Paul Was Not a Christian: The Original Message of a Misunderstood Apostle

  • Pamela Eisenbaum
  • Aug 31, 2010
  • Series: Volume 13 - 2010
Book: Paul Was Not A Christian

Pamela Eisenbaum. Paul Was Not a Christian: The Original Message of a Misunderstood Apostle. New York: HarperOne, 2009.  xi+318 pp.  $24.99 hardcover.  ISBN 13: 978-0060722913.

The thesis of the book is that Paul should be understood as a Jew, not as a Christian, in order for anyone to understand him correctly. Paul had no intention to found a new religion in opposition to Judaism because he was not converted from one religion to another, namely from Judaism to Christianity, a bad one to a good one. Eisenbaum argues that Paul remained Jewish, even after his Damascus experience, in fact he was thoroughly Jewish all his life “ethnically, culturally, religiously, morally, and theologically” (9).

Then, where did Christian misunderstanding of Paul originate?  Eisenbaum points to the book of Acts as the main culprit because the book portrays Paul’s experience of encountering Christ as a conversion.  Eisenbaum seriously challenges the historical value of Acts as a primary source for the study of Paul mainly because it does not comport well with Paul’s own letters: “the portrait of Paul that emerges from the narrative in Acts differs markedly from the image Paul projects of himself in his letters” (12).  The six disputed letters are also of no value for the study of Paul’s identity because of their historical uncertainty.  Even within the undisputed letters of Paul, there are difficulties to interpret Paul because of ambiguity and contradictions, which Eisenbaum illustrates with several verses. Eisenbaum insists that these problems arise mainly “due to the inconsistencies between the traditional image of Paul” and “what Paul actually says in his letters” (31).  In chapter 3, Eisenbaum attempts to show how, in the Christian tradition, Jewish Paul became not only a Christian, but the Christian after his death.  Eisenbaum argues that the interpretive lens that the later Christian tradition came to use to read Paul was none other than his conversion.  However, this image of Paul did not come from his letters but from other (later) sources.  This image was perpetuated by Augustine and Luther whose experiences happened resembled Paul’s alleged conversion.  Therefore, “the introspective conscience of the West” (Stendahl’s famous phrase) became the framework that has guided the Christian reading of Paul over the centuries.

Eisenbaum proceeds to demonstrate that past attempts to read Paul as a Jew among modern Jewish interpreters of Paul was simply a reversal of the Augustinian-Lutheran reading; despite their attempts to take Paul’s Jewish identity seriously.  The New Perspective reading of Paul, however, is a different story.  The NPP (New Perspective on Paul) reading shows that Paul did not abandon his Jewish roots by rejecting the Torah but remained a faithful Jew.  Since the Judaism of Paul’s day was not a legalistic religion that required works-righteousness, Paul did not have to leave Judaism after he was “called” by Christ to be the Apostle to the Gentiles.  However, Eisenbaum is not satisfied with the NPP either because many of its proponents continue to view Paul in terms of the Augustinian-Lutheran framework.  She pushes further to go beyond the NPP to see the real Paul.  She proposes a radical new paradigm for reading Paul.  At this juncture, she only hints at how radical this new paradigm is by saying that the Torah is not applicable to Gentiles since Paul’s argument is based on the view that “God does not require the same things of all people at all times” (62).  This forms the basis for Eisenbaum’s argument throughout the book.

In the next several chapters (5-9), Eisenbaum painstakingly shows that Paul was basically a covenantal theologian committed to the Torah, by demonstrating that Paul was in line with the Judaism of his day. With the help of E.P. Sanders, Eisenbaum argues that Jewish covenantal theology established that the Jews are already justified because they are in the covenant (“participation in the covenant is salvation” [91]) and the Torah functioned not as an entrance requirement to the covenant but as a guide to remain in the covenant. Thus, the Torah was only applicable to Israel, not to Gentiles who were outside the covenant. In chapter 6, Eisenbaum insists that the traditional view that Jews were exclusive and hostile toward Gentiles was wrong and therefore, Paul’s outreach to Gentiles was not to be seen as a radical act. Chapter 7 also argues that the traditional image of the Pharisees, who maintained the strictest interpretive rules for the Scriptures, is wrong because in reality they were flexible in terms of interpretation. Paul still shows many traits as a Pharisee in his exegesis and application of the Scriptures in his letters. The only difference from a typical Pharisee that Eisenbaum can detect is Paul’s perception of the moving forward “the apocalyptic clock” (149) because of his experience with the risen Jesus. However, the experience Paul had did not change his theological core. He remained a typical Jew.

In chapters 10-13, Eisenbaum argues how Paul’s radical Jewish monotheism has led him to his mission to the Gentiles as their apostle. Eisenbaum asserts that Paul’s object of faith is not Christ, but God:  Not christocentric but theocentric. Christ was never on the same level with God for Paul, Eisenbaum argues, because Paul was a monotheist. Paul’s urgency comes from his understanding of the eschatological timeline as a result of his encounter with the risen Christ. He received his commission to preach the gospel to the Gentiles who were in danger of imminent judgment. But Paul’s commission is limited to Gentiles since Jews were already “in,” because they were in the covenant. Paul’s seemingly negative statements about the Torah should be understood in the context of his mission to the Gentiles who did not have to observe the Torah. In the urgency of the time, Paul came to realize that Gentiles needed a “short-cut” to the covenant of God to be included in the family of God. The death of Christ was only for Gentiles but not for Jews because they already have the Torah. This argument is well illustrated by Eisenbaum’s paraphrase of Rom 3:30: “Therefore God justifies Israel because of God’s faithfulness to the covenant, and God also justifies the Gentiles by means of Jesus’ faithfulness.”

Finally, in chapter 14, Eisenbaum finishes the book by naming her “radical new paradigm” to read Paul as “two-ways salvation” as proposed by Krister Stendahl. With this scheme, Eisenbaum envisions a type of universal salvation where there is no need for “conversion” from any religion to another.

This is a well-written and edited book. The sentences were succinctly written and difficult concepts well explained so that lay people can follow the argument of the book. But at the same time this feature makes the argument somewhat tedious for scholars who could become impatient (e.g., explanation of subjective and objective genitives) to get to the heart of the argument. I have found only four instances where certain scribal mistakes are made: on p. 165, “General speaking” should be “Generally speaking”; on p. 192 towards the bottom “subjective” should be “objective”; on p. 230, “prosopopeia” should be “prosopopoiia”; and on p. 234 in the third paragraph, ergou nomou should be erga nomou, and the second to the last paragraph, “ex ergon nomou” should be “ex ergon nomou.

As far as the argument of the book is concerned, there are many aspects that I agree with. Just to name a few I would include the following.  That Paul should be read as a Jew in a thorough way is something I cannot agree with more. There is no reason to deny his Jewish identity even after his encounter with the risen Jesus.  He simply couldn’t stop being Jewish and he did not need to do so.  Jesus was a Jew and all his first disciples were Jews.  I agree with Eisenbaum that Paul’s self-understanding as Apostle to the Gentiles stemmed from his commitment to Jewish monotheism, and that he understood his apostleship to “bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles” (Rom 1:5).  Further, the phrase “the obedience of faith” should be read in terms of the Shema. I am persuaded by the NPP that the Judaism of Paul’s day was not a religion of works-righteousness but a religion of grace. I also concur with Eisenbaum that the phrase pistis Christou should be translated as “the faithfulness of Christ.”

Now I have some points of disagreement. First of all, it is difficult to agree with the “two-ways salvation” that Eisenbaum proposes. While Eisenbaum points out that Rom 2:12-13 poses great difficulty for the traditional interpreters of Paul; she never discusses the second half of Rom 2, vv. 17-29, where Paul argues against Jews who possess the Torah but disobey it. The rhetorical effect of this section is so devastating that Paul had to insert Rom 3:1-8 to reaffirm the advantage of the Jew.  This itself is only a prologue to Rom 9-11. Also, what about 3:9? (“… for we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin”) If Jews are already justified and saved because of Torah, how can Paul say this? Also in 3:20, where Paul says pasa sarx (all flesh) will not be justified by the works of law, the expression certainly includes Jews. Again, in 3:23, “all” sounds like including Jews as well. Speaking of Romans 3, Eisenbaum’s paraphrase of 3:30 is quite arbitrary when she translates the Greek ek pisteos as “because of God’s faithfulness to the covenant” and then dia tes pisteos “by means of Jesus’ faithfulness.” Where is the warrant that the first pistis should refer to God’s and the second Christ’s? Isn’t it reasonable to see the definite article in the second phrase referring to the first pistis? Then, it is reasonable to think that Paul talks about only one way to justify both Jews and Gentiles: through pistis. In 3:22, where Paul says “there is no distinction” it is more natural to read “no distinction” between Jews and Gentiles since “all” have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (v.23).

Furthermore, Rom 9-11 is the discussion of the so-called Israelfrage that raised the fundamental question about the trustworthiness or faithfulness of God. The root cause of it is of course Israel’s rejection of Christ. If this is the problem that causes “great sorrow and unceasing anguish” in Paul’s heart, how can we say that Jews are safe and sound in the covenant and that they are already justified? Why does Paul then pray for their salvation in 10:1? If Jews have a special way (Sonderweg) for their own salvation, why does Paul say that Peter was entrusted with the gospel for the circumcised (Gal 2:7)? Why do they need the gospel? Paul argues that Israel stumbled and did not attain righteousness because she pursues it “not by faithfulness but as if by works” (ouk ek pisteos all hos ex ergon). I interpret this phrase as “not based on Christ’s faithfulness but on their ethnic privileges.” Israel needs to pursue righteousness by the faithfulness of Christ also. Paul’s argument in Rom 11:11-24 shows that he understands that Israel’s unbelief is only temporary but they will eventually catch up – (Rom 11:14) “in order to make my own people jealous, and thus save some of them.”

Concerning the pistis Christou interpretation, I already mentioned that I agree with Eisenbaum that the phrase should be translated as “the faithfulness of Christ.” It does not mean, however, that Paul does not talk about one’s need to “believe” in Christ. For example, in Gal 2:16, right after Paul says “a human being (anthropos) is not justified by works of the law except through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ,” he adds, “and we (hemeis) believed in Christ Jesus.” Paul talks about both the faithfulness of Christ and “believing” in Christ in those verses where the expression pistis Christou occurs. Also, here in Gal 2:16 the “we” is the same “we” where Paul says “we ourselves are Jews by birth not Gentiles sinners” (2:15). Paul believed that Jews also needed to put their trust in Christ for their salvation. When Paul uses the phrase pistis Christou in his letters, he uses it to indicate what kind of Christ both Jews and Gentiles put their trust in. It is the crucified Son of God who was willing to suffer and die for their sins that they should have faith in. There is a narrative sub-structure in the expression which culminates in God’s raising him up from the dead.

Eisenbaum argues that the Trinitarian theology was a much later development in the fourth century, and that Paul never perceived Jesus as God. Even confessing Jesus as Lord (kyrios) poses no problem because the term can be used of humans as well as God; just as doxa can be used for God as “glory” and at the same as “honor” when used for a man. In discussing Phil 2:6-11, Eisenbaum argues that the high exaltation of Jesus in vv. 9-11 is not problematic because it was done for the glory of God. However, she does not discuss verse 6 where Paul equates Jesus with God (“in the same form [morphe] of God… equality with God”). Along with Hurtado and others I see the pre-existent Christ here. Further, doctrine of Trinity cannot be considered as a later formulation but had an early development.

One last thing I would like to mention is that if we want to view Paul as a faithful Jew, why don’t we take his commitment to his Messiah Jesus more seriously? In other words, what is “the significance of Christ,” not only to him, but also to other Jews? Can we really limit the role of Jesus to the salvation of Gentiles in his thinking? Doesn’t he mean anything to Jews? In my own reading of Paul, the death and resurrection of Jesus are the foundations for his theology and the meaning of them is understood by Paul in a thoroughly Jewish way. To me the Christian Paul and the Jewish Paul are the one and the same. We don’t have to separate them. He was a Jewish apostle to the Gentiles for his Jewish Messiah, who was sent by one God.

I believe that this book is an important contribution to ongoing discussion on Paul, especially his Jewish world. There is much to be learned from the book, especially about Judaism in the ancient world, about Jewish covenant theology and monotheism.

Johann D. Kim, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of New Testament
Colorado Christian University
August 2010



Jimmie Hancock

I just recently completed reading Paul Was Not A Christian. It was not a quick read and certainly not enjoyable. As you say, Dr. Kim, there is much in the book to be learned about Judaism in the ancient world. Thanks for your review. I agree wholly with your conclusions. I realize the book is about Paul, but I kept wondering why so little was said about Jesus and what he had to say relating to his own people.