideal state that prevailed in the beginning. He did not imagine that his all-important message of divine salvation might be absorbed into a new ideology of monarchic rule.

  1. Paul the Heretic

In the above, I compared Paul  with what became of the Christian movement. Others, including Boyarin, are more interested in whether Paul was a good Jew or a bad Jew, or whether his gospel was within or beyond the range of Judaic possibilities of his time. Both of these debates are somewhat beside the point. They presuppose that Christianity and Judaism are different religions, and that mixing the two is illegitimate, as it muddies clearly established boundaries.

We take it for granted that Paul was a Christian. But Paul asserts that he wants to be understood as a Jew, even a good Jew, and better than most. We can accept this as an indication that, for Paul at least, the ways of Judaism and Christianity had not yet parted. His whole purpose is to argue that his mission to the Gentiles was the necessary extension of the gospel, just as the gospel was the true meaning of the scriptures. In other words, what he was doing was, in his mind at least, continuous with the meaning and essence of Judaism, biblical revelation, scriptures and divine purpose all along. He may have been operating on the margins of the Judaic possibilities of his time and to some he clearly crossed a line. But in his own mind he was simply true to God’s personal revelation to him, which he understood as a prophetic calling.

It is interesting to me that, in many ways, Paul also seems out of the doctrinal bounds established by the later orthodox councils of the bishops. His Christology is “adoptionist,” or perhaps Arian, i.e., he sees the crucified Christ as a “son of God” in the ancient sense of a divine son, a royal title. It is not evident that he has a Trinitarian understanding of the nature of God. The exact relation between God and “our Lord Jesus Christ” seems of little concern to him. It is not an issue for him because he believes in the efficacy of Christ’s death and resurrection as an eschatological event that erases the boundaries between human beings and undoes the cosmic catastrophe of sin, which came about through the transgression of the first man. He is therefore neither a typical theologian in the later sense nor entirely orthodox. In a sense he is both a bad Jew in that he believes that the eschaton has dawned, and a bad Christian in that he does not regard Christ as equivalent to God. This makes him a skandalon, a stumbling bloc, a writer difficult to stomach if and when we are concerned with established orthodoxies. This explains why, even in his own time, he caused consternation not just among the Judean authorities who accused him of various transgressions and, willy-nilly, handed him over to the Romans, but also among the apostles. The Letter of James attests to the fact that Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith was offensive to the pillar of the church in Jerusalem. And yet Paul’s letters are in the New Testament. It is this fact, among others, that elevates this body of early Christian literature to the level of complexity we would expect from its inclusion in what we call the Bible.


What, then, is the place of Paul in the history of early Christianity? To whom may we compare him? Unlike the other apostles, he did not know Jesus in the flesh. Unlike James the Righteous, he was not a member of the family of Jesus. His milieu was the diaspora Judaism of Tarsus in Asia Minor (in the coastal Adana-Mersin region of modern Turkey), not the Galilee or Judea with their respective anti-Roman sentiments. Like Philo of Alexandria, Paul read and wrote Greek, though the Book of Acts wants him to have been tutored by a great rabbinic sage, Rabbi Gamliel, and Paul emphasizes that he was an outstanding, even zealous, student of Jewish law. Like Hillel the Elder, one of the founding figures of rabbinic Judaism and a contemporary of Jesus, Paul came from the outside and ran afoul of the dominant schools of Judea. (His alleged association with Gamliel puts Paul in the tradition of Hillel.) His teachings are informed by apocalyptic assumptions and visions that must have been more widely shared among rabbinic Jews than we may assume if we measure rabbinic theology solely by the standards of what became normative in Mishnah and Talmud. Palestinian midrash and Hekhalot literature offer ample evidence of the continued relevance of elements of the apocalyptic worldview, though stripped of their messianic urgency. Paul projects an apocalyptic urgency that remains evident in Palestinian Judaism until and perhaps past the Bar Kokhba revolt (132-135 CE), as attested in Fourth Ezra and in the biography of the great R. Akiba b. Joseph who hailed Bar Kokhba as the messiah and was himself martyred in the struggle for the freedom of Jerusalem.

Perhaps Paul was a kind of John the Baptist for the Gentiles. He was not himself the messiah, or a son of God, but he prepared the way for the second and last coming of the Lord Jesus Christ, the divine messenger of human salvation. Like John, he preached the forgiveness of sins. Unlike John, he preached to both Jews and Gentiles. His proclamation anticipated, and wanted to usher in, a new humanity founded on Christ’s resurrection, a humanity where it no longer mattered whether you were a Jew or a Gentile, free-born or slave, male or female.

Perhaps it is most telling, in this respect, that Paul himself denies that he was sent to baptize (1 Cor 1:17). He says this right after he acknowledged that he did baptize some of the Corinthians. His point, as usual, is polemic. Paul’s worries that the believers in Corinth are losing the main point over questions of ritual and party affiliation. Clearly, his message made little sense to those who tried to press his meaning into the forms of conventional religion. In response he admits to his folly.

20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach[b] to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. 

No wonder Paul is difficult to classify. Radical Jew, inventor of Christianity as a world religion, whatever we call him, his voice still rings fresh.


The New Testament

I teach the New Testament as part of an entry-level college course on the Bible. My overall approach is to teach the Bible as literature. I start with canon and canonization, then work my way through the parts of the canons, from Genesis to Daniel, canonical to apocryphal and deutero-canonical, Iron Age to Hellenistic, all the while foregrounding questions of genre and literary form as a means of getting from simple content to historical context. I encourage students to distinguish between heroic and narrative time. I point, again and again, to the pivotal moments in Israelite and Judahite history that we can grasp and pin down, around which some of the datable chunks of texts, books, and editorial compilations revolve: the destruction of Israel, the destruction of Judah, exile and return, the transition from Ptolemaic to Seleucid rule, the beginning and end of Hasmonean kingship, the age of Herod and Roman rule.

Then we turn to the New Testament.

The four canonical lives of Christ can be classified as “lives” (vitae or bioi), biographies of a particular “illustrious” man, a saint of sorts. They can be compared, in form, to the Lives of Plutarch. Luke in particular follows the conventions of that genre. But reading the gospels after reading biblical wisdom and apocalyptic literature is not just a shift in genre. It is a rupture.

For those who have ears to hear and eyes to see, the New Testament is discontinuous with the old. It is a metabasis eis allo genos. To think otherwise is to be fooled by the triple power of codex, language, and habit. Just because New and Old Testament are bound in one volume doesn’t mean they’re one book. Just because they’re written and translated so as to resemble one another doesn’t mean they speak the same language. Just because we (Christians and Christian-acculturated others) are used to mentioning them in one breath doesn’t mean they’re of the same spirit.

It was not until today that I fully realized the scandalon, the powerful magic trick by which difference and discontinuity between these compilations are rendered invisible.

Not that Talmud or Midrash are any more continuous with “scripture” than the gospels and letters of the New Testament. Both traditions, early Christian and early Jewish, employed interpretive techniques and hermeneutical rules to make those ancient and time-honored texts of Moses, the Prophets, and Psalms (or Writings) say what they wanted to hear. Learned Christians looked to Philo of Alexandria for inspiration who allegorized the laws of the Pentateuch; the rabbis honed R. Ishmael’s thirteen measures of interpretation. Both communities became inured to the resistance of the literal and historical meanings of texts whose sanctity was affirmed by bending its meaning to the will of the competing interpreters. And yet, there are important differences between Jewish and Christian readings of the same texts.

1. Hebrew v. Greek

Though the language of the early Christians and the Jews of Judea and Galilee was the same admixture of Aramaic and Greek, the dominant idiom of Roman era Christian discourse was Greek (the language of Paul), while the dominant idiom of Roman age Jewish discourse remained Aramaic. While sayings attributed to Jesus may have circulated in his own native language and that of his disciples, they were soon translated into Greek and other languages, which was part of the point of the gospel’s urgent dissemination to the “ends of the earth.” The kingdom of god arrived in deliberate acts of breaking down language and other barriers between nations, social classes, and – in some cases – also between the sexes, to forge a new humanity that was one in Christ. The vehicle of dissemination of the good news was comprehensible speech, even as one of the signs of the holy spirit was incomprehensible speech.

The rabbis condemned the Greek language and regarded it as a means of self-alienation that should no longer be cultivated. This inward turn came with the renewal of Hebrew as the language of the new law, the Mishnah that took the place of the old as the New Testament did for the Christians. And yet, the Mishnah was promulgated in Hebrew, commented on in Aramaic, and linked to the jots and tittles of the law by means of elaborate exegetical moves. While the oral torah was often suspended from the old like a mountain by a hair, it remained connected through linguistic proximity, wordplay, and the unceasing gesture of honoring the law as one and the same, received by Moses at Sinai.

2. Nation v. movement

The Jews never ceased to be a nation. But what were those early Christians? The religion of the Jews was never anything but an ethnic religion that, in that sense, never offended Roman sensibilities. But what was that Christian “way” proclaimed by the apostles after the death and resurrection of Christ? Binding or not, rabbinic law was meant to unify the Jews within and outside the land of Israel lacking access to their national center, their central sanctuary, and any semblance of national sovereignty. In place of these accustomed forms of independence the rabbis of the late second and early third century created a system of legal autonomy under the auspices of Roman rule. For the next seventeen centuries, this became the dominant way of life and the means to preserve ethnic cohesion and continuity among the Jews. The basic understanding of the Jews as a covenanted community was rooted in and continuous with the Pentateuch, a document forged in the crucible of Babylonian exile and Persian-age reconstruction.

In contrast, the Christian “Way” transcends the boundaries of ethnic nationality, custom, class, and gender. It forges a new humanity that is neither beholden to Moses nor to Homer (Droge), neither Jew nor Greek, rich or poor, male or female, according to Paul. This angelic race anticipates the kingdom of heaven right here on earth. Those who proclaim it might suffer at the hands of powers beholden to Satan and his demons, but they hope to be vindicated either in this life or in the next. They are innocent of the conflicts between nations and they are no threat to the empire (“my kingdom is not of this world”). This innocuous proclamation, which is the gist of the gospels and of Acts, was forged in the crucible of years, during and following the violent suppression of the first Jewish rebellion, when Romans saw the Jews as a rebellious people, barely subdued by the Emperor and his son, Titus, himself immortalized by his brother Domitian.

But instead of proclaiming their complete independence of the Judaic dispensation, as Marcion would, the canonical gospels, the Book of Acts, the rest of the New Testament insist on continuity with the Israelite heritage as one of prophecy and fulfillment. Christ is not simply a spiritual being, as Christian Gnostics would have it, but the Son of David, promised and foreseen by Moses and the prophets, proclaimed through the ages, adumbrated and prefigured by the unwitting testimony of the ancients. Avoiding the odium of innovation, Christians presented themselves as heirs to the most ancient dispensation, going back to Adam, Abraham, Moses, and King David while disowning the stubbornness of the Jews.

Looked at from the outside, from beyond all the rhetoric aimed at persuasion, the Christians appear as a movement rather than a new humanity, a community of believers, a mystery cult devoted to Christ, buoyed by enthusiasm and charisma. Surely successful in forging a new way of life, yet one whose ultimate implications were neither as benign nor as irenic as they foresaw when they were without power or sovereignty of their own.

3. Continuity v. supersession

Perhaps the major difference between Jewish and Christian ways of reading their antecedent scriptures is that between those who assert historical continuity and subject identity and those who appropriate that same tradition while superseding those who are most obviously devoted to its substantive continuation. In this competition, because the Christian way became politically dominant, the spiritual appropriators of an antecedent tradition were privileged over the literal (“carnal”) appropriators of that same tradition.

There are counter-arguments against the stark disjunction between Christianity and Judaism. Despite their pious demurrals the Jews of Palestine were connoisseurs of Greek and Hellenistic civilization. And despite their claim to speak for the entire nation the rabbis had started as a movement of their own and faced competition from other heirs of the same ancestral traditions, among them the Samaritans (kutim) and Karaites. Finally, the oral law didn’t merely augment the written laws of Moses but ultimately superseded them. Very aptly, Susan Handelman (before her most recent turn to Israeli biblical literalism) praised the rabbis as “slayers of Moses.” On the other end of the spectrum, the fact that proto-orthodox Christians affirmed their roots in Moses and the Prophets created a complex continuity between Jews and Christians, progenitors and inheritors, mother and daughter religion. To be sure, the relationship was for the most part one-sided. The mother never acknowledged her daughter, and the daughter was not always inclined to honor her progenitor.

From a strictly pedagogical point of view it served me well to admit that I did not comprehend how this New Testament was rooted in the “Old.” Students were forced to argue whether and if so how the authors of the New Testament gospels and the Book of Acts made a compelling case for continuity between their proclamation and the earlier scriptures. Students  argued that the New Testament represented an “Act II,” a spirited argument that hopes for a restoration of an ideal state of Israel was fulfilled in the advent of Christ. I suggested that Jesus was at best a failed messiah, as he was killed. In the end the New Testament seemed to students like a “surprise ending” that sent the viewers back to what had preceded it to look for a foreshadowing of the end.

Pedagogically speaking I’d say this interpretation was a success. Students admitted that this surprise ending wasn’t as much foreseen as it was found in hindsight in texts that could also be interpreted otherwise.


The Bible: a trigger warning

On May 17, 2014, Jennifer Medina published an article in the NYTimes that may forever change the way we approach the teaching of literature in the college classroom. It deprived us of our innocence. Under the heading, “Warning: The Literary Canon Could Make Students Squirm,” Medina points to a new form of self-censorship, called trigger warnings, that instructors are now widely supposed to offer students before exposing them to texts (in the wider sense of text that includes movies, for example) that might set off psychological triggers by describing or depicting racism, rape, violence against women, suicide and other types of behavior that may cause the reader or viewer to relieve traumatic experiences of their own.

Before we dismiss this trend as political correctness or a curb on free speech, we should admit that images, especially moving images, but also words and texts can hurt. Sometimes our own words hurt others. They often do so inadvertently. This is more than regrettable. It is a cause for concern. Aren’t we to provide a safe environment for our students and interlocutors, including those who may be traumatized or offended by things that ordinarily roll of our tongues without giving us pause? Perhaps that is the most valuable aspect of this conversation on the limits of speech. It gives us pause. It makes us think before we speak. Is this not what every decent wisdom tradition has always demanded?

Exposing students to graphic violence or pornography without warning and without a clear pedagogical rationale is inappropriate, though there may be a grey zone. I once inadvertently offended students in a class on Judaism when I read an excerpt from Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint (without proper warning). I thought of it as a humorous illustration of Jewish family life, of stereotypes of ethnic family life. But that’s not how I introduced the excerpt, which was my mistake. There are many ways to offend students, and not all are pedagogically justified. Part of the problem is the lack of shared assumptions. Students are often ill prepared for a lecture that uses irony or sarcasm to get a point across. Powerpoints are never sarcastic.

When you teach a text or subject that is dear to students’ hearts, such as the Bible, for example, you are likely to offend. Perhaps it helps to start out with a trigger warning. This could run as follows.

Students should be advised that in this class we will be reading texts that contain offensive material. This includes fratricide (Cain and Abel), incest (Lot and his daughters), child sacrifice (the Binding of Isaac, Jephta’s daughter), rape (Dina at Sichem), adultery (David and Bathsheba), graphic sexual imagery (Ezekiel 16, a speech about Jerusalem as a harlot), erotic imagery mentioning body parts (Song of Songs), suicide (Judas Iscariot), divinely sanctioned genocide (passim), divinely sanctioned spearing or hacking to pieces (Pinhas, Samuel), implied homoeroticism (David and Jonathan), gay-bashing (Lev 18:22), lurid lists of forbidden sexual relations (Leviticus 18:6-18), masturbation (Onan), Satan (1 Chr 21, Book of Job, the New Testament), a deity trying to kill his own prophet (Exodus 4:24), angelic sex (Gen 6), a divinely ordained mass drowing of humanity (Flood story), and violent images about the end of the world (passim).

I realize just how problematic the Bible really is every time I teach it. Once I assigned Ezekiel 16 – the prophet’s derisive review of Jerusalem’s history from its origins as a bastard child of Amorite and Hittite parentage to its impending destruction at the hand of its “lovers” – in a course on Jerusalem. I advertised the passage as my favorite biblical text about Jerusalem. When we read it in class the next day – more precisely, as I was reading it aloud and commented on it – I was disturbed at the text’s implications, and at that moment I no longer knew why I had called it one of my favorite passages. Before we read the text I had shown the trailer of a film about Jerusalem’s only gay bar, a place where Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Muslims, secular and religious Jews, men and women, gay and straight all meet as equals, where it does not matter what they are. I showed the clip because it defied the sanitized images we had watched the day before when we saw the most recent National Geographic feature on Jerusalem at the Omni IMAX theater at the Museum of Science in Boston, which had ended on the note that it was not yet time for the three communities, Jews, Christians, and Muslims to meet. This view was presented by the three young women who served as guides to their respective communities. At the end of the film they convened at the same spot in Jerusalem’s Old City without interacting. The film about the gay bar was the perfect antidote. Here everyone met everyone, on the grounds of a shared human need for acceptance and community. Some students responded uneasily (by misplaced laughter) to the display of gay sexuality. Others expressed surprise that this kind of thing existed in Jerusalem, though they imagined that gays might be more comfortable in Tel Aviv. Most found it shocking to hear that during a gay pride parade a Jewish orthodox man attacked marchers with a knife.

As it turns out, Ezekiel provides a script for knifemen and religious extremists. He condemns Jerusalem for its pluralism. He takes it for granted that the proper handling of an adulterous wife is that she be stripped naked in public and stoned. The Bible is an uncomfortable anthology. A vademecum that always needed to be sanitized by the Jews and Christians who call it sacred. Sacred sometimes means scary.