When I wrote my historical novel about Paul the apostle (A Wretched Man), I wrestled with some thorny historical questions, including this one. Last month, I was asked to read and review Bart Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist. I once again encountered the question, and I found Ehrman’s answer to be less than convincing.
First, some background. Paul twice mentioned his role as persecutor but without any details. As with much of his writing, Paul assumed his listeners already knew the story so he didn’t elaborate. Paul wrote to the Corinthians,
For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 1 Cor 15:9 (NRSV)
In the most autobiographical of his writings, Paul speaks to the Galatians,
You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. Gal 1:13 (NRSV)
In neither instance, does Paul offer a clue as to what he did, exactly, or why he did it.
Of course, the Acts of the Apostles goes into much greater detail: Jerusalem persecution, stoning of Stephen, sent to Damascus by the High Priest to arrest the followers of Jesus, etc.
The common assumption is that Paul persecuted the early followers of Jesus because they claimed he was the long-expected messiah. Does that really make sense? Why would such a claim have been offensive to Paul or the Hebrew populace? While that may have been the reason why the Romans and their puppets, the High Priest and his crowd, feared Jesus and caused his execution, that hardly explains why Paul and the populace would have persecuted his followers after his death.
Ehrman initially agrees,
There was nothing blasphemous about calling a Jewish teacher the messiah. That happened on and off throughout the history of Judaism, and it still happens in our day. In itself, the claim that someone is the messiah is not blasphemous or, necessarily, problematic (though it may strike outsiders—and usually does—as a bit crazed).
This statement strikes me as eminently reasonable and debunks the traditional assumption that the early church was persecuted because they claimed Jesus had been the messiah. There has to be more to it.
Ehrman’s response is that the claim that Jesus was the crucified messiah is what greatly offended Paul and the others, because no strain of traditional Jewish messianic expectations suggested a crucified messiah. While that may well be true, I fail to see the offense. Here is where I part with Ehrman. If anything, such a claim would only make its proponents sound even crazier but hardly blasphemous to the point of widespread persecution and arrest.
Back to Stephen.
What did Stephen do or say that caused his arrest and execution? Why did they “stir up the people against him”? Because he spoke “blasphemous words against God and Moses,” “against this holy place and the law,” and because he said that Jesus would “destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses handed down.”
No where was there any complaint that he claimed Jesus was the messiah, crucified or not. The charges against him were that he denied the basic tenets of Hebrew religion … adherence to the law of Moses and temple sacrifice. In Stephen’s long speech to the Sanhedrin, he concluded,
“You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears … You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.”
There could be no greater offense than to question circumcision and failure to keep the law. Stephen challenged the basic Hebrew self-understanding and thus their standing before God. To a devout Pharisee, zealous for the law, as Paul claimed to be, this was the crux of the matter. This would also tie in closely with Paul’s Damascus road experience, in which his life took a 180 degree turn away from zealotry for the law to his law-free gospel message. Furthermore, it also ties in with the ongoing conflict between Paul and the “mother church” back in Jerusalem over the requirements of circumcision and dietary niceties.
That’s my answer, Professor Ehrman’s opinion notwithstanding, and that was also the answer I proposed in the Wretched Man novel.