Sunday, March 07, 2010

The New Newer Perspective on Paul

Paul Was Not a Christian: The Original Message of a Misunderstood Apostle
Eisenbaum, Pamela

New York: HarperOne, 2009 pp. 336. $24.99

Description: Paul Was Not a Christian is a groundbreaking work that systematically overturns both scholarly and popular conceptions held by Christians and Jews, liberals and conservatives alike. As Eisenbaum reveals, Paul is not the true founder of Christianity as is often claimed, nor does Paul understand Jesus Christ as having superseded the Torah and thereby replacing Judaism with Christianity. Although Paul unabashedly proclaimed his faith in Jesus, such proclamations were not inherently "Christian," since no such religious category existed in Paul's time. Jesus, rather, represented the fulfillment of God's promise to Abraham that he would be a blessing to the nations. Eisenbaum's work reverses the image we have of Paul as a model for Christian conversion and greatly increases our understanding of both Judaism and Christianity. Provocatively argued and far-reaching in its implications, Paul Was Not a Christian is a much-needed corrective to the traditional portrait of Paul and his divisive legacy.

Reviewed by Yung Suk Kim.

Eisenbaum, in her book Paul Was Not a Christian, argues that Paul and his letters can be best understood from a Jewish perspective of covenant theology rooted in Torah, not from a later Christian perspective. Thus the book title suggests that Paul was not a Christian in the sense that he founded a new religion of Christianity in opposition to Judaism or the law (Torah). To buttress this point throughout, the entire book is divided into thirteen chapters in which the traditional interpretation of the Reformation (“justification by faith”) is vigorously rejected and an alternative reading of Paul, a position of “two-ways salvation,” is proposed. . . .

I concur with Eisenbaum’s reading of Paul’s identity that he did not leave Judaism or reject the law per se. There is no reason for Paul to do so because the very mission of the Gentiles can be seamlessly understood from a Jewish line of thought based on Jewish monotheism and the extension of God’s grace to Gentiles. But I disagree with Eisenbaum’s view that Christ is only for the Gentiles (with a notion of “two-ways salvation”). There are plenty of verses in Paul’s letters that do not support such a view of “two-ways salvation.” For example, in Rom 9:2–3 Paul laments the fact that his fellow Jews do not accept Christ (“I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh”). Many times Paul emphasizes “all” (both Jews and Greeks) more than the Gentiles: “all, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin” (Rom 3:9); “all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham” (Rom 4:16). What about the nature of a different gospel that Peter and other apostles were supposed to preach to Jews? Paul acknowledges that another gospel works well for Jews: “the gospel for the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been entrusted with the gospel for the circumcised” (Gal 2:7). The issue for Paul in terms of Gentiles is that they do not need to become Jews (Jewish way) to become God’s people. Paul also speaks about his earlier life experience when he was “violently persecuting the church of God” (Gal 1:13) and refers to the unenlightened Jews having “a zeal for God” (Rom 10:2) and seeking “their own righteousness” (Rom 10:3). In Rom 10:4 (“Christ is the telos of the law”), it can be understood in a way that Christ fulfills the principle of the law (which is love of God) for all people. In 1 Cor 8:6, as one God is the God of all, one Lord can be the Lord (Christ) of all, Jews and Gentiles.

Read Kim's entire review.

Jewish scholar (not a Christian scholar), Pamela Eisenbaum teaches at Iliff School of Theology.

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