In 1 Maccabees 2.7-13 a priest named Matthias grieves over the destruction of Jerusalem and its pagan conversion under the thumb of Antiochus Epiphanes. These are his words:
“Woe is me! Why was I born to see the ruin of my people and the ruin of the holy city, and to sit idle while it is given into the hands of enemies, and the sanctuary into the hands of strangers? Her temple has become like a man disgraced, her glorious ornaments have been carried off as spoils, Her infants have been murdered in her streets, her young men by the sword of the enemy. What nation has not taken its share of her realm, and laid its hand on her possessions? All her adornment has been taken away. From being free, she has become a slave. We see our sanctuary and our beauty and our glory laid waste, And the Gentiles have defiled them! Why are we still alive?”
This narrative must have been imbedded deep into the psyche of faithful Jews. Now imagine hearing the Apostle Paul say, “There is neither Jew nor Greek…for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3.28)
The Pauline gospel was an act of reconciliation. I don’t mean simply that the Jews were asked to embrace Gentiles whom they understood to be impure. That is part of it, but not all of it. These impure pagans had a history of mistreating Israel. The Babylonian exile was still part of Jewish memory. At the time of Paul the empire of Rome controlled the land of the Jews, Judea. Yet Paul calls them to equality before the Messiah…Israel’s Messiah!
Paul is asking his fellow Jews not to forsake their covenantal markers in order to compromise in the face of pagan persecution. Rather, he tells them that the very actions that once determined faithfulness to YHWH under pagan persecution were not preventing the pagans from finally recognizing Israel’s God as God of the world and Israel’s Messiah and the King of the world.
The same markers that saved Jewish identity were now preventing the Jews from realizing their greater identity as Abraham’s children through whom the whole world was to be blessed. I admit, if I were a Jew, it would be very difficult to accept Paul’s claim that the true people of God are both Jews and Gentiles in Messiah, and Gentiles can come as they are without proselytizing to Judaism.