I’ll preface this book summary with a simple reminder: I often read books from authors with which I might disagree. This helps me grow in my role as a pastor to be able to articulate what I do believe, as well as understand differing viewpoints. This was certainly the case (to some extent) for Paula Eisenbaum’s Paul Was Not A Christian: The Original Message of a Misunderstood Apostle.
To share some background, Eisenbaum is a Jewish scholar and has studied the New Testament from a non-Christian perspective. Now, obviously I differ from Eisenbaum’s religious background because I am a Christian. But she does raise several interesting historical and interpretive points in her writing. And I also find it helpful to consider non-Christian perspectives (doing so helps me articulate what I personally believe with my faith!).
Her central argument in the book is that students of the New Testament often examine Paul’s life and ministry through a completely detached perspective from the Jewish tradition. The same can also be said of how we read the four gospels, too, but that is another topic for another book (for instance, we often forget that Jesus was Jewish)! We naturally assume Paul sought to create a completely new “religion” following his encounter with Jesus in Acts. And tragically, many Christians have treated Jews with unkindness and even argue that their faith is “outdated” or some other dismissive term. Anti-semitism is common in our world, with people using stereotypes that might even be connected with harmful religious mistakes of the past.
Instead, closely reading the text will reveal that Paul was convinced of God’s constant involvement with human history. God did not change or reject Israel. Instead, God broadened the boundaries of God’s family. According to Eisenbaum’s reading of Paul, he believed that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ ushered in a grand climax to the promise of God. Such a promise “began” with people like Abraham, and continued on with Moses, David, and the prophets from the Hebrew bible.
I disagreed with Eisenbaum’s writing in some areas. For instance, she kind of oversimplifies some New Testament theology. In reality, scripture does say a lot of apparent conflicting things. People have debated the true nature of covenant, law, works, and the like, and these are important debates to have. Towards the end of the book, I thought she could have done a better job of recognizing nuances. Older Pauline books like Philemon sound greatly different that books like Romans (which Paul wrote later in his career). Likewise, Paul might sound a little different depending on what passage someone reads.
I also believed Eisenbaum’s book was missing a noteworthy exploration of a key Old Testament passage: Genesis 12. In this call of Abram story, God proclaims blessing upon Abram’s family and descendants, but also talks about how they will bless all the families of the earth. I think passages like these would have further supported what Eisenbaum argued. God is intimately connected with human history. We as followers of God must always seek to share that blessing with other people.
Nevertheless, my big takeaway or “new perspective” from reading this book is that God is always looking to increase God’s family. God is always willing to draw the circle bigger, to invite more people into fellowship, and to extend salvation rather than being closed off. Eisenbaum and I might disagree with one another in regards to the nature of Christ, but she did a fantastic job of offering a unique, fresh perspective on Paul.