Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Paul Was Not A Christian (by Pamela Eisenbaum): Part 2

This post concerns just chapter 3 of Eisenbaum's book. The chapter is titled "How Paul Became A Christian"...just a tad provocative - and like the title of the book wasn't enough to stir things up.

In order to see Paul's Jewish identity more clearly, there needs to be a retracing of the traditional Christian lens used to understand Paul. Christianity's image of Paul - "who he was and what he did, believed, and preached developed over time through the accumulation of recounted memories and the subsequent writings of some very influential Christians of the first four centuries, who, in some cases devoted countless hours to studying Paul's letters so as to write commentaries and treatises on them and to preach on them to their communities."

Paul is absolutely critical to the development of Christianity from very early on. Over half of the NT canon is concerned with Paul, and this is significant. "Jesus may be the core of the Christian message, but Paul became the key to unlocking that message." Paul's life became the paradigm for Christian life early on. Paul's letters were gathered into collected volumes as early as the turn of the 2nd century indicating his importance to the development of Christianity fairly quickly. These collected volumes of Pauline letters were not actually standardized though and contained different versions and different actual collections. While the four gospels were in circulation around the same time to some extent, even these varied in content and in which gospels (including non-canonical gospels) were being read by various communities. Not until the 4th century was our NT canonized. All of this added up to difficulties for the early developing church. The Pastoral epistles were likely written much later to counter disagreeable aspects of Paul's circulating letters, especially in regards to the role of women. Different Christian communities definitely had differing views on the role of women, not much different than today's church environment. Debates about the "real" Paul have been raging ever since over this issue.

Eisenbaum has the following to say about the image of Paul the convert: "If Christian tradition were solely dependent on the undisputed Pauline letters, it is difficult to imagine how the image of Paul the convert could have been constructed in the first place. Paul does not use the language of conversion of himself in his undisputed writings. He never even uses the language of repentance in reference to himself. Paul only uses such language to coax his Gentile followers to repentance. To be sure Paul refers to his having persecuted the church prior to his encounter with the risen Jesus. But this appears to be his only prior behavior of which Paul feels shame. In all of his autobiographical reflections, Paul portrays himself as sinless." Contrast Philippians 3:6 and 2 Corinthians 11:22-23 with 1 Timothy 1:12-16 and this stark contrast between the Pastorals and the undisputed letters of Paul becomes clear. Eisenbaum concludes that this image of Paul the quintessential convert is not rooted in Paul's letters but in other sources.

Next up, Augustine and Luther's interpretations on Paul and how they changed everything for Christianity. Both of these men resonated with Paul because of (mis)perceived shared experiences. For Augustine, "Paul's religious transformation was perceived to have involved the discovery of what was essentially wrong with Judaism. Embracing Jesus meant embracing Christianity, and embracing Christianity necessitated [rejecting Judaism]". Luther's contribution to the traditional understanding of Paul is of course mainly due to his formulation of justification by faith through grace. This became the core of the gospel with Luther, and it came through his fearful, troubled conscience. At the time, Christianity taught judgment occurred on the basis of good works. Righteousness was not imputed upon faith in Christ and was therefore not the whole story. Faith only provided the basic foundation for justification through a life lived righteously. Luther, on the other hand, taught that righteousness was already received/imputed through faith and righteous living was impossible because living is itself hopelessly sinful. The law (Mosaic or any other kind of law) was not designed as a guide for living a Godly life, but only to show this truth - the sinfulness of mankind and the need for grace which can only be had through faith in Christ. "Human beings cannot draw themselves near to God, but God reaches out to human beings. This is evident through the incarnation of Jesus Christ. God, through Jesus Christ, makes righteous the one who has faith."

As Catholics and Lutherans came together and reconciled this doctrine of justification in 1999 through the 'Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification', the doctrine has become absolutely central to Paul's message. Eisenbaum closes with another heavy statement: "...in the 20th century another trajectory of interpretation began to emerge...Paul did not reject his Jewish identity because Judaism was a religion of works, and...justification by faith is not the gospel Paul preached."

There it is, the two most important ideas Eisenbaum sets out to prove: Paul lived and died a Jew, and the traditional understanding of salvation through the Reformation's understanding is not in the text. Stay tuned.


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