Address to the Anglican Centre: The New Testament – A Jewish reading – Letters of Saul/Paul Ed. Castelvecchi.  This lecture was given during our recent pilgrimage to the sites of St. Paul in Rome

First of all I would like to thank The Anglican Centre in Rome and his Director His Grace Archbishop Ian Ernest for this invitation and say welcome to all of you in the ancient Ghetto of Rome.

In the summer of 1947 in Seelisberg a group of Jews and Christians met and together wrote An Address to the Churches. It was a new starting point, after centuries of misunderstanding and mistrust, of contempt and hatred, persecution and harassment. A process of teshuvah began in which progressively more and more people became involved over time.

The participants in that Conference had become aware of the link between Antijudaism and Antisemitism and were convinced that condemning Antisemitism alone was not enough, it was necessary to work patiently and carefully to correct that theology of substitution that had caused so much damage, not only to Jews, but also to Christians.

In Italy, there are 10 Amicizie Ebraico-Cristiane (Councils of Christians and Jews), voluntary associations that rely solely on the contribution of their members. They do an extraordinary work considering the poverty of their means. They are part of the Federazione delle Amicizie Ebraico-Cristiane that is connected to the International Council of Christians and Jews.

In Camaldoli - a Benedictine monastery in the province of Arezzo - the 41st Jewish-Christian Colloquium was held in December 2021. The theme was Yeshua/Jesus and Israel 61 years after the historic meeting between Jules Isaac and John XXIII. The presentation programme included the following words of Rav Jonathan Sacks: «Can the world be changed? The answer is yes, and the proof is one of the most uplifting stories in the religious history of humanity: the changed relationship between Jews and Christians after the Shoah. There are many heroes, Christians of moral courage, deep faith and unparalleled humanity who realised after that terrible end that something had to change».

In the field of dialogue an important work is La Bibbia dell’Amicizia (San Paolo 2019-2021): 3 volumes, 1.200 pages, 130 authors, Jews and Christians comment on passages of the Bible in a spirit of friendship (amicizia is a reference to the AEC). It is a tool to make known to a wider public the renewal of biblical studies that is underway, a prelude to a renewal of theological studies as well.

We are preparing for the bicentenary celebrations of the birth of Rav Elia Benamozegh (Livorno 1823-1900), a forerunner of Jewish-Christian dialogue no less important than Franz Rosenzweig, though less well known. He pointed out that in the Torah in addition to a particularistic dimension (Mosheh’s covenant) there is also a universalistic dimension (Noaḥ’s covenant) and stressed that in our time it is essential for Judaism to confront Christianity and Islam.



Nuovo Testamento. Una lettura ebraica has been published by Castelvecchi in 2021 in three volumes. The first volume is dedicated to the Gospels and the Acts of Apostles, the second volume is devoted to the letters of Shaul/Paul, the third to the catholic letters and to Apocalypsis.

There are two reasons that have led Gabriella Maestri and me to this study: the first is the persistent presence of a widespread anti-judaism that feeds on the support of many New Testament texts, and this despite the numerous documents produced by the Churches. The second reason is the realisation that although awareness of the jewishness of Yeshua is now widespread, much remains to be done to rediscover the jewishness of the New Testament. Reinserting these writings into their historical, cultural and spiritual context also means trying to understand how anti-jewish themes could have developed in jewish texts. This is made possible through a historical-critical approach that allows us to reflect on their editorial history.

In order to further anchor these texts in their Hebrew matrix, as has already been done for La Bibbia dell’Amicizia, The Friendship Bible, here too we have not translated the proper names, starting with the divine ones, and have presented some particularly significant terms in transliterated Hebrew, such as teshuvah, emunah, berit and so on.

We are increasingly convinced of the decisive importance that the First and Second Judaic Wars had in determining a caesura within Judaism and this influenced the way in which Yeshua’s message was spread in the pagan world, triggering the break between Judaism and Christianity that would last for almost two millennia.

In fact, the end of the Judeo-Christian communities in the Land of Israel and the displacement of the Gospel proclamation in the western territories of the Empire resulted in its detachment from its matrix and its reinterpretation according to categories belonging to the Hellenistic-Roman world. In order to spread the Gospel to the Gentiles, a very high price was paid: since it was necessary to exonerate the Romans as much as possible from responsibility for the murder of Yeshua, this responsibility was placed almost entirely on the shoulders of the Jews, with the very serious consequence of arousing contempt and hatred towards them. This attitude began to manifest itself as early as the second century and even crept into the complex editorial stages of the texts.

Our books were not born in the world of the Academy, they have decades of Jewish-Christian dialogue behind them, and moreover they are the fruit of a constant dialogue and confrontation between a Jew and a Christian. We are aware that our work, which has been described as “pioneering”, is certainly not perfect and in various points it may be subject to criticism and discussion. However, it seems to us that it presents elements of novelty that have been grasped by those who have reviewed and presented the volumes so far.

In the volume about Shaul/Paul we stress that the mystical experience on the road to Damascus was never described by him as a conversion. Shaul/Paul never converted, but was called, following the example of the prophet Yirmeyahu/Jeremiah, to be navì la-goyim, a prophet to the nations. There is no devaluation of the Torah and miṣwot (precepts) in favour of faith in his letters, but in the short time that he thought he had left, he believed that the peoples were not bound to observe the covenant of Mosheh/Moses and found in Avraham the father of the circumcised and uncircumcised. Of fundamental importance is the statement in Rm 10,4: «telos gar nomou Christos» which does not mean that Christ is the end of the Law but that the Messiah is the goal of the Torah.

A Jew of the Diaspora, messianic, apocalyptic, mystical, Shaul/Paul was considered the true founder of Christianity. He writes in the Greek of the ecumene, but thinks in Hebrew and in Aramaic. After his call he felt the urgency to convince the nations to enter the covenant because he considered the coming of the qeṣ, the éschaton, to be imminent. In his letters he uses the Hellenistic culture as well as his own, sometimes very bold, interpretations of the Scriptures.

He was born in Tarsus in Cilicia (southern Turkey) between 5 and 10. A Roman citizen from birth, with an Hellenistic culture, he moved to Yerushalayim/Jerusalem to study at the school of one of the most important teachers of the time, Rabban Gamliel, a nephew of Hillel, who is mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles (5,34-39) for his important intervention in favour of Yeshua’s disciples.

With all the ardour of his temperament, Shaul becomes involved in the often violent disputes against the new messianic movement of Jesus and was commissioned to go to Damascus to repress its followers. Around the year 35 an apparition occurs that turns his life upside down and leads him to spread, without sparing his strength, the very message of yeshuàh/’salvation’ that he had initially opposed.

While on his way to Damascus, he saw a light “more resplendent than the sun” shining: “We all fell to the ground, and I heard a voice saying to me in Hebrew [ebráidi dialékto, Hebrew language]: «Shaul, Shaul, làmah attàh tardefenì?’». Yeshua explains why he appeared to him: to send him to the people “to open their eyes, that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to Eloqim and obtain remission of sins and inheritance among those who have been sanctified by faith in Him. (Acts 26,12-18).

In reading his epistolary, we must be careful not to fall into the misunderstanding of considering the tensions we find there as the expression of a clash between Jews and Christians, when in fact they are disagreements between different currents within Judaism itself, at a time of serious difficulties, including political ones. This misunderstanding has often heavily influenced the interpretation of Shaul and the meaning of his mission since ancient times.

Moreover, it should also be borne in mind that the Apostle, like many others who shared his

messianic faith, thinks that the last times have come and that the olam ha-ba (the world to come) of which the Scriptures speak is about to break in. The olam ha-zeh (this world) had disappeared, the messianic times had begun and the parousia and the divine Judgement were imminent. It was therefore necessary to hurry as much as possible to announce the besorah tovah, ‘the good news’, to the whole world, in order to call it to the teshuvah and thus contribute to the fulfilment of the prophetic words: «Ha-Shem Ṣevaot will prepare on this mountain a banquet of fat food for all peoples, a banquet of wine for all peoples. a banquet of excellent wines, of succulent food, of fine wines. On this mountain He shall tear away the veil that covered the face of all peoples and the covering that covered all nations. He shall wipe away the tears from every face; He shall make the shame of His people disappear from the whole land. He will wipe away the shame of his people from the land, for Ha-Shem has spoken» (Yeshayahu/Isaiah 25,6-8).

The change of name from Shaul to Paul derives from a very significant motivation. Shaul, who in 1 Cor 15,9 called himself “the least of the apostles”, takes on the new name to signify his new state as a servant of the Messiah. As in fact the slaves, not having legal personality, no longer possessed their old name but received a new one from their masters. The apostle does the same, emphasising that he is totally at the service of the Adon.

Let us now see some passages from the letters of Shaul/Paul in our translation and commentary. Let us take Rm 8,2 where the apostle states: «For the Torah of the Ruaḥ of life in Messiah Yeshua has delivered you from the law of sin and death». Here Shaul is not contrasting the new spiritual law with the Torah: the misunderstanding arises from the fact that he uses the term nomos to mean both the Torah and the law of sin. The law of sin is sin itself, the structure of sin, from which those in the Messiah have been freed. They have been freed fom sin, not from the Torah.

Let us turn to another passage generally interpreted in an anti-Jewish way: «the letter kills, the Spirit vivifies». Here the apostle is not referring to the Torah, but to the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet which are only consonants and therefore need vowels to be read. We believe that this is the value to be given to the term pneuma, which has a wide range of meanings, including “voice emission”, “breath”. The Hebrew word ruaḥ also means ‘wind’, ‘breath’, ‘spirit’. The single consonant without vowels kills the meaning of the text, i.e. makes it impossible to read and understand it. There may be yet another explanation: the letter of Scripture needs continuous interpretation and discussion to bring the message of the Torah alive, otherwise it would remain inert, become a dead letter.

The subject of promise is treated by Shaul/Paul in a special way in the Epistle to the Galatians and in the Epistle to the Romans. In Gal 3,15-19 he states that just as no one can challenge the legitimacy of a will, so it is impossible to challenge the legitimacy of the divine promises to Avraham which, although the apostle does not stress it, include the promise of the land. Shaul/Paul in this context prefers to focus his attention on the term sperm/ṣerah, which refers to the Son. In Gal 3,30 he states that those who belong to the Messiah are descendants of Avraham and heirs according to the promise. In Gal 4,23 the apostle speaks of the son of the free woman, Yiṣḥaq/Isaac, born «through promise» to whose condition all who believe in Yeshua are brought.

In the Letter to the Romans a significant part of chapter 4 is dedicated to a reflection on the promise. It speaks of the promise made to Avraham to be heir of the world, in terms reminiscent of Philo of Alexandria. Shaul/Paul in addressing the Gentiles broadens the horizons: from the promise of the earth, which is not denied, he moves on to the promise of redemption for all humanity.

From these texts it emerges that when the Apostle speaks of the promise of Avraham he does not refer to its overall content (land, descent, blessing) but separates its various parts, taking into account the recipients of his letters, using only those two aspects, descent and blessing, that are closest to his heart in his work of evangelisation, in view of the coming Kingdom. The promise of the land is set aside because it is linked to the lineage of Israel, while the promise of the descendants is given space, interpreted as a reference to Yeshua, which makes it possible to include all peoples in the divine plan of salvation. We must also consider that it would not have been appropriate to put the emphasis on the land that was occupied by the Romans at that time.

The Letter to the Ephesians, which is Deuteropauline, highlights that extension of the content of the promise mentioned above: “In him [the Messiah] you also, having heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and having believed in it, have received the seal of the Ruaḥ ha-Qodesh of promise, which is a pledge of our inheritance, awaiting redemption to the praise of his glory” (Eph 1,13-14). In the following chapter it is stated that the people, who were once excluded from the promise, in the Messiah acquire the citizenship of Israel: «remember that at that time you were without Messiah, excluded from the citizenship of Israel, strangers to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without Eloqim in the world. But now, in the Messiah Yeshua, you who once were far off have become near, thanks to the blood of the Messiah» (Eph 2,12-13). This concept is also repeated in 3,6. In 6,2, however, the promise refers to the Fifth Word/Commandment (Honour your father and your mother), which is the first commandment to be associated with a promise of happiness and long life.

Although we have worked independently on the Pauline texts, our conclusions agree with the positions of the most recent line of studies on Paul, called “Paul within Judaism”. I quote one of its exponents, Mark D. Nanos:

This project involves investigating ways to read Paul’s letters “within Judaism”. This project is especially appealing because the historical reading proposed appears to hold special promise for advancing better Christian-Jewish relations in the years to come.

Ironically, I am convinced that Paul’s voice, which has so often been used in the service of harmful othering, can be understood in quite the other direction - certainly so where his views of Jews and Judaism are concerned, but also beyond that concern, as important as that is to me, and I hope, to you. Reversing the traditional negative foil of the “Jewish other” in the Christian imagination has important promising implications for reversing other “othering” that has appealed to Paul’s voice - as traditionally understood, that is.

Although I offer this as the suggestion of an outsider, and hope not to offend, I believe the Paul within Judaism approached proposed offers useful insights for Christian self-interest: what if that which Christians value as special can be celebrated without needing a negative binary other by which to define that specialness?

Of course, there have always been Christians of good will who did so, but, as far as I am aware, there have been very few places in Paul’s texts (as traditionally interpreted) to which they could appeal for support - more often they have had to resist Paul to resist the othering he has been understood to exemplify. I hope they – you - will find my work offers a welcome opportunity to escape that constraint; more than that, to discover new ways to highlight the ideal of respect for the other that some of Paul’s texts certainly promote!