Paul, Judaism and the Gentiles. A Sociological Approach

Written by F. Watson Reviewed By John Barclay

In the past ten years or so Paul’s theology, especially his relationship to Judaism, has become a highly controversial topic in NT studies. In this book Watson launches into that controversy with one of the most important and adventurous contributions to date, which is sure to spark off further controversies in its wake. He sets out to demonstrate that ‘the view of Paul’s controversy with Judaism and Jewish Christianity which derives from the Reformation is seriously misleading’ (p. ix) and, by analysing the relevant texts in their historical and social contexts, he advances the radical hypothesis that ‘Paul’s sole aim in discussing Judaism and the law is to maintain and defend the separation of his Gentile Christian churches from the Jewish community’ (p. 22, my emphasis). In attacking Reformation theology he launches a devastating critique of Luther and many Lutheran expositors of Paul (especially Bultmann and Käsemann) who have helped to establish the present consensus that Paul, in attacking the works of the law, was attacking man’s legalistic attempt to earn salvation by his own efforts. Although it seems to me questionable to lay the ‘blame’ for this consensus quite so heavily on the Reformation (it is clearly foreshadowed not only in Augustine but even in Ephesians and the Pastorals), Watson is surely right to follow in the steps of F. C. Baur, K. Stendahl and E. P. Sanders in directing our attention to the Gentile issue as the root of Paul’s theology of justification. What makes this book so distinctive is its combination of two factors: (i) a number of bold historical hypotheses about Paul’s ministry to Gentiles which open up new interpretations of his letters, especially Romans; and (ii) a ‘sociological approach’ which analyses Paul’s churches as sects and explains his theological statements as attempts to legitimize practical decisions already taken in the establishment of Gentile churches.

(i) All of Watson’s historical reconstructions are presented with commendable clarity and a chain of plausible reasoning. That he has managed to produce strikingly novel but not wild or idiosyncratic results is a measure of his originality and his rigorous methods of argument. Nonetheless, in many cases he appears to me to go just too far beyond, or even against, the evidence. His most important thesis (in his second chapter) is that there was no law-free mission to Gentiles before Paul (the evidence in Acts 10–11 about the Cornelius incident and the Hellenists’ work in Antioch is discounted as Lukan fiction); that Paul himself in an early stage of his Christian activity preached only to Jews; and that, when he failed to win many Jewish converts, he (together with Barnabas and the Antioch church) began the mission to Gentiles, not imposing the law on them so that they would find it easier to convert. Without going into all the necessary details here I should, perhaps, indicate where I think this reconstruction is weak. Watson’s dismissal of Acts 10–11 is, it seems to me, overly sceptical; at later points in his book he makes significant appeals to the evidence of Acts without explaining why he considers it to be so uneven in its trustworthiness. In order to argue for an exclusively Jewish-Christian period in Paul’s life, Watson has to side-step Paul’s explicit references to call as apostle to the Gentiles (Gal. 1:15–16; Rom. 11:13; etc.; these are subsequent reflections about his call which ‘cannot be safely used as evidence for Paul’s self-understanding at the time of his conversion’, p. 30), while appealing to verses like 1 Cor. 9:20 and Gal. 5:11 as evidence for an early stage of Christian mission to Jews. It does not seem to me that these latter verses require any such hypothesis and, in fact, the logic of Paul’s conversion runs directly contrary to this. Before his conversion Paul persecuted the Christians out of zeal for the law (Gal. 1:13–14; Phil. 3:6) and, as Watson himself states in a different connection, ‘persecution expresses the view that the norms of the minority group are incompatible with membership of the wider community’ (p. 62). Thus when Paul came to join that ‘minority group’ he must have already realized that its norm (faith in Christ) was incompatible in important respects with law-observing Judaism. This does not, of course, prove that he began his law-free mission to Gentiles at once, but it does indicate that he saw the contrast between the law and faith in Christ from the very beginning (and not just later as a way of justifying his creation of Gentile churches); and it does cast doubt on Watson’s contention that Paul’s Christian ministry began as part of a ‘reform movement’ within Judaism.

After some incisive and illuminating discussions of Galatians and Philippians (reviving the Baur hypothesis that Paul’s real or anticipated opponents there were actually emissaries of the Jerusalem church), Watson’s other major historical reconstruction is the historical context of Romans (his ch. 5). Through an analysis of Rom. 14–16 he concludes that there were two Roman Christian congregations ‘separated by mutual hostility and suspicion over the question of the law’ (p. 97). One was Jewish-Christian (‘the weak’) and was the original Roman congregation now out of favour with the rest of the Roman-Jewish community after the riots in ad 49 mentioned by Suetonius; the other was Gentile-Christian (‘the strong’), all converts or associates of Paul and persuaded by him that the law was not an essential part of Christian living. The purpose of Romans is to encourage these two groups to ‘set aside their differences and worship together’ (p. 101; Rom. 15:6–7 is especially important for this argument). ‘Paul is writing chiefly to persuade the Jewish group to recognize the legitimacy of the Gentile group, and thus of his own Gentile mission; this would mean in effect a final break with the Jewish community’ (p. 102). In subsequent chapters Watson makes a detailed analysis of the contents of Rom. 1–11, arguing at each point that Paul is not advancing pure theory but primarily addressing the objections and preconceptions of the Jewish Christians in Rome, providing ‘the theoretical legitimation for the social reorientation called for in Rom. 14:1–15:13’ (p. 107).

It is impossible to do justice to the detailed reasoning Watson employs or to give sufficient discussion of the (often considerable) value of his reconstruction. He has certainly produced by far the most plausible of the various attempts to interpret Romans on the basis of the situation in the Roman churches, and his account gives the letter an attractive coherence of content and historical context. If I remain finally unpersuaded by parts of Watson’s thesis it is because I suspect that realities in the Roman churches were more complex than he allows (Rom. 16 indicates at least three house-congregations) and because I cannot see the letter as being mainly directed to Jewish Christians. The emphasis in Rom. 14–15 is at least as much on the obligations of ‘the strong’ (14:1, 13–21; 15:1); it seems odd to talk of Paul requiring a ‘final break with the Jewish community’ when ‘the weak’ are already not even able to get access to kosher meat (Watson’s explanation for their vegetarianism); and ch. 11 is a disastrous ‘own goal’ if the main thrust of the letter is to persuade the Jewish Christians that the election promises to Israel are no longer valid. It may be that Watson, in focusing so much on the ‘social function’ of Paul’s arguments, has not made sufficient allowance for Paul’s own theological concerns which sometimes seem to have functioned at quite a high level of theoretical enquiry and developed a momentum of their own which went beyond the immediate necessities of the situation he addressed.

(ii) Watson’s sociological approach is refreshingly free of sociologists’ jargon and does not give the impression of imposing a preconceived model on the texts. The purpose of such a sociological perspective is surely of vital importance: ‘to examine how Paul’s theorizing is related to the concrete problems which he faced’ (p. 19, in explicit opposition to all those who tend to isolate theology from history). The key model used by Watson is the way that reform movements within a religion sometimes transform themselves into a sect (‘a closely-knit group which sets up rigid and clearly-defined barriers between itself and the parent community’, p. 19). Thus the argument of Galatians and Romans can be re-expressed as the debate about whether the church should be seen as a reform movement within Judaism (the view of the Judaizers and the Roman-Jewish Christians) or as a sect, differentiated from the Jewish community (Paul’s view). This is certainly a fruitful way of looking at the issues facing the early Christians and Paul’s own radical conclusions. But it has one major drawback: the definition of terms. Watson himself admits that the distinctions between reform movement and sect are ‘fluid’ (p. 39), and it is particularly difficult to define the characteristics of a sect. At one point (in the notes on pp. 190–191) Watson criticizes Scroggs’ list of the seven typical characteristics of a sect. But if this list allows such widely differing applications it must be too vague. Reference to B. Wilson’s characterization of different types of sect might have clarified the issue somewhat.

The other main feature of Watson’s sociological approach is his tendency to regard Paul’s theological statements on Israel and the law as ‘a secondary theological reflection on a primary historical and social reality’ (p. 31), that is, as attempts to legitimize or justify the practical decisions already taken in creating Gentile-Christian congregations. This thesis runs like a golden thread through the book and springs out of the sociologists’ conviction that apparently theoretical statements often have a hidden purpose in legitimating particular actions. Where Watson uses this insight to insist that Paul’s theology is rooted in his concrete social situation and cannot be easily cut loose and turned into abstract Lutheran theology or existentialist philosophy, he has made some very worthwhile points. But there are moments when his arguments verge on a sociological reductionism. It is surely true that some of Paul’s theological convictions, those he inherited from Jewish Scripture and apocalyptic and those he reached on the basis of his conversion, affected the practical policies he pursued; they are not all, or at least not all solely and simply, a subsequent reflex of those policies. (Some of the best sociologists, like P. Berger, are well aware of this ‘dialectic’ between ideas and practice.) At the close of his book Watson asks whether Paul’s theological efforts to legitimate sectarian Gentile communities can be of any ‘profound universal significance’ or whether they should be ‘rejected as a cul-de-sac’ (p. 181). While sharing some of his disquiet with the current Lutheran answer to that question, I would argue that Paul, even while grappling with his specific Jew-Gentile issues, was raising and beginning to answer some of the most profound theological questions still on our agenda.

In entering into debate with this book at such length I mean to indicate that it is of enormous significance for Pauline studies. It deserves to be widely read and extensively discussed even if not all its theses can be uncritically adopted. Its wealth of material covering so many important issues guarantees its significance for many years to come. It is a first-rate contribution to a debate of first-rate importance.


John Barclay

University of Glasgow