Paul and Jesus: How the Apostle Transformed Christianity

Book Review

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

2 Comments

  1. Robert Gilbert says:

    “… without engaging the new perspective on Paul or the more recent studies firmly locating Paul within the context of Judaism.”

    This seems to be the biggest weakness.

  2. [...] Mattison has just posted a review of James Tabor’s new book Paul and Jesus on “The Paul Page,” a web site that critically explores current academic research on Paul, especially as related to [...]