I’m deeply indebted to HarperOne, division of Harper Collins for providing this book, Paul Was Not a Christian: The Original Message of a Misunderstood Apostle, by Pamela Eisenbaum, for review.
Catchy title huh? It surely will cause most Christians to pause and pick it up. And pick it up they should. This is simply a new way (for most laypersons at least) of looking at Paul, apostle to the Gentiles, and commonly thought of as the major force in creating Christianity.
Pamela Eisenbaum, a practicing Jew, has all the credentials in the world, and teaches at a Iliff School of Theology in Denver. She is a biblical scholar with degrees from both Harvard Divinity and Columbia. She claims as mentor the acclaimed biblical expert Krister Stendahl.
Her premise here is a startling one for most Christians: Paul, far from renouncing his Jewish faith and “converting” as we are wont to believe on the road to Damascus, remained throughout his life a staunch Jew, follower of the Law. And, he preached the Lord Jesus Christ as savior. How can this be we ask?
Eisenbaum takes us through a long and detailed and clear explanation. Based on the work of what are known as the “new prospective” scholars and building upon that from the now “radical” new prospective scholars, Dr. Eisenbaum paints a convincing picture of Paul as a man thoroughly embedded in his Jewish heritage, and remaining in it to the end. Much of what has gone wrong in Pauline interpretation comes from reading him through a lens of “conversion,” a conversion Eisenbaum claims never happened.
Most all scholars today would agree that Jesus certainly never set out to create a church. He if anything, wished to reform Judaism. Dr. Eisenbaum argues that essentially Paul did the same, and for somewhat the same reasons.
In making her case, reference is made to the authentic letters of Paul, those seven that all scholars agree were written by Paul–Romans, Corinthians I, II, Galatians, Philippians, I Thessalonians, and Philemon. The rest are almost universally or substantially agreed upon as not Pauline in authorship and thus not fruitful for this discussion. This is of course nothing new.
She then traces a history of Second Temple Judaism, the time that Paul was alive, and determines what assumptions would have been his based upon the current belief structure of Pharisees of his day. Contrary to public opinion, Pharisees were not so much sticklers for adherence to the Law as they interpreted it, but rather they often interpreted it in ways that were novel and supported present day problems. IN other words they were opportunists of a sort.
Eisenbaum indicates that independent records show that Jews of this period did not consider Gentiles “unclean” or people to be separated from. They were more tolerant that we might suppose. They believed that Gentiles could follow Torah and such people were known as proselytes.
Her argument is that Paul, steeped in Pharisaic belief of the apocalyptic end times, came to see in his Damascus experience, evidence that the end times were upon them. He viewed his experience as his call from God to take the message to the Gentiles, that Jesus by his faithfulness, had justified the Gentiles in the same way that Torah justified Jews in righteousness.
In other words, time was of the essence. Jews had imputed righteousness through the grace of God in giving them Torah, which, even if badly followed, gave them the way to atone for sins. The Gentiles, having no such covenant, and being outside the covenant, had no means of atonement for the sins that they had accumulated. Following Torah was not enough.
Jesus, by his faithful obedience to God, won for Gentiles (the nations of the world as it were), that righteousness, that Jews received by virtue of the covenant. This explains why Paul was so adamant that such things as circumcision and dietary laws need not apply to Gentiles.
What is of critical importance, is Eisenbaum’s claim that Augustine, then Luther and so forth misread Paul, thinking he had condemned Torah as the way, and substituted Jesus as the only means of salvation. In this reading, then all Jews must one day convert to Christianity. This of course is the belief of many, (especially conservative) Christians today.
Eisenbaum makes clear that in order to read Paul correctly, one must keep in mind a number of things. First and foremost among them, is that at no time is Paul speaking to Jews. He is speaking only to Gentiles. Secondly Torah is for Jews, but sets a standard for all peoples.
Perhaps what will most alarm Christians is her claim that Paul did not see Jesus as God, but as God’s son, the one sent. Moreover, she would claim that Paul did not call Gentiles to worship Jesus, but rather to have faithfulness as Jesus had faithfulness.
She bases this conclusion on a lengthy explanation of the phrase pistis iesou christou. Because Christians have so thoroughly seen Paul as “converting” they have almost always translated this as “faith in Jesus Christ” rather than what she contends is the accurate translation, “faith of Jesus Christ.” Her claim is that Jesus expressed a faithfulness to God by his perfect obedience, and that Paul calls Gentiles to be “saved” by also following the lead of Jesus, and trying to imitate Jesus faithfulness.
Dr. Eisenbaum of course admits that even among radical new prospective scholars, there is still much argument. Her opinions and conclusions are not universally accepted. It is a new way of looking at Paul, and given Paul’s general difficulties, there will be years of new exploration ahead.
But indeed, this work is a must reading for anyone who wishes to understand that there is much yet to do in unpacking Pauline theology. The test will be, does Eisenbaum’s theory explain more satisfactorily than do previous paradigms. There have been, and perhaps always will be passages in Paul that are seemingly contradictory. This is in part the result that he no where sets out to put down his theology in any one place. We have letters, written over a fair stretch of time, often addressed to quite disparate problems. The theory that “solves” the most problems will be the one that finds most favor no doubt.
This is an important book in current biblical studies of Pauline theology. It is one that all, both scholars and laypersons can benefit from.
**As noted, this book was sent to me free of charge for purposes of review. No agreements as to contents of the review were discussed. The opinions here are strictly my own.