Was Paul a Jew?

By Judith Shulevitz at Tablet Magazine


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.)

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