Friday, June 09, 2006

Reflections on Gager's Reinventing Paul

While I was initially quite enthusiastic about Gager's book, further thought on it has left me more than a little disenfranchised. I suspect the combination of my enthusiasm for the New Perspective, coupled with a relatively novice background in it, led to a positive reaction to a book that, in retrospect, does not deserve it (and that, my friends, is why you should distrust me ;) )

While I'm not about to offer a full review of Gager's work, I will offer some comments that, despite my previously noted initial enthusiasm, will be overwhelmingly negative.

Firstly, one must puzzle over the dichotomy perpetually espoused by Gager of the "new" and "old" Paul (eg p.74, 105, etc. One need only open the book and thumb through to find examples--indeed that's all I did to find those two). I don't think the lines are as hard and fast as Gager seems to think--the "new" Paul is uniformly Gager's Paul, and if one wants to define it such, the terms really have no meaning. Sanders, for example, has Paul ultimately reject Judaism in the oft-cited quote from Paul and Palestinian Judaism (“In short, this is what Paul finds wrong in Judaism: it is not Christianity.”), to Gager, this is "old Paul" (p.14). Such a placement is nonsense. Sanders is, if not the father of the New Perspective (a title that arguably belongs to Stendahl) is at least the benevolent uncle that took it in when it was orphaned. By associating Sanders' Paul (who rejects Judaism because it has been superseded) with the "traditional Paul" (who rejects Judaism because it is a religion of legalistic works-righteousness), Gager renders much--even most--of the New Perspective meaningless. Instead of a new paradigm of Paul, his millieu and his audience; a paradigm that invites divergent interpretations and encourages dialogue, Gager leaves us with Gager's Paul, and the other Paul. The former, of course, gets the moniker of "new," and a clear rhetorical, if not actual, advantage.

Secondly, one must question Gager's insistence that Paul needs to have such a high degree of continuity. Is a reading that is consistent with both Galatians and Romans inherently better than one that isn't? Even setting aside what sometimes seems to be forced readings and sloppy exegesis, what makes the former better than the latter? For a clearer example than Galatians and Romans, surely the Paul of Romans has a much more mature theology than the Paul of 1Thess.? Should we, rather than reflecting on the differences and Paul's greater maturity, attempt to find a reading that is consistent with them both, as though Paul was the only static character in history? I find this specious at best.

Thirdly, and I think most importantly, one can't help but feel that Gager's stated concerns--the holocaust, Christian anti-Semitism--have come at the expense of objectivity, despite his insistence that they are secondary to his quest for history. The Paul of history was "all things to all men" because he was, by modern standards, a dishonest, two-faced, manipulative prick, really by his own admission. The Paul of Gager is "all things..." because he preaches a message that will sit well with both contemporary Jews and Christians. "Reinvented" is an apt description indeed, because I think such a Paul can only be invention.

What Paul needs to be is "rediscovered."

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