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Posted by Tony from ? ( on Tuesday, September 24, 2002 at 1:48PM :

by Pamela Eisenbaum

What was Paul talking about, anyway? Not what you might think.

PAMELA EISENBAUM is Associate Professor of Biblical Studies and
Christian Origins at the Iliff School of Theology. Her book The Jewish Heroes
of Christian History: Hebrews 11 in Literary Context was published in 1997 by
Scholars Press. She is currently writing two books, one on the apostle Paul
and one on the Epistle to the Hebrews. This article is a revised form of a
paper delivered in November 1999 at Temple Emanu-El in New York City,
under the auspices of the Women's Interfaith Planning Committee of Auburn

I have a passionate interest in the apostle Paul. Many people think this passion is
unusual because I am a Jew not a Christian. What's more, I like to think of myself as
a feminist. What's a nice Jewish feminist 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.

Nevertheless, my interest derives naturally from my professional commitments. I am
a Jewish New Testament scholar who teaches in a Christian seminary,(1) 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 and women 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. These two
components of his identity caused him to realize that the world is a diverse and
complex place. 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 he wrestled with life in its multitudinous complexity and 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."(2) Exploring the essence of this dictum, particularly the
implications for gender and 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 Paul

Under 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).(3) 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.(4) 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

In addition to the new perspective on Paul, another trend in scholarship has impacted
the study of Paul within the Christian community -- feminism. Some feminist scholars
claim that Paul represents a kind of proto-feminist who preached radical
egalitarianism.(6) Such a claim depends primarily upon Gal. 3:28, since there Paul
proclaims "no longer male and female" (in older translations, this phrase was
commonly rendered "neither male nor female"). Paul is still a favorite of
conservative Christians, however, who think Paul teaches that women are inferior to
men and thus wives should "obey their husbands."(7)

While in my view these recent interpretive trends are welcome, they have also
complicated the issues that surround the study of Paul. Indeed, neither feminism nor
the new perspective have displaced the old way of reading Paul; conservative
interpreters who defend the old view abound. Although a multiplicity of
interpretations may give readers of Paul's letters interpretive options, commentators
are simultaneously making diametrically opposed claims, creating serious confusion
for readers of Paul's letters, specialists and nonspecialists alike.

Why is it that some people can believe fervently in Paul's commitment to
egalitarianism among the sexes while others believe just as passionately that Paul
puts men above women? 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? While diverse interests often lead readers to draw differing
conclusions, the whims of readers are not solely to blame for such widely divergent
views of Paul.

Paul himself is partly to blame. He seems to speak out of both sides of his mouth; he
has good as well as bad things to say about women and Jews. Ambiguity plagues
both subjects in the writings of Paul (a good reason to look at both issues together).
For example, compare the verses in each of the following sets:

A. Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision?
Much in every way. To begin with, the Jews are entrusted with the oracles
of God. (Rom. 3:1-2)

B. For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written,
"Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of
the law, and do them." (Gal. 3:10).

A. They are Israelites, and to them belong the sonship, the glory, the
covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; and to them
belong the patriarchs, and of their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ.
(Rom. 9:4-5)

B. I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the
law, then Christ died for nothing. (Gal. 2:21)

A. The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the
wife to her husband. For the wife does not rule over her own body, but the
husband does; likewise the husband does not rule over his own body, but
the wife does. (1 Cor. 7:3-4)

B. For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of
God; but woman is the glory of man. (1 Cor. 11:7)

In each of these sets, the verse labeled "A" coheres with more recent views of Paul
as someone who felt positively toward Jews and Judaism and promoted
egalitarianism. The verse labeled "B" reflects the traditional perspective, which sees
Paul as rejecting Judaism in favor of Christ and upholding a hierarchical relationship
between men and women. Although we can debate the subtleties of any or all of these
statements, the point is that they are all authentically Pauline, even though they appear
-- at least on the surface -- to express contradictory points of view.

Liberal interpreters of Paul who prefer to view him as inclusive, fair-minded, and
egalitarian must either ignore any statements that controvert their point of view or
explain them away. Conservative interpreters who view him as a Christian
triumphalist who upheld the superior position of men must explain away his
inclusivist/egalitarian statements. A few argue that we should give up trying to figure
Paul out, that he is hopelessly inconsistent or insane or an idiot or a rhetorically
self-serving chameleon.(8)

But the problem is not merely one of inconsistency among various passages. Like
many biblical texts, the same Pauline passages can be interpreted in varying ways.
Take, for instance, Gal. 3:10, quoted above, which includes a quotation of Deut.
27:26. Traditionally, commentators have assumed that Paul believes that Jews ("all
those who rely on works of the law") are cursed because nobody can do "all things
written in the book of the law" -- the emphasis being on the "all."(9) Unless one
keeps every single commandment perfectly, one is irredeemably condemned.
Therefore, as Paul seemingly goes on to argue in Gal. 3:11-14, Christ was needed to
redeem people from this otherwise inescapable curse created by the law. This
interpretation assumes a negative view of Jewish law, in keeping with the traditional
portrait of Paul.(10) But some Pauline scholars influenced by the new perspective
point out that Paul's argument in Galatians (or elsewhere, for that matter) never
articulates the impossibility of keeping the law perfectly. In fact, in Phil. 3:6, Paul
claims that he was "blameless as to the law." To ascribe to Paul the belief that God
gave Israel a law the people were incapable of living up to is to ascribe a very
perverse view of God to the apostle. It seems more probable that Paul understood the
verse from Deuteronomy that he quotes in Gal. 3:10 as other Jews would have
understood it: the curse applies to people who do not observe Jewish law, i.e., either
deviant Jews or Gentiles. The emphasis, then, is not on "all things written in the book
of the law" but on "everyone who does not abide." According to this interpretation,
Paul's concern is not with the law itself, but with people who have not had the
benefit of God's law, and are, therefore, under a curse. The reason Christ is needed
to redeem the so-called "curse of the law" is to make possible the righteousness of
the Gentiles before God, not the Jews.

Galatians 3:28 and the Problem of Human Difference

Not only can Paul's statements be interpreted in diverse ways, they can be interpreted
in opposite ways. When Paul says in Gal. 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," does he mean to suggest that these distinctions between people
should be eradicated -- and thus Christians should work to break down these barriers
in society? Or does he mean that these distinctions are irrelevant as far as God and
the church are concerned and thus Christians need not bother about them? This text
has been used throughout history with equal vehemence by both those who seek
political liberation for all peoples and those who wish to maintain the status

Interpreting Gal. 3:28 has become even more complicated in our modern context.
Modern liberal commentators, particularly those influenced by recent scholarly
trends, see in Gal. 3:28 three primary categories of human classification -- race,
class, and gender -- and understand it as a call to break down the barriers that divide
and exclude people. Enacting such a call would mean the liberation of peoples of
color, poor people, and women. This liberal tradition goes back at least as far as the
abolitionists, but it recently has been bolstered by the work of new-perspective
scholars. Many new-perspective scholars claim that the issue fundamentally
preoccupying Paul is the seemingly impenetrable boundaries human beings erect
between themselves, and that Torah ("law") constitutes one of these boundaries. In
other words, Paul's problem with Jewish law is that it limited interaction between
Jews and Gentiles; the observance of dietary laws, for example, meant that Jews
would not or could not eat with Gentiles. There is nothing inherently wrong with
Torah, as the Lutheran interpretation advocated, but it is applicable only to Jews and
as such creates barriers between Jews and others. Thus, it gets in the way of building
the kind of inclusive community Paul desires.

Although I generally position myself with liberal commentators and am profoundly
influenced by the new perspective in my reading of Paul, I am troubled by the
inclusive reading of Gal. 3:28. At the turn of the twenty-first century, I imagine that
most Americans would agree that the elimination of slavery and the obliteration of
all master-slave distinctions between people is a social good, such that we feel no
ambiguity about proclaiming "no longer slave or free" and meaning it literally. But
how about "no longer male and female"? Do we feel the same unambiguous
enthusiasm for collapsing those distinctions? Can such a claim function as part of the
utopian vision for modern Americans, even those of liberal leanings? If by "no
longer male and female" we mean equal political, social, and vocational opportunity
for all women and men, then perhaps we might find it easy to subscribe to the dictum.
But Paul does not use the language of equality; rather, he issues a call for erasing the
distinguishing marks between people (if one accepts the liberal reading). Some
liberal intellectuals, many who identify themselves as feminist, believe there are
essential differences between men and women, differences which may or may not be
complementary but which in any case cannot be transcended.(12) In other words,
erasing the distinction between women and men is neither attainable nor desirable.

The problem is even more acute when it comes to "no longer Jew or Greek." Do we
really want a world in which there is neither Jew nor Greek? Certainly not from a
Jewish perspective! But even, I imagine, from a Christian one. It seems to me that the
value of the slogan "no longer Jew or Greek" as a broad universalist claim has
become compromised. While perhaps at an earlier time people desired human
homogeneity, most Americans have now come to embrace multiculturalism. We
recognize there are profound differences between people, and furthermore we do not
lament these differences but celebrate them. But if we follow the liberal reading of
Gal. 3:28, which calls for the breaking down of barriers as a precondition for
liberation, then, ironically, Gal. 3:28 undermines the goal of liberation, insofar as
our contemporary understanding of liberation includes an appreciation of cultural
difference, rather than a desire to eradicate it.

One may object that I am pushing the liberal interpretation of Gal. 3:28 to absurdity,
or taking it too literally, that by "no longer Jew or Greek" Paul does not mean the
obliteration of cultural difference, but rather the establishment of an equitable human
community based on our common humanness. But therein lies the problem: What
exactly is our common humanness? Does it not imply that deep down we are all the
same? If so, then reading Paul's proclamation in Gal. 3:28 necessarily implies that
human equality is predicated upon human sameness. (Compare the prelude to the
declaration of independence!)

Daniel Boyarin, a Jewish scholar influenced by the new perspective, has provided
the most incisive critique of this problem in his book, A Radical Jew: Paul and the
Politics of Identity.(13) According to Boyarin, Paul's theological project aimed
primarily at overcoming human difference. Human difference became a problem for
Paul because, as a Hellenistic Jew, he believed in a fundamental distinction between
spiritual reality and material reality and, more importantly, he valued the spiritual
over the material. He assumed human beings must share some common essence, but it
must be a spiritual essence because actual embodied human beings come in a variety
of shapes and sizes and colors and genders. One's primary goal, therefore, must be to
transcend human difference by aspiring to the universal human essence, and Paul
thought this could be achieved by being "one in Christ." According to Boyarin,
Paul was

motivated by a Hellenistic desire for the One, which among other
things produced an ideal of a universal human essence, beyond
difference and hierarchy. This universal humanity, however, was
predicated (and still is) on the dualism of the flesh and the spirit, such
that while the body is particular, marked through practice as Jew or
Greek, and through anatomy as male or female, the spirit is

Boyarin does not think the quest for a universal human essence is necessarily bad;
part of Paul's motivation was to equalize the standing of all human beings before
God. Boyarin thinks, however, that Paul confused equality with sameness. Because
there is no such thing as a generic person or culture, sameness has meant the
imposition of the dominant culture or gender upon everybody else. Because human
difference is manifest in embodiment, in the concrete delimitation of people and
things, Paul's message relegates these very real differences between people to a low
order of significance -- so low, in fact, that they become irrelevant to the true
spiritual nature of human beings. Once irrelevant, human differences become
devalued. The Pauline gospel then, for Boyarin, encourages sameness rather than
celebrating diversity. Furthermore, since the spiritual essence of the supposed
generic human ends up looking male and Christian, women and Jews become the
devalued other.

For Boyarin, Paul's flaw -- the confusion of equality with sameness best expressed in
Gal. 3:28 -- becomes a pathology in Christianity. Christianity came to understand
religiousness as faith in Christ which was not concretized in the kinds of
prescriptions Jews followed. In other words, Christianity began to see itself as a
purely spiritual religion able to encompass all the diverse peoples of the world,
while it saw Judaism as inordinately preoccupied with its peculiar ways of doing
things and thus devoid of the spirit. Similarly, women became associated with the
material body, and men with the transcendent spirit. Thus, Boyarin argues, Paul
marks the beginning of the dominant male, Christian perspective of Western culture.
This perspective imagined human essence as the white civilized Christian male and
viewed both women and Jews as, at best, limited kinds of persons farther removed
from the ideal human essence and, at worst, as the particularized "other" in relation
to the universal human being (in other words, the opposite of the ideal). Thus,
Boyarin thinks Paul is the father of misogyny and antisemitism.

While I have been profoundly influenced by Boyarin, his reading of Paul appears to
me to be aimed at countering a tradition of Pauline interpretation in the Christian
West more than it addresses Paul's own biases. When Paul says "There is no longer
Jew or Greek,. . . no longer slave or free,. . . no longer male and female,. . ." the
ideal human being is indeed not somewhere halfway between each of these
conditions. Paul is not simply mentioning complementary pairs of equals. One term
in each pair represents the ideal, the desired status for the believer (from Paul's
perspective): Jew, free, and male (which, by the way, equals Paul!). Boyarin is
absolutely right that there is no such thing as a human essence that is truly universal,
because such essences are always envisioned with some particular template of what
constitutes a human being, but he projects back upon Paul the wrong template.
Boyarin works with essentialized notions of "Jews" and "Christians" that are
anachronistic. For Paul, the prototypical human ideal is best represented by the free
Jewish man. When Paul juxtaposes "Jew" and "Greek," he means that the Jew
possesses the preferred condition. As Paul says in Rom. 3:1-2, "What advantage has
the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision? Much in every way." It is the Greeks
who are underprivileged. Being "in Christ" allows Gentiles to be part of the people
of God, a privilege Jews already hold.

Paul did not relegate Jewishness to a lower order of being; it is his interpreters who
do that. Boyarin's contribution, however, lies in his having highlighted a major flaw
in the new perspective on Paul by following that perspective to its logical
conclusion. Even for new-perspective scholars, Jewish law is still seen as an
obstacle to the goals that Paul is trying to promote. And if law remains the
fundamental problem for t

-- Tony
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