Rabbi Judah used to pray as follows: May it be Thy will, O Lord our God, to save me this day from the impudent, and from impudence in learning. They asked, what is meant by impudence in learning? He answered as follows, Rabban Gamliel would sit and teach ... but OTO HA-TALMID scoffed at him.” (Sabbath 30b)
It is pure speculation to suggest that Saul of Tarsus was “that student’” but one would not be surprised. Gamaliel was the most flexible and generous of teachers. Saul/Paul was not. One can see Saul, if indeed he had been sent study at the feet of Gamaliel as he claimed, soon parting ways with his moderate teacher. Perhaps Saul became “radicalized” in his devotion to the religion of Israel, and perhaps he understood that this ridiculous sect of the Nazarenes would make the God of Israel available to the gentiles in a way that was entirely unacceptable. All speculation aside, it was clear that Saul was an impetuous young man who could be used by the temple authorities to nip this thing in the bud.
One of the miracle-working preachers of the new sect was of particular concern, a certain Greek speaking Israelite named Stephen. He was hauled before the court and was promptly taken out and stoned by a mob who “laid their coats at the feet of a certain Saul” (Acts 7:58). I suspect that Saul was the organizer of the lynch mob. Saul is a young man on the move. We next hear that he is ferreting out Nazarites and has been deputized to go north to the Hebrew community living in Damascus where this nonsense had taken hold.
He makes it to Damascus, but not the way he had expected. He is knocked down and blinded by some strange vision and is taken to Damascus. There the Christian community makes contact with him and he becomes one of them. He receives his sight back and begins to make the situation in Damascus worse by telling everyone that He has seen Jesus, who is the Son of God and risen from the dead. He has to escape Damascus by being lowered over the walls in a basket. He seems completely unhinged by the experience and travels to the desert of Arabia (probably Sinai). He goes back to Damascus, then to Jerusalem where he again upsets the locals and is sent back home to Tarsus for his own good. Essentially the leadership of the Nazarene movement told him, “Go home. Don’t call us. We’ll call you.” Which they did, ten years later. Saul has been doing nothing much other than causing trouble for about 15 years since his experience on the Damascus road.
At about that time, the Church was growing especially among Greek speakers in the area of Antioch, not far from Saul’s home town. The leadership of the movement sent Barnabas, a leader, to check things out and while he was there he might as well look up that hot-head Saul to see what he was up to. Saul accompanied Barnabas back to Antioch and eventually back to Jerusalem.
At about this time Simon Cephas had an amazing experience. He is invited to preach at the home of a God fearing Roman centurion who had been studying Judaism, and lo and behold the prophetic spirit seems to take hold of this uncircumcised Roman and his non-Jewish household, just as it had when the Church had gotten its start on Pentecost years beforehand. Cephas (Peter) lets them all join the Church just as they are.
Saul and Barnabas begin their missionary travels at about the same time. They go out into the world preaching that anyone can be saved with or without circumcision and halakhic law. This is wonderful as far as the God-fearers and some of the Jews scattered throughout the empire are concerned. You could be an Israelite and still eat pork, not to mention the advantages of remaining uncircumcised. The Christian/Nazarite movement took off exactly among the people with whom Rabbinic Phariseeism had been making real headway.
Just imagine! If you were a Greek who wished he could be an Israelite, now it was possible with just a simple baptismal ceremony. Imagine the difficulty of being an Israelite in a hostile society. Circumcision made sure you didn’t get too friendly with your gentile neighbors. You weren’t going to the gym with them where Greco Romans met to wheel and deal, and you weren’t going to dinner parties where very non-Kosher things were eaten. Until now, no self-respecting Israelite was going to join paganism with its ridiculous gods, but now one could still read the books of Moses but, according to Saul and Barnabas, pork and circumcision were optional. Thus was born Christianity, the first reformed Judaism and a universal religion that made the treasure of the Hebrew Scriptures accessible to all. Things had gone from bad to worse.
Next week: things go from bad to worse to even worse.