Why were the Jews hostile towards Paul: His preaching the Resurrection or his teachings against the Law?

“Saint Paul,” Roma, 2nd half of 13th century (fresco fragments; 38 cm x 27 cm), Fabbrica of St. Peter’s, Vatican Museum.   

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Another blatant contradiction between Acts and the direct accounts of Paul is the reason given for the antagonistic relationship between Paul and the Jews. According to Acts Paul and the Apostles were persecuted for merely preaching the resurrection. In his defense speech before the Sanhedrin, Paul was supposed to have said:

Acts 23:6

 When Paul noticed that some were Sadducees and others were Pharisees, he called out in the council, “Brothers, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees, I am on trial concerning the hope of the resurrection of the dead…”

Similarly we find that Peter and John were arrested by the Jewish priests because they preached the resurrection of the dead. (Acts 4:1-3) Luke goes on, inexplicably, to assert that such a belief was already present in the Jewish religion (especially among the Pharisees). Indeed if we follow the scene of Paul before the Sanhedrin we find this:

Acts 23:7-9

 When he had said this, a dissension began between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and the assembly was divided. (The Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, or angel, or spirit; but the Pharisees acknowledge all three.) Then a great clamor arose, and certain scribes of the Pharisees stood up and contended, “We find nothing wrong with this man. What if a spirit or an angel has spoken to him?”

Thus Paul and the apostles were supposedly persecuted for something which a large portion of the Jews already believe in. Even without considering the letters of Paul, we can see that Luke’s picture is not free from internal tensions. Let us look at the second part of Luke’s fictional edifice first. It is quite obvious even at first glance that the Christian doctrine of the resurrection was not identical to the Pharisiac one. The resurrection the Pharisees were talking about was a general resurrection at the end of time and certainly does not include the recent death and resurrection of the messiah. [21] Secondly we know from Paul’s epistles that the problems Paul had with the Jews were related to his preaching of a law-free theology to the Gentiles.

I Thessalonians 2:14-15

 For you, brothers and sisters, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea, for you suffered the same things from your own compatriots as they did from the Jews, who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out; they displease God and opposed everyone by hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved.

Thus the problem Paul had with the Jews was in his preaching to the Gentiles. And it was not teaching mainstream Judaic ideas, such as the “resurrection” that got him in trouble. Luke, inadvertently, included some traditional material of the Jewish accusations against Paul in Acts. [21] In Acts 21:21 James and the elders had this to say to Paul:

Acts 21:21

They have been told about you that you teach all the Jews living among Gentiles to forsake Moses and that you tell them not to circumcise their children or observe the customs.

In Acts 21:27-28, we see this account:

Acts 21:27-28

When the seven days was almost completed, the Jews from Asia who had seen him in the Temple, stirred up the whole crowd. They seized him, shouting, “Fellow Israelites, help! This is the man who is teaching everyone everywhere against our people, our law and this place.”

Now if we are to rely only on the accounts of Paul given in Acts, the accusations seen in both accounts seem to have been plucked from thin air. For Paul, as we have seen above, was presented in Luke’s work as a law abiding Jew. Indeed he even had Timothy circumcised! Yet if we read the Pauline epistles we can began to understand the Jewish accusations. As Philipp Vielhauer explains:

For Paul Moses was not a prototype but an antitype of the Messiah and a personification of the “dispensation of death” and “of condemnation.” (II Corinthians 3:4-18) For him the acknowledgement of circumcision meant a nullification of the redemptive act of Christ on the cross (Galatians 5:1-12) [22]

Of course, the accusations of Acts were distortions of Paul’s actual teaching. However in view of his pronouncements on Moses and circumcision adumbrated above, it is understandable that the Jews would react to him with hostility. Thus Acts had falsified the reason for the Jewish antagonism towards Paul and his message. It was not “the resurrection” but his pronouncements on the law and on Moses that got him in trouble.


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