Why did the pre-conversion Paul persecute the church?

19 12 2011

“It may be observed, however, that the preaching of Jesus crucified as the Messiah would have been intolerable to Paul’s orthodoxy (as a Jew) and it seems probable that in addition to, or at least in conjuction with, his devotion to the law the early Christians’ preaching of a crucified Messiah also contributed to Paul’s persecuting frenzy.  For when Paul says to the Corinthians, ‘Jews demand a sign and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ curcified, a stumbling block to the Jews and folly to the Gentiles’ (1 Cor 1.22), we may recognize the voice of one who ‘had stumbled over it himself.’…To Paul as to every other Jew, a crucified Messiah was not only an insult to his national-political messianic hopes, it was also ‘incomprehensible absurdity,’ since the Messiah was, almost by definition, one uniquely favored by God (Isa 11:2), whereas a hanged man was, according to the law, cursed by God (Dt 21:23).  That Paul must have seen in the cross the decisive refutation of the claim that Jesus was the Messiah may be inferred from passages such as Mt. 27:42; Lk 24:20; Jn 12:34 and does not depend on whether Gal 3:10-14 can be appealed to as providing evidence of how Paul once thought.

The crucifixion at once rendered it unnecessary to give any serious consideration to the question of Jesus’ messiahship:  Jesus had been condemned not only by the court of Judaism, but by the high court of heaven itself; hence, his disciples’ claim that he was the Messiah could only be blasphemy worthy of death (Lev 24:16), and their further claim that he was risen could not be treated as anything but criminal deception.  Thus the plain sentence of the law led Paul to dismiss the claims of the Nazarenes as blasphemous and culpably false, and this, coupled with his clear grasp of the fundamental incompatibility between Judaism and the Christian faith, impelled him to give himself wholeheartedly to what he considered the unmistakable and sacred duty of uprooting the pernicious sect of Jesus’ followers.

It may safely be assumed, therefore, that Paul’s persecution of the Church was in fact caused by the offense of the cross as much as by his devotion to the law, although the offensiveness of the cross was undoubtedly rendered the more repugnant by his zeal for the law.  That he should mention his devotion to the law rather than the offense of the cross as the reason for his hostility to Christian faith is understandable in a context where he is concerned to emphasize the fervor of his early attachment to Judaism.  His purpose in Gal 1.13 is to justify his contention that the gospel came to him without human mediation (Gal 1.11):  the fact that he was an ardent persecutor of the Church shows that both his inward orientation and his conduct were incompatible with the basic principles of Christianity, so that there can be no question of his having received, even unconsciously, the gospel from the hands of the apostles of Christ.”

From Fung,’s NICNT commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians, selected paragraphs from pgs 58-62


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