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

Book Review

Pamela Eisenbaum, HarperSanFrancisco, 2009, 336 pp.

The new perspective on Paul which has completely reoriented Pauline studies over the last thirty years continues not only to inspire new theses, but to highlight still unresolved issues as well. Though arguably the majority of New Testament scholars now embrace E.P. Sanders’ principal observation that Palestinian Judaism was not a religion of legalism, nevertheless little consensus has been achieved over the question of Paul’s relationship with Judaism.

Generally speaking, many scholars working from the new perspective, including most notably James D.G. Dunn and N.T. Wright, have managed to highlight considerable continuity between Paul and Judaism. This trend has been most welcome in the current context of renewed Christian sensitivity to the problem of anti-Semitism. Indeed, one of the key concerns of proponents of the new perspective (myself included) has been to hamstring the anti-Semitic tendency of the traditional paradigm by reframing Paul’s debate with “Judaizers” as an intra-church controversy as opposed to a Christian-Jewish controversy.

The Achilles’ heel of this interpretative move, however, has been forcefully exposed by Jewish interpreters of Paul like Mark Nanos and Pamela Eisenbaum – scholars for whom the new (Christian) perspective on Judaism obviously isn’t so new. While welcoming the recognition that Judaism isn’t a religion of legalism, they point out that the new perspective’s shift of emphasis still tends to denigrate Judaism insofar as what is criticized within the church is still essentially Jewish. Put differently, the negative stereotype of Judaism as legalistic is replaced by a negative stereotype of Judaism as ethnocentric.

One recent proposal being developed by the Faculty of Theology at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven is a return to a paradigm which stresses discontinuity between Paul and Judaism but doesn’t assume that discontinuity hinders Jewish-Christian dialogue. A very different approach has traditionally been articulated by a smaller group of scholars who have generally been identified with the new perspective. These scholars – Krister Stendahl, Lloyd Gaston, John Gager, Stanley Stowers, Neil Elliott, Mark Nanos, and Pamela Eisenbaum – situate Paul so firmly within Judaism that discontinuity disappears entirely. In her most recent book, Eisenbaum characterizes their position rather as “a radical new perspective” on Paul.

In a brilliant marketing move guaranteed to raise eyebrows and generate interest, her book is provocatively titled Paul Was Not a Christian. Early on she qualifies this, writing (for example) that:

it is obvious that Paul played a critical role in the development of Christianity and that his letters are regarded as an essential part of the Christian canon. I do not in any way wish to deny Christians their claim on Paul. But in this book Paul is unambiguously Jewish – ethnically, culturally, religiously, morally, and theologically (9).

At first blush, few Christians will dispute the fact that Paul was Jewish and that Christianity had not yet emerged as a distinct religion. However, serious problems arise when that observation is summarily swept aside as a distinction without a difference and Paul’s letters are still treated like a systematic exposition of Christianity. This is where Eisenbaum’s book excels: in methodically and consistently evaluating the key underlying assumptions of the traditional approach to Paul and exposing their weaknesses. At each step the traditional perspective is shown to be anachronistic and untenable. She spends considerable space (the first three chapters) articulating the traditional view before turning to concomitant Jewish approaches and finally the new perspective on Paul in chapter four (“Reading Paul as a Jew – Almost”).

The next three chapters consider postbiblical Judaism with a particular focus on the key questions in the debate on Paul. Chapter five (“Paul’s Jewish Inheritance”) in particular debunks the notion of Torah observance as a legalistic “works-based” scheme. In this context she helpfully diagnoses part of the reason for the misunderstanding. She articulates the problem so well that hopefully this reviewer may be forgiven for quoting her so extensively:

Ancient Judaism is not what one would call a religion of salvation. This is perhaps the most fundamental misconception that informs the Christian view of ancient Judaism. With very few exceptions, Judaism does not focus its attention on personal salvation. Furthermore, Judaism does not articulate the issue of salvation as a question about whether one is saved by works or by faith. …

Christians assume that personal salvation is the fundamental question of religion – all religion. Salvation is so central to Christianity that Christian theologians even came up with a name for the study of salvation: “soteriology.” Therefore, Judaism has typically been evaluated in terms of how salvation is conceptualized and how an individual achieves salvation. …

The traditional Christian understanding of Jewish soteriology is that salvation is earned through “works.” …

Yet, contrary to long-standing stereotypes, ancient Jews did not have a peculiarly excessive interest in law; they did not preoccupy themselves with picayune legal details while neglecting more serious ethical matters. Thus, the idea that Judaism is a religion in which one is “saved by works” is not an accurate characterization. …

The view of Judaism as a religion in which one is “saved by works” carries with it several other misconceptions about Judaism. Of most significance, it denies the important role of grace and repentance in Judaism (88-91).

Also of key importance in this section of Eisenbaum’s book is chapter six (“Who Is and Who Isn’t a Jew?”), in which she considers at some length the criticism that ancient Judaism was exclusionary and xenophobic, and chapter seven (“The Flexible Pharisees”), in which she consistently demonstrates that if anything, the Pharisees were known for being too flexible and permissive, not for being rigid and legalistic. With this background in mind, Eisenbaum moves into the remaining half of her book in which she considers Paul in precisely this Jewish context.

One of the first issues she takes up (and revisits throughout) is the question of whether Paul’s encounter with the risen Christ should best be conceptualized as a “conversion” or a “call” (chapter eight, “Paul the (Ex?)-Pharisee”). Readers who are already familiar with the issue and with Eisenbaum’s earlier work will not be surprised that she goes to some length to emphasize Paul’s continuing identification with his Jewish heritage. On another key question, whether pistis christou should be rendered “faith in Christ” or “the faithfulness of Christ,” she comes down (contra Dunn) firmly on the side of “the faithfulness of Christ” (189-195).

In the remaining chapters Eisenbaum turns to the issues of law and justification in Paul. In chapter twelve (“On the Contrary, We Uphold the Law!”), she articulates four basic principles for interpreting the law in Paul (the fifth is addressed in the final paragraph below):

1)       Paul’s audience is made up of Gentiles, so everything he says about law applies to Gentiles, unless specified otherwise (216-219)

2)      Torah is for Jews but provides a standard for all (219-224)

3)      The law is not meant to condemn humanity; it serves a positive pedagogical function (224-233)

4)      The doing of good works is not the opposite of having faith (233-239)

It is at this point that in drawing out the implications of her previous observations she describes most clearly the distinction between the new perspective on Paul as articulated by scholars like Dunn and Wright and the “radical new perspective” on Paul traditionally associated with the “two-covenant” approach of Gaston, Gager, et al. The last three chapters in particular (208-255) take up this topic. Though the issues are well articulated, this reviewer at least would have liked to see many more details worked out; an extra hundred or so pages might have enabled Eisenbaum to flesh out this perspective in a little more detail, but at least she provides enough interpretative markers to enable readers to sort through particular texts which are not directly addressed.

Simply put, Eisenbaum argues that for Paul, Israel’s justification was already secured by means of the covenant, leaving Gentiles in need of justification through the atonement of Christ since history was fast coming to a close and Gentiles (the nations) stood in dire need of reconciliation (spelled out in some detail in chapter thirteen, “Justification Through Jesus Christ”).

In her final chapter (chapter fourteen, “It’s the End of the World as We Know It”) Eisenbaum reframes the “two-ways salvation” question in what amounts to a postscript on Romans 9-11. Avoiding the language of “two covenants” and (most importantly) dispensing with an individualistic reading of Romans facilitates this restatement:

The starting assumption of the new paradigm is that it is not about personal salvation. Paul’s letter to the Romans is not an answer to the question, How can I be saved? Rather, it is his answer to the question, How will the world be redeemed, and how do I faithfully participate in that redemption? For Paul the question had great urgency, since God had already initiated the process of redemption (252).

She goes on to provide a helpful historical analogy to illustrate why “Torah for Jews, Jesus for Gentiles” need not imply two paths to salvation:

The rabbis did not think non-Jews needed to observe all the commandments of the Torah to be redeemed – in fact, they are decidedly not to observe many of them. The rabbis envisioned the Gentiles’ adhering to a small subset of law, known as the Noahide code. Yet the rabbis did not think this counted as two separate ways to salvation. Both groups are supposed to be in concord with the will of God, both are called to obedience, and in their different roles, both are being faithful to the Torah. … that does not mean there are two different systems of redemption (252, emphasis mine).

Nevertheless, what will likely remain challenging for most interpreters of Paul (this reviewer included) is Eisenbaum’s restatement of the position that Paul was addressing a Gentile audience as opposed to a single community made up of both Jews and Gentiles. Whether this reluctance simply illustrates the degree to which the older paradigm remains entrenched perhaps remains to be seen. To that end, this book deserves widespread consideration.

 Mark M. Mattison

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