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In this episode of The Bible for Normal People, Pete and Jared are joined by Jewish New Testament scholar Pamela Eisenbaum to talk about the many misunderstandings surrounding Paul, one of the most complicated figures of the New Testament, and the lens through which he viewed the concept of salvation. Join them as they ask the following questions:

  • What are some problematic translations in the Bible that skew readers’ understanding of Paul?
  • Is Paul really the one who founded Christianity?
  • What does Pamela wish people knew about Paul that maybe falls outside of the framework of Protestant or evangelical teaching about him?
  • How did Paul view Jesus?
  • Did Paul remain religiously Jewish throughout his life?
  • Is Paul the author of all the epistles attributed to him in the New Testament?
  • What does salvation mean for Paul? How does his context and experience of the risen Jesus play into what he thinks of salvation?
  • If Paul didn’t worship Jesus as a god, or as God, how did Paul see Jesus?
  • How did Paul understand the concept of salvation if he didn’t worship Jesus as God?
  • Did Paul ever think about hell?
  • To Paul, would salvation have been an individual or a collective concept?

Tweetables

Pithy, shareable, less-than-280-character statements from Pamela you can share.

  • People have argued that Jesus was in the fold of Judaism, and that Paul’s the true founder of Christianity. I don’t know that I would say that, but I would say this: the form and direction that Christianity takes owes itself to Paul. — @peisenbaum 
  • Religiously [Paul is] just as Jewish at the end of his life as he is at the beginning. — @peisenbaum
  • The understanding of the construction of Christianity as something in opposition to, or over against, or a correction to what Judaism once was—that understanding where Christianity is the fulfillment of Judaism? That rests in Paul, not in Jesus. — @peisenbaum
  • Paul did not worship Jesus like a God. Paul never talks about that kind of religious devotion to Jesus. Jesus is always distinct from God. You don’t have a Trinity theologically yet, that comes much later. — @peisenbaum
  • Paul didn’t hate women. Relative to his time—perhaps we can’t call him a feminist, but he has certain ideas about the role of women that are very unconventional and moving in a very liberative direction that he still needs to be given more credit for. — @peisenbaum
  • Why would a god create the whole world then pretty much destroy almost all of it? And that’s called salvation? That creates cognitive dissonance. I think Jesus becomes a way for Paul to understand that God wants to be reconciled to all of humanity, that actually God wants that. — @peisenbaum

Mentioned in This Episode

Read the transcript

Pete  

You’re listening to The Bible for Normal People, the only God-ordained podcast on the internet. I’m Pete Enns.

Jared  

And I’m Jared Byas.

[Music plays]

Jared  

Hello, everyone, and welcome to today’s episode. But before we get started, we have just a couple of announcements:

1) We have a new video course coming out called Reading the Bible Through a Love Centered Lens. This is a six part video series based on my book, Love Matters More, and you don’t need to have read the book to take the course or to get anything out of it. It’s available to buy and watch on October 17th. It came from a lot of questions I got after the book came out like, “Okay, what do we do with the Bible now? What’s a way we can approach it?” So we go through the history of some of these interpretive lenses as I call them in the course, and then focus on a love centered lens and what it means to read the Bible through that. So like all of our other video series, this course will be Pay What You Can for one week, so on October the 24th, the price will increase to $60. We would encourage you to get a couple of people together. This is a great way to get groups interacting around some of the questions that we wrestle with at the Bible for Normal People. Again, available to buy and watch on October 17th. Don’t forget, it’s only Pay What You Can for one week, so head to TheBibleforNormalPeople.com/lovevideo to get the course today. 

2) Then secondly, we’re excited to announce the newest title in the Bible for Normal People book series, Romans for Normal People. It’s written by our good friend Daniel Kirk. He’s an award winning New Testament scholar, author who spent years engaging normal people about the Bible and nerdy things through blogs, podcasts, books, speaking. This book is great because it doesn’t just give you the historical, literary context of the letter—though of course it does all of that. But it also wrestles with what it means to read Romans well. And that’s important because reading Romans well is not always something we as Christians have done, well…well. Romans is not just this collection of one liners that we can wield against those with whom we disagree. It’s Paul’s plea to the early church to put aside their petty squabbles, and get on with the business of living like Jesus. To stop waiting for the new creation and just start living it. So with our latest book here, Romans for Normal People, you’re invited to, you know, think about Romans in a new way and engage with the text as it is. And of course, we couldn’t ask for a better guide than our good friend Daniel Kirk. So the book officially comes out on November 1st, but you can preorder Romans for Normal People today. You can also get a bonus gift when you preorder by going to theBibleforNormalPeople.com/books.

So for today’s episode, we couldn’t have asked for a more perfect segue because we are talking about Paul with Pamela Eisenbaum. [Music ends] Pamela Eisenbaum is not only a New Testament scholar, but one of four Jewish New Testament scholars teaching in Christian theological schools. So we get a unique perspective today, as we talk about Paul and salvation. She’s the author of Paul Was Not a Christian, as well as many other books, so we hope that you get a lot out of this. It was a really exciting conversation for me, again, to have that unique perspective of a Jewish New Testament scholar, as she sees Paul from the perspective of Judaism.

Pamela  

[Teaser clip of Pamela speaking over music] “Okay, so here you have to think like a Jew for a minute, and one of those is that salvation means a world, literally, a world, where people don’t fight each other, and people don’t know hunger. It’s a world where people behave in a kind of idealized way, as a way God intended for humanity. When Paul talks about salvation, I think he mainly is talking about collectivities of peoples, not individuals. But I think Paul has a much bigger view of the sort of reconciliation of humanity to God than most people give him credit for. [Music ends] [Ad break]

Jared  

Well, welcome to the podcast, Pamela! It’s great to have you.

Pamela  

Thanks for inviting me. I’m glad to be here.

Jared  

Absolutely. Well we want to start with a little bit of background on you, so what got into your psyche, into your heart, mind, soul that drove you to New Testament scholarship in general, but Paul in particular?

Pamela  

When I was first starting to teach, because I never envisioned I would be a scholar working on Paul, that wasn’t something I focused on in graduate work or dissertation. But it comes from teaching. I taught Introduction to the New Testament, like pretty much any other New Testament scholar would, and I was very disciplined in those days. And I used to read texts in Greek [laughs] to get ready for class just to be very prepared. And whenever we came to the Pauline material, I always felt like the translations were more obscuring than I would experience in the Gospels—that were problematic…There was other stuff going on, and later, if you want to talk about some examples, we can do that. And so I started making little translations, because it was hard for me to illustrate a point about Paul with them looking at the RSV or the NIV or pretty much any translation. So and then, of course because Paul is known as kind of the father of anti-semitism, and, you know, I’m Jewish, obviously, and I grew up, by the way, in conservative and Orthodox synagogues. And my father comes from a very Orthodox background. So, you know, I thought if Paul is sort of the one who just, you know, killed it for the Jews, I mean, just ruined everything, and Jesus as the good guy—and that’s pretty much what Jews (I am overgeneralizing, of course) that Jews have thought of and that, you know, Paul said some things that sound pretty horrific when you’re reading them as a Jew, or when you’re reading them as a Christian with sensitivity towards Jews. So I realized because I was also interested in Christian anti-semitism, that Paul was a place to focus—one for teaching and explaining things more, that agency elsewhere, and speaking to the issue of anti-semitism in a contemporary context, for Christian anti-Judaism if I’m speaking more properly in historical context.

Pete  

Yeah. So that is a fascinating entry point, I think, into Paul. So, you were seeing some problems in translations of Paul, and also just things that Paul says that were problematic and so you decided to dig into this more, and the more you dug into it, you started having a career around Paul.

Pamela  

Yes, that’s right. And I think there was emerging—there were some scholars who really began to influence me. But, by the way, I went to Harvard Divinity School and—you’re a graduate of Harvard, as I recall, Peter, at least in the doctoral program—but Krister Stendahl was my advisor. 

Pete  

Oh!

Pamela  

And—Yeah! So, he obviously was an important influence and I didn’t mention this earlier, but he had encouraged me to work on Paul and I had no interest in Paul at the time. But obviously, his voice was…um—

Pete  

Could, could you talk about who he is? Because some of our listeners might not be familiar with him.

Pamela  

Sure. So, Krister Stendahl taught, was a New Testament scholar who also was Dead Sea Scrolls scholar and was an amazing scholar. And he taught at Harvard for many years as well as in Sweden, and he was a bishop in the Swedish Lutheran Church, who became the Bishop of Stockholm, in fact, retired Harvard to go become the Bishop of Stockholm. And I remember, he makes that decision right about the time I graduate from my master’s program at Harvard. And I remember being surprised at that and I asked him, “Why would you want to go to the church now?” I had such a scholar’s bias, I think, and he said, “I’m just as much a man of the church as I am a scholar.” That left a big impression on me. He wrote some influential and highly readable things, should people be interested in that.

Pete  

Right, right. Yeah, he was an amazing scholar and a person too from what I understand. So… 

Pamela  

He was, he was indeed.

Pete  

Well, you mentioned just before—Let’s get into Paul a little bit more specifically. You mentioned examples of translations that were problematic, you know, for engaging Paul. Do you have an example to give to put some feet on this?

Pamela  

Yes, let me give perhaps a simple one. So in Romans 11:28, so if you were looking at the NRSV or NIV—I can only think of one exception off the top of my head—That verse starts with, in English, “As regards the gospel, they are enemies of God for your sake.” And then it goes on to say, “But as regards election, they are beloved for the sake of their ancestors,” and the “they” here are Jews/Israel. Paul vacillates in using that term. But if you’re looking at an NRSV, you know the little tiny letter notes that appear, not the commentaries, but the little translator’s notes there?

Pete  

Yeah, at the bottom.

Pamela  

You’ll see—Right, at the bottom. It’ll say, “Enemies of God—not in the Greek.” 

Pete  

[Laughs]

Pamela  

So out of…

Pete  

[Laughing] Okay!

Jared  

I love it when they make stuff up!

Pamela  

Yes, the whole phrase—I’m sorry, “of God,” they just added it! And this phrase—so in the late 90s when the internet, you know, was just proliferating like crazy, there were a lot of Neo-Nazi Christian groups starting websites. And they would quote this verse—by the way, in concert with Genesis—to argue that the Bible, that Jews were descendants of Satan. Right, so we don’t want to get off track into how their exegesis works there, but to say that Jews are the enemy of God, you put that together with certain elements historically of Christian theology like the charge of deicide by the church that Jews killed God because of their contribution to the crucifixion of Jesus; how Christians read certain stories of the interaction between the snake and Eve. So this little phrase “enemies of God” adds to a lot of problems that if you just read it with the Greek, you wouldn’t have. So it just says, “As regards the gospel, they are enemies for your sake.” And if I were writing the translation, and as you know, in Greek, word order doesn’t matter. That’s a slight overstatement. But you can put the subject, the object, verb anywhere in the sentence. And so that’s reading it—sort of what I just said, “As regards the gospel, they are enemies for your sake,” that’s reading it in the order of the words in the Greek. But all Paul means there really is they are enemies of the gospel. In fact, that’s what it says, “They’re enemies against the gospel.” And I think all he means, he’s been discussing in Romans 9 to 11, how the Jews’ rejection of his message gives more time for non-Jews, the Gentiles, the nations, to receive the message that he’s preaching. So he thinks it’s a good thing. 

Pete  

[Hums in agreement]

Pamela  

But they’re not enemies of God—they oppose his message. So all they need to say is, you know, they oppose the gospel, or it’s just by the way, a participle—well I don’t want to get into too much grammar and cause everyone to fall asleep. But why add the words “of God”? I think they’re much—I’ve never chased down the whole tradition of this. But I think they assume that the message of the gospel is also God. I mean, there’s a theology embedded there. So because Paul, I think, is much more important, really—so let me just say this. I think, you know, people sometimes ask me, “Is Paul really the one who founded Christianity?” You know, people have argued that Jesus, you know, was in the fold of Judaism, and Paul’s the true founder of Christianity. I don’t know that I would say that. But I would say this: the form and direction that Christianity takes owes itself to Paul and particularly Protestant theology rests on poles since Luther himself said that the Gospel is justification by faith. Which is weird, because Paul said the Gospel is the death and resurrection of Jesus. And Luther knew that. [Laughs] But Luther argued that, you know, the point of the death and resurrection was justification by faith. So, so much is at stake. And I would say this—by the way, this is true of progressives and evangelicals, when it comes to Pauline theology. I’d like to get to that at some point.

Jared  

I think let’s jump, let’s jump into that a little bit. Because what I hear you saying is, not just Paul as the crux, but also all these layers of tradition that have been added onto Paul and maybe close readings might ask some serious questions of these various interpretations that some of us who grew up Protestant or evangelical, maybe take for granted. So are there a few things that maybe we can jump into that you wish everyone knew about Paul, that might cause us to ask some of these questions that at least loosen up our like, what you just said, about enemies of God and the assumption that the Gospel is God? That would have been right in line with how I would have grown up. The tradition I grew up in would have made that equation. So are there other places like that, that maybe we can explore?

Pamela  

Yeah, oh my gosh! So things I want people to know about Paul. So, most important to me is that Paul didn’t hate Jews, condemned Judaism, that he lived and died a Jew, and I don’t mean an ethnic Jew. People would concede that point. I mean, religiously he’s just as Jewish at the end of his life as he is at the beginning. And the understanding of the construction of Christianity as something in opposition to, or over against, or a correction to, what Judaism once was. That understanding where Christianity is the fulfillment of Judaism? That rests in Paul, not in Jesus. You maybe could point to a few verses, but really, that understanding is rooted in Paul. So that’s the first thing. The second is Paul did not worship Jesus like a God. Paul never talks about that kind of religious devotion to Jesus. So Jesus has to stay—Jesus is always distinct from God, you don’t have a Trinity theologically yet, that comes much later. This is an obvious one for many, most scholars, I think that may not be for everyone. And that is that Paul didn’t write all the letters attributed to him in the New Testament, that’s an important one to know. Paul didn’t hate women, by the way, either. And Paul, relative to his time, perhaps we can’t call him a feminist but he has certain ideas about the role of women that are very unconventional and moving in a very liberative direction that he still needs to be given more credit for.

And I have one more. Well, one more worth articulating.

[All laughing]

I have more I could think of, but one more. And that is, and this is the most controversial one from me. When Paul talks about salvation, I think he mainly is talking about collectivities of peoples, not individuals. And I think he’s much more inclusive—what some people might call universal salvation, which, as you guys know, gets condemned as a heresy pretty early on in Christian history. But I think Paul has a much bigger view of the sort of reconciliation of humanity to God, than most people give him credit for.

[Ad break]

Pete  

Can we start with the most controversial one [laughs] and talk about that? 

Pamela

[Laughs] Sure!

Pete

I mean, this is certainly something that many people think about, including myself and Jared, and how, what is Paul after when he talks about salvation? And I don’t mind saying I’ve gotten into a little bit of trouble, not that I care about, you know, in Romans, Paul really isn’t talking about the individual as much as he is talking about groups of people and things. So can you, can you flesh it out and explain more about that, and maybe if there’s a passage or two that you can point to, to help us understand how salvation for Paul is not, you know, the “Romans road” that Christians talk about sometimes, which is all about how individuals avoid hell. But there seems to be something else that Paul’s talking about.

Pamela  

You know, I only learned about the Romans road, like maybe five years ago.

Pete  

You’re so sheltered. 

Pamela  

I am, I mean—I’m a Jewish Christian—

Pete  

[Sarcastically] How can you be a Paul scholar?!

Pamela  

Yeah, I know, I’m late, but that’s—I never heard any of my scholar friends mention that, but I love it when students bring that in. So the first thing is, I think Paul thinks that the end of the world is imminent. So I think Paul is very much, you know, what we call an apocalypticist. He doesn’t just think about the end of the world, he thinks that the end of the world is imminent. And the reason he thinks that is when he had an experience of the risen Jesus, I’ll just call it that—I think he has some sort of experience he himself describes in Galatians 1 of the risen Jesus—that when he has that experience, he associates resurrection of the dead with the end of the world, because, you know, in Jewish tradition of his time, and even now, people don’t willy-nilly get up out of the grave after dawn. They don’t get up three days later and wander around like zombies. The resurrection of the dead happens at the end of the world for the purposes of the final judgment. 

So when Paul has his experience of the risen Jesus, whatever else that experience does to him, it signals to him that Jesus is the beginning of the end. And he even calls him you know, the firstborn, the “firstborn of the resurrection,” of the new children of God for the new world. So, in that tradition of the end of the world, he appeals to certain prophetic traditions that talk about all the nations—people know these well—all the nations streaming to Jerusalem to recognize the one true God. And so that’s the imagery that Paul has. And when he talks about all the nations of the world, and when he uses that word, ethne (nations) it gets translated gentiles so often, but he really means people groups. And you know, there’s no such thing as an individual gentile. Even my—so the word ethne, which is the plural for gentiles or nations, translates from the Hebrew goyim and a boy is a nation, not an individual. So when Paul uses, you know, a singular, he doesn’t mean a non-Jew. He doesn’t have a word for an individual non-Jew, except to maybe call them a Greek or something else. But that also gets distorted in translation.

So Paul’s got this tradition of all the nations streaming to Jerusalem, and he understands his mission as speaking to peoples in general. And to your last point about an example, I think, since I’m in Romans 11—Romans 11, you have this language about how the Jews “will reject the message until the full number, the full count, of the gentiles has come into the fold.” And I think when you say full number, he doesn’t just say “the gentiles have come in” or something like that, all the nations come—it’s an emphasis on the full number. And then the very next verse is, “And so all Israel will be saved.” So scholars have long thought when Paul says that Israel no longer means Jews, that in fact—the Vatican had a stance on this basically until several years after the State of Israel was founded, that the church is Israel, that’s why the Vatican voted against the formation of the State of Israel in 1947. Seriously, that was state… “We can’t recognize Israel, because we’re Israel.” So—

Pamela  

And by the way, I heard that too, in seminary.

Pamela  

That—Right, that Israel is now the church.

Pete  

Yeah, right, yeah.

Pamela  

Right, right, that Paul has redefined Israel. And there’s a way in which Paul does have the sort of a broader vision of who Israel is, but he hasn’t changed the meaning of the word. In fact, the fact that he first mentioned the full number of Gentiles, and then all Israel—

Pete  

Yeah. 

Pamela  

—it’s a very big picture. I think it’s a way that Paul breaks the world. He’s a traditional Jew, right? He sort of…there’s Jews and everybody else, he breaks the world into those two things. So when he mentions those two groups with the adjective “everybody,” that’s everybody for him. And I used to be more open to the, “Maybe he’s redefined…”—at the very beginning, you know, when I was just beginning my work on Paul and I didn’t know what I thought about what Paul exactly means by “Israel”—did he change its meaning? And I think, in the end, you can’t say, people have to end up saying, “Well, he doesn’t mean…He can’t really literally mean all of Israel, all these rights, whether they believe in Jesus or not,” but the fact that he doesn’t just say, “Israel will be saved,” he says, “All Israel will be saved.” And there’s no textual variants [laughs] for that. So that’s a pretty big claim. And you, I know I heard you on some podcast not too long ago refer to Romans 8 about how all of creation is groaning as the new world comes into being, he uses the language/metaphors of women in labor. In Romans 8, there’s a way in which Paul thinks all of creation is going to be transformed. And so it’s everybody. And by the way, I don’t literally think Paul literally thinks that this transformation is like people are going to live in a different place like in the sky, in heaven, in some other part of the cosmos. I think Paul thinks that this world gets transformed to a kind of messianic age, where the lion lies down with the lamb. And if that is the case, that this is your vision of the world, this means everybody who’s in the world.

Jared  

So maybe then that’s a tie in, because I think we could spend all of our time just on that. I mean, each one of these five points that you’ve made could be their own podcast, for sure. But we’re talking about salvation. And we’ve talked about how Paul takes that collectively and likely universally. But then that does raise the question of an earlier point you made, that Paul didn’t worship Jesus as God. And so for, again, my tradition, there is no salvation without Jesus being God. And so that does tie that question into it. So if Paul didn’t worship Jesus as a god, or as God, how did Paul see Jesus? And then what is salvation if it’s not Jesus as God and sacrificed himself as God? And all of that substitutionary atonement stuff.

Pamela  

Okay, so here you have to think like a Jew for a minute. And obviously, ancient Judaism and modern Judaism, there’s a big difference there. But there are some, you know, kind of entrenched ideas there. And one of those is that salvation means a world, literally, a world where people don’t fight each other and people don’t know hunger. It’s a world where people behave in a kind of idealized way, as a way God intended for humanity. And Paul does use the language of eternal life: that he doesn’t envision an end, necessarily, to this, and I’m not sure what his sort of metaphysics and time and space are and whether he even thought that through. He’s not a systematic theologian. But I don’t think he means… So when I hear Christians talk about being saved, I assume they mean, “My individual soul. I’m not going to hell, I’m going to heaven. And I live eternally somewhere else, not on Earth.” 

Pete  

[Hums in agreement]

Pamela  

Right?

Pete  

[Hums in agreement again]

Pamela  

So I do think that Paul thinks—so when you talk about peoples being saved rather than individuals, you don’t have to worry about every individual being saved. You know what I mean? So if I can say, “the Greeks will be saved,” I can leave out the Greeks I don’t like. I mean, when you start [laughs]—you know, people say to me, “If you believe in…you’re really going to have Mother Teresa and Hitler in the same room together?” Or whatever, and I’m like, well, no. When you think of whole peoples, just like when we talk about the survival of humanity, and we don’t mean like every individual person, we mean more like as a species or as an identifiable group. That’s what you mean.

Jared  

So there’s this vision then, it’s of Paul, of all the people groups of the world getting along, there’s no more war, there’s no more hunger, and then that way of life goes on forevermore. That’s kind of eternal life?

Pamela  

That’s right. And I should also say, by the way, I don’t think Paul thinks about hell at all. So even if you disagree with me on the universal salvation point, Paul thinks that if you don’t get to live in that messianic utopian world, let me put it that way, then you just go extinct. That would be the alternative. You don’t go to a place of eternal torment. You just permanently die.

Pete  

Okay. Yeah. So, the salvation, you’re really getting at something very important for me and I know, for people who are listening. Collective salvation, the ethne, you know, the nations…Doesn’t mean every individual in those groups, right? 

Pamela  

That’s right. 

Pete  

Okay. So a question that always comes up, because I, you know, I happen to be very big on the notion of a collective vision that Paul has, like especially in Romans. But the response I always get is, “But how about individuals? Don’t individuals matter? And does Paul speak to individuals?” So how would you address that for people who might be wondering, like, doesn’t Paul care at all about individuals naming the name of Christ and being saved by that?

Pamela  

Okay, here’s maybe where we get to the most controversial point of my own view. I think that he does think that non-Jews do need to confess Christ, but I don’t know how literally he thinks of every individual. So if you let’s say he’s talking to Cretans, I don’t know, or Romans, let’s take some people he grew up—he would have been familiar with. I think, ideally, when he’s preaching to people, just like when you’re talking to anyone, you come to see them as individuals. Paul has friends, he has people he cares about. And at the pastoral level, he’s thinking about individuals or very, very small communities, because otherwise, how can you be pastoral? You don’t interact with abstract entities at a pastoral level, you do that when you’re thinking theologically. So I think, I think that he does think that Jesus’s death is a sort of shortcut for the nation.

So here, here’s where I almost hate to articulate this because it’s so arrogantly Jewish. It’s not a theology I would advocate, necessarily, but Paul is really—he thinks Jews are superior, I’m sorry to say. So he thinks that Jews who’ve been in a covenant with God, always, they’re not in a state where they need salvation the way non-Jews do. They’re not in a state of alienation from God. Paul doesn’t think everybody’s alienated from God, he thinks people who worship other gods are alienated from what he thinks of as the one true living God. And Jesus is, and I don’t know how literally Paul thought of this, but is a kind of atoning sacrifice that functions to reconcile people. And by the way, Paul sometimes does use language of reconciliation and redemption. He probably uses that more, the word redemption, more often than he uses the word salvation to mean kind of the same thing, you need to be redeemed to God. Because the number one sin for a Jew, at least a Jew like Paul, is worshiping other gods. That’s the number one sin, it’s the sin in his mind that leads to all other sins. And it’s a sin that makes you fundamentally impure. You can’t even share the same space with God. 

So Paul, before the end of the world comes, he wants everybody to be reconciled with God. And I think that’s to remove their state of alienation. So, yes, he does want the real people—and that would be real individuals—to understand what Jesus has done for them (to evoke modern language) and therefore become reconciled. So it’s not that—of course Paul recognized individuals, and he liked some people and hated some and others, I’m sure. And in Romans 2, he even talks about individuals and how, by the way, to, you know, paraphrase, there are good Jews and bad Jews, there are good gentiles and bad gentiles. There have always been. So Paul recognizes there are people who worship other gods who are honest in their business dealings, and Jews who aren’t. By the way, I also think there is a way in which he does also have a tradition of “you need to be accountable for your sins.” And there, maybe Paul literally does mean your individual sins—that’s how later rabbinic theology goes, it does think that way too. But I also think there are sins of the nations. I mean, this is all over the Hebrew Bible, right? That the Assyrians, the Malachites, they sinned against Israel. That often there are groups of people who’ve created injustices, and that’s what they need to be forgiven for. So I think, obviously, representatives from those groups would need to be repentant in some way.

[Ad break]

Jared  

So I have a picture in my head, and I want you to tell me if I’m picturing this correctly. So I think of it like, there is this program of salvation that we get hints of throughout the Hebrew Bible as well for all the nations to be worshiping the one true God. And then there’s this sort of finish line that—I think of it like a football field, like there’s the touchdown line with this vision that Paul has of Jesus, “the time has come” that’s very urgent, and apocalyptic. And the nations have to come to follow God. And it’s almost like the Jewish people are, say that they’re at the 20 yard line, that they’re almost in the red zone, though all these other people are further behind. And it’s almost like Jesus allows—Jesus allows that space to get…it closes the gap, and so we can usher in the nations then into this, you know, salvation or salvific period, or the Messianic age together. So there’s, there’s a privilege of the Jewish people and Jesus is here to sort of close the gap for everyone else in that sense of accountability and if we’re going to all get across this finish line, there has to be some accounting for things and Jesus does this accounting on our behalf. Is that a way of saying that?

Pamela  

That is a beautiful, beautiful summary. I’m not a big football fan, more of a basketball fan, but I love the 20 yard-line imagery. And absolutely, yes. And maybe you can help me find ways to communicate this to students or your listeners, because let me give you a couple examples of you know, stage earlier in my career when I didn’t know I was going to teach in a Christian theological school since I’m Jewish, and became a scholar of early Christianity and all my advisors, even Krister Stendahl, tried to talk me out of that. For one reason, my Hebrew was much better than my Greek for a long time since I learned it as a child. But I didn’t have any of the background you guys have. But I have an Orthodox Jewish background, and I’m steeped in that and steeped in the hermeneutic…in the story of, what do I want to say?, theologies of Scripture that are very different from Christians. And so I can remember an instance once where I was newly in junior high school, and I’m at my locker, so excited that I have a locker. And the girl next to me had a locker and we would, we didn’t know each other previously, we would run into each other occasionally. And one day she asked me, “Have you been saved?” And I looked at her and I go, “From what?” [Chuckles] [Jared and Pete laugh]

Like, you need to have something you want to be saved from, right? I mean, she was speechless. She actually didn’t know what she needed salvat—[Laughing]—I mean, I think the answer is death. Right? But she was, so this is how steeped in her world she is. Right? And I don’t have any of that. So the question didn’t make sense to me. And there are other ways where there are certain assumptions where people see problems—Christians, I think, where Jews wouldn’t have the same problem, you know. So I think there are certain ways of reading Paul, let me give you another example of one of the things I have to work against. 

So in an intro level class, when people first start reading Paul, Paul uses the language of Jews and Gentiles particularly all over Romans and Galatians. My students often think Paul identifies with the Gentiles, and they often, when they read “Jews and Gentiles”, they see “Jews and Christians”, and they associate Paul with the latter group. I mean, it’s crazy, because Paul says denigrating things about non-Jews and whatnot. But that’s how much the paradigm shifted when you just had Christian readers, or I should say non-Jewish readers of Paul, that have a very different formation than ancient Jews of the first century did. And so initially I found it very, very weird, that it was so hard for me to get students to think that Paul identifies as a Jew, and he’s on team Jewish. And he wants—he thinks like maybe some modern evangelicals do. He is faced with the problem of how can God, the God of Israel, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, my God, who created the whole world and all the people in it—is there really going to be a final judgment where he’s going to kill everybody except Israel? Because I think evangelicals or former evangelicals I meet often have that cognitive dissonance, and maybe it’s suppressed a lot. 

But in my own experience of teaching, and obviously I don’t really get a representative sample of evangelicals, I suspect that a lot of those folks have that cognitive dissonance that we’d have to frame in modern evangelical terms. Is God really going to condemn everybody to hell who doesn’t confess the name of Jesus and get baptized? There’s a way in which people already feel uneasy with that, that it doesn’t fit. Why would a god create the whole world then pretty much destroy almost all of it? And that’s called salvation? So it creates cognitive dissonance. And I think Paul—Jesus becomes a way for Paul to understand that God wants to be reconciled to all of humanity, that actually God wants that. And I think, by the way, this sets Paul apart from say, most of the people who are responsible for the Dead Sea Scrolls. So there were Jews, right, in the prophetic tradition, that tradition we refer to of all the nations streaming to Jerusalem and, you know, the whole world—this idyllic period and all peoples recognizing God together in harmony—there’s a counter tradition where God does kill everybody else who oppressed Israel, and Israel alone is left standing. That theology is also, that strain is also there, in the prophetic tradition. But so there are some Jews who bought into that. And then other Jews like Paul, who I think just can’t buy that. They embrace the other one, more positive, more inclusive. I don’t know, why do people like exclusive—It’s just people…it’s the old you know, “I don’t want to be a member of a club that everyone else wants to be a member of.”

Jared  

I mean, I think that what this is painting the picture for me of is just how influential our framework that we are born into and gets downloaded into us from our own traditions is, because I think of it almost like a paint by number or color by number where we all start with the same colors, you know, the same set of markers that we’re using, but when you put those numbers in different parts of the picture, you end up with a vastly different understanding. And just given the framework you just laid out, I can imagine someone who grew up very fundamentalist evangelical—everything you just said, I can just imagine for our listeners, they’re gonna have to listen to that like six times before it makes a lick of sense, because it is a completely different starting place for what’s happening in our New Testament and with Paul in particular. And I think that for me is the takeaway of how we can read the same texts and come to just—it’s not even like two sides of the same coin. It’s like, we’re not even on the same planet in terms of the language we’re using. And that’s, I find that actually encouraging to be honest, but I just, that’s…

Pamela  

Wait. You find it encouraging that nobody else gets it?

[All laughing]

Jared  

Because, you know what it is, because I think our listeners, in particular, our audience, I can’t speak for anyone else. But I think for our audience, they’re looking for something that doesn’t have that cognitive dissonance that you talked about. Something that does seem to resonate and make sense with everything else they’ve learned about the Hebrew Bible and about Paul and about the context of the ancient world. Where all of this systematic theology that we’ve been building up for 500 years in the Protestant tradition and downloaded, it starts to get really abstract and away from the ancient context. And so by learning more and more—I know for me in my studies, more and more once I started understanding the ancient context, all of that other abstraction made less and less sense. But I didn’t have another way to put the pieces together. And that’s what I hear you doing, is putting the pieces together in a way that is more congruent with that ancient world and the way that that ancient Jews would have, would have thought about things. And that’s what I find hopeful is it gives a new paradigm to go, “Ah-hah!” 

Pete  

New categories to think about.

Jared  

“Yeah, that makes, that makes a lot more sense.” So, yeah.

Pamela  

Yeah. You know, I want to speak to the chasm between the ancient world and the modern world and the problem of having the Bible and the biblical tradition as some sort of answer book for modern problems, in which the ancients never could have imagined the problems or just the questions we have that we bring to the book. Over the years, I’ve come to realize that Christians need some sort of theology of Scripture that allows for recognizing historical context and also recognizing that if you have a living faith, the Bible also needs to be a living text. Which is an expression, by the way, both Jews and Christians have used, that it’s a living text. And Jews, because they have this notion of the written and the oral Torah, which Paul has a rudimentary version of the same thing. And the oral Torah is all the tradition that goes with the written Torah. And that tradition is revealed on an as-needed basis.

So do you know, Peter might know, there’s a rabbinic story, you know, that begins with the question—as rabbinic stories often do, you know, why was Moses on the mountain for 40 days, on Mount Sinai for 40 days? Often rabbinic stories begin like you’re about to tell a joke. And the answer is because God had to teach Moses Torah—and by the way, he was a poor student. And like most rabbinic things, they didn’t just make that up. They get that from the biblical texts. Moses said he’s slow of speech, that people in the ancient world associate how well you speak with how well you think. So there’s actually several rabbinic stories in which they imagine that God really wanted to give the Torah to Ezra or Rabbi Akiva or somebody else because Moses was, you know, less than the ideal candidate. But the story is quite an entertaining story, and it does try to explain the problem of why Moses has to be on the mountain for 40 days. And it’s that oral—and Moses doesn’t understand, and the story is very funny. At one point, you know, God tries to reassure him by saying, “You don’t have to understand because later times…Some of what I teach you only applies to a time, you know, beyond you. And there’s someone who’s going to come along way smarter than you, Moses and his name is Rabbi Akiva…”

Pete  

[Laughing]

Pamela  

“And he will teach Torah to the people.” And Moses at one point is so fed up with the whole, you know, he’s on week three, and asked God, he says, “You’re not a very good teacher. Why don’t you give me Rabbi Akiva and I’ll learn it from him if he’s such a good teacher.”

[All laughing]

Pamela  

And God’s zaps Moses into the future and he finds himself sitting in the back of the classroom listening to Rabbi Akiva lecture. And he sits there for a while, and he realizes this isn’t helping. It’s making everything worse. “Okay, I want to go back to Mount Sinai.” And he becomes a more patient student. But the idea is—and you, I don’t know if you guys have ever heard of responsa, but even, you know, even after the sort of canonization of the Talmud…(so we won’t go into the whole history and structure of rabbinic literature)…but the Talmud is sort of fixed in place somewhere around the eighth century. But Jewish leaders continue to write something called responsa, and this is whenever a new situation, a new technology, a new social situation, emergency situations caused by war or climate, create problems for observing Jewish law. And rabbis following the oral Torah, this might be a time where we need, there’s new messages we need to discern from Scripture to speak to new conditions.

So you know, when Edison is about to light up New York City with electricity, rabbis asked—actually a few of them write to Thomas Edison to ask, “When you turn on the switch, do you create a spark?” Because obviously the Bible doesn’t prohibit the use of electricity, but it does prohibit kindling a flame on the Sabbath. And so this is why for Orthodox Jews, they didn’t turn on and off lights because the rabbis debated the point in the time of Edison, and decided that flipping a switch was analogous to lighting a spark. And that would be part of the tradition of Oral Torah. So on the one hand, it’s all revealed to Moses at the same time, but it’s only sort of—or it’s all taught to Moses when the tablets are given, but that it’s only revealed as I said, on an as-needed basis. So Christians, it seems to me, one of the things I noticed they get stuck with is, “It either means this or it doesn’t mean this, and if it doesn’t mean this, why should I be a Christian? Why should I revere the Bible?” Whereas I’ve never been to any Jewish congregation, no matter how lefty—and in Boulder, Colorado, we get some very lefty Jews. [All laugh] There’s no Jewish community in which it would ever come up, “Maybe we should stop reading the Torah in our liturgy,” like, I’ve never heard anyone propose that. 

Pete  

Yeah. 

Pamela  

Whereas I spoke not too long ago at a Presbyterian congregation where the pastor, a progressive Christian asked me, “You know, we read Native American poetry, which we value in our services. And when some of my parishioners asked me why should we stick with the Bible?” He said, “I don’t really have a good answer.” And I think it’s because if it’s past, and we can only talk about it in its historical context, and it doesn’t speak to modern ethical problems—I mean, you guys have articulated this a lot on your show, right? This problem. And it seems to me this problem doesn’t manifest itself in quite the same way in Judaism because of this notion of the written and oral Torah. And because that’s a very old tradition in and of itself. That’s not—

Pete  

It’s baked into the tradition.

Pamela  

It’s baked into it. Right. 

Pete  

Yeah. And Christians don’t… I think Christians have had that, but I think we’ve lost it in modernity and not to blame everything on Martin Luther, but I think the Reformation had a lot of impact on, you know, the medieval Christian sense of flexibility. And you know, there’s a moral meaning, there’s a literal meaning, there’s a [unsure of this word], there are different levels of meaning and they don’t—not everyone has to agree on what those meanings are. And I think for modernist evangelicals and evangelicals are modernists at their core, it’s hard to have that kind of flexibility towards scripture, and realizing that Scripture exists because it’s been read and understood within traditions that see themselves as changing and that’s like a sacred obligation to maintain those changes. That’s actually an act of worship. That’s how you do this. And that is, for me, and Jared, we do talk about this a lot. That’s, I think, a fundamental misunderstanding of just the nature of all this on the part of some iterations of Christianity, not all. 

Pamela  

Yeah.

Pete  

Yeah. 

Pamela  

Yeah. 

Pete  

Well, you know, we could go on talking here for hours. I have about 40 more questions, but we’ll have to have you back sometime, Pamela, but we just want to thank you for taking the time. This was just fun. I don’t know, Jared—was it fun?

Jared  

Yeah, I agree.

Pete  

It was fun just to talk with you and to hear your perspective on Paul and salvation especially and…

Jared  

I love that we left a cliffhanger. That we started with, “Oh, by the way, Paul didn’t write all the letters attributed to him,” and we’re just gonna leave it. We’re not gonna address it. And we will invite Pamela back and at some episode in the future, maybe a year, maybe two, one day, you’ll be surprised, and we’ll actually talk about that. 

Pete  

Yeah, we will. Okay. 

Jared  

Thank you so much, Pamela, for coming on.

Pamela  

That’d be great. It’s been fun, and thank you for having me on.

Outro  

[Jaunty outro music plays] You’ve just made it through another episode of The Bible for Normal People! Thanks to our listeners who support us each week by rating the podcast, leaving a review, and telling others about our show. We couldn’t have made this amazing episode without the help of our Producers Group: Sarah Bowman, Neal Andrews, Mark Spangenberg, Ashley Soto, Megan Selbach-Allen, Carlos Ochoa, Alyssa and Jeremy Truman, Chaplain Mike, Timothy Rink, and Maison Heidelberg. As always, you can support the podcast at Patreon.com/TheBibleforNormalPeople where for as little as $3/month you can receive bonus material, be part of an online community, get course discounts, and much more. This episode was brought to you by The Bible for Normal People team: Brittany Prescott, Savannah Locke, Stephanie Speight, Tessa Stultz, Nick Striegel, Haley Warren, Jessica Shao, and Natalie Weyand! [Outro music ends]
Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.

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