Reinventing Paul

Book Review

John G. Gager (Oxford University Press), 2000, 198 pp.
Reviewed by Robert Orlando
Columbia University,
Religious Studies Dept.

Another book on Paul? Yes, the “new” Paul. Who is this new Paul? John Gager’s answer: the man whose mission has been distorted by twenty centuries of Pauline scholarship based on a faulty “old” paradigm influenced by anti-semitism (pp. 18,19, 74,75). Reinventing Paul purports that the old paradigm wrongly interprets Paul as “convert from Judaism to Christianity, who preached against the law and Israel” (pp. 18,19). These views, the author states, have unwittingly been the result of traditionalists reading Augustine, Luther, and Post-Holocaust thinkers into the ancient texts (pp. 38,66).

“For Paul, Israel’s salvation was never in doubt. What he taught and preached was instead a special path, a ‘Sonderweg’ for Gentiles” (p. 146).

This intriguing premise is what Mr. Gager attempts to prove, joining the movement of New Testament scholars including Lloyd Gaston, Stanley Stowers, and Krister Stendahl1 who agree that “Paul’s undeniably negative comments were never directed at the role of the law for Jews but for Gentiles” (pp. 44,106).

Gager’s introduction offers the reader a hermeneutic of “suspicion” (p. 13) to guard against “modern translations, dictionaries, and commentaries embedded within preexisting interpretations” (pp. 13-15). Five chapters follow, beginning with an interpretation of the old paradigm that redefines Paul as an “unreliable author,” offering a new paradigm for his writings, followed by an examination of Galatians and Romans respectively, and ending with Gager’s hopes for his “embattled minority” (pp. 145-147). He dismisses secondary biblical sources, restricts the arena for discussion to Paul’s letters to Galatia and Rome, and deflects Paul’s strongest rebukes toward the Jews onto the Jewish Christians, “missionaries within the Jesus movement” (pp. 58,62,106).

“Until the emergence of the new Paul, in recent decades,” Gager states, “the only readers who have been able to break free from the old Paul are the contradictionists — those who abandon all efforts to find a consistent meaning in Paul” (p. 129). However, the new paradigm argument stands or falls not with the citing of New Testament scripture alone, but “almost entirely on the question of audience”: was Paul speaking to Gentiles and Jews (cp. Rom. 1:16)? Yet, rather than explore Paul’s protean message,2 he assigns blame to traditionalist interpreters, arguing for “Paul’s unreliability” using an either/or filter to emphasize “contradictory” pro-Israel and anti-Israel scriptures (pp. 4-7). He concludes “standing against me are not merely twenty centuries of reading Paul as the father of Christian anti-Judaism, but the manifest tensions between the two sets of texts themselves” (pp. 40-42). As a result, the reader must dig one level below this false dichotomy of new and old paradigms to find the essence of Paul’s message.

Though a student of Meyer, Käsemann and Dahl, Gager never penetrates the mystery of Paul’s conversion:3 what caused the Pharisee trained by Gamaliel — likely the next high priest — to turn from his roots?4 Was he anti-semitic? No. His soliloquy from Romans (chapters 9-11) conveys an elegiac aide memoire to the Jews and their place in God’s divine plan.5 Furthermore, Gager’s study fails to note that beyond Jewish/Gentile issues, what Paul despised most was division (1 Cor. 11:18,19): laws or people that poisoned the collective spirit of the early church, which to him was unequivocally “neither Jew nor Greek” (1 Cor. 12:12, RSV). His mission seems not as Gager argues, a Sonderweg, “a special path for Gentiles,” but to broaden Jewish religious perception.6Jewish-Christians, including Peter, loyal to their Jewish roots, demanded that Gentiles be circumcised and Paul vehemently disagreed (Gal. 2:11-16), raising the question that plagued the early church and nearly ended Paul’s ministry: would Christianity become a Jewish sect or a new religion?

Gager fails to recognize the potent allegations in Paul’s “undeniably negative comments” which circumvent Jewish/Jewish Christian distinctions, expressing his heartfelt beliefs touching the law and its effect on his converts (1 Cor. 9:20-23). Paul referred to his antagonists as preaching “another gospel” (Gal. 1:6,7, RSV) and the Jewish law as “a curse” (Gal. 3:13, RSV), “enslavement” (Gal. 5:1, RSV), and even “death” (2 Cor. 3:7, RSV). He described his Judaism as a former life and his escape from its psychological grip as akin to a widow’s liberation from her dead husband (Rom. 7:1-3). If we entertain Gager’s notion that Paul’s rebukes were solely for “Jewish Christians” (pp. 58,106) who wanted Paul to insist on Gentile circumcision, how much more severe would the criticism have been for the Jews who were seeking his arrest (2 Cor. 11:21-24)?

Unlike Mark Nanos’ subtler Mystery of Romans or Alan Segal’s Paul The Convert, Reinventing Paul,at times, reads like a reinvention itself, a loose diatribe, using selective reasoning that relies on political hot buttons to replace hard-thought polemics. It is the opinion of this writer that Mr. Gager’s ecumenical wish to heal old wounds of Jewish-Christian relations has come at the expense of biblical integrity and balanced exegesis. The search for common ground in this exciting dialogue will not be found in theories, but by providing evidence to fashion a new perspective.


1See Alan Segal’s comments on Stendahl in Richard Horsley, ed., Paul and Politics (Trinity Press), p. 190.

2Cf. The Writings of Paul, edited by Wayne Meeks (Norton), “The Christian Proteus,” p. 438.

3Alan F. Segal, Paul the Convert (Yale University Press), pp. 143-149.

4E.P. Sanders, Paul, Past Masters (Oxford University Press), pp. 8-10.

5J. Christian Beker, Heirs of Paul (Eerdmans), p. 26.

6Albert Schweitzer, The Mysticism of Paul (John Hopkins Univ. Press), pp. 1-3.

Was this article helpful?

Written by
Faithlife Staff
View all articles
  • “It is the opinion of this writer that Mr. Gager’s ecumenical wish to heal old wounds of Jewish-Christian relations has come at the expense of biblical integrity and balanced exegesis.”

    I think he is trying to give the Pauline corpus an integrity that it never had and doesn’t deserve to be given. As you quote him as saying, “Until the emergence of the new Paul, in recent decades, the only readers who have been able to break free from the old Paul are the contradictionists — those who abandon all efforts to find a consistent meaning in Paul” (p. 129) — This is the truth: Paul is an unreliable and protean author, a man who seeks to become all things to all men so that he might by all means win over some smucks to join the cult of Paul. There is no integrity there. Gager is trying to redeem the unredeemable.

  • “Jewish-Christians, including Peter, loyal to their Jewish roots, demanded that Gentiles be circumcised and Paul vehemently disagreed”
    I’m not sure what source you are utilizing but your assertion is just plain wrong. Peter was the first according to Acts 9 to understand that God’s plan was to bring in the Gentiles. In Act’s 15 we see that James, Peter, and the elders were the main proponents of not laying any extra burdens on the Gentile except for 4 basic laws all of which Paul clearly insisted upon his Gentile converts and then some. BTW those laws were very similar to today’s noahide laws, so there may be some precedent that they were utilizing.
    Since we are in the business of making blind assertions here I could easily make the following one. A singular focus on the redemption of Israel from Gentile occupation, coupled with a disdain for all things Gentile, led to complete antipathy and in fact aversion toward the Gentiles on behalf of James and the Jerusalem church. The roots of this are evidenced in Acts 11:2, by James and the “Circumcision” group. “So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him and said, “You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them.” Gee fellas try not puke on my sandals okay. The early Jewish Christians had no concern for anything but the redemption of Israel, James and the “Circumcision group” cared very little what happened to or in the Gentile world. This was more likely the issue which Paul had with James and Peter and the Jerusalem church.
    Even a cursory reading of Paul’s letters shows us that he not only calls the Gentiles to a life of holy living including following the basic rules of the Torah, but he calls them to an even greater degree of personal Holiness. This holiness according to Paul is achieved spiritually by faith in the work done on the cross as anticipated in Isaiah 53. That BTW was also the dominant viewpoint of early rabbinic teachings. So which one is it? Do we need atonement as in Isaiah 53 a view which is in accordance with the earliest rabbinic sources, or can we do it just by following the law?
    Finally, If Paul was indeed a usurper of the early Jewish Christian message and went into Gentile nations spreading his own brand of Christianity, why on earth would he go back after 14 years of successfully undoing and subverting all of the Jerusalem church’s work and willingly submit himself to James and the Elders? Doesn’t make a lot of sense does it.

Written by Faithlife Staff