New Interpretations of Paul

John Dominic Crossan, Pamela Eisenbaum, and Mark Nanos spoke with Bernard Brandon Scott about his new book The Real Paul: Recovering His Radical Challenge. Listen to the audio and read highlights below.

Once upon a time in ancient Rome, there lived a Jewish man named Paul who believed himself to be a prophet to the nations conquered by Rome. He spoke on behalf of a fellow Jew put to death by the Roman state—a man we all know today as Jesus.

What did Paul think Jesus was offering the people who pledged to follow him? Did this conflict with his Jewish heritage in some significant way, or not? Did Paul ever leave Judaism? As you might imagine given the line-up of scholars, the panel on “New Interpretations of Paul” at the Westar Institute Fall 2015 national meeting shared one important thing in common: All of them, in their various works of scholarship, have challenged Paul’s traditional, heavily Christianized public profile. As Pamela Eisenbaum famously declared, Paul was not and never became a “Christian,” whatever “Christian” might have meant in the first century CE. But … so what? Why does it matter? How does it affect Paul's relevance for people today?

That’s where the conversation gets interesting.

Guest scholars used as their jumping-off point Bernard Brandon Scott’s new book The Real Paul: Recovering His Radical Challenge (Polebridge, 2015). Scott is the Darbeth Distinguished Professor Emeritus of New Testament at the Phillips Theological Seminary in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Although he does not profess to be an expert on Paul—Scott is best known for his work with parables—the panelists firmly set him straight on that front. “With this book, you are a Paul scholar!”

Related note: I reported back in April 2015 on Scott’s enormously popular 5 Quick & Dirty Rules for Interpreting Paul. If you haven’t read it already, you might find it a good primer for today’s set of thoughtful responses to Scott’s work.

After the panel discussion, Westar Fellows gathered for impromptu conversation and photos (left to right): Robert J. Miller, John Dominic Crossan, Pamela Eisenbaum, Lane C. McGaughy, Arthur Dewey, and Perry Kea

After the panel discussion, Westar Fellows gathered for impromptu conversation and photos (left to right): Robert J. Miller, John Dominic Crossan, Pamela Eisenbaum, Lane C. McGaughy, Arthur Dewey, and Perry Kea

Our first respondent, Mark Nanos of the University of Kansas, has published widely on Paul, most recently serving as editor with Magnus Zetterholm of Paul within Judaism: Restoring the First-Century Context to the Apostle (2015). His self-described approach to Paul is to place Paul and his communities in the “context of other Jewish groups, including other groups of followers of Jesus, which together with Paul’s groups represented a coalition we might describe as Apostolic Judaism.”

Nanos opened and closed with praise for Scott’s work. Until now, he said, “there has not been a general introduction to Paul for the non-specialist reader to which I’ve been comfortable pointing inquirers and students.” He especially commended Scott’s use of everyday language to de-familiarize the Paul we think we already know. Nanos then followed with critical observations that, in his view, would make Scott’s Paul more convincing for the second edition Nanos fully expects to come out someday.

Nanos wants Scott to reconsider his reliance on the work of the nineteenth-century German theologian F. C. Baur. Contra Baur, isn’t it possible that in Galatians Paul is appealing to shared theological agreement between himself and the leaders in Antioch, that is, that this conflict is an issue of hypocrisy rather than of heresy (as Bauer would have it)? “Look,” Paul seems to be saying, “even big-shot Jews can get intimidated for what they uphold, just like you Galatians! And I’m not going to let either of you wiggle out of what your commitment means!” Paul’s choice to recount the story implies that he won the argument, or at least we should be open to that possibility in an honor-shame society.

Nanos goes on to caution against placing grace alongside circumcision as separate paths. This needlessly reinforces the traditional view of Paul. Paul is only trying to dissuade adult male circumcision of non-Jews, and only those who are followers of Christ. These details are consistently overlooked unless reinforced over and over again. The alternative to circumcision is not grace. Grace is the original message behind circumcision, too, after all. Nanos suggests reframing the question: What does God’s grace represent for non-Jews, and what does God’s grace represent for Jews?

What does God’s grace represent for non-Jews, and what does God’s grace represent for Jews?

Scott, drawing from Stowers, sees Paul as condemning the idea that works of law are meant to be used as self-mastery. But, Nanos wonders, doesn’t this set up Paul once again in the traditional formulation, as objecting to Jewish ethical practices? “Consider what changes if the issue is not performance but the hypocrisy of teaching performance when not first of all wholly committed to it as a trope by which to challenge non-Jews who supposed they can sit in judgment of others.”Nanos further recommended broadening the list of translations consulted to include some that have experimented specifically with how the Roman colonial context affects meaning. For instance, in Romans 9:18—“So then, God has mercy on whomever God wills, and hardens whomever God wills”—perhaps “hardening” here is not a negative thing. The Greek word was a medical term: God may be understood as helping his people by “hardening” or “toughening” them like a callus—that is, for the sake of protecting the body.

Our second respondent, John Dominic Crossan, the Emeritus Professor of Religious Studies at DePaul University in Chicago, has written twenty-seven books on the historical-jesus, the apostle Paul, and earliest Christianity, most recently How to Read the Bible and Still Be a Christian:  Struggling with Divine Violence from Genesis through Revelation (2015). He has lectured to lay and scholarly audiences across the United States as well as in Ireland and England, Scandinavia and Finland, Australia and New Zealand, Brazil, Japan, and South Africa. He has been interviewed on radio—including four times on NPR’s “Fresh Air” with Terry Gross—and on television networks in England and the United States, as well as on cable programs such as A&E, History, Discovery, and the National Geographic Channel.

Crossan began with what to him forms the crux of the matter with Paul:

First of all, I agree with Brandon’s vision that we’ve got to get Paul out of the Reformation, the sixteenth century, and back into the first century, so we can know what he was talking about and stop asking him questions that he never answers. … Secondly, that means for me that this is not in any way, shape, or form what I would ever name Christianity against Judaism. Under any other title it is Christian Judaism against Roman Imperialism … and by that I mean any Jew who ever thought, “Maybe, what if, could it be, this might be something like the Messiah?” … Of course they are within Judaism, and of course they’re fighting with other groups as they’re elbowing one another for the future of their people in the cauldron that the Romans have created as any empire does to divide and conquer.

Crossan called for this message to be so basic, so thorough, that it shows up everywhere in the story of Paul, not mentioned here and there as a matrix that can be assumed. Because frankly, it can’t be assumed. We too easily slip back into the traditional framework.

That being said, coming back around to Scott and his discussion of the “showdown in Antioch” (Galatians 2:11–21, Scott’s chap. 7), Crossan feels that this is one case where the framework comes on too strong. Where Scott jumps to comparisons with libations poured out to the emperor, Crossan wonders why such a jump is necessary. When we see Paul as a messianic Jew in the midst of other messianic Jews, two questions seem to be entirely natural without outside influence from the Romans: “Do non-Jews who flock to Israel for great final triumphant feast of God need to be circumcised to rightfully belong there? And is the feast supposed to be kosher?” These are natural questions that don’t warrant Paul’s “nasty language.” Crossan suggests rather that Paul is in shock that the questions needed to be asked, given that, in his mind as well as in James’ and others’, they are living through the final days.

Perhaps in contrast to Nanos, then, Crossan doesn’t necessarily think Paul “won” this argument. Doesn’t Peter’s argument make more sense? “It is not hypocrisy to abstain from pork, Paul, it’s courtesy.” Think of it like visiting a friend’s house. Oughtn’t we to eat what is put in front of us and follow the house rules because to the polite and courteous thing to do? There is no “Christian Jewish commandment” to eat pork, so why, in this common meal and common life, should it be an issue at all? Just let it go, Paul. Crossan sees Paul as in the wrong.

Crossan then circled back to a broader issue—forgetfulness of scholars from one generation to another regarding the role of Rome in the formation of Christianity.

I want a lot less Schweitzer and a lot more Deissmann. I think the twentieth century would have been a lot better like that, and that’s with all due respect to a great man, Schweitzer. In 1906 his book came out on the historical-jesus. A year later, 1907, William Ramsey in England and Deissmann in ’08 saw 100 years ago what we’re talking about now. It’s all about Caesar.

Many scholars (Crossan himself included!) have made the mistake of slipping back into twentieth-century ideas around individualism, existentialism, and so on after already making this progress once before. To prevent this, we need to hone in on this: what is the content of Roman imperial theology and Pauline Christian Jewish philosophy? If Caesar and Christ were running for president, what would be their platforms?

If Caesar and Christ were running for president, what would be their platforms?

Crossan suggests the following for each, which he suggests are “tectonic plates” clashing in the first-century world:

The Roman imperial strategy is religion, war, victory, and peace.

The Jewish eschatological vision of Paul is religion, nonviolence, justice, and peace.

Our final respondent, Pamela Eisenbaum, is professor of Biblical studies and Christian origins at Iliff Theological Seminary in Denver, Colorado, and is associate faculty of the Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Denver. One of four Jewish New Testament scholars teaching in Christian theological schools, she is the author of many books, most famously, Paul Was Not a Christian: The Original Message of a Misunderstood Apostle. She appeared in the 2004 ABC documentary, “Jesus and Paul: The Word and the Witness.”

Eisenbaum voiced appreciation for Scott’s willingness to tackle exegesis, that is, close reading and interpretation of specific passages in Paul’s letters while still keeping the content accessible for non-scholars. “Of the few accessible books on the new Paul, not very many of them spend significant time paying that kind of attention to textual exegetical details and matters of translation,” she explained. “Doing that makes more transparent to the reader the complexity of Paul’s language, the inescapable ambiguity that interpreters face—and by the way, I think Professor Scott is particularly a good model here of intellectual honesty about those enigmatic passages where we’re not quite sure what Paul means. Most importantly, your book shows scholars’ judgments … are not merely impressionistic but rooted in careful exegesis.”

Scholars’ judgments … are not merely impressionistic but rooted in careful exegesis.

From there, Eisenbaum took a step back to talk about the overall field of Pauline studies at this time, and the role of “new Paul” scholarship within it. One thing that scholars of this new Paul struggle to overcome is the tendency for other scholars to take what they say about Paul and simply assimilate it into the existing traditional structures. But there’s a more critical issue at stake here.

In reading Scott’s book, it might give you the impression that the new Paul is considered viable by most modern scholars. In fact, though, scholars who have tried to read Paul as a Jew in a first-century context haven’t received wide acceptance at all. Indeed, their arguments often don’t even get mentioned or addressed in mainstream biblical studies literature, except dismissively.

Now, scholars disagree all the time. There’s nothing unusual in disagreement among scholars in and of itself. But it is a matter of academic integrity to acknowledge arguments that challenge one’s own ideas and to attempt to respond or refute them. So when mainstream scholars of Paul treat the “new Paul” scholarship as marginal and unimportant to actually answer, they are doing a great disservice to the very work that matters to them.

Before turning to audience comments and questions, Brandon Scott observed, “What I call the real Paul is important for a lot of reasons, not just to the churches but also to Western culture. Understanding him correctly is an important issue in Western culture.” He went on:

I was convinced, with Dom, that the fundamental issue is not Christianity and Judaism, it’s this messianic Judaism … versus the Roman Empire, but it’s within a completely Jewish context. That became for me a kind of Zen-like exercise to constantly keep the tradition out, and I found that difficult. I kept looking at each passage and saying, “Can I understand this out of this context and not that one?” And I slipped. I wouldn’t argue that I made it. But I tried to produce what for me is the first consistent reading of Paul from this perspective that I think is responsible and accessible.

Scott praised Brigitte Kahl’s work in particular for helping him understand the Galatians story at Antioch. “You’ve got the imperial context in Antioch in a way you don’t have it in Jerusalem. … The normal Roman things are not being done—whether they were libations or not. That’s dangerous in Antioch in a way it’s not dangerous in Jerusalem.”

For Scott, the fight between Roman imperialism and Jewish messianic hopes doesn’t rise or fall with Antioch; Antioch was a case study for that dynamic. The more important, central point was that it’s not a Christian-Jewish conflict, and it never was for Paul. Every single time you come to Paul’s letters, you have to stop and ask whether you’re using that paradigm and really watch where you’re going with it. This problem should inform any conversation about Paul whether we are scholars or members of the public.

Audience members’ questions swiftly focused on what, ideally, the impact of the book would be on Christianity. Scott replied, “Minimally, if Christianity wants to say that somehow it’s founded on Jesus and Paul, it has got to quit saying it’s anti-Jewish. … That’s just no longer a valid way to make the distinction.”

It also means one has to go back and re-evaluate the tradition, because within just a couple hundred years the movement merged with the empire it had once condemned.

In sympathy with this sentiment, another audience member observed that “this view is so hard to teach in a church,” and reiterated the need to continue to think about ways to break open ideas about Paul in religious settings. Scott and Eisenbaum jointly emphasized the value of choosing your language carefully. For instance, don’t say Paul read the “Old Testament,” because there was no such thing in his time. He read Scripture, that of the Jewish people. It wasn’t “old” and wouldn’t be considered “old” for at least a century after Paul’s death. Ideas are embedded in the language we use.

Audience questions continued from there into more specific issues, such as how one should understand the term goyim or "the nations," commonly (mis)translated simply "gentiles." I encourage you to listen to the audio clips above for the full discussions, and—shameless plug—be sure to pick up Brandon Scott's book if you haven't already!

This is a report on the Westar Institute Fall 2015 national meeting, which took place in Atlanta, Georgia, in conjunction with the annual meetings of the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature. New reports will be added as they come available. To see all meeting-related resources, visit the Fall 2015 program page.

Cassandra Farrin

Cassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as the Marketing & Outreach Director. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University. She is passionate about books and projects that in some way address the intersection of ethics and early Christian history.

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