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on March 25, 2013
Our Sunday School class is just beginning our studies of this book, but everyone is excited about the discussions it will stimulate. So far, the biblical history it describes well supplements what we already have studied. Pam gives excellent examples for Paul's personal debate and growth. Recommend it for serious study.
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on May 1, 2014
The author really contextualizes Paul and his writing. I highly recommend this book for any study of Paul and his writings.
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on July 5, 2014
This book was an eye opener. No one taught us to realize the culture and beliefs of the first century populous.
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on November 10, 2014
Helpful perspective from the Jewish author. Well written, useful in my Bible class.
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on September 1, 2015
A detailed study of Paul's life offers explanations for his actions. An insight that is very helpful when readings his letters.
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on June 26, 2015
A thought-provoking writing which gives the reader a new perspective of viewing the Apostle Paul.
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on August 9, 2016
By far one of the best written books on the Biblical Paul. The work is well referenced and easy to quote. The information is presented well and best of all, the writing style is easy to read.
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on June 2, 2013
For those of us who study first-century Judaism, and the extraordinary paradigm shift that was occurring within the Jewish world, this is one of the first books that properly puts the "apostle" Paul in his rightful historical context. He was Jewish, practiced Judaism, and never advanced the idea that Jewish people ought to convert to Christianity. The power of this book is Dr. Eisenbaum's excellent writing combined arising out of the most current scholarly research.
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on September 27, 2011
I love this book. It has some great insight. I may not agree 100% yet, but it is certainly worth reading and has opened my eyes and will enable me to read Paul in a different light. Also, this has confirmed my belief as to why the Torah, God's teaching and instruction, is so critical for us today. We as Christians have wandered so far from our Hebrew roots.
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on November 25, 2014
Review of “Paul was not a christian”
By Pamela eisenbaum

Pamela Eisenbaum is professor of Biblical Studies and Christian Origins at Iliff School of Theology/University of Denver. Her unique situation as a practicing Jew and professor of Christian origins has led to her ideas for this book. Her primary thesis is quite simple: “Paul lived and died a Jew.” This simple thesis can be affirmed by almost any contemporary NT scholar, but the implications which she draws from it are far from typical. Eisenbaum is motivated to oppose the traditional notions about Paul as one who converted from the ‘bad’ religion of works to the ‘grace’ religion of Christianity. She argues that Paul saw himself as a Jew and that in his historical context he would have been understood as a sectarian Jew, not a ‘Christian.’ (6-8) This may sound radical to lay readers but virtually all contemporary Pauline scholarship recognizes that Paul did live and die a Jew. The unique thing about Paul is how he understood his Judaism differently than many of his contemporaries, but more on that later. From this basic premise Eisenbaum sketches a view of Paul that allows for a very different interpretation of his (undisputed) writings.
The second chapter focuses on the problems of the evidence and interpretation of Paul. She first points out that Acts and Paul portray different ‘versions’ of Paul. Eisenbaum concludes that due to the indirect nature of the Pauline material in Acts, it will not be used in her study, she will focus only on the letters of Paul. (She takes Acts to be a second century work of little historical value for Pauline studies, while this is a scholarly option, many are now leaning towards an earlier date with more optimism concerning its value.)She also discusses the problems of the letters themselves, including a rather typical overview of why the some of the letters are disputed. Eisenbaum therefore conducts her investigation based solely on the undisputed epistles. She continues by noting some interpretive difficulties within these undisputed letter themselves, such as apparent contradictions and assuages which are simply difficult to interpret because we do not have the same background information as Paul’s initial audience would have had. From here Eisenbaum seeks to point the way forward to a fresh understanding of Paul which will help resolve some of these difficulties. This skepticism regarding the Paul of Acts and the disputed epistles is rather radical. Most scholars do doubt Pauline authorship of those epistles, but many still see the material there as genuinely reflecting actual Pauline tradition.
Chapter three discusses how Paul came to be understood as a ‘Christian.’ Since earliest times Paul was interpreted in light of the story of Acts as well as the now disputed epistles. Eisenbaum argues that the understanding of Paul found in Acts and the disputed epistles is different than the picture of Paul we find in the undisputed letters and has altered Pauline interpretation. While the differences in emphases she points out are there, I question whether or not these are not simply that, different emphases, and may not consist in mutually exclusive pictures of Paul. Eisenbaum then traced how through Augustine and Luther the Western introspective conscience was read into Paul. Augustine’s Confessions were understood as parallel with the conversion of Paul and Luther’s need for justification by faith from overwhelming guilt was read too much into Paul. From here Eisenbaum wants to proceed with two main challenges: 1) Judaism is/was not a religion of works, and 2) Paul’s gospel was not justification by faith. These two critiques are common in new perspective approaches.
Chapter four shows how 20th century Jewish scholarship continued to read Paul in Augustinian/Lutheran light until the emergence of the New Perspective. The New Perspective corrects the wrong view of 2nd Temple Judaism and therefore enables a fresh reading of Paul. Eisenbaum essentially wants to push the New Perspective even further. She notes that in Sander’s work, Pauline religion is still antithetical to Judaism and she says that Judaism should not be understood as opposite to Paul’s religion.
Chapter five consists in a brief attempt to describe the Judaism of Paul’s time, or Hellenistic 2nd Temple Judaism. The chapter is something of an explication of the points of the New Perspective. Judaism was not a strictly legal system focusing on minutia and weighing merits vs demerits but was also based on grace. For more on this view see Sanders’ covenantal nomism. Another important point from the chapter is the idea that Gentiles did not have to be ‘converted’ to be saved. They had to abandon their idols for the one true God but they did not have to become Jews and be circumcised. Much of the material in this chapter is based on findings in 2nd Temple Judaism and so I cannot either affirm nor deny its findings. Many different scholars represent 2nd Temple Judaism differently. I have read some texts from this period but there is a lot more that I could read. Suffice it to say that I think one needs to engage with second temple texts for themselves to see what they think, otherwise you should trust a scholar who you consider to be a good thinker who typically comes to sound conclusions.
Chapter six discusses who exactly was Jewish and what was the relation towards Gentiles. Eisenbaum suggests that the majority of Jews were not hostile to Gentiles and that “Gentiles were not susceptible to ritual impurity, and Jews did not contract impurity by contact with Gentiles.” (100) She points out the high level of Jew/Gentile intermingling in the 2nd Temple Period. Just as resident aliens in the OT could become part of Israel, so also God fearers and any who would come and obey the Jewish way of life could join in the community even while uncircumcised. Acceptance in the Jewish community (πολειτεια) came to be more based on observance of proper conduct and morality than ethnicity. In light of these ideas Eisenbaum suggests that Paul’s extensive interaction with Gentiles was not novel.
Chapter seven looks specifically at the Pharisees because this is the group which Paul (and Josephus) were in. The Pharisees exercised political influence and were also influential among the common people. They sought to uphold the traditions of the elders with the Torah. They are typically faulted for being hypocrites in the Gospels and the Qumran scrolls. They tended towards leniency in Torah interpretation. For example, their teaching on marriage and divorce was more lenient than that of Jesus and the Essenes. They also extended some of the priestly cultic washing rituals surrounding eating to the common people, which was uncommon in non-Pharisaic circles. All of this shows that Paul was probably not a super strict Torah interpreter, but likely tended towards more loose and creative interpretations already prior to his ‘conversion.’
Chapter eight looks more closely at Paul’s ‘conversion’ from his ‘former’ life. Essentially Eisenbaum follows Stendahl in stating that Paul’s life changing experience was much more of a prophetic call than a ‘conversion.’ Paul at this time was still a sectarian Jew and did not reject his Jewishness. Paul then should not be interpreted through his conversion experience, indeed he hardly refers to it in the undisputed epistles. Eisenbaum suggests that Paul should be understood changing within his context, not changing to something totally different. She further suggests that Paul’s experience of the risen Christ caused him to push forward his eschatology and led to his desire to fulfill the OT expectations of many Gentiles coming to true monotheistic faith.
Chapter nine looks at the ways in which Paul remains a rather typical first century Jew. Paul looks down on Gentiles for their sexual immorality and idolatry and considers these issues of moral purity. The believing community is at risk of defilement for allowing these issues of moral impurity to go unchecked. Paul’s conception of holiness for the believers is also typically Jewish. Just as OT Israel was distinguished from other nations by the ritual and moral law, believing Gentiles are distinguished from non-believing by their moral purity. Paul’s divorce views are lenient, which is an indicator of his Pharisiac interpretive tendencies. Marriage partners must be of the same πολιτεια but not the same race. The OT was for Paul’s God’s word and authoritative Scripture. Eisenbaum claims that Paul never condemned the law (Torah) but only condemned the observance of the law by Gentiles. Since Christ, Gentiles do not need to become Jews, but can be the eschatological nations which come to true monotheism.
Chapter ten is a defense of Paul’s radical Jewish monotheism. Most Christian scholars simply assume Paul’s monotheism, but Eisenbaum suggests its greater importance. She goes as far as to say that proclaiming aniconic monotheism was more central to Paul’s mission than proclaiming Christ! Paul’s early views of Christ do not exist as something separate from monotheism but exist within the Jewish monotheistic framework. Early in the chapter (cf. pg. 178) Eisenbaum clearly states that Jesus is presented in Paul’s letters as a unique divine figure which prefigures later Orthodox Christian views about him. Then later in the chapter she argues that for Paul κυριος was a title used for Christ for reasons of expediency not theological import. She further argues that Paul did not have Jesus as an object of worship or posit him as equivalent to God. I think she means that though Christ was a unique divine figure in Paul’s thought, he was always kept distinct from God and not worshipped. This may be arguable based solely on the undisputed letters. She also contends that for Paul there is no faith ‘in’ Christ. Christ is never the object of faith but God is the object of faith through Christ’s faithfulness. This of course is contrary to the majority of Pauline scholarship.
Chapter eleven is primarily about Paul’s mission. Eisenbaum focuses on the apocalyptic nature of Paul’s mission. Paul’s Christ encounter led him to believe that the end of the world was very near and the time for mass Gentile inclusion into the people of God was at hand. Therefore he saw his own purpose as an eschatological fulfillment of the purpose of Israel as a light to the nations in general. Abraham’s family is extended through Christ and Paul sees himself as a primary agent of that extension. Eisenbaum posits that the similarity between Gentiles and Abraham lies not so much in their faith but in the way they turn from paganism to aniconic monotheism. She also proposes a new interpretation of Gal. 3:6-9 which emphasizes the faith of Abraham rather than the faith of individual believers, seeing Gentiles as the recipients of Abraham’s merit.
Chapter twelve is concerned with Paul’s view of the law. Paul obviously makes some quite negative statements about the law upon which the traditional views have been based, but if Paul did not ‘convert’ from his past Jewish life, why all the negativity about law. The main answer for Eisenbaum is that Paul’s work is directed towards Gentiles and so all of his negative comments are for them. She gives four interpretive points which characterize the ‘radically’ new perspective on Paul: 1) “Paul’s audience is made up of Gentiles, so everything he says about law applies to Gentiles, unless specified otherwise.” 2) “Torah is for Jews but provides a standard for all.” 3) “The law is not meant to condemn humanity; it serves a positive pedagogical function.” 4) “The doing of good works is not the opposite of having faith.” This is a long chapter with many sub points underneath of these main points. Two were especially interesting: 1) Eisenbaum argues against human depravity, stating that Paul does not teach it, and 2) Christ is the solution for the Gentile accumulation of sin only, not Jewish. These two points in particular are extremely difficult to make. Even scholars who do not subscribe to some type of total depravity still usually recognize the low moral ability which Paul ascribes to (at least) people without faith in Christ. Also it is fairly clear that Paul considers Christ the solution for Gentile as well as Jewish sin.
Chapter thirteen explains Eisenbaum’s view of justification by faith. Essentially, to be justified by faith is to be included into God’s people based on Jesus’ faithfulness. Just as the merit of Abraham provided grace for Israel’s covenant relationship, Jesus’ merit provides grace for the Gentiles. She also here clarifies her idea that Jesus’ atonement was for Gentiles only and not Jews.
In the final chapter Eisenbaum finally admits to the two ways of salvation view. Torah for Jews and Jesus for Gentiles. She provides some brief argument from Romans 9-11 to try and support it. She then finally argues for universalism.

The work overall is very interesting and pleasurable to read. Eisenbaum has of course a bias as a practicing Jew which guides her interpretation of Paul. She is motivated to curb anti-semitic tendencies in Pauline scholarship and to present a Paul who is palpable to the Jewish community. This has some good and some bad aspects. One of the main benefits of this is a fresh reading of Paul with new lenses. The lenses represent the ‘radical’ wing of the new perspective, suggesting that the new perspective has not gone far enough. Paul should be understood as more thoroughgoing Jew than is usually thought. The primary point of her book is well made, “Paul was not a Christian.” He was a first century Jew who represented a unique and emerging sect within Judaism that became a separate religion later. It is also very true that Paul needs to be read as a first century Jew and that this context helps to elucidate the meaning of his writings. While there is no such thing as objective neutrality, these aims definitely slant her portrait of Paul.
I will also say that many of Eisenbaum’s smaller arguments are not entirely watertight. I cannot recall them all but two from chapter twelve will show my point. Eisenbuam contends that because Paul’s audience is Gentile, everything he says about law applies to Gentiles not Jews. (cf. 217-219) The glaring problem here is that Paul wrote to mixed communities of Gentile and Jewish converts, not purely Gentile. Given that this is the case, would not Paul have said at least once something along the lines of, “But of course none of this applies to my Jewish listeners in the audience,” or something of similar effect? A second example is Eisenbaum’s notion that Christ provides the solution for the accumulated sin of Gentiles, but not of Jews. (cf. 222-224) I think I speak with the majority of NT scholars when I say that Paul rather clearly sees Christ as the solution for both Jew and Gentile. These points are very brief and would need to be argued mush further but I only mention them because quite a few similarly deficient argument appear throughout the work. Eisenbaum may have a defense for these arguments, but often times I was left thinking that a point was still unsubstantiated.
On a few occasions Eisenbaum also misportrays Christian doctrines and ideas. One example shows the tendency (though not too common). Luther’s notion of simultaneously justified and sinner is explained as Christians being justified by faith but unchanged in nature without improved moral status. I know of no Christian scholar who would agree with this description. Christians, including Lutherans, see believers as new creations which have been altered and will display a higher level of morality than prior to belief in Christ. Luther was simply pointing out that though one is considered totally righteous by God because of Christ, one never achieves total righteousness in this life, but continues to struggle with sin. He did not think there was no difference.
Ultimately Eisenbaum’s interpretation of Paul simply does not take into account many of the things Paul himself says. Even though she excludes Acts and the disputed letters, her picture of Paul is still not what is represented in the undisputed epistles. I think it would have been a much more convincing book if the good arguments were retained while not trying to push Paul somewhere he was not. Someone should be able to say, “Paul thought such and such, but I think he was wrong at this point.” We don't need to twist his arm to say something different. One of the most glaringly obvious distortions is the notion that Jews are now saved apart from Christ. Anyone could take an afternoon and read through the undisputed epistle and see that Paul does not think that. “91 I am speaking truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscious testifying with me in the holy spirit, 2 that my grief is great and unceasing pain is in my heart. 3 For I almost prayed for I myself to be accursed from the Christ on behalf of my brothers, my countrymen according to the flesh; 4 who are Israelites, of whom is the adoption and the glory and the covenants and the legislation and the service and the promises; 5 of whom are the fathers and from whom is the Christ according to the flesh, the one being over all God blessed into the ages, amen.” (My translation Romans 9:1-5) This is just one of many examples where Paul does not seem to think that the Jews are fine simply continuing to follow Torah.
These negatives are very real but I think that much of the work, and even the main arguments of most chapters, are valid and should be thought through by Pauline students everywhere. There is a lot to be learned here and I commend the work despite the faults in the argument at various points. I still think that it was worth my time and effort as a Pauline student and in some ways provided a helpful corrective to my own understanding.
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