John G. Gager, Who Made Early Christianity? The Jewish Lives of the Apostle Paul (ALHR; New York: Columbia University Press, 2015). 192pp.
Who was Paul, the man who self-identified as “an apostle” (e.g., Gal. 1:1) and “a servant of Jesus Christ” (e.g., Rom. 1:1)? Who was this Paul who could boast of his circumcision, of his membership in the people of Israel and the tribe of Benjamin, of his lineage as a Hebrew, and his Pharisaical posture toward the Law (Phil. 4:5), yet who could declare it all irrelevant when compared to “the value of knowing Christ” (Phil. 4:8)? Was he a faithful Jew with a particular approach to living in the ways of his ancestors, or was he an apostate who created a new cult? These are the sorts of questions John G. Gager attempts to address in Who made Early Christianity? The Jewish Lives of the Apostle Paul.
Arguably, since the publication of E.P. Sanders’ Paul and Palestinian Judaism in 1977, Pauline scholarship has focused on the question, “How, and in what sense, did Paul relate to his ancestral way-of-life?” This isn’t a distilled, historical question. Paul’s legacy is the place of contention for several groups in our own day. A variety of hermeneutical schools have evolved so that we might speak of the “Reformed Paul”, or the “Lutheran Paul”, or the “Apocalyptic Paul”, to name a few. Many of those involved in this debate fight to secure Paul’s approval of their socio-religious persuasions. The “received” Paul remains an authority for these people. Peculiarly, whether or not Paul belongs to his own people, the Jews, has received less attention over the centuries, but that is not to say that Paul’s kin have forgotten or ignored him.
Was Paul a faithful and pious Jew who happened to believe that Jesus of Nazareth had been Israel’s messiah? Or was there a radical rupture from his roots, so much so that we ought to use a word like “conversion” to explain Paul before-and-after the so-called “Damascus Road experience”? I’m comfortable suggesting that most scholars today are prone to think more in terms of continuity than fracture. The beliefs and practices of Jews living across the Mediterranean world in the first-century were variegated and Paul’s teaching and activity were one variation. Yet it would be naive to assume that modern scholarship’s understanding of Paul’s relationship to “Judaism” is determinative of his meaning and legacy.
Who Made Early Christianity? is a collection of John Gager’s (Princeton University) lectures from the 2014 American Lectures in the History of Religions (sponsored by the American Academy of Religion in Atlanta, GA). Gager’s primary focus is on Paul’s reception from the fourth-century CE up to the present, especially as it relates to how Paul and his teachings were used to support Christian “triumphalism” over against Judaism. Early on “Christians” sought “to create their identity as the true Israel and inherit the privilege and prestige of the Jews.” (2) This was due, in part, to Christianity’s (pardon the anachronistic language) marginalized status as a “new” cult. The Romans were suspicious of cults that lacked roots. Novel gods and their worshippers from the “east” threatened the Roman way-of-life. Although the Jews with their henotheism weren’t preferred, at least they could claim longevity. Their way-of-life went back to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and their Law-giver, Moses. These “Christians,” on the other hand, couldn’t point back any further than the time of Tiberius to explain their origins. In order to combat this disadvantage, Christians, even those who were not Jews, appropriated Israel’s narrative as their own.
This affiliation with the Jews continued until it was no longer convenient. The First Jewish-Roman War (c. 66-73 CE) and the Bar Kokhba Revolt (132-135 CE, a.k.a., the “Second” or “Third” Jewish-Roman War) contributed to the distancing of non-Jewish Christians from Christian and non-Christian Jews. Leaders within the Christian movement became accustom to using anti-Jewish rhetoric in order to distinguish Christians from Jews. For example, Ignatius of Antioch (c. 50-117 CE), in the early second century wrote, “If we still go on observing Judaism (κατα Ιουδαισμον ζωμεν), we admit that we never received grace…it is monstrous to talk Jesus Christ and live like a Jew (ιουδαιζειν).” (Magnesians 8:1 and 10:2/3). Why did Ignatius feel the need to keep Christians away from Jews? That this was a concern of Ignatius’ would seem to indicate that there were Christians who embraced the Jewish way-of-life (3).
According to Gager there were “three interconnected themes” at the heart of Christian anti-Jewish rhetoric: “Jews had been rejected by God and replaced by the Christians as the true Israel, the new people of God; Christianity was the sole faith, the sole path to salvation; as for Jews, there was no in-between…” (2) Yet, as Gager notes, “…it would be a serious mistake to imagine that Jews and Christian lived in a state of constant warfare. In many places and times they lived peacefully side by side.” (5) Gager stresses that when Christians “inhabited the borders” between Christians and Jews “or crossed them” it was a threat to “the rhetoric of triumphalism”. “Leaders saw themselves as its [triumphalism’s] guardians”, therefore, Jews were described in the same tone as “heretics” effectively making cooperation with Jews by Christians a risky endeavor that could make an insider into an outsider (4).
For many years, Christian theologians would wrestle with the paradox of being rooted in traditions and ideologies they received from the Jews while sensing the need to distinguish themselves. Gager uses Origen, Jerome, and Augustine as three examples of prominent thinkers who waffled between respectful interactions with their Jewish neighbors and the fear of “relapsing” into what they perceived to be an inferior covenant (7-12). Which direction did Paul’s writings push these later theologians? Probably both directions! In chapter 1, “Was the Apostle to the Gentiles the Father of Christian Anti-Judaism?” Gager presents us with two Pauls from Paul’s own writings. In passages such as Galatians 3:10, 11; 6:15; Romans 3:20; 9:31; and 2 Corinthians 3:14-15 we find what Gager calls “the Anti-Israel Set” of passages from Paul’s writings. In passages such as Romans 3:1, 31; 7:7, 12; 9:4; 11:26; and Galatians 3:21 we find what he called “the Pro-Israel Set”. (19-20) Then he contends that part of the problem is many scholars have begun with “the Anti-Israel Set” as normative and then sought to understand “the Pro-Israel Set” through that lens. Gager suggests we reverse the order, arguing that Paul was not guilty of “Christian anti-Judaism”, nor did he invent “rejection-replacement theory”, nor did he “repudiate the Law of Moses for Israel”, nor did he “argue that God has rejected Israel”, etc. (22) Gager interprets the perceived “Anti-Israel Set” as having to do with the question of whether Gentiles had to become Jews, not whether Israel was to remain Israel. Gager’s views align here with many of the voices who have become collectively known as advocating “the new perspective on Paul”.
In chapter 2, “The Apostle Paul in Jewish Eyes: Heretic or Hero?” Gager explores how prominent Jewish thinkers have wrestled with this subject. He focuses on three “early pioneers”. First, Profiat Duran, “a Jewish polymath who lived in southern France toward the end of the fourteenth century.” (41) Second, Jacob Emden, “the widely influential Polish Jew” and “prolific writer”. (42) Third, the Toledot Yeshu, which “redeems” a few figures known from the New Testament, remembering them as faithful Jews—John the Baptist, Peter, and Paul. (43) The second half of this chapter turns to a handful of modern Jewish thinkers concluding with contemporary scholars such as Pamela Eisenbaum and Mark Nanos. In gist, Gager sees the “tide” moving “in the right direction” toward an understanding of Paul that views him as fully Jewish.
Chapter 3, “Let’s Meet Downtown in the Synagogue: Four Case Studies” examines how the synagogue functioned as a touch-point between Jewish and Gentile communities. This is relevant to the study of Paul because, “Paul went to the synagogue because he knew that he would find Gentiles there.” (59) Along with the Book of Acts, Gager uses synagogues in Aphrodisias, Sardis, and Dura Europos, as examples of how Jews and Gentiles met and interacted in this public space. As regards Paul’s legacy, the synagogue becomes another contested area where curious Christians continued to socialize with Jews, even as their leaders—personalities such as John Chrysostom, for example—discouraged it. In other words, much like Paul’s legacy, the synagogue stands as a reminder that the divide between Christians and Jews has been far more complicated and complex than some would have us imagine.
Chapter 4, “Two Stories of How Early Christianity Came to Be” juxtaposes “the Standard Tale”, the one depicted in Luke-Acts where Christianity begins with the Jews, but moves to the Gentiles, thanks in great part to Paul, and “the Second Tale”, a counter-narrative, wherein we see the enduring legacy of Jewish influence on Christianity, whether that be through the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, the Apocalypse of John, and legacies of groups such as the Ebionites and the Nazoreans. Gager places Paul in the midst of this latter group, in spite of “Luke’s” effort to the contrary.
Chapter 5, “Turning the World Upside Down: An Ancient Jewish Life of Jesus” examines the Toledot Yeshu as resistance literature to Christianity’s cultural dominance. As noted above, several figures from the New Testament are re-appropriated for the purpose of criticizing Christianity. Paul is one of those figures. He has been “given a messianic role, as the savior of Israel” because he intentional, and subverisively, convinced Gentile Christians that they need to separate from the Jews in order to save “the Jews from Christian persecution.” (133)
Chapter 6 is an epilogue (ending at page 145, so, it is a relatively brief work; it contains endnotes [147-183] and an index [184-192] as well). In summary, Gager outlines the importance of his study. He contends, “without anti-Judaism anti-Semitism could not have arisen” (145). Since Paul will continue to be seen as an authority by most Christians, how Paul relates to his Jewish heritage matters. Gager notes, “There can be little doubt that the discovery of the Jewish Paul, along with the Jewish gospels and the Jewish Jesus, has a real impact on the thinking of various Christian churches and denominations.” (144) Traditionally, Paul’s letters have been marshaled on behalf of Christian supersessionism. This has had dire consequences for the Jewish people. A recovery of Paul’s Jewishness is a necessary corrective, not only as good history, but in order to subvert social forces that seek to use Christianity as a weapon against the Jewish people.
Brian Leport is a PhD Candidate in Religion and Theology at the University of Bristol. You can read more of Brian at brianleport.com.