A Jewish Paul: The Messiah's Herald to the Gentiles [a review]
One need not hear that many Christian sermons before encountering the notion that the Bible can be summarized something like this:
God created Adam and Eve but they rebelled. After a lot of rebellion, he chose Abraham and his descendants to be the people he would rescue from their rebellion. All they had to do was follow the Law given on Sinai and they would continue to stay in his good graces. But this salvation-by-works was basically an exercise in futility, and nobody could do it throughout the generations of Israel. So then eventually God decided to call it and send Jesus to save people apart from works, and this time salvation would be based on grace instead. That's why the majority of Paul's letters in the New Testament are contrasting law and grace, explaining why people don't need to be circumcised, and why it's dangerous to rely on works of the law. It's why he gets legitimately angry at people who suggest that Gentiles can be saved in Jesus as long as they keep the Law.
The general impression you walk away with here is that the Old Testament scheme was self-evidently bad and that the message of the New Testament is mostly just, "Stop trying to earn your salvation by being a good person," and is thus quite obviously an easier, better, more palatable message than that musty old idea of obeying the Law.
It doesn't take that many years of reading the Bible, though, to realize that this narrative is kind of a fiction and doesn't really make sense of the big picture of Scripture. It's not that it's really altogether wrong as much as it's like a funhouse mirror distortion of reality. There have been very many scholars who have written against this general narrative, and probably the most recent and notable of which is NT Wright. Wright's argument, infamously, is that the problem with the Old Testament is "race, not grace," his point being that the New Testament is an answer to the ethnocentrism of ancient Israel rather than any perceived or real problems with Law-keeping.
Wright's perspective is a helpful corrective insofar as it recognizes that God's grace was always foundational to his salvation of his people, that Gentiles were always welcome at his table, that his people had always been called to participate in his outward mission, and that the New Testament doesn't subvert any of that. Jesus explicitly says of his ministry, "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets" (Mt 5:27).
Ironically, this approach still lands in a fairly antisemitic place. If we go with Wright we might not think that the problem with ancient Israel was their Law-keeping, but we do still see Israel as problematic. It's just that the problem has shifted from legalism to ethnocentrism.
Into this fraught territory wades Matthew Thiessen with his new work, A Jewish Paul: The Messiah's Herald to the Gentiles. As he says in his conclusion, his hope is to provide a way of reading Paul "that seeks to defuse Christian anti-Judaism and supersessionism." How? Thiessen suggests that "the key to unlocking Paul's writings is to embed him within the larger Jewish world of his day." In other words, he notes that debates about circumcision, the Law, and how Gentiles should relate to Yahweh were pre-existing debates to which Paul was merely adding his perspective in light of his belief that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah. This was a debate that was happening before Jesus was born, and it was a debate that continued into Paul's day.
The move that some authors make at this point is to suggest that Judaism and Christianity are therefore equally valid ways to Yahweh, but this is not the direction Thiessen goes. Instead, he turns to Romans 11:28-32 to argue that while Israel is still God's people, there has been a partial, temporary hardening of their hearts induced by God himself so as to provide a window of time for Gentiles to be grafted into that people after which the partial hardening will be removed.
What is that partial hardening? It's not some kind of works righteousness, and neither is it ethnocentrism. It's simply a failure to believe that Jesus is their Messiah. The Law and the Prophets should have pointed them directly toward Jesus and yet somehow in their zeal to keep God's word, they missed the crucial piece. Thiessen offers this analogy: "This situation is like the person who is so engrossed in discerning the details of a map that they fail to make the final turn to get to their destination."
This all raises many questions, then, about how to read this or that passage in Paul, and that's what the majority of Thiessen's book endeavors to answer (though not in an exhaustive way). Indeed, the book is astonishingly short compared to most works on this specific topic. His expressed goal is simply to introduce people to reading Paul this way rather than to provide a thoroughgoing dissertation on every last objection someone might have. Whether you find his proposal compelling or not is up to you, but at minimum I do recommend reading through this short book and chewing on his argument. I still am!
DISCLAIMER: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for the purpose of a fair, unbiased review.