In comments a while back a chap called Moonsray challenged my assertion that 1st Century Judaism, while being a spectrum of wide beliefs can be appropriately seen as radically monotheistic. S/He counted, that Jews were not strict monotheists and that “Paul and the other early Christians plainly were not generally-strict-monotheistic-intolerant-of-syncretism Jews”.
We joke around Maynooth that we are part of a Jewish sect because, well, Christianity is a Jewish sect. And when people advocate some kind of syncretism from Paul, especially, they are straying into a fundamental mistake. Here is Paul from the letter to the Christians at Philipi:
If others think they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.
Christianity has had a remarkable appetite for absorbing the best of other traditions. As my own church tradition holds as one of its slogans, “Reject light from no quarter”, there was from the beginning a willingness, rarely diluted, to do business with classical thought. This has meant that Christianity developed as a movement able to express itself in Hellenistic philosophical terms. That doesn’t mean for one moment that the first Christians preached a totally anti-Paganistic monotheistic message that was “according to the Scriptures”.
Saul was a Pharisee before he became Paul. But that conversion is not one away from Judaism but into what the reformers would call “true religion”. Paul is not leaving his genetic heritage behind; every single letter attributed to him is soaked in the Hebrew text. He believes that the Easter event is the definitive climax of history- that which Torah was pointing to. To be faithful to Judaism is to be faithful to Jesus for in Jesus, the faithfulness of God is revealed. There is no space in Pauline thought for syncretism or for the dilution of monotheism.
My favourite example of Paul’s robust Christian Jewishness is in 1st Corinthians 8. The Shema is the definitive prayer of the Jews. They pray it each morning and each night. It goes like this:
Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.
And in 1 Corinthians 8, Paul is dealing with the very issue Moonsray is discussing; the Christian’s relationship with pagans. He writes:
“There is no God but one.” For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”), yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.
Paul begins by reciting the Shema. There is no God but one. Radical monotheism. He continues, there are pagans in the world. They worship so called ‘gods’ and ‘lords’. In reaction to this he reaffirms our monotheism, “for us there is but one God”. Who is this God? He is the Father, “from whom all things came and for whom we live” and Jesus the Christ, “through whom all things came and through whom we live”.
Paul cites and reaffirms the Shema, a radical statement of monotheism, but then explicitly alters it to include Jesus in the godhead (and implicitly the Spirit, “through whom we live”).
1st Corinthians 8 is one of those deadly passages that I love so much because it is so engaging. Paul’s advice is so robust and sensible and gracious. Eat all you like at temples for the gods don’t exist. But if by enjoying this food you risk tempting others, then refrain. Cos people matter more than food.
Christianity in its historical roots and in most non-Western places in the world today is a culturally voracious. The idea of a God who claims every square inch of creation is an open mandate to engage with the voices of a culture with confidence, respect and joy. No language can claim supremacy in the church. It cannot be hemmed in by any civilization. It will adapt and evolve to every setting because, I believe, it is the truth.
But I want to argue forcefully (whether I manage it or not is another thing) that the roots of this truth are shared with and to be found in Judaism. Today’s explosion of Christianity is south-east Asia or the Amazon has nothing to do with classical pagan thought. The Christian converts of Malawi are not better equipped by reading the Scriptures to engage with Herodotus. But they are prepared to read Jewish thought. The roots of their belief system is the history-loving, the world-loving, single-God-honouring Judaism we find in the Hebrew Scriptures.
Your Correspondent, Sounds like a Nickelback song