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.


*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.


Jesus’s Jewish parables

I don’t know if I’ve ever mentioned it here on the blog, but I’ve recommended Amy-Jill Levine’s The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus to a number of people. In fact, I consider it almost a must-read for any Christian given how saturated our tradition is with anti-Judaism.

I’d recommend Levine’s newest book, Short Stories By Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi, almost as heartily. In the same scholarly yet accessible manner as her previous work, Levine deconstructs the negative stereotypes about Jews and Judaism that have pervaded much interpretation of Jesus’s parables. We see this, for example, in interpretations of the Good Samaritan that attribute the priest’s and the Levite’s passing by the robbed man to their horror of ritual impurity. Or readings of the Prodigal Son that say the elder son represents Jewish “works-righteousness.” And this is not confined to “conservative” churches and scholars; in fact, many of Levine’s targets are liberal scholars who like to contrast Jesus’s progressivism with a supposedly reactionary and oppressive 1st-century Judaism.

But Levine’s book isn’t just a polemic. Her goal is to try to recover the impression the parables–which by their very nature admit of multiple interpretations–may have made on the the people who first heard them. To this end, she reads them as dealing with very concrete issues of daily life, and not necessarily as allegories or Christological symbols. Her goal is to show that, when stripped of the more obvious messages people sometimes take away (like it’s good to be persistent in prayer, or you should help people in need), these stories can still move us to reexamine our priorities and how we live our lives. In particular, Levine shows that Jesus’s stories speak not only to our “spiritual” condition but also have implications for the very earthly (and still relevant) issues like economic injustice and violence. I personally found the chapters on the Good Samaritan, the Tax Collector and the Pharisee, and the Rich Man and Lazarus to be the most thought-provoking.

As a Jewish scholar of the New Testament, Levine doesn’t confess Jesus as Lord and Savior. But Christians can still benefit from the readings she offers, not only as a corrective to still-too-common anti-Jewish interpretations, but in the conviction that the there is more truth yet to break forth out of our Lord’s words.

Papal hot takes are missing the point

Pope Francis’s visit to the Western Hemisphere has occasioned a whole new round of papal #takes. Conservatives are conservasplaining that Francis, with all this talk of economic inequality and environmental doom-and-gloom, doesn’t understand the gospel, or hates science and modernity. Liberals are warning that Francis isn’t really progressive, but a theocrat in progressive clothing. Rinse, repeat.

This cross-ideological freak out seems to me to miss the genuine source of Francis’s appeal. Rev. Amy Butler of New York City’s historic Riverside Church puts her finger on it here, I think, when she writes that many of the “radical” things Francis is doing–reaching out to the poor and marginalized, emphasizing our responsibility to care for creation, trying to live modestly and with humility–are things all Christians are supposed to be doing.

We’re so used to religious leaders who look nothing like this-slick, rich megachurch pastors or angry, apocalyptic cranks–that when someone shows up who’s living what is basically just Christianity 101, it’s startling and refreshing.

That doesn’t mean everything Francis does or says is (ahem) infallible. I for one disagree with the Catholic Church on the usual matters where liberal Protestants tend to disagree with it. And it does seem that the pope may understate some of the virtues of market economics and modern political arrangements. But I can still appreciate the genuinely Christ-like spirit animating his ministry. If more of our leaders (and lay people!) exhibited a similar spirit, Christianity–and the world–might look very different.

More cracks in the evangelical consensus on same-sex relationships

A couple of interesting developments in the world of evangelicalism over the last day or so. Tony Campolo, a well-known evangelical preacher and activist, has come out (so to speak) for the “full acceptance of Christian gay couples into the Church.” Campolo has long argued for more tolerance of gay people but has always stopped short of a full-blown “open and affirming” position.

Perhaps more interesting, David Neff, the former editor-in-chief of Christianity Today, has affirmed Campolo’s affirming position. While Campolo has long been associated with left-leaning positions, Neff’s credentials in official evangelicalism are, from what I can tell, impeccable. In fact, Neff was one of the signers of the Manhattan Declaration, a statement by conservative evangelical and Catholic leaders that, among other things, condemned any change to the “traditional” definition of marriage.

Campolo and Neff join other inarguably mainstream evangelical figures such as ethicist David Gushee in moving to an affirming stance. Christianity Today was quick to disassociate itself from Neff’s views (though without condemning Neff himself), while other voices were more strident in their response.

Whether this indicates a “tipping point” in evangelicalism is hard to say, but when veteran leaders are reversing themselves (to say nothing of shifting attitudes among the young) it sure looks to me like the genie’s out of the bottle on this issue.

Does it matter if Jesus never returns?

A friend on Twitter asks:

“Will there be a point at which Christians accept that Jesus won’t return? 5,000 years? 10,000 years? When the sun consumes the earth?”

For what it’s worth, my view is that Christians don’t need to believe in a “literal” second coming. Eschatology, like creation, points to something that lies beyond the boundaries of normal, historical experience and thus escapes precise conceptualization or description. Just as the biblical creation story can (and should) be seen as a symbol pointing to a trans-historical reality, so can the stories of Jesus’ return, the last judgment, etc.

In the case of creation, what the stories point to is the absolute dependence of all created reality on its divine Source. Creation is not something that happened “once upon a time” such that, say, you could hop in the TARDIS and go back and observe it. Similarly, eschatology is not about events that will occur in the historical future. Rather, the eschatological symbols point to the destiny of all created beings and their ultimate consummation in and with God. What this will look like is not something that human beings can describe in any precise, “literal” way, since our language and conceptual apparatus are fitted for mundane, historical realities. But from a Christian point of view, the symbol of the second coming of Jesus provides a powerful assurance that our destiny is with the God who Jesus re-presented to us as a loving Parent, and not an implacable judge.

Obviously there are Christians who would take issue with this interpretation, and many people are able to reconcile the “tarrying of the Lord” with belief in a historical, this-worldly second coming. But I also think a view like that one I outlined has a respectable pedigree in the history of Christianity. Church fathers like Augustine and Origen recognized the highly symbolic nature of the biblical language about ultimate realities and did not insist on literalism. The function of the biblical symbols is to orient us to that inexhaustible fountain of love and creativity that Christian faith maintains is the source and goal of our being.

UPDATE: Here are some relevant posts from the archives:

A better hope

Jesus and the end: what if he was “wrong”?

Keith Ward at the National Cathedral

Maimonides on the Messiah

I’ve been reading a (heavily abridged) edition of Moses Maimonides’ (1138-1204) systematic digest and commentary on the Jewish law, Mishneh Torah, and found his discussion of the Messiah toward the end of particular interest. The Messiah, he says, is not some kind of supernatural figure, but simply a righteous king in the line of David who will reestablish Israel’s sovereignty and freedom from external domination.

Do not think that King Messiah will have to perform signs and wonders, bring anything new into being, revive the dead, or do similar things. It is not so.


If there arise a king from the House of David who meditates on the Torah, occupies himself with the commandments, as did his ancestor David, observes the precepts prescribed in the written and the Oral Law, prevails upon Israel to walk in the way of the Torah and to repair its breaches, and fights the battles of the Lord, it may be assumed that he is the Messiah. If he does these things and succeeds, rebuilds the sanctuary on its site, and gathers the dispersed of Israel, he is beyond all doubt the Messiah.


Let no one think that in the days of the Messiah any of the laws of nature will be set aside, or any innovation be introduced into creation.


Said the rabbis: “The sole difference between the present and the Messianic days is delivery from servitude to foreign powers.”


The sages and prophets did not long for the days of the Messiah that Israel might exercise dominion over the world, or rule over the heathens, or be exalted by the nations, or that it might eat and drink and rejoice. Their aspiration was that Israel be free to devote itself to the Law and its wisdom, with no one to oppress or disturb it, and thus be worthy of life in the world to come. (Book fourteen, chapters 11 and 12.)

I think it’s safe to say that this is very different from the prevailing Christian view of the “messianic age,” which is usually portrayed in frankly supernaturalistic terms. It’s also worth noting that Maimonides distinguishes the time of the Messiah and “the life of the world to come.” “The world to come” seems to refer to life beyond death, but this is distinct from the reestablishment of Israel under a just and pious king. The time of the Messiah is an entirely this-worldly affair, achieved through the “natural” means of politics, study, and obedience to the Law.

My (admittedly highly incomplete) understanding is that this is by no means the only way of thinking about the Messiah in Judaism, and that there are other, more overtly supernatural views. But Maimonides’ doctrine, in which the messianic age is not eschatological but arrives as a result of human effort rather than direct divine intervention, provides a striking contrast to the common Christian understanding.

UPDATE: Just a few further thoughts on this. I think this discussion highlights how the disagreement between Christianity and Judaism isn’t (just) about who the Messiah is, but what messiahship consists of. If you accept the criteria laid out by Maimonides, it’s obvious that Jesus was not the Messiah, since he was not a king who reestablished the sovereignty of Israel. In calling Jesus the Messiah, Christianity was taking a particular stance on what it meant to be the Messiah–something about which, as I understand it, there was no uniform consensus at the time. And this understanding was shaped by the particular details of Jesus’ life and death–and particularly the belief in his resurrection.

Christians have often talked as thought Jews’ unwillingness to embrace Christ was due to a kind of willful blindness, since he was “clearly” the fulfillment of their messianic hopes. But this dramatically undersells the extent to which the role of the Messiah as understood by Christianity drew on a particular selection and reshaping of ideas floating around at the time. Both Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity are ongoing traditions with their own ways of making sense of and appropriating the biblical material, including the idea of the Messiah.

Abusus non tollit usum

Christians who are understandably disillusioned with the Christian Right’s approach to politics sometimes draw what is–I think–an improper lesson from it. That is, since the Christian Right wants to use political power to implement an intolerant or destructive agenda, they infer that the problem is political power as such. Christian blogger Benjamin Corey seems to head in this direction in this otherwise sensible post criticizing the Right’s language of “taking back” the country.

Corey says:

If there ever was a time to talk about “taking the country back” it was the time of Jesus– but that wasn’t anything he was concerned with. Jesus spent his time rejecting political power and instead, invested into building an other-worldly Kingdom where the power-rejectors are actually the greatest. Jesus saw his Kingdom, not political rule, as being the solution to all the ills of earth.

Changing the world via political power will always be a future invitation that never fully materializes. But changing the world through investing in God’s Kingdom? That’s an invitation you can accept and experience right now.

And this is why Christians on both sides of the political coin often get sidetracked: whether we realize it intellectually or not, we have grown to see government and political power as being the answer to the world’s problems– instead of the Kingdom Jesus came to establish.

The problem here, as I see it, is that some problems actually do require the use of government and political power. For example, Social Security has kept millions of senior citizens and disabled people from falling into poverty, minimum wage laws ensure that workers’ earnings don’t fall below a certain level, environmental laws set minimum standards for clean air and water, the Affordable Care Act has significantly reduced the number of people without health insurance, etc.

Now, I fully agree that none of these efforts, singly or collectively, has ushered in the Kingdom of God. But does that mean they aren’t important or were somehow not worth doing? That hardly follows, and it’s a weird sort of ethics, Christian or otherwise, that would be indifferent to such outcomes.

What seems to be driving a lot of this anti-political sentiment is a form of Christian pacifism wedded to what I consider to be a shallow analysis of political power. That is, people who have embraced a certain strain of Anabaptist-influenced pacifism sometimes conclude that all political power is inherently coercive in a bad sense and thus something that Christians should eschew. The problem is that social arrangements are always already structured by power (and thus “coercive” if you like).  So “opting out” of politics simply leaves those existing–and often unjust–power relations in place. The only way to change them, as Reinhold Niebuhr argued decades ago, is by an application of countervailing power. This doesn’t mean violence necessarily, but it does mean something more than sweet reason. (I’m not a pacifist myself, but there are meaningful distinctions to be drawn between “violence,” “power,” “coercion,” etc.)

Ironically, the progressive-pacifist analysis of government and power ends up looking a lot like that of right-wing libertarians, who regard any use of government to address social inequities as illegitimate “coercion.” This is probably a tip off that something’s gone wrong here. Political power is certainly prone to abuse. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a proper use.