books Theology

Will the Real Apostle Paul Please Stand Up? A Review of David Christian Clausen’s “Meet Paul Again for the First Time”

David Christian Clausen. Meet Paul Again for the First Time: Jewish Apostle of Pagan Redemption. Eugene: OR, 2021.

The Apostle Paul’s shadow looms large over Christianity and the Bible. The authentic letters of Paul constitute the largest single authorial bulk of New Testament writings. In Catholicism, his association with Rome alongside Peter provides ecclesiastical arguments for double apostolicity and the specialness of the episcopal see in Rome. In Protestantism, Paul is conceived of as the chief theologian of the faith—the sole New Testament author who provided the fundamental doctrines of Christianity. Within liberalizing Christian movements, Paul is sometimes a whipping boy. Against those same movements, other progressive Christians try to exonerate Paul: the supposed misogynistic writings, for instance, belong to the inauthentic epistles or are later scribal edits inserted into his writings after Christianity synthesized with existing patriarchal social structures. Traditionalists, meanwhile, hold up Paul and all the writings attributed to him as authentic. Apart from Jesus, it can be said Christianity has a Paul obsession.

While moderns often find things to object to in the writings of Paul, moderns are often struck by how modern Paul seems. He speaks highly of love and companionship, inclusiveness and equal treatment of spouses. In a world where first century writings were excessively domineering, Paul’s writings do stand out as a light in the darkness. Recently, historians like Larry Siedentop and Tom Holland—themselves unbelievers—have made arguments that Paul’s theology of love, proto-humanism, and a reciprocal ethics paved the way for contemporary individualism and egalitarianism. Is this Paul any different from the Paul of the previous millennia?

David Christian Clausen enters the debate with his new work Meet Paul Again for the First Time. That Paul looms large to Christians, and the broader Western world, isn’t surprising. As a former graduate student in theology and biblical studies at Yale, much of our New Testament coursework had a strong focus on Paul. While Paulist scholarship is undoubtedly more Protestant than Catholic, Catholics also wrestle with Paul for the aforementioned reasons: his writings constitute the largest single authorial voice in the New Testament; tradition places him as being martyred in Rome; and many of the Doctors of the Church drew extensively on Paul in their theologies (Augustine) or referred to him as The Apostle (Aquinas) and therefore influenced Catholic exegetical theology. (Augustine’s reading of Paul is also a large shadow over Christianity, Catholic and Protestant.)

Over 2,000 years of Pauline interpretation makes us seem like we know Paul. Clausen deconstructs this assumption. Do we? As he writes, “It may come as a surprise to many but Paul has been misunderstood and his teachings challenged, altered, ignored, or misinterpreted ever since he first began preaching.”

The subtitle of Clausen’s book reveals his intent: Jewish Apostle of Pagan RedemptionMeet Paul Again for the First Time takes us away from the mytho-theologized Paul of the Christian inheritance and offers us a “new” look at Paul and the radical inclusiveness and revolutionary outlook he principally pioneered (which is itself still contained in the Scriptures when Paul confronts the other apostles in the Book of Acts): inclusion of the gentiles into God’s plan of salvation within the context of being a faithful Jew and not the founder or convert to a new, separate, religion. In the same vein as Paula Frederickson’s Paul: The Pagans’ Apostle, Clausen invites us to consider the truly radical consciousness that Paul had and preached. In a world of exclusivity that often led to tribal, ethnic, and imperial conflicts, Paul’s message of inclusion and unity in Christ was something previously unimaginable and there is a subtle irony in how many Christians, today, find that message of Paul also unimaginable.

Clausen asserts that his work is another contribution to the “radical new perspective on Paul,” a scholarly tradition that began with EP Sanders and more recently with Magnus Zetterholm which seeks to situate Paul within Judaism and not against it or within later Christian tradition which began to develop in the aftermath of the destruction of the Temple and sack of Jerusalem in 70 CE. As he says, “The idea that Paul, who flourished in the fifties, taught that Judaism had been replaced by God with Christianity and that the Mosaic Torah had been invalidated was the product of bad intentions and wishful thinking on the part of certain hostile, anti-Jewish Christians.” This work “will try to correct that misunderstanding.”

In the most basic sense, the New Perspective on Paul and its derivative scholarly traditions (of which this book is one of—the “radical new perspective”) maintain several things that Clausen is keen to highlight throughout his text. First, Paul wasn’t preaching a new religion breaking away from Judaism but saw himself within a strand of Judaism that came to believe in Jesus as the promised messiah. Second, Paul was not anti-Mosaic Law as various schools of Christian theology, especially post-Reformation, have vigorously taught. Third, Paul believed in the imminent return of Christ which hastened his efforts of Gentile inclusion (Paul wasn’t a social or political revolutionary as some writers have tried to assert). Fourth, the “new” covenant didn’t displace the “old” covenant but extended the original covenant to non-Jews and this is what Paul was preaching. Clausen’s early chapters provides a speedy summary of these basics to the uninitiated reader.

The book is divided into five parts where Clausen offers the reader the opportunity to meet Paul anew. There is modest discussion on one of the major points of the New Perspective, Paul’s positive understanding of “the Law.” It is common in the Christianities, especially Protestant varieties, to believe Paul condemned the Law. The Mosaic Law, in this exegetical theology, is wholly negative and Paul is presented as having preached against it and substituted the righteousness of Christ and Christ’s sacrifice as a replacement for the Law. Clausen, however, provides a good and concise summary of why a closer reading of Scripture indicates the opposite: Paul often spoke positively about the Law (nomos) while critiquing ritualistic ceremonialism (“works of the law”) and that all of Paul’s moral instructions to gentiles is based on the moral commandments laid out in the Torah.

Clausen also offers a reading of what is meant by “new covenant.” Here, Clausen maintains the view of some—but not all—scholars that Paul is the first to use the famous injunction in Communion, that the new covenant of Christ is meant explicitly for gentiles and not Jews, and none of the first followers of Jesus were familiar with the Eucharistic commemoration. Because 1 Corinthians predates the gospel according to Mark, Clausen asserts this is the first-time communion commemoration and the language of new covenant is used and within the Pauline context is therefore applicable only to gentiles. His argument, here, is weak to those familiar with the larger scholarly disputes which readers unfamiliar with these debates should be aware of.

Within Second Temple Judaism, there are indications of cultural practices similar to what Christ undertook, the Kiddush blessing and Passover Seder are undoubtedly antecedents to Christ’s communion. There is no discussion of the likely typological inheritance from Malachi (which further strengthens the Jewish-Paul thesis of the New Perspective). The heavily respected work from scholars maintaining the Jesus origin of communion is simply discounted; moreover, there’s no discussion of the possible Johannine understanding of the Eucharistic Passover either which stands against the Pauline origin thesis and has a large body of scholarship behind it. Clausen’s assertion of the Pauline origin is simply assumed definitive for the purpose of his rhetorical goals in the chapter and doesn’t include what other New Testament scholars, like Raymond Brown (sadly absent in Clausen’s bibliography), have noted: it is written in the context of a dispute over communion troubles which already preexist Paul’s intervention giving clear indication that the practice of communion predates Paul as does the eucharist language. Clausen’s position as maintained here is based on the assumption that communion is offered solely to gentiles and has no connectivity to the Jewish roots (which is also problematic when reading John, as hitherto implied, who very strongly associates communion with Jewish consciousness with the Exodus and therefore has explicit connotations for Jewish participation). Readers without familiarity of these debates may seem lost in Clausen’s whirlwind examination and assertions.

Despite some shortcomings that can mislead unfamiliar readers, Clausen’s greatest strength is not merely in his rehabilitation of Paul’s relationship with the Torah but his reappraisal of who Paul was (Part 3 in the book). This is essential in the New Perspective. Two millennia after Christ and Paul, most Christians (and most of the world) assumes Paul as the chief architect of Christianity. Clausen’s deconstruction of the Christianized story of Paul and placing him back in his historical context helps us further understand the nuances of Paul’s writings on Torah, “works of the law,” preaching to gentiles, and understanding of the significance of Christ.

Here we are treated to the many personalities of Paul. Paul the Hellenistic Jew (it is often forgotten that Paul wrote in Greek, not Hebrew or Aramaic, and quoted from the Greek translation of the Jewish Scriptures). Paul the faithful Jew. And in laying out a strong foundation for Paul’s Jewishness, Clausen strongly shows why Paul as enemy of the Jews or antagonistic to Jewish belief is wrong. “He was a loyal Jew, privileged, in his mind, to be chosen to call the gentiles to righteousness in the final hour before the coming of God’s new kingdom and before the impending wrath.” This is critical for understanding “Paul the convert” not as a breakaway renegade but as someone who faithfully came to conclude Jesus as the Jewish messiah who fulfills, not abrogates, the Torah. Likewise, the Jewishness of Paul adds to a better and stronger understanding of Paul’s missionary activities.

If the first half (first three parts) of the book provides a concise summation of the prevailing, though not univocal, understanding of Paul within the New Perspective, the second half of the work (the final two parts) offer a (re)appraisal of the teachings of Paul from within the New Perspective foundation. Here, Clausen enters some of the prevailing contemporary discussions of Paul such as his considerations on women, sexuality, and slavery. Clausen, on the whole, offers a sympathetic reading of Paul—one that tries to rescue Paul from his progressive critics while also trying to salvage or present a humane and comparatively forward-looking Paul from traditionalist guardians without washing over the obvious fact that Paul does use patriarchal language and accepts the validity of slavery. Clausen relies on the art of rhetoric for rehabilitating and defending Paul—recognizing what most moderns would find deficient but offering an explanation as to why that was.

Clausen’s treatment of Paul and his teachings with implicit commentary on modern issues is, in my estimation, somewhat weak and moderately distracting from the overall purpose of the book. But Clausen finishes strong with a superb short treatment of Paul’s use of Old Testament passages, the key typological and allegorical passages that have often been “misinterpreted” through the ages. Readers will be treated to a robust hermeneutic of the New Perspective’s textual exegesis and why Paul never taught the gentiles replaced the Jews (though many Jews in Paul’s time were stumbling, this didn’t entail expulsion or replacement). Moreover, Clausen’s assessment of Paul’s key Old Testament readings will highlight to modern readers how typology and “allegory” (terms Paul employs: typos and allēgoroumena) were already being utilized in the New Testament (Pauline) interpretative tradition and are not modern inventions and how Paul didn’t employ these ideas for a supersessionist (replacement) theology.

While EP Sanders still stands as the primary voice for the New Perspective and the author whom contemporary readers should treat themselves to in order to become familiar with the current paradigm of New Testament scholarship (Paul and Palestinian Judaism and Jesus and Judaism), David Clausen’s Meet Paul Again for the First Time is a good introduction into the scholarly positions of the New Perspective and its views on the Apostle Paul—the “historical Paul.” As a concise introduction into this scholarly disposition, Clausen’s book is a fine edition for those seeking some foundation or familiarity into this world of scholarship. We must remember, in Clausen’s words, “[T]here was no Christianity in Paul’s day. There were no Christians. Paul acknowledged two forms of religious practice: the correct one devoted to worshipping the God of Israel, and paganism [i.e., idolatry]. Paul’s mission was to recruit gentiles from the pagan team to play on his team, to join with Jews in the worship of the true God.” While one might not take everything he says as gospel, pardon the pun, his work stands as fine example of where a lot of contemporary Pauline and New Testament scholarship is. Clausen’s book does an excellent job presenting and defending the Jewish (“historical”) Paul, the Paul who saw himself as “Jewish Apostle of Pagan Redemption.”

This review was originally published at VoegelinView under the same title, 27 March 2022.

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Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is writer, classicist, and historian. He has written on the arts, culture, classics, literature, philosophy, religion, and history for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Making Sense of Diseases and Disasters. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and religious studies (biblical studies & theology) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.

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