Paul and Jewish Identity

Adam&EveI am teaching Introduction to the New Testament this summer and I find myself appreciating that many of my students are engaged and interested in the subject. This is especially gratifying since most of them are upper class students seeking a (any) humanities credit in order to graduate. Regardless, the discussions (and questions) have ranged from non-existent to average to very good to excellent.

I like to incorporate my current research when I teach. As we studied the undisputed letters of Paul, we focused about an hour of our time on Paul’s Adam material (1 Corinthians 15, Romans 5, and Philippians 2). Of course anyone who has read Paul knows that Paul presents Christ as the “second Adam” and virtually relegates Adam to a role of infecting humankind with the terminal disease of sin. (It’s interesting that this is not a medieval metaphor, but Jewish literature from roughly the time of Paul also discusses sickness and death as consequences of Adam’s sin.)

Jewish identity from this period was heavily invested in terms of the individual’s relationship with God. Jewish identity was invested in many ways (Sabbath, circumcision, Torah, etc.) and it was a very complicated issue to negotiate in the first century C.E. But the individual’s relationship with God seems to encompass all of these.

One particular Jewish perspective on the individual’s relationship with God (in view of being affected by Adam’s sin) entailed identifying Adam as the prototypical human being who received God’s mercy and was given access to paradise. How did Adam achieve this? According to the Greek Life of Adam and Eve (GLAE), a midrash on Genesis 3, Adam attained God’s mercy and gained access to paradise on the basis of two things: 1) he was the image of God, and 2) he had a repentant disposition toward God.

Comparing these concepts in GLAE with the Adam texts in Paul suggests that Paul was engaged in an internal Jewish soteriological debate in the first century. Paul claimed that the approach presented in GLAE was not enough. (Whether Paul actually knew the text of GLAE is beside the point; he apparently was aware of the traditions imbedded in GLAE.) In contrast to GLAE, Paul argued that Adam’s only contribution was a negative one. “Therefore as sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (Romans 5.12).

For Paul it was not Torah observance that made one a Jew (Romans 2.28-29; 3.21). Neither was it enough to be the image of God by virtue of being a child of Adam. Neither was it enough to have a repentant disposition toward God. It was one’s orientation in relation to the Messiah; it was necessary to be “in Christ.” In this way Paul was contesting Jewish identity in the first century C.E. He was redefining in his own way what it means to be a Jew, just as he was redefining Israel in his own way (Romans 9.6).

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