Minor maintenance — fixed some broken links.
James D. Tabor, Simon & Schuster, 2012, 320 pp.
Books that challenge conventional wisdom and provoke spirited dialogue can be much more valuable than books that simply reiterate popular opinion or buttress our own personal convictions. James D. Tabor, author of The Jesus Dynasty, has provided just such a book in his latest Paul and Jesus: How the Apostle Transformed Christianity. Although this book is intended for the general public instead of scholars, nevertheless anyone invested in the question of Paul and Christian origins should find this book to be particularly stimulating.
Tabor’s argument seems most compelling in its historical depiction of Paul in stark contrast with James and the Jerusalem apostles. He persuasively demonstrates the degree to which the author of the Acts of the Apostles champions Paul over against James; although Luke clearly knew about James the brother of Jesus from his sources (cp. Mark 6:3 with Luke 4:22; Mark 15:47 with Luke 23:55), nevertheless he never even mentions James until he inexplicably introduces him as the undisputed leader of the Christian movement at the Jerusalem council in Acts 15:13-21 (p. 33). This discussion effectively sets the stage for a serious reconsideration of Paul’s strained relationship with Jesus’ immediate disciples in the struggle over apostolic legitimacy and authority within nascent Christianity.
In the pages that follow, Tabor succinctly articulates the difference between the Greek concept of the immortality of the soul and the Hebrew concept of the resurrection of the dead, taking particular issue with N.T. Wright’s concept of the “spiritual” resurrection body (cf. particularly p. 250, n. 18). Tabor’s acute distinction between spiritual resurrection and physical resurrection in chapter 2 paves the way for an extended discussion of the trajectory of the New Testament’s resurrection accounts in chapter 3. After extensively arguing for the late provenance of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ resurrection, Tabor reiterates his uncomfortably convenient theory that the empty tomb can best be explained by a lack of coordination between the women who visited Jesus’ temporary resting place early Sunday morning, and Joseph of Arimathea, who had moved Jesus’ body the previous evening (p. 77). On the other hand, Tabor’s argument that Jesus’ resurrection appearances were experienced by his disciples in Galilee (following the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Peter) rather than Jerusalem (following the Gospels of Luke and John) does seem plausible.
Paul’s experience of the risen Christ is then described in spiritual terms analogous to that of the original apostles (pp. 84,87,88), but emphasizing the uniqueness of Paul’s self-understanding (chapter 4). In the central chapters that follow, Tabor articulates Paul’s gospel in spiritualizing terms without engaging the new perspective on Paul or the more recent studies firmly locating Paul within the context of Judaism. He does briefly mention the argument that Paul’s negative language about Torah is to be understood with reference to Gentiles, but all too summarily dismisses it by citing Paul’s use of first person plural pronouns (p. 211). Tabor’s approach to Paul is very much at home with the language of 2 Corinthians 3, with particular emphasis on discontinuity between the “old covenant” and the “new covenant” (cf. pp. 17, 96, 97, 210). “Simply put, the implication of what Paul teaches is no less than the demise of Judaism” (p. 183). He seems particularly keen to portray Paul as a supersessionist (cf. pp. 180, 182, 201) over against a more original Christianity discernible in Q, the New Testament letter of James, and the Didache of the Twelve Apostles, and reflected in the later fourth-century Pseudo-Clementines (cf. pp. 224,225).
Though Tabor clearly subscribes to the view that Paul was the “second” founder of Christianity (p. 178), however, this reviewer nevertheless appreciates the nuance with which that perspective is described. Although Tabor writes that “Christianity, as we came to know it, is Paul and Paul is Christianity” (p. 24), he is nevertheless just as comfortable writing about a “Christianity before Paul” (p. 9) and a non-Pauline Christianity (p. 25), describing the voice of James the brother of Jesus as “every bit as ‘Christian’ as that of Paul” (p. 39). The language of multiple diverse “Christianities” is arguably more helpful than language implying a monolithic Pauline “Christianity” as over against “Judaism.”
Unfortunately, this book does contain some errors that should have been corrected before going to print. The most glaring include the statement on page 29 that the Acts of the Apostles has 24 chapters (it has 28) and the statement on page 34 that the Nag Hammadi library dates to the third century (it dates to the fourth). Other typos include missing commas on page 32, ostensibly turning a list of eleven apostles into a list of nine. These types of oversights are, fortunately, few and far between. Otherwise, Paul and Jesus is a welcome and spirited contribution to the ongoing debate about the place of Paul in the development of the religion of Christianity as we know it today.
Mark M. Mattison
On November 18, during the 2012 meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in Chicago, I finally got the chance to view the long-awaited documentary by filmmaker Robert Orlando, A Polite Bribe, at the Gene Siskel Film Center. Orlando has proven to be a vigorous dialogue partner over the last ten years, since the time of his submission of his book review of John Gager’s Reinventing Paul to The Paul Page in 2002. I interviewed him about his preliminary work on his Paul documentary in 2005 and have described his progress periodically on The Paul Page ever since. Over the years we’ve discussed everything from Pauline studies to editing screenplays to writing science fiction.
Perhaps the most salient thing I can say about Robert is that he exudes a nearly unparalleled enthusiasm for his work and intensity for the integrity of his project, which successfully achieves a unique and seamless blend of cutting-edge Pauline scholarship and narrative storytelling that’s unsurpassed in both the academy and the studio. In my personal opinion, A Polite Bribe is a singular triumph that has the potential to appeal to the broadest possible audience, from committed evangelical Christians to critical biblical scholars to followers of different faiths and even no faith at all. It’s a human story that works for all of us precisely because it doesn’t preach to any choir or tell us what to think about faith or dogma, but rather focuses with laser-like precision on the paradoxical story of Paul the man and his famously ambivalent relationship with the Judean apostles which was largely obscured by later generations of Christians.
Much of the narrative is driven by over thirty of the most prestigious Christian and Jewish academics in the field, drawn from over fifty hours of interviews conducted since 2005. The voices represented are notably diverse, ranging from evangelicals like Ben Witherington and N.T. Wright to liberals like Gerd Lüdemann and a host of widely recognized scholars in between. The extensive cast of commentators includes other luminaries like John Dominic Crossan, Bart Ehrman, Paula Fredriksen, Amy-Jill Levine, Elaine Pagels, and Alan Segal, among many others. The most compelling plot points of the film have been stitched together from these variegated perspectives to propel the storyline through Paul’s many struggles and conflicts toward the inevitable tragic conclusion, Paul’s fateful and ambiguous demise. The multi-media experience is nicely rounded out by a haunting but graceful soundtrack, impressive special effects, and graphic illustrations which mitigate the need for the corny types of dramatizations with which historical documentaries like this are too often saddled.
Several of the scholars included in the film were also present at the Chicago screening, including Neil Elliott, Victor Paul Furnish, Larry Hurtado, and Robert Jewett, some of whom contributed to additional discussion which was moderated by Robert himself after the film. I look forward to spending more time with the DVD and the forthcoming book to dig further into the storyline and interact with the narrative, but my initial impression is that this narrative accurately dramatizes the scholarly consensus in a way never seen before.
I think the overall story is solid, though I may differ with respect to some of the details, the most notable of which is the point that Robert has identified as the crux of Paul’s story – the Jerusalem agreement. Personally I’ve been persuaded by Bruce Longenecker’s argument against the consensus view that the agreement reflected in Galatians 2:10 formed the basis of Paul’s collection for the Jerusalem church among the Gentile churches. Another point of difference that stands out to me involves Paul’s work among the Corinthians. Most scholars recognize the problematic composition of 2 Corinthians, though there’s less consensus on how to unravel the Corinthian correspondence. However, I’m personally confident that the highly polemical chapters of 2 Corinthians 10-13 historically preceded at least 2 Corinthians 1:1-2:13; 7:5-9:15, if not all of 1:1-9:15; in short, I agree with the widespread view that 2 Corinthians 10-13 is part of the “letter of tears” described in 2 Corinthians 2:1-4; 7:12. As I recall, the film depicts Paul’s correspondence with the Corinthians ending on a sour note, which not only follows the canonical sequence but also feeds into the film’s larger narrative. On the other hand, Robert did warn in advance that some of the narrative detail needed to be simplified in order to keep the film to a manageable length, so it may be premature to raise questions such as these.
Regardless of these more detailed questions, however, the film is unquestionably dead-on with respect to the most crucial events, such as the Antioch incident and what is widely believed to be James’ rejection of Paul’s Gentile collection (a conclusion fueled in part by Luke’s deafening silence about the collection in Acts, a silence which is otherwise inconceivable given the emphatic importance accorded to the collection in Paul’s own letters). The reaction of the Judean believers toward Paul described in Acts 21:20ff becomes all the more acutely pronounced as a result, and through its narrative approach A Polite Bribe manages to epitomize the essence of that conflict in a unique way. This is perhaps the signature achievement of Robert’s documentary with respect to telling Paul’s story in a fresh light, and the most likely to open up larger social questions.
Ultimately, however, the greatest value of this film is that unlike other popular biblical films (like Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ), A Polite Bribe isn’t likely to shut down dialogue but rather to inspire it, both within Christian churches and across social and religious boundaries. The reflection and conversation certain to be generated by this film will undoubtedly inform and enrich everyone who encounters it, regardless of the issues and concerns they may (or may not) bring to it.
Mark M. Mattison
Planning on attending the 2012 Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature and the American Academy of Religion? This is your chance to see an advance screening of A Polite Bribe, Robert Orlando’s documentary on Paul. It’s showing at the Siskel Film Center in Chicago the evening of Sunday, November 18, at 7:30 PM. You can buy tickets here.
Added James D.G. Dunn’s review of Whom God Has Called: The Relationship of Church and Israel in Pauline Interpretation, 1920 to the Present by Christopher Zoccali to the Book Reviews section under The New Perspective on Paul: Around the Web and added the book to the Bibliography.
Dates: September 7-8, 2012
Place: Georgetown United Methodist Church, 2766 Baldwin Street, Jenison, Michigan, 49428, (616) 669-0730, http://gumonline.org
Event: Hearing Paul for the First Time: From Intolerant Legend to Visionary Voice
Speakers: Arthur J. Dewey and Lane C. McGaughy, authors of The Authentic Letters of Paul
For More Information: Westar Institute
Added the book Studying Paul’s Letters: Contemporary Perspectives and Methods, edited by Joseph A. Marchal, to the Bibliography under Paul and Empire.