Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Paul Was Not A Christian (by Pamela Eisenbaum): Part 3

After dealing with the traditional Augustinian-Lutheran (mis)interpretations of Paul, Eisenbaum moves to modern interpreters of the early, mid, and late 20th century. Both Leo Baeck (1873-1956) and Martin Buber (1878) were Jewish theologians who in their own ways saw Jewish strains of thought in Paul but critiqued him as a syncretist (for lack of a better category, 'Romanticism' and of course Hellenism). That is, they basically both agree with Augustinian-Lutheran interpretations of justification by faith but found the doctrine misguided, creating adherents of the religion who are "hopelessly passive and incapable of living ethical lives." Other Jewish scholars basically agreed and drove home the view that Paul founded a new religion called Christianity. Joseph Klausner bluntly wrote: "[Paul] made Christianity a religious system different from both Judaism and paganism, a system mediating between Judaism and paganism but with an inclination toward paganism." These Jewish scholars attempted to offer a fresh take on Paul through a distinctly Jewish lens, but ended up just playing into the historical Christian-Jewish polemic.

Post-Holocaust however, a small group of Protestant theologians and scholars recognized the need to seriously reevaluate Christian anti-Judaism and the beginnings of the New Perspective on Paul was in place. The most serious NPP scholarship emerged only in the last 40 years. James D.G. Dunn supposedly first coined the phrase "new perspective on Paul" and wrote: "Paul's doctrine of justification by faith should not be understood primarily as an exposition of the individual's relation to God, but primarily in the context of Paul the Jew wrestling with the question of how Jews and Gentiles stand in relation to each other within the covenant purpose of God now that it has reached its climax in Jesus Christ."

There are three initial key concepts NPP scholars emphasize. The first two, that Paul's writings were to very specific groups of Gentiles (though Paul wrote as a committed Jew), and his teachings about Jewish law were about "how Torah is and is not applicable to Gentiles...God does not require the same things of all people at all times." For instance, Pamela paraphrases the always confusing 1 Corinthians 7:19 under this new understanding of Paul: "When Jews are circumcised and Gentiles remain uncircumcised, both are following the will of God, so neither group can claim superiority by virtue of the practice (or non-practice) of circumcision." The third important NPP concept is undoing centuries of misconstruals of Judaism. The post-reformation understanding that Christianity is all about "spirit, grace, and love" and that Judaism is one of law where salvation is earned, good works are proudly accumulated, and God's grace is non-existent is a deep misunderstanding of Palestinian Judaism. "This characterization of Judaism is a gross distortion, both in general terms and in the first century...grace plays a critical role in the Jewish concept of God and God's relationship to Israel, God's chosen people." This last insight was forcefully put forward by E.P. Sanders who is the final modern theologian Pamela is concerned with.

Sanders wrote in the late 70's and is enormously influential to the NPP. Israel's relationship to God is one built on covenant - which involve commandments, but are viewed as a privilege to participate in because in God's grace he chose Israel to be his people on earth doing his work in the world. In this light, commandments in Torah (circumcision for instance) are not works going toward personal salvation, but "Israel's response to God's gracious initiative on Israel's behalf." Performing the commandments in Torah cannot earn one's way into the covenantal relationship that already exists. These are not duties - these are blessings, privileges, responses to God's enormous grace for covenanting a truly unique, special relationship with Israel. Whatever "salvation" meant to Jews like Paul, it certainly wasn't earned but freely given by God as a grace - a gift - to Israel. Covenant, covenant, covenant.

In the end, Sanders still saw Paul as distinct from Judaism because of his mystical encounter with Jesus on Damascus road - Sanders bought the conversion myth. Nevertheless, his work inspired many more great works as his insights into first century Palestinian Judaism are widely respected.

Up next will be rooting us as readers in late Second Temple Jewish thought in order to more fully comprehend Paul's letters.

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