A Question of Categories

Over on the Huffington Post, filmmaker Robert Orlando has posted his most recent comments related to his film A Polite Bribe: An Apostle’s Final Bid. I posted my reflections of the documentary after the 2012 showing in Chicago here.

In his post, Orlando writes about both the traditional Lutheran interpretation of Paul and the “necessary” and “overdue correction” of the new perspective on Paul, but goes on to provide his own critique of the new perspective. Unfortunately, his description of the new perspective is a little too broad, mixing together elements of the new perspective on Paul with the more recently defined perspective of Paul Within Judaism. He describes the new perspective with three broad brush strokes, writing that the new perspective proposed that:

a) Paul remained a practicing Jew, and was not a convert to a new religion,

b) that his mission was not to Jews, but to Gentiles only, and

c) that his fiercest statements against Jewish practices were not for the Jewish religion, but for fellow Jewish Apostles, who would impose their religion on Gentiles.

However, only the third point can consistently be said of the new perspective on Paul; the first two statements can more accurately be said of Paul Within Judaism, since proponents of the new perspective on Paul, though often preferring to describe Paul’s experience in terms of “calling” rather than “conversion,” typically do not argue that Paul remained a practicing Jew whose mission was to Gentiles only.

This category mistake is entirely understandable, given that until recently the Jewish and Christian scholars working from the perspective of Paul Within Judaism have tended to be grouped together under the rubric of the new perspective on Paul. One early attempt to articulate the demarcation can be seen in Pamela Eisenbaum’s book Paul Was Not a Christian: The Original Message of a Misunderstood Apostle, in which she used the term “a radical new perspective.” However, in the more recent anthology from Fortress Press, the scholars working from this perspective have decisively articulated their position as Paul Within Judaism.

In the remainder of Orlando’s essay, he argues that “it is reality, simply put, that Paul’s conversion was indeed a move away from Judaism.” In this, Orlando’s approach aligns rather cogently with that of James D. Tabor; its sharp distinction between Paul and Judaism is in some ways more reflective of the old perspective. And whereas I largely agree with Orlando’s and Tabor’s dramatic, compelling description of the rift between Paul and the Jerusalem apostles (a somewhat embarrassing historical fact for the church), that doesn’t mean that Paul’s positions must be understood as over against those of Judaism per se. Clearly Paul’s letters were increasingly interpreted in that way as Christianity developed and defined itself over against Judaism, but the key question is when that parting of the ways actually happened.

Mark M. Mattison

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  • Mark,

    We can quibble over the matter of the “New Perspective” or “Lutheran” and who is in and who is out – pun intended – as I will in a moment, but then, I would like to return to, what I consider to be the more important issue that my article (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/robert-orlando/itsethnicitystupid-apostl_b_6860988.html) raises, born of my post screening discussion at SBL (https://vimeo.com/120187977).

    Labels are pliable and I am not a big believer in them, but YES, “Lutheran” and “New Perspective” can be subjective at times. Having written that, I also believe that in the world of Pauline studies we are offered false choices. For example, to use an analogy in the field of science, one who is Einsteinian does not need to be anti-Newton. Rather, one can view Einstein as subsuming Newton is his new scientific paradigm. The same can be said for the Apostle Paul. His goal (revelation) was NOT to be anti Jewish, but pro Christ and the new kingdom, a new vision that would subsume Judaism as he understood it.

    Once the new vision is accepted, along with the corresponding new world view, the need for prior ethnic or cultural considerations become obsolete.

    In a prior review of John Gager’s book that I submitted to your site, I addressed this issue by demonstrating that Paul was clearly speaking to a Jewish audience, and also with the fact that Paul does not shape his views on Judaism based on a Gentile audience, BUT on his own experience, his “past life” as he refers to it. (http://www.thepaulpage.com/reinventing-paul-3/). As some one that does not carry the banner of “Lutheran” OR “New Perspective,” but understands the value of both, I suggest that using an ethnic lens to understand Paul’s early struggles is most inclusive of the biblical facts.

    And with that established, I proceed to my main point in the article that modern NT scholars (from my experience with screenings in US and UK) seem to want to sanitize the real and violent conflicts with Paul, his fellow Apostles, and the larger Jewish community. As I detail in my article, according to scripture, Paul is not a “take him or leave him” type of personality, but a ” we need to take him out” threat! Think of the level of threat, in the first century, that a group would need to pose to have a Roman army protect a target (Paul) from assassination.

    There was much more than “pushing and shoving” going on at the Temple, before the Sanhedrin, or on his way to Caesaria. Paul, whether you agree or disagree, was threatening the ethnic survival of a people, and this is why his collection was rejected, why his ministry lingered in endless conflict, and why he ultimately landed in jail. To these points, in my humble opinion, there is NO debate. My only question, which I believe after producing a film and writing a book, must be why is this common sense history so threatening to “Lutherans” or those of the “New Perspective?”

  • Robert, as always, there’s much that I think we have in common here — for instance, the recognition that “an ethnic lense” — or probably more accurately, as Stowers put it, the problem of the Gentile as “the ethnic-religious other” — is clearly “ground zero” for Paul’s conflicts (and not, as the traditional paradigm would have it, a philosophical dispute about divine sovereignty and human inability to merit divine favor). And though I hesitate to read Acts too literally as history, I think there’s broad consensus that “Luke” is already struggling to downplay the conflict between Paul and the Jerusalem apostles. Though he may not trace it quite as far as you have, Dunn does a nice job in Unity and Diversity in the New Testament of reading between some of the lines (despite the anachronistic language of “Christians” in Paul’s day):

    “Then when Paul was arrested and put on trial … Where were the Jerusalem Christians? It looks very much as though they had washed their hands of Paul, left him to stew in his own juice. If so it implies a fundamental antipathy on the part of the Jewish Christians to Paul himself and to what he stood for” (Trinity Press International, Second edition 1990, p. 256).

    So as you know Pauline scholars have widely recognized that conflict, though with your narrative methodology you’ve made the most of it and helped to bring out the raw human drama quite apart from the theological frameworks that many of us are primarily concerned with (which in itself is of course a welcome contribution to the debate). But several scholars working from the new perspective, the perspective of Paul and Empire, and the perspective of Paul Within Judaism (the distinctions, though perhaps inexact and overlapping in the work of some scholars, do matter, for reasons I’ll get to shortly) have proposed very plausible reasons for the volatile nature of the conflict (beyond just, as you put it, “pushing and shoving”; I agree that’s not where the debate lies).

    For example, writing from the perspective of Paul in light of Roman imperialism, John Dominic Crossan writes that “if [Paul’s] focus was on converting a synagogue’s sympathizers to Christianity, with the result of stripping from Jews their intermediary buffer of support and protection, that would be socially explosive” (In Search of Paul: How Jesus’s Apostle Opposed Rome’s Empire with God’s Kingdom, HarperSanfrancisco, 2004, p. 40).

    From the perspective of Paul Within Judaism, Paula Fredriksen writes even more convincingly:

    “What was everyone, human and divine, so upset about? Paul (and others like him), in proclaiming the gospel, radically disrupted the long-lived and socially stable arrangements prevailing between synagogues, god-fearers, and the larger pagan community; and they disrupted relations within the pagan community itself, from those of immediate family right up through the larger family of fellow citizens and the cities’ gods. How so? Because a non-negotiable proviso of the gospel was that pagans had to cease honoring their native gods with sacrifices before cult statues (idololatria). Such disrespect was bound to anger the gods, and gods, when slighted, acted out. Earthquake, flood, famine; shipwreck, storm, disease: these were the normal repertoire of divine anger. ‘No rain, because of the Christians!’ By urging his pagans to cease their traditional worship and to honor only Israel’s god — indeed, by insisting that they assume that public behavior associated universally and solely with Jews — Paul put at risk both the local Jewish community (the obvious source of such a message) and the larger host pagan city. Anxious pagans might target the synagogue; angry gods might target the city” (“The Question of Worship: Gods, Pagans, and the Redemption of Israel,” in Paul Within Judaism: Restoring the First-Century Context to the Apostle, Fortress, 2015, pp. 185,186).

    But I do think the importance of accurately distinguishing between the newer perspectives is precisely because it helps to be clear about the significant and consequential differences between how scholars are seeking to contextualize Paul’s letters culturally. The work of John Gager isn’t the touchstone for the new perspective; a more representative work would be Dunn’s collected essays in The New Perspective on Paul: Revised Edition published by Eerdmans in 2008. One of the principal criticisms of the Paul Within Judaism proponents is that while the new perspective has correctly disavowed the caricature of Judaism as a religion of legalism (a convenient foil to the idea of Christianity as a religion of grace), it has replaced it with a caricature of Judaism as narrowly ethnocentric and exclusivistic (a convenient foil to the idea of Christianity as a religion of universalism and inclusivity — despite the obvious history of Christian exclusivism and triumphalism).

    So it’s not that your narrative is equally threatening to both Lutherans and the new perspective — history is history, the chips should fall where they may, and those of us who want to engage the theological task simply have to work with what emerges. (If anything, the discontinuity you’re positing between Paul’s “new world view” and his “past life” in Judaism arguably coheres with the very discontinuity which is posited in different ways by both Lutheranism and the new perspective.) I agree overall with your understanding of the rift between Paul and the Jerusalem apostles, but I’m just not convinced that that’s the same story as the rift between Christianity and Judaism. With respect to Paul’s “past life,” I think Eisenbaum makes an interesting point in a passage worth quoting at some length. After quoting Galatians 1:11-17, she writes:

    “Standard English translations commonly render the Greek phrase that I have translated ‘earlier life in Judaism’ as ‘former life in Judaism.’ Both are acceptable ways to render the Greek text. The difference between them may seem too subtle to arouse much attention among English speakers, but ‘former’ in this context betrays a bias toward seeing Paul as having jettisoned his Jewish identity after the revelation of Christ. ‘Former life in Judaism’ makes it sound as if Judaism is not something with which Paul identifies any longer, whereas ‘earlier life in Judaism’ is ambiguous. ‘Earlier’ could imply that Paul has left Judaism behind as a result of the revelation, or it could simply be that Paul is referring to an earlier time in his life as a Jew, before he believed in Jesus. The first interpretation comports with the traditional understanding of this passage as the story of Paul’s conversion, while the second interpretation reflects the reading of this passage as the story of Paul’s call by God to become Apostle to the Gentiles. The former stresses discontinuity between Paul’s experience before and after Jesus, while the latter emphasizes continuity” (Paul Was Not a Christian, pp. 134,135).

Written by Faithlife Staff