Summary 1: How Paul Became A “Christian”

Derek Ouellette —  January 25, 2010

Click here to read the introduction to this series on Pamela Eisenbaum’s book, Paul Was Not a Christian.

Pamela Eisenbaum contends that Paul was not a Christian. That the early church began to “Christianize” Paul, that Augustine solidified Paul as the model of all Christian converts and that Luther “more than anyone else… definitively established the framework for reading Paul” [p.49] as a Christian convert on the basis of the doctrine of Justification by faith.

Running alongside the Christianization of Paul, argues Eisenbaum, is that notorious hatred and stereotyping of the Jewish people as the “agents of the devil [who have been] in opposition to Christianity” [p.48] – anti-Semitism.

Eisenbaum’s basic premise is that…

Paul was not a Christian – a word that was in any case completely unknown to him because it had not yet been invented. He was a Jew who understood himself to be on a divine mission. [p.4]

She sets forth several arguments to make her case:

1. Argument of Authority – Paul vs. Acts & Not all Pauline Letters are Paul’s Letters

Acts vs. Paul: Eisenbaum makes a case arguing that the book of Acts cannot be used as a reliable source for knowing the true Paul:

  • Paul did not write Acts. Not only that, but she goes so far to suggest that in all probability, Paul did not even know Luke (an unknown author), since – according to Eisenbaum – the book of Acts was written sometime late in the first or early in the second century.
  • The genre and purpose of Acts is different than Paul’s, “the author of Acts had a different agenda than Paul” [p.12]. Acts is a historical book and a reliable and very useful source, but only in the ancient sense, not in the modern sense.

It is an extremely rare privilege to have direct access to the words of a figure from biblical history, never mind a figure as historically significant as Paul.  I am most interested in Paul’s self-understanding. [p.16]

Paul’s self-understanding comes from his own letters, not from a biography written by a later Christian named Luke decades after his death. To know Paul we need to know his own letters.

Not all Pauline Letters are Paul’s letters: This brings up the question of which letters did Paul actually write verses which letters are attributed to him but have been written by someone later. For Eisenbaum, “the correct answer in this book is seven. They include the following: Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon” [p.16].

Her reason for limiting Paul’s letters to these seven only is due to their credibility as the “undisputed epistles”. Since the remaining epistles of Paul have been in dispute in recent centuries we cannot be sure that Paul actually wrote them. Therefore their credibility is dubious. If we want to know what Paul actually thought, we must turn to the sources that we know he wrote.

2. Argument of the Early Church Assumptions:

Eisenbaum argues that the early Church leaders mistakenly assumed that the “pastoral epistles” attributed to Paul where actually written by Paul – an assumption that “is now disputed by the majority of biblical scholars” [p.33]. She cites other extra-canonical works ascribed to Paul which the early Church rejected, as evidence that not all of the letters floating around in the second century where written by Paul: 1. The Acts of Paul and 2. The Acts of Paul and Thecla.

In rebuttal to this second letter, the early Church Apologist Tertullian appealed to 1 Corinthians as a legitimate source of Paul. This being the case, it is evident that many in the early Church confidently knew which letters Paul actually wrote (in this case, 1 Corinthians) and which were forgeries, yet at the same time it is evident “that different Christians had different, competing images of Paul” [p.38]

3. Argument of the Development of “Paul the Convert”:

Through an accumulative process spanning four hundred years of memories, traditions (like his extracanonical death), the early ascription but later rejection of the book of Hebrews to Paul, and the recognition of Acts as the biographical telling of Paul along with the Pastoral Epistles (now generally rejected) resulted in one unified image of Paul as “Paul the Convert”. “Jesus may be the core of the Christian message, but Paul became the key to unlocking that message” [p.35]

4. Argument of Augustine and His Influence:

The Confessions of St. Augustine is surely the most well know biographical conversion story in history. Augustine was a man in conscience search of true religion, trying out various options before Romans 13 gripped him and led to his conversion. Augustine “may be credited more than anyone else with solidifying the image of Paul the convert in Christian tradition” [p.43].

Augustine saw his own conversion experience to Christianity mirrored in Paul’s (“supposed”) conversion (a struggle of the flesh and the spirit in Romans 7). So Augustine found in Paul a kindred spirit. Because of Augustine’s influence the experience of conversion became foundational to the Christian self-understanding.

Since Paul converted from Judaism to Christianity, Judaism must be an inferor religion. Eisenbaum observes:

Embracing Jesus meant embracing Christianity, and embracing Christianity necessitated the concomitant rejection of Judaism, where Judaism is the stand-in for the wrong form of religious expression in general.

So if Paul’s conversion experience is the prototype of converting to the true religion, then Judaism – of which Paul converted from – is the prototype of all other false religions.

5. Argument of Luther’s Anti-Semitism and Justification by Faith:

Luther’s conversion (which, some would argue, wasn’t really a “conversion”) is perhaps more well known on a popular level then Augustines.

Luther struggled immensely with “the Righteousness of God” and the fact that Luther was a great sinner. He was tormented day and night in his conscience, how was he to avoid judgement of a perfect and righteous and holy and just God, being the sinner that he is.

The answer came when studying Romans 1:17 when “it became clear to him the ‘righteousness of God’ did not refer to God’s own righteousness, that is, not as an attribute of God, but rather to righteousness that is imputed to the believer through faith”.

And without an ounce of notice two doctrines were born: Justification by Faith and the doctrine of imputation. It was Luther’s deeply troubled conscience that provided the structural foundation for the modern reading of Paul [p.50].

Again, Luther saw himself in Paul and deduced that Paul must have been a man deeply troubled in his conscience, a man bound to the proto-false-works based religion of Judaism, like medeival Catholicism. Luther the Catholic and Paul the Jew, both men converted to true Chrisitanity.

6. Argument of Paul the Saint:

Though this argument is actually just an extention of argument #1 (Not all Pauline Letters are Paul’s Letters), I felt it worked well for Eisenhbaum’s case to append it here.

If Christian tradition were solely dependent on the undisputed Pauline letters, it is difficult to imagine how the image of Paul the convert could have been constructed in the first place. Paul does not use the language of conversion of himself in his undisputed writings. He never even uses the language of repentance in reference to himself. Paul only uses such language to coax his Gentile followers to repentance [p.42].

So here is Eisenbaum’s challenge: if we believe Paul to be a convert from Judaism to Christianity we must prove it using only the seven “undisputed” letters. In those letters we do not find Luther converting from Catholicism (from law to grace) or Augustine writing against Pelagius (sin nature or no sin nature). No, we instead find a Jew on a mission to open the family of God to all Gentiles everywhere.

And this reveals a secondary agenda of Eisenbaum’s writing of Paul Was Not a Christian:

I think Paul’s theological orientation to the world can be used productively for thinking about religious pluralism [p.4].


Why was Paul not a Christian? Because the term “Christian” had not been invented by the time of Paul’s supposed “conversion”. Because Acts is not a reliable source for knowing Paul, and neither are the Pastoral epistles which present Paul as someone who knew he was a sinner in need of a savior. Because Paul never struggles with sin and the need to repent as Luther and Augustine did. And because Paul remained a Jew of Jews until the day he died.

Paul lived and died a Jew – that is the essential claim of this book. [p.5]

Paul became a “Christian” when Christianity grew and evolved into a distinct religion separate from Judaism. The Tradition of Christianity turned Paul into a Christian long after he passed away, but it was not so from the beginning.

Paul never thought of himself as leaving from (or being converted from) Judaism. In stead he thought of himself as having a prophetic call – as prophesied in the Old Testament – that when the Messiah would come then the Gentile nations would be gathered into the fold. This was Paul’s (very Jewish) mission to the Gentiles.

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Derek Ouellette

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a husband, new dad, speaker, writer, christian. see my profile here.
  • Derek Ouellette

    I just want to remind you that while I am reviewing Pamela’s book, I do not necessarily agree with her arguments or conclusions. My analysis and reflections will follow the two summary reviews (this post, and next mondays).

  • Eric Gregory

    I agree with Eisenbaum almost fully, though I don’t find it necessary to question the authenticity of some of the Scriptures we have attributed to Paul. I don’t think those that she excludes cast Paul in a different light.

    This flows from a deeper understanding of First Century Judaism (from N. T. Wright), and the rejection, based on the texts we have in Paul and those that are extracanonical, that Judaism was a “works-based” religion. Paul decrying the “works of the law” is not the same as the assumption most Protestants have regarding their rejection of a salvation based in “doing something to please God” because we can’t. Paul’s wording (and intention) has more spiritual depth than a simple dichotomy between works and belief (in fact, he too believed in a coming judgment based on works – oh no)! For Paul, both were intimately connected and he even saw benefit being a Jew (Romans 3).

    Christianity is an extension of Judaism, and not a new religion. If we don’t think Paul thought this way, we ought to take a much closer look at the Scriptures and perhaps pick up Eisenbaum’s book. (Which I plan to do.)

  • Derek Ouellette


    I agree with you. Amazingly Pamela Eisenbaum and other scholars which she takes her cue from (E.P Sanders and especially Krister Stendahl) make it an area of supreme importance to their case to reject the so-called “disputed epistles”.

    There are many reasons why they do so, not least the fact that when Paul describes himself in those epistles (as opposed to his biographical comments in the “undisputed” epistles) he avoids using certain words that may portray him as being converted in the Augustinian/Lutheran sense.

    For example, today people say, “Ask Jesus into your heart to receive forgiveness of sins”. This is a converson paradigm that – according to Pamela and Stendahl – Paul never knew in the undisputed epistles.

    Stendahl (who was Eisenbaum’s tutor) writes: “the word “forgiveness” and the verb “to forgive” are spectacularly absent from those works of Paul which are authentic and genuinely of his own writing” [Paul Among Jews and Gentiles, p.23]

    So they see this point of rejecting the disputed epistles as very pertinent to their case.

  • Eric Gregory

    I do understand why they feel the need to question the authenticity of those epistles (especially as historians searching for truth). I don’t feel the need to do so, and am comfortable with their inclusion in the canon of Scripture regardless of authorship.

  • Josh


    Eh Derek, while reading your review I was reminded of this book at Chapter I saw? Have you heard about it/seen it already? I thought it might be an interesting work to read along with Paul Was Not A Christian.

    How Jesus Became Christian – Barrie Wilson

    And I just found this one too:
    Jesus Was Not A Christian – Arnim ‘von Brachdte’

    Another one I started reading (but was to busy with school to get past the first chapter) is:
    Misquoting Jesus = Bart Ehrman

    Let me know if you’re familiar with any of these? And any thoughts?

  • Derek Ouellette

    Hi Josh,

    Thanks for the recommendations. Here’s my initial thoughts:

    I don’t take ‘Jesus Was Not a Christian’ as a serious read for two reasons. 1. the author does not take seriously any of the biblical text (Eisenbaum does) 2. He is aggressively anti-christian in his approach (Eisenbaum is not).

    ‘How Jesus Became Christian’ is a work that is built on a premise completely at odds with Eisenbaum. Where Eisenbaum says that Paul was not a Christian, Wilson says that Paul found Christianity – totally different perspectives.

    I have not read Misquoting Jesus by Ehrman. But I have read Misquoting Truth by Timothy James – a response to Ehrman. My criticism is the same. Ehrman does not take seriously the biblical text.

    One thing I like about Eisenbaum is that, while she does not agree with Paul’s perspective, she has at the very least proven herself a very capable biblical scholar. For example, she accurately expounds on Philippians 2, Galatians 2 and Romans 3 and states boldly that the reason Paul and the early Christians thought this way about the man named Jesus is a mystery to her. I can respect that.

    In short, I’m not too interested in these works. If I ever get around to reading them they are very low (double-basement low) on my list.

    • Josh

      Yah. :)

      I like it when people from different perspectives (other religions or secular) are willing to be even-handed when studying subject. Even though, they admit they’re biases… They want to truly weigh out the different sided of the topic, rather than to just start preaching their worldview.

      For her (in the midst of a Jewish heritage) to state “boldly that the reason Paul and the early Christians thought this way about the man named Jesus is a mystery to her” is to be respected. Intellectual and self-reflective honesty is needed within these topics. There’s been enough ad hoc, straw-man arguments made on all sides.