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Paul and Jesus: How the Apostle Transformed Christianity Paperback – November 26, 2013
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*Starred Review* There have been a number of books written about Paul and his relationship to the apostles; to James, the brother of Jesus; and to the early Christian community in Jerusalem. But Tabor, a professor of religion, does a particularly fine job of explaining Paul’s unique view of Jesus and how he originated a gospel that had almost nothing to do with the life of Jesus, nor the messianic message as it was understood by Jesus’ first followers. Tabor contends that Paul’s letters—Corinthians and Romans, especially—are the oldest biblical documents we have dating to Jesus’ time; the Gospels and even the Acts of the Apostles came later. Within this time line, it is possible to trace Paul’s thinking and to come to an understanding of both Paul’s gospel and the schism that developed between Paul and Jesus’ apostles. Tabor does very little speculating, keeping his focus on the texts and placing them within the context of first-century Judaism and early Christianity. The crisp, clear writing gives readers much to consider—especially the fact that it is a Pauline Christianity that most Christians practice today. Tabor writes in the preface that he has spent much of his adult life studying early Christianity in general and Paul in particular. The depth of his scholarship shows, but he also makes this an enjoyable read for those who want to know more about one of history’s greatest mysteries. --Ilene Cooper --This text refers to the Audio CD edition.
“James Tabor is a meticulous historian who carefully and convincingly lays out the actual Jewish theology of earliest Christianity which lies shrouded in the New Testament. . . . Tabor’s thorough yet succinct writing style brings a welcome new clarity to our understanding of the development of Christianity.” (The Rev. Jeffrey J. Bütz, S.T.M., adjunct professor of Religious Studies, Penn State University, and author of The Brother of Jesus and the Lost Teachings of Christianity)
"Tabor does a particularly fine job of explaining Paul's unique view of Jesus. . . . The crisp, clear writing gives readers much to consider—especially the fact that it is a Pauline Christianity that most Christians practice today. . . . The depth of his scholarship shows, but he also makes this an enjoyable read for those who want to know more about one of history's great mysteries." (Booklist (starred review))
"A fresh, imaginative and insightful treatment of the original years of the Christian faith. It is not as we have been taught through the centuries. It is infinitely more complex and infinitely more exciting. James Tabor makes this clear.” (John Shelby Spong, author of Re-Claiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World)
“This superb, well written book carefully shows just how different Paul’s religion was from that of Jesus and his first followers. . . .A fascinating book, packed with illuminating insights. Highly recommended.” (Barrie Wilson, Ph.D., Professor, Humanities and Religious Studies, York University, and author of How Jesus Became Christian)
“In this compulsively readable exploration of the tangled world of Christian origins, Tabor vividly recreates the frenetic and fraught attempts by the earliest followers of Jesus to maintain his teachings and keep his memory alive. . . . Although Paul has long been acknowledged as the founder of Christianity, Tabor weaves a fascinating story out of close readings of Paul’s letters and the book of Acts, which contains an idealized history of the early movement as well as Paul’s earliest activities on behalf of his teachings, and compellingly illustrates the ways that Christianity is Paul and Paul is Christianity.” (Publishers Weekly)
“Paul and Jesus is overdue, and stands as one of the few books willing to push back assumptions…Digging beneath the acceptable, scholars like Tabor…break through assumptions — even the sacred ones — and give rise to new perspectives and stories.” (Huffington Post)
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As for the deliivery, the book was promised on April 28th and was recieved on time. While the book came in the usual cardboard box for books, the corners was badly damaged and the dust jacket was crumpled in the back and torn on corners. I immediately returned the book and promptly recieved a replacement free of mishandling.
As to the first: Tabor correctly depicts concepts of resurrection in the Jewish and Greek worlds, and points out that the resurrection of Jesus is not dependent on there having been an empty tomb, the result of Jesus standing up and walking out of the tomb. Consider it this way: if we are to be resurrected one day, it will be accomplished after we and our coffins have turned to dust: standing up and walking away is not essential. After pointing out that the gospels were written decades after the events they portray and that their content is influenced by the theological spin applied by the authors, for some reason, Tabor posits that the empty tomb can readily be explained this way: Joseph of Arimathea, who requested of Pilate that he be able to take down the body of Jesus from the cross, quickly entombs Jesus (as this must be done before sunset) and then returns Saturday after sunset (once the Sabbath officially ends) and moves the body to another tomb. As a result, the women who come on Sunday morning find the tomb empty. This weak attempt to give a historical explanation for the gospel theme of the empty tomb is unworthy of the rest of the book, and ought to be deleted in a hoped for second edition. Scholars can continue to debate with some value the origin of the empty tomb story (many today think Mark imposed it) and it is definitely worthwhile to think about the portrayals of the risen Christ in relation to ideas of resurrection, but this idea by Tabor is not a useful contribution at all.
Second and more important involves Tabors interpretation of the few cases where Paul expresses that he received a particular message "from the Lord." Thus, in 1 Corinthians 11 Paul writes: "For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you...." When I first began study of Paul's letters, I interpreted this statement the way Tabor does in the book, that Paul received a direct teaching from Christ, and I concluded that with the same basic reasoning that Tabor employs. However, my New Testament professor pointed out, and I believe he was correct, that in the few instances where Paul uses this phrasing, Paul is speaking about what he received of the Lord's teaching as relayed by authoritative members of the church. That is, these are the teachings that Jesus gave to his disciples, which were passed on to Paul, and then he relayed them to his own audience, such as in these letters, which review what he had told previously conveyed to them verbally. Tabor points to Galatians, where Paul says, for example, that "I want you to know that the gospel preached by me is not of human origin..." (1 Galatians 11), and where Paul points out that he spent three years in Arabia prior to contacting any of the apostles, indicating that he learned his gospel independently. There is no contradiction: the gospel message that Paul conveys is, indeed, what came to him in some inspired way, and not by sitting with the other disciples and learning it from them. But, in these very few instances, Paul is specifying that he is not just conveying his gospel that he received by divine inspiration, but is providing a specific and limited teaching that came from the Lord in Jesus' speech to his followers. Thus, the unique wording is Paul's way of conveying that he is convinced that the message he received from Jesus' disciples is authentically what they heard from "the Lord." This matter is vitally important because Tabor makes the dramatic claim that the Last Supper scene was actually devised by Paul (he learned it directly from the risen Christ in words) and it was then from Paul's words in this letter (or the same verbally conveyed by Paul) that Mark wrote in the scene in his gospel. In support of this contention, Tabor points to the gospel of John not having these "words of institution" as well as to the Didache (teachings of the 12 apostles, a non-canonical but apparently authentic Christian guide) having different words not related to body and blood. He also argues that as Jews, Jesus and his disciples wouldn't contemplate the concept of eating body and blood of a person, whether that was meant symbolically or literally (as in Catholic teaching). Tabor fails, however, to acknowledge the lengthy discussion of how this body and blood ceremony could be as appears in John 6, or the fact that the Didache is not a comprehensive guide, like an "order of Mass," so that incompleteness is not an indicator of something not said or done at that time. It seems Paul, an accomplished Pharisee, has no trouble with the body and blood designation for the Eucharistic meal, so the argument about the "institution" of the Eucharistic meal by Jesus before his death simply falls apart. In a like manner, by relying on a clever interpretation of notes that John's Baptism was still the only one known by some, Tabor postulates that it was Paul who introduced the Christian baptism. I will agree that Paul definitely influenced some of the images associated with Christian baptism, including the idea that the submersion corresponds to dying and rising in direct correspondence to the death and resurrection of Christ, but the few references to persistence of John's baptism found in the New Testament are insufficient to come to Tabor's conclusion; there are other equally valid explanations.
Finally, I would comment that by focusing on certain parts of these seven letters of Paul, Tabor was able to produce a good picture of Paul's role in the development of Christianity and the tension between the Jewish-Christian community in Jerusalem and Judea versus the Gentile Christian communities that Paul was dealing with, but, unfortunately, the other parts of Paul's letters that are left out of this book tell another important part of the story that should not have been put aside. This other part of the story helps explain why Paul so radically distanced himself and the communities he taught from the "Law," an essential aspect of Paul's interpretation of Christ's mission.
There are parts of this book that deserve more "stars" in the rating, but because the reader can be misled, I can recommend this book with a caution.
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