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Paul as a Problem in History and Culture: The Apostle and His Critics through the Centuries
by patrick gray
baker, 274 pages, $32.99

Albert Schweitzer once remarked that the quest for the historical Jesus revealed more about the questers than it did about Jesus: They saw in the historical figure whatever they wanted Christianity to be. If they wanted to make it into mere liberal humanism, they saw Jesus as a gentle reformer. If they wanted revolution, they saw Christ as a troublemaker. Paul serves an opposite role. His critics do not look at Paul and see their own reflections. Instead, they look at him and see whatever they dislike about Christianity.

Opposition to Paul is as old as Paul himself. It has accompanied Christianity in nearly every historical period, demonstrating a surprising ability to take new and even contradictory forms. Paul has been portrayed, by turns, as a rigorist and a libertine, a Judaizer and a paganizer, an unstable neurotic and an uncompromising dogmatist. The one constant, though, is the belief that, with Paul, Christianity took a wrong turn. In a wide-ranging new book, Patrick Gray, a New Testament scholar at Rhodes College, reviews attitudes toward Paul among Jews, Muslims, and critics of Christianity, from antiquity to the present. With clear prose and wry humor, Gray navigates the long, strange history of criticisms of Paul. The sheer variety makes it difficult to believe that all refer to the same person.

As Gray points out, opposition to Paul is not just a matter of judging a single individual negatively. Criticism of Paul is an index for—a symptom of—dissatisfaction with traditional Christianity. Usually his critics credit him with founding Christianity and then reject the faith he is supposed to have founded in favor of the purer teaching of Christ. To refer to Paul as founder, then, is really “to pay him a backhanded compliment.”

Yet there is truth in the claim. Paul leaves no doubt that he is in a flesh-and-blood fight to form the Christian community and, specifically, to root it in what he boldly calls “my gospel” (Rom. 2:16; 16:25). Paul is keenly aware that he bears a great responsibility and that his role is, at times, a tenuous one. But he insists, all the same, that the future of the churches he serves depends on their fidelity to his theological message.

Gray’s book allows us to see what Christianity without Paul amounts to. Take French scholar Ernest Renan, for example. In his widely read 1863 book Vie de Jésus, Renan offered a romantic, fictionalized biography in which Jesus was said to have transcended his own Jewishness and adopted a lofty “religion of man.” Having matured in the green, lush environs of Galilee with its mixed population, Jesus’s sensibilities were tolerant, capacious, and close to nature. They put him at odds with the narrow, cramped Jewish leaders from the desert south. Renan’s Jesus was a beautiful soul who fell prey to bigotry.

According to Renan, Paul played the theological heavy to Jesus’s free-spirited artist of life. Paul, who made “Jesus the keystone to a system of metaphysics,” was an argumentative fanatic, the gloomy, pedantic father of theologians. Jesus, however, was “the father of all those who seek repose for their souls in dreams of the ideal.” Thus, “what makes Christianity live, is the little that we know of the word and person of Jesus.”

Renan’s romantic language seems dated, but his views on Paul remain current. Gray connects this strain of opposition to Paul to the modern bias against the “religious” in favor of the “spiritual.” To the extent that Christianity includes moral rules, institutions, and doctrines, it becomes something disappointingly concrete. Paul’s idiosyncrasies are perhaps forgivable, but his founding of churches is not. This must be so, because churches translate spiritual aspirations into moral and intellectual demands that defy our imagined autonomies. The distinction between a “spiritual” Jesus who taught simplicity, goodness, and freedom and a “religious” Paul who introduced hierarchy and repressive morality has little basis. Yet the juxtaposition plays an important role in the contemporary plausibility of anti-Paulinism.

For Renan, Paul was a systematizer eager to lock down Christianity into rigid categories. But for others, the opposite was true: Paul was the great underminer of law. A second, equally influential motif, then, has been Paul the Antinomian. As Gray writes, in Romans, “one hears a wounded outcry from a man accused of indifference to or outright apostasy from Israel.” Martin Hengel argued that the Epistle of James may be read as a subtle polemic against Paul’s denigration of the law. Gray also notes that Jews and pagans in the late antique period attacked Paul as a dangerous and unscrupulous innovator, judging Paul’s arguments against Torah observance to be self-defeating. Under Paul’s guidance, “Christianity cuts itself off from its roots.”

To these portraits of Paul the Systematizer and Paul the Antinomian, a third may be added: Paul the Revolutionary. One indication of the extent to which European intellectual culture has become post-Christian is that philosophers now turn to Paul without worrying about the potency of his theological claims. No longer an opponent, Paul has become a resource. Gray does not discuss the philosophical resurgence of Paul, no doubt because contemporary philosophers engage Paul in a constructive and appreciative mood.

French philosopher Alain Badiou, for example, finds in Paul the means to overcome the sterility of postmodern, late capitalist culture. The one recognized universal—the market—is an abstraction that serves only to flatten and homogenize humanity. Because it has no content, its materials must be sourced locally, that is, furnished by sets of irreducible and irreconcilable cultural identities that cannot challenge the market’s power. What Badiou the Maoist finds most troubling about this situation is the impossibility of “universal truth” by which real human solidarity might be achieved. Paul succeeds in formulating such a truth by rooting a universal program in the concreteness of the Christ event. Christ is not decisive; the good news is Paul’s universalization of the particular.

In a similar way, Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, author of a commentary on Romans entitled The Time That Remains, offers a bleak assessment of the present. Individuals no longer register as persons in contemporary society. As consumers of mass culture and discrete “bio-units” managed by governments (whether totalitarian or nominally democratic), people have become “human resources” for larger entities. Instead of enjoying the flourishing life envisioned by Aristotle, we are reduced to a “bare life” bereft of dignity and meaning. Paul shows the way to an alternative, “messianic” form of life. We can form a remnant that defies the identities, laws, and regularities that make up the oppressive “bio-political” system. It is not the content of Paul’s message that captures Agamben’s attention, but its urgent form.

For Badiou and Agamben, then, Paul is a model revolutionary or, as Badiou might say, the ideal “militant subject.” Because of their enthusiasm for the formal structure of Paul’s thought, they are not opponents of Paul in a conventional sense. Yet by ignoring the substance of his letters, they deny him the dignity of being judged by his actual message. Instead of being an apostle whose authority one either accepts or rejects, he becomes a consultant who clears up matters of process and language, preparing the way for a very different kind of proclamation.

This brings us, finally, to the title of Gray’s book. In what sense is Paul a problem? For many, Paul is a nuisance, an impediment to progress, or a convenient target in a proxy war against traditional Christianity. Many of Paul’s critics—those who wrote baseless and libelous attacks—may be safely ignored. But astute critics remind us that, as Peter admitted, there are in Paul’s letters things that are “hard to understand” (2 Pet. 3:16). We ought to hear and read them with humility and self-awareness, on guard against familiar pitfalls like antinomianism and dogmatic overreach.

For those who are engaged constructively with Paul, he represents a serious challenge: how to come to terms with such an influential and complicated figure, one who can neither be fully understood nor fully ignored? He who called Christ a “stone of stumbling” (Rom. 9:33), in the end, became one himself. The similarity between Jesus and Paul, however, is not purely formal. To read Paul in opposition to Christ is to misread him. Ultimately, we stumble over Paul because of the great truth that is confirmed by his saintly and strenuous life: “Whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake, he will save it” (Luke 9:24).

Michael C. Legaspi is associate professor of classics and ancient Mediterranean studies and Jewish studies at Pennsylvania State University.