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

Book Review

Pamela Eisenbaum, HarperSanFrancisco, 2009, 336 pp.

The new perspective on Paul which has completely reoriented Pauline studies over the last thirty years continues not only to inspire new theses, but to highlight still unresolved issues as well. Though arguably the majority of New Testament scholars now embrace E.P. Sanders’ principal observation that Palestinian Judaism was not a religion of legalism, nevertheless little consensus has been achieved over the question of Paul’s relationship with Judaism.

Generally speaking, many scholars working from the new perspective, including most notably James D.G. Dunn and N.T. Wright, have managed to highlight considerable continuity between Paul and Judaism. This trend has been most welcome in the current context of renewed Christian sensitivity to the problem of anti-Semitism. Indeed, one of the key concerns of proponents of the new perspective (myself included) has been to hamstring the anti-Semitic tendency of the traditional paradigm by reframing Paul’s debate with “Judaizers” as an intra-church controversy as opposed to a Christian-Jewish controversy.

The Achilles’ heel of this interpretative move, however, has been forcefully exposed by Jewish interpreters of Paul like Mark Nanos and Pamela Eisenbaum – scholars for whom the new (Christian) perspective on Judaism obviously isn’t so new. While welcoming the recognition that Judaism isn’t a religion of legalism, they point out that the new perspective’s shift of emphasis still tends to denigrate Judaism insofar as what is criticized within the church is still essentially Jewish. Put differently, the negative stereotype of Judaism as legalistic is replaced by a negative stereotype of Judaism as ethnocentric.

One recent proposal being developed by the Faculty of Theology at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven is a return to a paradigm which stresses discontinuity between Paul and Judaism but doesn’t assume that discontinuity hinders Jewish-Christian dialogue. A very different approach has traditionally been articulated by a smaller group of scholars who have generally been identified with the new perspective. These scholars – Krister Stendahl, Lloyd Gaston, John Gager, Stanley Stowers, Neil Elliott, Mark Nanos, and Pamela Eisenbaum – situate Paul so firmly within Judaism that discontinuity disappears entirely. In her most recent book, Eisenbaum characterizes their position rather as “a radical new perspective” on Paul.

In a brilliant marketing move guaranteed to raise eyebrows and generate interest, her book is provocatively titled Paul Was Not a Christian. Early on she qualifies this, writing (for example) that:

it is obvious that Paul played a critical role in the development of Christianity and that his letters are regarded as an essential part of the Christian canon. I do not in any way wish to deny Christians their claim on Paul. But in this book Paul is unambiguously Jewish – ethnically, culturally, religiously, morally, and theologically (9).

At first blush, few Christians will dispute the fact that Paul was Jewish and that Christianity had not yet emerged as a distinct religion. However, serious problems arise when that observation is summarily swept aside as a distinction without a difference and Paul’s letters are still treated like a systematic exposition of Christianity. This is where Eisenbaum’s book excels: in methodically and consistently evaluating the key underlying assumptions of the traditional approach to Paul and exposing their weaknesses. At each step the traditional perspective is shown to be anachronistic and untenable. She spends considerable space (the first three chapters) articulating the traditional view before turning to concomitant Jewish approaches and finally the new perspective on Paul in chapter four (“Reading Paul as a Jew – Almost”).

The next three chapters consider postbiblical Judaism with a particular focus on the key questions in the debate on Paul. Chapter five (“Paul’s Jewish Inheritance”) in particular debunks the notion of Torah observance as a legalistic “works-based” scheme. In this context she helpfully diagnoses part of the reason for the misunderstanding. She articulates the problem so well that hopefully this reviewer may be forgiven for quoting her so extensively:

Ancient Judaism is not what one would call a religion of salvation. This is perhaps the most fundamental misconception that informs the Christian view of ancient Judaism. With very few exceptions, Judaism does not focus its attention on personal salvation. Furthermore, Judaism does not articulate the issue of salvation as a question about whether one is saved by works or by faith. …

Christians assume that personal salvation is the fundamental question of religion – all religion. Salvation is so central to Christianity that Christian theologians even came up with a name for the study of salvation: “soteriology.” Therefore, Judaism has typically been evaluated in terms of how salvation is conceptualized and how an individual achieves salvation. …

The traditional Christian understanding of Jewish soteriology is that salvation is earned through “works.” …

Yet, contrary to long-standing stereotypes, ancient Jews did not have a peculiarly excessive interest in law; they did not preoccupy themselves with picayune legal details while neglecting more serious ethical matters. Thus, the idea that Judaism is a religion in which one is “saved by works” is not an accurate characterization. …

The view of Judaism as a religion in which one is “saved by works” carries with it several other misconceptions about Judaism. Of most significance, it denies the important role of grace and repentance in Judaism (88-91).

Also of key importance in this section of Eisenbaum’s book is chapter six (“Who Is and Who Isn’t a Jew?”), in which she considers at some length the criticism that ancient Judaism was exclusionary and xenophobic, and chapter seven (“The Flexible Pharisees”), in which she consistently demonstrates that if anything, the Pharisees were known for being too flexible and permissive, not for being rigid and legalistic. With this background in mind, Eisenbaum moves into the remaining half of her book in which she considers Paul in precisely this Jewish context.

One of the first issues she takes up (and revisits throughout) is the question of whether Paul’s encounter with the risen Christ should best be conceptualized as a “conversion” or a “call” (chapter eight, “Paul the (Ex?)-Pharisee”). Readers who are already familiar with the issue and with Eisenbaum’s earlier work will not be surprised that she goes to some length to emphasize Paul’s continuing identification with his Jewish heritage. On another key question, whether pistis christou should be rendered “faith in Christ” or “the faithfulness of Christ,” she comes down (contra Dunn) firmly on the side of “the faithfulness of Christ” (189-195).

In the remaining chapters Eisenbaum turns to the issues of law and justification in Paul. In chapter twelve (“On the Contrary, We Uphold the Law!”), she articulates four basic principles for interpreting the law in Paul (the fifth is addressed in the final paragraph below):

1)       Paul’s audience is made up of Gentiles, so everything he says about law applies to Gentiles, unless specified otherwise (216-219)

2)      Torah is for Jews but provides a standard for all (219-224)

3)      The law is not meant to condemn humanity; it serves a positive pedagogical function (224-233)

4)      The doing of good works is not the opposite of having faith (233-239)

It is at this point that in drawing out the implications of her previous observations she describes most clearly the distinction between the new perspective on Paul as articulated by scholars like Dunn and Wright and the “radical new perspective” on Paul traditionally associated with the “two-covenant” approach of Gaston, Gager, et al. The last three chapters in particular (208-255) take up this topic. Though the issues are well articulated, this reviewer at least would have liked to see many more details worked out; an extra hundred or so pages might have enabled Eisenbaum to flesh out this perspective in a little more detail, but at least she provides enough interpretative markers to enable readers to sort through particular texts which are not directly addressed.

Simply put, Eisenbaum argues that for Paul, Israel’s justification was already secured by means of the covenant, leaving Gentiles in need of justification through the atonement of Christ since history was fast coming to a close and Gentiles (the nations) stood in dire need of reconciliation (spelled out in some detail in chapter thirteen, “Justification Through Jesus Christ”).

In her final chapter (chapter fourteen, “It’s the End of the World as We Know It”) Eisenbaum reframes the “two-ways salvation” question in what amounts to a postscript on Romans 9-11. Avoiding the language of “two covenants” and (most importantly) dispensing with an individualistic reading of Romans facilitates this restatement:

The starting assumption of the new paradigm is that it is not about personal salvation. Paul’s letter to the Romans is not an answer to the question, How can I be saved? Rather, it is his answer to the question, How will the world be redeemed, and how do I faithfully participate in that redemption? For Paul the question had great urgency, since God had already initiated the process of redemption (252).

She goes on to provide a helpful historical analogy to illustrate why “Torah for Jews, Jesus for Gentiles” need not imply two paths to salvation:

The rabbis did not think non-Jews needed to observe all the commandments of the Torah to be redeemed – in fact, they are decidedly not to observe many of them. The rabbis envisioned the Gentiles’ adhering to a small subset of law, known as the Noahide code. Yet the rabbis did not think this counted as two separate ways to salvation. Both groups are supposed to be in concord with the will of God, both are called to obedience, and in their different roles, both are being faithful to the Torah. … that does not mean there are two different systems of redemption (252, emphasis mine).

Nevertheless, what will likely remain challenging for most interpreters of Paul (this reviewer included) is Eisenbaum’s restatement of the position that Paul was addressing a Gentile audience as opposed to a single community made up of both Jews and Gentiles. Whether this reluctance simply illustrates the degree to which the older paradigm remains entrenched perhaps remains to be seen. To that end, this book deserves widespread consideration.

 Mark M. Mattison

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  • Many thanks for the great review Mark (and for mentioning our Leuven project!).
    The big issue for the radical new perspective is the relevance of Christ for Jews. Nowhere in Paul do I find that Christ is only for the Gentiles. The discontinuity in Paul vis-a-vis common Judaism is his intense Christ devotion and his placing of Christ above the Torah in terms of universal salvation (a salvation that includes the redemption of Jews and even all Israel in its final mysterious outworking). The radical perspective wants to keep Paul’s Christ as a subset of Torah – he is the one who enables the Gentiles to keep their reduced part of it. This, I believe, when taken in an absolute sense, is a misreading of Paul.

    Torah does indeed play an ongoing role for Paul, both for messianic Jews like him (who I think did continue to keep it in a Christocentric way) and for the Gentiles in terms of their ongoing sanctification. In this Eisenbaum and Nanos etc. (and before them W.D. Davies) are doing Pauline studies a great favour. But contrary to the radical new perspective, Torah was always a subset of Christ’s lordship, and not the reverse. Paul is interested in bringing the Jewish Messiah to the Gentiles (and of course to Jews he meets along the way), and not the Torah per se.

    David J. Bolton (phd cand.)
    K.U. Leuven, Belgium

  • Mark – a well written and comprehensive review. I have trouble with understanding Paul, and I guess I’m not alone, and Eisenbaum’s appraisal will help in unravelling that understanding.

    John Ford

  • Great review. I’m very new to the New Perspective but I have been studying Biblical Hebrew and the Hebrew Bible very closely for the last 5 years. On my own, I came to the view that the Judaism(s) of Jesus’ day were not legalistic and so when I ran across the New Perspective writings I was blown away.

    As I read your review, I had to wonder why to be “ethnocentric” is inherently bad. Can’t one be proud of one’s ethnicity and use the lens of one’s culture to gain insight?

    Finally, reflecting on David J. Bolten’s comment, I would extend his remarks by noting David Klinghoffer’s book (an observant, orthodox Jew) “Why the Jews Rejected Jesus”.


  • This whole “new perspective” on Paul…isn’t new at all. It’s what the Catholic Church has been adamently declaring for 2000 years. When pride and egoism rise up and one feels all one needs is the bible and one’s own interpretation of scripture, one splits off the path of truth and causes schisms…or 30,000 of them since the reformation. Still, good to see some are being intellectually honest with themselves and realizing how absurd it is to say that good works (faith working in love) don’t factor into our salvation. We will all be judged according to what? Our deeds.

  • This was a very informative post and a great review but I’d really like to know if you can pin down what exactly the origin of this “new interpretation” or as some commenters have noted the not-so-new interpretation is? Is it a translational thing or a purely interpretation? If you could cover that in a future post I’m sure a lot of people would appreciate it (like me)!

    God bless

  • To Mr. Mattison — Thanks for having posted your brief, thorough summary of Ms. Eisenbaum’s well-integrated reading of Paul. In your closing remark you mentioned an issue regarding whether or not St Paul was addressing a Gentile-only audience. I (just an amateur) would have guessed that since he is apostle to the Gentiles, the certain local-level churches for which he was the mother hen would be intended for attendance by Gentiles. While there likely is only fragmentary knowledge of the various activities which comprised his actual role (dubbed here as “mother hen”), that role no doubt would include writing the letters (which the extant undisputed epistles closely reflect) to those specific churches.

  • In practical terms what is the point of the discussion? Did Paul require sabbath-keeping of his converts?
    What about food laws in Lev 11? I would say that Paul wanted strong Christians to move beyond sabbath-keeping and food laws. Gen 17. demands circumcsion for Gentiles wanting to be part of the covenant. But Paul does not follow that requirement. The key issue is, Did Paul deviate from the unitary monotheism of the Shema, in defining God? Jesus had affirmed the unitary monotheistic creed Israel. Did Paul disregard the teaching of Jesus in this respect. Not according to I Cor. 8:4-6. The Father is still the only one who is true God. Jesus is the Lord Messiah, not God, for Paul.

  • “Simply put, Eisenbaum argues that for Paul, Israel’s justification was already secured by means of the covenant, leaving Gentiles in need of justification through the atonement of Christ since history was fast coming to a close and Gentiles (the nations) stood in dire need of reconciliation (spelled out in some detail in chapter thirteen, “Justification Through Jesus Christ”).

    She goes on to provide a helpful historical analogy to illustrate why “Torah for Jews, Jesus for Gentiles” need not imply two paths to salvation:”

    Paul NEVER said Israel was justified through the Covenant; actually, he said the very opposite! He said (sadly) that many of the “natural branches” of the “Israeli Olive Tree” were ripped off and men of other nations were grafted in, because of disbelief in Messiah on the part of some Jews and belief in Messiah on the part of many men from other nations.

  • This is a good book to think about who Paul was really. Since most of the letters were addressed to the Gentiles and none to the Jews, Paul began to interpret the Torah the way the Gentiles would have wanted to interpret that they could not keep any law, let alone the Torah. This book shows that Paul never gave up his Jewish faith and he conceded to the Gentiles.

  • Interesting point a view even more for an atheist like I. I am amazed by how bible’s interpretations can differ from what the tuth really was. Since I am an atheist I believe I am more open to these different interpretations and I am just curious about to learn what the time depicted in the bible really was who the protagonists realy were.

  • We never know the truth. None of us were there when this happened or was it significant in the messages and we ran after the real happenings? The scriptures told us to believe in each other, in love, in ourselves and we went for the opposites. Even the latest findings about Paul are not in line with his preachings will they change the beliefs of millions? I do not think so. Human faith is stronger than mountains.

  • Its true, Paul is not the true founder of Christianity as is often claimed, nor does Paul understand Jesus Christ as having superseded the Torah and thereby replacing Judaism with Christianity. I read the book, Eisenbaum portrays Paul as a Jew who lives among Gentiles in a decidedly non-Jewish world and wrestles with the practical issue of how to lead a Jewish lifestyle in the midst of a non-Jewish society.Interesting book to read.

  • Hey Mark, Thanks for sharing this wonderful summary with us. I am very new to new perspective on Paul but I don’t think its that new, I think catholic church saying the same thing from a long time. But anyways your review is very helping to understand the new perspective on Paul.

  • Great and informative article. But I don’t really know much about the new perspective. Reading this article has given me an insight of the same. I only read the bible and believe what is in it. As mentioned in the other post, I notice that the idea of new perspective and catholic church are mostly one and the same. Looking for more updates. Thanks.

  • I acknowledge that the Jewish interpretation of Paul has many merits. However, I still find it difficult to believe that the gospel was only directed to the Gentiles.

    1. Paul states clearly that there is a gospel for the circumcised (Gal 2:7), and at least three apostles for the circumcised (Gal 2:9). Although Paul teaches there is but one gospel (Gal 1:7), let us assume for a moment that the gospel for the circumcised is different from Paul’s. What would it be about? If “Israel’s justification was already secured by means of the covenant, leaving Gentiles in need of justification through the atonement of Christ” (Mattison, above), then the gospel for the circumcised might have sounded like, “Go on this way. Christ is risen, but that is just Gentiles’ stuff. You, don’t bother. I don’t really know what I should tell you that hasn’t been said before.” Not much of a job for Peter. I would argue that there is a gospel for the circumcised and that it does not differ much form Paul’s teaching to the Gentiles, at least in its essence.

    2. More radically, some Jewish interpreters of Paul accuse Christian exegetes of construing Paul’s teaching as a religion for all but Jews because they claim he puts some Jewish practices and beliefs into question, thereby asking Jews to renounce their Jewishness. I would counter by saying that if Paul _does not_ put any Jewish practices and beliefs into question, then there are two possibilities: whether he teaches Judaism to the Gentiles (this does not appear to be the case) or he does indeed teach a religion that concerns all but the Jews (as Eisenbaum seems to assume).

    There are other ways of affirming both Paul’s Jewish identity (an unobjectionable fact) and the newness of his message for Jews, first, and then Greek.

Written by Faithlife Staff