On Re-Reading Paul
by Brendon Byrne, S.J.
I have been amazed at the reception given to Re-reading Paul.
It has, I understand, had to be reprinted at least once – if not several times. I think
this is a great tribute to those officers of the Council of Christians and Jews who
conceived the project and especially to Rev. Prof. Robert Anderson who put disparate
material so skillfully together, so that it reads as a coherent whole, greatly enhanced, I
might add, by the Annotated Bibliography supplied with characteristic sound judgement by Dr.
Nigel Watson. But, apart from the quality of the document, I’ve asked myself over and
over, why such interest in Paul. I could understand this more readily in connection with the
Christian Gospels, which would seem to be more approachable and hence to have been more
influential than Paul. However, it is this document on Paul that has stirred up much
interest and I can think of several reasons for that.
First of all, I do think there’s still a strong sense around that Paul is the “2nd
Founder” – or indeed “the Founder”, full stop – of Christianity. Only a few years
ago the popular British novelist and biographer A. N. Wilson published a very readable life
of Paul rather much in this vein.1 The idea is that Jesus of
Nazareth was a charismatic Jewish figure, who became the leader of a reform movement within
2nd Temple Judaism in a prophetic line, similar to that led by John the Baptist. Like John,
he attracted the hostility of civil authorities – in his case the Roman occupying power
and so, in contrast to John, suffered a Roman form of execution. However, again like John,
Jesus was perfectly able to be accommodated within the rich diversity of 2nd Temple Judaism.
The extraordinary claims that came to be made about him after his death and the forging
in his name of a new religion that soon began to spread across the Greco-Roman world: this
was all the work of Paul, a Jew by birth, to be sure, but one deeply influenced by the
religious beliefs and practices of various pagan cults with which he became familiar during
his upbringing in Tarsus. Paul imposed upon Jesus quasi-divine attributes congenial to the
religious temper of this Greco-Roman world. In this way he wrenched the movement that
treasured the memory of Jesus away from Judaism and turned it into something quite other in
On this understanding – which I would certainly challenge2
– to get Christianity right, you have to get Paul right, and hence the importance of works
attempting to clarify the understanding of Paul.
Secondly – and this is amply catalogued, in Re-reading Paul – there is the
centrality of Paul and Paul’s writings to the Reformation, the most significant event in
Western Christianity since the Middle Ages. It is well known that the original Reformer,
Martin Luther, came to believe that what he found objectionable – and therefore clamouring
for reform – in certain aspects of late medieval Catholicism was exactly what Paul found
objectionable in certain aspects of his own ancestral Judaism. Luther believed that in his
personal struggle for righteousness by faith he was recalling Christians to the truth of the
gospel as preached by Paul. This means, of course, that Paul – or a distinctive
understanding of Paul – stands at the heart of the Reformation and so is absolutely
central to the self-understanding and identity of the Christian confessions that are heirs
of the Reformation. Touch Paul and you touch their very identity and self-understanding.
Hence the controversy – and the delicacy – of the “New Perspective on Paul” for
these churches, especially those of an Evangelical persuasion.
For Roman Catholics, Paul became much more significant in the latter years of the last
century (20th) as a large part of the renewal movement associated with the Second Vatican
Council (1962-65) was concerned with coming to terms at last with the Reformation critique
and the Pauline insights that stood at its heart
A third factor, perhaps the most significant one, in this interest in Paul with regard to
Judaism, is probably the sense that the interface, if that is the right word, between
Judaism and Christianity is to be discerned most personally in the figure of Paul. His is
the personality that emerges most strongly and directly from the pages of the New Testament
because it is only in this regard that we have documents clearly written by an identifiable
historical person. The letters written by him witness directly to the experience of a
leading Jewish member of the Jesus movement in the mid first century of the common era. If
we want to find out what happened in Jerusalem in Damascus , in Antioch , or in Ephesus ,
Athens , Corinth or Rome during those crucial early years of the movement, we are very much
reliant on Paul. Because we simply have nothing else or, at least, we have to read between
the lines of documents written somewhat later (such as the Gospels), or glean what we can
from writers such as the Jewish historian Josephus.
Certainly, when we read Paul at his most personal, as in places in his letter to the
Galatians, that to the Philippians, and in the later chapters of his letter to Rome , we
find someone wrestling in anguish as he stands at the interface and tries to grapple –
personally, spiritually, pastorally and theologically – with what has happened. He has
come to believe that Jesus of Nazareth, the man crucified by the Roman governor Pontius
Pilate at a Passover in the early 30’s, is the Messiah of Israel. The great bulk of his
Jewish brothers and sisters do not share this conviction and, in all likelihood, never will.
On the other hand, increasing numbers of non-Jews are finding peace, hope and conversion of
life through that same belief. This is a situation totally contrary to expectation. It has
thrown into confusion his understanding of Torah, of <st1:country-region>
Israel , indeed of the faithfulness of God. His passionate adherence to his ancestral people
and faith, his concern for their welfare remains as strong as ever. In the latter part of
Romans he severely warns Christians of non-Jewish background against any tendency to reject,
despise or write off Israel: they must never forget that they are the “wild olive” that
has been grafted on to the original stock that draws the sap of life from the “fathers”
So I think Paul, read comprehensively and not just selectively, does communicate to us a
powerful sense of the very poignant transition going on in his personal life. In him the
anguish and dilemma of what it means to be a Jew and a believer that Jesus is both Messiah
and Saviour of the entire world, is most personally seen and testified to in writings of
very considerable power. It is hard for any Christian or any Jew to be indifferent to Paul.
What, of course, Re-reading Paul is trying to do is communicate to a larger audience
– clergy, teachers, interested lay persons – a sense of what is termed in Pauline New
Testament scholarship “the New Perspective on Paul”, that is, the radical reassessment
of his distinctive concerns, self-understanding and relation to Judaism that has emerged and
strongly encased itself in Pauline scholarship in the last three decades.3
Let me list a number of points I would see to be characteristic of the New Perspective:
On the more negative side there is a sustained critique of the Lutheran tradition of interpretation, with its classic antithesis of Gospel and Law.
More positively, there is a tendency to stress the continuities between Paul and his ancestral religion—to try to see him within the broad range of Second Temple Judaism rather than as a “convert” from it to another, basically critical religion.4
In line with an earlier shift in Pauline interpretation,5 the new perspective stresses the occasional nature of Paul’s letters, including the densely theological letter to Rome: the long theological passages do not arise out of theological concerns aired for their own sake, but from the need to rationalise and justify the terms upon which non-Jewish converts should be admitted to the community of faith and allowed a full share in its life alongside believers of Jewish background.
There has been increasing recognition that believers of Gentile origin are the primary addressees of Paul’s letters, including Romans and that when Paul addresses Jewish issues, especially that of the Torah, he does so for the benefit of these Gentile members and with their concerns chiefly in mind. Any anti-Jewish sounding polemic principally targets fellow Christian missionaries who would seek to impose upon Gentile converts practices that were never intended for them. When he speaks to Gentile believers about that bulk of that has not come to faith in Jesus as Messiah, his intent is to evoke sympathy, understanding and respect and to counter any suggestion that God has abandoned, or ceased to regard as special, the people called by God’s name.6
The new perspective tends to see the major failure of Israel in Paul’s eyes as consisting less in being bound up with the general sinfulness of humankind (though this is not denied) and more in an ethnic particularism and pride that fails to recognise God’s gracious eschatological designs in favor of the Gentile world in accordance with the promises to Abraham.7
Readers of Re-reading Paul will know that there are aspects of the New Perspective
concerning which I do in fact have reservations. Let me simply mention what I see to be the
two main impulses behind the New Perspective on Paul so conceived.
The first impulse is historical: a revisioning of Paul and his concerns in the
light of the far greater knowledge scholars now have of Judaism in the Second Temple period
and its place within the wider Greco-Roman milieu of the classical and post-classical world.
A large element in the increase of that knowledge has been Jewish scholarship or, more
precisely, a greater readiness on the part of non-Jewish scholars to engage with, and learn
from Jewish colleagues. It is interesting, for example, with respect to the Dead Sea Scrolls
from the Judean Desert that whereas scholarship on the Scrolls for the first three or four
decades after their discovery was almost entirely Christian, it is now very significantly
Jewish. If you can't read unvocalised modern Hebrew don’t think of a career in studies on
The second impulse is ethical – the belated and long overdue realisation in
Christian biblical and theological learning of the extent to which particular traditional
interpretations of the New Testament had contributed to and indeed legitimated the mindset,
caricatures and prejudice that led to the Holocaust in Christian Europe. We have come to
realise that no reading of scripture is neutral; much reading is fraught with danger; all
reading raises ethical issues, and that readings that create freedom for some almost always
create captivity and oppression for others. Reading Scripture in a post-Holocaust situation
should always lead us to ask: Who might be victims, as well as who might be beneficiaries,
of this reading, this interpretation?
The more I proceed in my own work the more I realise how difficult it is for me, as a
Christian scholar, to really place myself in Paul’s Jewish shoes – to accurately grasp
his concerns, his anguish, his passion, especially with regard to the Torah. Of
course, a modern Jewish scholar will have difficulties too; because, just as I look at Paul
through the thick, and often distorting lens of my Christian cultural and theological
formation, so a modern Jewish scholar will have to confront the fact that Paul, as a
representative of Second Temple Judaism, stands on the other side of the development of the
Rabbinic Judaism, to which every strand of modern Judaism is heir. But I suspect I may have
more difficulty because of the need to overcome, or at least take into account, an abiding
Christian sense that Paul is “our man”, that we know who he is and what to do with him.
Whereas the historical Paul, if he had been vouchsafed a glimpse of Christianity as it
eventually developed in the years after his death, may well have said, “No thanks!
That’s not what I want to belong to at all”. I suppose it’s a case of the more you
come to know about someone or something, the more you realise how little you really know and
how much you still have to learn.
Further, we must face the fact that really we have at least three “Pauls” emerging
from the New Testament. First, there is Paul of the seven or so letters that almost everyone
agree were written personally by him (Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians,
1 Thessalonians and Philemon). Second, there is “Paul” of the letters that almost all,
though by no means everyone, agree were written by later adherents of a “Pauline school”
in his name, the so called Pastoral Letters (1 & 2 Timothy, Titus); the ones that have
particularly given Paul a bad name because of their negative judgements and instructions
concerning women, and their strong reinforcement of adherence to traditional doctrine and
discipline. (Letters such as Colossians and Ephesians fall somewhere in between these two
categories; but it’s a bit too complex to go into them here).Thirdly and finally, there is
the portrait of Paul constructed and presented very tellingly in the document known as the
Acts of the Apostles, as a sequel to what we call the Gospel of Luke (Acts 9-28).
You might say, Oh well the Paul of the authentic letters – the ones he wrote himself
– is the real Paul, while the other two presentations(that of the Pastoral Letters and
that of Acts) are interpretations. But, not so fast, say the practitioners of the literary
approach to biblical texts. The way a writer presents himself or herself in a literary
composition is just as much an interpretation as any other. When we compose a CV, write a
letter applying for a job, for example, are we really presenting ourselves exactly as we are
– warts and all? Not likely. And the “Paul” who comes across in Galatians is rather
different from the “Paul” who presents himself in the letter to Rome . Each is different
again from the much more personal presentation in Philippians or the brief letter to
Philemon. So we really have at least three “Pauls” in the New Testament and whether we
can ever get to the “real Paul” beneath them, is a good question. We are not so much
dealing with Paul, as with a variety of “Pauls” – and the crucial issue is one of
accurate, responsible and ethical interpretation.
The point I would like to make is that the three Pauls emerging from the New Testament in
this way are in fact rather different. I think most people who have familiarity with the New
Testament have a homogenised, composite picture of Paul; put together largely from the first
and the third (the Paul of the authentic letters and the Paul of Acts). Perhaps the latter,
in the end, calls the shots because of Luke’s ability to sketch character and tell a good
story. But the Paul of the Letters and the Paul of Acts are different – different
precisely in the area that concerns us: Paul’s relation to Judaism. The “Paul” of Acts
is a Paul, yes, who fights (as he does in the Letters, especially Galatians) to have Gentile
believers attracted to the Jesus movement accepted without the imposition upon them of the
ritual prescriptions of the Torah – notably circumcision (see Acts 15). But, whatever of
his Gentile converts, this “Paul”remains personally a faithful, practising Jew. He
scrupulously circumcises a young convert of mixed descent, Timothy, on the grounds that his
mother was a Jew (16:3); at Cenchreae he takes a Nazirite vow, to be discharged later in the
Temple at Jerusalem (18:13);arrived in Jerusalem, as an act of piety he pays the expenses
for the purification of four others similarly under vow (21 :23-24). All this is to rebut a
calumny that Paul teaches Jews living amongst the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them
not to have their children circumcised (21:21).
The question is, of course, whether what Acts describes as a “calumny” was not, in
fact, more true to the Paul that emerges from the Letters, a picture which the author of
Acts is trying to rebut by depicting a much more “centrist” Paul: a Paul committed to a Torah-free
way of life for Gentile Christians but to a Torah-observant way of life for
Christians of Jewish origin such as himself. It is interesting that, whereas for decades, if
not for the last two centuries, critical Christian scholarship in search of the historical
Paul has favored the non-Torah observant Paul of the Letters over the Torah-observant Paul
of Acts, a Jewish Pauline scholar, Mark Nanos, a recent, if somewhat way-out representative
of the New Perspective, has argued very strongly for the validity of the presentation of
“Paul” in Acts.8 It is not that we must accept Acts and
reject the Paul of the Letters. Rather, we must see that, read aright, as Nanos understands,
the Letters present a “centrist” Paul far more aligned, as Acts presents him, to
Torah-observant Judaism. I am not sure whether Nanos is going to win many to his
interpretation. But he has certainly caused a stir and is taken seriously. Again, he
illustrates the challenge that comes when people approach Paul from a perspective other than
the conventional — in Nanos’ case, of course, that of Judaism.
- A. N. Wilson, Paul: The Mind of the Apostle (London: Sinclair-Stevens, 1997).
- See my review of Wilson 's book in The Australian's Review of Books, June 1997, 24-25.
- See E. P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion (Philadelphia: Fortress, London: SCM, 1977); also Paul, the Law and the Jewish People (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1983); J. D. G. Dunn, Romans 1-8 (WBC 38A; Dallas: Word Books, 1988) lxiii-lxxii; The Theology of Paul the Apostle (Grand Rapids, Ml; Cambridge, UK: Eerdmans, 1998) 335-40; D. A. Hagner, “Paul and Judaism: The Jewish Matrix of Early Christianity: Issues in the Current Debate”, Bulletin for Biblical Research 3 (1993) 111-30.
- The stress upon continuity is perhaps less pronounced in Sanders’ own work with its pointing to the significance of “transfer” categories in Pauline soteriology and its insistence upon “solution” before “plight” (see esp. Paul and Palestinian Judaism, 463-51).
- See the studies on the purpose and occasion of Romans gathered together in the collection edited by K. P. Donfried, The Romans Debate: Revised and Expanded Edition (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1991).
- The full extent of this tendency can be seen in the work of Mark Nanos: The Mystery of Romans: The Jewish Context of Paul’s Letter (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1996); “The Jewish Context of the Gentile Audience Addressed in Paul’s Letter to the Romans,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 61(1999) 283-304.
- Cf. Dunn, Theology of Paul 118-19, 145, 363, 368-69.
- The Mystery of Romans (see n. 6 above).