In recent years, a rather animated conversation has been taking place about the apostle Paul. This conversation has largely been between those who identify with what is commonly known as “the New Perspective on Paul,” and those who wish to defend a more traditional understanding of the apostle. I can’t say for sure which side is winning the debate, but some of us who were initially inspired by the New Perspective on Paul have decided that it has not gone far enough—and want to push it even further.
The debate about Paul has to do with how one understands his mission and message, particularly what he meant by his famous dictum that one is “justified by faith.” According to the traditional view, which was established by Augustine in the early fifth century and developed more fully by Luther in the sixteenth, “justification by faith” refers to the belief that one cannot be saved by God through one’s deeds or “works.” Instead, one must be saved by “faith,” specifically faith in Jesus.
Religion predicated on salvation by “works” is represented by Judaism. Within this paradigm, Judaism and Christianity are antithetical religions, with Judaism being the bad and most primitive kind and Christianity being the good and most evolved form. Thus, built into the supposedly Pauline idea of “justification by faith” is an implicit anti-Judaism—a big problem for the Protestant theology that is founded on this reading.
The New Perspective emerged largely to address this issue. In contrast to the traditional interpretation, this new reading argues that Paul never meant the phrase “justification by faith” to be taken as a general theological principle about personal salvation. Rather it had to do with the relationship between Jews and Gentiles. Paul’s condemnations of “justification by works” were condemnations of Jewish Jesus-followers who saw the special laws of Torah observance (Sabbath, dietary laws) in elitist and exclusivist terms, and who were trying to impose those laws on Gentile Jesus-followers as a condition for membership in the Christian community. Paul’s argument with them was that Gentiles did not need to turn themselves into Jews in order to enjoy divine favor. The death and resurrection of Jesus had broken down the barriers that Jewish law had created between Jews and Gentiles.
No Beef with Judaism
Both the traditional and New Perspective views still see Paul as having some sort of issue with Judaism—Jews are portrayed as using the observance of Torah to keep people out of their elite club. The new, radical reading, by contrast, takes as its foundation that Paul remained fundamentally Jewish throughout his life (both ethnically and religiously) and had no “beef” with Judaism at all. “Justification by faith” in this scenario does not constitute a critique of Torah observance in general. Rather it is a critique of Gentile observance of Torah in particular. In no way does Paul condemn Judaism, and he certainly does not construct Judaism and Christianity as antithetical religions. His letters were written to a Gentile audience, and if there is any condemnation of religious practice to be found in the apostle’s writings, it is the idolatry of Gentiles, not the observance of Torah by Jews!
Paul makes it absolutely clear that his message was to Gentiles. In Galatians 1:16 Paul explicitly says that God called him in order that he “might proclaim him among the Gentiles… .” Paul’s teaching about “justification by faith” (which in any case does not constitute the core of Paul’s message) meant that Gentiles were not accountable to God for their lack of Torah observance. To Paul the death and resurrection of Jesus signaled the end of the age; as a result, Paul became concerned about the fate of Gentiles. The prophets had predicted that all the nations would come streaming to Jerusalem to worship the one God, and Paul’s mission was to turn all the Gentiles to God before the world ended.
The traditional view of Paul portrays the apostle as converting from Judaism to Christianity and in that process converting from a narrow, spiritually hollow, and xenophobic form of religion to one of grace, faith, and openness. From a Jewish perspective, however, the understanding of Paul’s proclamation of Jesus as the only way to salvation hardly makes Christianity a religion of openness. Thus the debate over how to interpret Paul is more than academic. If the newer reading of Paul gains widespread credibility, it has the potential to transform some key aspects of Christian theology and to rid Christianity of its residual anti-Semitism.
Jesus Saves, But He Only Saves Gentiles
Ironically, the more Jewish Paul is deemed to be, and the more we read him within his own historical context, the less parochial his message becomes. Because Paul preached exclusively to Gentiles, we know his message was intended for specific people, namely, for the Gentiles, not for all human beings. This means Jesus is not the universal means to salvation. Jesus saves, but he only saves Gentiles. Paul wasn’t worried about Jews—they were taken care of because they had an eternal covenant with God in the Torah.
Granted “Gentiles” is a big category, and Paul’s categorization of Jews and Gentiles is a rather simplified way of looking at the world. Nevertheless, Paul’s retention of the categories of “Jews” and “Gentiles” constitutes a vision of redemption in which human difference remains even at the culmination of history. He envisions all the various nations coming together to dwell in the new creation as children of God, but they are included in their variety as different peoples.
When Paul says “all Israel will be saved,” he doesn’t mean that all Israel will convert to Christianity—Christianity as a religion hadn’t even been invented yet anyway. He means all Jews and Gentiles will be part of the family of God.
They will be related but they will not be the same.
Although it may seem simplistic, I believe Paul’s message is conducive to thinking about religious pluralism, which is certainly one of the most critical issues facing us today. To be sure, Paul did not anticipate the religiously complex world in which we live. His view was too simplistic to be adopted as is; it will require more theological reflection and development. But an understanding of redemption that envisions people coming together while maintaining their differences is certainly inspiring, and that the second most important person in the history of Christianity articulated this vision of redemption offers Christians an authoritative resource for thinking about religious pluralism.