A Radical Jew:
Paul and the Politics of Identity
Boyarin, Daniel. A radical Jew: Paul and the politics of identity.
Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.
When I graduated, in 1951, from the Marist Brothers-run St. Francis Xavier College in
Shanghai, I left with a powerful impression of St. Paul, as then taught in the catechism and
Church History classes. Whilst St. Peter and his fellow Apostles were portrayed as basically
religious idealists, it was St. Paul who was clearly the visionary and dynamic figure who
possessed the courage to break away from Judaism in order to found a new religion based on
the teachings of Jesus Christ. It was Paul to whom the accolade “The First Christian”
seemed to fit most aptly. Whatever one’s religious orientation, there was no doubt that
one could not but have immense respect for Paul’s towering intellect, energy and
It was not until sometime later, after having arrived in Australia, and in the course of
further reading and discussions with friends – Christians, as well as Jews – that I came
across a more troubling dimension about him. These related to his perceived total rejection
of Judaism, particularly the basic tenets of Torah, circumcision, and the prohibition of
eating certain foods. This, in turn, fuelled the notion of anti-semitism with which he
became associated. Although it was the Lutheran movement which was most identified with this
virulent view of Judaism, other Christian teachings can also not escape the accusation that
the establishment of Christianity is very much intertwined with a feeling of disdain and
even hatred of Judaism and the Jews.
As a result, Pauline theology and Rabbinic Judaism grew apart from each other and the two
faiths progressively had less and less to say to each other. Saul, the Jew from Tarsus,
appeared to have orchestrated a chasm which lasted for centuries.
However, as Father Brendan Byrne, S. J. said in his address at a seminar recently
conducted by the Council of Christians and Jews in Melbourne, a “roll-back” of the
traditional interpretations of Paul’s influence on Christianity’s negative view of
Judaism started to occur at the beginning of this century. This mainly took the form of
either questioning the reliability of Paul’s understanding of the teachings of the Torah,
upon which his own view of Christ’s teaching is based, or whether Christian theology had,
in fact, developed a mistaken interpretation of what Paul actually thought and said.
This process of Questioning gained momentum with the general recognition of some form of
Christian responsibility for the Holocaust, stemming from the largely anti-Jewish bias of
It is against this background that considerable interest was generated by the publication
of Daniel Boyarin’s book as it was perceived to be traversing new ground in the
understanding of the teachings of Paul. For, rather than again question as to what Paul is
meant to have said, or if we understood him correctly, Boyarin explores whether, despite of
the unattractive baggage associated with him, Paul still does have a relevant message in
Damiel Boyarin is an Orthodox Jew, the Taubman Professor of Talmudic Culture at the
University of California, and is generally respected as a post-modern cultural critic. The
fact that a scholar of Boyarin’s standing should turn his attention to Paul’s letters
and epistles is a testimony to the remarkable changes which have taken place in the world of
Pauline studies. In tackling Paul, he taught himself Greek, and carried out an extensive
study of the immense amount of writings which Paul generated. Boyarin’s scholarship has
earned him a respected place among Pauline scholars. His book on Paul has been extensively,
and intensively, reviewed in nearly all the serious theological journals. They comment
favourably on his scholarship, but have reservations, like myself, in regard to his
Boyarin ascribes to Paul’s opposition to the Judaic Law because of Paul’s
understanding that the Law insists on the “priority and importance of the flesh”. He
begins his book by sketching Paul’s background as a ’Hellenistic Jewish cultural
clone” characterised by a “dualistic system which preceeds and is primary over body”.
Central to Paul’s resentments against the “Law” is its carnality, as symbolised by
circumcision, as a literal act “which should not mark off the body as ethically distinct
from other human bodies”. He also deals fully with Paul’s attitude for sexuality,
arguing that first-century Judaism had become thoroughly anxiety-ridden about it, ea. the
Torah commandment to procreate, but also to avoid sexual desire.
The main interest in Boyarin’s book lies, in my opinion in its dissertation on
identity, more particularly, the reconciliation between universality, on the one hand, and
particularisation, on the other. Boyarin has, I believe, identified this as the critical
issue of our times. He proposes that Paul, as a radical thinker, is as relevant today, in
this respect, as he was two thousand years ago.
Paul, as a sophisticated Diaspora Jew, sensed the mood of his times. The known world was
then seething with a large number of sects and religious beliefs. Despite this high degree
of fragmentation of society, of which the Jews were just one part, there was a strong
striving for some form of unification of thought. All these various ideas yearned for a
universal God who would make sense of the meaning of human existence on earth. But only the
Jews really possessed a single God and a seemingly coherent view of the cosmos and the place
of mankind in it. However, entry into this faith was difficult; circumcision, the
prohibition against eating certain foods and the necessity to observe numerous commandments,
were real deterrents to vast numbers of Gentiles. Although the more Hellenised Jews of the
Diaspora took a more “wordly” and elastic approach to observance, the Rabbis, who were
the guardians of the faith, based in Jerusalem, were unwilling to “bend the rules” to
accommodate these Gentiles, whose entry into Judaism in substantial numbers would have
allowed it to be the basis of a more universal religion.
The famous “apparition” or conversion which struck him on the road to Damascus was
apparently the realisation that it would have to be through Christ’s message of faith and
grace that this universal salvation could be attained. Once possessed of this belief, his
zeal knew no bounds. In defence of Paul, it would be fair to state that he did strive to
achieve his objective of universality via Judaism. He argued that strict observance of the
basic tenets of Judaism may not be as critical as hitherto believed to be. He proposed that
they should be considered as no more than allegories for something more spiritual and
meaningful than the observance itself.
Paul’s universalism is enshrined in that most famous of statements from Galations 3:28,
which Boyarin uses as the centrepiece of the cover of his book.‘There is neither Jew
nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no ma/e and female, for ye are all one
in Jesus Christ.’
This message of universalism exerted an extremely powerful appeal to the Gentiles who
sensed an opportunity for acceptance and inclusiveness in a hitherto exclusive monotheistic
society. But to the Jews the spirituality of Judaism had the effect of destroying the
tangibleness of their world, revolving around the Torah, Temple and the land of Israel. In
the end, as we know it, the pull of Paul’s universalism overcame the central gravity of
Judaism, and Christianity established itself as a separate universal religion.
It is in this final chapter of the book that Boyarin is at his most interesting and
controversial. It is entitled “Answering the mail – Toward a radical Jewishness”. For
Boyarin, too, has an obsession, and that is with Jewish identity today. He attempts to draw
on Paul as a resource for cultural critique and renewal. He proposes that Paul be viewed as
not only a Hellenised Jew who believed in universal sameness, but as a radical social
thinker, a quasi Marxist universalist, even a Jewish thinker, whose thoughts could make an
important contribution to the important Jewish issues of today.
To understand Boyarin’s pre-occupation with Jewish identity, one has to appreciate that
he is writing in the context of the state of American Jewry, where the issues of its
identity and continuity are now of paramount concerns. These concerns are also relevant to
us in Australia, as they are also, in varying degrees, to all Diaspora communities in open
societies, where the forces which have traditionally sustained Jewish identity are
American statistics disclose and ever increasing rate of marriages of Jews to non-Jewish
partners, which in turn leads to a reduction of community size. This gradual erosion is not
due to conscious decisions to quit Judaism, but is, in fact, the result of a process of
drift. The anxious question being increasingly asked is, whether Diaspora Jewry, as a
distinct ethnic, cultural and political entity has a future! In the flurry of an intensive
process of self-analysis, the basic question has even been asked: Does God want Jewish
people to continue?
Whilst there is general consensus that the continuity of Judaism, and the Jewish people,
must ultimately depend on an inner belief as a distinct religious community, based on the
centrality of Torah, there is no doubt that there must be a much clearer conception of what
is so special about Judaism, its religion and its way of life. This has led to calls to
appreciate that the Talmudic tradition is not as monolithic as many believe it to be, that
it does respect and preserves in the commentaries opposing views. Quite obviously, Jewish
education must be taught in a more professional and imaginative manner, particularly in ways
to appeal to the younger generation. In addition, there have been calls to ameliorate the
exclusiveness of Judaism by a greater acceptance of secular Jews, as well as those from
“mixed” marriages. After half a century of existence, even the place of Israel in the
Jewish world is part of this analysis.
Against this backdrop, Boyarin, in his final chapter, tries to reconcile the Rabbinic
emphasis of distinctness with Paul’s vision of universality. In doing so, he expresses his
concerns with developments in Israel, which he associates with (mistakenly, in my opinion)
racist tendencies as examples of extreme forms of Jewish particularism. He sees territory
and power as promoting intolerance, and therefore argues for a de-territorialised Jewish
Diaspora existence, which, in his opinion, would more comfortably thrive in a multi-cultural
environment. Only thus, he suggests, could a meaningful balance be maintained between a
particularist cultural and religious existence within a universalist environment of
interaction with other cultures.
I find his arguments for a de-territorialised Diaspora identity, entailing a conscious
abdication of power to be unconvincing, and I very much doubt that the Jewish people would
want to see again a Jewish world without a Jewish state. Jewish helplessness would be an
aspect of Jewish existence which Jews would not wish to see return.
It seems clear that the world does not appear ready for a truly universal existence, and
recent events in Europe and Africa, tragically demonstrate that, given the opportunity,
peoples will opt for ethnic particularity. Unfortunately, particularity is invariably
accompanied by intolerance of other particular identities, leading to strife and bloodshed.
Paul’s idealist vision of universality is still probably too sophisticated a concept for
universal acceptance. Particularity still rules the day and is likely to continue for the
foreseeable future. What still eludes us is the social mechanism whereby differences, when
living side by side, can enjoy mutual respect and flourish in a harmonious atmosphere.
Despite the above reservations of Boyarin"s conclusions and prescriptions, the concept of
the book is both informative and challenging. Informative because the author has made a
significant contribution to a better understanding of Paul and his philosophy. To the extent
that he has succeeeded in correcting the mistaken anti-Jewish bias associated with this
towering figure of Christian religious ideology, Boyarin will have played a significant and
worthwhile part in reducing religious tensions between Christians and Jews. The book is also
very challenging because in using Paul’s belief in universality, we are enjoined to think
about, and work for, that most elusive aspect of human existence – to respect our fellow
human beings and to live in peace with them.