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Reinventing Paul

A Review

C. Gourgey, Ph.D.

Reinventing Paul
John G. Gager
(New York: Oxford University Press, 2000)

I can’t remember when I’ve read a more tendentious exposition of scripture. I give Dr. Gager credit for good intentions; he seems to want to remove from the New Testament all traces of anything that might be used to support antisemitism. But having to distort the text to do that does not help one’s case. And so the book’s title, “Reinventing” Paul, comes with an unintended irony.

Gager begins with Krister Stendahl’s well-known claim that Romans 7 is not autobiographical but rather a “rhetorical device.” Gager treats virtually the entire letter that way. He describes Romans as so full of “rhetorical devices” and “unreliable author” that it seems Paul went out of his way to make his readers think he was saying exactly the opposite of what he intended.

The conclusion Gager seems to want to draw is that Paul never questioned the legitimacy of Judaism, that he considered Judaism sufficient for the Jewish people, and that Jews need not accept faith in Christ in order to be saved. Supposedly Paul’s argument was not with Judaism, but only with “Judaizers”: those Jewish Christians who wanted to impose Judaism on Gentiles as a condition for acceptance into the messianic community.

This is not credible for several reasons. Most fundamentally, it misrepresents Paul’s theological context. For Paul, “salvation” meant escape from the judgment that was to come and that he expected to arrive soon, even within his lifetime. Only a messianic figure could provide this rescue. Paul spends much time in both Galatians and Romans showing that the law does not have saving power, and if the law cannot save Gentiles, it cannot save Jews either.

But doesn’t Paul say that the law is good? Of course, but making the argument hinge on whether Paul’s attitude toward the law was negative or positive is to set up a straw man. The law is good because it reveals God’s will to us. But the law still does not have the power to save. For that, insists Paul, you need Jesus Christ, no matter who you are, Gentile or Jew.

If Paul’s argument in Romans 9-11 were solely against Judaizers, it would make no sense to say that God hardened their hearts, or even that God “made [them] for destruction” (Romans 9:22). One can see how the (temporary) refusal of Jesus as Messiah by the Jewish people might serve God’s purposes by giving Gentiles space to enter the covenant but there is no conceivable way that the Judaizers were helping to carry out God’s plan. Nor would it make sense for Paul to say he wanted “to make my own people jealous, and thus save some of them,” if Paul truly believed Torah-observant Jews did not need to be saved. Gager makes much of Romans 11:1, “I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means!” and Romans 11:16, “all Israel will be saved.” But it is clear from the context that Jews will be saved when the Gentiles make them jealous, so that the Jews too will come to Christ following the example of the Gentiles. So all Jews indeed will be saved, because all will eventually come to Christ. At least that is Paul’s expectation. While there is much that is wrong with the traditional reading, it is not as far off as Gager means to imply.

The use of the New Testament to support antisemitism, especially in the evangelical tradition, is definitely a serious problem. But sanitizing the New Testament is not the proper way out of it. Gager is right in insisting that our reading of the text be informed by knowledge of the historical and cultural context. Even so, it is still possible for our preconceptions to bleed into our interpretations. Much in Romans is not clear. But one thing that does seem evident is that while Paul recognizes value in the Torah (“law”), he does not see it as a path to salvation. All will indeed be saved, but they will be saved in Christ, and only in Christ.

So what is a proper response to this text? The doctrine of “biblical inerrancy” needs to be questioned. Paul was a human being. The word of Paul is not the word of God, even if his letters have been incorporated into sacred scripture. When Paul calls Jews (or even Jewish Christians) “objects of wrath made for destruction” (Romans 9:22), or “enemies” (Romans 11:28), it is not God speaking. The responsibility to wrestle with our scriptures rests on all of us who would give to scripture any measure of authority. We need to keep in mind that when Paul, fully aware of his finite humanity, was composing his letters, he had no idea he was writing the Holy Bible. Had he known, are we sure he would have chosen to phrase things exactly the same way?

May 2022