Beliefnet
Reprinted with permission of Cross Currents.

What's a nice Jewish feminist like me doing studying the apostle Paul? After all, from a Jewish perspective, Paul is a heretic who had a demented view of Judaism. From a feminist perspective, Paul is an ally of Christian conservatives who wish to keep women in a subordinate position to men.I am a Jewish New Testament scholar who teaches in a Christian seminary, and, after some years of studying and teaching Paul, I have come to the conclusion that Paul was a committed, well-intentioned Jew, even if the subsequent uses of his teachings were abominable where Jews are concerned. Moreover, I believe Paul was largely driven by the fact that he was both a Jew and a citizen of the wider Hellenistic world that encompassed the ancient Mediterranean in his day. In my view, Paul is one of the first people in the history of Western civilization to deal directly with the problem of multiculturalism. As a modern American Jew, I do not end up in the same place Paul ends up (with Christ), but I appreciate how boldly and constructively he faced questions about human diversity. In my view, Paul's theological vision can be summed up by Galatians 3:28: "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus." Exploring the essence of this dictum, particularly the implications for intercultural relations, is the driving force behind my passion for Paul. Because my understanding of Paul deviates rather significantly from traditional as well as au courant scholarly views, I will begin by briefly describing the typical understanding of Paul and his writings.Old and New in the Study of PaulUnder the influence of Augustine and Luther, Christians have traditionally viewed Paul as the exemplary convert, the one who was transformed by a vision of the resurrected Jesus on the road to Damascus, who went from being an unbeliever and vicious persecutor of Christians to recognizing Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior; in other words, Paul converted to Christianity and left his Judaism behind. Furthermore, Paul's newfound religious commitment is evident in that he traveled the world preaching Christ, establishing churches, and "making disciples of all nations." Thus, he became the quintessential Christian believer, leader, and teacher, and the writings attributed to him, which attest to the superiority of Christianity over Judaism, make up a substantial portion of the New Testament.

From a Jewish perspective, Paul has traditionally been viewed as an apostate from Judaism, a self-hating Jew, and a master manipulator of others. Jews have often used Paul as their primary target in anti-Christian polemics, claiming that while Jesus was a good Jew who never meant to found a new religion, Paul manipulated Jesus's message for his own gain and glory. Paul deceived Gentiles who did not know any better and undertook to start a new religion that was antithetical to Judaism (as well as Jesus). This view of Paul holds him single-handedly responsible for two thousand years of antisemitism and Christian brutality toward Jews.

At first these two views may look mutually exclusive, but in fact they are mirror images of one another. They both assume Paul left his Judaism behind once he "found Christ" and consequently turned toward communities of gentiles, where he became a leader and made large numbers of converts. From the Christian perspective, Paul's experience is true and he is sincere; he simply found something better and wanted to share it with the rest of the world. Christians view Paul's work positively, since it resulted in the salvation of the Gentiles. From the Jewish perspective, Paul is a manipulative fake, or at least seriously misguided. What he did resulted not in the salvation of the world, but in the condemnation of millions of Jews. (Interestingly, some mainline Christians of a liberal ilk have taken up a version of this view. They tend to revere Jesus and see him as a teacher of love, while feeling skeptical about Paul and viewing his teachings as intolerant, divisive, and unforgiving.)Over the last twenty-five years many scholars have begun to view Paul differently. Commonly designated "the new perspective on Paul," this wave of scholarship signifies a rejection of the traditional Christian portrait of Paul and the reconstruction of Paul as a Jew. Scholars who align themselves with the new perspective pride themselves on having liberated Paul from the dominant interpretive lens created by Augustine and Luther. They have benefited from dialogue with Jewish scholars and by an honest engagement with ancient Jewish literature that has resulted in a vision of first-century Judaism that makes it impossible to see Paul as completely alienated from his Judaism. It is clear from the way Paul speaks that he thinks of himself as a Jew, not just before his experience of the risen Jesus, but throughout his life (see, for example, Rom. 9:3; Gal. 2:15; Phil. 3:5). Moreover, in the middle of the first century when Paul is writing his letters, "Christianity" does not yet exist. Jews who believe in Jesus do not yet understand themselves as members of a distinct religion -- they are simply followers of Jesus. Not all scholars, of course, accept this new view. Critics of the new perspective claim that it is motivated more by contemporary Jewish-Christian relations in light of the holocaust than by an accurate reading of Paul.Why is it that Paul is viewed by some as the quintessential Christian in a world in which Christianity trumps Judaism, while others argue passionately for seeing Paul as a Jew who has been misunderstood by subsequent Christian readers?
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