Now I'm getting the chance to read books I didn't have time for before. Think of me whenever you see the slogan "So many books, so little time!" Now I've got the time. Cheers, Fred.
Paul Was Not a Christian: The Original Message of a Misunderstood Apostle
- Book Type:
Pamela Eisenbaum, with a doctorate from Columbia, is an associate professor of biblical studies and Christian origins at Hiff School of Theology in Denver, CO. As a practicing Jew teaching at a Christian seminary, she serves as media expert on early Christianity. She has a unique perspective on the origins of Christianity.
This hardback’s back cover has this brief description: “Paul is traditionally portrayed as a zealous Jew who persecuted the church until he had a conversion experience and became an unstoppable preacher of the Christian gospel. In Paul Was Not a Christian, leading scholar Pamela Eisenbaum persuasively argues that Paul did not convert to anything, but remained a devout Jew who believed that Jesus Christ would unite Jews and Gentiles and fulfill God’s universal plan for humanity.”
A longer summary is on the book’s front flap, from which I take only her following quote (which came from her Introduction): “I write this book as a challenge to the portrait of Paul that has reigned for nearly two millennia. I intend to expose the bias embedded in the traditional portrait of Paul and the way in which it has contributed to gross misrepresentations of Judaism and played no small role in the history of anti-Semitism. At the same time and just as important, I intend to demonstrate that I can explain Paul’s letters compellingly and thereby construct a more credible and more persuasive portrait of Paul for readers interested in having a better grasp of Paul’s life and work.”
The Amazon.com website for this book is
I recommend the reader to use the online option Click to LOOK INSIDE to read the Table of Contents, and then scroll down a bit to read her 4-pp Introduction. Available online are the first two pages of Ch. 1 (Was Paul Really Jewish?) and her 2-pp Glossary at the end of the main text.
As she correctly emphasized, to understand any New Testament material, it is essential that one take into account the context of the time of writing by Paul – about the middle of the first century C.E. The disciples of Jesus were all Jewish, as were nearly all his followers in Israel. As Eisenbaum explains in great detail, Paul remained a faithful Jew who saw his mission as spreading the gospel of Jesus to the Gentiles outside of Israel. If the book’s title shocked you, it was intentional, for it should be realized by all reasonably well-informed readers of today that Christianity did not break away from Judaism until decades after Jesus’ and Paul’s missions – at times when followers of Jesus considered themselves as a special group within Judaism, long before the term Christianity was used for this breakaway group. Thus Paul, as well as Jesus and Jesus’ apostles (who were spreading the word of Jesus mainly in Israel), were all Jews who also followed the Way lived and shown by Jesus’s life in Israel.
By Ch. 12 Eisenbaum has built up to the significant points, which I provide using quotes: “Thus far in this book I have tried to locate Paul thoroughly in the world of ancient Jewish life and thought by showing that his own identity as a Jew was never compromised and that his mission and teachings were grounded in typical Jewish ways of theologizing. Having said that groundwork, my goal now is to propose a new framework for understanding Paul’s teaching about Torah, a framework that has already been under construction for about thirty years. I will call the scholars who have pioneered this new way of looking at Paul radical new perspective scholars, or ‘the radicals’ for short. I will articulate five principles to keep in mind as a kind of tool set to use when interpreting Paul.” The first four principles were in italics in Ch. 12 – I quote her use of italics below within single quotation marks; the fifth principle is my summary of Ch. 13. Statements after a principle are quotes from her discussions.
- 1. ‘Paul’s audience is made up of Gentiles, so everything he says about law applies to Gentiles, unless specified otherwise.’ This is an extremely important point, because the vast majority of Paul’s negative statements about the law are easily explained by the fact that Paul is addressing a Gentile audience.
- 2. ‘Torah is for Jews but provides a standard for all.’ …Since Gentiles could not follow it [the Jewish law of Torah], God had to find an extra-systemic means to incorporate Gentiles into God’s family. That extra-systemic means was Jesus Christ.
- 3. ‘The law is not meant to condemn humanity; it serves a positive pedagogical function.’ …For the Gentile, the law brings knowledge, but it does not bring relief.
- 4. ‘The doing of good works is not the opposite of having faith.’ …When Paul claims that justification cannot come from works of the law, it means Torah does not benefit Gentiles, at least not in the way it benefits Jews.
- 5. Just as the gift of Torah required a faithful response from Israel, the gift of Jesus required a faithful response from Gentiles. ...Belief, insofar as it is a kind of mental assent to a particular theological doctrine, is not what Paul meant by faith, and it was not simple belief that would ensure one’s justification. Paul contrasts faith and works in order to demonstrate that Gentiles are ‘off the hook’ for law observance.
In Ch. 14 she ends the book with the following: “There is nothing that forces a reader to understand Paul as saying Israel – that is, Jews – must convert to Christianity to be saved. There is no reason why one must interpret Paul’s message that ‘all Israel will be saved’ to mean that Israel will convert, as has traditionally been the case. For that matter, there is no reason to interpret Paul’s description of the ‘full number of Gentiles’ as meaning just some people. It seems to me a plainer reading of the text to say that when Paul said ‘all’ he means all. I think everyone can agree that Paul’s message was about grace. Why is it necessary to put limits on this grace? Let’s let Paul’s message of grace stand as it is. It seems to me a great start for thinking about religious pluralism. But that is for another book.”
This book was written in a very thorough academic style, as evidenced by its 36-pp Notes, 9-pp Bibliography, and 14-pp Index. The Notes are not just references but contain much valuable material. However, I found her discussions to be repetitious – it seemed that whenever I came to a paragraph that began with “On the other hand” I found the same points basically reworded, and sometimes also followed by the initial statements. Such repetitions are important when giving a lecture but can induce sleep when reading a book. For this reason it took me longer than expected to finish this book – I did admire her thoroughness but not her repetitions. I fell she makes her points about understanding Paul, in the context of his time, quite well, but I rate her book at three stars. I rated book 380 (The First Paul: Reclaiming the Radical Visionary Behind the Church’s Conservative Icon by Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan) at four stars, for they covered the same issues but I enjoyed their book much more; I would have given it five stars, except their lack of an Index cost them a star.