A Question of Categories

Over on the Huffington Post, filmmaker Robert Orlando has posted his most recent comments related to his film A Polite Bribe: An Apostle’s Final Bid. I posted my reflections of the documentary after the 2012 showing in Chicago here.
In his post, Orlando writes about both the traditional Lutheran interpretation of Paul and the “necessary” and “overdue correction” of the new perspective on Paul, but goes on to provide his own critique of the new perspective. Unfortunately, his description of the new perspective is a little too broad, mixing together elements of the new perspective on Paul with the more recently defined perspective of Paul Within Judaism. He describes the new perspective with three broad brush strokes, writing that the new perspective proposed that:

a) Paul remained a practicing Jew, and was not a convert to a new religion,

b) that his mission was not to Jews, but to Gentiles only, and

c) that his fiercest statements against Jewish practices were not for the Jewish religion, but for fellow Jewish Apostles, who would impose their religion on Gentiles.

However, only the third point can consistently be said of the new perspective on Paul; the first two statements can more accurately be said of Paul Within Judaism, since proponents of the new perspective on Paul, though often preferring to describe Paul’s experience in terms of “calling” rather than “conversion,” typically do not argue that Paul remained a practicing Jew whose mission was to Gentiles only.
This category mistake is entirely understandable, given that until recently the Jewish and Christian scholars working from the perspective of Paul Within Judaism have tended to be grouped together under the rubric of the new perspective on Paul. One early attempt to articulate the demarcation can be seen in Pamela Eisenbaum’s book Paul Was Not a Christian: The Original Message of a Misunderstood Apostle, in which she used the term “a radical new perspective.” However, in the more recent anthology from Fortress Press, the scholars working from this perspective have decisively articulated their position as Paul Within Judaism.
In the remainder of Orlando’s essay, he argues that “it is reality, simply put, that Paul’s conversion was indeed a move away from Judaism.” In this, Orlando’s approach aligns rather cogently with that of James D. Tabor; its sharp distinction between Paul and Judaism is in some ways more reflective of the old perspective. And whereas I largely agree with Orlando’s and Tabor’s dramatic, compelling description of the rift between Paul and the Jerusalem apostles (a somewhat embarrassing historical fact for the church), that doesn’t mean that Paul’s positions must be understood as over against those of Judaism per se. Clearly Paul’s letters were increasingly interpreted in that way as Christianity developed and defined itself over against Judaism, but the key question is when that parting of the ways actually happened.
Mark M. Mattison

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