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Was Paul a Jew?

A new generation of scholars argues that the apostle long considered the progenitor of anti-Semitism never left his religion

Judith Shulevitz
November 11, 2009
The apostle's many faces(Clockwise from top left: Rembrandt; statue from church in the Dolomites; Valentin de Boulogne or Nicolas Tournier; statue from Cathedral Notre Dame in Amiens; Greek mosaic; Weckmann; El Greco; statue from 16th century Austrian altar)
The apostle's many faces(Clockwise from top left: Rembrandt; statue from church in the Dolomites; Valentin de Boulogne or Nicolas Tournier; statue from Cathedral Notre Dame in Amiens; Greek mosaic; Weckmann; El Greco; statue from 16th century Austrian altar)

Jews don’t like the apostle Paul. Jesus they can live with; he was a good-hearted rebbe whose words were twisted to say things he didn’t mean. But Paul was the twister, and can’t be forgiven. “Jesus, yes; Paul, never!” as one Jewish biographer of Paul puts it. As a zealous convert who equated the Torah with death, Paul is deemed the father of anti-Judaism (the theological critique of Judaism as a religion), the grandfather of anti-Semitism (the hatred of Jews as people), and the inventor of the theology of the Cross (an excuse for many massacres of Jews). Even Friedrich Nietzsche, no friend of the Jews, said Paul “falsified the history of Israel so as to make it appear as a prologue to his mission” and was “the genius in hatred, in the standpoint of hatred, and in the relentless logic of hatred.”

Me, I came late to the Jewish dislike of Paul. I loved the Paul I read in college, the one who taught St. Augustine and Martin Luther and Pascal and Kierkegaard how to gaze ruefully into their divided selves. This was the Paul who wrote, like a Freudian neurotic, “For what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I.” I was well into my 30s when I discovered the unpalatable Paul. One night over maybe a third glass of wine, I proposed a book about Paul to an editor friend. My Paul would be a precursor to modern assimilationist Jews—embarrassed by Judaism, dismissive of his yeshivish education, fiendishly good at reading texts against themselves, a little too eager to please the goyim. My friend laughed at what he took to be my stab at provocativeness. “Judith,” he said gently, “you can’t defend Paul as a Jew.”

But now it seems that you can. Just as historians studying Jesus have uncovered a more Jewish version over the past 50 years or so by trying to understand him as a creature of his own place and time (first-century Palestine in the grip of apocalyptic fever), so a new generation of Pauline revisionists have discovered a more Jewish Paul, a product of the same place and time. Paul Was Not a Christian is the title of a book published this fall; what he was—and never stopped being—according to New Testament scholar Pamela Eisenbaum and the revisionists she echoes was a law-abiding Jew. He never converted to Christianity, because no such religion existed in his day. (Paul came along shortly after Jesus died.) All Paul did was switch his affiliation from one Jewish denomination to another, from Pharisaism to Jesus-ism. (Some other recent works of Paul revisionism include Reinventing Paul by John G. Gager, What Paul Meant by Garry Wills, and Paul Among the People by Sarah Ruden, which is coming out in February.)

Paul didn’t nullify Jewish law, nor did he, as Luther would claim later, place grace above works (that is, to paraphrase crudely, the acceptance of Jesus over the performance of mitzvot), or justification by faith above justification by law (being seen as righteous by God by virtue of your belief, rather than by virtue of your good deeds). Or rather, Paul did do those things—a less Lutheran version of them, anyway—but he didn’t mean for the whole world to do them, too. He attacked Jewish law only in the context of a very narrow debate raging in the earliest decades of the Jesus movement. Some Jewish Jesus-movement activists said that their pagan acolytes had to convert to Judaism before they could join the movement. Paul disagreed in the strongest possible terms (he did everything in the strongest possible terms). He maintained that these gentiles had to follow only the pre-rabbinic equivalent of the Noahide laws—the seven edicts against idolatry, adultery, etc., that all non-Jews are expected to follow. After hearing Jesus’ call—the first and still greatest revisionist, Krister Stendahl, insists that Paul experienced a call, in the manner of a Protestant minister, not a conversion—Paul took it upon himself to roam Asia Minor and preach the gospel to gentiles, and he so opposed their becoming Torah Jews that he devoted most of his letters to assaulting all the other evangelists who thought they should. These, one deduces, had been following him from city to city and telling his congregants that he was wrong about Judaism, which naturally enraged him.

If all this is true, it follows that when Paul condemns Jews, he is aiming his barbs at my meddling fellow Jewish missionaries of Christ, not the Jews, a people I harshly reject. And when he speaks of Judaism having been superseded, he means Judaism as a lifestyle to be aspired to by pagans, not Judaism as practiced by Jews. (In Acts, Jews do persecute Paul for preaching the gospel. But Acts doesn’t count as a source for Paul, since the man who probably wrote it, Luke, came along nearly half a century after him, by which point the Jesus movement was busily suppressing its Jewish roots.)

If Paul thought he was a Jew, why did he fight the conversion of the gentiles? It wasn’t just that making Greeks and Romans adopt the demanding Jewish lifestyle made his evangelizing harder, though it did. It was that Paul had a unique theory about Jesus and what he meant to gentiles. If you’d been able to ask the revisionist Paul what he thought, he’d have said something like this: When Judgment comes (and Paul thinks it’s coming any day now), God will still redeem Jews who have obeyed his commandments. What Jesus has changed is God’s plans for the non-Jews. No longer will they be barred from the Kingdom to Come on account of their sins—their promiscuity and idolatry and so on. God sent them Jesus and he died for their sins and now they, too, can be saved, as long as they accept him and live good, clean Christian lives.

Paul is supposed to be the genius who overcame Jewish particularism and invented religious universalism, but the new Paul didn’t do that. He didn’t believe that the Jewish God stopped being Jewish. Nor did he think Jesus superseded God’s covenant with his chosen people. What Jesus mainly did was die for the goyim: “What Torah does for Jews, Jesus does for gentiles,” writes Eisenbaum.

So what are we, as Jews, to make of the Jewish Paul? I instinctively agree that he must have seen himself as a Jew. It belies everything we know about human nature to imagine Paul converting from highly educated Greco-Roman Jew to anti-Jewish Christian who rants about Jewish law like someone encountering it for the first time. But do we have to let him off the hook for anti-Semitism? Was he a Jew whose message was distorted, presumably by the Gospel writers and early church fathers, or was he a demagogue who hurled distortable insults with reprehensible abandon? This is a question that won’t be answered easily. Paul was a difficult writer and a non-systematic thinker, dashing off letters in response to crises in his congregations rather than laying out his ideas in expository fashion. Whether you’re seen as critiquing lovingly from the inside or attacking coldly from the outside depends a lot on your tone, and even the best scholars of first-century Greek don’t agree about Paul’s tone.

One counterintuitive possibility that Jews will have to grapple with is that Paul’s may have been a Jewish gospel—which suggests that maybe it is Jewish to preach to the non-Jews, after all. The Jewish thinker Michael Wyschogrod, for one, thinks it is. In a very brilliant essay about what Paul means to Jews he says that we learn from Paul that “Israel has a responsibility to enable gentiles to obey its God and live in covenant with him.”

My take on the new Paul, though, is that I kind of miss the old one. In my college days I thought Paul’s insight into the paradoxical nature of desire endowed early Christianity with a precocious depth. I thought that when Paul says, in Romans, “I had not known sin, but by the law; for I had not known lust, except the law had said, ‘Thou shalt not covet,’” he was grasping that what is forbidden is also acutely alive, called into being even as it’s placed out of reach. It would be close to a millennium before the rabbis would indulge in first-person self-revelation like that.

But according to the revisionists, this tormented Paul never existed. Or, if he did, he was no more than a useful fiction for people like Augustine, who needed someone to justify his own conversion and war against sin. For if Paul didn’t repudiate the Law, then Paul can’t be talking about his own difficulties with it. Nowhere other than in Romans does Paul call himself a failed Jew. Indeed, there are passages in which he brags about his excellence as a Pharisee.

So why does he speak in the first person? Revisionists say he’s employing a figure of Greek rhetoric called prosopopeia, which would have been familiar to his contemporaries but invisible to readers not trained in Hellenistic modes of discourse. That is, he’s pretending to be someone he’s not for the sake of argument. He’s imagining his way inside the head of a pagan who is, for the first time, trying to live within the Law, and discovering that under the Law, he’s actually a terrible sinner. How discouraging that would have been for him! How remote he would have felt from God!

The revisionists may be right that Paul was playing a part, but I’m still not convinced that he didn’t also mean what he said. For whether Paul was an early Method actor or a convert repudiating his past as a Jew, his words have the weight of truths wrung from a wayward body: “For I delight in the law of God after the inward man: But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members.” Christian or Jew, Paul understood that what God had demanded of his people was supremely difficult, and in some ways impossible, to deliver. Coming to terms with Paul as a Jew may also mean admitting that such ambivalence is also part of the Jewish experience.

Judith Shulevitz was the editor of Lingua Franca and the founding culture editor of Slate. She wrote a daily column for Slate and a biweekly column for The New York Times Book Review. Her book, The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time, will be published in March by Random House. This article is the first in a series rethinking the lives and legacies of prominent Jews.