By Pamela Eisenbaum
professor, Iliff School of Theology
People often ask me how I got interested in the apostle Paul. As a Jewish woman, why would I care? The answer is that the writings of Paul have greatly affected Christian attitudes towards Jews and Judaism throughout history, and mostly in a harmful way. So much so that most Jews who have written about Paul blame him for the origins of anti-Semitism. Wasn’t it Paul who rejected Judaism and converted to Christianity? And in the process, didn’t he cast Judaism as the worst kind of legalistic religion–devoid of any sense of grace or faith–and Christianity as the ultimate form of religion? Wasn’t it Paul who said “Christ is the end of the law” (that is to say, Torah), and argued that Christianity had superseded Judaism, so that Jews who still practiced Judaism were obsolete at best and damned at worst?
These were my views when I began teaching New Testament in a Christian school of theology. But I changed my mind after teaching Paul for a number of years. Earlier Christian and Jewish scholars had gotten it very wrong, and this has had disastrous consequences. As I argue in my new book, Paul Was Not a Christian, we must replace the traditional image of Paul with a newly discovered one–a Paul who never rejected his Judaism and certainly never condemned it.
Traditionally, Paul is believed to have transformed himself from being a strident Pharisee to being a believer in the grace of God through Jesus. This conversion meant that he would have rejected his Judaism and proclaimed that Christ had superseded the Torah. And this long-standing image of Paul-the-Convert led to a gross misinterpretation of Judaism. Paul’s message was never intended to be that Jews should abandon Judaism because of its alleged inadequacies. . Rather, he thought the gentiles’ religion was the problem–and he became convinced that Jesus was the way to fix it.
The experience of the resurrected Jesus led Paul to believe that the end of the world was imminent. The belief in resurrection was common in ancient Judaism, but it was envisioned as happening at the end of history to all of humanity at the same time, indicating the final judgment. Thus, when Paul experienced the resurrected Jesus, he assumed it signified the beginning of the general resurrection and the end of the world as we know it.
Paul’s religious transformation was not about his personal conversion; it was rather a major reorientation of what time it was in history. Before seeing Jesus resurrected, Paul thought he was living somewhere in the middle of the lifecycle of the world. But witnessing the risen Jesus led him to believe that the world was hurtling to its conclusion. This apocalyptic orientation is what ignited Paul’s self-understanding as the apostle to the Gentiles–the Gentiles needed to be converted from worshipping false gods to worshipping the one and only God in order to be “saved.”
People tend to read Paul as if he addressed his letters to a general audience, but he wrote to particular communities that were comprised of gentiles, not Jews. Paul says his mission was to proclaim Jesus to gentiles (in direct contradiction to the Book of Acts). In Galatians 1:16 Paul explicitly says that God called him in order that he “might proclaim him among the Gentiles…,” and in Romans 15:`8-20 he says his purpose is to “win obedience from the Gentiles by word and deed…”
It’s crucial to remember that Paul’s message was intended for this very specific audience. If one understands Paul’s message as having been addressed to specific persons–that Jesus only needed to save certain people–then Paul did not proclaim the “end of the law,” and he never envisioned Judaism as being superceded by Christ. The prophet Isaiah had said that Israel was meant to be a light to the “nations.” Paul was trying to fulfill that prophesy by being that light; as apostle to the Gentiles,, his mission was to turn them from idols to the one God before the final judgment–this hardly makes him the father of anti-Semitism.
Not only has Paul been misinterpreted as preaching an anti-Jewish message, he’s been misinterpreted to say that salvation comes exclusively through Jesus Christ, and that all who reject the gospel are damned. But that is not Paul’s message. From Paul’s point of view, Jesus has a specific role and was intended to benefit specific people. Jesus plays an important role in the cosmic drama of the world’s cataclysmic end, but Jesus is only part of that drama–not the be all end all.
Paul, then, becomes a model for Christians concerned with religious pluralism. I believe that his gospel did not proclaim Jesus as the one and only way. Perhaps someday modern Christians will see this too (a few already have), and will find Paul to be a scriptural basis on which they can confidently stake their Christian faith, while at the same time seeing others’ religious traditions as having no need of Jesus.
Pamela Eisenbaum is Associate Professor of Biblical Studies and Christian Origins at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado.