Reflections on Paul Was Not a Christian
In this final analysis of Paul Was Not a Christian it is important to keep in mind that Pamela Eisenbaum is also not a Christian.
And as Eisenbaum’s premise is that Paul was a Jew through and through, it is important to keep in mind that Pamela Eisenbaum is also a Jew through and through.
Pamela Eisenbaum does not believe that Jesus was God, and she teaches that Paul also did not believe Jesus is God because no Jew would believe this.
Pamela Eisenbaum believes that what the Messiah would do for Gentiles, the Law does for Jews, and she teaches that Paul believed that what the Messiah did for the Gentiles, the Law does for the Jews.
In this brief observation one begins to get the suspicion that Eisenbaum is guilty of the very thing she charges Augustine and Luther with; namely, of looking into the Pauline text and seeing her own reflection. She is guilty, in my opinion; of reading into Paul her own bias and seeing (as Luther did) what she wants to see.
From the start she states that without the work of the New Perspective scholars her book simply wouldn’t exist. And building on their work (which basically expresses the need to recapture Paul in his Jewish context), yet going beyond their work, Eisenbaum takes a radically new position: Jesus the Messiah did nothing to alter in any way Paul’s practices and beliefs as a Jew. The only significance of Jesus is that – in keeping with a very Jewish belief – the end of the world was near and it was time for the ingathering of the nations. That’s it. That the two people Jews and Gentiles are now one family. But the way into that family are not the same. For the Jew it is by Torah and a privilege of birth. For the Gentile, it is through the faithfulness of Jesus towards God.
In the end Pamela Eisenbaum admits that there is much work to be done and does not shy away from the fact that she avoided many difficult texts which will – in the future – either disprove or verify her belief. One of her errors – in my opinion – was in selecting some text to help her case while avoiding much of what Paul says that goes directly against it. For example, if Jesus was nothing of significance to the Jewish people, if he only redeems Gentiles, they why does Paul teach in Romans 11:16 ff. (after cautioning against anti-Semitism in Roman 11:1) that the natural branch (Israel of the flesh) was “cut off” and the unnatural branch (Gentiles) was grafted in?
Another more serious error is that Eisenbaum builds her entire case on the unproven premise and assumption that Paul’s encounter with Jesus had no effect on his understanding of monotheism, Torah and the state of humanity. Contrast this to the New Perspective which seeks to place Paul in his Jewish context and background and to recapture his “Jewishness” and worldview, while accepting the fact that Paul’s encounter with the risen Messiah had revolutionized certain Jewish beliefs which Paul previously held.
For example: Jewish apocalyptic work at the time believed that when the Messiah would come the resurrection would occur and the “Age to Come” would be ushered in, this included the ingathering of the nations. When Paul encountered the Resurrected Jesus he realized that the Messiah had come and this meant that the “Age to Come” had begun, yet at the same time (and totally unexpected, contrary to first century Jewish belief), that while the “Age to Come” had begun they were still living in “the present evil Age” [Galatians 1:4]. Both Ages were running side by side in Paul’s mind – and this contradicted any belief he held prior to his encounter with Jesus.
Another example (and one that is far more important to Christians) is how Paul’s encounter with Jesus modified his understanding for God. Eisenbaum recognizes how Paul seems to apply the revered Jewish Shema to Jesus, but dismisses this as a misreading based on her assumption that Paul the Jew would never accept the idea that God and Jesus are One. So here is an example where Pamela wants to see in Paul (or rather remove from Paul) whatever it is she assumes he would not believe being a Jew. Paul applies the Shema to Jesus this way:
|Deuteronomy 6:4||1 Corinthians 8:6|
|The Lord our God…||One God the Father…|
|The Lord is One||One Lord Jesus Christ|
Commenting on this parallel in Paul, N.T. Wright observes keenly:
Faced with that astonishing statement, one would have to say that if the early Fathers of the church hadn’t existed it would be necessary to invent them. [What Saint Paul Really Said, p.66]
In other words, though the word “Trinity” is a Christian term, it was a necessary term to invent to try and explain what it is Paul and others in the scriptures teach.
Another passage which Eisenbaum cannot wrap her mind around is Philippians 2:5-11 where he writes that Jesus was in very “form” God, the idea of which Pamela believes would be contrary to Paul’s aniconic (no image) monotheism – and yet here it is right in one of Paul’s “recognized” epistles.
There are many other passages to consider, not least Colossians 1:15-20 which states that Christ “is the very image of God” and that in Christ “all God’s fullness was pleased to dwell”. Two clear and explicit statements that violate Eisenbaums assumptions. However, I realize that now I have crossed over the line from the “recognized” to the “disputed” epistles. Pamela dismisses these works too quickly (and conveniently), because even scholars who reject their authenticity as coming from Paul’s own pen still readily admit that these works are beyond a doubt “Pauline”. This means that if they did not come from Paul himself (a big “if”), they certainly came from someone close to him and mightily influenced by him. Therefore they are still relevant in any discussion of Paul’s beliefs.
It can also be shown that Acts cannot be so easily dismissed in any discussion of Paul. Many solid books have been written to show this, the most recent I am aware of is Paul, His Letters and Acts by Thomas E. Phillips. My only point here is that the book of Acts has more relevance to Paul then Eisenbaum would like us to believe.
I found Eisenbaum’s book, Paul Was Not a Christian, useful in helping to stretch some of my assumptions about Paul. Perhaps her most important contribution to me was her discussion of “the faithfulness of Christ”, a view I have been exploring and which, it seems to me, the scriptures clearly affirm despite our traditional constructs.
However I think Eisenbaum goes too far, stretching here and there to find a Paul of her own making. There can be no doubt the place of Christ in Paul’s thoughts, for Christ shares the center of Paul’s theology with God because Jesus is God. Because Pamela cannot accept a) that Jesus shares the Shema with the Father and b) that his faithfulness towards the Father by being obedient to God on the cross was for the purpose of undoing the work of Adam – redeeming both Jews and Gentiles who will believe. Because she cannot believe these two things she will – in my opinion – forever be remised of the Apostle Paul who will forever be elusive to her.
The striking irony here is that Pamela Eisenbaum – as a committed Jew I suspect – fails to grasp the significance of the Hebrew testimony of the calling of Israel in the first place. It’s clear (as N.T. Wright shows in Climax of the Covenant) that Genesis 1-11 set the stage for Genesis 12, the calling of Abraham to be the answer to the problem presented in the first eleven chapters. And that Israel was set apart to be a priesthood to the whole world [Exodus 19:6]. Abraham and his offspring were called to be the representative of the Gentile nations, as the priesthood in Israel represented the entire nation of Israel. But Israel fails in its calling (dramatically played out in the Babylonian Exile) proving if anything that Israel is no more the answer to the problem then the problem itself.
But there is an answer to this problem found in the Hebrew testimony of Isaiah 40-55. Israel was supposed to be the answer and proved to be a part of the problem, she would not herself need a “true Israelite” to represent her. So what’s the answer?
Who has believed our message and whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed,
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering.
Like one from whom men hid their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our (Israel’s) sorrows, yet we (Israel) considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgression, he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.
All we like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. [Isaiah 53:1-7]
Paul saw Jesus of Nazareth, the Jewish Messiah, as the representative of Israel and also of the whole human race, the second Adam. And that is why Paul wrote Philippians 2:5-11.