In day to day life it is easily possible to ‘carry on’ as if everything is fixed and certain, not questioning concepts connected with identity, theology nicely tucked up in bed and avoiding anything that rocks the boat or causes waves. Jewish identity and theology however refuse to be compartmentalised in such a way and have the habit of breaking out at a moment’s notice when least expected. I suspect that this was true for Rav Shaul following his encounter with the Messiah. For sure on one level nothing changed: he was still a Jewish scholar and rabbi of his day, a learned and pious man, yet on another level everything changed. He now read the Torah with new eyes, passages he’d known and loved from his early years became full of new meaning and understanding. And one such passage must have been the declaration of the Shema, the uniqueness of G-d, and His unity.
Prof Joshua Garroway in his excellent academic study on conversion and inclusion in first century Judaism (‘Paul’s Gentile-Jews’, 2012) cites exactly this theme as the surprise denouement that it must have seemed to Rav Shaul. Current in the first century was still the then prevailing thought that each nation had its own deities. It was a concept the Roman Empire accepted as it syncretised Roman faith by including all and any deities it encountered into its multi-cultural and multi-religious pot. Each ‘trophy’ deity was a symbol for national and geographical triumphalism. Although Judaism had always been a religion that welcomed converts, the concept was not (according to most experts) particularly alive and developed in the first century. Yet Rav Shaul was arrested by the Shema and its deep implications. Simply put, if G-d is the only G-d, the only true G-d, who is One and not one of many, then de facto He cannot be the G-d of the Jews only. Today we are not surprised by such a theology; we are used to considering that G-d is the Creator whose image rests upon and frames every human being. Yet these implications must have been shocking in the first century.
Rav Shaul explains this scenario in two ways: firstly that Jews do not have the monopoly on sin. If the Torah (which sets out what sin is), was merely intended for the Jewish people, then the nations haven’t sinned by any classical understanding of that word. If they have done some ‘wrong’ then they should sort it out with their own deities. Shaul concludes however that ALL have sinned and fallen short of the glory of G-d (a sentiment by the way that is echoed in the Torah too). Given this universal fall from perfection, there needs must be a universal solution to the problem. Secondly, Shaul rightly infers from the unity of G-d as the ONLY G-d, that if those from the nations are seeking redemption and forgiveness from those sins, then they must be able to go to Him too as the only source of ultimate forgiveness. Yeshua is the answer to both these scenarios. In the letter to the Jewish community in Rome Shaul phrases it thus: Is He the G-d of the Jews only? Is He not the G-d of the gentiles too?, Yes, the gentiles too because G-d is One’. The incredible and for him surprising conclusion drawn from the Shema was that in God’s unity and uniqueness our G-d HAD to be the same G-d for those coming from the nations for forgiveness too.
Such a revelation of course opened the door for a more active form of evangelism and outreach that Judaism had up until then experienced. It is why even today Messianic Judaism seeks to reach out. It is not only our (Jewish) sins that can be forgiven, but yours too. Any other response so mortally undermines the unity of G-d that Judaism itself would begin to wobble. The Jewish G-d, the G-d of Israel, is not just for us, He is for us to share!