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"My Paul has always been a pious, pompous, and somewhat inconsistent Christian, alternately displaying the anger of Jeremiah, the vision of Isaiah, and the ego of Douglas MacArthur. Gager's Paul is pre-Christian, a Jew who believed in Jesus as the Messiah who came to fulfill, not to destroy, the Law. Pauls message, Gager contends, was written for Gentiles of the first century, not for the Church of Augustine, sixteenth-century Protestant reformers, or post-Holocaust moderns. Gagers argument from text and context is always careful, learned, clear, and courageous at times audacious. It will convince many thoughtful scholars and, at very least, will shake all serious readers, whether theologians, historians, or intelligent laity. I predict we shall soon have a new industry devoted to responding to Gager." --Walter F. Murphy Author of Upon This Rock
"In his thoughtful, incisive, and lucidly written book, John Gager presents a radical challenge to the way that people have read Paul for 2000 years. Reinventing Paul is essential reading for anyone concerned with the history of religion and the relationship between Jews and Christians." --Elaine Pagels, author of The Gnostic Gospels and The Gnostic Paul : Gnostic Exegesis of the Pauline Letter
THE TRADITIONAL VIEW OF PAUL
"It was Paul who delivered the Christian religion from Judaism.... It was he who confidently regarded the Gospel as a new force abolishing the religion of the law."
The Elements of the Traditional View
These words of the German historian Adolf Harnack summarize the traditional view of Paul: his gospel stands in opposition to the law; his Christianity is the antithesis of Judaism. Underlying this view are several additional claims that provide its essential foundations:
Paul underwent a typical conversion from one religion to another, in this case from Judaism to Christianity.
As a result of this conversion, he preached against the Jewish law, against Judaism, and against Israel. The content of this negative teaching was that the law, the old covenant with Israel (essentially what Christians came to call the Old Testament), was no longer the path to salvation, for Jews or Gentiles; indeed God had never intended it to be; and that God had rejected the Jews/Israel as the chosen people.
At the same time the radical antithesis between Judaism and Christianity is represented as a decisive transition from religious particularism to religious universalism.
Most interpreters insist that Paul's polemic against the law is founded on a sound understanding of ancient Judaism.
Others argue that his views reveal profound misunderstandings and distortions.
In either case, there remains a deep ambivalence as to whether Paul the convert can in any way be understood against the background of ancient Judaism. Paul transcended Judaism.
Paul Converted from Judaism to Christianity
Essential to the traditional view is the image of Paul the convert. Or better yet, since interpreters have rarely bothered to consider the variety or the dynamics of conversions, one particular type of conversion is invoked, the sudden movement from one religion to another. Within this one subtype of conversion, there is yet another unexamined assumption, namely, that Paul's conversion to a new religion resulted in the repudiation of his former one. In a word, Paul converted from Judaism to Christianity and as a consequence denied all validity to the former.
There is no denying that Paul underwent a significant change of heart at some point in his life and that this change led him in fundamentally new directions. It is also true that he uses language reminiscent of conversion experiences from other times and places. In his letter to the Philippians, where he is forced to defend the legitimacy of his own apostolic status against other apostles within the Jesus-movement, he first boasts of his Jewish credentials (3.5-6): "circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews, as to the law a Pharisee, as to zeal a persecutor of the church, as to righteousness under the law blameless." But then, in a sudden turnabout, he proclaims,
Whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having my righteousness from the law/Torah, but from the faithfulness of Christ (3.8-9)
This sounds like the language of a convert. But of what sort? From what to what? Does he generalize from his own experience? Are there common threads in his life before and after the turnabout? Can we make use of the three accounts of Paul's conversion, his Damascus Road experience as reported in the Book of Acts (9.1-9; 22.6-16; 26.12-18)?
It is difficult to know where to begin in unraveling the tangled web of unexamined assumptions at work among those who assume that Paul converted from Judaism to Christianity. Most problematic of all is the use of the term Christianity by almost everyone. Paul himself never uses the term in any form. Is it too much to insist that since he failed to use the term he may not have had any notion of a new religion which the term Christianity implies? The use of Christianity is typical of a persistent trend in Pauline studies—to complete his sentences for him, to supply missing words, and to make explicit what he leaves unspoken. Consider Alan Segal's comment on Romans 11.26: "Paul, however, does not draw a detailed picture of what he envisions at the end of time, when some of Israel will embrace Christianity." What Paul says, however, is somewhat different: "and so all Israel will be saved."
Much more serious than introducing words and thoughts not used by Paul are the consequences of these supplements. Some readers pay lip service to the idea that Paul (not to mention Jesus and the early Jesus-movement in its entirety) had no notion of Christianity or, for that matter, of themselves as constituting a new religion. Most ignore the issue altogether. Both continue to use the term as if it made no difference. But it does matter. Words do things. They are embedded in networks of meaning and carry these meanings with them wherever they go. In our Western lexicon, Christian signifies, among other things, "not Jewish/Israel," "different from Jewish/Israel," even "against Jewish/Israel." Thus when we use phrases like Paul's Christianity or Paul's Gentile Christian believers, we prejudge, and thus bypass, certain fundamental questions. To speak of Paul's Christianity implies that he thought of himself as fundamentally different from, even opposed to Jews/Israel. The term is not only anachronistic; it is misleading. It is embedded in the tradition that sees Christianity as outside, even opposed to Judaism, and its use reinforces and presupposes that tradition. The only sensible position is stated by a recent Jewish reader, Pinchas Lapide: "Paul did not become a Christian, since there were no Christians in those times." Paul knows only two categories of human beings—Jews (he also uses Israel) and Gentiles (ta ethnê; he also speaks of Greeks). To import the category of Christian is to violate his thought-world and impose an alien concept.
From the moment we begin to speak of Christianity in Paul, the conversion issue is settled. Paul became a Christian! And he repudiated Judaism. But if he had no concept of Christianity or of Christians, if there was no Christianity, this cannot be the case. He became something else. The apostle to the Gentiles!
There are other problems with the standard model of Paul's conversion. We are familiar with the modern phenomenon of conversion within a religion, from one type of Christian community to another or from one variety of Judaism to another, with no sense that the convert thereby abandons or repudiates Christianity or Judaism itself. The same holds true of ancient Judaism, when various groups of Jews frequently sought to win other Jews to their point of view. This is a model altogether different from the one that involves movement from one religion to another. In the case of Paul, who never speaks of Christianity and insists that God (and presumably Paul as well) has not rejected Israel, the model of a conversion within a religious tradition is clearly more appropriate than any other. Thus Segal's puzzled comment that Paul became a Christian "but seemed unaware of leaving Judaism" is both misleading and unnecessary. Misleading because it assumes that Paul became a Christian and unnecessary because most converts never leave their religion at all.
At this point we need to step back and ask two questions: What was Paul doing prior to his conversion? And how does he present the conversion in those few additional places where he discusses it?
On the first question, Paul is clear about what his relations with the Jesus movement were before his conversion; he is also deeply troubled by them.
You have heard of my former behaviour in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it; and I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of the fathers. But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and had called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles ... (Gal. 1.13-16).
What was it that led this zealous Pharisee to persecute the followers of Jesus, to the point of trying to destroy the movement? The recent consensus is that the central issue for Paul was Gentiles and their standing in the Jesus-movement. We know from numerous sources that Gentiles caused deep divisions and disputes within the Jesus-movement and that Paul was a central figure in these controversies. Within the movement, the hotly debated questions were whether Gentile followers of Jesus needed to become Jews, that is, whether male members needed to undergo circumcision. Did Gentile followers need to observe the Torah, the law of Moses? Paul's answer was unequivocal—Gentiles were not required to adopt circumcision or to follow the Jewish law.
We can never know with certainty what led Paul to persecute the church so violently. Some have proposed that it was the very idea of a crucified messiah that was found to be offensive. Others have argued that it was because some followers of Jesus were admitting Gentile believers as Israelites without requiring them to be fully observant of the law. But, as Paula Fredriksen has rightly shown, this may not have been Paul's basis for persecuting the church before his conversion. Perhaps, she suggests, Jews like Paul feared Roman retaliation in response to reports that "the Jewish community harbored messianists from Palestine who spoke of coming battles" against Rome. In the end, all that we can know for certain is that Gentiles constituted the heart of his gospel after his conversion and were probably a central concern before.
Further support for the Gentiles as a lifelong preoccupation derives from the particular conversion-model that Paul's transformation seems to have followed. The model in question here is the "transvaluation/reversal of values," according to which the convert moves from one pole to another of opposing systems, whether religious, political, or other. A radical socialist becomes a radical conservative; a prison guard embraces the worldview of the inmate; a fervent persecutor of a religious movement converts to that very movement. The negative pole becomes positive and vice versa. Typical of this sort of conversion is the language of Phil. 3.7: "Whatever gain I had I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss." What is important to note here is that the convert does not move to something new and unknown but rather to something that already involves a deep emotional and religious engagement, albeit a negative one. The entire system remains intact but is turned upside down. If this is the case, and if Gentiles are found at the center of Paul's world after his conversion, there is every reason to believe that Gentiles stood at the center of his thinking before his conversion. Indeed, Gentiles may well have been the pivot on which the whole system turned. Thus, contrary to the traditional view of Paul's conversion and its consequences, what changed was not his view of the law as such, or of the law in relation to Israel, but only as it concerned Gentiles!
What cannot be denied is that Paul understood the essential content of his conversion to be his mission to the Gentiles. In Romans 11.13 he refers to himself simply as "the apostle to the Gentiles" (apostolos ethnôn). That he takes this title and mission to be the direct consequence of his conversion experience is clear not only in Galatians, where he speaks of a revelation "in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles" (1.16) but also in Romans, where he presents himself as having received "grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the Gentiles" (1.5). Again in Romans, he speaks of "the grace given me by God to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles" (15.15-16). In other words, Paul's apostleship, his conversion, centered on his gospel to the Gentiles.
Paul Preached against the Law and Israel
The claim that Paul preached against the law and Israel stands as the central feature in the traditional view of Paul. His conversion turned him against the law: the law was no longer, indeed never had been, the means of Israel's justification or redemption; the law led to a knowledge of sin; the law ended in condemnation; the sole path to salvation, for Gentiles and Jews, leads through Jesus Christ; neither Jews nor Gentiles can or should observe anything of the old law; circumcision was of no value; Israel has been rejected by God, and so on.
By now it should be clear that there are many problems with this view. First, Paul explicitly denies every one of these statements (see the pro-Israel set of passages above). But he also says things that sound very much like the traditional Paul. We have just noted, however, that as the apostle to the Gentiles Paul may not having been speaking of Israel at all in these perhaps mislabeled anti-Israel passages. We will need to consider this possibility at greater length.
We have already seen that the tensions between the traditional image of Paul and the pro-Israel passages have confronted readers with an unhappy dilemma. How can the apostle be rescued from self-contradiction? For some, the solution is simple. They simply ignore the pro-Israel passages. But for serious readers this will not do. They look elsewhere. Typical is the argument that Romans 11.1 ("Has God rejected his people? By no means?) refers to Paul himself, a Jew, and other Jews, like Peter, who have come to believe in Jesus Christ. This is the remnant theory according to which God's promise to redeem his people is reconciled with the rejection of Israel by pointing to the small number of Jews who "converted" to faith in Jesus Christ. But what of Rom. 11.26 ("All Israel will be saved") that speaks neither of conversion nor of a remnant? This is a problem.
One way of handling this problem is to dwell on defects of Paul's thinking—either he was incapable of systematic, consistent thought or unable to follow the implications of his own views to their logical conclusion. This first group of Paul's "contradictionist" critics take the recurrent inconsistencies as a given. "Paul's confused and often inconsistent reasoning, with its various gaps and omissions, is inclined to bore us." "The letter to the Romans comes as near being a theological treatise as anything which Paul wrote—and causes one to give thanks that he wrote no other." Paul's logic is "capricious," his arguments amount to "arbitrary interpretations and fantasies," and his view of the law in Galatians is an "infantile absurdity." "It is no great feat to unearth contradictions, even among his leading thoughts." "I can see only one way: contradictions and tensions have to be accepted as constant features of Paul's theology."
Responses to these contradictionist critics vary widely. Some seek to turn Paul's defects into virtues, claiming that he was more of a poet; an existentialist ahead of his time; a mystic; or a Semitic thinker who reveled in paradox. Another solution seeks to dissolve the apparent contradictions by assigning them to different periods in the apostle's life.
One common solution has been to deflect attention from the apparent tensions in Paul's thought by focusing instead on the reasons for his rejection of the law and Israel. This solution resembles that of the contradictionists in taking the rejection of the law for granted. But unlike the contradictionists, these readers put aside the pro-Israel texts and concentrate on Paul's difficulties with the law. Various reasons are given for these difficulties. One explanation holds that as a Pharisee, even before his conversion, he had experienced the law as an unbearable burden and found himself unable to live up to its demands. Thus the idea of redemption through Christ, without the law, relieved him of a crippling sense of guilt. This explanation places great emphasis on Romans 7.22-23, in which Paul appears to articulate the impossibility of upholding the law ("I delight in the law of God, in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin"). But today hardly any serious reader takes the passage as autobiographical.
Another reason sometimes given is that Paul, while still a Pharisee, came to see that the law was inextricably connected to sin, even the cause of sin. The "negative" passages in Romans (e.g., 7.7: "If it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin") and Galatians (e.g., 3.19-20: "Why, then, the law? It was added because of transgressions ...") are taken as indicating that he had dramatically revised his evaluation of the law as a positive expression of God's will. We should note, however, that in both letters he appears to take pains to head off this sort of misreading; cf. Gal. 3.21: "Is the law then against the promises of God? Certainly not!" and Romans 7.7: "What shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means!" But for most readers, ancient as well as modern, these warnings appear to have been given in vain.
A third explanation is that Paul the convert came to see the law as the source of Israel's unjustified religious and ethnic exclusivism, as manifested in the insistence that Gentiles had to accept Judaism in order to be righteous. Thus, according to James D. G. Dunn, the apostle to the Gentiles "was not against the law as such—far less against `good works'! What he aimed his arguments against was the law understood and practiced in such a way as to limit the grace of God, to prevent Gentiles as Gentiles enjoying it in full measure." And, adds Dunn, "it was Paul who effectively undermined this third pillar of second Temple Judaism."
A final claim, similar in some respects to the previous one, is that Paul abandons Judaism because of its religious particularism and embraces, or perhaps creates the religious universalism of Christianity. Although its roots lie deep in the Christian tradition, this position reached its classic formulation in the work of the nineteenth-century church historian F. C. Baur:
Thus not only was he [Paul] the first to lay down expressly and distinctly the principle of Christian universalism as a thing essentially opposed to Jewish particularism.... We cannot call his conversion ... anything but a miracle; and the miracle appears all the greater when we remember that in this revulsion of his consciousness he broke through the barriers of Judaism and rose out of the particularism of Judaism into the universal idea of Christianity.
Following Baur, some Christian readers, like Harnack and Ernst Käsemann, have seen this shift as positive; for others, like Nils Dahl, it is negative, or rather historically inaccurate and theologically incorrect. Dahl speaks of the need
to break radically with the common but simplistic notion of a contrast between Christian universalism and Jewish particularism. Jewish monotheism at the time of Paul was universalistic in its way and Christian monotheism remained exclusive.... We would come closer to the truth by saying that both Jewish and Christian monotheism are particular as well as universal, specific as well as general.
More recently, a perceptive Jewish reader of Paul, Daniel Boyarin, has taken up this theme again, arguing that Paul's cultural critique of Judaism, inspired by his immersion in Platonic philosophy, took the form of a "passionate desire for human unification." But, like others, Boyarin hesitates in the end, uncertain whether to attribute the denigration of "carnal Israel" to Paul or to his successors. "Paul had (almost against his will) sown the seeds for a Christian discourse that would completely deprive Jewish ethnic, cultural identity of any positive value."
Paul Understood the Judaism He Criticized and Rejected
The issue here is twofold: first, Paul the Pharisee fully understood Judaism and criticized it on the basis of his new religious understanding; and second, the Judaism criticized by Paul is reconstructed largely from a reading of Paul's letters, a reading based on the assumption that his letters talk about Judaism! This is an obviously vicious circle.
On the first issue, as we have just seen, first-century Judaism is regularly described, using Paul as the primary evidence, as a religion of narrow ethnic interests; as a piety, particularly in its Pharisaic and later Rabbinic forms, of dry, legalist religion in which individuals earned their way to salvation (works righteousness); or, alternatively, as a faith of impossible demands (the law) and harsh judgments (no forgiveness). Other elements can be added: the Jewish god was too remote; Judaism outside of Palestine had sold out to Greek influences; and so on. On every point, Judaism stands in sharp contrast to Christianity. A classic version of this portrait appears in Rudolf Bultmann's Primitive Christianity in Its Contemporary Setting. His chapter entitled "Jewish Legalism" offers the following portrait of the Pharisees (Paul's own party):
... that sanctity was an entirely negative affair, since most of the regulations were negative and prohibitive in character.... To take them seriously meant making life an intolerable burden. It was almost impossible to know the rules, let alone put them into practice.
The notion of Judaism, in its entirety, as a religion of works-righteousness, exposed and transcended by Paul, reappears prominently in the work of Ernst Käsemann (a student of Bultmann's), most notably in his influential commentary on Romans. "The obedience of faith abrogates the law as a mediator of salvation, sees through the perversion of understanding it as a principle of achievement." "Failing to understand the law, it [Israel] falls into illusion and is overthrown. Christ exposes the illusion." In short, Paul rightly repudiates the Judaism of his time as a religion of works-righteousness and self-righteousness. But as E. P. Sanders and others before him have repeatedly argued, "The supposed objection to Jewish self-righteousness is as absent from Paul's letters as self-righteousness itself is from Jewish literature."
The other side to this story, the vicious part of the circle, is that the dismal picture of Judaism in Christian history is drawn largely from a misreading of Paul's own letters, rather than from the enormous body of Jewish evidence from the period. George Foote Moore, E. P. Sanders, and Charlotte Klein have each drawn attention to the distorted and profoundly flawed representations of ancient Judaism in Christian scholarship. This is a beast that will not be slain. Like the proverbial phoenix, it constantly reemerges from its own ashes, so deeply is it embedded in the structures of Western civilization.
Less noticed have been the "Pauline" foundations of these structures. A sympathetic Jewish reader of Paul has put it with biting irony:
He was then certainly not the great pathologist (as Wellhausen calls him) of Rabbinic Judaism at all. And this conclusion ... would be of considerable importance. For the gruesome horrors and the sad, inevitable fiasco of Rabbinic Judaism (with which so many Christian scholars have made us familiar) are mainly drawn from the criticism of Paul. He said so: he had been through the mill, and he ought to know. Doubtless the Rabbinic writings have been made to furnish proof that what Paul said was accurate and right.
Why is it, wonders Pinchas Lapide, that so few readers have failed to see that the traditional Paul "is kicking doors that are already wide open to all biblically knowledgeable Jews."
Paul Misunderstood the Judaism He Criticized and Rejected
Against those who argue that Paul understood the Judaism of his time stand other readers who insist that Paul utterly misunderstood and misrepresented his former faith, George Foote Moore, a liberal Christian, writes as follows:
How a Jew of Paul's antecedents could ignore, and by implication deny, the great prophetic doctrine of repentance ... namely, that God, out of love, freely forgives the penitent sinner and restores him to his favor—that seems from a Jewish point of view inexplicable.
Jewish readers have made similar observations. "The Pauline inference that the law ... is a law unto death (Rom. 8:2-3; Gal. 3:21) is one which no Jew could draw." "Here not merely the Old Testament belief and the living faith of post-Biblical Judaism are opposed to Paul, but also the Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount." "Here a faithful Jew can only shake his head in bewilderment."
There is a curious note in these readers as they face a seeming paradox. How can Paul, the ex-Pharisee, say things about the law that are completely at odds with everything that we know about Judaism? Several solutions have been proposed to the paradox. One has been to argue that Paul's conversion led him to a fundamental reevaluation of the law. Leo Baeck, in a penetrating essay, "The Faith of Paul," insists that Paul's thought remains Jewish to the core, emphasizing the notion that in the Messianic era, at the end of time, the Gentiles would come in and the Torah would be suspended. "This is Jewish faith, and such was Paul's faith." But Paul's vision of Christ, his conversion, brought a "turning point in the history of religion ... a parting of the ways."
Another solution, again popular among Jewish readers, is that Paul's understanding of Judaism, especially in its Pharisaic forms, was distorted by his exposure to Greek culture, often with the implied assertion that "real" Judaism was Pharisaic/Rabbinic and un-Greek. Paul may well have been a Pharisee, as he claims, but his education in the Greek city of Tarsus adulterated his grasp of authentic Judaism.
One final resolution of the paradox, touched on by several critics, but never developed, goes well beyond the conversionist and the Greek explanations. Moore, after noting the radically un-Jewish elements of Paul's language, goes on to comment that the apostle
was, in fact, not writing to convince Jews but to keep his Gentile converts from being convinced by Jewish propagandists, who insisted that faith in Christ was not sufficient to salvation apart from observance of the law.
Samuel Sandmel makes a similar observation: "The angry tone of Galatians emerges not because Judaism ... had infected a church of Paul's own creation, but because Christian Judaizing had infected it ... the bitter controversies reflected in his Epistles are not with Jews but with [Christian] Judaizers." Even Martin Buber pauses momentarily, after insisting that Paul had opposed the law to faith, to ask, "Or are we to understand by the futile `works of the Law' merely a performance without faith?" But he fails to exploit his own insight. So, too, Alan Segal speculates that
it is thus possible that what changes for Paul is merely his view of that medium [the law] of salvation for Gentiles. In other words, Paul may rest all on faith but still maintain the validity of the Jewish faith including the Torah. This would be in keeping with the mature rabbinic view of the second century that salvation for Jew and Gentile alike is based upon righteousness and repentance, and that the ethics by which the Gentiles are judged excludes the special laws that apply to the Jews alone.
With these observations of Moore, Buber, Sandmel, and Segal we find ourselves in new territory. Although none of them seems willing, or able, to carry out the consequences of their insights, they do open a new vista. What they suggest is that it may be possible to answer Moore's (How could Paul ignore the basic tenets of Judaism?) and Schoeps's (How could Paul speak of the law as the cause of death?) questions without resorting either to tortured exegesis or charges of inconsistency. For if Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, was not writing to Jews but to his own Gentile converts; if he was concerned with the bearing of the law not on Jews but on Gentiles; if his opponents in Galatia and elsewhere were not Jews outside but apostles within the Jesus-movement; if all of this is so, it may be possible not only to dissolve all the contradictions and inconsistencies, along with the supposed polemic against the law and Judaism, but also to restore Paul to his Jewish milieu in a way that takes us several steps beyond even Baeck.
The Origins of the Traditional View
Before moving to consider the new view of Paul, it seems wise to revisit and expand our grasp of the assumptions that underlie the traditional picture. The point of this brief detour should be obvious by now. No structure, physical or otherwise, can stand without an invisible and complex infrastructure. This infrastructure gives stability and longevity. In assessing the structure, we need to examine not only its visible parts—in our case the actual claims made about Paul—but also the hidden starting-points, the features that determine its basic shape and texture even before it emerges from the ground—in our case the assumptions and presuppositions of the traditional view. From this it follows that if we seek to dismantle any structure, we need to probe not only its public face but its invisible skeleton as well. Most of these assumptions have already been examined and found to be fragile.
But there are other issues or tendencies involved that are more powerful and less visible. These, too, must be brought to light. They can be summarized as follows:
Reading back into Paul from later times, importing views developed much later.
Drawing unjustified universal conclusions from Paul's particular circumstances.
Reading Paul against ancient Judaism.
There is, of course, no way to read Paul except from the perspective of a later time. Yet there is a difference between the mistaken assumption that his issues were our issues, or even those of his immediate successors, and the historically correct attempt to understand his issues in his time. The difficulty for us is that Paul became, entirely against his own expectations (after all, he foresaw the end of this era in his own lifetime), the central figure in the subsequent history of Christianity and in its Bible, the New Testament. From the first century to the present, he became the apostle, the supreme theological authority for every conceivable brand of Christianity, including numerous groups that came eventually to be regarded as heretical. Others, most notably the various Jewish Christian groups that maintained a strong allegiance to Jewish observances, repudiated him as an apostle of Satan. The one issue on which his friends and enemies agreed was that he had rejected the law and Judaism. In other words, Paul's path to his central position in our New Testament was long and tortured. He had to be rescued from his heretical "friends" and "enemies" before he could be restored to the orthodox fold as the canonical spokesman for emergent catholic Christianity. One critic has called the Paul who emerged from this rescue operation "the domesticated apostle."
The central feature of this domesticated Paul, as he appears in the setting of the New Testament, is Christian anti-Judaism. The recurrent message of the Christian communities that created the New Testament between the second and the fourth centuries was the rejection-replacement view of Judaism—Jews had been rejected by God and replaced by a new chosen people, Christians. And the Paul who is installed at the core of the New Testament is taken to be the spokesman, indeed, the originator of that view. From this time on, Christians will read their own anti-Judaism back into Paul. Paul Meyer speaks of it as a "dark Manichaean shadow across the pages of Paul and of his commentators" that has dominated the study of Paul ever since.
The truth of the matter is that the anti-Jewish Paul of the New Testament is not merely "domesticated" but truncated and desiccated—a complete caricature of himself. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the traditional Protestant interpretation of Paul, discussed and dismissed by Krister Stendahl, in which the Reformation's struggle with the Roman Catholic church of the sixteenth century is read back into Paul's supposed debate with Judaism. The result, says Stendahl, is that "Paul's argument has been reversed into saying the opposite to his original intention." Ironically, on issue after issue, later Christianity, for all of its professed loyalty to Paul, failed to adopt his positions on the nature of the resurrection body, on table fellowship between Gentile and law-observant believers and the like. And so, too, I will argue, on the law and Israel.
Generalizing and Universalizing
Closely related to the tendency to read back is the inclination to read Paul as though he were addressing all problems and all times. In a way, this was inevitable, given his role as the apostle in the New Testament. Equally inevitable were the consequences—completely de-contextualized and profound misreadings. Quickly, the post-Pauline churches lost sight of the law as an issue within the Jesus-movement and so turned the discussion in Galatians, Romans, and elsewhere into an external, anti-Jewish polemic.
Nowhere has this tendency to universalize been more evident than in the work of Rudolf Bultmann and his students, notably Günther Bornkamm and Ernst Käsemann, who together were the dominant figures in New Testament studies from the 1940s to the 1970s. Despite his own warning not to confuse Paul with Luther (i.e., not to generalize from the particular to the general), Bultmann repeatedly treats Paul as a theologian of the universal human condition. "This willing is the trans-subjective propensity of human existence as such." Bornkamm contrasts the letter to the Romans with Paul's other letters:
Now, in Romans, the ideas and motifs enumerated are not found, as in the earlier letters, in disconnection and as bearing on this or that actual situation. They are reasoned out, substantiated more fully and in detail, and given universal application.
Käsemann, in an essay entitled "Paul and Israel," writes that "the apostle's real adversary is the devout Jew ... as the reality of the religious man." And like his mentor, Bultmann, he denies that a purely historical reading of Paul is adequate:
The doctrine [of justification] undoubtedly grew up in the course of the anti-Jewish struggle and stands or falls with this antithesis. But the historian must not make things easy for himself by simply, as historian, noting this incontrovertible fact.... Our task is to ask: what does the Jewish nomism against which Paul fought really represent?
The end result is that the specific circumstances of Paul's letters are lost and, with them, their historical meaning. "Paul's situation as a Jewish `sectarian' who preached the redemption of the gentiles became incomprehensible." His law-observant opponents within the Jesus-movement soon became a minority voice. And the unexpected success of the movement among Gentiles rapidly pushed it toward becoming a new, separate religion. Under these conditions, Paul's arguments about the law were no longer understood as intramural debates within the Jesus-movement but came to be seen as debates between Jews and Christians. Thus Paul became the theologian of anti-Judaism.
This anti-Jewish Paul has played an enormous role in the history of Christian dogma and practice. Maurice Goguel put it well:
Paul defined the relationship of Christianity with Judaism and in this way gave it a structure which was never subsequently modified ... and so far as can be seen could never be called in question without shaking the very foundations of Christianity.
Reading Paul against Judaism
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the History-of-Religions school in Germany launched an attack on Jewish portrayals of Paul. Downplaying his self-proclaimed Pharisaic allegiance and emphasizing his origins in the Greek city of Tarsus, adherents of this school drew elaborate parallels between Paul and the so-called pagan mystery-cults (Isis-Serapis, Cybele-Attis, Mithras). Here were the real sources of Paul's piety. No need to examine the vast body of Jewish literature from Paul's lifetime—Philo, Josephus, apocalyptic Judaism (the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered much later), early Rabbinic literature, and so on. Coupled with an emphasis on his conversion from Judaism, Paul thus emerges as a figure with no Jewish roots. In fact, there appears to be a double isolating effect here: those who stress Paul's break with Judaism, his conversion from Judaism, tend to give little attention to Jewish sources for explaining his thought; and vice versa. At roughly the same time, toward the end of the nineteenth century, a new picture of Greco-Roman Judaism was beginning to emerge among students of early Christianity, a dismal picture whose ignoble origins and pervasive influence have been chronicled by George Foote Moore, Charlotte Klein, and E. P. Sanders. The effect of this unhistorical picture of Judaism, combined with a view of Paul as a convert from Judaism, has been to isolate Paul from Jewish influence, to de-Judaize him.
This de-Judaizing can take the form of locating his roots in "early Hellenistic [i.e., Greek] Christianity" (see Bultmann), a solution that runs parallel to the traditional Jewish argument that Paul's grasp of Judaism had been weakened by his exposure to Greek culture; of stressing the utter novelty of his thinking (Harnack); or of arguing for the impact of Greek "mystery-religions." Of course, there have been discordant voices in the choir. Albert Schweitzer protested vehemently against the History-of-Religions school, insisting that Paul and Hellenism had nothing in common. Instead, Schweitzer looked to apocalyptic Judaism as the soil that nurtured Paul's thought. W. D. Davies, in his Paul and Rabbinic Judaism. Some Rabbinic Elements in Pauline Theology, demonstrated extensive parallels between Paul and the later rabbis. But for a variety of reasons, these voices failed to carry the day. Paul remained outside Judaism and scholars were thereby excused from dealing with Paul's Judaism except as "background." As one reader who has sought to re-Judaize Paul has put it, the result of all this is a widely shared premise that "ancient Jewish literature is no source for explaining his letters."
Much the same picture emerges among traditional Jewish readers of Paul, though for very different reasons. If many Christian readers have been eager to protect Paul from Judaism, most Jewish readers have been intent on shielding Judaism from Paul:
Some argue that he misunderstood or misrepresented Judaism (Buber and Schoeps).
Others claim that he represented an inauthentic, usually Hellenized form of Judaism (Montefiore, Klausner, and Boyarin).
Still others, including those most inclined to assert Paul's thoroughgoing Jewishness (Baeck, Rubinstein) point out that he left Judaism behind at some decisive moment (Segal). In any case, his criticisms of Judaism are wide of the mark and his understanding of it unreliable.
But in recent years, as we shall see, a number of readers have come to hold quite different views on these matters. Curiously, or rather, instructively, it is Jewish readers who have emphasized the fundamental discontinuity between the Paul of the letters, taken in their own time and place, and the anti-Jewish Paul of the New Testament and later Christianity. Hans Joachim Schoeps insists that Paul "misunderstood many things" but adds that "this misunderstanding ... was repeatedly and far worse misunderstood by his own followers. It may even be asserted ... that the whole history of the interpretation of Paul ... is a single chain of misunderstandings." And David Flusser remarks that for all of his influence on later developments, Paul's deep grasp of the law made little impression.
|Ch. 1||The Traditional View of Paul||21|
|Ch. 2||New Views of Paul||43|
|Ch. 3||The Letter to the Galatians||77|
|Ch. 4||The Letter to the Romans||101|
|Ch. 5||Loose Ends||145|
|Index of Subjects||189|
|Index of Modern Scholars||193|
|Index of Ancient Texts||197|
Posted January 16, 2010
No text was provided for this review.