Sunday, February 21, 2010

Paul Was Not a Christian

I'm reading Pamela Eisenbaum's book, Paul was Not A Christian. The title itself will sell a lot of books! I wish I thought of it. Picking up the book my first thought was that I would be generally sympathetic to the argument of the book. And indeed I am. Her opening statement in her first chapter I agree with heartily, "Paul lived and died a Jew". 

However, as I begin reading into the chapters what I am finding is significant disagreement. I'll name a couple briefly. First, her insistence on using only the seven "undisputed" letters of Paul to the exclusion of Paul's other letters and the book of Acts seems to me short sighted. I know this remains the standard approach among many, but her explanation for only using the undisputed letters retreads old arguments that have been largely shown to be a product of modernity's overconfidence and ironically now seem old fashion, although her view is that to take a more maximalistic approach is really old fashion.

Related to this is the second point I have a problem with already and did I say I'm only in the third chapter. She believes that the traditional portrait of Paul the convert would have been less likely to have arisen if Acts and the Pastoral epistles were not used by Christians as evidence for Paul. I'm not going to make a sustained case against this here, but her assertion is just not true. I will just address her handling of Acts as an example of the weakness in her discussion. I have two points. First, Paul's "conversion" in Acts is not described in terms of a conversion. We just looked at this in my Paul class last week. In each case, Luke fashions the narrative as a "calling" scene. Dramatic changes take place and Paul does a complete 180, but he is commissioned for a task in each of the three narratives where Paul's story is told (chs 9, 22, 26). Second, she doesn't seem to notice that Luke portrays Paul as a Torah-observant Jew in much of his narrative. One need only highlight Acts 21 as a case in point. So, while I agree that many have misused Acts to create the false caricature of Saul Paul converting from Judaism to Christianity, it is not because there is something inherent in Acts that is not in the "undisputed" letters. 

I'm sure there will be much that I'll like in this book, but there are significant problems with the book. I'll keep you posted.


Jeremy said...

Why don't you think Paul converted?

Michael F. Bird said...

Joel, I've got this book too and my thoughts were much the same. I would say that "conversion" is an appropriate term if you say Paul converting from the Pharisaic sect to a messianic sect within Judaism.

Steven Coxhead said...

In Acts 26:20 Paul uses epistrepho of Jews and Gentiles converting to God. So, on the basis of that, I think that Paul would agree that it is appropriate to use the term conversion for him becoming a Christian, just so long as we realize that from his perspective he didn't stop being a Jew after becoming a Christian.

wggrace said...

I am currently struggling through what seems to me to be a very worthwhile book on election in 1 Peter. In it the author repeats something I first read in FF Bruce, that some are elect not so that others are damned but so that others may be blessed. This can be applied to Israel and reagrd their election as the means by which God was to bless the world. Part of the accusation of Paul against the Jews in Rom 9-11 seems to me (if I have understood NTW correctly) to be their seeking their own blessing rather than being the means of blessing others. Now at the risk of seeming to Michael to be rabbiting on a hobby horse, 2 Cor 5:21 may be seen in this light. The consequence of the gospel is that we become ‘elect’ that is the chosen means of being the blessing to the nations. If this is the case, the distinction between conversion and commissioning is very small indeed. To be converted is to take on the role God has for his people to be a blessing to the world. This is what Saul of Tarsus did on the road to Damsacus; he took on the role of bringing blessing to the world. He ‘converted’ from a ethnocentric understanding of God’s election to an ‘ethnofugal’ if there is such a word.

Keithrils said...

I think that my understanding of most of what you just said proves I am retaining at least some information in your class. Maybe you should require us to read this text!

arielle said...

Good Morning Joel,

Reading through this post and others, I am very eager to add you to my list of reviewers. First of all, my name is Arielle and I work for a small publicity company who represents Christian authors. I read through many blogs looking for the best possible readers for my authors. I would like to send you George Garlick's recent book, The Journey to Truth. You can check it out at and see if it's something you'd like to dig into. I hope to hear from you soon.

Arielle Roper
Media Relations
Bring It On! Communications