Rabbinical students exploring early Christian literature struggle to appreciate Paul as a Jew. That Jesus and his disciples were apocalyptic Jews who anticipated the imminent redemption of Israel does not appear to bother them, especially once they learn that much of Jesus's periodic vitriol against Jews and Jewish institutions more likely reflects the perspective of later Christians than of Jesus himself. But when I tell the students of recent (and in my view, correct) perspectives on Paul, which consider the apostle a Jew even as he inveighs against the Law and his nonbelieving kinsmen, they invariably recoil. Galatians 3 proves especially irritating. There Paul utilizes thoroughly Jewish biblical exegesis—quotation, allusion, analogy, wordplay, etc.—to demonstrate that the death and resurrection of Jesus displaces the Torah and that baptism, not birth, determines true descent from Abraham. The students deem Paul's argument strained and spurious, even as they acknowledge that their own sermons and divre Torah often draw on midrashim that are no less contrived. They condemn Paul's demotion of the Torah as a wholesale rejection of Judaism, even as they concede that their intellectual forbears in the Reform movement held a similar view of Jewish Law as historically important but nonetheless outmoded.
I have found role play the best tool for overcoming this initial pushback. Oddly enough, it's a technique Paul himself uses. At times in his letters he deploys the ancient rhetorical artifice called prosopopoeia, speech-in-character, by taking on and expressing a perspective that is not his own. I think it is an invaluable way for students to appreciate the struggles and motivations of historical actors, and I use it often when teaching history to rabbinical and undergraduate students. I create scenarios in which students are asked to speak or write as though they are Paul, to assume what he assumes and to think the way he thinks. Sometimes I generate transhistorical conversations, either in class or in written assignments, where "Paul" might discuss antinomian trends in Jewish history with the likes of, say, "Anan ben David," "Sabbatai Zvi," or "Samuel Holdheim." Encouraging students to inhabit the worldview of a historical figure cultivates empathy. It also creates a safe space to explore difficult ideas by allowing students to think and speak transgressively without themselves transgressing.
Joshua Garroway is associate professor of Early Christianity and Second Commonwealth Judaism at the Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles and at the Louchheim School for Judaic Studies at the University of Southern California. He is the author of Paul's Gentile-Jews: Neither Jew nor Gentile, but Both (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2012).