Paul and Jesus (review)

Paul and Jesus. How the Apostle Transformed Christianity. James Tabor. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2012.

This is a marvelous little book which is basic to understanding the “historical Paul.” It’s so simple, elegant, and straightforward, that after reading it, one can’t help wondering why someone hadn’t written it earlier. Not only is it important to understanding the historical Paul, but it’s also important to understanding the historical Jesus — because it is through Paul that we have some of our best information about the early Jesus movement.

James Tabor is a key figure in the growing movement to recognize and understand “Jewish Christianity.” This was the religion of Jesus before Paul came along, which centered on James, the brother of Jesus, during the apostolic period from Jesus’ death to the destruction of the temple (roughly 30 – 70 CE). Tabor is objective but very sympathetic to Paul. He shows not only where Paul diverges from the primitive Jesus movement, but also where he agrees, going through the letters of Paul and explaining countless passages which are familiar to Christians and others who have looked through Paul’s letters.

Incidentally, while I don’t think this ever comes out in any of his books, it’s my understanding that Tabor is also personally a vegetarian. I’ve never seen him integrate vegetarianism in any comprehensive way into discussions of early Christianity, though he does make some statements about John the Baptist, James, and the Ebionites as vegetarians.

Central to this book is his understanding of how Paul saw the resurrection. Briefly, Paul did not think of the resurrection as something physical, but a spiritual resurrection, based on Paul’s own vision of Jesus, which was an apparition or vision of some sort. Also, this vision of Jesus is foundational in Paul’s life and letters and in his understanding of what Christianity was. Paul never knew the earthly Jesus, but based his religion on his own vision of Jesus, not what he picked up from the other disciples.

Another interesting feature of the book is his discussion of Paul’s understanding of the Last Supper.  Many vegetarians are disturbed by the language in the gospels about Jesus asking us to drink his blood and eat his body. Even if understood symbolically, this is very disturbing language to find.  But according to Tabor, this did not originate with Jesus but with Paul himself.

The final chapter on the “battle of the apostles” was especially interesting to me. Tabor makes it clear that all was not well in the early church, and it was not one big happy family.

Tabor equates the “apostolic council” described in Acts 15 with the meeting of Paul with James, Peter, and John described in Galatians 2:1-10. While most people reading this review will likely regard this as a really minor point, and while Tabor’s description is very readable and well-thought out, I don’t think his point of view can be sustained. Galatians describes a private, genial meeting which results in no restrictions whatsoever on gentile converts; Acts describes a large, semi-public meeting which does result in restrictions on gentile converts (e. g. forbidding meat offered to idols), although they are represented as minor. Worse still, in Galatians this meeting precedes the incident at Antioch, where Paul denounces Peter to his face; but in Acts this meeting follows the incident at Antioch.

This makes all the difference in the world; if you follow the account in Acts, you’d think that the apostolic decree solved the problem. But if you read the accounts in Galatians, it sounds as if the apostolic decree created the problem. Paul argues against the decree in Romans 14 and I Corinthians 8–10, and there was likely no resolution afterwards.  (See my book Disciples, chapter 16.)  And, to stress a point which Tabor himself elegantly makes, if there is any discrepancy between Paul and Acts, we must prefer the letters of Paul, who was an eye-witness and a contemporary, to the account in Acts, likely written at least 50 years later.

This is a book I can highly recommend as the starting point for any discussion of Paul. Indeed, it really should be the starting point for any discussion of Jesus as well, as today’s Christianity was heavily influenced by the views of Paul.

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