Paul Was Not A Christian, by Pamela Eisenbaum (Harper One, 2009). $15.99
I was struck by the title, “Paul was not a Christian,” when I came across this book in a book catalogue.
Of course I agreed! Paul was a Jewish man who embraced Jesus as Israel’s Messiah and Savior. But I
was wondering how this thesis would be presented and defended. I bought the book and was
The author, Pamela Eisenbaum, is a Jewish woman who on the faculty at Iliff School of Theology in
Denver, Colorado. She teaches biblical studies and Christian origins. As a practicing Jew, she offers a
unique perspective on the origins of Christianity. She was a student of Professor Krister Stendahl at
Harvard and recognizes him in her “Acknowledgments” and quotations throughout the book.
That Paul lived and died a Jew is the essential claim of the book. This is contrary to the
understanding of nearly all Jews and most Christians. Most people believe that Jesus rejected
Judaism and started a new religion. And if it wasn’t Jesus, it was most certainly Paul. Eisenbaum
believes that Paul is representative of the Jews who produced most of the writings of the New
Testament. They were Jews who believed in Jesus, but did not proclaim their religious identity as
Christians. The twelve apostles and the apostle Paul were Jews ethnically, culturally, religiously,
morally and theologically. They continued to visit the temple for worship and prayer (Acts 3:1). They
attended synagogue services and encouraged other Jews to recognize (Acts 13:14, 14:1, 17:1).
Eisenbaum explores how Paul “became a Christian” through the centuries as a result of historical
developments with the church as many early church leaders came to reject the Jewish people
because they had rejected Jesus. Constantine played a significant role in this as he enacted laws
forbidding “Christians” from worshiping on the Sabbath or participating in Passover. Anti-Jewish
preaching by such notable figures as John Chrysostom and later Martin Luther served to solidify the
divide between Jews and Jewish followers of Jesus.
But didn’t Paul get “converted” on the road to Damascus (Acts 9)? Doesn’t that suggest that Paul
abandoned his Jewish faith and became a Christian? Following Stendahl the author argues that the
language of “call” better captures Paul’s Damascus road experience. When Paul came to recognize
Jesus as Israel’s Messiah, Christianity did not yet exist as a separate and distinct religion. On the
Damascus road Paul received a special call from God to carry the message of Jesus to the Gentiles.
But at no point in his life did Paul leave Judaism. For Paul, recognizing Jesus as Israel’s Messiah was
simply “the full blooming of his Jewish faith” (Marvin Wilson, Our Father Abraham, p. 46).
In chapter 10 Eisenbaum discusses Paul’s view of God and concludes that he was a “radical Jewish
monotheist.” She shows that Paul’s understanding of the trinity was not a departure from his
monotheistic Jewish faith.
In chapter 12 Eisenbaum discusses Paul and the Law arguing against the traditional understanding
that Jesus has replaced the law. She believes that the law was given by God as a “guide to living,”
never a “way of salvation.” Chapter 13 deals with Paul’s teaching on justification through Jesus Christ
and reflects a “new perspectives” understanding of justification–through the faithfulness of Jesus
rather than faith in Jesus.
I found this book to be thoughtful, well researched, engaging and helpful in correcting misconceptions
held by Jews and Christians (both liberal and conservative) regarding the Apostle Paul.