Here's what should be an easy question for Christians and a fairly easy question for all educated people of any faith: What do you know about the Apostle Paul?
If you answered that he was a Jew who, once a leading persecutor of Christians, converted to Christianity after getting knocked off his horse on the road to Damascus and then wrote a bunch of epistles in the New Testament that essentially made him the founder of Christianity -- not counting Jesus -- well, biblical scholar Mark D. Nanos of Kansas City has some sobering news for you: You're wrong on almost all counts.
And Nanos is not alone in all of this, though for sure scholars differ from one another about Paul. Nanos is one of four scholars whose essays make up an important new book from Zondervan, Four Views on The Apostle Paul. The book is part of Zondervan's "Counterpoints" series, for which Stanley N. Gundry is series editor and Michael F. Bird general editor.
The other scholars with essays in the book (and responses to the other scholars' essays) are Thomas R. Schreiner, Luke Timothy Johnson and Douglas A. Campbell. I've heard Johnson, whom I much admire, speak and I wrote about that here.
In this review, I will focus primarily on the Nanos essay, but the whole book is worth a read and is a valuable contribution to the on-going and necessary reassessment of Paul, who often has been misunderstood and who sometimes has been used by Christians as a warrant for the long, lamentable streak of anti-Judaism found in Christian history. For my essay on that subject, look under the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page.
Nanos properly laments the fact that both Christians and Jews have often gotten Paul wrong. Christians frequently say he rejected Judaism and its "law," while Jews, Nanos writes, "have traditionally understood Paul as an enemy and even a danger to their communal interests."
But Nanos insists that there are legitimate and accurate ways of reading and understanding Paul that will allow both Christians and Jews to better understand their own faith traditions and to open up the possibility of better interfaith relations.
The problem as Nanos sees it is that many Christians "approach Paul as if he stands outside Judaism and finds fault with it as inferior to his new religion. . ."
The truth is that Paul was always a Torah-observant Jew and always understood himself to be within the subset of First Century Jews who believed that the Messiah had come in Jesus Christ and that his resurrection marked the opening of a new era in God's economy. Paul also understood himself to be called as an apostle to the gentiles, or non-Jews. And he insisted that these non-Jews did not first have to become Jewish proselytes and do a full conversion to Judaism before becoming members of the Jesus Movement and, thus, Christ followers. (By the way, when talking about First Century Judaism, it's more accurate to say Judaisms, plural, to reflect the diversity and developing traditions extant then.)
Nanos is especially insistent that it's wrong to call Paul a Christian (I would add: just as wrong as calling Jesus a Christian): "To refer to Paul or his communties as Christan is not only anachronistic, but it also masks the real issues that arise when his language is approached from within Judaism."
This then gets into the old question of whether non-Jews who became Christ-followers should have been required to become circumcised (well, the males) and follow other parts of Jewish law and ritual. Paul said no, and eventually the leaders of the Jesus Movement in Jerusalem -- the council of the mother church, if you will -- agreed with him. But that didn't mean, Nanos says, that these non-Jewish followers of Jesus could ignore the teachings of the Torah.
In effect, Paul was working to convert non-Jews to. . .wait for it. . .Judaism, says Nanos, but to that part of Judaism that believed the Messiah had come and that a new dawn had opened. It was only some time later -- at minimum decades, and in places much longer -- that these Christ followers and Judaism broke away from one another in a permanent way.
Well, there is much more in the Nanos essay that may change your view of Paul -- as there is material in the essays of the others that should get you to think about all of this. And there is more material on Nanos' website, to which I've linked you above under his name.
I think it's important that Christians and Jews gain a clear (which almost certainly means fresh) understanding of Paul. And this book of four essays is an up-to-date way to start that process.
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NOT GIVING UP
Pope Benedict XVI is heading to Beirut later this week on a mission for peace. Good for him. At his age most people would be content to stay home and do not much more than pray. His traveling for peace, even if there's not much hope of it now, is a good model.
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P.S.: From 7 to 9 p.m. on Thursdays, Nov. 1 and Nov. 8, I'll be teaching an essay writing class at The Writers Place in Kansas City. Details are posted on the TWP website here (for non-members) and here (for members).