Was St. Paul a Christian?

Pamela Eisenbaum’s Paul Was Not a Christian (thanks to Matt Frost for the recommendation) makes a nice companion volume to Amy-Jill Levine’s The Misunderstood Jew. Like Levine, Eisenbaum is a practicing Jew who studies Christian origins and thus brings an important and distinctive perspective to bear on the subject. In some ways, Eisenbaum has the harder task: While nearly everyone at least pays lip service to Jesus’s Jewishness, Paul is widely regarded, even by Jews, as “the first Christian”–someone who broke decisively from his ancestral faith to effectively lay the foundation for Christianity as we know it.

Eisenbaum sets out to show, however, that throughout his life Paul remained firmly planted in the soil of Judaism. She does this through a two-pronged approach: first, by providing background on Second-Temple and Hellenistic Judaism to show that Paul’s ideas are not as far outside the Jewish mainstream as they’ve been made out to be; second, by looking closely at key passages in Paul’s letters,* with the controlling assumption that their intended audience is almost exclusively Gentiles. Paul was first and foremost, Eisenbaum argues, an apostle to the Gentiles–someone who believed the long-foretold time had come when the God of Israel would gather all the nations of the earth into the Abrahamic family.

The argument of Eisenbaum’s book owes a lot to the so-called new perspective on Paul, associated with E.P. Sanders, N.T. Wright and others. But she goes beyond the new perspective toward what she calls a radical “new paradigm.” In Eisenbaum’s account, there is not a “problem of the law” that needs to be solved by Jesus, at least not for Jews. Even new perspective authors, while toning down the anti-Judaism of traditional Christian interpretations of Paul, still see Jewish “works-righteousness” as something Paul is fighting. On this account, excessive Jewish pride in belonging to the covenant and having the Torah led to xenophobia toward Gentile Christians; Paul’s emphasis on justification by grace is thus his means of breaking down the barriers between these two groups. For the new perspective version of Paul, Both Jews and Gentiles stand on the same ground, namely the grace of Christ.

Eisenbaum argues, however, that Paul’s concern about “works of the law” is directed exclusively at Gentiles. The problem isn’t Jewish smugness; it’s how Gentiles can be brought into God’s family now that the end times are at hand. For Jews, Eisenbaum argues, Paul regarded covenant-belonging and keeping Torah as sufficient to remain in good standing with God. Jews belong to the covenant by grace, and there are provisions in the Torah for making atonement for their sins. But Gentiles, who have been outside the covenant, need something else.

Because Gentiles have not had the advantage of Torah, they have heaped up a massive debt of guilt due to their sins, idolatry chief among them. The death of Jesus is thus the means by which God cancels this debt and makes it possible for Gentiles to turn from idolatry and become progeny of Abraham. What this looks like for Gentiles is not Torah observance, per se, but imitation of Christ’s own faithfulness. Thus, Eisenbaum maintains, for Paul, Jesus is a solution to a specifically Gentile problem. The seemingly negative things Paul says about the law are aimed at Gentiles who (mistakenly) think they have to become Torah-observant. This doesn’t mean that Paul’s gospel has no implications for Jews, though: They are called to recognize that the end of time is at hand and God is acting through Paul’s preaching to reconcile all the nations to the one true God.

I learned a lot from Eisenbaum’s book and find much of it persuasive. It’s certainly a bold step beyond the “new perspective.” However, I couldn’t help but wish she’d addressed some nagging loose ends. For example, she says very little about Paul’s own religious practice. Did he remain a Torah-observant Jew? What about the position of Jewish Jesus-followers more generally?

More broadly, I’m not sure Eisenbaum fully accounted for just how important Jesus was to Paul. What I have in mind here is what’s sometimes referred to as Paul’s “Christ-mysticism,” or his sense of being “in Christ.” There’s also his notion that Christ is the new Adam–the source and paradigm of a renewed humanity. These elements of Paul’s thought suggest, to me at least, that Jesus is not only (mainly?) the mechanism by which God brings in the Gentiles.

That said, Eisenbaum’s argument (which I obviously can’t do full justice to in a blog post) definitely seems to move the ball forward. She has provided a credible anti-supersessionist reading of Paul, which, she notes, has implications for contemporary discussions of religious pluralism. Whether or not she has done justice to the centrality of Christ in Paul’s religious thought, I’m less sure of. But I highly recommend the book.

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*Eisenbaum generally limits her discussion to the seven letters whose Pauline authorship is undisputed by scholars: Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon.

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