Schwab: Welcome to Jewish History Unpacked where we do exactly what it sounds like, unpack awesome stories in Jewish history.
Yael: I’m Yael Steiner and my childhood dream was to stay in school forever.
Schwab: I’m Jonathan Schwab and I am in school forever.
Yael: Schwab, I am so excited. What do we have on the agenda?
Schwab: We have a really great one. It’s going to sound at the beginning like it’s not really a Jewish story. Might sound a little out of place in Jewish History Unpacked, but it actually is a really valuable Jewish story that’s going to help us understand a lot about what Judaism looked like 2,000 years ago and how we can think about it today.
Yael: Sounds great. What is non-Jewish about it?
Schwab: All right. So, what we’re going to talk about for most of this episode, is Christianity.
Yael: Notably not Jewish.
Schwab: definitely at first glance, very not Jewish. We’ve gone into this topic in a lot of our episodes at this point, but there are real questions when we think about Judaism whether it’s in ethnicity, a religion, some combination of both also how changes take place over time in Judaism to our practices.
Yael: You know who I’ve heard knows a lot about that? Whoopi Goldberg.
Schwab: Oh boy, yeah. Yeah, this is a topic that we’ve discussed that’s come up a lot and is still a really important question today. I want to take us back in time about 2,000 years and talk about a man named Saul. He’s from a place called Tarsus, which is in modern day Turkey.
Yael: This is not Saul from the Bible, the prophet.
Schwab: Right. This is not Saul-
Schwab: … the first king of Israel. He probably was named after that Saul, because this Saul, who’s coming a long time later, this Saul is from the tribe of Benjamin. and he’s from Tarsus, which as I said is in modern day Turkey, and I know because it comes up in every episode. We got to talk about it (laughs).
Yael: How far is it from Constantinople?
Schwab: It’s not that close to Constantinople. It’s way on the other side of Turkey from Constantinople, also known as Istanbul. Also, in the time that we’re talking about, the 1st century CE, Istanbul was not Constantinople yet ’cause it wasn’t anything yet. This is a couple hundred years before Constantinople is even Constantinople. So, we’re talking about a whole different part of Turkey.
So, this man, Saul of Tarsus, as he’s known, is born into a devout Jewish family of Pharisees and we’ve talked about them before, but that’s a sect of Jews who later sort of lay the groundwork for Rabbinic Judaism and a lot of what we know today.
Yael: Fairly traditional.
Schwab: Very traditional, very law-oriented, and actually before I even get to the rest of his biography, I’m gonna give away the ending and say that Saul also had another name, a Roman name that he used, and that name, which he’s better known as, is Paul.
Yael: Like Saul, but with a P? So, St. Paul.
Schwab: St. Paul. Yes.
Yael: Got it.
Schwab: Paul, AKA, St. Paul, AKA, Paul the Apostle is maybe the most important person in the development of Christianity.
Yael: More important than Jesus.
Schwab: When I say maybe the most important, I’m not forgetting Jesus. Paul is the purported author of much of the New Testament and he really is, if any one person is, pretty much the person responsible for the spread and the development of Christianity in the first few centuries that it existed and a really incredibly important figure.
Yael: So, how did this nice Jewish boy from Tarsus-
Schwab: How did a nice Jewish boy wind up as a Christian saint.?
Yael: How did he get mixed up with the wrong crowd?
Schwab: Yeah, (laughs) exactly the question that we’re going to talk about. Before he was St. Paul, he was Saul of Tarsus, and actually he really used both of these names interchangeably his whole life. It’s not like he grew up as Saul and later changed his name to Paul when he became Christian. Like a lot of Jews might have today, he had a Hebrew name and a Latin name, or you know, just like a common law name. And like you said, they rhymed and I don’t think that was incidental. You know, you want to have a name that kind of sounds like your other name.
And he grew up a devout Jew, a Pharisee, and actually early on in his life, he was very involved in the persecution of early Christians and Hellenized Jews and the non-Pharisees before he had this huge revelation and this vision that played an important role in his life.
Yael: And so when you say revelation, do you mean that he had some sort of religious awakening or epiphany? Or did he actually see something that changed the way he thought about the world?
Schwab: The latter. So, Saul even though they were around at roughly the same period, Saul never met Jesus, but when Saul is traveling to Damascus as part of some of his early travels, he’s on the road to Damascus, and he has this vision and he describes it in great detail, but he has this vision of a tremendous amount of light and he sees Jesus rising from the dead and Jesus speaks to him and tells him, “Stop persecuting my people and actually what you need to be doing is spreading the message about what I’m trying to do,” and this has a huge impact on Saul, and Saul then kind of changes his whole life and revolves his life around spreading the word and the way of Jesus’s teachings.
Yael: So interesting. I just can’t imagine what it would be like to not necessarily have a revelation, but to be a person who believes they had a revelation, and then just throws out everything they were taught as a child.
Schwab: And he does a total 180 because he goes from persecuting these Christians. He’s actually involved in the execution of a guy named Stephen who’s one of the early Christians, and Paul/Saul goes from being at the forefront of saying, “We need to stop this movement,” and again, we keep saying Christian, but I don’t know to what extent anybody was using that term at that time. Probably not at all.
Yael: So, did that just mean someone who followed Jesus’s teachings, or was it even Jesus’s teachings or it was just a teaching that was different than what the Jews were doing?
Schwab: The people who followed Jesus’s teachings were mostly known at that time as Jews. They were just Jesus Jews, you know, like we would call them Jewish Christians or Christian Jews, but you know, they weren’t yet really this whole separate thing called Christians, again, because there wasn’t really a Christianity. Jesus had some of his teachings, but it hadn’t really been developed or organized as a religion.
Yael: Were these followers of Jesus, were they viewing their following of Jesus as just another way of being Jewish? Like was Jesus-
Schwab: Right. Jesus was Jewish, right?
Yael: Was Jesus basically like a Rebbe or a grand rabbi or leader of a new sect of Judaism and they felt that they were following this new path of Judaism? They didn’t view it as something that irrevocably split away from Judaism.
Schwab: Yes, exactly, and that’s a lot of what we’re going to talk about today that that irrevocable split doesn’t come till much, much later, and yeah, exactly like what you described. They were Jews who were following Rabbi Jesus and there was like a certain amount of fluidity also. Like you could kind of follow Jesus, kind of follow some other people. In the Josephus episode, we talked about the Pharisees and the Sadducees and the Essenes that there were a bunch of different sects all running around Israel at that time, and this was another one of those and oftentimes the boundaries were kind of porous between them, and that was true here too.
Yael: What was Jesus teaching that made it different from the Sadducees or the Pharisees or any other type of previously existing Judaism?
Schwab: It’s a great question. The real question that I want to get to is what did Saul teach that was different? Some of the argument with Jesus or about Jesus was, was he accepting the rules of the rabbis? When the rabbis instituted rules, did he accept them or was he going off of just this like much more basic principles idea? And a lot of early Christianity sort of really develops around this thing of like is it about the intricacies of all of these Jewish laws or is it about much simpler basic stuff. And then, of course, after Jesus dies, a lot of Christianity revolves around Jesus being the Son of God and him dying for our sins and a whole bunch of other stuff that honestly I’m not qualified enough to, to like fully understand or talk about.
Yael: But that story all developed much later on after Jesus was dead. So, what I’m getting from this, I think, and you can correct me if I’m not on the right track is that we now call Christianity, but it only became a separate entity from Judaism after Saul/Paul entered the picture, and Paul never met Jesus.
Schwab: He had this revelation, right? He had this vision of him. But he never met him, right? And again, like when we think of Christianity, now we think a lot of the symbols of the Cross, things that… Like obviously, that was not a symbol during his life Jesus associated with in any way. That is a symbol that became important upon his death, but similarly, we think of the church, right? The church and the synagogue as like two, you know, opposing sites, but Jesus didn’t really have any churches during his life. A lot of the places in which he was speaking and a lot of the places in which Saul was speaking were synagogues because like the real early audience for this was Jews.
Yael: Right. It wasn’t as though this started in a different part of the world with a different group of people who didn’t have an association with Judaism. Like the people in that part of the world were Jews.
Schwab: Exactly. Yeah.
Schwab: Yeah, So, we understand a little bit what Judaism looked like at the time. We understand how Christianity sort of fits into this piece and the third major contextual part is what role did Judaism play in the world, like we often think about Judaism as like somewhat a minor religion. I guess not really. I don’t know. I find it always hard to tell, you know? Like how important is Judaism to people who aren’t Jewish? Like how much do people in the world really think about Judaism?
Yael: We get an outsized amount of press considering our numbers.
Schwab: Yeah, right, like there’s a lot of like… Well, Jews control X whatever, you know, insert whatever you want X to be, but I had this experience. Actually, this morning, I was going through an airport and it’s shortly after Christmas at the time that we’re recording, and my children were very surprised to see a lot of Christmas trees and Christmas decorations and no menorahs in the airport, and I was explaining to my kids, like first of all maybe there was one and they took it down because Hanukkah’s over, but also most people in America are not Jewish. This isn’t like equal placement. You know, we’re going to see a menorah and a Christmas tree, like a lot more people celebrate Christmas than Hanukkah, and they were very surprised to hear this because so many people they know are Jewish. I was like, “Well, you guys live in New York.”
Yael: (laughs), and you’re six.
Schwab: Right, and you’re six years old.
Yael: Most of the people you know are your family.
Schwab: Right. Exactly. So it seems to you like most people in the world are Jewish, but actually, most people in the world are not Jewish and this was very surprising to them.
Yael: I wouldn’t expect you to know this, but do we know in terms of numbers what impact the Jews had on the world? Like we know there were people in Rome. We know there were people in the Holy Land. But do we have a sense of in terms of like the Latin speaking world, like what proportion of it was Jewish?
Schwab: That’s a great question. I don’t offhand know, but in terms of like proportion, percentage how many people are Jewish, the one number I know that comes to mind is Josephus reported the total size just of Pharisees around this time as 6,000.
Yael: That seems very small.
Schwab: Yeah, it’s small. and I think part of that is like, wow, realize like basically the Pharisees are the ones who later Jews all really descend from maybe not like directly in terms of by birth, but sort of like the idea, this like small-ish movement that sort of all of Judaism pretty much comes from.
Yael: And all of Christianity apparently if Paul who was a Pharisee.
Schwab: Right, and all of Christianity. (laughs) right? but we do know regardless of number that Judaism was actually pretty important in the Roman world. There was something really appealing and interesting about it. As people were sort of moving past their Pagan religions, there was a massive amount of interest in Judaism. In Greek and Roman societies, it was a more sophisticated religion. There was something very appealing about it for that reason, and it also had this coherent ideology. It had a conception of God. There was life after death.
So, there were a lot of parts of it that were very, very appealing and interesting, but it also came with a lot of laws and requirements and restrictions and was fairly closed to outsiders, like most of the people who were Jewish were born into that, and when people converted into Judaism, they took on themselves a whole set of requirements and restrictions.
Yael: And you’re talking about the laws of keeping kosher and restrictions, what you can do on the Sabbath, and stuff like that.
Schwab: Exactly. The, the third that I would add to it ’cause we got to talk about it. It’s got to come up. It’s circumcision-
Yael: I wasn’t gonna say anything.
Schwab: Yeah, but those are I think like the major three, and, and those are a big deal, like circumcision is a big deal. Dietary restrictions are hugely impactful to your life, and keeping the Sabbath one set of every seven days, having a lot of restrictions. And there’s a lot of others. There’s festivals-
Yael: And there’s a lot of agricultural laws.
Schwab: Yeah, a lot of agricultural laws, and there’s a whole ritual life also, and this is also going through changes with the Temple, whether people see the Temple as the center of it. Obviously, once this Temple is destroyed in 70 CE, then it all becomes focused on, on your local synagogue, but even before that, there was a lot of focus on the local synagogue. So, there was a lot of prayer. There’s a lot of service. There’s a lot of restrictions. There’s a lot of things you have to do and a lot of things you can’t do and that’s a real barrier. Despite the fact that people are really, really interested in what Judaism has to offer, there’s all of these things that prevent people from getting on board with everything.
Yael: So, when Paul was trying to sell Christianity, which is I think where we are right now, like he’s trying to sell it. Is it that he wants to drop the restrictions so that people will be eager to join him or does he have a theological reason for dropping these restrictions?
Schwab It’s a really good question and it kind of leads to this really complex question of what was he actually trying to do that we don’t really have a clear answer to, and we especially don’t have a clear answer to because he’s kind of had two different audiences. You know, like you said, he’s trying to sell Christianity. He goes on the road and he goes on the road hard. He goes on a couple of different missionary journeys. I think it’s three and he travels all over the Middle East. He goes up and down modern day Israel, Syria. They weren’t called this then, but like just so we know we’re talking about Turkey, Greece, Cyprus. He goes all the way to Rome.
Yael: And this was all in the wake of his revelation on the road to Damascus.
Schwab: Yeah, this is all after his revelation, and this is when he takes on this like life purpose of spreading Jesus’s word and he does it in Israel to the Jews there, and then to the Jews living in this diaspora outside of Israel, and a lot of this is taking place in synagogues, which is like a funny image to think about. Imagine, you know, your local synagogue has a scholar in residence every single week and like the scholar in residence this week. All the way from Tarsus, we got Saul. But that I think is important to think about who your average synagogue is going to bring in as a scholar in residence nowadays and realize like that’s the way that Saul sort of was within the community then. They were not bringing in a Christian saint.
Yael: They weren’t scared of him.
Schwab: Right. They definitely weren’t scared of him. Yeah.
Yael: Interesting. So, from what you’ve been saying about his audience and the places that he would go to preach Jesus’s teachings, it sounds like he was deliberately targeting Jews.
Yael: When he went to Rome, was he not proselytizing to Romans who had previously been pagan or some other religion or non-religious whatsoever?
Schwab: Yeah. As this continues, he sort of shifts his focus a little bit and he becomes more and more focused on people who were not Jews, and like the easiest term-this is a term that kept coming up in the reading and preparing I was doing, was Gentiles. I was like, “Oh, Gentiles,” like what do we really mean by that term? And like in this context, we mean people who just were not ethnically Jewish, like even ethnically Jewish is a question. What does that mean? But like people who were not up to that point in their lives practicing Judaism. Like they were really new Gentiles and they, you know, became this population of Gentile Christians and it’s not exactly clear because it seems like the focus and the question changes a little bit over time, but it might have even been surprising to Saul that that the message was hitting on something for a lot of this audience and people start really listening to what Saul is saying and he becomes, another one of his, his names is he’s the Apostle to the Gentiles because he really becomes the person who… He gets this large degree of interest from people who are not Jewish and are listening to a lot of what he’s saying.
Yael: When he is going into these communities, Jewish or not, is he trying to change Judaism by integrating Jesus’s teachings into what had previously been Pharisaic Judaism? I don’t know if that’s a word. Um-
Schwab: Yeah, it is, and yes, yeah.
Yael: Or was he trying to move people away from Judaism into something that was legitimately new?
Schwab: So, there are a lot of different accounts and there are a lot of different books of the New Testament that are written by Paul or that are recounting Paul and it seems like for Jews, the message maybe was, you still have to keep all of these laws, but here also are some of Jesus’s teachings and for non-Jews, you can get all the good stuff, and you don’t have to full on convert to Judaism to get to be part of this thing. And, and it’s not exactly clear then what, like what the goal is here. Is there like a premium version where you’re doing circumcision and Sabbath and dietary laws and that’s just for Jews, and then there’s like the other package? Is it that eventually people will, you know, will upgrade to the premium version? Is it that Jews eventually can give up some of those laws? We don’t really know, sort of, what Saul was intending.
Yael: What are the interesting parts that you’re referring to? The interesting parts that he’s adding on top where he’s, like he’s telling the Gentiles, “This is how you follow Jesus by doing X, Y, and Z.” What are those things? I mean, traditionally, you hear about certain Christian teachings. Turn the other cheek. Um. You know, treat others as you’d like to be treated. And other, you know, notions or concepts that I’m aware of in terms of sacraments and alms and all sorts of different things, but I’m curious what he was pitching to these Gentiles. Do you know?
Schwab: Yeah, a lot of it is there is a God. You can have a direct personal relationship with that God. You can pray to that God, and that God like cares about your life. Uh, there is a life after death, right? What that means exactly, like you know whether we call it heaven or something, but like there is something that comes after death that is rewarding and positive if you’re good. And like having faith itself is an action that can lead to good things, like that’s very, very appealing. That’s a lot of the good stuff right there.
Yael: Right, and it’s not necessarily incompatible with Judaism except for the part where you say faith can save you because at least in Rabbinic Judaism, It’s really the ritual aspect of Judaism that makes you a Jew, but it’s my understanding of Christianity and a little bit of what Paul is teaching here is that your personal investment and belief in God is what makes you a Christian.
Schwab: Yeah. Also, this is very important because there’s this really big change of the Temple being destroyed, right? Like the Temple and the Temple service is, is really essential. Even if you’re not participating in it, you’re, you’re aware of it. You have some sort of connection with it. Even if you’re a Jew who’s never been to the Temple in your life, your local synagogue is sort of reenacting the Temple service or you’re thinking about the Temple service. Once the Temple is destroyed, what’s the central ritual part of it? for the Pharisees and for Rabbinic Jews, it becomes the rituals in your local synagogues. For Christians, it becomes… seeing Jesus and as like the center of it all and the person of Jesus becoming the whole thing.
Yael: Was any of Paul’s theology centered around or even cognizant of the concept of the resurrection of Jesus? Like that does not seem to be a part of this. You don’t have to believe that Jesus was killed or died for your sins. That seems to-
Schwab: Yeah, I don’t, I’m not sure about that. There are many people who spent their whole life studying this. but I think it might have been too early for that in Christianity.
Yael: So interesting because when you think about or when I think about certain basic tenets of Christianity, The things that I think about are all developments that came about significantly later than both Jesus and Paul.
Schwab: Yeah, Christianity is not even really its own religion until a couple hundred years after this time.
Yael: But obviously Paul starts to be successful.
Yael: So, what happens then?
Schwab: it starts to grow in popularity and especially among non, non-Jews, right? Like he still has this Jewish base, but it starts to get more and more popular among non-Jews, um, and then, it started off as this other sect or as, you know, like when you’re when a couple of members of your local synagogue are, are disgruntled with the new Rabbinic choice and they start their own little breakaway. You know, and sometimes that becomes its own whole synagogue and like that’s, you know, kind of the metaphor for, for I guess what was, what was going on, but eventually, it becomes a whole different thing. That’s quite different. That does not… There’s no possibility of these merging back together.
Yael: Well, certainly, eventually it becomes an antagonistic relationship, like we get to a point in time where organized Christianity, institutionalized Christianity, which I’m assuming doesn’t come about probably until almost a thousand years later, has very specific policies about Jews.
Schwab: Yeah, it didn’t take them a thousand years to come up with policies against, against Jews. Like Christianity in the 4th century already is the state religion of Rome and, and pretty quickly, they get to the antisemitism stuff, but yeah, as it grows apart, it goes from being this sort of just like the family you get together with over the holidays that you disagree with to a much more like us versus them, and that and that’s also comes out on both sides of it. So, Saul/Paul is at the beginning not a very threatening figure. He is not mentioned in the Talmud or in Rabbinic writings. Jesus is, but he… Saul, like he’s not worth mentioning because like there were a ton of people who were going around and talking about different views of Judaism and he was not important enough to, to like really rate as, “Oh, we gotta you know really debunk this guy.”
Yael: So, what makes him St. Paul? What makes him someone that, even I, someone admittedly lacking in Christian knowledge knows about?
Schwab: Yeah, well, he makes Christianity, and this is sort of the really interesting question to sort of think about. if not for Saul or Paul, does this whole Christianity thing happen at all or is Jesus’s sect of Jews, do they end up getting reabsorbed into Judaism? Does it end up being a pretty minor religion? But Paul/Saul, by taking it on the road, by getting a whole bunch of people really interested in this, by starting to articulate a theology and a set of rules for this and like by going on the road, he had to come up with, “This is what it means and this is how it works,” and that really lays the groundwork for all of it to develop and that’s what he becomes then. Like A lot of the books of the New Testament are, are authored by him or supposedly authored by him. There’s a lot of scholarship around like this, this is attributed to him, but it wasn’t really him.
Yael: So, the rabbis of the Talmud, they didn’t view him as a threat. But maybe they should have.
Schwab: Right, maybe people should have realized what was going on before it got as big as it did, um, but then, when Christianities does develop, the rabbis react very strongly to it, so there’s this, the Amidah, right? Which is like the central part of prayer, daily prayer, is also called in Hebrew the, the Shemoneh Esreh, the 18 blessings, because there’s 18 parts of it, but there’s actually 19.
Yael: I was just about to say.
Schwab: Yeah. Yeah, and, uh, because there was a blessing that was added on later against Heretics and it’s not, doesn’t say specifically that it’s against Christians, which is probably a good idea because naming Christians specifically in prayer is something that historically like ended up often having to be taken out to avoid more anti-Semitic persecution.
Yael: Right. Safety concern.
Schwab: Yeah, You want to say just generally heretics should be destroyed by God, but we’re not saying which one specifically, you know, in the prayer.
Yael: So, was this blessing added at that time?
Schwab: Yeah. This blessing was added at the time and part of it wasn’t just so that the people saying it would remember. You know, oh, here’s how bad Christianity is and how far we have to be from it. Part of it was that early Christians would feel so uncomfortable coming to synagogue and praying along with everyone else ’cause there’s a part that’s like clearly written against them, you know? So, which also is like really, really interesting.
Yael: And really, like super guilt-inducing.
Schwab: Very Jewish. Yeah. and that part, that was one thing for me that when I came up like really made me realize like how much the two were co-mingled early on that the idea wasn’t here’s a bunch of Jews sitting in synagogue and let’s say this to remember all of these outside people, but the original idea was we should insert this prayer so that these people no longer come to our synagogue because they will be uncomfortable with this part, which means they were coming to synagogue before that.
Yael: Or they will revert to the way that they were before in order not to feel uncomfortable.
Schwab: Exactly, they’ll be like, “All right. Let me give up on some of that other stuff, ’cause like it’s right here in the prayer, so I’m gonna feel really bad,” you know, saying it and still believing some of those thing.
Yael: It’s so interesting because you, you learn a lot about violence against Jews by Christians in the… You know, first to 10th century, and then you get to the Crusades, and then you get to the Inquisition, and on and on and on, it’s hard to remember sometimes that these, these two groups were once one and very likely could have remained one, um, if, things had just fallen out a different way that, Jews who follow certain teachings of Jesus would just be like Jews who follow certain teachings of this Rabbi or this geographic group, um, and it’s a really interesting world to think about and possibly a much more peaceful world at that. Though I’m sure we would have found something else to fight about.
Schwab: Exactly what you’re saying, like the same way we have lots of Jews who disagree and have different views. Like this was once some version of that and, and the really interesting thing and that’s, that’s like why we’re doing an episode on Saul of Tarsus and not on Jesus is If there’s any one person responsible for that, it’s Saul, not Jesus. Like Jesus could, could have lived in a world where followers of Jesus were another type of Jew, but once Saul came along, it kind of was no longer possible.
Yael: So interesting. I really did not know any of this. I certainly knew that there was an apostle named Paul. I knew that he was kind of the hype man for Jesus, but I didn’t realize how much of Christianity ultimately stemmed from his particular revelation on the road to Damascus, and I think people like me have only a cursory understanding of Christianity and its origins and part of being a well-educated Jew, I think, needs to be understanding this part of our history and I don’t think we should be scared of it.
Schwab: Yeah. I agree that we can feel a little more confident saying that this is a part of Jewish history and we can understand it from that perspective and it can enhance our understanding of Jewish history and of Judaism.
Yael: Yeah, I think we need to be more open to learning about the way in which our culture intersects with others, not only Christianity where there’s an obvious point of a fork in the road, an obvious schism between the two, but just how we’ve interacted and lived with other cultures in general. I’ve always said that if I ever got chosen to be on Jeopardy, the two categories that I would fear getting would be the New Testament and mythology.
Schwab: Yeah. Now, you know a little more. If you’re on Jeopardy and they ask a question, where was Paul’s vision of the risen Jesus? You’ll know the answer.
Yael: The road to Dama… What is the road to Damascus? Sorry.
Yael: I would have already gotten out on that. Schwab, this was really interesting. Thanks for doing the research and taking the time to teach me.
Schwab: It was my pleasure. I’m looking forward to next week’s conversation.
Yael: Me too.