Hooker on Paul the Jew

by Kim on February 27, 2011

Commenting in a recent thread on a link by Pam BG to Morna Hooker on Paul’s concept of holiness, Tim says, “Wow! I’d love to have been a fly on the wall at that lecture by Morna Hooker, Pam (BG). I’ve got a great admiration for her as a NT scholar.” Professor Hooker lectured on “Paul the Jew” (I can’t remember the exact title) at Swansea University in March 2004. There I happened to be a fly on the wall who scratched out this vote of thanks.

This has been a timely lecture - if you like contextual “contextual theology”. Mel Gibson’s much-hyped film The Passion of the Christ is now out in the US, to criticism not only for its digitally enhanced, relentlessly brutal realism, but also for its alleged anti-Semitism. Gibson claims to stick closely to the gospels, but St. Matthew shows no interest in Gibson’s obsession with the torture of Jesus - contemporary blood-and-wounds theology with a vengeance - nor in his over-egging of the evil of Caiaphas, and Matthew was the most Jewish of evangelists.

But, of course, the film is part of a larger contemporary context, namely the recent rise of anti-Jewish incidents across Europe incited by the extreme right, along with the inflammatory rhetoric of militant Islam, along with the left and liberal critique of Israeli policy in Palestine. I’d suggest there has been a massive media failure here to draw fundamental distinctions between anti-Judaism (i.e., hatred of the Jewish people), anti-Semitism (which includes hatred of the Arab people), and legitimate condemnation of actions of the Sharon government in the West Bank and Gaza.

Profesor Hooker’s lecture demonstrates that, in failing to make proper distinctions, there is indeed nothing new under the sun. Was Paul anti-Israel, anti-Jewish? Summarising Professor Hooker, and following her trajectory: What, Paul, this descendent of Abraham after the flesh, who understood his own vocation to take the gospel to the nations to be in the same prophetic tradition as Jeremiah and II Isaiah; who described Gentile Christians as children of Abraham, honorary Jews grafted into the vine of Israel; who wept over the failure of his people as a whole to accept Jesus as their Messiah? What, Paul, this Hebrew of Hebrews, who, while refusing to bow before the Jewish Christian mother church, yet sought its support and struggled to assure it that his gospel was congruent with theirs? What, Paul, the faultless Pharisee, who argued his case for a Torah-free gospel precisely on the basis of the Torah itself, and whose belief that Christ was the goal, and therefore the end of the Torah, in no way impugned the Torah, while yet insisting that, in the New Age beginning in Jesus, it no longer has theological purchase?

At the conclusion of her recent book Paul: A Short Introduction (2003), Professor Hooker observes that “Any great teacher will find that his or her sayings are studied, treated with reverence, explained, interpreted, developed - and misunderstood. Not surprisingly, this is what happened to Paul.” Professor Hooker, we are in your debt for deconstructing our misunderstandings, and for helping us to understand Paul to be a faithul, if controversial Jew, and an equally faithful exegete of that other Jew, Jesus of Nazareth.

But even more (if I may say so), thank you not only for interpreting Paul the Jew to us, but even more, for showing us how to do theology in a truly Pauline idiom, taking theology not as law, as timeless instruction, but as gospel, as timely good news at the interface of faith, tradition, experience, and contemporary culture. I trust that this audience, at least, will take away with them a Paul who offers no solace to Jew-haters - or, for that matter, to haters of any stripe - but who continues to challenge us with living out the radical other-love of God revealed in Christ.

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Joseph W 02.28.11 at 6:59 pm

An excellent post.

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