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RELIGION | BOOK REVIEW

Reappraisal Says Paul Did Not Repudiate Judaism

REINVENTING PAUL; By John Gager; Oxford University Press; $25, 240 pages

August 19, 2000|ZACHARY KARABELL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Christianity may have originated with the teachings of Jesus, but without Paul, what we now call Christianity would never have existed. Jesus is the teacher, the messiah, the messenger, but Paul's letters and the narrative of his life make up a major portion of the New Testament, and for that reason he has been called the second founder of Christianity.

"Few figures in Western history have been the subject of greater controversy than St. Paul," writes John Gager. "Few have caused more dissension and hatred." Gager would know. A professor of religion at Princeton University and the author of a previous work on Paul and the origins of anti-Semitism, Gager is a nonobservant Christian whose stated passion is to untangle the myths of the past and challenge conventional wisdom. As Gager sees it, Paul has been unfairly credited with repudiating Judaism and replacing it with what we now call Christianity. In fact, according to Gager, "the dominant view of Paul across nearly two millennia is both bad, in that it has proved harmful, and wrong in that it can no longer be defended historically."

It's a bold claim, but it is one that Gager and other scholars in the United States and Europe have gone to great lengths to prove. Contrary to common understanding, Gager contends, Paul did not repudiate Judaism, and he did not free Jews of the responsibility to follow the law of the Old Testament. For centuries, Paul's message has been misinterpreted in large part because for centuries people assumed that Paul was telling Jews that the teachings of Christ supplanted the laws of Judaism. Not so, says Gager. Far from preaching to Jews, Paul addressed Gentile audiences and told them that their status as non-Jews would not prevent them from being saved.

That is the nub of Gager's thesis. Paul, a Jew who preached to non-Jewish groups in the eastern Mediterranean, tailored his message for his audience, criticizing those Jewish teachers who contended that only Jews could be saved and arguing that Gentiles could be included as long as they ascribed to the teachings of Jesus. But he did not, as common understanding would have it, convert from Judaism to Christianity, and he did not denigrate Jewish law. He was a Jewish preacher who believed that Judgment Day was imminent and who tried to save as many Gentiles as possible before it was too late.

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The Paul portrayed by Gager and his colleagues is a compassionate Jewish rabbi who was troubled by the restrictive interpretation of grace espoused by many Jews of the time and who spread the teachings of the recently crucified Jewish teacher and messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, in the belief that Jesus was God's chosen instrument for redeeming the Gentiles of the Roman empire. Gager's revisionist argument has been meticulously researched and rigorously tested, and in the small circle of scholarly experts, his is no longer a radical interpretation. But for the world at large, it is a serious departure.

That makes the literary failings of Gager's book all the more distressing. It is only a slight overstatement to say that the book is unreadable. Not in the sense that the argument can't be understood, nor in the sense that the prose does not ultimately convey it. But rather, this is a book that almost no one outside that small circle of New Testament scholars could easily read, and it is not clear why most people would make the effort. The text is so full of inside references to scholars in Europe and the United States that reading it is like listening to one voice in a very active discussion that assumes full knowledge of the views and peccadilloes of the other participants.

For those who do wade through the brief text, however, the rewards are inestimable. The argument makes sense, on both logical and intuitive levels. Only a post hoc reading of Paul could have led to the conclusion that he was a fervent Christian bent on persecuting the Jews. By giving us instead a Jewish Paul bent on rescuing the Gentiles, Gager shows that 1st century Judaism wasn't an insular sect but a proselytizing faith. This interpretation effectively removes anti-Semitism from the Bible, where it never belonged in the first place. In forcing a reconsideration of the second-most-pivotal figure in the history of Christianity, Gager has done a great service. But it's a shame that the manner in which he has done so will most likely do little to shake popular consciousness.

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Zachary Karabell is a contributing writer to the Book Review.

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