Introduction: Paul Was Not a Christian

Derek Ouellette —  January 18, 2010

Over the next three Mondays – since Mondays are, after all, Theological Mondays – we will be exploring Pamela Eisenbaum’s book, Paul Was Not a Christian; beginning with an introductory post (present), two summary posts laying out Eisenbaum’s case, and a concluding post with some critical reflections of the good and the bad in her arguments.

Paul Was Not a Christian is by nature a polemical book and so we’ll treat it as such.

Introductory Remarks:

The Christian Perspective: The Apostle Paul was in a previous life (as Saul) a legalistic Jewish Pharisee of the strictest sort – he was a zealot. But he was also a man plagued with a guilty conscience who endeavored by all works to attain a status of “righteous” in the eyes of God, that is, until he had an encounter with Jesus in the famous road to Damascus incident.

At that point Paul came face to face with his own sin and the sin of Judaism. He discovered that justification was attained by believing in Jesus and not by religious works of the Law. Paul repented of his previous life in sin and confessed Jesus as Lord. Turning to Jesus meant turning away from Judaism, i.e. Paul converted from the sinful works based religion of Judaism to the faith based religion of Christianity.

That Perspective Questioned: This scenario I just described is, according to Eisenbaum, an extremely prejudicial reading of Paul. Filled with typical Western Christian biases, we have become so accustomed to thinking of Paul a certain way that when we read the scriptures we read into them our own preconceived notions.

Contrary to our own prejudicial reading of Paul, Eisenbaum argues that Paul was not nor did he ever convert from Judaism to Christianity since, to point out the obvious, the word “Christian” was completely unknown to him.[1] We should rather speak of Paul not as a man “converted” from one religion to another, but as a man who received a “call” much the same way that Jeremiah or Isaiah in the Old Testament were “called”.

Paul’s encounter with the Jewish Messiah led him to believe that it was now the eschatological time for the nations to come into the fold (thus his title as “Apostle to the Gentiles”). “If all people were potentially children of God, Jews and Gentiles must now be considered part of the same family”, and this way of talking about Paul, thinks Eisenbaum, “can be used productively for thinking about religious pluralism.”[2]

Next week we will summarize Eisenbaum’s arguments for How Paul Became a Christian. The following week we will summarize the case she makes for claiming that Paul lived and died a Jew. The final week we will conclude this review with some critical reflections.

[1] Paul Was Not a Christian, p.2

[2] P.4

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Derek Ouellette

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a husband, new dad, speaker, writer, christian. see my profile here.
  • Eric Gregory

    “Christian Perspective”: 0
    “That Perspective Questioned”: 1

    The typical Christian perspective that is offered is not only overtly Reformed (which I have trouble with, but we can save that for another day), yet does complete injustice to the text itself. Paul certainly did not see Judaism as”sinful”, nor Judaism as a “works-based” religion that needed “replacing”. There are misreadings of Romans and other books that one could shake together an argument in favor of an anti-works-based mindset, but, as that is not what Judaism was (it was set up by God, remember?). Yet one has to go pretty far out on a limb and completely disregard the 1st Century Jewish mindset as well as texts like Romans 3:1-3, which serve to help make the argument that there is nothing wrong with being Jewish, while the rest of the chapter and beyond help to assert that both Jews and Gentiles are to be one, united under a new and better covenant the outward sign of which is baptism instead of circumcision (as the circumcision is now of the heart). Paul’s argument elsewhere that there is neither Jew nor Greek serves to show that there is simply no longer a difference between peoples – the Gentiles aren’t apart from the Jews any longer (which was what the old covenant had in mind – ritual, etc. was not meant to “justify”, but to set apart as different).

    Paul was a Jew who understood that the Messiah had come (indeed, the word “Christ”, meaning “Messiah”, means absolutely nothing unless we understand, as Paul did, that Christ is the culmination of Judaism and didn’t come to establish a new religion, but continue the only true one). Judaism isn’t and wasn’t bad, and had little to do with justifying oneself before God (which is the case for Christianity as well – justification happened and will happen, eschatologically, it is not a part of the salvific process aside from Christ’s work on the Cross). N. T. Wright’s “Justification” discusses this quite well.

  • Derek Ouellette

    Good thoughts Eric.

    I’ve read Wrights work on Justification. He subscribes to Oscar Cullmann’s principle of already/not yet. As Wright puts it, we are justified in the present in anticipation of a future justification based on works (paraphrased).

    I agree.

    Justification is not just a present matter (as Reformers usually say), nor is it just as future matter (as is often the claim of Catholics), but both. The issue is not “either/or” but “both/and” or rather, Already but Not Yet.

    I plan to write a post in the future on Justification and look forward to your thoughts.

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