Paul Was Not A Christian, by Pamela Eisenbaum (Harper One, 2009). $15.99
Reviewed by J. Carl Laney
I was struck by the title, Paul was not a Christian, when I came across this book in a book catalogue. Of course I agreed! Paul was a Jewish man who embraced Jesus as Israel’s Messiah and Savior. But I was wondering how this thesis would be presented and defended. I bought the book and was pleasantly surprised.
The author, Pamela Eisenbaum, is a Jewish woman who on the faculty at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado. She teaches biblical studies and Christian origins. As a practicing Jew, she offers a unique perspective on the origins of Christianity. She was a student of Professor Krister Stendahl at Harvard and recognizes him in her “Acknowledgments” and quotations throughout the book.
That Paul lived and died a Jew is the essential claim of the book. This is contrary to the understanding of nearly all Jews and most Christians. Most people believe that Jesus rejected Judaism and started a new religion. And if it wasn’t Jesus, it was most certainly Paul. Eisenbaum believes that Paul is representative of the Jews who produced most of the writings of the New Testament. They were Jews who believed in Jesus, but did not proclaim their religious identity as Christians. The twelve apostles and the apostle Paul were Jews ethnically, culturally, religiously, morally and theologically. They continued to visit the temple for worship and prayer (Acts 3:1). They attended synagogue services and encouraged other Jews to recognize (Acts 13:14, 14:1, 17:1).
Eisenbaum explores how Paul “became a Christian” through the centuries as a result of historical developments with the church as many early church leaders came to reject the Jewish people because they had rejected Jesus. Constantine played a significant role in this as he enacted laws forbidding “Christians” from worshiping on the Sabbath or participating in Passover. Anti-Jewish preaching by such notable figures as John Chrysostom and later Martin Luther served to solidify the divide between Jews and Jewish followers of Jesus.
But didn’t Paul get “converted” on the road to Damascus (Acts 9)? Doesn’t that suggest that Paul abandoned his Jewish faith and became a Christian? Following Stendahl, the author argues that the language of “call” better captures Paul’s Damascus road experience. When Paul came to recognize Jesus as Israel’s Messiah, Christianity did not yet exist as a separate and distinct religion. On the Damascus road, Paul received a special call from God to carry the message of Jesus to the Gentiles. But at no point in his life did Paul leave Judaism. For Paul, recognizing Jesus as Israel’s Messiah was simply “the full blooming of his Jewish faith” (Marvin Wilson, Our Father Abraham, p. 46).
In chapter 10, Eisenbaum discusses Paul’s view of God and concludes that he was a “radical Jewish monotheist.” She shows that Paul’s understanding of the trinity was not a departure from his monotheistic Jewish faith.
In chapter 12, Eisenbaum discusses Paul and the Law arguing against the traditional understanding that Jesus has replaced the law. She believes that the law was given by God as a “guide to living,” never a “way of salvation.” Chapter 13 deals with Paul’s teaching on justification through Jesus Christ and reflects a “new perspectives” understanding of justification–through the faithfulness of Jesus rather than faith in Jesus.
I found this book to be thoughtful, well researched, engaging and helpful in correcting misconceptions held by Jews and Christians (both liberal and conservative) regarding the Apostle Paul.