This article was originally part of The Paul Page, a site dedicated to academic study of the apostle, with special focus on the work of N.T. Wright.
John G. Gager (Oxford University Press), 2000, 198 pp.
In his recent book, Reinventing Paul, Gager has perhaps less reinvented than recovered the Apostle to the Gentiles. Through a concise review of the results of recent Pauline scholarship, he lifts Paul from the historical distortions of his theology that have plagued the Church since its inception and allows him to stand as a cogent defender of his gospel and the inclusion of the Gentiles.
Though he does so without overbearing detail, Gager pursues his argument first by citing, and then refuting, via the work of several recent authors, the traditional views that lie behind the portrait of the “old Paul.” His willingness to engage a reading of Paul with which he has obviously little patience is a mark of his desire to help bring about the end of the anti-Judaic Paul and to give future Christian readings of the Apostle a more firm and less distorted foundation. He cites the unspoken tendencies of Paul’s exegetes that lead them inexorably to their mistaken conclusions:
- Reading back into Paul from later times, importing views developed much later (especially the rejection/replacement view of Israel and the Church)
- Drawing unjustified universal conclusions from Paul’s particular circumstances, and
- Reading Paul against Judaism.
Gager maintains that it is not necessary for the interpreter to throw up her hands when confronted with passages like Romans 3:1 or 11:1 and declare that Paul is unrescuably inconsistent. It is necessary to:
- keep Paul’s audience (Gentiles) always before us and
- understand his rhetorical strategies.
Having given, in digest form, a recounting of the sources of the dominant image of Paul, Gager goes on to describe the new directions being taken in Pauline studies. This movement toward a more true “Paul” centers itself on Paul’s self-description as “Apostle to the Gentiles” and sees all Paul’s references to Torah, or law, as being applicable only to them. “When Paul appears to say something (e.g., about the law and Jews) that is unthinkable from a Jewish perspective, it is probably true that he is not talking about Jews at all. Instead we may assume that the apostle to the Gentiles is talking about the law and Gentiles.” In other words, through the faith of Christ, Paul believes that God is saving Gentiles as Gentiles.
The other dominant factor in the interpretation of Paul becomes an understanding of the complex rhetorical nature of his letters. Paul is demonstrated to have resorted to the use of “voices” other than his own in his writings, so as to engage his opponents, and to have written in the guise of the “unreliable author” that he might lead his readers/hearers to a position he specifically wants to refute.
Chapters three and four of Gager’s book deal with the portions of Galatians and Romans whose mis-readings have undergirded the old, anti-Judaism Paul. My one regret is that Gager nowhere makes mention of Mark Nanos’ recent book, The Mystery of Romans. Gager writes off the specifics of Paul’s audience in Romans as unrecoverable, where Nanos’ reconstruction would only have supported and nuanced, in many ways, his conclusions.
Gager may be criticized for having dealt so quickly with so heavy a subject as he does. Indeed, he does not, like E. P. Sanders, refute the positions he seeks to undermine point by point. His endnotes, however, are clear and easily used, and they provide the reader with a great many resources that deal with the subjects in much greater detail.
It is no longer excusable for a student of the New Testament to paint Paul as the opponent of the “straw-man” of Pharisaic Judaism created by Bauer et al. The image of Paul as the proto-Lutheran will no longer stand. Gager’s book gives the average student of the New Testament an accessible doorway into the “new perspective” on Paul that is emerging, a perspective that we can only hope will one day usher in a whole new understanding, and further repentance on the part of the Church for its triumphalism and anti-Judaism.