Is Paul anti-Semitic? Does God play fair?
Paul’s letter to the Roman’s is difficult. One reason is because Paul seems uncomfortable with a couple of his own conclusions. But one thing is clear. It is the most sustained statement of Paul’s theology (Moo, loc 4011-4019). But what is that?
One theme concerns the relationship between Jews for Jesus and Gentiles for Jesus. The Jews came first, they remain God’s chosen people, but they remain stuck on the law. God is not concerned with the law. He is concerned with faith and justification.
Another theme is God’s wrath, as well as his caprice. How could God hate Esau before he was born (Romans 9:13)? (The Greek term used for hate is misei, and should not be rendered by a weaker verb. See Strongs 3404). What sense does that make?
A related theme is that it’s all up to God. We deserve nothing; whatever we get is due to the loving generosity of God.
What strikes me most is how Paul seems to struggle with the answers he comes up with, not always liking their implications, but with the result that his explanation is even more troubling.
Jews and Gentiles
For Paul, two things are striking about the Jews. They were and remain God’s chosen people. Abraham and the other patriarchs of the Hebrew Scriptures remain sacred to God (11:26). At the same time, Jews have taken a wrong turn. They zealously trust in the law, by which Paul means not only the Ten Commandments, but the purity codes spelled out in Leviticus and elsewhere.
Often times Paul is simply read as an argument for faith over works, but that’s too simple. By works Paul meant (as Luther meant) the works of the law. And faith is only revealed by the works of the spirit. Without the works of the law we would not know sin; but we are redeemed by faith. We need both; they are not exclusive.
The problem for Paul is that while Jesus was a Jew, and Jews were the first followers of Christ, many religious communities to which Paul was writing seemed to have a majority of Gentiles. And these Gentiles failed to respect Jewish sensibilities, not to mention the Jewish foundation of Christianity.
Gentiles are like a vine grafted onto the root stock of a Jewish tree (Romans 11:17-24). Christians owe their existence to the Jews, but at the same time the Jews have remained rooted in a legalism that fails to grasp that God is about love. It’s not what you say or do. It’s about your openness to God’s redeeming love. God loved humans first (at least if you were not poor Esau*), but you must be open to receive this love. This openness is called faith. The result is justification.
Justification means that God treats sinners as if they had not been sinners at all. You don’t have to earn justification, you can’t earn justification, because it is a free gift from God to all who have faith. Moo puts it this way.
“Justification” occupies a key position in the various metaphors Paul uses to describe that new relationship. Justification is important in Romans and in Paul’s theology generally because it expresses . . . a crucial element in Paul’s understanding of God’s work in Christ: its entirely gracious character. (Romans 4:5, 4:16) (Moo, loc 4287)
There is nothing we can do to earn justification; it is the free gift of God.
From this perspective, following the law becomes relatively unimportant. What counts is whether you have a circumcised heart, as Paul put it (Romans 2:25-29). If you love God, and let God love you, then external signs of purity and belonging are unimportant, for you will naturally do what is right. Nevertheless, Gentiles need to respect their Jewish brothers’ and sisters’ beliefs about purity, not flaunting their freedom from the law in front of them, such as publicly working on the sabbath. But this is a question of good fellowship, not the law.
A problem for Paul
Paul is not an anti-Semite, but he puzzles about what he sees as God’s anti-Semitism. God made the Jews his chosen people, holding up patriarchs such as Abraham as ideals of belief and righteousness. God told Jews to live by following the law. This is the lesson of the Hebrew Scriptures. Now, all of a sudden, God changes the rules of the game, saying the law is unimportant, and Jews are focusing on the wrong thing. Not following the law, but being good because you love God, and receiving his love with an open heart is the new standard. It doesn’t seem fair, because it’s not.
Barclay puts it this way.
Here is a strange and terrible argument. Stripped of all its non-essentials, it is that God can do what he likes with any individual or nation, and that he deliberately darkened the minds and shut the eyes of the Jews in order that the Gentiles might come in. (p 142)
In fact, this isn’t just a problem for the Jews, it’s a problem for everyone.
Is there any justice in God’s pursuit of a policy of quite arbitrary selection altogether? Paul’s answer is that God can do what he chooses to do. In the terrible days of the Roman Empire, when no one’s life was safe and anyone might die at the whim of an irresponsible and suspicious emperor, Galba said, when he became emperor, that now “he could do what he liked and do it to anyone.” To be honest, that is what Paul is saying about God in this passage. (p 153)
The passage is Romans 9:14-18.
I don’t think Paul solves this problem. He is left where Job was left. God cannot be judged by human standards. Concepts like justice don’t apply. God can’t be judged period. Only Paul wasn’t so forthright, holding that a type of karma is operative in the moral universe: you do good, you get good, you do bad, you get bad (Romans 2:6-13). Trouble is, this obviously doesn’t apply to the Jews, who did good and got bad. Job was more honest.
The return of the Jews
Paul writes that the Jews will never be forgotten. They are the root of the tree to which Christianity has been grafted. The world will not be made whole until all the Jews are included among God’s people (Romans 11:25-32).
Is Paul an anti-Semite? Before his dramatic conversion, Paul was not only a Jew, but a Pharisee, whose life was devoted to the law (Acts 23:6). More than that, he saw the fundamental unfairness of God changing the rules of the game in order to bring in more Gentiles. His answer, as we saw, is that God is unfair, and that’s just the way it is. Besides, one day the Jews will see the light, and world will finally be made whole. (Forgetting, of course, all the other religions, but Paul lived in a small world)
I’d call Paul a reluctant anti-Semite. The logic of his argument leads to anti-Semitism, but his defense of the Jews is at least as troubling. God does not have to be fair; he can be as capricious as a Roman emperor. To me that’s a hell of a way out.
What Paul should have said, I believe, is that a tree has many branches, all growing from the same Abrahamic belief in a monotheistic God. But of course, he couldn’t have said this due to the constraints of historical time and place. Perhaps we can do better.
* Actually, things turned out alright for Esau. See Genesis 32-35.
William Barclay, Paul’s The Letter to the Romans. Westminster John Knox Press, 2002.
Douglas Moo, The Letter to the Romans, 2nd edition. Eerdmans, 2018.
Strong’s exhaustive concordance of the Greek Bible. www.biblestudytools.com/concordances/strongs-exhaustive-concordance/