The legacy of Saul of Tarsus, the first-century rabbinical student who came to be revered by Christians as St. Paul, has long been a source of disagreement between Christians and Jews. At the 12th annual Nostra Aetate Dialogue, “What Kind of a Jew Was Paul?” in Pope Auditorium on Oct. 28, panelists discussed the details of this sometimes contentious debate.
Born a Jew, Paul spent his earlier years persecuting those who believed Jesus was the messiah. But later in life, Paul came to embrace the belief himself and became a driving force of the Christian faith and one of the primary sources of early church doctrine. Many Jews, however, see Paul’s writings as inflammatory and anti-Semitic.
“Paul’s place in Christianity has been so central that coming to grips with Christianity has usually meant coming to grips with Paul,” said panelist Luke Timothy Johnson, Ph.D., a former Benedictine monk and professor of New Testament and Christian origins at Emory University in Atlanta. Johnson added that the specter behind some Christian anti-Semitism is a common interpretation of Paul that says “that which is good in Christianity is what is bad in Judaism.”
Claudia Setzer, Ph.D., professor of religious study at Manhattan College, identified Paul as a Jew, a believer in Jesus as messiah, and as a preacher to the gentiles, and she insisted that he could be all three.
“The fate of the gentiles is the content of Paul’s mission, but he struggled with the issue of how gentiles could be included in the people of God,” said Setzer. “For him, the answer was through Christ…and he visualized Jews and gentiles all coming into one community.”
More than 400 people attended the Nostra Aetate Dialogue, which was hosted by the Archbishop Hughes Institute on Religion and Culture and is meant to encourage conversation between the Catholic and Jewish communities.