Two billion Christians still read the 2,000-year-old letters of Paul as spiritual guidance for daily living. So, controversial new books reinterpreting the life and legacy of Paul are tinkering with a sacred story that’s treasured in homes around the world. Most authors are well aware that they’re tangling with the holy—but they’re taking the chance that readers are open to at least consider serious new viewpoints on Paul.
This spring, we published a 2-part interview with Bible scholars Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, frequent faces on network-TV documentaries about the Bible. They had their own controversial new portrait of Paul to share.
TODAY, we’re introducing Bible scholar Dr. Pamela Eisenbaum, who is Jewish and also is a leading expert on early Christianity. She teaches at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado, which is a Christian
seminary. Her portrait of Paul takes more than 250 pages to describe in her new book, “Paul Was Not a Christian: The Original Message of a Misunderstood Apostle.”
In a nutshell, she argues against the common Christian teaching about Paul’s life, which presents him starting out his adult career as a deadly Jewish persecutor of Christians. In this traditional version of Paul’s life, he has a miraculous experience that causes him to convert to Christianity; he sees the error of his earlier Jewish ways; he leaves Judaism behind—and he became Christianity’s first and greatest evangelist.
Pamela Eisenbaum disagrees. Carefully reconstructing Paul’s world and his influences, she argues that: Paul was, indeed, a major figure in the world’s religious history and his message still holds essential spiritual wisdom for today. But, she argues, Paul “lived and died a Jew.” She writes that, rather than “converting,” Paul felt a strong prophetic calling from God to preach a new kind of message as a Jew. Paul thought the world would end soon. Jesus’ resurrection was a sign of that. Through Jesus, Paul believed, God was urgently calling all of humanity—including non-Jews—toward the God of Abraham. Rather than rejecting Judaism and trying to start an entirely new religion, Paul was radically trying to enlarge Judaism to embrace the whole world. Jesus was God’s gateway to bring this widely divergent world together: Jews through their faith and the rest through Jesus.
It’s going to be a troubling argument for many Christian readers who open her book. But she’s not posing this new interpretation of Paul to destroy his accomplishments. She’s trying to lift up a vision of religious pluralism that she believes inspired Paul’s tireless work. As she describes Paul, he had an amazing new vision of how Jews could be faithful to their own tradition, while welcoming the non-Jewish world into a spiritual community through the non-Jews’ faith in Jesus.
HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW WITH DR. PAMELA EISENBAUM
DAVID: First of all, seeing the title of your book, some readers may think you’re out to get Paul. Christians may think you don’t like their guy at all. And, to be honest: Many Jews regard Paul as a betrayer of his faith, right? Your argument in this book is going to be quite an eye-opener for a lot of readers. To put this simply: You like the guy. In fact, you regard Paul as one of the great religious innovators in world history. You’re impressed with him as a person. Is that all fair to say?
PAMELA: Yes, he was a visionary taking things in a whole new direction. In what he was doing, he had no real institutional basis from which to act. And whatever institutions he had to rely on, he was partially responsible for building. He’s amazing.
DAVID: Earlier, we published an interview with Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan about their own research into the life of Paul. I remember Marcus talking about how much he is impressed by Paul’s ability to persuade so many people to follow his new religious ideas. Here’s what Marcus said at one point:
Paul “sometimes had the face of a man—and sometimes the face of an angel. … There must have been something charismatic about Paul—and by that I mean, there was an almost contagious charisma about this man. People were struck by his presence, not that he was a Charleton Heston kind of a big, striking-looking guy. … With Paul, there must have been some way that people could palpably feel the presence of the Spirit when they were around him.”
That’s what Marcus said about Paul as a person. You’re also impressed with Paul’s abilities.
PAMELA: How Paul succeeded in doing everything he did is just incredible to me! I have trouble fathoming how he blows into town and successfully convinces people to follow Jesus. What he did is just extraordinary. There is no frame of reference for Jesus in many places Paul is traveling. Jesus traveled from Galilee to Jerusalem through the countryside. He didn’t travel far in his lifetime. But, Paul is a city boy and he travels in cities and he travels far and wide. And he has this incredible ability to convince people to accept these new ideas he’s bringing to them. Jesus is the foundation of Christianity, but we can say that Paul is a founder of Christianity.
PAUL DREW ON JEWISH SOURCES IN UNDERSTANDING GRACE
DAVID: Now, one of the big terms that Christian preachers associate with Paul is “grace”—the idea that God loves us and is willing to forgive us even though we don’t deserve it at all. Traditional Christian preaching says that’s the core of Christianity—and it’s a whole new idea. They say Judaism didn’t have anything like it.
You say: That’s wrong. Judaism had a profound appreciation of grace and Paul’s preaching expanded on that idea of grace in a daring new way. I realize that this takes you 200 pages to explain and, in this interview, we’re laying this on readers in brief summary. So, let’s share a tiny excerpt from your book here. You set this up by exploring the third chapter of the book of Romans. Then you write this …
FROM PAMELA’S BOOK: Paul’s message is that God has now extended grace to Gentiles. The apostle’s pounding on about grace is not because he himself had never experienced God’s grace as a Pharisee and he found it in his experience of Jesus. Paul knew of grace firsthand as a member of Israel, and now that history was coming to its cataclysmic end, Paul wanted to extend the same grace Israel had enjoyed to Gentiles. It was time for the ingathering of the nations, and Jesus, in his obedience, had accomplished what was necessary for Gentiles to participate; their sins would be forgiven, and they would be ready to stand before their Maker and Judge.
DAVID: In the book, you explain that this vision of gathering the nations wasn’t new to Paul. He comes out of a long tradition of radical prophetic voices.
PAMELA: He appropriates traditions in Isaiah, Zechariah and Micah. He’s somewhat like Jeremiah. These prophets talk about gathering the nations together. Paul envisioned all people coming together, which comes right out of the prophetic traditions. That gathering doesn’t imply that all people will be the same. But that vision is that people will be monotheists, so they are gathering around the God of Judaism. Paul is an agent of God delivering this message, bringing Gentiles to recognize the one true God, who they have access to now through Jesus. He’s bringing them into the family of Israel and that’s how he accomplishes his prophetic mission.
DAVID: You argue that it’s essential to understand that Paul saw the world as coming to an end. This was a very urgent message.
PAMELA: Because of Paul’s experience of Jesus, this leads him to have this apocalyptic orientation. In Judaism at that point, the understanding of resurrection wasn’t something that happened one person at a time. It was a final event and was related to the final judgment. It was God’s culminating moment in his relationship to the people of the Earth. So, Paul sees Jesus as the first fruits of the resurrection—and the rest of us are coming soon.
That apocalyptic vision is key to the rest of Paul’s thinking. It creates urgency about the questions: How does God relate to non-Jews? God is God of the whole world. But God has been known as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. What’s God’s connection with the rest of the world? There’s this kind of utopian vision in some of the prophetic literature that eventually all nations will stream to Jerusalem and worship the one God. We’re talking about a vision of an ideal, peaceful world.
PAUL AS A MODEL FOR INCLUSIVE RELIGIOUS COMMUNITY
DAVID: In the end, you’re arguing that Paul—rather than a fiery flashpoint for division—could actually serve as a model for inclusive religious community. That’ll be a stunner to a lot of readers, I think. Christians and Jews who engage in interfaith work tend to regard Paul as one of the last figures they want to tackle. You’re arguing that Paul really is a model of inclusion.
PAMELA: That’s absolutely right.
I really wanted to write an epilogue to the book on “Paul and Religious Pluralism.” I absolutely think that Paul could be foundational in building new bridges. He’s critical in Christian tradition. If you’re evangelical, you think Paul has THE message of Christianity.
But, Paul’s vision is much larger than we may think it is. I’d like to see a lot of new conversations start in diverse religious gatherings focusing on Paul as a figure of profound inclusion.
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