Wednesday, December 29, 2010

How Jewish is your Paul?

Paul Was Not a Christian: The Original Message of a Misunderstood ApostleAt initial glance many readers might find the title of Pamela Eisenbaum's recent book, Paul was not a Christian to be offensive. "What do you mean, Paul was not a Christian?! Paul is not only a Christian but he is the premier Christian." Eisenbaum's intention is not to rob believers of their beloved Apostle, but to understand him in a more historically accurate way.

Typically, Paul's story is told something like this:

Paul was originally a zealous Jew who was persecuting the church, until something utterly miraculous happened: the resurrected Jesus appeared to him. This revelation led to Paul's conversion from Judaism to Christianity, from being a zealous Pharisee to being an unstoppable preacher of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Once converted, he realized the futility of Judaism, with its endless demands of the law, and rejected it. [pg 2]
In contrast, Eisenbaum argues, "Paul lived and died a Jew" [5].

After setting the terms of her discussion [chap. 2], Eisenbaum explains how Paul has come to be read through the lens of conversion from Judaism to Christianity. The chief contributors to the misreading were Augustine and Luther who mistakenly read their own religious experiences into Paul's letters [chap. 3]. Then, she provides a brief history of Paul's relationship to Judaism in recent research that culminates with New Perspective (NP) interpreters [chap. 4]. Though she appreciates what the NP has done for reading Paul as a Jew, Eisenbaum wants to take the NP further into a "radical new perspective" [66]. Her problem with the NP is that she sees it reinforcing too sharp a distinction between Paul prior to his Damascus encounter and afterward.

In order to substantiate her radical new perspective, Eisenbaum spends a few chapters clarifying what Second Temple Jews believed and how porous their social boundaries could be. She begins by describing the common features of the various strands of Second Temple Judaism [chap 5]. She focuses on monotheism, election and Torah as key defining features. She also argues against reading personal redemption as a major feature of Second Temple Judaism. Whereas "Christians assume that personal salvation is the fundamental question of religion—all religion. . . . there is no notion of eternal life . . . in the Hebrew Bible" [89]. Jews were not concerned with life after death because they assumed that the creator God would bring them redemption in history. As a result, they were more concerned with defining Israel–God's chosen people—than salvation.

To follow her chapter on defining Judaism Eisenbaum addresses one of the chief concerns for Second Temple Jews, that is identifying who is in the people of God [chap. 6]. A corollary of this question is what will happen to those outside God's people – Gentiles. She argues that there was a wide variety of answers to these questions ranging from sectarian Jews who were militantly hostile to Gentiles (represented Jubilees and 4QMMT) to Jews who were highly integrated into Greek culture while still maintaining a keen sense of Jewish identity (represented most obviously in Philo). Moving from the general picture of Judaism, Eisenbaum narrows in on the Pharisees [chap 7]. She argues that the Pharisees sought to extended temple purity to everyone, but in more lenient ways than other groups. So, for the Pharisees "The table of every Jew in his home was seen as being like the table of the Lord in the Jerusalem Temple" [130], but their interpretation of purity laws tended to be more lenient than the priests who actually served in the temple. Here, Eisenbaum appeals mostly to the Mishnah and Josephus and then suggests that perhaps Paul's "more flexible view of Torah . . . derive[s] from his training as a Pharisee" [131].

If Paul is a Jew, what about those texts (esp. Gal 1.11-17; Phil 3.2-9) that emphasize the radical discontinuity between his life prior to and after Damascus? It is precisely this question that Eisenbaum addresses in chapter 8. Her answer is that these passages have been misread. The texts are contextually significant to Paul's argument regarding the divine source of his gospel (Gal 1.11-17) and his response to a less educated opposition in Philippi (Phil 3.2-9). So, "the apostle's mystical encounter with the risen Jesus cannot be used as the key to understanding Paul" [142]. In chapters 9-11 Eisenbaum offers her interpretation of Paul as a Jew. She focuses on Paul's Jewish presuppositions which are observable everywhere in his letters [chap 9]. She looks at Paul's monotheism as the key to his conceptual framework [chap 10]. Then, she looks at his specific calling and mission to go to Gentiles as a crucial part of understanding him [chap 11]. These chapters are well worth reading to see the continuity of Paul's thought with Second Temple Judaism.

Finally, in chapters 12-13 Eisenbaum turns to the crucial question of Paul's view of the law. How can she read the passages where Paul makes critical comments about the Torah (esp. Rom 7.5-6, 8-10; Gal 3.23-25; 5.2) in her radically new perspective? To respond to this question she makes five arguments:

  1. Paul's audience is composed of Gentiles, "so everything he says about the law applies to Gentiles [only], unless specified otherwise" [216].
  2. "Torah is for Jews but provides a standard for all" [219].
  3. "The law is not meant to condemn humanity; it serves a positive pedagogical function" [224].
  4. There is no inherent opposition between grace and doing good works [233].
  5. "Jesus saves, but he only saves Gentiles." [242]
So, Paul's disparaging remarks about the Law are not really disparaging the law per se, but rather refute imposing Torah on Gentiles. To impose Torah on Gentiles would be to deny the significance of Jesus' faithful activity on cross. But, Torah is still in effect for Jews.

The last chapter of the book responds to the critique that she is presenting a "two ways salvation" [251]. She argues that her view is only a "two ways salvation" from the traditional perspective. Her radically new perspective argues that Paul had no concern for personal salvation, but rather for the imminent redemption of the world. According to Eisenbaum, "Paul's question is, Now that the end of time is at hand, how will God reconcile all people, Jews and Gentiles, collectively?" She sees Paul addressing this question most directly in Romans 9-11, but she offers only a cursory interpretation of the passage [254-55].

I am convinced that Paul remained a Jew throughout his life. So, I agree with the basic thesis of Eisenbaum's book. Still, I consider many of her other specific conclusions about Paul to be incorrect. To put it simply, I radically disagree with the radical new perspective. Consider for example, her treatment of the Pharisees. Eisenbaum only presents the examples of more lenient Pharisees from late evidence and does not interact with the image of Pharisees as strict observers of Torah prevalent in the NT (privileging late sources over earlier ones). She also fails to account for the significant discontinuity in Paul's life after Damascus. Paul certainly saw himself receiving a new calling in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets, but the significance of Jesus in his thought is unprecedented (failure to explain the development of the church). She aligns with Hurtado in regard to Christology, but fails to explain how this might relate to Jews. Does Paul only care that Jews eventually recognize Jesus' significance for Gentiles or does he think that Jesus is the means of communal redemption for both Jews and Gentiles? I think Paul thought Jesus was more significant for Jews than Eisenbaum suggests. Lastly, it seems inconceivable to me that Paul only addressed Gentiles. In fact, the letters where he addresses issues regarding the law (Galatians and Romans) were probably filled with Jewish believers. How else does one explain Paul's extensive use of Jewish scripture to validate his arguments? Though I appreciated her new perspective I think it is too radical.

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