Pamela Eisenbaum's Paul Was Not a Christian: Informal Review

This one has been a long time coming! I think I must have read this over a year ago, like two reading sprees ago (next one incoming). It's been on my brain ever since, but only recently have I been convinced by Ènziramire to write a review of it. Without further ado: Paul Was Not a Christian by Dr. Pamela Eisenbaum (herself not a Christian, either).

The critical consensus on the Apostle Paul, as an author and historical figure, is that he was an antisemitic Hellenized Jew who appropriated the early Jesus movement from a Judean national organization to a universalized (of course, implicitly, Greco-Roman) religion. This view is shared by Christians who see Paul as the first true thought leader of Christianity, as a Jew liberated from performing 'works of the Law' to guarantee his salvation. They just don't see that as appropriative or antisemitic. That's just how Paul experienced Judaism and why he embraced the Gospel instead.

Dr. Eisenbaum cuts the Gordian knot of consensus, Christian or critical, by arguing that Paul was not a Jewish poser or the self-styled founder of a new religion. Rather, he was exactly who he said he was, and not what he didn't say he was: Paul was a trained Pharisee scholar, a student of the highest-ranking rabbi Gamaliel, and an apostle of the Jewish Messiah to gentiles. This is reflected in his (authentic) epistles, where Paul's statements are not heterodox but mostly in line with contemporary Second-Temple Jewish theology, philosophy, and eschatology.

Paul differed from his peers only insofar as he identified Jesus as the Messiah and (more importantly) took it upon himself to minister to the gentiles, rather than to other Jews. This is actually a point where the New Testament, especially Luke-Acts, white-washes Paul by depicting him as someone trying to minister to thankless Jews who ends up preaching to receptive gentiles instead. Paul does not depict himself in this way. Rather, he saw his mission as one specifically oriented towards gentiles in order to beseech them to repent before the end times.

Paul's mission was controversial with non-Christian Pharisees as well as the Palestinian Apostles because he advocated for a less thorough "conversion" of gentiles to Jewish-adjacent identity. It was not unusual for gentiles to convert to Judaism, especially since the religion took on a semi-political or ideological dimension (politeia) in contrast to Greek Hellenism. However, it was unusual that Paul did not ask gentiles to become circumcised or to follow the Torah, and even said that they are betraying their specific covenant with God in doing so. The way he saw it, Eisenbaum suggests, there was just not enough time for them to fully convert, and there is no point in them doing so (since Christ represents a new 'contract' for gentiles especially). All they had to do was repent and change their ways.

But repent of what, exactly? Gentiles are definitionally guilty of breaking the first couple of God's commandments:

And God spoke all these words, saying: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.”

Exodus 20:1-6

So, rejecting Hellenistic idols and worshiping the 'one true God' is a start. Of course, however, that's not sufficient. As the Apostle James says, possibly as a bad-faith retort to Paul, "Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!" (James 2:18-9). For Paul, the important thing is not idolatry as a factually or morally incorrect belief, but as a social force generative of sin (that is, taken literally, "transgressions"). Faith in God by Jesus, in contrast, generates good that combat wrongdoing both personal and societal. Paul's theology is one that, in other words, allows gentiles to participate in tikkun olam rather than just being neutral bystanders or active obstacles.

What strikes me about Paul's theology, at least as Eisenbaum describes it, is how it resembles a sort of proto-materialism. Sure, Greek philosophy had already been on the ball when it came to scientifically interpreting their world (and reading their myths as metaphors when they came into conflict with 'reality' as they understood it), and this tendency had already rubbed off on Hellenized Jews like Philo of Alexandria. But Paul makes society and individuals the object of this critique: idolatry is not reflective of reality, but is a manifestation of people's desires projected onto reality. Eisenbaum suggests too that monotheism as Paul sees it is less about there being one God than it is about the other gods not existing. This isn't me saying that Paul is a strict materialist, but there is a clear line between Paul and modern philosophers: Hegel, Marx, Lacan, Deleuze (who all obviously read Paul). It's all critique of fetishism, how one's circumstances produce their beliefs.

This all felt really resonant then, and especially now with discussions of what role religion plays in social movements like Black churches in the United States or Islamist organizations in the Middle East. If religious belief isn't a conscious choice but an outcome of living in a society that generates it, how does that shape what social movements emerge, and how are their demands articulated or filtered through their belief? It's interesting to take Paul both as a product of his society and as someone trying to understand and analyze those very dynamics through his own intellectual filter.

Those fucking powers and principalities in the sky are lying to you. Stay woke!


  1. Interesting! If I may (as an ancient historian, whose university-level teaching duties include undergrad/grad instruction in the history of early Christianity): although there may be plenty (outside the academy, or at least outside the most relevant subfields) who still believe in the consensus you mentioned early in this post, it has been a long time since the “critical consensus” among specialists on Paul sounded anything like that. Since Sanders in the 1970s, Paul’s Jewishness has been central to leading academic studies of Paul (as has a much more balanced assessment of what 2nd Temple Jewish beliefs/practices actually involved). Eisenbaum’s arguments fit into [and only slightly against] a larger context (often called the New Perspective on Paul). Some of Eisenbaum’s *specific* claims about Paul are edgy within that framework, but the core idea of taking Paul seriously as a fully committed Jew is now commonplace, and scholars readily recognize that Paul's Christ-devotion drives something other than just bashing "works righteousness."
    Sorry to be pedantic (and I hope this is useful contextual fodder). :-) Cheers!

    1. sorry i completely forgot to respond to this, thank you for the clarification and additional context!! was aware of the new perspective but not familiar with it enough to know how eisenbalm's work deviated from that norm. thank you! :D

  2. Ah, Paul, the man who claimed "no one knows Jesus better than me" while the guy's literal brother was right there.


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