Call yourself a Jew?

Generative AI summary:

In Romans 2:17, when Paul addresses “if you call yourself a Jew,” there’s debate whether he critiques Jews or Gentiles posing as Jews. Arguments suggesting Gentiles as the focus cite Paul’s continuity in addressing Gentile behavior, yet the context implies a Jewish interlocutor consistent with Paul’s synagogue debates. The discourse involves the tension of God’s judgment on both Jews and Gentiles, stressing Jewish accountability first. Examples from Stoic philosophy and historical incidents illustrate identity complexities. Contrary to the Gentile interpretation, Paul’s critique challenges Jewish hypocrisy, emphasizing moral conduct over ethnic identity, amidst his broader theological argument against legalism.

Read time: 15 minutes

When Paul says, “if you call yourself a Jew” (Rom. 2:17), the traditional understanding has been that this is addressed to a Jew whom he is about to charge with hypocrisy: “You call yourself a Jew but you do this, that, and the other! Shame on you!”

It is sometimes argued, however, in keeping with the position generally taken by the “Paul within Judaism” school, that the critique in Romans 2 is directed not against Jews but against Gentiles, and that Paul’s interlocutor here is a non-Jew who mimics Jewishness. I have just read two recent defences of this view by Jacob Mortenson and Matthew Novenson.1 It’s a striking piece of re-interpretation, we’ll go through what I have taken to be the main arguments, but I’m not persuaded.

All of Romans 2 is addressed to a Gentile

Mortenson has already argued that Romans 2:1-16 is addressed to a Gentile, having stressed the continuity of the section with the explicit critique of Greek religion and morality in 1:18-32, and he sees no indication that the interlocutor—the fictive character with whom Paul is in lively debate—changes at verse 17.

I think, to the contrary, that the person who judges “the other” in Romans 2:1-3 is already the Jew who denounces Gentile behaviour but is guilty of more or less the same offences (cf. Rom. 2:21-23). Therefore, there will be “affliction and anguish”—the wrath of God—for the Jew as well as for the Greek (Rom. 2:9). So we should not expect a shift in the interlocutor in 2:17.

In his debates with the Jews in the synagogues across Asia Minor and Greece, Paul no doubt found ready agreement that YHWH would—or, at least, should—judge the pagan world. This is a theme of much of the Jewish literature of the period. The harder point to get across was that for YHWH to do this with integrity he would first have to hold his own people accountable. This is what accounts for the frustrated and quarrelsome tone of Paul’s writing here.

We also have to wonder why, against a sweeping backdrop of wrath against the “Jew” and the “Greek” as general ethnic-religious categories, Paul would need to direct this quite lengthy critique against surely a tiny number of hypocritical Greek converts to Judaism.

A well known topos?

Mortenson finds in Romans 2:17 an instance of “the well-known topos from Hellenistic moral philosophy of name versus deed.” But the topos typically exposes a discrepancy between the person with the name and the deed, not between the person and the name.

He quotes a passage from Epictetus, in which the Stoic philosopher argues that there should be consistency between essential character and outward behaviour, between thought and action, and accuses the philosopher of hypocrisy. The passage illustrates rather well the “diatribe style” that Paul seems to have adopted in his arguments with (in my view) the Jews of the diaspora synagogues in Romans.

Why then do you call yourself a Stoic (ti oun Stōikon legeis seauton)? Why do you deceive the many? Why do you act the part of (hypokrinēi) a Jew, when you are a Greek? Do you not see how each is called a Jew, or a Syrian or an Egyptian? and when we see a man inclining to two sides, we are accustomed to say, “This man is not a Jew, but he acts as one (hypokrinetai).” (Epictetus, Diatr. 2 9:19-20)

The line of thought is not easy to follow, but Epictetus seems to be saying that a Greek Stoic should not act as a Jew. In this case, being Greek is intrinsic to the Stoic identity, therefore the person should not act as a Jew.

He says further that if a Greek “immerses” (bebammenou) himself in Jewish thought and ways and enters into the community, then he is properly “called” (kaleitai) a Jew. But those who are “falsely immersed (parabaptistai), while in name Jews, in practice are something else”; we are “unsympathetic towards the word, far from practising what we say, and we boast about things as though we know what we are talking about” (9:20-21*). The Greek Stoic can take on a Jewish identity, but there is more to it than just using the name—and probably, in Epictetus’ view, he ceases to be a Greek Stoic.

Another example comes from Dio Cassius. Discussing the intervention of the Roman general Pompey in Palestine, he notes that the country and its inhabitants have other names:

the region has been named Judea and the people Judeans. I do not know why this title came to be used for them, but it refers also to other people who zealously pursue their customs/laws, although being of another ethnos (alloethneis). And this race (genos) is even among the Romans; while repeatedly repressed, it grew to a great number, so that indeed it won freedom of belief. (Dio Cassius, Roman History 37.17.1*)

In this case, Novenson comments:

Dio’s description of foreigners who go by the name “Jews”—“people who, although they are of alien race, affect the customs of the Jews”—is strikingly reminiscent of the situation in Paul’s assemblies in Galatia and Philippi, where gentiles-in-Christ were contemplating taking upon themselves certain νόμιμα, “customs” or “laws,” of the Jews: circumcision above all…, but perhaps also Sabbath and festival observances…. (Novenson, 101)

But it appears more likely that the distinction that Dio makes is between Judeans or “Jews” who lived in Judea at the time of Pompey’s incursion and “Jews” of the diaspora. These are Ioudaioi who have lost the association with the land of Judea. They can be said to be “of another ethnos,” but they are nevertheless a “race” living among the Romans, marked out by their attachment to the same customs or laws observed by the Jews in Judea. The translation “affect the customs of the Jews” is misleading. The verb is zēlousi, from zēloō; there’s no affectation involved, it signifies a serious determination to pursue something—in this case, the customs of the Judeans who lived in Judea; and Dio is surprised by this.

The comment that this genos (“race” or “family”) gained freedom of religion is clearly a reference to Jews living in the empire, not to a small number of Romans who identify as Jews.

When John of Gischala, one of the leaders of the revolt against Rome, says that he does not fear the taking of Jerusalem because it is “God’s own city,” Josephus scolds him: “To be sure, thou hast kept this city wonderfully pure for God’s sake!” (War 6:99). The fighting has led to the cessation of the daily sacrifice, so how can he expect God to support him in the war, when he has deprived God of his “everlasting worship”? John blames the Romans, but they have in fact urged the Jews to observe their laws and continue to offer sacrifices. Josephus finds the situation deeply ironic:

Who would not groan and lament the remarkable change that has taken place in the city, if indeed foreigners and enemies repair your impiety, and you the Jew (sy… ho Ioudaios), having been nurtured in the laws, have become more hostile to them than even them. (War 6:102*).

There is no being “called” a Jew here, but the story illustrates the rhetorical force of the accusation that a Jew, “nurtured in the laws,” is acting contrary to his ethnic-religious identity.

The thesis of Mortenson and Novenson is grammatically possible, but the literary support may not be as strong as they think; we would probably need much stronger contextual indicators to be confident about the interpretation.

The oddity of a Jew who calls himself a Jew?

It is odd, Mortenson suggests, that Paul would address “a Jew who calls himself a Jew.”

If the interlocutor really is a Jew, he does not need to call himself a Jew, because he is a Jew. Paul would not have to address a Jew in conditional terms about his Jewishness if he really was a Jew. It would be self-evident to a Jew that he is a Jew, and Paul would not question that. Therefore, we should consider the opposite: Paul is not addressing a Jew—he is addressing a Gentile who claims to be a Jew.

No, I don’t think so. There are a whole string of “if” or conditional ideas subsumed under the initial “if you call yourself a Jew…”: if you rest upon the Law, boast in God, know his will, etc.” This is a person who presents himself as a teacher of those in darkness, a model of probity, and no doubt specifically a corrector of Gentiles, under the name of “Jew,” whose own behaviour is no better than that of the Gentiles.

It is the particular definition of a Jew as a person who is competent to teach the Law of Moses to others that is at issue: “the one teaching another, do you not teach yourself?” As in the Epictetus passage, the contradiction is between the person who identifies with the name (Greek Stoic, Jewish “teacher of the Law”) and the incongruous behaviour (acting as a Jew, not keeping the commandments), not between the person and the name.

This answers Novenson’s observation that “Jew” is a “conventional ethnic name, not a claim of merit such as are disputed in philosophical dialogues” (Novenson, 98). The “claim to merit” lies in the presumption of moral and religious superiority and, therefore, of the right to teach the ignorant and foolish.

It also seems to me very unlikely that Paul would have invoked the comprehensive Old Testament charge that “the name of God because of you is held in contempt among the Gentiles, as it has been written” (Rom. 2:24), if he had in mind only Greek proselytes or otherwise fake Jews.

Bad Jews, good Jews?

It is Novenson’s opinion that the depictions of the Jews in Romans 2 and Romans 9-11 are contradictory (Novenson, 92). On the one hand, the Jews steal, commit adultery, and rob temples (Rom. 2:21-22); on the other, they have adoption, glory, covenant, the Law, worship, promises, and a zeal for God (Rom. 9:4; 10:2).

But the contradiction is overstated, surely. For a start, there is an obvious difference between the reproach of the hypocritical diaspora Jew who professes to be a teacher of the Law and the affirmation of the Jews as a chosen people—in effect, between the practice and the principle. The Jews are “vessels of wrath, destined for destruction” (Rom. 9:22) precisely because of the sort of behaviour described in chapters 2-3.

There are also some important continuities between the vigorous censure of Jewish behaviour in Romans 2-3 and the argument of chapters 9-11. For example, Psalm 14 provides Paul with both the emphatic denunciation of Jewish disobedience (cf. Rom. 3:10-11) and an instance of the motif of salvation coming out of Zion (cf. Rom. 11:26):

The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds; there is none who does good. The LORD looks down from heaven on the children of man, to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one. … Oh, that salvation for Israel would come out of Zion! When the LORD restores the fortunes of his people, let Jacob rejoice, let Israel be glad. (Ps. 14:1-3, 7)

Did Jews rob temples?

It is claimed that the accusations of 2:21-23 do not make sense if the person addressed is a Jewish missionary to Gentiles (102-3). Mortenson says, in particular, that “Jews were not known to rob temples at the time of Paul.” He thinks it more plausible that this is a Gentile who robs temples, pointing back to the critique of idolatry in Romans 1:18-25 and noting Jewish complaints about Gentile aggression towards the temple (e.g., Pss. Sol. 1:8; 2:1-2).

Novenson takes the word hierosuleis to signify “the infringement upon or violation of sacred precincts by foreigners” (Novenson, 104). If the person who calls himself a Jew is a Gentile, “he might conceivably incur the charge of sacrilege for presuming upon a natural-born Jew’s right of access to the cult of Yahweh headquartered in Jerusalem.”

But does it really make sense to accuse a Gentile who claims to be a Jew, living in the Greek-Roman world, of desecrating or robbing from the Jewish temple on the grounds that he used to worship idols? This is getting extremely convoluted, and I doubt that it really strikes at this fake Jew’s hypocrisy that some other Gentiles have desecrated or ransacked the Jerusalem temple.

Novenson dismisses Josephus’ story of the Fulvia scam as being too subtle, but it seems to me to illustrate rather well the sort of misbehaviour that would get the generic Jew, and therefore the God of the Jews, a bad name in the Greek-Roman world.

There was a man who was a Jew, but had been driven away from his own country by an accusation laid against him for transgressing their laws, and by the fear he was under of punishment for the same; but in all respects a wicked man:—he then living at Rome, professed to instruct men in the wisdom of the laws of Moses. He procured also three other men, entirely of the same character with himself, to be his partners.

These men persuaded Fulvia, a woman of great dignity, and one that had embraced the Jewish religion, to send purple and gold to the temple at Jerusalem; and, when they had gotten them, they employed them for their own uses, and spent the money themselves; on which account it was that they at first required it of her. Whereupon Tiberius, who had been informed of the thing by Saturninus, the husband of Fulvia, who desired inquiry might be made about it, ordered all the Jews to be banished out of Rome; at which time the consuls listed four thousand men out of them, and sent them to the island Sardinia; but punished a greater number of them, who were unwilling to become soldiers on account of keeping the laws of their forefathers. Thus were these Jews banished out of the city by the wickedness of four men. (Ant. 18:81-84)

Here we have a notorious incident, which happened in Rome in living memory, involving a gang of Jewish scoundrels, one of whom “professed to instruct men in the wisdom of the laws of Moses,” who stole money that should have gone to the temple in Jerusalem; and they get all the Jews banished from the city. This would have happened around AD 20, and we can easily imagine the story—and perhaps others like it—staying in circulation for the next thirty or forty years. It’s almost too good to be true—and hardly subtle!

How can the Jews be a benchmark of righteousness across the Greek-Roman world when they have this sort of reputation?

Fake circumcision

The person who calls himself a Jew, according to Novenson, “becomes a transgressor of the law precisely through, not in spite of, his circumcision. By undergoing circumcision, he violates the circumcision commandment” (Novenson, 105). The argument is that this is a better reading of the prepositional phrase, “through (dia + genitive) the letter and circumcision,” than the traditional one:

And the uncircumcision by nature fulfilling the Law will judge you who through (dia) letter and circumcision are a transgressor of the Law. (Rom. 2:27*)

Behind this, supposedly, is the view expressed in Jubilees that any circumcision other than circumcision on the eighth day is illegitimate:

This law is for all the eternal generations and there is no circumcising of days and there is no passing a single day beyond eight days because it is an eternal ordinance ordained and written in the heavenly tablets.” (Jub. 15:25)

So: “We know that there were Jews who would say that a gentile who undergoes adult circumcision becomes a transgressor precisely by his mistaken effort to obey the circumcision commandment. Perhaps Paul was one of them.”

But “letter” and “circumcision”, semantically if not grammatically, stand in opposition to “nature” and “uncircumcision” in the first part of the verse: they define the person not the action. The uncircumcised person naturally, who has the “work of the Law” written on his heart (2:14-15), fulfils the Law; the circumcised person “grammatically” (dia grammatos)—so to speak—is a transgressor of the Law.

Novenson makes no comment on Acts 16:3: “Paul wanted Timothy to accompany him, and he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews who were in those places, for they all knew that his father was a Greek.”

A Jew “on display”?

What Novenson finds in Romans 2:28-29 is not a redefinition of Jewishness but a critique of the ostentation of the non-Jewish “Jew” who puts his circumcision “on display” (in what sense, one wonders?) to gain praise from men rather than from God (Novenson, 106). As Novenson translates:

For it is not the Jew on display, nor the circumcision on display in the flesh, but the Jew in secret, and the circumcision of the heart in pneuma, not in letter, whose praise [is] not from people but from God.

These verses, however, are a restatement of verse 27*: “And the uncircumcision by nature fulfilling the Law will judge you who through letter and circumcision are a transgressor of the Law.” The “Jew in secret” (ho en tōi kryptōi Ioudaios) is the uncircumcised Gentile who keeps the precepts of the Law. We may compare: “but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart (ὁ κρυπτὸς τῆς καρδίας ἄνθρωπος) with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious” (1 Pet. 3:4). The true inner person is contrasted with “external” (ἔξωθεν) adornment (3:3).

For we charged previously…

Finally, Novenson acknowledges that Romans 3:9 is potentially a fatal objection to his thesis that Romans 2:1-29 is aimed not at an ethnic Jew but at a non-Jew who has assumed a Jewish identity: “What then? Are we at an advantage? Not at all, for we charged previously (proēitiasametha) that all people, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin.” Shouldn’t we infer from this that Paul has indicted Greeks in 1:18-32 and Jews in 2:1-3:8? Novenson quotes Thorsteinsson:

“It seems to me that the verb προῃτιασάμεθα… refers not to what Paul himself had previously said in his letter but to what had previously been stated in the Jewish scriptures about all being under sin” (Novenson, n. 61, 108-9).

The texts quoted in Romans 3:10-18 constitute a previous indictment of “those who are in the law”—that is, the Jews. But Novenson does not tell us why the scriptures speak in the third person: “we charged previously.” Perhaps I’m missing something here.

In conclusion…

So I find no reason to change my view that Romans is essentially an argument with and about the Jewish communities encountered in the course of Paul’s mission in Asia Minor and Greece, against the backdrop of his conviction that YHWH was intent on judging the Greek-Roman world and installing his Son, a descendant of David according to the flesh, as ruler of the nations (cf. Rom. 15:12).

This is the circumstance that has necessitated the emergence of alternative communities of eschatological witness, empowered by the Spirit, whose identity is determined not by the Law but by their faith in the resurrected king-in-waiting.

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    M. V. Novenson, Paul, Then and Now (2022), 92-109; J. P. B. Mortenson, Paul Among the Gentiles: A “Radical” Reading of Romans (2018), chapter 6, subsection “Romans 2:17-24”.