By Mark D. Nanos
Shema Israel, Adonai Elohenu, Adonai Echad:
“Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.”
The Shema Israel has arguably been the most important ideological claim of Judaism since early Israelite history. This call to listen to God is followed by the injunction to love God, that is, to be loyal and serve with all of the effort one can summon. This call includes both observance, and reflection, kavannah, the intention of the heart. It captures the very essence of Torah, the Teachings of God that Israel is, on behalf of all humankind, privileged, but also responsible, to listen to, and embody.
To this day, the Shema Israel is uttered in sacred prayer twice a day. Jewish children learn it as their first prayer, and Jews hope that it will be the last words on their lips. R. Akiva recited the Shema when executed by the Romans following the failed Second Revolt against Rome, understanding the commandment to loyalty “with all thy soul” to signify “even if He takes thy soul,” and the call to martyrdom continues in subsequent interpretive tradition….
What does all of this Jewish tradition about the oneness of God have to do with Paul? I submit that the Shema Israel is the central conviction of Paul’s theology.
He often refers to God’s oneness at critical points in arguments. It functions theologically and polemically. But he does not really explain the Shema as much as appeal to it, suggesting that for Paul the concept of God’s oneness functions at the ideological level. Its explanatory power is assumed to be self-evident. This is true not only for himself, but his arguments presume it to be the case for his audiences also. Yet that would not work for those unfamiliar with its propositional bases, or importance in Jewish communal life and liturgy.
In other words, while most interpreters of Paul and most discussions of a topic like “Paul and the Jewish tradition” would be concerned to show how Paul emerged from the Judaism of his time, they would do so from a conceptual framework in which Paul is no longer a representative of Judaism, but of a new religion, Christianity. Instead, I suggest that Paul practiced Judaism, and his groups represented a Jewish coalition upholding that the end of the ages had dawned, and thus, that the awaited day when members of the other nations would turn to Israel’s God as the one God of all humankind had arrived. He spoke for a Jewish subgroup that upheld faith in Christ, to be sure, but this was not a new religion, nor did he imagine that it would ever be one. He was a reformer, involved in the restoration of Israel, and the gathering of the nations initiated thereby…
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