Jesus was a ‘somewhere’. Paul was an ‘anywhere’
Credit: Uriel Sinai/Getty images   

By popularising the distinction between ‘somewheres’ and ‘anywheres’, David Goodhart has provided a useful way of approaching many of the political divisions of the day. ‘Somewheres’ have a stubborn loyalty to place and to the people and customs that they have grown up with. ‘Anywheres’ are internationalists who seek to rise above the narrow limitations of geography and local culture and seek to establish values on the basis of a global humanity. Is there any way of reconciling these seemingly opposite positions? I want to offer a modest suggestion – a hunch – as to the possibility of some sort of reconciliation. Call it work in progress.

Historically, of course, the somewheres came first. Even the gods of the ancient world were the gods of a particular place and people. Dagon was the god of the Philistines. Baal was the god the Canaanites, Marduk the god of the Babylonians, Yahweh the God of the Jews. All these gods were somewheres. The first proponent of the ‘anywhere’ philosophy was probably St Paul, for it was Paul who deliberately broke the link between a belief/value system and ethnicity/geography.

Jesus was very much a somewhere – Jesus of Galilee

Jesus wasn’t a Christian. He wasn’t the first Christian. He wasn’t even a Christian with an interesting Jewish backstory. Nowhere does the carpenter from Galilee suggest that he wants to start a new religion. On the contrary: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” he tells a woman in Matthew’s gospel.

Yes, Jesus would constantly argue with the religious authorities of his day. But argument with religious authority is itself a longstanding Jewish tradition. Jesus was Jewish, completely Jewish – he had a Jewish mother, he was circumcised according to the law, he kept kosher, his Bible was the Bible of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, he attended his local Galilee synagogue, he taught in the Temple throughout his life, he made pilgrimage to the Temple for the special feasts. And he died Jewish, mocked as the King of the Jews. The very idea of Christianity was not even invented in his lifetime. Jesus was very much a somewhere – Jesus of Galilee.

Most of Jesus’ early followers were also Jewish, but not all of them. And for these people, the question began to arise whether being a follower of Jesus required following the Jewish law – and, in particular, whether it required the Jewish practice of circumcision. This question prompted a furious debate among Jesus’ followers, with some maintaining that Jesus-following required the full commitments of Jewish religion, and some maintaining that it did not. St Paul was the leading proponent of the second view.

More from this author

A book that will turn your ideas upside down

By Giles Fraser

Paul was also a Jew himself, indeed a Pharisee by training, but he was also a Roman citizen, born into the Jewish diaspora in what we now call Turkey – and thus the nearest thing to a citizen of the world that a Jew could be. For Paul, the God that he recognised in Jesus was absolutely the God who was promised to Jews in the Hebrew scriptures, but – and this was his world-changing idea – it was also a God who was promised to all humanity.

It now seems obvious to Christians that the God spoken about by Jesus is a God who seeks the salvation of all people, irrespective of race, nationality or culture. But it wasn’t at all obvious to many of Paul’s contemporaries, and it took some arguing on his part. “In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek,” Paul insisted. You don’t need to be ethnically Jewish to have a special relationship with God. With Jesus, the special deal that God had made with the Jewish people had been extended to include all non-Jews.

It wasn’t that Paul denied the idea that God had established a special relationship with the Jewish people in the first place – all those who are “in Christ” are “Abraham’s offspring” he maintained, and the Jews were the chosen people – but now, Paul declared, being chosen was open to all.

There were many more conservative-minded Jesus-followers who resisted Paul’s internationalisation of what was hitherto distinctively Jewish theology: some maintained the old-fashioned Jewish way of Jesus-following for some centuries, though theirs was an increasingly minority position, and increasingly persecuted.

It could be argued that this new family of baptism creates another form of somewhere-ness, an identity rooted in Christ

In terms of the debate between the somewheres and the anywheres, the anywheres had won. And when the Roman Empire was converted to Christianity in the fourth century, the link between what came to be known as the Christian religion and the ethnic/geography of Jesus’ Judaism was broken forever.

In other words, Jesus was a ‘somewhere’, Paul was an ‘anywhere’. All of which is quite a challenge to me as a Christian but also as a dedicated ‘somewhere’ communitarian. Instinctively, my own Jesus-following feels increasingly sympathetic to the non-Pauline Jewish Christianity that was squashed in the first few centuries. Nonetheless, I have to accept that St Paul’s revolution in theology – breaking the link between values and place – made possible a flourishing of important ethical thinking, not least the development of international human rights.

And my own church at the Elephant and Castle in south London is one small example of the consequence of Christianity breaking the link between god and ethnicity. In my pews there are people from all over the world, and it matters not where they come from: neither Jew nor Greek, neither Nigerian nor Armenian, neither English nor German – for you are all one in Jesus Christ. In Pauline Christianity, the water of baptism is thicker than the blood of family. Or rather, baptism produces a new family beyond that of biology. Which is why many in my church refer to each other as brother and sister, even though they are not biologically related.

More from this author

Is Jeremy Corbyn antisemitic?

By Giles Fraser

It could be argued that this new family of baptism creates another form of somewhere-ness, an identity rooted in Christ, not in where you come from or who your grandparents are. In other words, it creates a different form of community, both open yet rooted – a merger of Pauline internationalism and a rootedness in the specifics of Jesus. And this is interesting because the moral case against internationalism is precisely its lack of rootedness and social solidarity.

So could it be – and I offer this tentatively – that the church offers some sort of clue as to how it is possible to combine being both a somewhere and an anywhere? Because as I look out at my church on a Sunday morning, I see a community both diverse and yet together, indifferent to ethnicity yet also rooted in the specifics of place. 

I have this line from a Wallace Stevens poem that often goes round and round in my head as a sort of constant puzzle. “But play, you must / A tune beyond us, yet ourselves.” That, it seems to me, is the challenge: an ethic that is beyond ethnic and cultural provincialism, yet also rooted in the specifics of what makes us who were are, the specifics of time and place. Isn’t that the challenge of the day?