by Brother Gilbert Bloomer
I have chosen two readings to reflect on in regards to Paul’s Damascus road experience. I do this coming from a background of being both fully Jewish and fully Catholic. When one reflects on the Scriptures and the Faith one often sees things in a different manner than those Christians who come from a Gentile perspective. In recent years there has been a new theological movement that seeks to read St Paul from a new perspective taking into account his background and life in the Judaism of the Second Temple period. This is a positive step in my opinion but can have a weakness in that many people presenting this perspective do not have the lived experienced of believing and living in the thoughts and concepts of religious Judaism.
The first article I have chosen is Klaus Haacker’s “Paul’s Life”. Haacker states that St Paul has been a subject of division and controversy. “In modern times generations of scholars have hailed or blamed him as the true founder of Christianity, granting that Jesus himself had not crossed the borders of ancient Judaism.” Haacker seeks to re-examine the evidence and come to what he calls a more ‘balanced view’.
Even among Jews one also hears the opinion that Jesus was a holy Rabbi but Paul was the apostate who started a new religion called Christianity. However even within Orthodox Judaism there have been those who do not accept this false dichotomy. One of the leading halakhic authorities of the last few hundred years Rabbi Jacob Emden saw both Jesus and Paul as holy Rabbis who observed the Jewish Torah while founding a religion for Gentiles who did not need to observe the Torah in a Jewish manner. Even some recent Rabbis have also revived this teaching of Rabbi Emden such as Hasidic Rabbi Harvey Falk in his book “Jesus the Pharisee”.
Haacker refers to Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus as a conversion. However he is quick to clarify that this concept has nothing to do with converting from one religion to another but as a conversion of grace. It seems to me that many Christians however seemed to refer to Paul’s experience as a conversion from Judaism to Christianity. They also seem to think and speak as if after the Resurrection Mary and the Apostles and Paul abandoned Jewish Torah life and threw some pork chops and prawns on the barbeque and entered into the wonderful ‘freedom’ of being Gentiles. This thinking has dominated in the churches for centuries causing a regime of assimilation and conversion to Gentile Christian lifestyle for all Jews who accept Jesus as Messiah.
However Haacker points out that this is what Paul’s enemies have accused him of doing but the last part of Acts demonstrates that Paul is indeed loyal and obedient to Israel’s hope and heritage. He also states that this coincides with Paul’s teaching in Romans 9-11. Romans 9-11 is a great eschatological and mystical discourse in my opinion and is essential for comprehending Paul’s understanding of his call rooted in his life as a devout Jew.
The second reflection “Paul Among Jews and Gentiles: And Other Essays” by Krister Stendahl complements my first reading. Stendahl emphasises that the road to Damascus experience is not a conversion from Judaism to Christianity. He prefers the word ‘call’ and he heads a whole section of his article “Call rather than conversion”. As a Catholic Jew I have never liked this word conversion or convert when speaking about a Jew who embraces Jesus according to the teachings of the Church. I prefer the term often used by Russian Jews who have embraced Jesus as Messiah in the Russian Orthodox Church- doubly chosen. Chosen first as Jews and then in baptism.
Stendahl’s use of ‘Call’ is also attractive to me as being more Pauline and more respecting of every Israelites’ election (call/ vocation) that is not lost at baptism but is enhanced. One eschatological day, according to Paul in Romans 11, all Israelites will enter into that deeper call which will then bring about a mystical eschatological experience known as “Resurrection or Life from the Dead” which will enrich the whole Church and the world.
Stendahl also speaks of the early church linking Paul’s letters to the seven churches mentioned in the Apocalypse of John. Catholic seers, such as the German priest Venerable Bartholomew Holzhauser (1613-1658), perceive the seven churches as seven periods of church history. The fifth period known as Sardis (which is the period of church history we are presently in) culminates in a hidden eschatological and mystical coming of the Messiah Jesus as a Thief (distinct from his glorious coming at the end of time). This Sardis period is also called ‘Dead’. Thus this ‘ingrafting’ of the Jews and the mystical “Life from the Dead” (which will be individual and communal) is believed to occur at the end of this period which leads to the great church era of Peace associated with ‘Philadelphia’. It is in our time that we have seen large numbers of Jews freely embracing faith in Jesus as the Messiah beginning with the 60,000 Zoharist Jews (Frankists) who embraced Catholicism around 1760. Is this a sign of the times?
I do not however agree with Stendahl’s opinion that Paul is trying to argue that the Torah is not Eternal. On the contrary the Torah is Eternal but takes on different forms throughout salvation history. I think a great confusion has occurred when reading Paul in that not every reference to nomos (law) is referring to the Torah. The early Jewish Christians saw Jesus himself as the Living Torah.
The Eternal uncreated Torah manifests in time and space through the created vessel of the Torah as uman or umanuta- the blueprint and Nursing Mother. Before Sinai it manifested as Promise, at the first giving on Sinai it manifested as law or way of sanctification, at the second giving as tikkun (reparation) and in the new covenant as Faith. The newer level of messianic faith does not end the other levels but embraces and consumes them into an ever greater whole leading to the restoration of living in divine will as our first parents did in Eden and then moving on to ever deeper glories.