Paul and the Gentile Problem

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Matthew Thiessen
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , June
     336 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


First there was Albert Schweitzer, who placed Paul, like Jesus, within a context of thoroughgoing Jewish eschatology. Then there was Krister Stendahl, who reminded us that Paul did not think of himself in the ways that Augustine, reading Romans 7, thought of himself. Thereafter came E. P. Sanders, who insisted that interpreters place Paul within, not against, late Second Temple Judaism. Each of these scholars accomplished significant and salubrious paradigm shifts within Pauline studies. 

On the merit of his newest book, Paul and the Gentile Problem, Matthew Thiessen has earned his place in this scholarly lineage. Building on his prior work, Contesting Conversion: Genealogy, Circumcision and Identity in Ancient Judaism and Christianity (Oxford University Press, 2011), Thiessen has unsnarled some of the knottiest passages in Paul’s letters. He does so by taking seriously what ancients themselves took seriously: namely, “people-ness” or ethnicity. 

Land, language, blood (syngeneia), and gods—this cluster of categories were construed as distinguishing ancient people-groups one from another. Moreover, certain moral traits were held to inhere in particular ethnic groups (e.g., “All Cretans are liars.”). Modern scholars see these categories and characteristics as “constructed”: notional, negotiated, and fluid. But most ancients thought of them otherwise. As Thiessen explores and explains, for Paul as for his contemporaries, ethnicity was essential, hardwired, and fixed.

This essentialism might strike us as odd because, in certain areas, ancient people seem so clearly to act as genealogical/ethnic constructivists. Kinship diplomacy provides a prominent example of this. This mode of forging inter-city alliances required diplomats to generate ancestral stemmata connecting the citizen bodies of two different locales back to a common (often a divine) ancestor. These ancestral stemmata were clearly opportunistic, “constructed” according to the political needs of the ancient actors. However, in order to function effectively, these kinship lineages had to be regarded realistically. We see these ancient peoples as creative constructivists, but they thought their thoughts as essentialists. In their own view, they were not generating lines of kinship descent; they were recovering them. By generating a shared stemma going back to Heracles via a granddaughter of Abraham’s, for example, Hellenistic Judean diplomats “discovered” that they shared syngeneia with Spartans (see Josephus, Antiquities 1.240-41; 12.226; cf. 1 Maccabees 12.21 and 2 Maccabees 5.9).

Paul, too, was an ethnic essentialist. As he recounts a heated conversation with Peter, he remarks, “We are Jews physei and not gentile sinners” (Gal 2.15). The RSV translates this word as “by birth.” What it means, however, is “by nature.” 

What did Paul intend, when he held that these ethnic others sinned physei? As Thiessen illumines, Paul described their condition con brio. Because they worship idols, ethnê inevitably tumble into a cascade of sins: unnatural sexual acts, distempered societies, and dysfunctional families. “They not only do such things [as lie, cheat, and steal], but they consent to those doing them!” (Romans 1.18-32). The Corinthians, before Paul got to them, were adulterers, idolaters, sexual miscreants, thieves, drunks, and robbers (1 Corinthians 6.9-11). Those who indulge in immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, drunkenness, and so on (and on), he reminds his Galatian assemblies, will not inherit God’s kingdom (Galatians 5.19-21). Left to their own devices, this, “by nature,” is how ethnê behave. How did Paul think that he could fix this so that once Christ returned, the nations could rejoice with redeemed Israel (Romans 11.25-26; 15.9-12)?

In Paul and the Gentile Problem, Thiessen offers a new answer to this old question, while also explaining Paul’s florid opposition to proselyte circumcision. Paul did not think that gentiles should not convert to Judaism, says Thiessen. Rather, he thought that gentiles could not convert to Judaism. 

Many ancient Jewish texts do advocate circumcision as a way for non-Jews to become Jews. That view will define later rabbinic thinking. For these Jews, the Law could and did effect a “translation” of ethnicity, thus of “religion.” But other Second Temple texts and traditions—the important apocryphon Jubilees and the views of the Qumran community preserved in the Dead Sea Scrolls—hold otherwise. For this latter group, only eighth-day circumcision effected membership in God’s covenant with Israel (cf. Philippians 3.5). Adult gentile males, choosing circumcision, were manifestly past this eighth-day mark. Thus in the eyes of some ancient Jews, Paul included, proselyte circumcision could not effect a translation of ethnicity, and thus of “religion.” In receiving circumcision as adults, these Judaizers were actually violating the Law of circumcision, which mandated that the rite occur on the male child’s eighth day (Genesis 17.14).

Paul’s remark in Galatians 5.3—“Every man who receives circumcision … is bound to keep the whole Law”—should be interpreted as Paul’s thinking in terms of the mandate of the eighth day: the wholelaw about circumcision means the eighth day as well. Given Paul’s ethnic essentialism, a gentile (even one who, though as an adult, has been circumcised) is a gentile is a gentile: Try as he might, he will continue to commit “gentile” sins (Romans 2 and 7). Or, as Thiessen nicely puts it, “to Paul’s mind gentile circumcision is mere cosmetic surgery compared with the holistic remedy of gene therapy that the infusion of Christ’s pneuma into gentile flesh brings”(5; see too 117). Only Spirit, received through trust or confidence (pistis) in Jesus as the eschatological messiah, can ameliorate errant gentileness (cf. Romans 7.25). Sustained by Spirit—indeed, his physis eschatologically altered by Christ’s pneuma—this gentile is now inscribed in Abraham’s lineage as heir to the kingdom. He can await the return of Christ and the transformation of his own flesh, in the (brief) meanwhile enabled by Spirit to behave as the LLaw requires (Romans 8 passim; 13.8-10; cf. 1 Corinthians 15.44). 

The answers that Thiessen offers to perennial Pauline puzzles are elegant in their simplicity, but they are embedded within a rich appreciation of the historical and methodological complexities of interpreting late Second Temple texts and traditions. As important as it is innovative, Paul and the Gentile Problem belongs on your bookshelf – and on your syllabus.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Paula Fredriksen is Aurelio Professor of Scripture emerita at Boston University and Distinguished Visiting Professor a the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Date of Review: 
September 17, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Matthew Thiessen received his Ph.D from Duke University in 2010. His first book, Contesting Conversion, won the prestigious Manfred Lautenschlaeger Award for Theological Promise (2014). He has also won the Society of Biblical Literature's Regional Scholar Award (2014). He is currently Associate Professor of Religious Studies at McMaster University.


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