Paul the Benjaminite: The Jewish Identity of the Apostle to the Gentiles
By: William Zebang Lu
IntroductionAlthough few would challenge that the historical Apostle Paul, who referred himself as “an apostle to the Gentiles,” came from a Jewish background, Paul never exactly calls himself “Jewish” in any of his surviving letters. 1 In the absence of the term “Jewish,” Paul uses several other relevant descriptors to articulate his own Jewish identity. He describes himself in his letter to the Philippians as “circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews.” 2 In the Epistle to the Romans, Paul similarly states that, “I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin.” 3
Paul’s unmistakable affiliation with the ancient tribe of Benjamin in these two passages appears puzzling, because the pre-exilic tribal structure of Israelite society had long disintegrated by the first century. 4New Testament exegetes tend to reference rabbinic traditions about the tribe of Benjamin to rationalize Paul’s identification as a Benjaminite as part and parcel of his overall Jewish identity. For example:
…There is pride in this self-predication and in the mention of his tribe. According to rabbinic tradition Benjamin went into the Red Sea first. Hope of the reunification of God’s people was connected with this tribe to which Saul and Jeremiah belonged. Paul is thus a qualified Jew and a representative of his people up to his former persecution of Christians. 5
While rationales like this suffice to explain Paul’s passing mention of Benjamin in the literary context of Pauline epistles, they by and large fail to answer the question of why and how the historical Paul would think of himself as “a member of the tribe of Benjamin.” This paper aims to provide a comprehensive answer to this question and thereby hopes to better understand the Jewish identity of the Apostle to the Gentiles.
In order to do this, it is important to first contextualize the absence of the term “Jewish”—or more precisely, Ioudaios—among the labels Paul uses for himself in articulating his Jewish identity. The polysemic nature of Ioudaios brings to mind the question of whether “a member of the tribe of Benjamin” could indicate the geographical region of Benjamin in addition to tribal ancestry. As far as Paul’s claim to Benjaminite ancestry is concerned, although it is impossible to ascertain its actual historical credibility, Paul maintained such a belief likely because of his family’s genealogical tradition. Such a tradition that passed down the knowledge of Benjaminite descent also likely influenced the family’s decision to name Paul after King Saul of Israel, who belonged to the tribe of Benjamin. Furthermore, analyzing how his intended readers in Philippi and Rome likely understood Paul’s claim to be “a member of the tribe of Benjamin” helps to shed light on Paul’s own perspective in articulating his tribal ancestry.
IoudaiosAlthough the list of descriptors Paul uses to articulate his Jewish background in the Philippians and the Romans is by no means exhaustive, the absence of the term Ioudaios does not appear fortuitous. The Greek word Ioudaios had a historically-conditioned polysemic nature, and “Jewish” is only one of its possible English translations. During the first century, different meanings of Ioudaios reflected above all a complex ongoing process of identity formation. Within this historical context, a number of possible reasons would be able to explain why Paul consistently refrained from using Ioudaios to label himself.
Originating as the gentilic of Judea, i.e., Judah, Ioudaios over time took on different meanings pertinent to the post-exilic Jewish world. In modern English, Ioudaios has been variously translated as “Judahite,” “Judean,” “Judaic,” and “Jewish,” reflecting the intrinsic polysemy, and potential ambiguity, of this one term. After exiled Jews returned to their ancestral homeland, their “Judahite” identity eventually gave way to a new “Judean” identity, as the biblical Judah gradually became the Judea of the Greco-Roman world. 6 The growth of the Jewish Diaspora throughout the Mediterranean basin further complicated what it meant to be Ioudaios, as Jews who lived outside Palestine continually negotiated their group identity vis-àvis that of their Gentile neighbors. Naturally, there was no single universally accepted definition for Ioudaios, especially in the late Second Temple Period, to which Paul’s life and ministry belonged.
Scholars have proposed different ways to understand what the descriptor Ioudaios tended to denote in the first century. Solomon Zeitlin suggests that Jews who lived in Judea were generally called Ioudaios, Judeans, as opposed to the more common use of “Hebrew” and “Israelite” to refer to Diaspora Jews. 7 Steven Mason argues that the term Ioudaios applied to the Jewish Diaspora as much as it did to the Judean Jewry, since as an ethnos Jews remained associated with Judea regardless of where they lived. 8 P. J. Tomson thinks that, contrary to “Israel” which served as an inside identity within the confines of the Jewish world, Ioudaios functioned as an outside identity vis-à-vis the Greco-Roman world,. 9 Lawrence M. Wills further contends that Ioudaios as such evoked an assertive and emotive outside identity. 10 Ross S. Kraemer points out that non-Jews who affiliated with Judaism, often called “God-fearers,” took on the term Ioudaios as a distinct identity marker for themselves. 11
Therefore, there could be several plausible reasons why Paul consistently refrained from using Ioudaios to label himself in his letters. His Greek-speaking audiences were invariably more familiar with Diaspora Jews who lived in their cities and in their provinces than with the faraway Judean Jewry. Therefore, regardless of Paul’s background, he was writing his letters with the Jewish Diaspora as his framework of reference. Thus, the more Diasporic terms of “Hebrew” and “Israelite” helped Paul assert his own Jewish lineage more than the more Judean category of Ioudaios would have suggested. If Ioudaios indeed described all Jews, Judean or not, as members of the Jewish ethnos, it remained evocative of a group identity, not the individual identity that Paul intended to convey in asserting his own legitimate Jewish lineage. Furthermore, as an outside identity, Ioudaios above all indicated differences and boundaries. When this connotation is intended, Paul juxtaposes the categories of Ioudaios and Gentiles; however, such an implication would be out of context in Paul’s description of his own ancestry that aims to show the commonality, rather than the differentiation, of Christ’s salvation.
Having Benjaminite not Judahite ancestry could also have led Paul to avoid using the term Ioudaios to describe himself. The contemporaneous Qumran Sect, whose leadership were Levites, self-identified as Israelites instead of Yehudim, i.e., Ioudaios. 12 The Qumran Jews thus rejected Judah as the sole heir of the biblical Israel through rejecting the appellation of Ioudaios, while upholding the belief that all tribes of Israel including Levi will regather at the end of times. 13 Likewise, as someone of Benjaminite descent, Paul did not subscribe to the view that Judah had inherited Israel, but instead proclaimed the revival of all Israel through Christ. At the same time, the residual collective memory of Benjamin despite the Judahite domination of the written history of biblical Israel made it more likely for Paul to conceptualize his Benjaminite ancestry as an identity meaningfully demarcated from Judah and from Ioudaios. 14
Tribal Ancestry or Place of Origin?Within the New Testament canon, references to the traditional Israelite tribes are few and far between. The Book of Revelation attempts to enumerate the twelve tribes of Israel,but does so in a clearly theological context with ahistorical, eschatological connotations. 15 This reference therefore does not pertain to the contemporary condition of traditional tribal divisions. Matthew writes that “[Jesus] made his home Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali.” 16 This unusual description of geographical locales through ancient tribal territories references Matthew 4:15, an adapted quotation of Isaiah 9:11, and therefore shows if anything the unlikelihood for a tribal designation to indicate by default a region at the time of the writing of Matthew, that is, late first century AD. The story of the female prophet Anna “of the tribe of Asher” in Luke, however, does provide a valuable historical perspective on the contemporary relevance of tribal affiliations. 17
Although chronological distance and redactional difference do remove the writing of Luke from the immediate historical context of Paul’s letters, properly analyzing Anna the Asherite remains conducive to accurately understanding Paul the Benjaminite. What Luke understood of the historical tribe of Asher was unlikely to have come from new traditions developed with the several decades between his generation and Paul’s, because that was a time when, for Jews and Gentiles alike, the twelve tribes of Israel continued its evolution from historical categories into mythological and theological concepts. On the other hand, while Luke’s redactional tendencies in line with a post-Jewish view of Christianity do differ from Paul’s overall theology on Judaism, this difference does not exclude what Luke understood of the historical tribe of Asher from Paul’s purview. Rather, less altered and adapted through the passage of time, the assumptions underlying Paul’s self-identification with the tribe of Benjamin most definitively subsume any assumptions underlying Asher’s purported tribal affiliation.
Richard Bauckham makes the reasonable suggestion that, based on their historical knowledge about Jesus’ time, an informed reader from the Lukan community would not question Anna’s Asherite ancestry. If a historical character like Anna did exist, in Bauckham’s opinion, either her family would need have moved to Jerusalem from the Median diaspora of the northern tribes or she would need to come from an Asherite family that had continuously lived in the Galilee since before the Assyrian conquest. 18 While the specific evidence for these two plausible migration routes is lacking, less equivocal is the underlying assumption that identifying a prophet as descending from the tribe of Asher would not appear anachronistic or counterintuitive in the time of Luke or, as understood by Luke, in the time of Jesus. Shorter than and secondary to the preceding passage on the interaction of Simeon the God-receiver with baby Jesus, the three verses on Anna are meant to continue and conclude this Jerusalem narrative in a smooth fashion for the average contemporary reader of Luke. 19 To this end, shared assumptions between the reader and the writer due to common knowledge within their community are essential, and among them is the assumption that Anna’s purported Asherite ancestry remains consistent with the contemporaneous condition of traditional tribal divisions.
Similar to Luke’s identification of Anna with the tribe of Asher, Paul’s self-identification with the tribe of Benjamin indicates tribal ancestry and not, as some may suspect, one’s place of origin. If Jewish inhabitants of first-century Palestine used tribes to indicate their different place of origin, Asher would be ambiguous and inadequate in fulfilling this semantic function. Because the Old Testament tells of a southern Asherite exclave located near Judea in addition to Asher’s apportioned tribal territory in the Galilee, using Asher as a geographical term would fail to even distinguish between two main regions where most Palestinian Jews lived before the Jewish-Roman wars. 20 Furthermore, if one were to refer to the Galilee with tribal designations, Zebulun and Naphtali would be a much more convenient choice, as discussed earlier. The possibility that names of tribes like Asher and Benjamin could indicate both tribal ancestry and place of origin at the same time would find parallel in the polysemic nature of Ioudaios, but such a scenario would be inconsistent with Paul’s silence on his place of origin throughout all his surviving letters. Therefore, when Paul writes that he is “a member of the tribe of Benjamin,” he most likely intends to indicate his tribal ancestry rather than his place of origin.
Tribal Ancestry and Family GenealogyIn order to assess the credibility of Paul’s claim to Benjaminite ancestry, it is important to examine the historical background of Jewish genealogical practice during the late Second Temple Period. Within this historical context, one could convincingly place Paul within the segment of the population that maintained family genealogy. Alongside their genealogical tradition, Paul’s family likely kept the belief in their Benjaminite ancestry through the generations. Consequently, Paul would naturally be able to describe himself as “a member of the tribe of Benjamin” to the congregations in Philippi and Rome while articulating his personal Jewish identity. 21
During the late Second Temple Period, the concerns over genealogical purity formed the basis of the rigid hierarchy of Jewish society in Palestine. Ezra-Nehemiah, which belongs to an earlier period, shows the organization of post-exilic Jewish society according to different degrees of legitimacy into three basic strata. 21Throughout the Second Temple Period, Jews in Palestine more or less maintained this ancestry-based tripartite division of society, and the Mishnah provides strong written evidence for its continuance into the first century AD. 22Over these few centuries, the demographic groups that constituted the two lower strata evolved; however, the top stratum made up of families of pure descent free from any illegitimate descent and any non-Israelite lineage always consisted of priests, Levites, and full lay Israelites. 23
In order to preserve their status of pure descent, priests, Levites, and full lay Israelites kept their family genealogy in written records or oral tradition. Strong evidence suggests that written genealogical records for the priesthood were kept formally and carefully in the Temple in Jerusalem—and to a much lesser extent in the Diaspora—with the purpose of safeguarding the genealogical purity of the priestly stock. 24 Joachim Jeremias argues that at least some full lay Israelites also kept written records of their family lineage, although Marshall Johnson disputes this supposition. 25 Johnson instead interprets the sources that reference personal genealogical information as evidence for the existence of oral genealogical tradition among the laity. 26 Whether recorded in writing or transmitted orally, the knowledge of one’s pure Israelite descent is crucial to their status as a member of the top stratum of first-century Jewish society and to the exercise of certain religious, social, and political privileges conferred upon this class. 27
Paul likely enjoyed the status of a full lay Israelite. Among other things, Paul’s attitude towards the trade of tent making in his letters to the Corinthians supports the view that he belonged to a lay aristocratic family. 28At the same time, in Paul’s own words, he was “a Hebrew born of Hebrews.” 29 Although many consider the term “Hebrew” here as either denoting a Palestinian Jew proficient in Aramaic or a Diaspora Jew capable of reading the Scriptures in Hebrew, Paul is making a claim about his lineage to his readers in Philippi. 30 Contrary to the clear-cut tripartite classification based on the degrees of genealogical purity, linguistic boundaries in the first century Jewish world were ambivalent and ambiguous due to widespread multilingualism and could not serve as meaningful markers for group identity. 31 Therefore, Paul likely uses the turn of phrase “a Hebrew born of Hebrews” to suggest his legitimate lineage. Being a full lay Israelite would both allow Paul to have an upper class background and confer upon him the right to claim legitimate lineage.
However, could Paul have come from a proselyte family instead and falsely asserted his genealogical pedigree? In Paul’s time, it was possible for proselyte families to achieve upper class status, despite being classified to the middle stratum of Jewish social hierarchy. 32 The Herodian royal family, for example, belonged to this subset of the Jewish population in Palestine. In order to legitimize his rule, King Herod unsuccessfully tried to claim full-lay Israelite, or even priestly, ancestry. 33 Paul would have felt no need for fabricating legitimate lineage if he were born to a proselyte family, since the Gentile congregations of Philippi to whom he was writing would not appreciate the nuanced difference between proselytes and full Israelites in the contemporary Jewish world.
Paul’s family likely had kept their genealogical information to preserve their status of pure descent. Based on Paul’s own writings, it is reasonable to assume that he came from Palestine, an assumption supported by Jerome’s claim that Paul hailed from Gischala in Upper Galilee. 34 Like most other full lay Israelite families situated within the rigid hierarchy of Jewish society in Palestine, Paul’s family likely followed the practice of maintaining their own genealogical tradition crucial to their status and privileges. On the other hand, if he was, as Luke claims, a Diaspora Jew, Paul as a young Pharisee would still have lived at some length in Palestine, since at the time the Pharisees remained a primarily, if not exclusively, Palestinian movement. 35 Even though the genealogical practice of Diaspora Jews is less certain owing to the great diversity among different Jewish communities outside Palestine, it would have been irrational for Paul to maintain his claim to legitimate lineage and to Benjaminite ancestry if his family’s genealogical tradition failed to compare to that of his Pharisaic peers he encountered while living in Palestine.
The likely scope of Paul’s family genealogical tradition means that it could not have traced their lineage all the way back to biblical figures of Benjaminite ancestry, let alone the patriarch Benjamin himself. To publicly prove one’s status as a pure lay Israelite in order to marry into a priestly family only required producing a genealogy of four or five generations. 36 Family genealogical traditions like Paul’s did not tend to go too much further back, considering the customs of other ancient Semitic peoples—an average Bedouin, for instance, might be aware of his ancestors of the last ten or twelve generations. 37 Hence, Paul’s lineage that he learned from his family likely did not extend back in time to include any biblical figure of Benjaminite ancestry. Furthermore, the genealogical information kept by the family would not have the apologetic nature evident in much longer genealogies that date back to biblical figures, such as Jesus’ genealogy in the Gospels.
Therefore, in Paul’s family, the belief in their Benjaminite ancestry likely passed down from one generation to the next alongside, not dependent upon, their genealogical tradition. In the late Second Temple Period, tribal ancestry had long ceased to function as a meaningful identity marker and had become irrelevant to the constitution of Jewish social hierarchy. Its consequent lack of general practical value, in addition to the absence of an explicit relation to genealogical information, reduced tribal ancestry to relatively secondary importance. Nevertheless, tribal ancestry and genealogical information together could form an integral notion of one’s family lineage, and Paul’s family would not have conceptualized their Benjaminite ancestry as separate and distinct from their genealogical tradition. For those full lay Israelite families that did maintain the belief of their descent from a particular tribe, such information would remain part and parcel of family oral tradition through the generations. Would Paul’s family genealogy, then, directly provide some basis for his claim to Benjaminite ancestry? The practice of using the names of the twelve patriarchs as personal names that had emerged during the post-exilic period bore little relation to one’s alleged tribal ancestry, and therefore whether Paul’s family genealogy potentially includes someone named Benjamin is irrelevant. 38 On the other hand, the gradual increase in the use of Hebrew biblical names in general in the late Second Temple Period meant that people became more likely to share the same names. 39 If Paul shared the name Saul with one of his known ancestors, such a possibility would establish a reasonable relation between his family’s genealogy and their belief in having descended from the tribe of Benjamin, to which King Saul belonged. The many repetitions of personal names in the Lukan genealogy of Jesus are at least four or five generations apart, a span definitely shorter than the likely scope of Paul’s family genealogical tradition. 41 Without any discernable redactional rationale, these name repetitions probably come from the earlier oral tradition of Jewish Christians in Palestine, indicative of a socially accepted naming practice; therefore, it was possible for Paul’s forebears to have already used the name Saul to mark their Benjaminite ancestry and subsequently passed down this information to Paul through family genealogy. 40
Benjaminite Ancestry and the Kingship of SaulIf Paul’s family genealogy did include another Saul, such a scenario would merely reinforce the name’s association with the tribe of Benjamin through the figure of King Saul, the most prominent Benjaminite in biblical history. Unfortunately, other than Paul, there is no known figure named Saul during the Second Temple Period to provide a directly parallel case study. 41 There are, however, a few other prominent Jews of Benjaminite ancestry. Rabban Gamaliel I, a contemporary of Paul and possibly his Pharisaic teacher, descended from the tribe of Benjamin. 42So did Mordecai, whose story the post-exilic Book of Esther narrates. The prominent family of Senaah was also of Benjaminite ancestry, but little is known of them. 43 The genealogies of Gamaliel and, to a much greater extent, Mordecai, could shed light on the relevance of personal names to tribal ancestry.
The naming of Gamaliel’s immediate descendants seems to again confirm the accepted practice of name repetitions between different generations of the same family. His direct line of descent bears the names of Simeon I, Gamaliel II, Simeon II, and the famous Judah ha-Nasi, the first of many namesake Judahs in the family genealogy. 44 Because the latter generations lived after the end of the Second Temple Period and because this family was not lay Israelite but belonged to the priesthood, how much naming practice could relate to Paul’s situation is uncertain.
On the other hand, Mordecai’s family lineage suggests the importance of the figure of King Saul to the conception of Benjaminite ancestry during the post-exilic period. The Book of Esther describes Mordecai as “son of Jair son of Shimei son of Kish, a Benjaminite.” 45 The name Kish clearly references Saul’s father. While the meaning of Shimei is less explicit due to the large number of biblical figures named as such, rabbinical exegesis invariably considers this Shimei the son of Gera, a member of Saul’s clan who cursed David. 46 In addition, in Esther, Mordecai’s enemy Haman is called an “Agagite,” which represents Agag the King of Amalek who became the cause of the end to Saul’s kingship. 47Therefore, the character Mordecai subtly evokes the tradition about the kingship of Saul, thereby suggesting that the figure of King Saul remained central to the conception of the tribe of Benjamin long after the disintegration of traditional Israelite tribal structure.
The question remains, however, as to whether the literal meaning of the Esther verse on the genealogy of Mordecai should be that he descended from Shimei the son of Gera and Kish the father of Saul. If so, the word “son” in the passage would simply mean “descendant.” 48 At the same time, the possibility that Mordecai’s genealogy in Esther represents successive generations also merits examination. Some deem it “impossible that Kish in the present passage represents the father of Saul.” 49 The other name on the genealogical list, Jair, stands out for not being a Benjaminite name at all and not having any clear reference to a certain biblical figure; therefore, “son of Jair” all but certainly functions as a patronymic. 50 These positions could support the supposition that “son of Shimei” and “son of Kish” also behave as patronymics as well, in which case Mordecai’s grandfather would have been named after Shimei the son of Gera and his great-grandfather after Kish the father of Saul.
The different interpretations of Mordecai’s genealogy have significant implications on the understanding of naming practices during the Second Temple Period. If Mordecai’s genealogy in Esther does represent successive generations, it would provide the direct evidence for the specific use of biblical names related to King Saul as personal names for those who claimed Benjaminite ancestry. If not, there still exists an inevitable exegetic ambiguity in this Esther verse that the post-exilic Jewish society with its own diverse, dynamic religious landscape must have rationalized and internalized. In other words, those believed to have descended from the tribe of Benjamin would likely look to the genealogy of Mordecai not only for an affirmation of their conception of Benjaminite ancestry but for a framework to possibly name their children after King Saul and his kin. Within the historical context, Paul’s family likely named him Saul because of their belief in the family’s Benjaminite pedigree that was passed down alongside their genealogical tradition from one generation to the next, whether there was already some ancestor named Saul or not.
Benjaminite Ancestry and the Audiences of PaulWriting to the Christian congregations in Philippi and, later, in Rome, Paul rhetorically articulates his own Jewish identity through highlighting his legitimate lineage. In mentioning in passing that he was “a member of the tribe of Benjamin,” Paul felt no need to elaborate, because he was able to rely on shared assumptions and understandings between him and his audiences on the matter of Jewish tribal ancestry. For his readers, Paul reference to his Benjaminite ancestry did not bring to mind more questions but fit seamlessly with other descriptors such as “an Israelite” and “a descendant of Abraham” into the overall claim to legitimate Jewish lineage. 51 Analyzing how his intended readers in Philippi and Rome likely understood Paul’s straightforward, unelaborated claim to Benjaminite ancestry helps to shed light on Paul’s own perspective in externalizing such a piece of personal information.
Even if Benjamin was an unfamiliar term to the contemporary Greek society in Macedonia, Paul’s readers in Philippi were likely aware of its connotations because of his ministry. As Paul was writing to his missionary congregations in Philippi that had financially supported him for several years, he had previously preached in person to these very same followers his understanding of the Christian faith. 52 During his Philippian ministry, Paul would likely have discussed the tribes of Israel in the context of biblical history, and in doing so he would have had no reason to conceal his own tribal ancestry to his Gentile audience. Therefore, Paul’s readers in Philippi would understand Paul’s reference to his Benjaminite ancestry on the terms through which Paul perceived his tribal lineage in the context of his mission to the Gentiles—as part and parcel of his own legitimate Jewish lineage, and grounded in the conception of the historical tribe of Benjamin.
In contrast, Paul had never visited the house churches in Rome; as such, his rationale behind a similar passing mention of his Benjaminite descent in the Epistle to the Romans was consistent with the significant Jewish demographics within these Christian congregations. The house churches in Rome could likely count among their memberships Jews, proselytes, and “God-fearers,” that is, non-Jews who affiliated with Judaism. 55 As a result, an integral segment of Paul’s audience would be familiar with the Jewish genealogical practice of the day. They would likely associate Paul’s overall claim to legitimate lineage and specific claim to Benjaminite ancestry with the implication that Paul must have based his claims on family genealogical tradition. In addition, because at the time of Paul’s writing the Christian circles in Rome had already known Paul’s story to some extent, the significance of his Jewish name Saul within the framework of biblical history would not go unnoticed for the congregations in Rome. Thus, the reader was likely to associate Paul’s name with his stated relationship to the ancient tribe of Benjamin.
Furthermore, the exegesis that Paul as a Benjaminite embodied the ravenous wolf of the biblical Benjamin could be potentially relevant to the first audiences of Paul’s letters to Philippi and Rome. Jacob’s blessing of his youngest son Benjamin as a “ravenous wolf” in the Book of Genesis was frequently interpreted by early Christian writers as prophetic of Paul’s life and ministry due to Paul’s claim to Benjaminite ancestry. 56 Although the suggestion that this exegesis originated with Paul himself or his companions lacks convincing evidence, it is plausible that the first generation of readers of Pauline epistles found their way to this interpretation. 57 Because Paul’s letters went on beyond their immediate function as correspondence material to serve liturgical purposes for contemporary Christian congregations, the possibility that this expanded audience that also included the letters’ direct recipients first began to associate the “ravenous wolf” blessing with Paul’s self-proclaimed tribal ancestry.
Even though Paul likely did not anticipate the subsequent exegetic tendencies developed by those who studied his writings, he was aware of different biblical accounts related to the tribe of Benjamin. Well versed in the Hebrew Bible, Paul should be familiar with different references to his ancestral tribe beyond the figure of King Saul. While ascertaining extent to which these biblical accounts influenced Paul’s self-conception of his Benjaminite ancestry remains difficult, there likely existed a theological or historical dimension to Paul’s self- understanding of his tribal lineage beyond its immediate context of social norms and family tradition.
ConclusionInvestigating the different dimensions of Paul’s unmistakable affiliation with the ancient tribe of Benjamin provides glimpses into Paul’s own thinking behind including this piece of personal information in his letters to the Philippians and the Romans. In order to gain a fuller understanding of Paul’s own complicated Jewish identity, other descriptors he uses to describe himself to his readers also need to be questioned and examined. Among other things, the apparent absence of the term “Jewish”—or in the original Greek, Ioudaios—has more possible explanations than the reasonable suggestion that having Benjaminite not Judahite ancestry could lead Paul to avoid using the term to describe himself.
Tribal ancestry appears likely to be the intended meaning of Paul’s precise wording, “a member of the tribe of Benjamin.” Whether he hailed from the Palestinian region of Benjamin is irrelevant to the discussion, since Paul’s readers would not have interpreted his words as indicative of his place of origin instead of, or even in addition to, his tribal ancestry. Therefore, Paul conveyed to his audience a certain sense of pride in his legitimate Jewish lineage, a sense of pride appropriate to his discussion on the Christian salvation of Jews. Having descended from the ancient tribe of Benjamin thus becomes part and parcel of this overall message on his own Jewish origins that Paul emphasized to his readers.
Paul’s belief in his Benjaminite ancestry likely came from his family. Within the framework of genealogical practice of Jewish society during the late Second Temple Period, it is reasonable to assume that Paul came from a full Israelite family that maintained its own genealogical tradition, either oral or written. Such a tradition that passed down the knowledge of Benjaminite descent also likely influenced the family’s decision to name Paul after King Saul, who belonged to the tribe of Benjamin, as such a rationale would likely be consistent with contemporary naming practices involving the use biblical names. In the house churches of Rome to which Paul wrote, those with some Jewish background were likely familiar with the general social context of beliefs in specific tribal ancestries and thus would likely associate Paul’s claim to Benjaminite ancestry with the underlying assumption of the existence of a genealogical tradition in Paul’s family.
Such nuanced understanding from a Jewish point of view might not be present among the Philippian congregants who received Paul’s letter. At the same time, from Paul’s ministry, they were likely not unfamiliar with the Jewish traditions about the tribe of Benjamin. Thus, the readers in Philippi probably shared Paul’s self-understanding of the significance of his Benjaminite ancestry as part and parcel of his own legitimate Jewish lineage and grounded in the conception of the historical tribe of Benjamin. That this self-perception eventually led early Christian exegetes to associate Paul with the “ravenous wolf” in Jacob’s blessing of Benjamin opens more questions than it answers. Nevertheless, Paul’s own belief in his tribal ancestry is, if anything, beyond question.
Footnotes1 Romans 11:13 New Revised Standard Version.
2 Philippians 3:5 NRSV.
3 Rom 11:1 NRSV.
4 Tracy Maria Lemos, “Kinship, Community, and Society,” in The Wiley Blackwell Companion to Ancient Israel, by Susan Niditch, 1st ed. (John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., 2016), 391, https://www.academia.edu/3876187/_Kinship_Community_and_Society_.
5 Ernst Kasemann and Geoffrey William Bromiley, Commentary on Romans (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 1994).
6 For the exilic origins of “Yehudi,” the Hebrew equivalent of “Ioudaios,” see John S. Bergsma, “Qumran Self-Identity: ‘Israel’ or ‘Judah’?,” Dead Sea Discoveries 15, no. 1 (2008): 174. 7 Solomon Zeitlin, “The Names Hebrew, Jew and Israel: A Historical Study,” The Jewish Quarterly Review 43, no. 4 (1953): 371, https://doi.org/10.2307/1453236.
7 Steve Mason, “Jews, Judaeans, Judaizing, Judaism: Problems of Categorization in Ancient History,” Journal for the Study of Judaism in the Persian, Hellenistic, and Roman Period 38, no.
8 /5 (2007): 511.
9 Margaret H. Williams, “The Meaning and Function of Ioudaios in Graeco-Roman Inscriptions,” Zeitschrift Für Papyrologie Und Epigraphik 116 (1997): 249.
10 Lawrence M. Wills, “Jew, Judean, Judaism in the Ancient Period: An Alternative Argument,” Journal of Ancient Judaism 7, no. 2 (November 10, 2016): 169, https://doi.org/10.13109/jaju.2016.7.2.169.
11 Ross S. Kraemer, “On the Meaning of the Term ‘Jew’ in Greco-Roman Inscriptions,” The Harvard Theological Review 82, no. 1 (1989): 52.
12 Bergsma, “Qumran Self-Identity,” 187.
13 Bergsma, 189.
14 Philip R. Davies, “Story, Memory, Identity: Benjamin,” in Performing Memory in Biblical Narrative and Beyond, ed. Athalya Brenner and Frank H. Polak (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2009), 44.
15 Revelation 7:1-8 NRSV.
16 Matthew 4:13 NRSV.
17 Luke 2:36 NRSV.
18 Richard Bauckham, “Anna of the Tribe of Asher (Luke 2:36-38),” Revue Biblique (1946-) 104, no. 2 (1997): 173.
19 Lk 2:22-38 NRSV. Some scholars identify Simeon the God-receiver with Simeon ben Hillel, although this is likely far-fetched. See Allan Cutler, “Does the Simeon of Luke 2 Refer to Simeon the Son of Hillel?,” Journal of Bible and Religion 34, no. 1 (1966): 29–35.
20 Bauckham, “Anna of the Tribe of Asher,” 166. 21 Rom 11:1 NRSV
21 Marshall D. Johnson, The Purpose of the Biblical Genealogies: With Special Reference to the Setting of the Genealogies of Jesus (Eugene, Or.: Wipf and Stock, 2002), 89.
22 Joachim Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus: An Investigation into Economic and Social Conditions during the New Testament Period, trans. F. H. Cave and C. H. Cave (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1969), 274.
23 Jeremias, 272.
24 Johnson, The Purpose of the Biblical Genealogies, 99.
25 Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus, 280.
26 Johnson, The Purpose of the Biblical Genealogies, 108.
27 Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus, 275; Johnson, The Purpose of the Biblical Genealogies, 91.
28 Ronald F. Hock, “Paul’s Tentmaking and the Problem of His Social Class,” Journal of Biblical Literature 97, no. 4 (1978): 555–64, https://doi.org/10.2307/3265397.
29 Phil 3:5 NRSV.
30 E. P Sanders, Paul The Apostle’s Life, Letters, and Thought (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 2015), 26.
31 Seth Schwartz, “Language, Power and Identity in Ancient Palestine,” Past & Present, no. 148 (1995): 13.
32 Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus, 331.
33 Jeremias, 331.
34 Martin Hengel, “The Pre-Christian Paul,” in The Jews among Pagans and Christians: In the Roman World (London: Routledge, 1992), 30.
35 Hengel, 37–38.
36 Johnson, The Purpose of the Biblical Genealogies, 91.
37 Johnson, 108.
38 Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus, 296.
39 Johnson, The Purpose of the Biblical Genealogies, 230. 41
Luke 3:23-28 NRSV.
40 Johnson, The Purpose of the Biblical Genealogies, 229.
41 Very little is known of Abba Saul ben Batnit, a Tanna contemporaneous with Paul, let alone his child who would bear the name Saul.
42 Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus, 278.
43 Jeremias, 278.
44 “Gamaliel I,” Encyclopedia Britannica, July 20, 1998, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Gamaliel-I.
45 Esther 2:5 NRSV.
46 Adele Berlin, Esther: The Traditional Hebrew Text with the New JPS Translation, The JPS Bible Commentary (Philadelphia, PA: Jewish Publication Society, 2001), 24.
47 Davies, “Story, Memory, Identity: Benjamin,” 42.
48 Berlin, Esther, 25.
49 Carey A Moore, Studies in the Book of Esther (New York: Ktav Pub. House, 1982), 115.
50 Berlin, Esther, 24.
51 Rom 11:1 NRSV.
52 Dennis Duling, “‘Whatever Gain I Had ...’: Ethnicity and Paul’s Self-Identification in Philippians 3:5-6,” HTS Theological Studies 64, no. 2 (June 2008): 190.
55 Rudolf Brändle and Ekkehard W. Stegemann, “The Formation of the First ‘Christian Congregations’ in Rome in the Context of the Jewish Congregations,” in Judaism and Christianity in First-Century Rome, ed. Karl P. Donfried and Peter Richardson (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998), 122.
56 Darrell D. Hannah, “The Ravenous Wolf: The Apostle Paul and Genesis 49.27 in the Early Church,” New Testament Studies 1, no. 62 (October 2016): 610, https://doi.org/10.1017/S0028688516000187.
57 Hannah, 627.
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About the Author
William Zebang Lu